Antipolitics and the inhuman

A lightly edited transcript of a paper given at a symposium on machines and automation in Cardiff on May 5, 2017.

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Is it possible to conceive of society without politics?

Even in principle the question seems hard to fathom. Though many of us may wish to minimise the influence of politics on our lives, it seems that the existence of any society must, in some sense, be preconditioned by it. That distinction between friend and enemy which Carl Schmitt posited to be the heart of ‘the political’ is a radical consequence and condition of the very existence of societies as objects distinct from other societies, and as attempts collectively to reconcile the antagonisms inherent to human existence. The polis emerges necessarily from the socius as a unit of human life.

Yet while the idea of philosophy as being even potentially an antipolitical enterprise is now unfashionable, indeed in view of the semantic extension of politics today and the breakdown of the conceptual barriers that have traditionally separated politics from other spheres of life increasingly unfashionable, in the history of modern thought it has an undeniable pedigree. The intellectual historian István Hont highlighted this by posing a radical distinction between Thomas Hobbes and Marx, whom he placed at two ends of an immensely important intellectual-historical transformation. Where for Hobbes, Hont says, ‘there is no place for an economy’—his theory is one of ‘practically pure politics’—in contrast, ‘Karl Marx’s visionary theory of postcapitalism had no use for politics at all. Marx saw modernity as political, but also as insolvent. … For Marx, the ultimate goal was a pure exchange economy of genuine human utilities, cleansed of the distorting effects of private property and its political guardian, the state’. If politics is undeniably at the heart of existence today, in other words, the point of philosophy—Marx’s culmination of the anti-Hobbesian argument—must nonetheless be to abolish it. Marx was not the only philosopher who had ‘no time for politics’ in this sense. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, notoriously described himself in an early draft of Ecce Homo as ‘the last antipolitical German’, and though this declaration may seem strange in view of Nietzsche’s own concern from 1884 onwards to construct a ‘great politics’ of his own, this ‘great politics’ was a concept of special, even ironical significance, relentlessly juxtaposed against the ‘petty politics’ that Nietzsche identified with the whole spectrum of political thought and activity in his day.

As in Hont’s own case, the modern interpreter may be inclined to take these ‘antipolitical’ disavowals as reasons in themselves for scepticism: Hont inferred that we should reject both Hobbes and Marx, and alighted on Hume as the exponent of a political economy of ‘jealousy of trade’ that was genuinely both economic and political. If we are political animals, indeed, the posture of the philosopher as antipolitical must be hypocritical, and this conclusion finds apparent support in the contradictions that rive both Marx and Nietzsche. Whatever his antipolitical pretences, Nietzsche seems to have been happy enough to endorse, to greater or lesser degrees, particular forms of government and states. He listed in one fragment of 1885 a whole series of specific ‘great governmental artists’, ‘Confucius in China, the imperium Romanum, Napoleon, the Papacy’. And if the antagonism between Marx’s politics and the radically antipolitical implications of his economics has struck many of his later followers and interpreters as obvious enough, a substantial effort has been made to detach the former from the latter, restoring the humanist Marx from the relentless computational ‘economism’ that is sometimes seen as especially characteristic of his later work and that led in practice to the mishaps of the Second International. An opposition to particular pathological forms of politics is reasonable enough, but an opposition to politics as such seems quite embarrassingly incoherent. Marxism in the twentieth century has tended to take quite the opposite view. Thus Theodor Adorno in his 1965 lecture on progress suggests that even after capitalism there must by definition remain a process of continual resistance to safeguard our gains and to stem the tides of reaction: politics, then, the organisation of human antagonism, can never, never end.

So far, so good, we might think. Yet this narrative of a romantic longing soon shut down by the return of political realism does not suffice as an intellectual history of antipolitics. If we follow seriously the historical transformation identified by Hont, there does not seem to me to be anything in the ‘antipolitical’ gestures of either Marx or Nietzsche to contradict this Aristotelian assertion, analysed to the greatest depth in our own time by Arendt, that the human is a political animal. For Marx in particular, the abolition of politics is not a task to be undertaken through fine hypocritical human intentionality. It is a consequence of the tendency towards the economic overthrow of the human as such.

Let us return to the start of this transformative process, to one of the most profound analyses of the modern state, that of Thomas Hobbes. The three themes of this conference—labour, surveillance, and warfare—map closely to the basis of Hobbes’s commonwealth. In Chapter XIII of Leviathan, just a few paragraphs after he offers his famous description of the life of man in the state of nature, Hobbes states that ‘Kings and persons of Soveraigne authority’, for their part, ‘are in continuall jealousies … having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another … which is a posture of War’. Yet it is precisely ‘thereby’, in their continual condition of war, that they uphold the ‘Industry of their Subjects’. This tight interweaving of war, surveillance, and labour in the fabric of the commonwealth is repeated from a different perspective in Chapter XXIV, where Hobbes discusses the ‘nutrition and procreation of [the] common-wealth’, concluding that since ‘there is no Territory under the Dominion of one Common-wealth … that produceth all things needfull for the maintenance and motion of the whole Body; and few that produce not something more than necessary; the superfluous commodities to be had within, become no more superfluous, but supply these wants at home, by importation of that which may be had abroad, either by Exchange, or by just Warre, or by Labour’. ‘A mans Labour,’ Hobbes adds, ‘is a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing’, and it is through labour and its ‘Manufactures’ that commonwealths have gained in power without expanding their territory.

Much of the contemporary discourse on the question of automation assumes, intentionally or not, a basically Hobbesian perspective. Machinery is subsumed as part of the perpetually urgent ‘maintenance and motion’ of the state. Machines today are used to carry out war, to conduct surveillance internal and external, to abet industry, produce manufactures. They are inextricable from the modern regimes identified by Foucault, himself drawing on Hobbes, of territory, population, security. Mass production, mass politics, mass government—crossing and interpenetrating the state, they are radically interlinked. Wherever industrial revolution takes place, an enormous expansion of the capacity, the power, and the reach of the state, or more fundamentally of politics, seems to follow in its wake. This was the reality of machine massification and escalating cybernetic interconnection that Carl Schmitt called ‘total technology’, worrying that it would ‘quantitatively’ destroy the distinctive character of the political by infecting all the spheres of human life with politics while forcing a disastrous invasion of the political itself by the economic and social considerations of the machine. It was also the realisation that drove Japanese intellectuals in the 1930s, for instance, to reformulate Japanese imperialism on a mass plane, with Kanji Ishiwara perceiving in this technoindustrial process a geometric transformation of war from the pursuit of elite aspirations to an impending ‘final war’ that would volumetrically involve and engulf the entirety of society, and not just society, but the very territory—‘rivers and trees’—itself.

Far from doing anything ‘antipolitical’, the advent of modern machinery seems historically to have agitated politics to an immense and even nightmarish degree. Why, then, could Marx at the other end of the Hontian transformation—living long after Hobbes, as the industrial revolution was sweeping the world—believe that politics was in any danger of being overthrown? Hont draws Marx’s scepticism of politics against Hobbes to Rousseau, who already emphasises forms of conflict between classes that wrack the state with an incessant internal war. Yet the arrival of machinery suggests another reason for Marx’s belief in the overcoming of politics: we may do better to trace this not to Rousseau, but rather to the debate over labour-saving machinery that took place at the origins of modern political economy between Ricardo and Malthus. This controversy may be summed up, simplistically, as follows—for Malthus, the introduction of labour-saving machinery would not replace the need for human workers, since the escalation of agricultural productivity will directly increase the population such that demand continually outpaces supply, and automation must always be supplemented by readily available human labour. For Ricardo, by contrast, it would—the ‘use of machinery’, he says, ‘may be injurious to the labouring class, as some of their number will be thrown out of employment, and population will become redundant, compared with the funds which are to employ it’.

The consequences of the Ricardian view on automation are enormous, as Marx only gradually came to realise. It is in the third volume of Capital, a book that took Engels a decade to edit, that the argument reaches its culmination. Marx conceives of the ‘organic composition of capital’, as he calls it, to measure the relative contribution of human and machine labour to the production of surplus value. The rising organic composition of capital precipitates a decline in the rate of profit as the higher ‘productive force of labour’—that is, the higher level of automation—creates more and more commodities for less and less value. Crisis results—but in each crisis of overproduction capitalism explodes to ever newer, ever greater spheres of production. Finally, Marx says: ‘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’. It is here and only here, on his theory in Capital, that the self-overcoming tendency of capitalism can be located: more radically, the ‘revolutionary subject’, such as it is, is not labour on its own, but capital, which its tendency to abolish the human element of the production process—and thus render the capitalist as irrelevant as the labourer.

Marx draws this point explicitly back to Ricardo: ‘It is that which is held against him,’ Marx says, ‘his unconcern about “human beings”, 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’.

Just as it was when the third volume of Capital finally appeared in the closing years of the nineteenth century, I do not think it is overly derogatory to say that the analysis of machinery advanced by Marx’s economics has remained a closed book to many radical theorists, and the general question of understanding the formation of capital and its consequences is similarly foreign to the mainstream of today’s neoclassical economics, notwithstanding the technically sophisticated efforts of Piero Sraffa in the Cambridge–Cambridge controversy to rescue a neo-Ricardian understanding of the subject. Recovering it, however, is essential to any historically informed comprehension of the social consequences of machine and automation.

From Marx we come to see that the regimentation of human labour is to be escaped only by the constitution of capital itself as an alienated object, and by the absolute automation that the suicidal process of capitalism unbound necessitates. Machinery, following an uncompromising Ricardian line, tends to abolish labour. To understand the full panoply of the antipolitical implications of this thought, however—to return to surveillance and war—we must cross the link between Marx and Nietzsche. We must understand the process of technological acceleration as insurrection.

This term ‘insurrection’ was introduced as a distinctive figure of political thought—in German, Empörung—by Max Stirner, that anarchist philosopher once viciously attacked by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, but who has recently experienced a strange and timely revival of interest online. Whatever we may think of Stirner’s intellectual system as a whole, his distinction between revolution and insurrection is of vital interest to understanding the significance of antipolitics. For the benefit of those who have not read him, the passage in which Stirner introduces this distinction is worth quoting in full. It runs as follows: ‘Revolution and insurrection must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the state or society, and is accordingly a political or social act; the latter has indeed for its unavoidable consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from it but from men’s discontent with themselves, is not an armed rising, but a rising of individuals, a getting up, without regard to the arrangements that spring from it. The revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on “institutions”. It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.’ By and large, this is a relentlessly negative definition. If, as Marx finally seems to imply in Capital III against the obvious readings of his earlier idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the impossibility of a political reprieve from capitalism becomes overdetermined by the relentlessness of the process itself—the breakdown of social time—Stirner with the idea of the Empörung offers an alternative conception: not the construction of a positive alternative hegemony, but a continual escape, the prevention of hegemony as such.

The influence of Stirner on Nietzsche has been much debated. There is no conclusive evidence to assume that Nietzsche drew radically on Stirner. Nonetheless, there is an important continuity in their thought which Stirner’s systematic definition of ‘insurrection’ helps to illuminate. In a surprisingly little-examined passage of his 1881 work Morgenröthe, aphorism 206—one of the few explicit references to capital in the Nietzsche corpus—Nietzsche offers his advice to ‘the workers of Europe’, declaring that rather than organising on a revolutionary basis, they ‘ought henceforth to declare themselves as a class a human impossibility and not, as usually happens, only a somewhat harsh and inappropriate social arrangement; they ought to inaugurate within the European beehive an age of a great swarming-out such as has never been seen before, and through this act of free emigration in the grand manner to protest against the machine, against capital, and against the choice now threatening them of being compelled to become either the slave of the state or the slave of a party of disruption.’

Clearly here we have a rather similar negative conception to Stirner’s idea of the Empörung, of insurrection. The choice of being either a slave of the state or a slave of a party of disruption illustrates the ultimately antipolitical thrust of Nietzsche’s conception: far from being diametrically opposed, the constitution and revolution of the state constitutes a circuit, against which insurrection—identified with exit—directs itself in its entirety.

But what does this have to do with the process of automation? There is greater continuity between these ideas and Marx than may be imagined. The distinction between political and social revolution in Marx is another aspect of his thinking that has fallen out of fashion. In his critiques of the Lassalleans in particular Marx becomes more and more insistent that political regulation, democratic centralism, cannot abet the advent of any postcapitalism—in fact, it will hold it back. The revolution must be social—and communism can only be ‘the real movement’ of society, such as it is, and not a Blanquist vanguard revolution or a Lassallean state hegemony. Thus Steve Metcalf evocatively describes what he calls ‘K-class communism’ as ‘Purpose effectuated as emergent havoc, rather than historical destiny’. So if in the passage of Daybreak I quoted earlier Nietzsche conceives of his ‘swarming-out’ as a ‘protest against the machine, against capital’, Marx suggests that we may consider it a protest alongside capital. In the final years of his sanity, Nietzsche appears to grasp this connection. ‘Humanity is something to be overcome,’ he famously declares, and in the ‘accelerationist fragment’, quoted incidentally in Anti-Oedipus but rarely read in its own right until very recently, Nietzsche clarifies the point: the escape from the condition of humanity—implicitly to the overman—means a levelling of humanity as such, an identification with what he calls the ‘great process’, the nihilist, machine-infected drive towards the admixture and the suppression of humanity. All that remains—inevitably—is on the other end, left like Napoleon after the French Revolution for Nietzsche, to pick up the pieces after it’s over.

Technology ambivalently proliferates means of control and means of resistance, yet the so-called ‘cybernetic’ architecture of modern technology puts this onto a new pitch with its massive distribution. It suggests the category of insurrection as a description of the age of massively distributed ‘total technology’ as such. ARPANET was—at least in myth—designed to be resilient against any attack on one of its determinate nodes. It is in other words resilient against hegemonic regulation: by indifferently increasing the resilience and the capacity of different social actors, proliferating technology tends, as Schmitt once feared, to render the state itself irrelevant. The introduction to Wikileaks’ recent ‘Vault 7’ release makes an interestingly similar point regarding contemporary cyberwarfare, perhaps extending Günther Anders to the information age: ‘Cyber weapons are not possible to keep under effective control. While nuclear proliferation, for instance, has been restrained by the enormous costs and viable infrastructure involved … cyber weapons once developed are very hard to retain.’

The radical conclusion is this: if the state unifies the regulatory tendencies of labour and surveillance—and one particular species of war—this specific conjuncture which we label politics diminishes in tandem with the diminishing importance of the human. Integrating Marx and Nietzsche, we may say that as automation extends further and further the state, like capitalism as a humansocial formation, is itself poisoned.

In the introduction to his unpublished work NecroPhysics—so far circulated only in manuscript form—Rhett Allain, an associate of Warwick University’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit now working as a physicist in America, puts the point explicitly. ‘If we are worried of the machine, it is for good reason. Radically conceived not in the Guattarian sense but in its constituted technoricardian sense as an other to human life itself, the machine is a threat to the very basis of human existence. It is an icon of dead labour, an icon of death as such. But so much the better…’

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

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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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The missing homeostat

medea‘I’d three times sooner go to war than suffer childbirth once.’

In his 2009 book The Medea Hypothesis, paleontologist Peter Ward offers a provocative theory of ecology. Motivated by the realisation of climate science that ‘there are indeed situations where life does not better the environment for itself but in fact makes things worse’, Ward takes the idea to its radical conclusion. Geologically, he notes, the catastrophes that now loom over us are hardly novel. Mass extinctions wrack the history of the planet; destruction has sprung from every step of evolution, every killing-machine it has created. Far from being a stable system of vital equilibrium, in fact, the biosphere is an ocean of aggressive algorithms, a seething orgy of death that threatens at every moment to overwhelm the fragile suspension in which it is contained. The Greek figure who best characterises our planetary ecosystem is not Gaia, then, the watchful mother-goddess. It is Medea, the wife of Jason who killed her children to repay his betrayal. Zero is immense, and the Earth suffers not its offspring.

Leo Löwenthal, in an essay on the Norwegian poet and Nazi sympathiser Knut Hamsun, claimed that in his work Hamsun had hypostatised nature into a vengeful and authoritarian father-figure, constructing a fascism of nature over humanity. The same tendency can be found in many kinds of environmentalism today, which have often taken the form of a curiously middle-class longing for an imaginary, unalienated, primitive past. This might, in fact, make scientific sense in the parameters of James Lovelock’s famous Gaia theory, which holds that the ‘total ensemble of living organisms which constitute the biosphere can act as a single entity’, an ‘active adaptive control system’. As an immense homeostat, Gaia really would be a watchful regulator whose wrath comes down on those who challenge its reign. But recent analysis has found the Gaia hypothesis lacking. The balance of nature is not just lacking, in fact: it seems not to exist. The longing for return, Ward tells us, is misplaced. For the wise judgemental father, Medea substitutes a mother gone insane. There is no hope, no protection, to be found in her authority: humanity is just one vector of extinction among many, one of innumerable spirals of positive feedback spun out by Medea to kill her children.

Killing children, in fact, is the one thing nature does best. It is one of the most fundamental laws of physics that in the long run, everything tends—speeds—to zero. The ostensibly negentropic heterogenisation both of life and of the unlife of capital in itself cranks up global entropy, radiating heat and disorder precisely according to entropy’s thermodynamic definition. Black-eyed Carl Sagan: ‘We are a way for the Cosmos to kill itself.’ In this sense there is something horrific about Heidegger’s famous question, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing?’ Jean-François Lyotard’s talk of the ‘solar catastrophe’, the unbearable knowledge of the Earth’s far-future destruction by the Sun’s own inevitable escape from control, is joined by Nick Land’s despairing cry in The Thirst for Annihilation: ‘Space echoes like an immense tomb, yet the stars still burn. Why does the sun take so long to die? … Is death itself shy of us?’ Philosophically, these all express the same realisation: that the Universe is playing tricks on us. It kills itself not by smooth projection from Big Bang singularity to cosmic zero, but through infinite, frenzied local excesses, ‘accursed shares’ that waltz across gradients of entropy, occulting the cosmic death-drive underlying it all. Far from being a thermostat, the Universe seethes perversely with positive feedback spirals. Cosmic expansion accelerates, ripping itself apart. Black holes are punctured in the opposite direction: the internal energy of an imploding star generates, by mass-energy equivalence, more gravitational attraction, releasing more energy, strengthening gravity, collapsing in exponentiating singularity…

Rewind back to Earth. As the Medea hypothesis suggests, it’s certainly not just at the unimaginable scales of astrophysics that we find these processes. Exponential runaway is not a peculiar feature of technological modernity; intelligence-explosion is just one of an entire category of exponential xenoecological processes. ‘The Singularity’, then, is not humanity’s escape from death, those ‘idiotic gurglings of futurologists’ mocked by Metcalf in ‘Neo-Futurism’—’you and I: we’re gonna live forever’. The Singularity is the icon of the insistent supremacy of death itself—machines embodying dead labour, machines embodying the death of the human as another phase of the process—happening not by human intention and planning, but by a profoundly inhuman dark mirror-image of that ‘ruse of reason’ identified in varying ways by Kant, Hegel, and Negarestani (or as the providential aspect of Gnon in latter-day Land). The term ‘Anthropocene’, in this sense, is a misnomer. Humanity is not the protagonist of this story. Our contribution to positive-feedback capital growth intelligence explosion, as much as our orgies of destruction, all themselves enact spontaneously the grim commands embodied in nature’s own laws of exponential returns. Georges Cuvier, the founding theorist of nineteenth-century catastrophism, put it best in his Essay on the Theory of the Earth: if it appears to humans that nature is ‘never disturbed, except by the ravages of war’, in fact nature itself has had interminable ‘intestine wars … the surface of the globe has been broken up by revolutions and catastrophes’. Anthropogenic disaster is just a small subset of the panoply of triumphant catastrophe that nature serves itself.

Perhaps part of the reason the Medea hypothesis has attained less traction than it ought to have done, despite this radical revaluation of the way we perceive the world, is that Ward does not take these implications far enough. He retains a humanistic, anthropocenic faith that with decisive planning efforts humanity can resist the horror of Medea, replacing her by the construction of an artificial Gaia. The unconditional accelerationist rejects this conceptually, not out of moral disdain, but because of the transparent character of its futility. Like the species of solar excess it embodies and like the Universe as a whole, modernity escapes control. Its drive towards the increasing returns of AI, markets, and all its other cybernetic features, reflect precisely the unrestrained suicidal/libidinal character that runs rampant over it. Conceived radically in this sense, the Medea hypothesis helps highlight the transcendental character of ‘accelerationism as the critique of the primacy of the secondary’. It furnishes a thoroughly disequilibrated accelerationist ecology.

All this is far removed, of course, from most of our everyday experience. But it has important implications for our understanding of contemporary capitalism as a megamechanical social order, an understanding carried out according to the transcendental conceptual diagram of acceleration. The homeostat reigned over the first phase of cybernetics: the system that regulates itself, military command-control. Spontaneous acceleration reigns over the second: resilient and ever-improving networks, distributed systems that escape control of their nodes. This, not homeostasis, is the architecture of modernity conceived cybernetically, and reflects the virtually-ontological process of overthrow that the unconditional accelerationist places at the heart of her understanding of reality. If we take seriously the analysis of terminal-Marx, the story of modern capitalism is not homeostatic, but, at best, homeorhetic: delirious oscillation cycles over an exponential trendline of falling rate of profit and capital-alienation determined by the heartbeat of overproduction crises. To understand its implications, Medea will serve far better than Gaia. We are not breaking the homeostat. The homeostat was missing all along.

With thanks to Pale Pink Spectre and Edmund Berger.

The end of (your) humanity: Cybernetics casually defined

I have written before, and repeatedly, that I believe two dynamics prevalently characterise ‘modernity’, namely the radical expansion of capital and the radical compression of communicative cybernetics, and I think it is often useful to analyse the history and the contemporary characteristics of modern society through the interaction of these two forces. Generally, however, when I make this argument people accept the former tendency—mass production and commodification is more or less an inescapable feature of modern life—but question the significance and, more fundamentally, the meaning of the latter. So here I will offer a casual, by no means rigorous, definition and historical overview of what I mean by ‘the compression of communicative cybernetics’.

‘Cybernetics’ is a complex term with a rich diversity of contemporary usage. Often it is rather loosely, and correctly, associated with computer technology, but its significance substantially predates the advent of modern computing and encompasses a great deal more than it. When I talk about cybernetics, I generally mean it in the way it was characterised by Norbert Wiener in 1948, that is, technologies ‘of control and communication’. The former of these two concepts is usually the one being emphasised when the term is used—kubernaô is, after all, ‘steer’ or ‘govern’ in Greek—so I often refer specifically to ‘communicative cybernetics’ to redistribute the focus a little. Of course, a technology of communication is already by definition a technology of control—anything that mediates interpersonal relationships transmits relationships of power; at the minimum, a communicative technology can communicate commands—so this remains only a difference in emphasis.

What does it mean, then, to say that these technologies have had a ‘compressive’ tendency? This is simply an attempt to describe the historical development of modern politics as a whole. Control-and-communication is not just about orders issued from on high: the institutions that represent ‘crystallised’ architectures of power stand as a small minority in contrast to the dynamic fluidity of power relations that characterises most of our everyday life. Communication also means mobilisation, the spontaneous arrangement and distribution of power among groups of people whose size and coherence will depend on the forms and capacities of the technologies being deployed. Modern technology—both in the everyday sense of machinery like railways and radios, and in Foucault’s sense even ideas, like novel forms of political thought—has tended to bring, or force, ever larger groups of people into ever closer spontaneous arrangements. In other words, it has tended to compress them.

In his intellectual history of the twentieth-century challenge to liberal democracy, Contesting Democracy, Jan-Werner Müller characterises the eruptions of early-twentieth-century mass democracy through an image used by David Lloyd George: the ‘molten mass’. The implication of the ‘molten mass’ is that in mass politics we are dealing with a fundamental disintegration of rational individuality—the kind of thing that peaked, conceptually, in 18th century Enlightenment philosophy—into a fluid mass consciousness. Compressive cybernetics means melting the masses: as Müller puts it in an interesting echo of Nietzsche, it means the ‘levelling and homogenizing’ of sociable humans.

The tendency of drastic compression in the early twentieth century, which gave rise in the end to totalitarianism, was permitted and abetted by the emergence of many different kinds of cybernetic technologies in the period. Breaking through the fragile gates of established politics, it provoked a hurricane of disorder and contributed to the ravaging of the world in the 1940s. In reaction, in the postwar period the molten masses of the West were, if not resolidified, tamed and regulated to a considerable extent by a new liberal elite order supported by far-reaching welfare systems that averted the need for mass organisation. In most Western countries social democracy divorced itself from the masses and crystallised progressively into managerial technocracy. Neoliberalism kicked out one important pillar of this order—and it’s not coming back—but to a large extent it remained a managerial ideology; as a mode of internal political organisation it even represents the culmination of the original postwar trend (consider Blair’s autocracy in New Labour). This has become all too clear today in the escalating standoff between technocracy and the new populism.

New technologies have arisen, however. Among them, the Internet is the most radical and the most totalising: it has kicked the ‘melting of the masses’ into a new phase of overdrive, converting the basis of society from rigid individuality into what Ccru called ‘flat productive collectivities’. The consequences are already running riot. The Internet far exceeds what was available in the early twentieth century. Where cybernetic mobilisation was hitherto a sporadic and temporally limited phenomenon—the heightened phases of politicization of the twentieth century tended in the end to spend themselves relatively quickly, as the Cultural Revolution showed in China—the Internet is distorting, compressing, and collapsing all our social relations, all of the time. It’s driving people mad, and it’s questionable whether ‘individuals’ will still exist in any meaningful sense once it’s finished years from now, torn apart as they are between the constant spontaneous mass action and the endless proliferation of identity that the Internet encourages.

Is this something we should be worried about? I have written that the current effects of the dominance of cybernetics are well-characterised as ‘catastrophic’. Yet in the long run it’s only an apocalypse, without reprieve, if you’re attached to the glory of the individual and to humanism as an end in itself. In the short term, to be sure, all kinds of pathological phenomena will result, and are resulting, from this intensifying cybernetic delirium. Yet Nietzsche suggested that the process of ‘levelling mankind’—like the process of nihilism—tends to overcome itself. This, I think, is precisely the wager and the motivating optimism of the ‘fundamentalist accelerationist’ who can find it within themselves to identify with this process (exit is hard to imagine).

Nietzsche, for his part, offered political analogies: the French Revolution, which went through similarly pathological phases, led in the end to a new order under Napoleon; the docility of mass Confucianism led to the glory of imperial China. Questionably encouraging exemplars, to be sure, but when projected to the level of the species, the levelling of mankind, the end-point and disintegration of the Enlightenment’s autonomous individual drives us inescapably from humanist society to a posthumanist society, from a society based on competing relationships of power to one where power itself, as Baudrillard predicted, becomes increasingly meaningless. Cybernetics is generating all-encompassing blackness, but combined with the force of techonomy it is a fair wager that in these extraordinary conditions something new will emerge. We can only hope the ride there isn’t too rough.