The Accelerationist Vertigo

Instead of going against the market, what if we move in the same direction, and accelerate?

A Stanley Steamer racecar in 1903.

A Stanley Steamer racecar in 1903. Source: Wikipedia.

Imagining the future and trying to predict where society or the system might be heading has become a commonplace activity that we all engage in. In its attempts to portray what will come next, science fiction creates an exaggerated, dystopian future that has no limits but is often terrifyingly real. The prophetic nature of apocalyptic fiction is based on a formula that can be summed up under the umbrella term “futurity”: that which may happen at some point (and suddenly, the distance between our predictions and science fiction is getting smaller all the time). Theoretical ideas on how to bring about social change and overthrow the capitalist system through protest, deceleration, or moral criticism are often overridden by the system itself. But… what if it isn’t necessary to stop everything in order to trigger change. Instead of going against the market, what if we move in the same direction, and accelerate?

Monster Assault, one of the varieties of the Coca-Cola-owned energy drink brand, uses the slogan “Viva la Revolution!”. Its website explains that they’ve decorated the can with camo pattern “because we think it looks cool. Plus it helps fire us up to fight the big multi-national companies who dominate the beverage business.” The irony of the blurb, which verges on malicious intent, is a canonical example of the Orwellian marketing that imperceptibly permeates every corner of what Mark Fisher calls “capitalist realism” (a system that is unfair but for which there is no imaginable alternative). A spiel so visible that it becomes invisible, a viscous layer of information perversely absorbed by the system and by a collective imaginary that is impervious to double and triple meanings. In 1984, when George Orwell describes the work of the Ministry of Truth for “proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally”, he writes “Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex and sentimental songs that were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator.” Sixty-five years down the line, aside from some obvious differences (the versificator hasn’t arrived yet, unfortunately), it’s hard not to recognise the prophetic genius of some of Orwell’s dystopian predictions.

“It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek

Reflecting on the predictive nature of science fiction, US cultural critic Steven Shaviro talks about the notion of “potentiality”, arguing that the genre does not seek to foresee the future but to exaggerate that which could become real, given existing conditions. “Science fiction works to extrapolate elements of the present, push actually existing conditions all the way to the most extreme consequences. That is to say, science fiction is not about the actual future, rather it’s about futurity, if I can use that as an abstract noun… Science fiction grasps and brings to visibility what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls the virtual, or what Karl Marx sometimes called tendential processes. Tendential things or tendencies are not things that have to happen but there’s a movement towards their happening. Science fiction picks at certain implicit trends that are embedded in our actual social technological situation. These are elements of a futurity which exist in the present, they aren’t really present because they’re not really happening but they represent a kind of futurity, whether or not they actually turn out to happen in the future”.

The Golden Age, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530.

The Golden Age, painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530. Source: Wikipedia.

Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach is a 1959 post-apocalyptic drama film that portrays the day-to-day terror of a group of World War III survivors in the southern hemisphere: the only inhabitable place on the planet after contamination by radioactivity. The film is a strange mix of love story and military epic, which portrays the alienated state of the survivors in their desperate struggle to transform panic into normality. In a key scene, Julian Osborn, an Australian scientist played by Fred Astaire (!), breaks the bubble of politeness at a party to try and make the guests understand that the future they image and project does not exist. “We are all doomed you know. Doomed by the air we’re about to breathe! We haven’t got a chance!” What Osborn is trying to say is that even though Australia is still inhabitable after the catastrophe, the radiation from the atomic bombs in the northern hemisphere is not a static phenomenon: it advances dangerously and inexorably. In other words, the radiation is not a discreet, self-contained object. The philosopher Timothy Morton uses the term “hyperobject” to describe these types of entities that are so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend localization. Morton’s hyperobjects are viscous and nonlocal, like global warming, capital and nuclear radiation. We can detect reactions and collateral effects, but it’s impossible to see them directly, precisely because “we are phenomenologically stuck to them. The more you try to get rid of them, the more they stick to you,” says Morton. What Osborn desperately tries to transmit in the scene at the party is somehow reminiscent of Morton’s theory: the simple but terrifying idea that the end of the world is not a distant threat on the horizon but a reality that surrounds us, a strange, hallucinatory state of the distorted present. “Hyperobjects are directly responsible for what I call the end of the world, rendering both denialism and apocalyptic environmentalism obsolete.” From an ecological point of view, Morton believes that the end of the world began with the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent deposition of carbon layers onto the Earth’s crust. And in this sense, the present, the Anthropocene, is a fully-fledged post-apocalyptic scenario. One of the key points of Morton’s theory is its blunt rejection of traditional environmentalism and its shocking rhetoric and catch phrases about the danger of the future, rather than that of the past/present. Morton defends a form of geophilosophy that extends beyond the human: a different timescale to understand the true magnitude of the tragedy. In Hyperobjects (2013) he stresses that “cynical distance, the dominant ideological mode of the left, is in very bad shape, and will not be able to cope with the time of hyperobjects.” And Morton is not alone in his scepticism regarding traditional resistance methods. In Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? Mark Fisher asked: “If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism.”

In recent years, authors from many different fields – from philosophy to film, music, and political theory – have praised Nick Land as a generator of new ideas, an influence on their work, and a disruptive force that should not be overlooked. Land, who liked to describe his academic field of study as “The Collapse of Western Civilisation Studies”, has long been an underground and somewhat obscure but nonetheless prolific figure. During his time as a lecturer at the University of Warwick from 1987 to 1999, Land co-founded the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU) with Sadie Plant and generated numerous texts that are now considered one of the pillars of several recent trends in contemporary thought, such as Speculative Realism. Land’s prose is a baroque mix of political analysis, pop culture, anti-humanism, rave iconography, wild dystopia and Kantian legacy, assembled from a hallucinatory perspective that is often closer to H. R. Giger’s cyber-gothic aesthetic, William Gibson’s contaminated cyberspace, and Ballard’s transgressive fiction than to the academic canon.

Although his work is not strictly speaking fiction, Land constantly conjures up post-apocalyptic landscapes, Lovecraftian angst, and oppressive atmospheres in the horror film style that inspired countless jungle productions in the UK underground in the mid-1990s. The dark vision of the future in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) gave way to one of the anthems of the time – Metalheads’ “Terminator” (1992) – and could also be seen/read in Land’s essays, which are full of what the Italian futurists called “splendore geometrico e sensibilità numerica”. Full of political delirium. And full of nihilism: “Optimism is the general form of apology (…) Monotheism, with its description of the world as the creation of a benevolent God, or at least, of a God that defines the highest conception of the good, justifies an all pervasive optimistic framework for which being is worthy of protection. For the optimist revolt, critique, and every form of negativity must be conditioned by a projected positivity; one criticizes in order to consolidate a more certain edifice of knowledge, one revolts in order to establish a more stable and comfortable society (…) All of which inevitably slows things down a great deal, because, unless one has a persuasive plan of the future, negativity is de-legitimated by a prior apologetic dogma. The suggestion is always that ‘at least this is better than nothing’, a slogan that some Leibnizian demon has probably scrawled above the gates of Hell,” wrote Land in The Thirst for Annihilation. Georges Bataille and Virulent Nihilism (an Essay in Atheistic Religion), in 1992. Land’s texts are extremely critical of the capitalist system, but they are notable for their radically different critical practice, along the lines of the maxim attributed to Bertolt Brecht: “don’t start from the good old things, but the bad new ones.” In Meltdown, one of the texts from the compilation Fanged Noumena published by Urbanomic in 2011, Land quotes a pointed question that Deleuze and Guattari asked in regard to the direction of the revolutionary path: “(is it) to withdraw from the world market? (…) Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? (…) To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market? (…) Not withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process’.”

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii.

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. Source: Wikipedia.

Nick Land did not coin the term “accelerationism” (Benjamin Noys did, with negative connotations), but his work has been a catalyst and source of inspiration for many of the theories clustered under this controversial umbrella term, which circulated quite widely after the publication of the text “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in 2013. The various schools of accelerationism argue that protest, quasi-Luddite slowing down, direct democracy, and seclusion are not viable strategies for bringing about the complete downfall of the existing system. Instead, they propose accelerating its destructive tendencies. A political alternative to the dead end of capitalist realism, based on a totally Landian idea that is almost sacrilegious to the left: that it is necessary to favour and promote the growth of capital in order to bring about radical change. Marx already spoke of the creative-destructive tendencies of capitalism, not just as a cyclical phenomenon of growth, but as an inherent feature of the system that could ultimately lead to its self-annihilation. As can be seen in a compilation of texts (also) published by Urbanomic a few months ago under the title #ACCELERATE, the notion of orchestrated collapse is not totally new, but draws from various political and philosophical schools over the last few centuries. The book includes recent essays, but also classic texts that have defended similar ideas from various points of view.

Even the more official history of 20th century economy offers up cases that seem to be paving the way for Williams and Srnicek’s Manifesto. One example is the relatively famous Cloward-Piven strategy, a political theory devised by the sociologists, Columbia University School lecturers, and activists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven. Their plan, outlined in the article “The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty” in May 1996, called for overloading the US public welfare system in order to precipitate a national crisis that would lead to radical reform and to the replacement of the welfare system with a national system with a guaranteed annual income, and thus an end to poverty. “The ultimate objective of this strategy (…) will be questioned by some,” Cloward and Piven predicted in the same article, because “the ideal of individual social and economic mobility has deep roots, even activists seem reluctant to call for national programs to eliminate poverty by the outright redistribution of income.” Ironically, in recent years supporters of the far right and libertarian pundits in the US have used the Cloward-Piven strategy to strike up anti-immigration terror (arguing that the mass waves of immigrants are the first stage in this planned collapse of the system).

Williams and Srnicek’s accelerationist Manifesto also highlights the total disenchantment with traditional left-wing resistance. In their text, which has sparked an outcry both for and against, Williams and Srnicek write: “That the forces of right wing governmental, non-governmental and corporate power have been able to press forth with neoliberalisation is at least in part a result of the continued paralysis and ineffectual nature of much what remains of the left. Thirty years of neoliberalism have rendered most left-leaning political parties bereft of radical thought, hollowed out, and without a popular mandate. At best they have responded to our present crises with calls for a return to a Keynesian economics, in spite of the evidence that the very conditions which enabled post-war social democracy to occur no longer exist.”

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The Accelerationist Vertigo