Technoindustrial capitalism and the politics of catastrophic velocity



In the runup to the year 2000, a curious phenomenon emerged on the adolescent Internet. While public media spread hysteria over the impending ‘Y2K bug’, competing groups of chronodissidents emerged to embrace what they saw as the impending overthrow of the Gregorian temporal order. Melanie Newton observed that as ‘hysterical hyperlooping twists the millennium into a panic storm, it builds explosively on itself, producing an artificial destiny. Techonomic power splinters across schizophrenically juxtaposed time-systems’. For the Cybergoths, history’s natural calendar began in 1900, and the millennium crisis indexed only its hundredth iteration. An account by Maria de Rosario in 1998 pointed towards an even more fundamental reconceptualisation of the temporal order: this alternative group, she claimed, ‘seem to believe that … there is only one century, that counts from 0 to 99, forever.’

Founded as it is on the logic of the computer, if such a conjecture has any substance it will apply especially to what we have experienced as this century and the last. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that we are seeing the revival of modes of thinking characteristic of the early twentieth century, once thought duly suppressed. Through the loose category of ‘accelerationism’, I hope to highlight one of these that is particularly distinctive.

In this paper I have broadly three objectives, each with some bearing on both intellectual history and political theory. Firstly, I hope to uncover a strand of thinking about the politics of crisis and catastrophe that emerged from the Revisionist Controversy at the close of the 19th century and ran to the Second World War, furnishing an intellectual narrative that links together figures as diverse as the liberalising Eduard Bernstein, Sorel, Walter Benjamin, and the Italian Futurists. I will only have time to touch briefly on most of these, however, so a second and more immediate goal will be to encourage a better understanding of the novelty and both the historical and contemporary importance of the social and political thought of Georges Sorel in particular, a thinker who continues to be summarily misread, ignored, and even dismissed as a charlatan. Thirdly, I hope to situate some of the contemporary discourse of accelerationism, understood in this case through the thought of Nick Land and of the broader, non-existent Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, in the context of its intellectual antecedents by demonstrating the far-reaching conceptual resonances between the two—suggesting, perhaps, that accelerationism as I have defined it alights on a fundamental logic of capitalist modernity, and that the current of intellectual history I identify can be considered a type of proto-accelerationism.

I have given this presentation the rather complex title ‘Technoindustrial capitalism and the politics of catastrophic velocity from Sorel to Land’, and it is worth beginning by unpacking the concepts I have embedded into this label. Following a path leading back to Marx, capitalism, as understood by the thinkers I will discuss, is a process characterised by the development of technoindustrialism, or what Land has called techonomy—the locked spiral of exponentiating technological development and recursive industrial intensification. This emphasis on the primacy of the technoindustrial process serves to situate political thought upon a more fundamental economic, technical, and ultimately, indeed, thermodynamic basis—as Sorel suggests, and as Land today has argued more emphatically, society is finally a function of heat.

The conceptualisation of time—as will already be clear—is also central to this investigation. Through velocity I mean the sense shared by these thinkers that the structure of time is changing, that society is plunging somewhere unknown; not simply speed, then, but vectorial transformation. Time is riven in this light by the runaway process of industrial intensification that characterises modern capitalism; it twists through loops and discontinuities indexed by modernity’s explosive technogenesis and the relentless, ruinous heartbeat of capitalist crisis, which combine inexorably to lend this sense of velocity its aura of catastrophe. Thus Walter Benjamin’s words from 1940—words whose endless recent recitation does not diminish their significance: ‘[A] storm drives [the Angel of History] irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.’

Finally, the politics of this catastrophic velocity is to be understood a highly particular way. The primacy of capitalism as technoindustrial process already serves to displace any primordial conception of human political agency, and all these thinkers share a basic impatience with politics in the everyday sense that finds its roots in Marx and Nietzsche, and, nonetheless, an equal interest in the role of ideas and of aesthetic and social experimentation in history.


Georges Sorel lived from 1842 to 1922. After a productive career as an engineer in the French Department of Public Works, Sorel retired in 1892, having published his first book three years earlier, and embarked on a three-decade period of intellectual activity that would grant him widespread recognition—now curiously forgotten—as one of the most influential philosophers of the early twentieth century. We may see a hint of this influence in the fact that upon his death, both the Soviet Union and the newly fascist Italian government sent embassies to sponsor monuments in his memory—a rare enough combination. As Jeffrey Mehlman has pointed out, however, his influence extended beyond the Continent: Wyndham Lewis once called Sorel ‘the key to all contemporary political thought’, and T. S. Elliot described Reflections on Violence as a book more insightful than any other on ‘our directions’. Through his attested influence on figures as diverse as Lukács, Bataille, the younger Mussolini and the Italian Futurists, Walter Benjamin, and more recently Ernesto Laclau, Sorel stands at a remarkably fertile crossroads in modern intellectual history.

Nonetheless, identifying Sorel’s specific intellectual background and contributions has proven problematic. This is thanks both to the apparently contradictory character of his political affiliations, as he moved between circles of Marxists, reactionary monarchists, anarchists and syndicalists, and to his usual, and, as we shall see, problematic identification with the voluntarist idea of an apocalyptic, revolutionary general strike, which has tended to set him apart from the main currents of his time as a more or less marginal figure rather than a decisive intellectual contributor.

The treatment of Sorel’s relation to the Revisionist Controversy—a debate that constituted one of the defining moments of modern European political thought, which laid the groundwork for many of the recognisable divisions of twentieth-century politics—is emblematic. Histories of the Controversy have tended either to ignore or to marginalise Sorel’s contribution to this debate. Yet thanks to his collaboration with Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, Sorel had been one of those most responsible for the import of Marxism into France, and when Eduard Bernstein broached his attack on what he called the ‘catastrophic theory’ of orthodox Marxism at the close of the 1890s, Sorel naturally became deeply involved in the debates that followed.

Given Bernstein’s own received reputation as a liberal reformist, it may seem strange that Sorel would have gotten on well with him. Yet in fact the two men corresponded on amicable terms, and, most strikingly, Bernstein would publish a review of Sorel’s book The Socialist Future of the Syndicates in 1898 explicitly defending Sorel’s anti-parliamentarian views, already well-developed at this stage, and warning against any dismissal of the French thinker as ‘petty bourgeois or bourgeois-reactionary’. There was unanimity at the time, more broadly, that Sorel was to be considered a revisionist and a member of Bernstein’s party—not just from Bernstein himself, who gladly welcomed Sorel into the fold, but from Sorel’s orthodox Marxist collaborators, such as Lafargue and Antonio Labriola, who took every opportunity to denounce his revisionist turn: ‘Lafargue considers me heretical’, Sorel complained in a letter in November 1897.

At this stage, some interpreters have argued that Sorel was merely inconsistent: he identified with a reformist political position in the 1890s, and abandoned it in his subsequent, more famous works. But as we have seen, Sorel was no parliamentary reformist even in the 1890s, and Bernstein was well aware of this. As perceived by its own actors, then, the substance of the Controversy must have been something other than a purely tactical debate over the accomplishment of socialism. What, then, was the reason for Sorel’s identification with revisionism?

Its basis was relatively simple, and he expressed its content in a series of published articles and in private letters to Bernstein. He rejected wholeheartedly the ‘catastrophic theory’ that Bernstein had identified as the principal object of his attack, that is, the idea that capitalism was destined to inevitable decay and collapse, and that this collapse would clear the way for a socialism beyond its limits. Sorel argued that there was no evidence that capitalism led to a tendency for workers to become poorer and poorer: ‘It is in the Orient,’ he said 1897, ‘that one finds the distinctive signs that are, according to many socialists, supposed to be the characteristics of advanced capitalist society.’

So much was entirely in alignment with conventional revisionism. Yet, drawing on the third volume of Marx’s Capital, which had only recently appeared, Sorel went further than Bernstein. Where Bernstein had suggested that economic crises were moderating in capitalist countries over the long term thanks to their advancing level of development, Sorel argued that crisis needed to be restored from the deterministic concept of catastrophe with which it had been confused. As Marx had argued in Capital III, capitalist crisis meant the decrease in the rate of profit; it meant the enormous proliferation of economic ventures as technical progress increased—that is, the rise in the organic composition of capital, the ratio of machine to human input. Strictly, it was therefore a symptom of creation—and not of decay. Crisis was precisely how capitalism proliferated.

Bernstein’s insight in his rejection of the catastrophic theory that capitalism would end of its own accord, then, needed to be pushed to their culmination. In his final extended collection on socialism, Materials of a Theory of the Proletariat (1919), Sorel republished an article, originally from 1910, in which he claimed emphatically that Bernstein had not gone far enough—Bernstein had beguiled socialists into thinking that ‘the weakness of [his] proposed corrections proved the truth of the main body of [their] system’, where in fact a far more thoroughgoing ‘revision of Marxism’ was required. Even later, in 1920, Sorel made explicit his identification with this stance of revisionism-beyond-revisionism in a new appendix to The Illusions of Progress titled ‘The Advance toward Socialism’. Against what he took to be Marx’s own stadial and Hegelian conception of social development, in which successive forms of human endeavour like religion, art, and the practice of collectivism would arise and then be dispensed with according to the unidirectional progress of society, Sorel noted that his own collaborator, the Italian thinker Saverio Merlino, had already in 1898 demonstrated the necessary emergence and persistence of ‘collectivist and communist principles’ within capitalist society—before adding, in a footnote, that ‘the socialists who rejected Marx’s catastrophic theory’—i.e., the revisionists—‘should have eagerly accepted the doctrines of Saverio Merlino, but our “reformists” were not intelligent enough to understand the ideas of the Italian socialist.’

What the revisionists had missed, according to Sorel, was the technical basis of capitalism: an engineer and a philosopher of science as much as a political thinker, Sorel believed that any powerful social theory needed to offer an account of the influence of scientific and technical development on society; in one book review, for instance, he argued that the steam engine must be understood as primarily an agent of sociological transformation. Science, in general, was not an abstract endeavour. It could be understood only as a process of technical development: in his 1900 lecture on ‘Science and Morals’, he dismissed what he called the ‘cosmology of curiosity’ that he believed had often been mistaken for science, a domain of comfortable philosophy conditioned by the need to fill in the significance of ‘spectacles of nature or … historical events’ that ‘our anxious mind … does not understand’. Here, he wonders if it would even be ‘possible to understand [the] principles [of mechanics] without referring to the functioning of the machines that have led to the formulation of its fundamental theses’—even geometry ‘would gain much in never forgetting its empirical origins’. If ‘scientific progress’ in an abstract sense was illusory, as technical sophistication it was very real—indeed, it was the only index of progress possible. Progress, in any substantive sense, meant technical progress: decadence, meanwhile, meant primarily technical, economic decay. Morality could only come after this fundamental realisation.

It was for this reason that Sorel insisted on the existence of what he called an ‘economic bridge’ between capitalism and socialism, which, in turn, he understood in a highly particular way. The logic of capital was one of overproduction. The leap to a postcapitalist order could take place only in conditions of overwhelming technical progress; if it did not, it would be disastrous. Thus Sorel insisted, in another decisive departure from the received interpretation of his work, on the importance of ‘scientific forecasting’ to judge whether the conduct of revolution would not destroy civilisation. As technical crisis became the determinant of social organisation, this analysis was necessarily accompanied by a violent diminishing in the role of the individual human agent: ‘One can say,’ Sorel said, ‘that in current scientific work individuals are just about interchangeable.’

This idea of creative overproduction as the logic of the positive unfolding of capitalism bore a more lasting influence in European intellectual history than has been realised. Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the leading protagonist of the Italian Futurist movement who recognised a profound intellectual debt to Sorel, took up this novel logic of economic crisis with vigour: In a 1911 piece titled ‘Electrical War’, for example, Marinetti presented a vision of a world riven by productive excess, in which ‘hunger and poverty have disappeared’ while ‘twenty-five great syndicates’—the empires of his day—‘furiously fought over the markets of a superabundant industrial production’. The turbulence sweeping the world, the tides of incessant revolution celebrated by the Futurists, were the result of an intensifying and all-encompassing productive excess that characterised modernity, progressively unmoored from any weakness in consumption.

Sorel himself suggested that the technical-industrial basis of modern society could be reduced still further. After noting his certainty in The Illusions of Progress ‘that, in many cases, industrial concentration represents a superior stage in technology’, Sorel observes in a footnote that a large part of the ‘basis for this superiority’ lies in the conservation of heat. This curious statement is echoed elsewhere in the Illusions, where he remarks that ‘it is most extraordinary that so many so-called Marxists have reasoned about the statistics establishing industrial concentration without going back to [its] technical bases’, he asserts that the ‘enormous superiority’ of contemporary industrial installations over their predecessors lies in ‘questions relative to the dissipation of energy’. These observations point to the specifically mechanical character of modern industry, but also to the fundamental technical meaning that can be attached to progress beyond the ‘illusions’ that Sorel thought to be peddled by philosophers and sociologists. This was namely the aversion of entropy—this, principally, is how the concept of decadence should be understood. Sorel was radically concerned with the ‘physical law of entropy’ and its potential application to social history.

All of this brings us to contemporary accelerationism. Accelerationism is often construed in a number of loose and largely unhelpful ways: support for economic growth over degrowth, or, most often, the idea that things must get worse before they get better. Here, as I have already mentioned, I want to focus on Sorel’s resonances with accelerationism as an overt contemporary intellectual phenomenon, read through Nick Land, a British philosopher and author in Shanghai who has offered striking—if unknowing, and necessarily incomplete—parallels to Sorel’s course as a heterodox Marxist. Interested in—and perhaps occasionally identifying as—a kind of ‘right-wing Marxist’, Land has shared Sorel’s interest in defining modernity in technical and ultimately thermodynamic terms, beginning in 1994 in ‘Meltdown’, with the flat statement, taken from Don DeLillo, ‘Heat. This is what cities mean to me’, and following a course developed more explicitly in his 2012 book Templexity with its argument that urbanisation represents a kind of time machine, an insurrection against the gradient of entropy. As Sorel and the Futurists had done earlier, Land has insisted that capitalist crisis is an engine of creativity and not of decay: ‘Nothing has ever died of its contradictions.’ In this analysis, capital tends irrepressibly to its own technical reproduction, that is, to overproduction—it is ultimately this process of exponentiation, we may infer, that is the basic ‘acceleration’ of accelerationism.

Sorel’s revisionism-beyond-revisionism was a far-reaching and innovative critique of Marxist orthodoxy that emphasised the technical process industrial intensification, boiled down scientifically to its thermodynamic core, and the positive relationship between the future of socialism and the development of the capitalist economic order; it combined a restoration of understudied features of Marx’s political economy, expressed above all in Capital III, with an adjustment and even nullification of the accepted characteristics of Marxist politics that planted him nonetheless firmly in the revisionist camp. It proved enormously influential, and its particular logic appears to echo in contemporary accelerationism: in this sense it may usefully be understood as a proto-accelerationism. But this new reading of technoindustrialism does not itself suffice; Sorel’s technical recuperation of the idea of progress already suggests a second point of focus: his conception of time.


Sorel has often been considered—and is usually still considered—fundamentally a kind of voluntarist. In Eric Hobsbawm’s dismissive description of his thought, for instance, Sorel believed that ‘revolution would come’ simply ‘because the revolutionaries wanted it with … passion’; more generous interpreters have similarly ranked Sorel as a ‘participant in the voluntarist revision … [of] scientistic and determinist Marxism’. As we have seen, it is certainly true that Sorel was a ferocious critic of the type of determinism represented in the catastrophic theory of the orthodox Marxists. But as my analysis of his conception of technical progress will have suggested, he certainly did not believe that human will was all there was to it. It suffices to recall here the importance of the historically variegated character of revolutions for Sorel: in his 1898 work on The Socialist Future of the Syndicates, he emphasised the importance of ‘scientific and mechanical forecasting’ to ascertain ‘whether preparation is sufficient so that the struggle does not lead to a destruction of civilisation’. A critic of both Jacobinism and of what he termed the ‘Dreyfusian Revolution’, a mere will to revolt was nowhere near sufficient—indeed, it could have devastating consequences.

In an immediate sense this concern resolves to a question of determining the technical development of society, as we have seen, yet ultimately it must fall back to the philosophy of time: how, precisely, does historical time progress—what is the interrelationship between the technical determinants that lock in substantive progress from the past, and the futurities opened by contingent human behaviour? After all, we need only remember the time-coloured language of subsequent Sorelians, above all the Futurists, to see the importance of this question, but time seems more fundamentally integral to Sorelian thought as such. Sorel’s critique of the received understanding of progress is, after all, necessarily a critique of temporality; his conception of crisis and catastrophe is similarly a vision of the discontinuities in the course of historical time—or the discontinuity of modern time itself.

If the concept of time as such remains relatively obscure in The Illusions of the Progress itself, Sorel’s 1905 book on The Historical System of Ernest Renan features one of his most explicit treatments of the subject. Sorel argues that there are two possible historiographic approaches to time, which he labels the psychological and the scientific. Psychological history concerns itself with what he calls ‘the blossoming out of the future [and] the outgrowths of a period’; it emphasises the generative agency of individual historical actors. Scientific history, by contrast, he says, ‘regard[s] the past as a fixed mass whose general place is subject to a schematic outline’. It focuses primarily on the schematic interrelationship of large-scale social forces, of ‘class attitudes and the dominant principles of … institutions’, with individuals reduced to being the ‘conveyors of symbols’. The psychological approach, with its voluntarist focus on human genius, accords a status of ontological privilege to the future, in other words; the scientific approach, with its stance of overdetermination, accords this privilege to the past.

Given his voluntarist reputation, we might expect Sorel to have plumped for the psychological approach. Yet in fact his assessment of psychological historiography seems withering: ‘Psychological knowledge,’ Sorel goes on to say, is ‘possible only by a study limited to the actions of a few men’; in the field of history as a whole, to penetrate psychologically the networked mass of contingent human decisions and physical cause and consequence quickly becomes such a complex endeavour that it collapses into ridiculousness. ‘This totality that includes all of the motives and character of the actors of the drama,’ he explains, ‘this profound reality of which psychology speaks with so emphasis because it does not know it—this is the mysterious “thing in itself”’.

To be sure, Sorel displays no interest here in justifying the determinist conception of history either. The ‘comedy’ of psychological historiography lay for him precisely in its successful understanding of the contingency of history: its problem was the sheer fact of just how far this contingency reached, how structural it is to time itself. Renan, he points out, had been accused of harming ‘the dignity of science’ through his ‘considerations about accidents’: he quotes one exemplary passage of Renan in which the historian claims that ‘for several days the fate of humanity depended on the surefootedness of the beast who transported the holy book of the future.’ Against Renan’s ‘scientific’ critics, Sorel insists that this was no ‘bad joke’: in fact, it is precisely this burden of contingency that characterises history through and through; ‘in the end’, he says, ‘we see that the most significant events can have depended on small accidents in the realm of chance’, and it is only through a practice of narratival historiographical bracketing that any sense can be made of the chaotic flux of history itself—lending force to a method that Sorel elsewhere christened ‘diremption’. The scientific historian, indeed, must apply such bracketing just as much in the direction of the past.

The radical temporal conclusion of Sorel’s discussion in The Historical System of Renan is that neither the future nor the past can be privileged over the other. Just as his positive reading of economic overproduction beat a path away from what were in his view the sterile debates in established Marxism over collapse and the catastrophic theory, Sorel in this sense also saw himself as striking out upon a third path of temporality that emphasised neither of these approaches to time, and strove to be neither voluntarist nor—in a linear sense—deterministic. In a footnote to a 1919 essay on ‘Experimentation in Modern Physics’, Sorel gestures to the occulted conclusion of this double-sided conception of time, remarking briefly that ‘Boltzmann … ask[ed] whether the irreversible character of time were not “a simple illusion”. That is a question whose terms cannot be understood by pragmatism.’ Perhaps, in fact, the future may invade the past.

This chaotic concept of time, which we might loosely term holistic, bears an obvious relation to the revisionist critique of economic catastrophism: Sorel rejected fundamentally the idea of a determinate future point at which society will fall, and only then open up a universe of new social possibilities to be determined according to the narrowly political vagaries of human willpower. But time would not be the smooth progress imagined by reformists and liberals, either. Sorel perceived an ongoing change in the structure of time, an increase in velocity that was plummeting into the unknown. He quoted approvingly Proudhon’s despairing statement, for instance, ‘I will see only evil; I will die in complete darkness’: Sorel added, in the context of the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘the situation now is even more serious’.

At first sight, it may seem hard to see what ramifications this concept of time could have had on subsequent Sorelianism: immediately, we can object that the Futurists certainly seem to have privileged the future over the past. But the Futurist future was precisely not a world of limitless human agency, the construction of machine by man to govern the world as it has sometimes been understood. Marinetti’s novel Mafarka the Futurist offers a far darker rendering: here, the climax of the novel is a monstrous merging of human and machine in a new breed that precipitates the collapse of humanity itself. The theme recurs many times in Futurist literature: humanity is not penetrating the future from the present, but driven to insanity and desperation by its shadow; in ‘Let’s Murder the Moonlight!’, the Futurist protagonists’ mechanical obsession is paired with their literally unleashing hordes of animals and the insane upon the decadent cities of the continent. It is, as Manfred Hinz has suggested, an image of the collapse of time into universal catastrophe; it is the invasion of the present from a future determined only at a distance by the technical mass of the past.

There is a clear compatibility here between the Futurist Manifesto’s laudatory observation of the tides of convulsive technopolitical turbulence sweeping modern cities and Land’s praise for what he calls ‘revolution stripped of all Christian-socialist eschatology’. In Land’s thought, this is explicitly tied to a novel conception of time, a concept he designates templexity. Templexity represents, loosely, the infolding complexification of time in modernity, within which the technical progress of capital is constituted as a real, if complex, kind of teleology; as in Sorel, stadialism is dissolved into the simultaneous competition of what were thought to be historical ‘stages’. More fundamentally the explosive course of modernity itself eliminates the experience of unilinear time. And once again for Land, this is as much a technical, economic phenomenon as anything—it was the development of world commerce, for instance, that first introduced the fragmentation of time into time zones.

Mythic experimentality

So far, I have discussed the importance attached in this echo-current of accelerationist thinking to the precedence of technoindustrial capital, and the complexities of time. As I suggested at the beginning, both of these reconceptualisations seem fundamentally to undermine any straightforward conception of human political agency. Politics, it seems, diminishes into insignificance in the face of the enormity of modern industry and the ineluctable unfolding of capital, and the disruption of time itself is at once an insurrection against the cause-and-effect logic of government policy. Yet Sorel clearly did not see himself as offering a counsel of ascetic despair; his disciple Edouard Berth could claim that the point was precisely to transfer the concept of catastrophe from a pole of determinism to a pole of proletarian liberation, and the Futurists made a good deal of the aesthetic possibilities of political experimentation. Of course, as the Futurist engagement with fascism and Sorel’s own dubious phases of collaboration with the anti-Semitic right demonstrate, the sort of experimentation this provoked proved a risky business; understanding its basis, however, will let us see more clearly what these actors were trying to do.

It is worth observing firstly that an important ground for the continued importance of social behaviour in Sorel’s thought is to be found in his idea of competition. For Sorel, innovation and competition went hand in hand. He inveighed consistently against the idea that capitalism tended necessarily towards monopoly, or that this monopoly capitalism could effectively open the path for the nationalised industrial enterprise supposedly characteristic of socialism. Beginning with an article titled ‘American capitalism’ in 1898, Sorel had developed this critique particularly with reference to the American trust system, which, in contrast to many socialists, he believed to be a technically retrograde form of economic organisation. Part of the problem was precisely its lack of competitiveness: in ‘The Advance toward Socialism’ he quoted approvingly an American academic’s judgement that the trusts stifled ‘competition and the “invention-power” of the people’. ‘We do not see,’ Sorel added, ‘what technical progress an “ocean trust” could introduce into naval art.’

So much may seem relatively standard in the context of early-twentieth-century political discourse, but Sorel took the idea further still: in keeping with his insistence on the conceptual unity of science with its technical application, he argued elsewhere, for instance, that ‘experimental physics’ was precisely a ‘competition of the builders of machines’; most significantly, he gestured towards a new conception of the history of modern social organisation as competitive experimentality. ‘At the present time,’ he stated, ‘among various groups there exists a rivalry in creating institutions of all kinds. Everywhere there is a felt need to associate, to teach, and to innovate; the world advances despite theoreticians.’ This observation of the social experimentality fostered within contemporary capitalism returned conceptually to the antistadialist critique of orthodox Marxism, with Sorel’s argument in ‘Advance toward Socialism’ that the unfolding of communist institutions would not proceed by a series of progressively more advanced phases of development, but immanently within, and encouraged by, the capitalist process itself, in competition with other forms of organisation. This may better be understood through a term introduced by Land, ‘teleoplexy’, the idea that rather than pushing a unitary and ineluctable line of development, capitalist modernity accommodates, indeed creates, a kaleidoscopic diversity of different historical ‘destinies’. In the context of accelerationism, there is another clear parallel here with Land’s arguments about ‘patchwork’, the idea that capitalism can help establish a laboratory for fostering competition between political models. Remaining within Marx’s technical analysis of capitalist development, as Sorel already saw, it seems a compelling alternative to stadialism and unilinear teleology.

This line of argument about competition and the fostering of diverse social forms within capitalism itself generally lends further emphasis to the positive, revisionist-beyond-revisionist attitude of Sorel’s towards technoindustrial capitalism I discussed. Returning to this basis in competition as innovation may act as a corrective to interpretations like that offered by Tudor Balinisteanu, who has sought to bring into contact Sorel’s concept of myth as a kind of unitary phenomenon with Badiou’s idea of truth, and it is to the concept of myth that I will now turn.

The subjective space for this political experimentation in Sorel is given in his famous concept of the social myth. It is striking on reading the Reflections on Violence that Sorel—in keeping with his earlier critique of economic catastrophism as a determinate future point—does not at any point affirm the reality of the impending general strike: he talks precisely of the motivating importance of the ‘image of the general strike’, the ‘myth of the general strike’. In an essay on ‘The Decomposition of Marxism’ published the same year as the Reflections, serving as a retrospective on the Revisionist Controversy and a diagnosis of Marxism’s present intellectual condition, Sorel made the point bluntly: ‘[With] the [idea of the] final catastrophe which would break out at once upon the revolt of the workers … we are in the presence of a social myth … not a single detail can be discussed as a foreseeable fact of history.’ The comparison he drew was to the Christian Church: at the very end of ‘The Decomposition of Marxism’, he remarks that its apocalyptic expectations had severed it from the world, and it was precisely this renunciation of the real and mundane that lent it its great strength, whatever the truth-content of its claims.

It is explicitly in this context that Sorel’s diverse political interests should be understood. In his book on The Dreyfusian Revolution, for instance, Sorel justified his anti-Dreyfusard leanings not out of any personal belief in Dreyfus’s guilt, but on account of the technical decadence of the new republican elite that had been brought to power by the Affair. His engagement with monarchism via the Proudhon Circle can be read as an attempt to investigate suitable social myths that could be brought into alignment with technical progress.

Sorel was led to conclude that catastrophe could ultimately be rescued, but it would be in the form of a ‘moral catastrophe’—adopting Nietzsche’s term, he spoke of the ‘transvaluation of all values’ by the militant proletariat. Politics itself was to become a sort of performance, and this again directly ramified upon Sorel’s immediate disciples. The Futurists were notoriously performative in their politics; as Walter Benjamin famously argued in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the whole Futurist project could be read as an aestheticisation of politics. Nonetheless, this was not performativity just as they pleased. Manfred Hinz’s perhaps unintentionally curious formulation is indicative: ‘The Futurist “Genius”’, he says, ‘is a functionary of the machine.’ As in Sorel, for Marinetti, any successful politics would necessarily align itself within an external matrix of technical, anti-entropic progress—because it was this matrix that would make the decision on its success.

Once again, in the milieu of contemporary accelerationism we find here an important conceptual bridging point. The concept of hyperstition, deployed by Land among others like Mark Fisher and Reza Negarestani, appears to offer a particularly powerful tool for understanding the mythic content of Sorelianism. It is dangerous—almost paradoxical—to attempt a summary definition of hyperstition, not least because of the widely divergent directions in which its theorists have developed. But a cogent explanation of the idea was offered by the pseudonymous William Kaye, whose conception is echoed by Land: ‘In the hyperstitional model,’ Kaye says, ‘fiction is not opposed to the real. Rather, reality is understood be composed of fictions—consistent semiotic terrains that condition perceptual, affective and behavioural responses. … The hyperstitional process of entities “making themselves real” is precisely a passage, a transformation, in which potentials—already-active virtualities—realize themselves’. Or, to quote Iris Carver: ‘It’s obviously made-up. Yet it proves effectively ineradicable…’

Crucially, hyperstition lies beyond immediate human agency: ultimately, the hyperstitional author can do no more than unleash ideas that proliferate beyond her control. The Sorelian myth, in this sense, may best be understood precisely as a form of hyperstition—both in its conceptual content, and in its practical consequences, given the historical extent of Sorel’s reach. For Sorel, the apocalyptic expectation of the general strike was to convert itself into a real, and different, catastrophe despite the unknowingness of its adherents. It is riding the surging superhuman currents of technical development that myth can instantiate a great politics beyond the limited sphere of human interests. With the voiding of unilinear human agency and the end of stadial theories of development, meanwhile, it is hyperstition, within contemporary accelerationism, that restores the role of human practice, or of ‘morals’ as Sorel understood them. But it is no longer the human subject, with its knowing objectives and phenomenal sense of the world, that takes centre stage: things never proceed quite as they seem.

These three fields—broadly, techonomy, time, and hyperstition—help shed new light on the historical novelty of Sorelian revisionism, while also illuminating its continuing relevance as a potential guide and caution for accelerationist thinking today. From a historical perspective, it is difficult to know what to make of the resonances between Sorelianism and accelerationism. It seems to me that the coincidence of these concerns highlights a structural logic within modern capitalism itself. There appears among these a recognition, firstly, of the primacy within capitalism of techonomy, the marriage of technological and economic development, and of capitalism’s strengthening by its own technical contradictions. Crisis can serve here as a means of techonomic renewal rather than decay. Secondly, we find an emphasis on the temporal disorder of capitalism, which tangles human political aspirations irretrievably within itself; finally, however, there is a partial restoration of the role of performative action through experimentation and the resituation of the constructive force of ideas as agencies beyond human intentionality. That similar lines of argument on all these themes were made a century ago should serve in part as a justification for the intellectual force of accelerationism: recovering their historical evolution will, perhaps, allow us better to engage with the ideas as they are being expressed today.

Crisis and decadence


[Edit 03/03/2017 — I no longer agree with much of this post, particularly the prescriptions of the concluding paragraphs. Its genesis was an attempt to rescue conventional left-accelerationism when I still thought there was a need for it, but I’m leaving it up since in fact it serves as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the left-accelerationist project itself. The decadence/crisis distinction continues, however, to be necessary.]

The liberal-capitalist system is dying again. For the first time in seven decades, globalisation and liberalism have fallen into retreat. The sinking tide is uncovering states that are either hollow shells devoid of political and moral legitimacy, or vessels for new forms of revivalist authoritarianism. The emerging economies that were once scheduled to take on the burden of supporting world capitalism from an anaemic West have found the ground crumbling beneath them. Russia has formally abandoned the liberalising project, returning to the great-power politics of a previous age. Brazil has fallen into deep recession, ruled by a putschist, kleptocratic government that has busied itself mutilating what remains of the country’s economic prospects. China teeters on the brink as the return of protectionism threatens to plunge it into paralytic recession. The flow of investment to emerging markets has reversed. In wealth, if not in market size, the West has once again begun to pull away from the rest.

The titanic war-machines of populism and market-technocracy are grinding the Left to dust. The left-populist project has proven, so far, an abject failure, whether in government as in Greece, or outside of it as in Spain, Britain, and the United States. Now the barest defeat for fascism is counted as a cause for celebration, while the darkness closes in from every other side. The Internet has created a new fabric of political mobilisation, new forms of information technology acting as pylons for political mobilisation outside the decaying frame of the liberal political horizon. ‘Rotted by digital contagions, modernity is falling to bits.

Many of the attempts to diagnose this condition have been hindered by a refusal to engage with its material basis. Detached idealism and sweeping generalisations are the order of the day. It’s just individual people who’ve come up with cunning political strategies. It’s a ‘reaction to globalisation’. It’s ‘angry white men’. Progress will win out in the end: it’s inevitable. There are simply bumps along the way.

Most of these analyses are too insubstantial to merit a response in detail. The world didn’t ‘stop making sense’ in 2016: you had never made sense of the world to begin with. It’s not true that ‘nothing matters’: it’s just that the things you thought mattered, in reality, never did.

If we’re being charitable, we might allow that journalists and analysts writing on these lines have certainly not been provided much help by the mainstream of academic political science and theory, which has been equally blindsided by recent events and has become a cottage industry dedicated to the production of inventive declarations of despair and vague and unhelpful recommendations for revitalising political engagement at the level of the local (often via the kind of necessarily impotent political practice that Srnicek and Williams term ‘folk politics’, and that Nick Land more unkindly labelled ‘socialism in one Bantustan’).

Mysteriously gesturing towards Rawls and Habermas or—in the case of the more critically inclined—the more authentic Western Marxists does not constitute a legitimate avenue towards a political praxis.

If we’re to answer the question of why things are falling apart, we need to search for a failure in the fundamental processes undergirding capitalism as we understand it today. Those who have searched for this explanation—people like Wolfgang Streeck, Yanis Varoufakis, or Andrew Kliman, to name just a few—have tended to alight on the idea that the economic crisis of the 1970s never really ended. The advanced economies have been rescued from depression only by prolonged bubbles, in the financial industry during the era of high neoliberalism, in the form of credit prior to 2008, and through increasingly unconventional economic remedies in the last eight years. All the while, real productivity has plateaued. The side-effects are piling on top of each other, the remaining options are running out, and, in 2016, the entire edifice has at last begun to unravel.

After almost 50 years, however, to call this a ‘crisis’ seems a conceptual confusion. Crises are momentary. The annexation of Crimea was a crisis. It was a discrete disturbance in the international order that demanded a determinate political response. The continuing sequence of events in eastern Ukraine, by contrast, is no longer a crisis—it is a kind of self-perpetuating anomaly. As offensive as it may be, the Donbass People’s Republics continue to exist in a kind of unstable equilibrium, presumably not indefinitely sustainable, yet, as far as we can see, prolonging themselves on an indefinite horizon.

We can perform a similar conceptual separation for the world-system as a whole. In Marxian economic theory, an economic crisis offers an opportunity for capitalism to clear the board, to reset the variables that determine the successful extraction of surplus value. In general, it is sharp and explosive; the scramble for profit in the conditions of the decline of the rate of profit takes the form of a desperate investment in new technologies and methods of production. But though the rate of profit has fallen, this desperate effort to intensify production does not, despite it all, seem to be happening: the decline in the rate of profit cannot in itself be a sufficient explanation. This, in the end, is not a crisis: it is a condition. And it happens that an often overlooked and disparaged current in the history of political thought provides a precise designation for this condition, namely decadence.

‘Decadence’ is a term that has fallen into disrepute. It has often carried moralising, or, at worst, racial overtones. The image of a revitalised masculinity arising from the ruins of an effeminate, ‘decadent’ society is a common one in fascist thought. But this is only one inflection on the concept. Decadence, at root, describes a condition of social and economic stasis. If ‘catastrophe’ for a figure like Walter Benjamin meant the rubble piled up by the relentless progress of modernity, decadence is precisely where the clock stops.

Contemporary capitalism is adept at producing technological innovation on a small-scale and iterative basis. This has produced great rewards in the computer industry, where indeed the vast majority of manufacturing expansion has been concentrated, but cannot be sustained forever. As industry stagnates and the precise sciences struggle against falling government investment, we seem to have lost the capacity for the more fundamental kinds of technological advance that represent (following, if we like, Land and Bergson) the basic struggle of human society against the infinite surrounding entropy of the universe, the real and tangible arc of material and historical progress.

Quite apart from the lack of new markets available for expansion, from the more general stagnancy of contemporary production, at the crucial level of the technoeconomy this kind of consumerist iteration has proven itself incapable of opening new avenues to economic growth.

The critics of accelerationism ought to take note: The brakes have been applied to capitalism. Globalisation is faltering, markets are failing to grow. What has resulted is not, in the first instance, a revitalised socialism, but fascism.

The kind of policy that results from this observation will need a much longer space to detail. A brief prescription, however, would look like this: End the decadence, and bring on the crisis. What is needed is a concerted and intelligent attempt to reset the intensification and concentration of industrial production. This is not something that capitalism can accomplish on its own: capitalists don’t invest for the sake of investment, but on the expectation of profit. In the anaemia of contemporary capitalism, then, this reset can only take place under state direction (though not, of course, necessarily direct state planning—the examples of German and East Asian development are an apposite guide). Just as it has in the past, the state must equally take on the responsibility of pushing forward the horizons of technological development.

This will require a strong concentration of political power—as well it should, since decentralising projects have severely undermined the capacity of popular democracy—supported, in the sphere of commerce, by a temporary dose of protectionism to cultivate new sectors of industry. It will necessarily imply the rejection of certain liberal principles and the adoption of populist methods, undergirded by modern information technology. In the political sphere, this will enable the construction of a functional postliberal democracy, while in the economic sphere it will set the conditions for a higher stage of capitalist development.

This is only a very schematic overview. I will deal with individual aspects of it in future posts.