Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy

The fourth commentary, and fifth post, on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, delivered by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman. Aggie is a Lecturer in International Politics at City University London. She works on issues relating to violence and international theory/philosophy, including war and wargaming, US foreign policy, Derrida, Nietzsche, and post-foundational ethics/politics. Tom is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, focusing on capitalism, development, and ideology. He is variously interested in (in no particular order) the politics of epistemology, apocalypticism, Adorno, international development, and concepts of science.


In a climate of successive defeats, missed opportunities and the consolidation (and even exacerbation) of unequal and exploitative social relations, there are few acts more thankless than turning the weapons of iconoclasm against those already waging a struggle against insurmountable odds. Inventing the Future seeks to rescue the Left from what its authors term ‘folk politics’: a commitment to horizontal, local, consensual and prefigurative forms of political action, which the authors claim result ultimately in impotence and irrelevance, aimlessness and lack of focus. In condemning a host of the post-68 Left’s most dearly held praxiological and ethical commitments, Srnicek and Williams wilfully risk aggravating and alienating those they seek to influence.

There will be many readers who will find their prescriptions – the revival of universalism, the aspiration to hegemony, the mobilisation of state power – outdated, odious and even obscene. And for good reason: the attack on ‘folk politics’ doesn’t end after the critique that opens the book. Instead, the sheer audacity of the authors’ wager – essentially that our only hope of defeating the Godzilla of neoliberal capitalism is the creation of an equally powerful Mechagodzilla capable of supplanting the former’s hegemony with its own – performs an ongoing rejection of a parochialism and modesty they see as having corrupted Leftist activism and academia. Like all iconoclasm, such a move is necessarily scandalous in response to the perceived sanctity of that at which it takes aim.[1]

It is precisely this scandalous character of both the book and its precursor, the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (MAP), which goes some way to accounting for the attention the authors have generated across the Left. The book’s stated goals are both vast in scope and highly controversial, yet its tone is one of consistent and calm self-assuredness. The magnitude of the risks associated with the project – the casualties of automation (both human and environmental), the tyrannies of engineering consent, the violences of assuming the task of constructing people’s very identities, to point to just a few – would suffice to make most recoil in dread. The authors’ composed confidence in the face of such potential horror makes reading and responding to the seductions of such book a complex and disorientating task.

At a time when much of the academic left is heavily preoccupied with attending to the demands of seemingly bottomless reflexivity, auto-critiquing to the point of obscurantism and immobilisation, there is something novel and refreshing about the insolence at work in Inventing the Future. In the book’s tone of affirmation and its insistence on the attainability of its remarkably ambitious goals – a post-work society, full automation, a universal basic income, all as conscious steps toward postcapitalism – the reader is invited to reimagine herself as the bearer of powers and capacities long since silenced by the structures and strictures of modern political and academic life. The promise of wider-scale change offered to activists beleaguered by social, legal, and material constraints, if only they renounce ineffectual strategies become habit, creates a renewed sense of possibility, a sense that the aporetic quagmires and impasses of strategic and ethical thought can and must be short-circuited. The promise made is no less than an escape from both the Left’s characteristic infighting and fragmentation and the stultifying straightjacket of life under neoliberalism.  In short, the authors’ tone is one of empowerment and even hope, conjuring and projecting the vitalism of a Deleuzean-Nietzschean inheritance (on which more below).

In keeping with this philosophical inheritance, however, this timely insolence makes possible, or is reflective of, a problematic form of licence. Given enduring conditions of colonialism, patriarchy, and a host of associated structural inequalities with which we in the West are complicit, it is difficult not to mistrust the (white, Western, male) authors’ deliberately provocative claim to strategic leadership of the entire Left.. Read in this way, Inventing the Future amounts to an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices. While the book pays lip service to the importance of respect for a diversity of tactics and socio-political multiplicity, it consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus. Indeed, such practices are precisely those indicted for getting in the way of the business of acquiring and wielding power. In its romanticisation of past forms of Leftist (not to mention Neoliberal) organising and the modernism of the Second International the book offers precious little in the way of safeguards against the potential tyrannies of hegemony, vanguardism and Leninism.

The Future is Reversing

This transition, from audacious promise to scandalous licence, is mirrored by a series of reversals or sleights of hand throughout the book which as isolated examples appear quite insignificant, but together form a constitutive pattern. The crux of the book’s critique of ‘folk politics’ is a repetition, to the point of mantra, of the necessity of coherent, long-term strategic thinking: ‘Political movements based around keeping a hospital open or preventing evictions are all admirable, but they are importantly different from movements trying to challenge neoliberal capitalism … Strategic reflection – on means and ends, enemies and allies – is necessary before approaching any political project’ (12). In contrast to the denunciation of ‘folk politics’, the building of neoliberal hegemony – especially the Mont Pelerin Society, whose praises are sung for an entire chapter – is held up as the model of political efficacy and clear-headed strategy that the Left sadly lacks. And yet, this impatience and demand for a clear route to postcapitalism gives way to a perplexing insistence that the transition to a post-work society ‘will require long-term and experimental praxis on multiple fronts. A hegemonic project therefore implies and responds to society as a complex emergent order, the result of diverse interacting practices’ (136). Having already derided the idea that horizontalism and prefigurative political action are valuable as experiments in the creation of different forms of political organisation and social interaction, primarily on the basis that these experiments have failed to bring about the immediate collapse of global capitalism, it is surprising to read the caution that we must settle in for the long haul, in which the transition to postcapitalism will be achieved through trial and error: ‘Some combinations of social practices will lead to instability, but others will tend towards more stable (if not literally static) outcomes’ (136).

The difference between the experimentalism of ‘folk politics’ and the trial and error of Srnicek and Williams boils down to a question of scale. The most biting elements of their critique of current radical practices, such as direct democracy, is that they are difficult to ‘scale up’ beyond local and parochial zones of action, and it is this limitation which prevents the contemporary left from presenting a real threat to capitalism. Surprisingly, then, Inventing the Future implicitly conjures a distinctly national politics, geared towards achieving parliamentary dominance in North/Western democratic states. Their legislative wish-list – investment in automation, the provision of basic income, shortening the working week and so on – remain tied to national politics in an era of ever-more global and mobile capital. To be sure, the threat of capital upping sticks and investing elsewhere at the mere mention of greater concessions to labour are overstated, but without a global compact in which common labour standards are adhered to around the world, the reality of a post-work regime in one country would either be capital flight or the out-sourcing of exploitation to poorer countries (in other words, further exacerbating the current global division of labour). Not for nothing are the authors forced to rely on a vague hope that the rest of the world will take care of itself: ‘We will mostly leave aside the immense (and immensely important) regions of the rest of the world. However, it is worth emphasising that the problems of automation and surplus populations are global in nature, and the grounds for post-work are flourishing around the world’ (130). The future Srnicek and Williams conjure looks suspiciously like the present: the West enjoys ever greater abundance and liberation from the excesses of exploitative labour, not through eliminating that labour, but rather through its geographical relocation. In this way, their failure to address the problem of increasing automation within capitalism – in that the recomposition of capital in favour of ‘constant’ (the means of production) over ‘variable’ capital (labour) entails a decline in the rate of profit – is all the more dangerous, in that it blinds us to forces that would motivate the intensification of capital’s exploitation of vulnerable labour around the world.

Encrypted in both reversals is a dialectic of idealism and pragmatism which structures the whole book. What is attractive about Srnicek and Williams’ programme is precisely its construction of a radically better world, free of drudgery and coerced labour, which is within reach. But in order to retain its plausibility, this utopia must be restricted. Just as they implore us to dare to think of a counter-hegemony that could supplant capitalism as a realistic goal, the authors are forced to restrict this project to making use of existing tools. Where the ideal is a movement equal to global capitalism in scale, the prescription is recalibrating national spending priorities; the pragmatic is rebranded revolutionary, hence the dubious doublethink ‘non-reformist reforms’ (108). This fatally tempered idealism functions to legitimise outcomes – such as a more exploitative global division of labour. Nowhere is this clearer than in the call for full automation, a utopian desire for humanity to produce abundance without any sacrifice of labour. This promise (by no means a new one) is pivotal to the overthrow of capitalism: post-scarcity, the imperative to return to waged work would dissolve, and the power relations between capital and labour would be obliterated.

The call for full automation, then, is explicitly the call for complete social transformation. But as the authors themselves recognise, this dream is unrealisable in practice, and even approaching the tipping-point, at which automation renders capitalism inoperable, could take decades (even with an effective acceleration of technological investment). The gap between the ideal of full automation and the limitations of its realisation yields something very specific: increasing but partial automation. Normatively, this is odious at best, as the progress implied by the goal of full automation lends an emancipatory sheen to any moves in that direction, however limited, and in spite of the violent, unsustainable and exploitative ‘externalities’ inherent in an only partial automation in which capitalism persists. Dangerous, unskilled, precarious and exploitative labour retains a role in the global economy, but now excused as a necessary remainder of a world sure to disappear. In short, the unrealisable ideal of full automation serves as a fantasy which counsels those most imperilled by automation to celebrate it as the precondition of their liberation. We find here the same short-circuit between promise and reality that underpins all theodicy, through which the violence and suffering of the present is justified – and even glorified – as a necessary stage in the progress of liberation. The homology with neoliberalism, which drowns out its victims with the promise of fulfilment in consumption, is clear.

“Step by step, and always for irrefutable reasons, the means are destroying the ends”

The degree to which (counter-)hegemonic projects necessarily reproduce the totalising, homogenising and exclusionary tendencies they purport to seek to transcend has been extensively examined in both scholarly and activist literatures. As Srnicek and Williams describe it, a ‘hegemonic project builds a ‘common sense’ that installs the particular worldview of one group as the universal horizon of an entire society’ (132). Presumably in order to emphasise the defensibility of this, they assert that ‘hegemony enables a group to lead and rule over a society primarily through consent (both active and passive)’, although it also ‘deploys coercive means, such as imprisonment, police violence and intimation, to neutralise those groups that cannot otherwise be led’ (132-3). With the best will in the world, it is difficult not to feel somewhat bewildered and apprehensive that a project claiming to promote human emancipation and freedom would argue for a form of political organisation which employs deceptive, repressive, and violent means in the service of its ends. For those subject and witness to such forces, the extent to which there is any daylight in these crucial areas between this proposed system and the current one surely becomes a pressing question. A characteristically hegemonic intolerance towards dissent is palpable throughout the very fabric of the book; in its consistent tone of certitude and assertiveness, and its almost non-existent engagement with highly influential critiques of hegemony itself (dismissed in a single footnote (n. 8, 225-6)). Nowhere is this impatience, and its contradictory effects, clearer than in the authors’ attack on ‘folk politics’.

The authors are clearly aware of the diversity in both character and tactics of the new and newest social movements the world over, and the huge variation in their respective goals and capacities to realise their widely divergent aims. Despite this variety, however, they choose to subsume this plethora of groups under the signifier ‘folk’ by means to which to develop a blanket challenge, enacting a hegemonic move at the level of language. Such a signifier serves to construct its various objects in such a manner as to homogenise and delegitimise them from the outset; to frame political actors or groups as ‘folk’ is not simply to offer a description but rather to render them provincial, backward, quaint or parochial. By dint of their subsumption under a common signifier, highly refined and reflexive political practices are rendered equivalent to hipster faux-authenticity and ecological mysticism. The reader is thereby invited to disregard, dismiss and even parody contemporary activism the world over in toto, while the accelerationist project claims for itself a unique and privileged position. To that degree, ‘folk politics’ functions in a disappointingly familiar fashion, mirroring a rhetorical strategy widely favoured throughout the neoliberal political landscape.

Srnicek and Williams’ staging of such a wholesale dismissal speaks, perhaps, of a conviction that present conditions have become so dire that it is worth taking the risk of a (re)turn to centralism, verticalism, and the deliberate construction of a counter-hegemonic programme, despite all of the potential (or necessarily accompanying) dangers this entails. But underlying the articulation of their radical difference from prevailing Leftist principles, regardless of the feathers of potential allies thereby ruffled, is an attempt to surreptitiously overturn a staple of the Left’s ethical makeup, post-’68, namely the affinity between means and ends. Inventing the Future capitalises on an apparently widespread impatience with prefiguration, horizontalism and affinity by offering a concept – ‘folk politics’ – that devalues such means-oriented practices by conflating them with the bleeding-heart, hand-wringing gestures of good conscience that can make contemporary radicalism indistinguishable from liberal sentimentality. By collapsing the former into the latter, the corrective of a pragmatic ‘whatever works’ approach – the ‘only criterion of a good tactic is whether it enables significant success or not’ (MAP) – is made to appear eminently reasonable, even though that entails aping the strategies of none other than the architects of neoliberalism.

This conflation of means-oriented praxis and ineffectual hand-wringing serves to dispense with the former without having to confront its rationale, namely that, as separated from the ends, the means serve only themselves. The tensions within the book attest to this slippage all too clearly, in that the authors consistently discuss the ends of their project as instrumental to the means of a counter-hegemonic political programme. Utopia, for example, is claimed to be of the highest importance, but then is reduced to a strategic ingredient in the pursuit of a post-work hegemony. Indeed, their concept of utopian fiction as ‘the embodiment of the hyperstitions of progress’ that form “an impossible but necessary object of desire’ (138) precisely rehearses the short-circuit between promise and reality discussed above. Likewise, Srnicek and Williams’ long discourse on the value of universalism celebrates this very gap: the failure of the universal to be for everyone is justified in advance by the infinite scope of progress it promises:

Universalism always undoes itself, possessing its own resources for an immanent critique that insists and expands upon its ideals. No particular social formation is sufficient to satisfy its conceptual and political demands. Equally, synthetic freedom compels us to reject contentment with the existing horizon of possibilities. To be satisfied with post-work would risk leaving intact the racial, gendered, colonial and ecological divisions that continue to structure our world. While such asymmetries of power would hopefully be unsettled by a post-work world, the efforts to eliminate them would undoubtedly need to continue (175-176).

As impossible and infinitely unrealisable, universals and utopias are divorced from their claim to inherent value, and instead acquire their virtue from their instrumental efficacy in the business of forging hegemonic blocs capable of acquiring transformative power, which itself is merely a means.

Desire, Deleuze, Nihilism

The circularity of means and ends finds its most significant expression in Inventing the Future during a discussion of desire. Srnicek and Williams paint an attractive, if familiarly Rawlsian, picture in which there are no prescriptions or limitations placed upon what people can or should desire, and that emancipation therefore consists in ‘increasing the capacity of humanity to act according to whatever its desires might become’ (83). This open-ended framing is tempered, however, in two ways. First, in line with the hegemonic position adopted, it is claimed that the left must ‘cultivate new desires’ (139), and that utopian thinking concerns the ‘education of desire’ (140). Such a process of desire-direction, while certainly useful in hegemony-construction, sits in tension with the authors’ insistence that their project is free from a telos, and, to the degree that it ultimately amounts to a project of subject- or identity-construction, appears fundamentally at odds with the freedom and diversity the authors aim to promote.

Second, and relatedly, the authors fail to interrogate sufficiently the political implications of the specific desires they suggest should be (strategically) encouraged; in their claim, for instance, that ‘the space between the present and the future becomes the space for hope and the desire for more’ (140), they do not explore the possibility that quantity-oriented impulses towards ‘more’ reperform a key component of neoliberal ideology. In other words, the very goals of the MAP and Inventing the Future risk, as all projects do, a reperformance of features of our subsumed existence within capital; arguably many of the stated goals – ‘maximal mastery’, hegemony of ideas and ideology, the desire for ‘more’, unleashing drives seeking ‘progress’ – do precious little to disrupt, and are entirely compatible with, neoliberal thought and subjecthood. Clearly, this not a constraint unique to Accelerationism; thinking from a space of subsumption is common to political theorising across the board. Equally, this is not to suggest that such immanence precludes the possibility of radical thought and praxis which substantively impacts on the socio-political world. However, the precondition for a praxis that navigates its own embeddedness in global capitalism, indeed a necessary condition for thought to be radical under these circumstances, is surely the robust and constant interrogation of what one might be rehearsing and thus potentially reinforcing. By conflating this imperative with inaction, Inventing the Future ends up severely lacking an explicit engagement with the implications of its attempt to use the tools of the Master to dismantle His house. This is perhaps not surprising given that the book’s core project would be undermined by such reflexivity, precisely insofar as dissensus is the death knell of hegemony. The authors’ choice of the political form of their future relies precisely on such awkward multiplicities and tensions remaining obscured, and thus the strategy ends up dictating the limits of its own appraisal.

It is widely accepted that there is a distinctly Deleuzean flavour to the Accelerationist project. To be sure, both the MAP and Inventing the Future emphasise a latent but readily ignitable capacity for creation, future-construction, and boundary-challenging which channels Deleuzo-Guattarian imperatives. Yet this inheritance is by no means unproblematic. To begin with, in its privileging of pragmatism and rationality, its romanticisation of the Enlightenment, its ends-oriented agenda, and its commitment to hegemony-construction, Accelerationism is fundamentally at odds with several key aspects of the Deleuzean project. Insofar as Deleuze’s ‘revolutionary-becoming’ entails ‘the process of becoming-minor, or widening the gap between oneself and the norm’, Inventing the Future‘s hegemonic future is in many crucial ways antithetical to this tradition.

But a fuller embrace of Deleuze’s position would stand the project in no better stead. In Nietzsche and Philosophy (N&P) Deleuze claims to have discovered Nietzsche’s great secret of the virtue of the life-affirming ‘yes’ of the exercise of the will as an antidote to the debilitating negativity of the ‘no’ of dialectics, and it is this ‘yes’ that Inventing the Future seeks to channel, in opposition to the perceived paralysing reflexivity of ‘folk politics’. The upshot of this discovery is a renunciation of the constraining, will-denying imperative towards auto-critique and an embrace of a Dionysian vitalism at every turn. At stake here is a claim to the innocence and salience of the exercise of will, a jettisoning of guilt and complicity through the exercise of creative destruction (N&P 21). The problem with this is that far from pointing to an actually-existing (post-)metaphysical condition which liberates us from the tyranny of the dialectic, Deleuze unwittingly confesses, rather, his desire for such a condition, indicating his own inability to withstand precisely the foundationless condition he identifies as being at the heart of this libratory insight. Insofar as he folds multiplicity back into oneness (N&P 22), becoming back into being (N&P 22-3, 177), and the negative back into the positive (N&P 187), Deleuze performs precisely the resolution-seeking move he spends the book arguing against, enacting a form of sublimation intended to arrest the maddening interplay of these relational concepts in favour of the illusory relief of the wholesale privileging of one.

Something similar happens in Inventing the Future. The tone of certitude, the unflinching confidence in the necessity of hegemony, and the presentation as uncontroversial of a host of claims and principles which are anything but, all indicate the desire for the short-circuit from the ethico-political aporia currently constraining the capacity of the Left to unify and grasp a singular future in concert. Instead, what the book actually offers is a series of inversions or sleights of hand in which cold, hard pragmatism is presented as utopian, parliamentary reforms presented as revolutionary, leisure presented as liberty, and hegemony presented as unity. Srnicek and Williams seek to fix – through the strength of their certainty alone – the circular movement of instrumentalism at the point where what appears most attainable can be misconstrued that which is most desirable. Inventing the Future thus only invents the possibility it seeks to elucidate, that our escape from the misery of capitalist drudgery is just One Big Push away.

Thus, what Accelerationism and Deleuze have in common above all is that their respective projects confess a ‘metaphysical need’ of the kind Nietzsche, not to mention Adorno and Derrida, identified as that which most requires challenging and resisting as a condition of radical thought and praxis. Deleuze’s frantic attempt to turn everything into joy, much like the Accelerationist effort to circumvent the immanent structural antagonisms of political association through the imposition of hegemony, operate in the service of the project’s respective architects, shielding them from impasse, constraint and compromise, under the protective cloak of vitalism, power, control, and mastery. Both projects, in other words, encode and serve their authors’ needs and desires – for security against nihilism in Deleuze’s case, and a way out of the frustrating impasses of current Leftist organising for the Accelerationists. The interests of the (at least potential) casualties of the latter project – those resistant to the hegemonic system imposed, those at the sharp end of automation, and those whose immediate struggles are denounced as diverting from the grand plan – are markedly absent from the discussion provided, becoming the ‘collateral damage’ of the hegemonic cause, to be re-educated and reequipped with more expedient desires.

The problematic consequences of this are demonstrated in Inventing the Future’s desire for a ‘new equilibrium of political, economic and social forces’ (108). Given the structural diversity and antagonisms (both productive and frustrating) which are immanent to the interactions of people and societies, it follows that pursuing a project of equilibrium in which opposing forces or interests are finally balanced or resolved is to already be some way down the road to a flattening and cancelling of the multiplicity of people, both between and within subjects. Worse still, or perhaps put differently, such an exercise is ultimately nihilistic.

Conventional (read: liberal) accounts of nihilism frame the latter as the absence of values, goals, or principles, a renunciation of political and ethical investedness and ultimately a descent into meaninglessness and despair. Understood in these terms, Inventing the Future would seem to be anti-nihilistic, generating hegemonic values and universal horizons by means of which society and people might orient themselves. More critical, especially post-Nietzschean, understandings of nihilism, however, offer a starkly different account. Christian morality was nihilistic for Nietzsche precisely insofar as it generated a hegemonic regime of value and morality; it was the obedience, conformity and uniformity it commanded that rendered people enslaved. Thus, far from consisting in the absence or rejection of value and meaning, it is rather the impulse towards resolution, equilibrium and universalism that entails nihilism because it precludes precisely the lines of flight, creative con/destructions, and risk takings which for both Deleuze and Nietzsche, are the only means by which nihilism might be staved off. Read in this way, Inventing the Future ultimately discloses a profound nihilism at its core, the severity of which is indexed by the extent of the value-securing project of mastery designed to defeat it. This nihilism inescapably returns to haunt the project, in the form of a creeping ins

trumentality that ensnares every end into a circular subservience to mere efficacy.


[1] It is worth noting that an earlier draft more wholeheartedly embraced the scandal of its project, but due to the overriding pragmatism we discuss below, the final draft has been thoroughly toned down in terms of its bombastic and incendiary exposition.

 

 

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