‘One could fabulate, desperately, a sequence for crisis, but never without nostalgia’s subterfuge.’ So the poet Jackqueline Frost writes in her book The Antidote (2013). Is it possible to desire the end of capitalism without taking refuge in the past? In their introduction to #Accelerate (2014, Urbanomic), a reader of Accelerationist texts, editors Armen Avanessian and Robin Mackay describe a left-wing politics languishing in denunciation, technophobia and nostalgia; against this, they pose a nihilistic longing to accelerate capitalism, hoping for some future destruction. Into the no man’s land between these two caricatures, Accelerationism appears: emphatic, affirmative, maybe even optimistic.
Accelerationism wants to identify and repurpose the productive forces harnessed by capitalism, to align progressive politics with technological advancement and, finally, to liberate productivity from capitalism. Alongside Object-Oriented Ontology and Speculative Realism, it is one of the innovations in the tradition of continental philosophy that currently fascinates the art world. If the seriousness, originality and coherence of this movement have been challenged by other thinkers on the left (including Benjamin Noys, who coined the term ‘Accelerationism’ in 2010), this volume appears carefully designed to refine its claims, present its historical credentials and publicize its internal variety.
In #Accelerate you don’t encounter a single unified theory but multiple versions of a political impulse. Avanessian and Mackay’s introduction begins with the statement that Accelerationism is ‘a political heresy’, comparable to Italian Autonomism and French post-structuralism, and a transgression against ‘official Marxism’. The book collects the main influences on Accelerationism, excerpts from political theory (Shulamith Firestone, Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen), science fiction (J.G. Ballard, Samuel Butler), and texts at the convergence of the two (Nikolai Fedorov, Iain Hamilton Grant). All of these map out political futures. The first section (‘Anticipations’) begins with the ‘Fragment on Machines’, an excerpt from Marx’s Grundrisse (left unfinished in 1858), which describes the overtaking of human labour by mechanization. Mario Tronti, one of the leaders of Autonomism, has described the importance of this text’s ‘analytical, stylistic and polemical novelty’ for that movement, and the choice of this fragment positions Accelerationism as its successor. The Autonomist theorist Antonio Negri appears later in the volume to emphasize the need for a class-based politics and laments the ‘Futurism’ of Accelerationism’s name (an understandably Italian concern). The use of Marx’s ‘Fragment on Machines’ reflects this movement’s partial claims on the philosophical past. In another chapter, Nick Snricek and Alex Williams write towards ‘a recovery of lost possible futures, and indeed the recovery of the future as such’. But how is ‘the future as such’ to be found?
The post-structuralist writings in the second section (‘Ferment’) find a future in the liberation of production from repression. An excerpt from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (1972) describes the deterritorialization of capital, how it flattens and standardizes culture. In a highly ambiguous conclusion, Deleuze and Guattari say it may no longer be possible to oppose this process with a local politics. Instead, they suggest (quoting Friedrich Nietzsche) the answer may be to ‘accelerate the process’. This sentence inspires Accelerationism, which rejects ‘a folk politics of localism’ in favour of a technological universalism. Next is Jean-François Lyotard’s essay ‘Energumen Capitalism’, an analysis and extension of Anti-Oedipus. Lyotard switches between Hans Bellmer, Sigmund Freud and Marx, between Surrealism, Oedipus and the Party, as if anxiously playing with several transitional objects. Writing through disenchantment with political organization after the 1968 uprisings, the essay describes both Marxism and capitalism as mechanisms of repression. Under analysis, Lyotard’s Marx is liberated from Marxism and turns out to be a Deleuze-Guattarian, free of negativity and guilt. Libidinal energies represent a productivity that cannot be captured. Lyotard suggests they are already beginning to withdraw from capitalism.
The third section (‘Cyberculture’) gathers texts from Grant, Nick Land and Sadie Plant, who formed the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit at Warwick University in the 1990s. Drawing on the aesthetics of Deleuze and Guattari, they offer a dark, post-humanist celebration of man’s displacement by scientific means. Finally, in the fourth section (‘Accelerate’) are the writers we find properly identified with Accelerationism. Srnicek and Williams’s ‘#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (2013) offers anti-capitalist politics a new intellectual project, calling for ‘a cognitive map of the existing system and a speculative image of the future economic system’, and members trained in ‘social network analysis, agent-based modelling, big-data analytics, and non-equilibrium economic models’. They seek to unify the left and identify what is productive in capitalism, without forgetting ‘class power’ (a vague suggestion). They invoke a qualified return to Enlightenment ideals of ‘maximal mastery over society and its environment’. This is complemented by the contributions of philosophers Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani, who identify Accelerationism with the ‘Promethean’ ambition to transform humanity by technological means. Among these modest proposals, subtle phrases and philosophical aspirations, this no longer sounds heretical.
It is unclear what heresy Accelerationism could commit while its Grand Inquisitor, ‘official Marxism’, has so little institutional power. So many recent expressions of collective opposition to economic austerity seem to corroborate Accelerationism’s emphasis on technology’s importance to political dissent. But doesn’t politics move in different directions and at different speeds? After the relocation of production to developing countries over the last 40 years, deterritorialization looks less smooth than Deleuze and Guattari imagined. Accelerationism’s focus on technology carries with it an insistent universalism that overlooks geographic and economic difference. In their call for a reinvigorated Promethean politics, Avanessian and Mackay (paraphrasing Baruch Spinoza) divide humanity into Homo hominans, the humanity that creates, and homo hominata, created humanity. This distinction is not just a philosophical question (whether we should be anti-humanist, post-humanist, etc.) but also an effect of the division of labour based on gender, class and geographical location. Certain social conditions are obstacles to creativity. Accelerationism does not seem particularly interested in the ecological and human costs of technological production. This may be an accident of the location of this movement: in her ‘Seven Prescriptions for Accelerationism’, the final text in #Accelerate, the artist Patricia Reed notes the ‘white-Euro-male origins from which the discourse springs’. Until the effects of these origins are examined in greater depth, Accelerationism is in danger of remaining the folk politics of an academic-intellectual class, which confuses its own sublime encounters with technological products for a cosmopolitical trapdoor, and the scene of this consumption as a vision of the future as such. The incongruities of progress (the refrain of the factory supervisor – ‘Faster!’ – or the rapidity of austerity measures in Europe) suggest that, for any politics that seeks to diminish the violence of social relations, acceleration must remain ambivalent.
In an issue of e-flux journal devoted to ‘Accelerationist Aesthetics’ (2013), critic Steven Shaviro made a useful distinction between Accelerationism as a form of politics and as an aesthetics. Some in contemporary art, wishing to reconcile their extreme complicities with a radical idealism, want to believe its political claims. Accelerationism appears to offer a justification of Post-internet art’s ambivalence about the aesthetics of capitalism. But why should art need this justification, if this ambivalence already comprehends the opposition of politics and complicity? Reed argues that ‘the productive impetus driving this ill-named #Accelerate has little to do with novelty’. Without the novelty of its name, what is left? The exhortation to celebrate productivity and abandon nostalgia might be helpful for some but it is posterior to artistic production. Accelerationism may have disavowed critique in favour of affirmation, but (as theorist Alberto Toscano has pointed out) these writings are stuck in disavowal of others and, in their positive form, they merely affirm an aesthetic. We still need to know how social conditions determine political thought and what freedom exists among these determinations. Without this, politics vanishes into science fiction.