Park Chung-hee Napoleon

park chung hee poster

If it is true, as Foucault claimed, that Hegel stands waiting, motionless, at the end of every path we beat away from him, then we should not be surprised if the same is true of the greatest of Hegel’s world-historical actors—Napoleon. In a famous letter of 1806, Hegel had described his awe at seeing Napoleon in person: ‘a marvellous feeling to see such a personality, concentrated in one point, dominating the entire world from horseback’. Within the Hegelian system, this came to represent a covert obsession, even an embarrassment: the figure of voluntary intervention necessary to set right the otherwise inevitable course of the world-spirit. He appears in another guise in the Philosophy of Right, where in the Addition to section 138 we read that ‘Socrates made his appearance at the time when Athenian democracy had fallen into ruin. He evaporated the existing world and retreated into himself…’ Socrates, like Napoleon, becomes a person in whom the world coheres in one place, who makes the decision to ‘evaporate’ the decayed existing order and restart the historical process.

Napoleon’s great leap forwards, his supposed renunciation of the processes of history, echoes not just in Hegel but throughout the subsequent history of European political philosophy. Thus, for Marx, ‘Bonapartism’ could denote a pathology where the state, supposedly an organ of the bourgeoisie, begins by miraculous powers to move of its own accord. For Nietzsche, Napoleon was the greatest of all European statesmen, a figure of acceleration impatient for the coming of the overman, yet also a symbol of the delirium that this proactive acceleration begets, the general of a ‘war to the death’ (Todeskrieg) who reminds the poet Nietzsche that despite his best intentions ‘there [can be] no revaluation without terror and trauma, [without] bodies and office buildings reduced to dust’ (Dombowski).

Land, then, is a little off the mark when he claims that ‘French identity, radically conceived, corresponds to a failed national project’. In the legacy of Napoleon, the people’s emperor who culminated the Revolution, France at last transcended itself. Napoleon himself, of course, died powerless and a prisoner, his grand plans for an imperial reordering of the world torn apart by the concert of Vienna. Yet his shadow has loomed for centuries after his defeat: the blurry figure of the genius in whose hands history dissolves into putty, the nightmare of determinism, Asimov’s Mule.

For the unconditional accelerationist as much as for the social historian, of course, the voluntarist quality of this image is a lie. Napoleon’s supposed flight from history can amply be recuperated within the process of history itself, if only we revise our image of what this is: not a flat space or a series of smooth curves, but rather a tangled, homeorhetic, deep-subversive spiral-complex. Far from shaping history like putty, Napoleon like all catastrophic agents of time-anomaly unleashed forces that ran far ahead of his very intentions: pushing Europe’s engagement with Africa and the Middle East onto a new plane, promulgating the Code Napoleon that would shape and selectively boost the economic development of continental Europe. In this respect, the image of him offered later by Marinetti is altogether more interesting. In his 1941 ‘Qualitative Imaginative Futurist Mathematics’, Marinetti claimed that Futurist military ‘calculations are as precise as those of Napoleon who in some battles had all of his couriers killed and hence his generals autonomous‘. Far from the prideful image of a singular genius strutting as he pleases across the stage of world history, here Napoleon becomes something altogether more monstrous. Foreshadowing Bataille’s argument a few years later that the apex of sovereignty is precisely an absolute moment of unknowing, he becomes a head that has severed itself from its limbs, falling from its body as it gives way to the sharp and militant positive feedback it has unleashed.

This is not just the position of the Napoleon who died to give birth to the Napoleonic legacy. It is the position of an entire category of historical agents.

In the twentieth century, the figure who best approximates Napoleon as the supreme agent of historical intervention is not, as some would have it, Adolf Hitler. It is Park Chung-hee. A man of bizarre thought and background, a fascist strictu sensu who fought for both the Japanese and the communists and was at one point sentenced to death, over 18 years of escalating despotic rule in South Korea Park Chung-hee went on to catapult his nation from being one of the most disastrously impoverished countries in the world, once confined by IMF experts onto a permanent trajectory of agrarian servitude, towards becoming one of the most prosperous. The South Korean economy grew, on aggregate, faster under his presidency than perhaps any other major economy in the history of the world, well surpassing even China at the later height of its growth. The South Korean case pushes the very limits of our understanding of the world economy: theories collapse beneath its weight.

To understand its significance, we must begin by recognising that far from being a story of the triumph of a free capitalism over communism, the reality of Park Chung-hee’s rule and the overtaking of the North by the South is more than a little uncomfortable for a right-libertarian (though not, perhaps, for someone like Peter Thiel). Park was not just a sovereign dictator but an inveterate interventionist, who constructed an entire sequence of bureaucracies to oversee the expansion of the economy according to determinate Five-Year Plans. In private notes, he emphasised the ideology of the February 26 incident in Japan, the militarised attempt to effect a ‘Shōwa Restoration’ that would have united the Japanese race politically and economically behind a totalitarian emperor. In Japan this had failed: in Korea, Park himself could be the president-emperor, declaiming on his ‘sacred military revolution’ of 1961 that had brought together the ‘Korean race’. At the same time, he explicitly imitated the communist North, proclaiming the need for spiritual mobilisation and a ‘path of the leader’ 지도자의길 around which the nation would cohere. The carefully-coordinated mass histrionics after his death in 1979 echoed closely the spectacle with which we are still familiar in North Korea.

If the results of Park’s efforts speak for themselves, it seems that in an important sense this must be despite his intentions. Park himself was assassinated, and his political project fell into ruin (a ruin, it must be added, that has only deepened with the recent disgrace of his daughter). The forces that he unleashed, like Napoleon but in a far more concrete sense, outran by leaps and bounds the esoteric ideological background that had motivated Park. The fact that Park’s system literally destroyed him—he was assassinated by the director of his own overgrown secret police force—should only heighten this intuition. It appears that something radically antithetical to certain of the conventional features of capitalism can still ultimately and despite itself serve its unfolding. We may note that a similar argument has even be made of the Soviet Union, which can be said to have acted, in the end, as an extended despotic phase of primitive accumulation that jump-started the industrial capitalism of Russia and Eastern Europe.

In Park’s rather more successful case, the developmental process proceeded, whatever else he thought, according to a very particular political-economic praxis. It was one that mirrors darkly the imperative set out by Srnicek and Williams that ‘the command of The Plan must be married to the improvised order of The Network’: this was, indeed, precisely the method of the Park regime, with its centrally authored Five-Year Plans that were implemented not by the direct means of the command economy, but by careful tactical manipulation of the market, through private entities folded under political oversight and especially through state control over the disbursement of loans. In other words, it appears that in the developmentalist state under Park we are looking, whatever Park himself thought he was doing, at something very much like a left-accelerationist phase in capitalist development.

In ‘Teleoplexy’, the self-proclaimed right-accelerationist Land intriguingly notes the possibility that

some instance of intermediate individuation—most obviously the state—could be strategically invested by a Left Accelerationism. precisely in order to submit the virtual-teleoplexic lineage of Terrestrial Capitalism (or Techonomic Singularity) to effacement and disruption.

With Park in mind, we may go further than Land on this point, recuperating Park within history the same way we have recuperated Napoleon. It is an expected feature of capitalist development that states around the world are called upon to make decisive interventions that reset the course of economic development in particular spaces and open new determinate avenues of capitalist development. Peter Thiel’s famous contrast of 1-to-n and 0-to-1 innovation summarises in numeric form what appears as a continual spiral phase-shift between developmentalist verticality and multiplicative horizontality that is inherent to the dynamic of capitalism.

This developmentalist prong is precisely capitalism’s response to the left-accelerationist concern over its internal stagnation, and it constitutes the reality of any left-accelerationist praxis rigorously applied. These developmentalist interventions are far from being the comfortable process of democratic planning envisaged by the left-accelerationists, however; nor are they stable or indefinitely sustainable. They take place in strange and unpredictable ways and happen across a diversity of spaces. They are necessarily austere, temporally limited, and brutal. They throw the entire force of the state behind the radical extension of techonomic development to the immediate detriment of all its other functions. They may assume the form of a great leap forwards like that pioneered most ostentatiously by Park; they may even be a great war such as the one that rebooted American and German capitalism alike in 1945. Perhaps the Trump administration, or one of its successors, will be remembered as another example. As Marx predicted, this function of the state can be overcome only by the self-overcoming of capitalism itself according to the process I have previously discussed; it is the intensification of capital that forces open the negative spaces that allow, finally, for the ‘letting go’ that constitutes the core and substance of unconditional accelerationism, first in SEZ-style holes and glitches; ultimately, as the state is obsolesced in its function as the conduit of capital accumulation and of radical war, the deep blue expanse of the deterritorialised sea—Anti-Leviathan. As this process intensifies at a social and political level, it overwhelms, in any case, any regulatory ability to channel it.

Park Chung-hee Napoleon demonstrates at its extreme the tangled structure of the history of capital. Capitalism’s intensities are geographically and temporally uneven; they spread through loops and spectacular digressions. Human agencies and the mechanisms of the state have their important place within this capitalist megamachine. But things never quite work out the way they plan.

Berger on praxis

Edmund Berger unpacks the prescriptive theory of unconditional accelerationism via Yaneer Bar-Yam: ‘The complexity profile is rising and will continue, and as it does the capability for collective intervention will become all but impossible.’

Deterritorial Investigations


One of the major points of contention concerning unconditional accelerationism (henceforth U/ACC) is a perceived slight or rejection of any ‘positive’ form of political activity or organizing. The complaint can be summed up with the single phrase “U/ACC lacks praxis”. In the common leftist deployment of the phrase, this is exactly correct. Moreover, we could go as far to say that U/ACC rejects praxis, even that it is anti-praxis – yet, at the same time, this is not so straightforward. If we step back take praxis in its most broad sense – the higher form of acting in the world – then U/ACC is hardly anti-praxis; it simply asks that the limits and the inevitable dissolution of things be acknowledged (there is no contradiction between posing this alongside the Xenofeminist mantra “if nature is unjust, change nature”). No, U/ACC manifests an anti-praxis line when a very specific sort is proposed…

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wallhaven-274523Kuldar Leement, ‘Cyrstal’

In 1989, a curious series of science fiction novels began to appear in print. The series—titled Chung Kuoseemed out of step with the time. It portrayed a world in which China had taken over the planet, destroying the memory of European dominance and imposing a fantastical revival of imperial Chinese culture across the Earth. To contemporary observers, whatever its quality as literature, the setting imagined by David Wingrove seemed self-evidently ridiculous. China was the country of Tiananmen, a communist dictatorship akin to the Soviet with less reformist energy. It was hardly the image of the future: that honour had been reserved, by journalists, policymakers, and the mainstream of science fiction authors alike, to Japan. Gerald Jonas, reviewing the peculiar series in the New York Times at the very opening of the decade that was to prove so disastrous for China’s eastern neighbour, was withering in his assessment. The ‘vision of a Chinese-dominated future’, he pronounced, ‘seems arbitrary, ungrounded in historical process, intended not as a vehicle for speculating on the shape of things to come or commenting on things as they are but solely to sustain a fast-moving entertainment.’

A few years after Wingrove’s imaginative intervention, a similar sci-fi-doped break with the times took place at the bleeding edge of philosophy in a very different direction. Detaching themselves from the Japanese thralldom of their cyberpunk literary progenitors, Nick Land and the CCRU collective at Warwick summoned China as the focal point of the anti-order they saw struggling to be born. In their prophesies of the mid-90s on China appears again and again, both as the harbour of a deterritorialising Cantonese molecularism ‘engineering’ the country ‘from the periphery’, and as a conjuring from the darkness of a demonic synthesis of Maoist dialectic and hypercapitalist automation—‘blacked-out in visions of China’‘Neo-China arrives from the future’—’The Superiority of Far Eastern Marxism’—’The Chairman’s voice speeds up into an insect buzz as he speaks’. Whether the technoindustrial immensities of the ‘Tao-drenched Special Economic Zones’ or the negativising fury of the Cultural Revolution, they drew out into trance-like infinity the drumbeat of endless, even exterminationist productivism, ‘more, more, more’, that characterised, for them, modern China at each stage of its postwar development.

As Japan sank into the depths of its now familiar and long-drawn-out crisis, the less conventional countercurrents of orientalism, whether romantically inflected as for Wingrove or cybernetically as for Ccru, seemed to have had the last laugh. The early accelerationist engagement with the liberative, frenziedly overproductionist core of Maoism, indeed, remains both more legitimate and less tedious than the hoary communist-conservatism of a Badiou, a representative of an earlier and all-too-orthodox theoretical engagement with Chinese thought and praxis.

In the 2000s, Sinophilia seeped—then flooded—from the avant-garde into the mainstream. The anointing of the ‘BRICs’ in 2001, the production of popular science fiction like Firefly depicting a Chinese way of the future, all combined to produce a general cultural sentiment that the world was ‘re-Orienting’ to China—heating feverishly up as the Western economies fell (back) into general crisis in the aftermath of 2007–8 while China seemed to power on regardless. Western liberals and postcolonial nationalists alike now looked to China as a new model, free from the troubles of liberal democracy, self-assured, ready, unlike Japan, to seize control of the historical process. The inauthentic orientalist engagement of all-too-many Sinologists and ‘China analysts’ substituted itself for the imaginative sophistication of the early Sinoprophets, creating and elevating the inevitable and inevitably monotonous liberal inflection of China’s image in the West. In different ages, different spaces have served as canvases for the projection of political imaginaries: Ireland in the ascendant British Empire, the Middle East for Europeans in the early 20th century. Now it is China for the West.

By 2017, however, something (as with so much else) seems to have gone wrong. Under Xi Jinping, Liberal China is failing to materialise and SchizoChina is under sustained assault. It goes without saying that China is not Japan: in point of fact, there are many reasons to accord China a benefit of the doubt never due to Japan as to the legitimacy of its pretension to hegemonise futurity. But just as in the Japanese case—and mirroring, conceptually, the psychodrama now sweeping the world of an uncontrollable cyberpolitics unmoored from material progress—the imagination of Sinofuturism has run up against the limits both of material production and of political organisation. China’s economic status is uncertain—though hardly the spectacular crash predicted by the dissenting ‘China bears’—and its politics under Xi reaggregating towards a new form of retro-Maoist populism grounded on past forms of communist mobilisation as much as on the new forms of cyberpolitics, crushing from either side liberal-libertarian fantasies of the opening-up and subsequent withering of the Chinese state.

Far from allowing itself to be reengineered by its peripheries or releasing the schizophrenic fragmentation of the Sinospheric diaspora, the People’s Republic Leviathan has tended more and more towards the reterritorialising reaction that preeminently characterises imperial metastasis, reimposing the leadership of the central command state, state suppression of the desires and hot culture of Hong Kong, attempting to consolidate the world-strewn ‘Han race’ into an extension of the war machine. Conceptually, this phenomenon has produced a kind of cognitive dissonance pushing into Wingrovian romanticism. In the darkness beneath its lengthening shadow, a strange identity has emerged between the sections of the accelerationist right and left praising this Old New China. From the right, in a flagrant abandonment of patchwork theory, we are told that China’s rise is abetted by its homogeneity, its racial unity and sense of purpose. From the left, China is praised for its ascendancy as counter-hegemon; in a curious repetition of postcolonialist defences of the Japanese Empire, and implicitly repeating their right-wing comrades, the despotic tendencies of the People’s Republic are justified for the robustness of their impending war-assault against a white colonial world order.

We should not be in any doubt as to the character of these reactions: they are fascist, just as fascist as they were a century ago.

Drill deeper: This process of identification has gone hand in hand with an abandonment of interest by Westerners, partly at the behest of a Chinese state anxious as it ever is over the subversive potential of cults, in the plural heterodoxies that once so powerfully struck Ccru. The welling tides of ‘anti-authoritarian counter-culture’ have been replaced by a sterile vision of Neo-Neo-Confucian order, Singapore displacing Hong Kong. 天下, tianxia: in its history the word means both ‘all under heaven’ and ‘empire’. The heart of this mundane-imperial Confucian cosmos is the universal state, and therefore to fetishise Confucianism against all other currents is no less than to fetishise the state. Though Confucian politics and ritual have provided the stable institutional setting of Chinese cosmopolis, it has always been surging heterodoxies, whether ‘Daoist’, Buddhist, liberal, even communist, that have pushed China forward on the path of techonomic acceleration. Non-interventionist imperative is mirrored not in Confucian honesty but in the legalist canon that constitutes the arcana imperii of the Chinese empire, in Hanfeizi’s image of the shadow emperor who says nothing and does nothing. Beyond providing the institutional setting of cosmopolis, orthodoxy, just as it is anywhere else, becomes a roadblock on the way.

Pretending to heterogeneity, the right supports imperium. Pretending to cosmopolitanism, the left supports despotism. Enough. A legitimate engagement with China demands greater intellectual weight; it demands the abandonment of all romantic orientalism. Lawrence Lek’s video essay ‘Sinofuturism’ offers a more promising route out (perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he is not simply depicting an alien Other). Lek’s analysis is typologically, if unintentionally, unconditional-accelerationist. He focuses not on China’s political actuality but on its virtuality as a ‘science fiction that already exists’, a Sinofuturism that ‘has arisen without conscious intention or authorship’. China is gripped by immense and unimaginable flows not just of capital but of massed humanity. For Lek, it is an ‘emergent artificial intelligence’ not because of its control by communist brain-core or any fascist homogeneity but because of its constitution as a cosmic neural network.  Lek subverts, relentlessly, the dreams both of the Chinese state and of the Western imaginary. He upholds those parts of the Chinese futurological condition that in their reterritorialising mindset both, in turns, find so deficient, ‘gaming’, ‘addiction’, ‘computational OCD’, taking them to their delirious end consequences. In theoretical form, this, precisely, is acceleration without conditions.

Real conceptual cosmopolitanism, as Kodwo Eshun, McKenzie Wark, and others have seen, means going beyond the limits of the West. It is not just an ‘internal critique’ that stands on the detritus of European philosophy—though as with all other things it will cannibalise this as it sees fit. It is a radical identity with the Other: Xenofuturism in all its forms. It would be pointless to formulate this in manifesto form. Xenofuturism does not need Western adherents. To remain relevant, Westerners need it.

Accelerate Marx

accelerate marx

The third volume of Capital is dangerous stuff. Just look at what happened to those who originally dealt with it.

Its posthumous publication, the personal project of Friedrich Engels, drove him to desperation—to illness and even, ultimately, to death. Originally a project slated to be finished in months, its compilation ended up lasting a decade. Engels descended into bizarre neuroses. He promised repeatedly that it would be finished in months, even as the years wore on. Unable to fathom Marx’s implications, he announced a ‘prize competition’ for the best solution of the transformation problem before the book’s publication. A range of Marxian and non-Marxian economists participated, including Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. But the ‘competition’, in reality, was a call for help, Engels’s claim to a superior understanding of Marx’s theory a pretense, and there was little sign of a ‘prize’—all Engels awarded were vicious letters attacking the entrants for personal flaws.

Soon after the book finally appeared—and soon after Engels’s death—the Second International virtually annihilated itself. Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, the two men Engels had trusted enough to consider entrusting them to edit a fourth volume, exploded international Marxism in a dispute labelled the Revisionist Controversy that approached insanity in its viciousness (Kautsky declared he had lost ‘the last shred of sentimentality’, pronouncing, repeatedly, that he ‘hated Bernstein’; the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, August Bebel, thought Bernstein should ‘stew in Hell for his heresies’). So profound was the fear and loathing the fight generated among Social Democrats that ‘revisionist’ would echo for more than a century onwards as the slur of choice of official Marxism.

What exactly was going on?

There are some received readings of this chapter of intellectual history. One is that Marxism needed to accommodate itself to the unforeseen rise of a middle class that violently disrupted the niceties of socialist dogma up to that point. This is true enough of the socialist movement as a whole, but Marx himself had been comfortable with this phenomenon as a time-limited contingency of capitalist development: it had been Lassalle and Guesde, not Marx, who thought that capitalism enforced an ‘iron law of wages’ that inevitably made the majority of people poorer, all of the time. In view of the history of nineteenth-century development this was obvious nonsense, and Marx attacked them for the idea in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’.

This very reference, however, suggests that something more going on. For a long time, after all, the leaders of the Social Democracy suppressed the ‘Critique’: it was treated as forbidden knowledge. What did they think was so scary about it?

The basic reason for this nineteenth- and early twentieth-century socialist neurosis is, I think, something more fundamental. Marx’s late works amount, in their intellectual direction, to an uncompromising rejection of socialism as a regulatory political project. In the ‘Critique’, he already mocks viciously the idea of the ‘sovereignty of the people’ and of redirecting state institutions to serve the working class:

After the Lassallean “iron law of wages”, the physic of the prophet. The way to it is “paved” in worthy fashion. In place of the existing class struggle appears a newspaper scribbler’s phrase: “the social question”, to the “solution” of which one “paves the way”. […] From the remnants of a sense of shame, “state aid” has been put—under the democratic control of the “toiling people”. […] One does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem [of the transformation of the state] by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.

Now, this part of the problem will not, conceptually, come as news to many Marxists. Marx is still insisting here on the future inevitability of a ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’, and of course Marx was not a utopian socialist—the transition to socialism is a social revolution, not a coup d’état! The state is an instrument of class domination, so of course a ‘democratic republic’ is nonsense! (We’re only left to wonder why so many Marxists continue to insist both on the need for formal democracy and on the tactic of the vanguard coup d’état.)

But Capital III, where humanist Marx has been forgotten and terminal Marx rules everything, takes the argument to its conclusion: the ‘revolutionary process of transformation of society’ is not being undertaken by well-meaning socialists like the Lassalleans in resistance to capitalism. The revolutionary process is capitalism itself. The ‘organisation of labour’ is simply a ‘cardinal fact of capitalist production’. In some delirious way, legitimate socialism is, radically, an identity with the evolutionary process of capitalism.

Put the question another way: Given his prior rejection of state-socialism as a political project, how does terminal Marx think we can end capitalism? In Capital III, this is where we truly enter the heart of darkness.

The explanation of the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ in this volume, a favourite bugbear of economists and in some ways the climax of the book, does not seem to offer much of a solution. In fact, at the grimmest points of its logic in Chapter 15, it seems to reject the idea of a solution as such. Before it gives way—if it gives way—capitalist production must fulfil its historical mission. It must overwhelm everything.

Let’s recall first of all that when Marx is talking about the ‘development of productivity’ or the ‘productive force of labour’ he is really talking about something very like mechanisation, the marginalisation of the human as an element in the production process. In technical Marx terms this is the rise of the organic composition of capital which causes the rate of profit to fall.

Marx’s voice speeds up into an insect buzz as he speaks:

The development of the productivity of labour creates out of the falling rate of profit a law which at a certain point comes into antagonistic conflict with this development and must be overcome constantly through crises…

… but it is overcome. In fact:

[Following each crisis], part of the capital, depreciated by its functional stagnation, would recover its old value. For the rest, the same vicious circle would be described once more under expanded conditions of production, with an expanded market and increased productive forces.

Capitalism tends towards exponentialism, growth begetting growth. But:

If the rate of profit falls … there appears swindling and a general promotion of swindling by recourse to frenzied ventures with new methods of production, new investments of capital, new adventures, all for the sake of securing a shred of extra profit which is independent of the general average and rises above it.

Capitalists, as the human motors of the concentration of capital, are driven insane. They are subjugated to the process. And as human labour on the other end of the scale is also subjugated to capital and humanity itself is sidelined more and more, pathologies result:

In the first place, too large a portion of the produced population is not really capable of working, and is through force of circumstances made dependent on exploiting the labour of others, or on labour which can pass under this name only under a miserable mode of production. In the second place, not enough means of production are produced to permit the employment of the entire able-bodied population under the most productive conditions, so that their absolute working period could be shortened by the mass and effectiveness of the constant capital employed during working-hours.

Now we reach the climax:

[Capital] becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power. The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable…

Enter Nick Land:

The cyberpunk circuitry of self-organizing planetary commoditronics escaped nominal bourgeois control in the late nineteenth century…

Marx’s whole analysis on this point, in fact, is accelerationist to the core. What Marx is saying is that if there is a postcapitalism, it consists precisely in the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation. Two further conclusions result from this sequence of passages—and I admit this is a deliberately biased selection, and that it is worth reading the chapter in full—which ought to shake any ‘postcapitalist’ praxis to its foundations.

Firstly, the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism are precisely its strength as a productive force: crises are a way for capitalism to overcome the declining rate of profit, and this is not a sequence of decay where with each crisis capitalism becomes weaker and weaker but quite the opposite: it is a process of exponential expansion.

Secondly, the road to ‘postcapitalism’ is over the corpse of nonalienated humanity. Now this, precisely, is the root of Marx’s inhumanism, which he puts explicitly as a reading of Ricardo in this chapter:

It is [Ricardo’s] unconcern about “human beings” … which is held against him … and his having an eye solely for the development of the productive forces, whatever the cost in human beings and capital-values … [But] it is precisely that which is the important thing about him. Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital.

Accelerate Marx.

Mark Fisher and the fading of the left


Inevitably, on the occasion of Mark Fisher’s death, my attention has been drawn back to the seminal essay he wrote in 2013, ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’. Roundly mocked and ferociously denounced at the time it was written, what is striking now is the number of leftist commentators, like Sam Kriss, who have taken the opportunity to recant their previous opposition to Fisher’s analysis. There is little I can add directly to ‘Vampire Castle’. Fisher’s insights stand for themselves. Rather than monotonously repeating ‘I told you so’, I think it is worth investigating the reasons Fisher’s analysis is so much more acute today than it seemed in 2013.

The basic point that leftist political organisation among the middle class has proven peculiarly susceptible to authoritarianism was nothing new. With his usual pessimistic acuity, Adorno had already identified the totalitarian tendency of leftist political organisation in the West in Minima Moralia when he observed that ‘solidary itself has become sick’: ‘Solidarity is polarized into the desperate loyalty of those who have no way back, and virtual blackmail practised on those who want nothing to do with gaolers, nor to fall foul of thieves.’ As Adorno saw, this tendency expressed itself not just in the enormous hierarchies of really existing mass socialism, but in the petty authoritarianism of minor leftist parties and movements in the West. To some extent this exists in all political and social movements that find themselves excluded from the mainstream of contemporary society, whether on right or left, whether political parties or hippie communes. Fisher’s insight in ‘Vampire Castle’ was to grasp, before most others, the new and particularly pathological form that this authoritarianism had assumed in the core networks of the left today.

Mark Fisher, like many of those who graduated from the mad intensity of Warwick’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, was a man out of time. His analysis in 2013 seems bizarrely, retrochronically infected by the events of 2016. But there are, perhaps, rather worldly reasons for this. The pathological form of left-liberalism he identified in ‘Vampire Castle’ emerged from two destructive historical tendencies that have stepped into overdrive since 2015. The first of these is the constant retreat of the left—a story repeated since the advent of neoliberalism. From the 1980s on, the left has suffered such a relentless and unremitting series of defeats in the economy, in politics, and in wider society alike, that it has been forced out of necessity to transition from acting, in its bulk, as a watchfully progressive support for postwar welfarism, to becoming a forlorn rear-guard defence of the crumbling welfare state.

Secondly, with the successful universalisation of the neoliberal world order, the forces of popular democracy and technocapital have now begun seriously to erode the social and political foundations of liberalism itself. This has paradoxically forced a considerable section of middle-class liberal opinion into a ‘radical’ defensive posture that momentarily aligns it with the welfare conservatism characteristic of the left-wing mainstream—a conjuncture that became especially acute in 2016 in the opposition to Brexit and Trump, and that will no doubt intensify for the foreseeable future. Leftist politics has thus inevitably become powerfully infected by modern liberalism, with all the various individualist pathologies outlined in ‘Vampire Castle’. The intensifying awareness of this problem has triggered an escalating civil war within the left.

Neither of these historical tendencies—the left being forced into retreat, liberalism being forced towards the left—is strictly new. There are innumerable examples in modern history of liberalism and leftism being forced to cooperate, particularly against unambiguous atavisms like institutionalised sexism and racism. But the screaming urgency of the current political climate is unprecedented: liberalism finds itself under a sustained assault unseen since the 1930s at the same time that leftism teeters on the precipice of total collapse. The forcible collision this has occasioned between the two decaying forces has created new and often pathological political phenomena. In this context, the temporary success of radical figures like Corbyn and Sanders who have capitalised on the left-liberal marriage of inconvenience indicates not the advancing progress of the left but its mounting desperation. As the confusion and infighting that surrounds these two old men who represent the last great hope of Anglophone leftism amply demonstrates, they are not the rebirth of the left. They are its rigor mortis.

‘Intersectionality’ is the watchword of this coalition of the damned, designating more the absence of a theory of action than a particular type, a kind of Rousseauvian hope that a general will can constitute itself mathematically out of the conflicting interests of all the different groups who lay claim to some restitution of injustice. Ostensibly influenced by poststructuralism, as an impossible struggle against the existence of power itself it proves itself radically opposed to its theoretical progenitors. It has no successful political leaders because it is incapable of political praxis. It offers only conservative nostalgia for a now-impracticable welfare state through its leftist side and, as Fisher explained so clearly in ‘Vampire Castle’, the administration of guilt based on the exclusionary norms of bourgeois civility through its liberal side.

Solidarity itself is sick.

The future for progressive politics is darkening on every side. As the options for averting systemic crisis run out and globalisation kicks into reverse, hope recedes into the distance, becoming catastrophically remote. Divorced from any hope of political power, the ferocious internal criticism perfected by the left has combined grotesquely with an increasingly anachronistic liberal insistence on individuality, creating a monster that now runs rampant over the corpse of mainstream leftism as the iron dawn of cyberian politics shatters old forms of state organisation, kicking the ruling class into securitisation overdrive.

What, then, is left? The doomed struggle waged by leftists against neoliberalism is now fading into history, giving way to a far more symmetric, all-pervading, kaleidoscopic struggle between populists and managerial technocrats. The lightning bolts of 2016 threw disturbing flashes of light on this process that have now shocked many leftists out of their complacency, triggering, in part, the ongoing civil war now wracking the left. The sheer hysterically reactionary quality of the left-liberalism embodied in Twitterati Clintonism in the US and radical Remainism in the UK, its totalitarian view of its own allies, has now become frighteningly obvious. Now, as this left-liberal coalition works its way towards its inevitable collapse, the endlessly, monomaniacally repeated question over the shape of a world beyond capitalism must give way to a more fundamental one: what is the point of the left today?

The truth is irrelevant


Attempts to conceptualise the relationship between truth and political action have been pervasively hindered by the pejorative attitude of those who have tried to explain it. There is a sneer implicit in almost any academic or journalistic discussion of conspiracy theories, a knowing smirk that says, implicitly or outright, ‘Imagine believing such stupid things, when we, after all, know better!’ As the power differential sustaining this attitude has begun to collapse, the smirk has transformed into overt fear, disgust, and anger: ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’: ‘How dare they believe these things?’ In its most acute form, the reaction has been melded into sweeping Platonic denunciations of the principle of democracy itself, which present millennia-old defences of oligarchy as trendy liberal opinions. This is hardly by accident: as we can already see in Plato himself, the flight from democratic politics, indeed from all politics, and the obsession with abstract truth are intimately connected.

In reality, this devotion to ‘the truth’ has proven itself concerned with ‘facts’ in only the shallowest sense. What is striking, indeed, is how often the people who are fastest to decry ‘post-truth politics’ are simply wrong—and not just in their predictions, as Paul Krugman was when he foresaw markets irrecoverably ‘plunging’ upon Trump’s election (this may be excused). The widely circulated claim in the EU referendum campaign that there were no academic experts supporting Leave could easily have been debunked by a cursory Google search. A more recent example serves as another case in point. When Donald Trump tweeted that the costs for a replacement to Air Force One furnished by Boeing had reached the order of $4 billion, liberal celebrities like George Takei were quick to rush to the side of the multinational corporation whose image was at stake, announcing with the requisite smugness that per their own press release Boeing had only asked for a sum many times less than that. But Trump was correct: the total appropriations for the project were indeed expected to reach the region of $4 billion. Slate’s headline speaks for itself: ‘In a Twist, Trump’s Disputed Twitter Claim About Air Force One Turns Out to Be Completely True’. (The original headline remains in the URL.)

The reason for this, of course, is that the obsession with the truth is disingenuous. It is predicated on the idea that the opponents of liberalism or globalism, whatever we call that hazy mixture of ideas reproduced ceaselessly in the nexuses of global power, are prophets of untruth. By definition: because the obsession is not, as its proponents claim, a defence of rationality against unreason. It is in the first instance a defence of power. They are not interested in the facts, but in using facts as an instrument to demolish their opposition.

Yet it is not just that the liberals are hypocritical. Even in an entirely transparent form, it is not exactly obvious that ‘the truth’ is a worthy end in itself in politics. What, exactly, is wrong with untruth? What is wrong with conspiracy theories, even assuming they are incorrect?

The indignation over conspiracy theories tends to focus on the anxiety that they make politics as a whole dysfunctional. The prevalence of conspiracy theories, we are told, weakens the legitimacy of political institutions. So they do. But why is it so important that our present political institutions be seen as legitimate? Why shouldn’t Muslims disbelieve the responsibility of al-Qaeda for 9/11, as indeed they overwhelmingly do in Britain, when they receive that idea from institutions and interests that collaborated to marginalise them in the aftermath of 9/11? Why shouldn’t white Rust Belt workers, in their turn, believe that the economists and politicians whose policies marginalised them were working in the service of a conspiracy?

This is quite an imposing series of rhetorical questions. But they are getting at a fairly simple conclusion. It is entirely wrong to believe that in themselves conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ are pathological. In the end, they are an understandable, even a desirable, response for people marginalised by the structures of global power to construct theories to explain their predicament. When American liberals recall the Founding Fathers in their defences of the Electoral College, let us also remember that the American Revolution could never have been accomplished without the proliferation of conspiracy theories. There was, after all, no grand British conspiracy to enslave the colonies, not to speak of the more specific, and more lurid theories to which the British government of the time was subject.

Just as in the 18th century, indeed, the conspiracy theorist is closer to an authentic engagement with the reality of politics than the entirely uncritical establishmentarian who protests endlessly in favour of a ‘truth’ constructed by power without ever examining the forces underlying it. As Hardt and Negri noted,

The spectacle of politics functions as if the media, the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions, and so forth were all consciously and explicitly directed by a single power even though in reality they are not.

In the far more conflict-ridden era we are entering, it may perhaps be better to write that rather than politics as a whole, in much of the West it is specifically the defence against the populist tide that is functioning in this manner. We may note how many self-proclaimed leftists have fallen in with ‘the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions’ in their drive to defend the truth at any cost. (It takes a certain level of cognitive dissonance to believe that the academics and journalists who have repeatedly failed to foresee the present course of politics are superior sources of authority on it. And it is extraordinarily forgetful to continue, eight years after 2008, to legitimate the bulk of the economic profession as high priests of the truth in a stagnant and deglobalising world economy when their prognostications have been based on indefinite growth and globalisation.)

How should we understand the interest in defending this ‘truth’ at this moment in time? Part of the reason it is under attack is material: the condition of the world economy no longer supports the political hegemony of liberalism, and if the defence of ‘truth’ is a defence of power it makes perfect sense that it has just now become the issue it has. Part of it is also instrumental. The advent of new media and the ascendancy of the Internet have radically decentered the manufacturing of political discourse. Both of these claims deserve much longer analysis, but I will note a few things on the second point.

The curious claim of Angela Merkel that ‘the history of the printing press’ shows the need to ‘find the right kind of policies to contain this and to manage and steer this’ is characteristic of the liberal response to the entry of the Internet into politics. In this there is a breathtaking reversal of historical reality. It is plainly not the case that the introduction of the printing press provoked anarchy and chaos until it was tamed by the careful management of the more enlightened sort. Regulations of printed material were not extended and improved in the two centuries between the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and the First Amendment: they were abolished, restricted, and, in the American case, constitutionally outlawed. Like printed material, though to a far greater extent, the Internet is a new space of political confrontation (and on that, there is much more to be said). By its very nature it is insusceptible to cack-handed discursive regulation. The modern samizdat, whether radical or merely ‘fake news’, proliferates far more easily online than it did in the classical totalitarian regimes. It is orders of magnitude easier for a Chinese citizen to set up a VPN and a WordPress blog than for a Soviet citizen to establish an underground printing press.

Successful attempts to channel the course of online politics have not been directed at ‘managing’ or ‘containing’ it: they have engaged it organically and positively. They do not command the tides to turn back: they shape them, and ride them. The Russian propaganda programme, with its gleeful and indiscriminate promotion of conspiracy theories and a kaleidoscope of different political narratives, provides an excellent example, and we may contrast the robustness of this Russian offensive with the declining trust and influence of the traditional Western media. Its tools cannot be abandoned to the Russians or the alt-right: they mark the course that any successful politics must take in the Internet age.

To be successful, the left cannot defend forever an abstract ‘truth’ whose content is supplied by power. If such a course is incompatible with contemporary liberal doctrine, then so be it. In such a struggle between the petty short-termism of our present politics and the tectonic forces undergirding our new era of modernity, the result will never be the successful regulation of the Internet or the wider sphere of public discourse. It will be the obsolescence of liberalism as a political ideology.