Shout out to Geoff Shullenberger for pointing out this tweet. I’m used to seeing these by now — who isn’t? — but I think there’s a further point to be made with this one.
The suggestion that “accelerationism” is an “age-old” tactic from white supremacists is silly. I’m sure if you traced their appropriation of the term back to its origin, they started using it no more than three years ago. It has been associated with the far-right in the popular imagination for even less time than that.
As a by-word for “inflaming tensions”, I suppose it is a tactic that goes back much further, and tying this directly to accelerationism as it is popularly misunderstood is hardly a stretch. But the twisted development of this term is increasingly important to understand, I think — not just for those of us invested in its observations but also to those outside of our discussions who pounce on it as some sort of life-raft for understanding these right-wing forces they can barely comprehend.
As far as I am concerned, accelerationism was and continues to be a political philosophy for understanding how we have ended up in our present quagmire and for describing the available trajectories out of it. Whilst there’s a lot of contention around this now, I personally see little difference between what has (since 2016) been called “unconditional accelerationism” and the arguments first developed by Alex Williams in 2008. Whilst others called it a “left-” or “post-Landianism”, it is arguably more concerned with what Badiou called the “crisis in negation”, understood through Ray Brassier’s brand of “nihilism” and various radical reformulations of Marx’s labour theory of value.
All of this has, of course, been buried under various levels of retconning, with too much time spent arguing over the various influences that led to the formulation of this position rather than what futures this position is capable of giving voice to — so much so that the original position has been lost entirely.
I’ve been writing about the dire irony of this a lot recently. I’m trying to hammer it into a book but this is no easy task; unfortunately, the argument is anything but straightforward. Nevertheless, it goes something like this: That a radical politics, which hoped to take the stasis illuminated by the financial crash very seriously, could be captured inside its own reactionary stasis and made so publicly impotent is an embarrassing state of affairs. That those on the left take this as an opportunity to gloat should be careful, however. This trajectory shows how accelerationism itself has not been immune to the forces it hoped to describe. Indeed, it shows how nothing is immune to the disorientating tactics of a postmodernist populism.
It is very important that we emphasise this — not simply to save face but to demonstrate how the world works to those desperate to understand it. The tweets above demonstrate why.
Calling accelerationism an “age-old” white supremacist tactic is ahistorical at best, but it is a mistake worthy of note because, in grounding it in some false lineage, we jettison how central this type of appropriation has been to a very contemporary far-right play book. It is a tactic we see everywhere nowadays, most specifically in messaging around the coronavirus pandemic. The left-wing press in the UK, for instance, has been up in arms about the Conservative party’s poor and confusing messaging, but the point that many find difficult to make (but which is undoubtedly true) is that the government prefer confusion over clarity any day of the week.
This has (somewhat ironically) been clear this week, as the more dominant right-wing media in this country have been up in arms about the political-correctness-gone-mad suggestion that we stop singing “Land of Hope and Glory” at the BBC Proms.
The mundane reason for this cancellation of an even more mundane tradition, according to the BBC, is that the whole point of singing Land of Hope and Glory at the Proms is to end on a big, hearty singalong, but with no mass gatherings permitted they will likely remove this spectacle from the schedule.
Despite this being in accordance with the government’s own guidelines, the media (and Boris Johnson himself) have pounced on an alternative narrative that this is because Land Of Hope & Glory is racist and bad. There is a legitimate argument to be made for that — it is certainly a symbol of British nationalist pomposity — but it is hardly high on anyone’s list of wrongs to be righted in 2020. As such, it is clear to many that this is a story fabricated by the media, leapt on by the right, all to de-legitimise the left and distract from the right’s own failures.
Thankfully, left-wing media have been diligent in pointing out that this outrage has been wholly fabricated and fed by the media themselves. Pundits who have been booked onto news programmes to defend the constructed left-wing position, for instance, who have chosen to instead take the opportunity to call the farce out for what it is, have either been uninvited — as was Ash Sarkar’s experience…
…or they were given a slap on the wrist. Most tellingly, it was seemingly centre-left melt Femi alone who managed to get past the media vetting process and actually tell it like it is, and he was hilariously branded as an extremist for doing so.
This is all very relevant to accelerationism. Whilst I don’t expect anyone to feel sorry for a fringe philosophical interest, it has nonetheless fallen victim to this same process. Its claims have certainly caused a lot of confusion, but we might ask ourselves why? Is it not telling that this concerted effort to address the impasse faced by contemporary anti-capitalist discourses has been transformed into the very thing it sort to “accelerate” out of — tactics of “capitalist realist” disorientation that keep the right in power? Is it not telling that this philosophical lightning rod, erected following the great political impotence demonstrated by the left following the financial crash, has become so impotent in itself?
Part of the reason is surely that we cannot see the totality that we are trying to escape from. Countless Marxists foretold this sorry state of limited consciousness — Marx’s negation of the negation and Lukács’ mire of immediacy are the first to come to mind — but even they probably never imagined it would get this much worse. We are wholly incapable, it seems, of seeing just how far down these tactics of distraction, exaggeration and appropriation go.
We must take care to illustrate how exactly these tactics differ from those described by “age-old” Marxist texts. The “brouhaha” around Land of Hope and Glory is a very blatant example of the media constructing instances of false consciousness in ways that Marxists have told us about for decades, for instance, but a more specific variation on these tactics are unique to popular neoliberalism (most visible in Reagan’s electioneering tactics) and have mutated into something quite distinct again since the rise to power of our new far-right populists.
Do you remember the time when both Donald Trump and Bernice Sanders were identified as “accelerationist” candidates? That’s a moment worth going back to. (We see a similar argument made around both Trump and Biden at present.) This was not because either one would wholly destabilise the office of the president, but rather because they would both further illuminate the cracks in the firmament. Trump has certainly done this, but for his own gain. Sanders did this too, but in negative — that he had the establishment running more scared than Trump, both in 2016 and in 2019, spoke volumes. The same is true here in the UK. We were more afraid of Corbyn than bumbling Boris. Both have shaken up politics as usual, but Boris has retained a bourgeois handle on the Overton Window. If it has been shifted, it remains in the favour of those who have been in control for centuries. There is nothing very radical about it.
This is to say, in an underhand sort of way, that accelerationism only retains its use-value as a political philosophy when it retains its Marxist foundations. It is, like so many positions and arguments, made impotent when it is reshaped for use by the establishment it hopes to dismantle. We are certainly aware of instances when establishments around the world do this — and, as the Land of Hope and Glory debacle illustrates, we are still capable of attacking the most egregious examples (although those attacks seem broader ineffective) — but we are terrible are defending the small fry. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t matter. Would a broad defence of accelerationism online have done anything to change our present fortunes? It seems unlikely. But these sorts of bastardisations and appropriations have built up over the last five years. As each one is neutralised by a nefarious media and a gaggle of high-profile useful idiots, we lose a potential vector for imagining new futures — and such vectors have already in short supply for some time.
(Of all the genuinely interesting readings of The Matrix available, for instance — including the most recently affirmed reading that the film is a parable for gender transition — that we are left with a Red Pill meme that grew out of Men’s Rights Activists forums surely makes it the most obvious example of leftist parable being bastardised into impotency.)
This may start to sound like “First they came for the accelerationists, and I did nothing because I wasn’t an accelerationist…” I suppose that’s, in part, precisely what this is. But it is an argument worth making because its impact is far reaching — it gives the media an ideological bogeyman to point to; it emboldens a misplaced cynicism in the politically illiterate; it generates infighting on the left as people obsess over taking cheap shots at a thought that doesn’t hold sway with a reductive canon, in order to birth new thought that is capable of adapting to our new age. (Accelerationists, broadly speaking, aren’t your enemy — and if they seem like it, maybe you’re more of a useful idiot than you realise.) That new kind of thought is still desperately needed.
This is not to say that anyone needs to start immediately sympathising with the plight of our already edgelordy blogosphere, or even to suggest that accelerationism is salvageable at this point, but it’s trajectory from radical thrust out of impotence to the most impotent thing out there should be better understood by all on the left. It could happen — and, arguably, already is happening — to you too.
I get the point you’re making, though I’m not as familiar with the area of thought you’re discussing. But I do think we need a larger historical context. The origin of the reactionary mind goes back to the Axial Age.
Reactionaries have long sought to incite violence in order to institute new authoritarian hierarchies. That was definitely seen with the reactionary Jacobins who took control of the French Revolution. But one can also see it with the attempt of coup d’etat by Socrates’ cronies that forced him into a choice of banishment or death.
It is true they co-opt leftist rhetoric and tactics to do so, when it is to their advantage. We have to look below the language and narratives. Accelerationism, like democracy or liberalism or socialism, just becomes another word to be thrown around. Part of the creation of impotence is emptying language of meaning.
I’d just make sure to ground this in a very old historical development. The reactionary mind didn’t arrive on the scene just recently. It’s been around for a long while.
I speak as an American. All of American society going back to the colonial era was founded on the modern intensification of the reactionary impulse. Trump, rather than an aberration, is precisely what we should expect in a society like this. He is a product of the system.
But we have yet to come to terms with how liberalism and reaction are two sides of the same phenomenon. That doesn’t mean, of course, that left-wingers who criticize both are immune from this dual dynamic — not in the slightest. It’s a highly infectious mind virus and we are in the middle of a mind pandemic.
What you write about is different than what I write about. And you frame your thought in other ways with another intellectual background. But your last few posts have resonated with my mood more than anything else I’ve been reading lately.These past years, it’s come to my attention how many on the political left get drawn into the reactionary mind. It often begins with an intellectual curiosity to understand reactionaries. But then reactionary ways of thinking slowly slip into their way of talking.
One of the most interesting examples comes from a scholar, Mark Lilla, who is specifically known for his study of the reactionary mind. Like Corey Robin, he points out how nostalgia is central to the reactionary and yet, it seems to me, that he falls prey to that same nostalgia. Also, Lilla ends up using a centuries-old narrative that the reactionaries have used as rhetoric, the narrative that they were merely responding to the radical and revolution.
The historical reality is that the reactionary impulse long preceded Enlightenment thought and modern liberalism and progressivism. The reactionary played an active role in shaping the modern world right from the beginning. Reactionaries didn’t merely follow revolution but helped incite it and shape it or, at the very least, to co-opt it. Reactionary nostalgia constructs a false past with invented traditions.
Nostalgia is not as simple as it might seem, as it represents a change in temporal perception and identity — determining and precluding what kinds of narratives can be told. Nostalgia is the other side of utopianism, in the way the reactionary is the other side of the liberal. For this reason, the one can easily slip into the other without notice, in either direction. And so historical figures such as the Jacobins can as easily be called reactionary as radical and revolutionary — the two aspects being less distinct than some would like to acknowledge (just listen to the radical talk of right-wing reactionaries like Steve Bannon).
So it seems to me, this psycho-social dynamic was well-established going back to early Western history, at the foundation of what Julian Jaynes calls ‘consciousness’ (i.e., metaphorical inner mental space that is narratized). With the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations, Jaynes noted how powerful nostalgia became in a sense of loss of the archaic authorization of external voice command. The reason Socrates both feared the power of oral tradition and lamented its loss, helping to then inspire Plato’s utopian vision.
This is where I diverge from most takes on the reactionary. It is less a particular mindset among many others, as if it were a personality disposition. Instead, the reactionary mind is an entire worldview and narrative framing, especially historical time as it has replaced cyclical time. It goes beyond merely a narrative as it becomes built into every aspect of culture and the social order, inseparable from internalized patterns of thought, perception and behavior. This is why none of us is immune and why few of us can recognize the reactionary, especially when it takes hold in our own minds.
“It is interesting to think of the reactionary conservative in his role as trickster. He is seeking to redefine his position and remake the social order, of course in his own image. The reactionary rhetoric being used is tricksy, for it generously borrows from the political left in order to undermine the political left. The reactionary conservative seeks to usurp the liberals role as challenger to the status quo and simultaneously to remove the teeth of radicalism, leaving the left without any real bite.
“Enchanter and deceiver. The trickster may free you but at a cost of enslaving you to something else. He hypnotizes you with a story and makes you drowsy with a song, he puts you under the sway of an archetype and delivers you into the control of an unseen power.
“This is what the reactionary conservative does with symbolic conflation, not to claim that this is how conservatives understand their own actions, as this process happens mostly within the unconscious, the territory of the imagination and the playground of the trickster. Reactionary conservatives end up deceiving both others and themselves, a mutually-afflicted magic spell of misdirection and mystification.”