Tag Archives: accelerationism

Future Sailors: Notes on Inventing The Future (i)

Neoliberalism, as ItF narrates it, was neither a social movement (“politics from below”) nor, initially, a state project (“politics from above”), but a kind of conspiracy which aimed to capture both state power and social energies and turn them to its own ends. Its effective cunning, its ability to transform “contradictions” into “productive tensions”, was in part due to the fact that it had no identity to uphold: no fixed allegiance, no-one in whose name it was to speak. If neoliberalism was finally a class politics, it was a politics of the owners of capital qua owners of capital, whoever they might happen to be. We must understand Hayek’s “individual freedom” not only negatively, as freedom from state intervention or bonds of collective allegiance, but also positively, as freedom to act as a certain kind of abstract agent: a receiver and emitter of pricing signals. I alone must be able to say what the value of something is to me (deregulation), and I must have as many occasions as possible to deliver evaluations of this kind (marketisation).

The universal abstract subject (UAS) of neoliberalism is a transducer of price signals, a node in a massively distributed information system the global goal of which is to become more efficient. The role of producer is secondary: there must be inputs from labour in order for the system to have priceable things to regulate, but from the point of view of the system labour itself exists only as another priceable thing. As a counter to this, ItF proposes an alternative UAS, a self-and-other-actualising producer of values (to give it a slightly Nietzschean accent) whose “synthetic freedom” is the freedom to invent new things to do, and new means by which it can become more free to do them.

Politics in the name of a UAS, i.e. a vision of generic human capacity, is politics in a different register to politics in the name of justice, rights or equality. It is only interested in the ways people can be wounded, stigmatised, humiliated or excluded insofar as such injuries impinge on their ability to exercise the capacity by virtue of which they qualify as instances of the UAS. To many people this will seem weirdly amoral. Neoliberalism can be moralised, if we posit property rights as in some way fundamental to human dignity rather than simply as necessary preconditions for the exercise of liberal agency, but it has no real need of morality to motivate its defence of strong property rights: they are functionally indispensable, that’s all. ItF’s modernist UAS, liberated from work and empowered by technology to mould reality to its individual and collective wishes, has (increasingly) complex needs, but once again the reason why these needs should be met is not that suffering cries to the heavens for remedy, but that synthetic freedom requires us to be constantly levering ourselves further and further away from the precarity and waste of subsistence-level survival. (An open, and troubling, question for ItF’s whole project is how this “ourselves” can be properly inclusive of all humanity, and not merely codify the entitlement of its wealthiest part to all the resources they can lay their hands on).

In some quarters, access to the internet is now being discussed as a universal human right. From the point of view of ItF’s UAS this is exactly as it should be, because internet access is functionally necessary for certain kinds of projects which a subset of humanity is now able to undertake (creating open source software, for example, or arguing about books on blogs). But this is then a conception of “rights” which is contingent on the ongoing elaboration of human powers and freedoms, rather than grounded in human nature or motivated by a ceaseless ethical vigilance over human vulnerability.

What ItF wants to have in common with neoliberalism, then – besides its demonstrated effectiveness as a hegemonic strategy – is a certain detachment from morality, a sense that moral concerns are politically secondary. (This sense is also present in some, but by no means all, formulations of revolutionary politics). There is a deliberate break here with what we might call pastoral politics, politics which proposes an ideal moral order and looks for ways that this order can be established so that we can all live peacefully within it. Modernist Prometheanism is decidedly anti-pastoral, because its demand for openness about possible human goals and purposes is incompatible with any scheme in which everyone has and knows their place in a global moral order. Its strongest critique of neoliberalism, then, is not that the latter is amoral and destructive, but that it, too, constitutes a premature and drastically limiting decision in favour of a singular vision of human purpose.

Rationalism in the present

The label “rationalism” has already a somewhat anachronistic aura about it, as if it named something that had no proper place in the present. We have been (or, plausibly, “have never been“) rationalists; but who could be such a thing now? Both the rationalism of the past and the rationalism of the future have a phantasmal quality; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to many people to treat them purely as objects of fantasy, and to focus their critique, such as it is, at the level of libidinal investment. What do these strange people want from rationality? How do these wants relate to the usual generators of desire – anxiety about social position, for example? Why the embattled posture, the rhetoric of transcendence?

Answers to these questions are not difficult to produce – in a sense they’re encoded into the questions themselves – and so the desire-named-rationalism can without much effort be rendered transparent and intelligible. What the would-be rationalist really wants – we are immediately sure of it – is to recover a (fantasised-as-) lost position of mastery, no doubt imbricated with the self-image of the colonial slaveowner; they feel threatened by women and queers and people of colour, whose political demands they wish to subordinate to their own privileged sense of what would be “reasonable”; and so on. Inasmuch as all of this registers only at the level of unconscious fantasy, they are (for now) at least one step away from the out-and-out racists and sexists and reactionaries. If only they could be brought to acknowledge the unsavory unconscious content of all their high-minded talk, they might yet be saved.

Now, this hermeneutic has its own self-sufficient logic: it supplies to itself guarantees of its own correctness. It does not have to reckon with rationalism as a concrete position, taken in the here-and-now, because its founding gesture is one of incredulity that such a position could be held in earnest, that it might have any ramifications beyond the fugitive gratification it offers to a handful of hapless nerds. You cannot be serious. It will not, for example, distinguish between the doing of mathematics, an activity which has real ramifications inasmuch as one thing really does lead to another, and the performance of mathiness, the brandishing of the matheme as a totem of sophistication (or abstract fedora). In short, the source of its power (as a derailer of argument) lies in its capacity for inattention: since I already “know” that the object of your attention is a fantasy with no real purchase on the present, I am authorised to focus my attention on your attention, rather than upon the thing attended-to.

It’s in the specific polemical context in which proponents of rationalism encounter this hermeneutic – and while that is often a very narrow and specialised context indeed, it is nevertheless legitimately of concern to us – that we find ourselves both at bay, and empowered by concrete demonstrations of the viability of rationalism in the present. The terrain under dispute is not, or not immediately, that of the concrete conditions of everyday life. What we’re trying to do, ultimately, is strengthen the hand of a certain kind of argument, in the hope of bringing closer some of the goods that this kind of argument is – we believe – uniquely able to envisage. It’s all pretty meta. But we do think it’s important – or we wouldn’t bother – and I for one do find it galling when people whose reaction to the accelerationist manifesto was to describe its program as inextricably colonialist, then describe the accelerationists’ sense of being put somewhat on the back foot as histrionic.

A few words are in order about the use made of mathematics. I don’t believe, and don’t believe that anyone else believes, that a sound knowledge of category theory is necessary for salvation. We’re not trying to become Pythagorean sages here. What I think has become apparent during the course of the HKW summer school is that the current rationalist use of “higher” mathematics is partly revisionary and partly metaphorical: it’s about taking apart some old and creaky logico-mathematico-ideological constructions, which had trapped us in a false image of thought, and provoking new images of thought by giving a motivated and metaphorically suggestive account of the technical machinery used to do so. Some of the work involved in doing this is very technical, and requires those performing it to learn and practice some real and quite difficult mathematics. But the ultimate purpose is not to become surpassingly good at maths, but to get away from an inadequate sense of what “rationality” can mean, so that we are not presented with a bogus choice between (for example) first-order predicate logic on the one hand, and everything that isn’t first-order predicate logic on the other. Rationalism in the present moment means using whatever tools are available to reflect on rationality and extend our sense of what it is capable of. It turns out that fancy mathematics is quite indispensable to this endeavour, but we do not hold it to be synonymous with thinking itself. In fact, those of us who are good Badiousians will be well-accustomed to the vertiginous transit between mathematics and poetry:

Someone saw that very clearly, my colleague, the French analytic philosopher Jacques Bouveresse, from the Collège de France. In a recent book in which he paid me the honor of speaking of me, he compared me to a five-footed rabbit and says in substance: “This five-footed rabbit that Alain Badiou is runs at top speed in the direction of mathematic formalism, and then, all of a sudden, taking an incomprehensible turn, he goes back on his steps and runs at the same speed to throw himself into literature.” Well, yes, that’s how with a father and a mother so well distributed, one turns into a rabbit.

The good rationalist, I submit, will be a five-footed rabbit, composing a living present out of the energetic, irreconcilable distribution of antecedents.

Accelerationism, inside and out

A recurring theme in this discussion between Pete Wolfendale and Anthony Paul Smith is the relationship between the inside of a conversation and its outside. The scenario, in abstract, is like this: a conversation is going on; some people are admitted as interlocutors, and others are not. Still others are neither included or excluded, but simply not engaged – most of the world most of the time is not engaged in conversations of this type, for reasons ranging from antipathy to apathy to (perhaps most commonly) urgently having other things to do. Some desired interlocutors are unavailable, and may need more than an open invitation in order to come onboard.

I read Pete and Anthony as prioritising different sets of needs on the part of possible-yet-absent interlocutors. For Pete, the “space of reasons” is something like the conditions of possibility of an agora, and the way to draw outsiders in is to seek reasons whose ramifications include the kinds of concerns those outsiders might want to talk about. I cannot join a conversation with you if we cannot reason with each other, and will be actively excluded from conversation if all you will meet my reasons with is assertions of your own truth. Our respective freedoms, in the sense of being able to encounter one another as interlocutors who can give and ask for reasons, are vitiated by what Pete called a “truncated” conception of reason, such as that currently sweeping the academy in the guise of neo-liberal management practices. We need, rather, an extensible conception of reason, in order that the ramifications of our reasons should spread out to include presently unacknowledged and unforeseen human needs and situations.

I’m confident of having paraphrased Pete sympathetically here, even if I may well be wrong on some points of detail or emphasis. It’s more difficult for me to do the same for Anthony, because I often find that we disagree strongly about things, but I’ll try anyway. One of Anthony’s concerns I think is that the polemic of accelerationism, in taking aim at tendencies within an established conversation (within “the humanities”, “academic philosophy” and so on) which seem to hamper access to an extended, more powerful, political rationality, unfairly dismisses as “folk politics” and “localism” a wide and valuable range of already-extant conversations. The accelerationists want in to the established conversation, and see themselves as trying to get a wedge in the door; but those they attack also see themselves as embattled – and, what’s more, as battling on the side of the genuinely (that is, socially and not merely discursively) excluded.

Now, we can picture a kind of dyad between those inside the conversation who maintain that they uphold a link with the socially-excluded – that they are exercising a kind of “option for the poor” in opting to argue in certain ways and according to certain rules – and those who are outside of the conversation because they are actually socially excluded from being where it is happening. To attack the insiders who speak as/for the outsiders, to undermine the link the they claim between their discursive positions and practices and the concrete social oppressions to which they address themselves, is necessary if you want to make the argument that those positions and practices are politically insufficient. The dyad has to be dissolved if you want to make a claim for a kind of political rationality that opens up options beyond the currently-favoured “option for the poor”. (The accelerationist argument is, in a nutshell, that this favoured option is a not-very-satisfactory “local maximum” in the space of reasons, and that we need to do some speculative roaming-around if we’re to find a better vantage-point).

However, I think there is also a certain fantasy of the academy at work here, as a zone of social privilege where the “outsiders” and their struggles by definition are not. In this fantasy, the “insiders who speak as/for the outsiders” tend to appear as privileged people instrumentalising the oppressed in order to lend moral gravity to their insider-positions. That is sometimes the real situation, but in reality a) the academy is also, and intensifyingly, a place of struggle, where nominally “included” people nevertheless routinely experience oppression and exclusion, and b) the conversation in which the accelerationists wish to intervene is in any case not confined to the academy: “folk politics” and “localism” are among the modes of political rationality at work in much wider social movements. In this situation it is no longer possible to specify a dyad linking the conversationally-included with the socially-excluded, because the two categories aren’t mutually exclusive in the first place. The target of the accelerationists’ attack is accordingly much harder to identify: there is a real risk that they will in fact succeed in a) gaining a place for themselves within the academy discourse, but b) through becoming incorporated in that discourse, end up playing a part in hardening it against outsiders who can be stigmatised and dismissed as practising “folk politics”, “localism” and so on.

I don’t think it’s enough to say that one doesn’t want this – that what one wants is an extended space of reasons, and that one’s enemies are dogmatists on the inside not social activists on the outside. Because in fact the social activists often do sound pretty dogmatic, especially when they’re fighting on the inside against continual attempts to contain/expel and stigmatise/normalise them. It is of course frustrating to be on the wrong end of impatience, suspicion and the seemingly-malicious withholding of interpretative charity, but not everyone shares, or can reasonably be expected at this juncture to share, the accelerationists’ confidence that success for them in the long run means success for everyone – even if success for everyone is the desired and ostensible goal.