It is clear that the concept of anti-praxis within unconditional accelerationism remains woefully misunderstood. Regularly confused with Nick Land’s brand of horrorism — “Do nothing” — many still believe that “anti-praxis” is some pretentious way of expressing the same sentiment. I doubt even the most insufferable of accelerationists would think such a position warranted a term so pretentiously over-specific to describe something as basic as inactivity.
My own attempt to rectify this, by emphasising Deleuze’s call to “make yourself worthy of the process” in a previous post from 2018, had caught on more than I was aware but, given that old post’s fragmentary nature, it is a clear that it hasn’t done a great deal to unmuddy the waters.
Recently discussing this in a Discord server, I thought I’d turn back to this old post and attach some more recent research to it, in order to (finally) articulate with some more clarity just how this Deleuzian adage works in practice (if not in praxis).
What we call an instinct and what we call an institution essentially designate procedures of satisfaction. On the one hand, an organism reacts instinctively to external stimuli, extracting from the external world the elements which will satisfy its tendencies and needs; these elements comprise worlds that are specific to different animals. On the other hand, the subject institutes an original world between its tendencies and the external milieu, developing artificial means of satisfaction. […] There is no doubt that tendencies find satisfaction in the institution: sexuality finds it in marriage, and avarice in property. The example of an institution like the State … does not have a tendency to which it corresponds. But it is clear that such institutions are secondary: they already presuppose institutionalized behaviors, recalling a derived utility that is properly social. In the end, this utility locates the principle from which it is derived in the relation of tendencies to the social. The institution is always given as an organized system of means.
— Gilles Deleuze, “Instincts and Institutions”
What we talk about “praxis”, in the context of unconditional accelerationism, it is a term perhaps best understood as designating an institutionalised practice. We might call anti-praxis, then, a kind of de-institutionalised practice.
A critique of institutions was always baked into the meaning of the “unconditional” in unconditional accelerationism (u/acc), as far as I’m aware. The splintering of accelerationism into left and right variants in the mid-2010s had, at that point, done nothing but put different coloured carts before the same horse. Institutionalising accelerationism was a mistake; this philosophy was always an attempt to untangle and critique the institutions that passed themselves off as the rightful home for certain instincts under capitalist realism, whether they be political institutions or — as later became a focus for many — even ontological categories like (clock) time. To feed accelerationism back into the institutions it sought to short-circuit only short-circuited accelerationism itself.
It is a point that always bears repeating: accelerationism was first of all a call to rethink the political landscape of the late 2000s, already defined by leftist melancholy, now-familiar parliamentarian deadlocks and a woeful “democratic” impotence. This was most true following the financial crash, when it was clear that those in power, no matter their political affiliation, would have bailed out the bankers no matter what; it remains true following the last two US presidential elections — or, I should say, the previous one and the current one — where the choice, to many on the left, has been one of backing the lesser of two evils.
Because of this, any attempt to shoehorn accelerationism back into our increasingly inadequate political demarcations is a confused step backwards that ignores the questions this mode of thought initially posed — specifically, what defines the political “left” and “right” following the (supposed) ultimate victory of capitalism? This isn’t to say that accelerationism is wholly incompatible with a left- or right-wing politics, but folding it into our present understandings of either wing is to ignore the critiques at its heart. Perhaps the most pressing critique can be framed as the following question: With many of the arguments central to the left’s existence apparently cast into the trash fire of history by capitalism’s final hegemonic ascendancy, then what is left for the left to do? What is required of us to update our understanding of capitalism — arguably, Marxism itself — so that it can account for and reflect the complexities of our postmodern moment? Whilst the accelerationist response has been derailed for many years, u/acc was an attempt to reassert it. In attempting to hook our understanding up to old measures of progress and comprehension, we ignore the extent to which subjectivity has already been changed. The response to this from u/acc sounds simple enough but, in reality, it is anything but. It is a response that might go something like this:
Institutionally speaking, political thought is in the gutter. We might do well to trust our instincts.
This no doubt sounds naive. For one, we do not live in 2008 anymore and there are plenty of interesting political thinkers involved at the party political level. Whilst we may despair at the state of political bureaucracy in the twenty-first century, do we really need to eject bureaucracy outright as a way to get things done? Is the answer really something so vague and empty as “follow your little leftist hearts”? The point is, rather, to consider how our desires are vetoed from the very start by the institutions of capitalist realism. This was a difficult task in 2008; it remains one in 2020.
For example, whilst we might think confidently that the impotence of Occupy is far behind us at the level of popular leftist thought, just last week on Twitter Extinction Rebellion — as spokespeople for what they (rightfully) call the most important sociopolitical issue of our times — tweeted this:
David Graeber — who it has just been announced passed away on the day I am writing this (RIP) — put it best:
Clearly, as far as mass movements go — and that is the scale we all want to be organising at, surely? — the left still has a lot of work to do regarding not just how it acts but how it thinks and responds to current events. In this sense, capitalist realism is alive and well, even at the top of our most celebrated and presently iconic activist movements. For the accelerationists of the late 2000s, there was a similar frustration.
Extinction Rebellion’s tweet, at its worst, represents a kind of capitalist apologism. The point of a statement like “socialism or extinction”, for anyone who knows their anti-capitalist / Marxist history / theory, is surely to say “postcapitalism or bust”. Sure, we can argue about the finer points of whether socialism (as an ideological institution) is the best successor to capitalism but, generically speaking, it’s long been the stepping stone towards something other than this mess. The issue, of course, is that this mess has been pulling harder and harder away from the left and towards what Mark Fisher called a “frenzied stasis” for a number of decades now. For many, this is a bad sign because capitalism has clearly passed its best. Whilst its continued dominance will allow those it benefits to continue lining their pockets, for the rest of us — and, indeed, for the planet — the persistence of business as usual, and the forestalling of progress whereby capitalism is not allowed to morph into something else (as it seems to be yearning to do — for better or worse) isn’t going to work out well for anybody.
Following the financial crash, it was clear that this issue wasn’t simply down to a totalitarian bourgeoisie enforcing capitalism upon us. It was an issue of ideology. The planet, in essence, is beholden to capitalism through a kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Whilst our instincts show us to be a species in peril, pacing back and forth like zoo animals, we are institutionally blinded to any sort of alternative, instead relishing our own oppression and loving our habitual consumption of the shit of capital. That doesn’t mean we’re not having fun but it raises questions about what we might be straining to become, and what the impact of the stunting of our growth by panicking capitalists might be.
This isn’t necessarily a nod to some sort of posthuman utopia. Even at a more mundane level of society as it is now, we know the relation between instinct and institution can change quite radically over the course of a lifetime. Consider Deleuze’s examples quoted above. How might we think the unfurling of human sexual desire out of the institution of marriage? I’d have to agree with the Bible bashers on that one — marriage ain’t what it used to be, and thank goodness. Various forms of sexual relation have flourished over the last century but we still find other ideals through which to institute our own satisfaction — through the family, for instance — which seem less likely to crumble under a collective willpower. It raises interesting questions though. Considering how complex the social development of sexual relations has been over the last few centuries, how might we consider the constant flux of capitalism in the same way? (Mark Fisher made much the same point in an essay for eflux, notably about accelerationism as well.) Indeed, when we look at the history of sexuality — a relevant example, no doubt, considering the centrality of desire to both love and money — can we find a set of praxes here to emulate?
Not really… Surely, the lesson to be learned is that we must follow our instincts and allow our institutions to adapt accordingly. Indeed, that we must preserve some room for adaptation. Capitalism may adapt along with us, but it might also “adapt” into something else in the process. We should also be prepared for the realisation that we do not want exactly what we say we want, and that the best way to satisfy our needs and desires may not look how we imagine it to in our minds.
Deleuze takes up this problem explicitly in his essay on “Instincts and Institutions”. He writes:
The problem common to instinct and to institution is still this: how does the synthesis of tendencies and the object that satisfies them come about? Indeed, the water that I drink does not resemble at all the hydrates my organism lacks. The more perfect an instinct is in its domain, the more it belongs to the species, and the more it seems to constitute an original, irreducible power of synthesis.
We might argue that the implicit point being made here, following Herbert Marcuse, is that, whilst capitalism implores us to see it through a series of biological foundations, these are but institutions it has attempted to subsume into the deepest levels of the organism.
But the more perfectible instinct is, and thus imperfect, the more it is subjected to variation, to indecision, and the more it allows itself to be reduced to the mere play of internal individual factors and exterior circumstances — the more it gives way to intelligence. However, if we take this line of argument to its limit, how could such a synthesis, offering to a tendency a suitable object, be intelligent when such a synthesis, to be realized, implies a period of time too long for the individual to live, and experiments which it would not survive?
We are forced back on the idea that intelligence is something more social than individual, and that intelligence finds in the social its intermediate milieu, the third term that makes intelligence possible. What does the social mean with respect to tendencies? It means integrating circumstances into a system of anticipation, and internal factors into a system that regulates their appearance, thus replacing the species.
Understood in relation to some sort of utopia, we might see this intelligence as a relation to come, yet to be fully realised. We might also understand it as already being here, with the age of social media inaugurating capitalism’s ultimate integration of technological circumstances with the anticipation of its continued survival. Somewhat ironically, with regards to the climate crisis, we lack this level of social intelligence. Capitalism has the monopoly on smart.
This is where the accelerationist version of “what is to be done?” enters into consideration. The classic version of this question is one that U/Acc blogs have often poked fun at — largely because the handwringing of the twenty-first left, at its most melancholic, is symptomatic of its constant looking for something to do, to the extent that it starts to resemble a widow trying to keep themselves busy — but it is a question that persists regardless.
Considering the circumstances described above, however, another set of questions emerge to complicate this Leninist call to action.
Praxis is, of course, not just the other side of the political coin from theory; it is also an accepted mode of action — instituted by the Party, for instance, in a Marxist-Leninist sense. It is action backed up by theory. But when the party as a political entity has fallen into such disrepute, what remains of praxis today? How are we supposed to talk about rectifying our institutions when they are in such a dire state of disrepair? Without top-down recommendations, do these forms of political action default to popular opinion? What is popular opinion when social intelligence is rotten with capitalist realism? Is horizontalism an effective alternative? Many would argue that simply negating our institutions doesn’t solve anything but is affirming them anything more than masochism at this point? What is to be done about the question of what is to be done?
I’m persistently playing devil’s advocate in asking these questions but, for what it’s worth, I think Jodi Dean’s writings on a new sense of the “party” are very illuminating. We need to rethink a lot of what we take for granted. This is not to abandon all that came before but nor is deferring to some sort of theoretical canon going to solve anything. Marx is still useful and so are many other theorists. But this does not solve our problem — the problem of a new thought and politics that can respond to our present crisis in negation.
Ultimately, this is the point at which accelerationism enters the fray. It was a mode of thought explicitly concerned with the failure of praxis in 2008 and the left’s inability to think of alternatives — alternative futures (theoretical ideals), on the one hand, and alternative forms of action on the other. Anti-praxis becomes relevant here as a way to think praxis and the crisis of negation together, whilst also acting against the institutions that would typically define these terms. It is also, arguably, a way of playing the so-called “long game.” Whilst praxis, particularly at present, means giving yourself over to the weather-vane of contemporary (party) politics, anti-praxis becomes a way of halting our inane flailing and looking beyond to another form of action altogether. Again, this isn’t necessarily a rejection of party politics, but it is an attempt to think at a different scale. It is a form of action that looks to the bigger picture, beyond the localism of party politics and personal grievance and instead towards an almost cosmic perspective — a perspective all the rage in the era of the “Anthropocene”, but one which most humanities departments are ill-equipped to actually respond to. (Mark Fisher’s joke that he wanted to set up a ‘Centre for the Inhumanities’ comes to mind here.) It is a way of taking the personal (which capitalism loves to amplify) and making it impersonal.
This is not to denounce institutional critique either, of course, which is a very important and productive praxis in specific contexts, but it is rather to try and consider how this differs and relates to spheres outside our workplaces or local modes of political organising. What kind of thought speaks to a scale beyond that? What kind of thought speaks to capitalism as a whole? Not to alternatives within capitalism, but postcapitalist discourses? Is such a thought even possible anymore? What does it look like now and what might it look like in the future?
Vincent Garton’s anti-praxis takes this kind of perspective broadly in its sights and, whilst his position sounds woefully nihilistic (in the worse sense of that word), it also speaks to a new kind of freedom that emerges from feeling our size amidst capitalism’s great totality — a kind of productive nihilism that may emerge following the realisation that, whilst our local actions make us feel good, they are unimportant before the “colossal horror” of the capitalist system at large. As he writes on his old blog:
On its very terms, human agency has already been elevated to become the guide and measure of the world, and this, conceptually, is intolerable. It is precisely against this view that accelerationism defines itself as ‘antihuman(ist)’, and against the fundamental question of praxis that it offers ‘antipraxis’. This can hardly mean ‘Do nothing’, of course: that would mean not just to return to the fundamental question of praxis, but to offer perhaps the most numbly tedious answer of all. The unconditional accelerationist, instead, referring to the colossal horrors presented to the human agent all the way from the processes of capital accumulation and social complexification to the underlying structure, or seeming absence of structure, of reality itself, points to the basic unimportance of unidirectional human agency. We ‘hurl defiance to the stars’, but in their silence — when we see them at all — the stars return only crushing contempt. To the question ‘What is to be done?’, then, she can legitimately answer only, ‘Do what thou wilt’ — and ‘Let go.’
Personally, I have reason to differ with Garton’s old position somewhat. Whilst it resonates with more positions than many are willing to generously conceded — a more hubristic brand of environmentalism, for one — his argument here is an explicit reaction against the so-called “managerialism” of Srnicek and Williams; the impotence of their “left-accelerationism”, which arguably turns its back on their initially revolutionary proposals once the opportunity of institutional influence asserts itself. Their Inventing the Future certainly seems to be something of a retreat (at least on Williams’ part) from the initially inhumanist provocations described as “accelerationist” by Benjamin Noys. (For those unaware, in a now-deleted blogpost, it was Williams who first asked perhaps the foundational accelerationist questions that Garton expands upon here, specifically: “What is capital-in-itself?” and “What is capital-for-itself?”)
If I have reason for quibbling the hostility against Srnicek and Williams, it is because this seems to be a narrative that has long been spun in their absence. I’m personally quite interested in talking to either/or about how they view their old writings and political actions since, and whether they felt they necessarily climbed down from prior provocations or whether it was the runaway train of glib accelerationist thought that has betrayed their positions since.
What has been of great interest to me in recent months is my personal realisation that the ground from which accelerationism first emerged (prior to the apparent climb-down of Inventing the Future) still retains a shade of anti-praxis. Alex Williams’ writings in particular — although his deletion of his blog suggests he no longer agrees with his former self — is a long-neglected starting point for accelerationist thought. It is with him, not Land, that accelerationism proper should look to for its foundation. This is to say that accelerationism wasn’t just a continuation of Landian thought but an attempt to complicate its implications with the circumstances of a new decade that veered considerably from where Land himself had predicted it would go. Unconditional accelerationism, in this sense, is not just Landian accelerationism before all the factionalism; I think it makes a lot more sense when seen as an extension of Williams’ “post-Landianism” — his articulation of Land’s machinic desires alongside a critique of Badiou’s post-Marxist-Leninism and aligned with Brassier’s unbound nihilism.
It is the (negative) influence of Badiou especially that makes the question of what is to be done so central for the early accelerationists. But I don’t want to talk about Williams’ old blog here. Instead, I think the best person to turn to to understand this foundation is probably Steven Shaviro.
Shaviro’s books on accelerationism are certainly worth reading but I also find — as is often the case with too many of those initial forays into post-blog publishing (Noys’ book on accelerationism for Zero is similar) — that they lose some contextual foundation in being removed from the blogosphere. This is to say that, in an oddly backwards process, the books are often more reductive than the blogs.
For instance, the questions first asked by the “accelerationists” in 2008 seem to emerge almost from nowhere but Shaviro’s blog does well to ground their answers within the original crises of the financial crash and an already frequently critiqued impotence in philosophy (discussed and dissected by the likes of Zizek and Badiou). Whilst there is a great deal of value in mapping out how these questions are related to previous countercultural movements, it is nonetheless true that this original galvanising moment, which articulates the acute relevance of accelerationism to the twenty-first century, has long been overlooked, and it is with Shaviro, moreso than anyone else, who was seemingly asking all of the right questions at that moment.
What I find particularly interesting about this, having spent a great deal of time blog-spelunking in recent months, is that I think Shaviro’s position still contains a great deal of mileage, and even describes an approach to the financial crash in 2008 that seems wholly resonant with the U/Acc blogosphere of 2016-18. Before we explore Shaviro’s foundation, however, it is necessary to provide a sort of caveat.
Shaviro’s position — when we come to it — may sound more humanist than some accelerationists are used to, but what is worthy of note, I think, is that this position is not incompatible with an inhumanist view of capital that has come to dominate — indeed, a view that many accelerationists have since fetishized and reified into a kind of edgy idiocy, before which they are left agog, mouths agape, before their new techo(g)nomic deity. In this sense, despite first appearances, Shaviro’s position resonates nicely with Ray Brassier’s “post-Landian” nihilism, which acknowledges the scientific truth about our existence — that we live in an indifferent universe — and, perhaps, a tandem economic truth as well — we live in an indifferent economy. Acknowledging this indifference is not an argument for inactivity either; it is an acknowledgement that frees us to consider possibilities we may have never considered before, subsumed, as we are and have long been, under the God-fearing auspices of an apparently God-given universe — the theological equivalent of capitalist realism.
It is important to linger over the full implications of capital’s indifference to us and why this is another foundational accelerationist position. Its critics denounce accelerationism through this suggestion as nothing more than a reheated catastrophism, but accelerationism is instead the observation that capitalism itself is catastrophist — to conflate this obversation with what humans should do is to misunderstand how capitalism functions and how we relate to it (at least according to Deleuze and Guattari — arguably the last wholesale critique of capitalism to still matter since Marx). As Brassier writes:
Integrated global capitalism is constitutively dysfunctional: it works by breaking down. It is fuelled by the random undecidabilities, excessive inconsistencies, aleatory interruptions, which it continuously reappropriates, axiomatizing empirical contingency. It turns catastrophe into a resource, ruin into opportunity, harnessing the uncomputable.
Capitalism, then, is a confounding foe precisely because of its algorithmic indifference to human activity. Indeed, to place it under human condition is a fallacy. We do not control it; if anything, it controls us. However, again, this is not to assign capitalism with some sort of benevolent agency. We are simply caught up in its currents and flows.
Most notably, this is to acknowledge that not even the capitalists have control over capital. They accumulate it and hoard it but they are not in control of the system itself. Economists are, as Mark Fisher has remarked, little more than weather forecasters. In his Postcapitalist Desire lectures, he explains:
From the point of view of capital, then — capital is certainly an ideological construction, but it’s less ideological than you are — the human bourgeoisie are just a means of its being produced. The big Hegelian story, in this respect, is of human potentiality, of human production being split off… The products of human activity are being split off from the humans who produced them, and coming back as a quasi-autonomous force. It might sound complicated, but it’s fairly simple, isn’t it? What is the economy if not that? […] Nobody — including and especially capitalists — can will the financial crisis of 2008 away, and yet, absent human beings from the picture, there is no financial crisis. It is entirely an affair of human consciousness, the economy, in that sense, and yet humans have no power to effect it. It’s like weather — the economy is like weather. There are people who can be experts in what the weather is going to be and profit from it, but they can’t change the weather. Not on a fundamental level. This is part of what’s being pointed to: it’s fundamental.
But what is capitalism? Capitalism, then, would be this system whereby this alienation — to use that term — of human capacities is taken to its absolute limit. It’s a monstrously, prodigiously productive system, yet it’s also one which seems to — and does — exploit and oppress the majority of the population, and which even the minority have limited capacity to alter.
In the heat-fucked nihilism of Brassierese, that sounds like this:
If capitalism is the name for that curiously pathological social formation in which ‘everything that is bound testifies that it is unbound in its being, that the reign of the multiple is the groundless ground of what is presented, without exception’, it is because it liquidates everything substantial through the law of universal exchangeability, simultaneously exposing and staving off the inconsistent void underlying every consistent presentation through apparatuses of ‘statist’ regularization. ‘Capital’ names what Deleuze and Guattari call the monstrous ‘Thing’, the cancerous, anti-social anomaly, the catastrophic overevent through which the inconsistent void underlying every consistent presentation becomes unbound and the ontological fabric from which every social bond is woven is exposed as constitutively empty.
For Fisher and Brassier both, understanding capitalism in this way does not abjure our capacity to act. This is not declaring “the economy works in mysterious ways” and then being done with it; this is not deferring to theoretical thoughts and economic prayers. And yet, acknowledging this truth — that much of the universe (and the economy) swirls in a chaos beyond our own disinterestedness — does allow us to dismiss certain modes of action outright. Boiled down to its essence, we can regain our understanding of a foundational striving that flows underneath the ideological chaos of bourgeois posturing. We can retain a fidelity to this indifference and to the revolutionary principles that persist underneath the compartmentalising of neoliberal party politics.
For Shaviro, this is what it means to “make yourself worthy of the process” (although he doesn’t use this phrase himself); to retain a fidelity to human action in the face of fanged noumena. To return to Deleuze on instincts and institutions, this means that our relationship to capitalism becomes similar to the current relation between animals and humans. As Deleuze writes:
In the end, the problem of instinct and institutions will be grasped most acutely … when the demands of men come to bear on the animal by integrating it into institutions (totemism and domestication), when the urgent needs of the animal encounters the human, either fleeing or attacking us, or patiently waiting for nourishment and protection.
Isn’t this how we find ourselves acting before capitalism? Can nothing more be done?
Whilst capital might begin selecting for vegan options on the menu in response to our own shifting attitudes, that doesn’t mean capitalism itself is showing any less of a thirst for human flesh. For Deleuze, perhaps the issue is that we can seldom differentiate between demanding a seat at the table and demanding a place on the plate. (Perhaps an analogy a little too close to home given the UK’s recent “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme and the second lockdown expected to follow it.) In light of this, we must implore each other to think differently and beyond the institutions that cannot and will not ever satisfy our needs, and which are arguably set up to use us to fuel something else. This is to say that institutions are power stations run on instinct, but we’ve got a problem when they start to look like slaughterhouses for new ways of being.
Before I tied myself up in even more awkward analogies, we should turn to Shaviro, who translates this problem into more general terms (whilst still drawing on Deleuze’s theory of the institution). Indeed, he writes on this at length. The resulting essay is, I think, one of the best blogposts to emerge from the proto-accelerationist blogosphere, expressing a sentiment that many of the first accelerationists would pick up on and run with. Here, he skewers the impotence of an overly humanist Marxism which attempts to transform Marx into Christ, building up a church through which to defer to the human body of the messenger rather than the inhuman forces he channelled and described. It is this post that I would like to end on. I’m still digesting much of this but, as far as I am concerned, this is the thought that later gives rise, through a complex process of osmosis and distillation, to u/acc’s anti-praxis. (I hope to write on this more soon.)
Drawing back the skin of “what is to be done?” to get to the problem of the subject that is doing the “doing”, Shaviro writes:
… there is a good reason why recent Marxist theory is so concerned with the problem of the subject. It is a way of raising the question of agency. What is to be done? How might capitalism be altered or abolished? It’s hard to give credence any longer to the old-fashioned Marxist narrative, according to which the “negation of the negation,” or the “expropriation of the expropriators,” would inevitably take place, sooner or later. Neither the worldwide economic collapse of the 1930s, nor the uprisings and radical confrontations of the 1960s, led to anything like the “final conflict” of which generations of revolutionaries dreamed. Today we are no longer able to believe that the capitalist order is fated to collapse from its own contradictions. It is true that these contradictions lead to turmoil, and to misery for many. Yet the overall process of capital accumulation is not necessarily harmed by these convulsions. If Capital could speak, it might well say, in the manner of Nietzsche’s Overman, that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.” The genius of capitalism lies in its ability to turn to its own account whatever destabilizes it, and whatever is raised against it. In the absence of that old militant optimism, we are left with the sinking feeling that nothing works, that nothing we can do will make any difference. This sense of paralysis is precisely the flip side of our “empowerment” as consumers. The more brutal the neoliberal “reforms” of the last thirty years have been, and the more they have taken away from us, the more they have forced upon us the conviction that there is No Alternative.
This crushing demoralization is itself a testimony to Marx’s prescience. How else but with a sense of utter helplessness could we respond to a world in which Marx’s insights into the tendencies and structures of capitalism have been so powerfully verified? From primitive accumulation to capital accumulation, from globalization to technological innovation, from exploitation in sweatshops to the delirium of ungrounded financial circulation: all the processes that Marx analyzed and theorized in the three volumes of Capital are far more prevalent today, and operate on a far more massive scale, than was ever the case in Marx’s own time. By the late 1990s, all this had become so evident that Marx’s analytical acumen was admired, and even celebrated, on Wall Street. As the business journalist John Cassidy wrote in a widely-noticed and frequently-cited article in The New Yorker (1997): Marx “wrote riveting passages about globalization, inequality, political corruption, monopolization, technical progress, the decline of high culture, and the enervating nature of modern existence — issues that economists are now confronting anew. . . Marx predicted most of [globalization’s] ramifications a hundred and fifty years ago. . . [Marx’s] books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.”
From this point of view, the problem with Marx’s analysis is that it is just too successful. His account of the inner logic of capitalism is so insightful, so powerful, and so all-embracing, that it seems to offer no point of escape. The more we see the world in the grim terms of capital logic, the less we are able to imagine things ever being different. Marx dissected the inner workings of capitalism for the purpose of finding a way to overthrow it; but the very success of his analysis makes capitalism seem like a fatality. For the power of capital pervades all aspects of human life, and subsumes all impulses and all actions. Its contingent origins notwithstanding, capitalism consumes everything, digests whatever it encounters, transforms the most alien customs and ways of life into more of itself. “Markets will seep like gas through any boundary that gives them the slightest opening” (Dibbell 2006, 43). Adorno’s gloomy vision of a totally administered and thoroughly commodified society is merely a rational assessment of what it means to live in a world of ubiquitous, unregulated financial flows. For that matter, what is Althusser’s Spinozism, his view of history as a “process without a subject,” but a contemplation of the social world sub specie aeternitatis, and thereby a kind of fatalism, presenting capitalism as an ineluctable structure of interlinked overdeterminations whose necessity we must learn to dispassionately accept?
From here, we shift gear, and find accelerationism’s forebears in two of the most widely-cited Marxists of the twentieth-century, as if denouncing accelerationism today is prostrating the sacrificial lamb before a normative politics that does not truck with any of the political analyses of the previous century but is incapable of registering why and what should replace them. It is a sentiment most wittily captured by Zizek in The Ticklish Subject: “A spectre is haunting Western academia, the spectre of the Cartesian subject.” (A haunting that, according to Shaviro, Zizek has arguably since lost sight of.) Shaviro continues:
All this explains why cultural Marxism turns away from Marx’s own “economism” and back to the subject. It seeks after some voluntary principle: some instance that is not just passively determined, that is capable of willing and effecting change, and that escapes being caught up in the redundancy of capitalist circulation. By rehabilitating agency, and by foregrounding particular practices of resistance, cultural Marxism hopes to find some sort of potential for overcoming capitalism. This reinvention of the subjective element takes many forms. At one extreme, there is Zizek’s hyper-voluntarism, his fantasy of enforcing a rupture with capitalism, and imposing communism, by dint of a sheer, wilful imposition of “ruthless terror.” At the other extreme, Adorno’s ultra-pessimism, his hopelessness about all possibilities for action, is really an alibi for a retreat into the remnants of a shattered interiority: a subjectivity that remains pure and uncontaminated by capitalism precisely to the extent that it is impotent, and defined entirely by the extremity of its negations. Despite their differences, both of these positions can be defined by their invocation of the spirit of the negative. Adorno’s and Zizek’s negations alike work to clear out a space for the cultivation of a subjectivity that supposedly would not be entirely determined by, and would not entirely subordinated to, capital. For my part, I cannot see anything creative, or pragmatically productive, in such proposals. Neither Zizek’s manic voluntarism nor Adorno’s melancholia is anything more than a dramatic, and self-dramatizing, gesture. That is to say, in spite of themselves they both restore subjectivity in the form of a spectacle that is, precisely, a negotiable commodity. In the world of aesthetic capitalism, critical negativity is little more than a consoling and compensatory fiction.
On the other hand, it is hard to say that those variants of cultural Marxism that present agency and subjectivity affirmatively, and without recourse to negation, do much better. J. K. Gibson-Graham tell us that the Marxist image of capitalism as a closed, voracious, and totalizing system is an error. They offer us the cheerful sense that a plethora of inventive, non-capitalist economic and social practices [that] already exist in the world today. This means that we have already, without quite realizing it, reached “the end of capitalism (as we know it).” Indeed, Gibson-Graham come perilously close to saying that the only thing keeping capitalism alive today is the inveterate prejudice on the part of Marxists that it really exists. Apparently, if we were just a bit more optimistic, we could simply think all the oppression away.
For their part, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are by no means so obstinately cheerful. Nonetheless, I am a bit taken aback by their insistence that globalized, affective capitalism has already established, not only the “objective conditions” for communism, but also the “subjective conditions” as well. The latter come in the form of the multitude as a universal, creative, and spontaneously collective class, ready to step in and take control of a world that has already been prepared for them. This is really a twenty-first century update of the messianic side of Marx’s vision: “The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labor reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Thus we have come full circle, back to the position that we initially rejected: one according to which the restoration of agency is not needed, for the internal dynamics of capitalism themselves lead inexorably to its ultimate abolition.
These are the crises in negation that feel wholly unsuited to the present. Enter accelerationism, which takes these blockages as dead ends and looks for a third way. What is most striking to me, however, in reading Shaviro’s appraisal, is that accelerationist discourse today, through its own impotence and amnesia, has fallen back on these same coordinates.
This new thought, that was seen to be a new vector, beyond the Adorno’s and Zizek’s and Negri’s and Gibson-Graham’s, falls back on variations of their own positions. When we speak of anti-praxis we speak of a series of negations, of anti-affirmations, where wishful thinking and self-assurance becomes the foundation for any kind of praxis. Psychologically speaking, hope — and even confidence — is a powerful thing. But this should not give way to misplaced faith in an otherwise indifferent process. It is a process we should make ourselves worthy of, in the sense that it isn’t going to make itself worthy of us.
There are serious theoretical questions buried here, in what otherwise still sounds like an all too subjectivist handwringing, but once we get past this, then we can really start getting down to business…