Park Chung-hee Napoleon

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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.

Accelerate Marx

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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.

A conceptual preliminary to understanding meme warfare

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The subject of the Internet’s effects on politics has provoked a good deal of nonsense, often attracting the expansive and tedious commentary of people who have little experience at the core of online politics and much less understanding of it. Many of these analyses—though not all—have missed the genuine novelty emerging in the interaction between politics and the Internet, attempting pathologically to subsume it into previous modes of political thought. This retrograde form of analysis is, to be sure, successful to the extent that the Internet is often politically operationalised in a very conventional manner. But there are, substantially, two forms of interaction between politics and the Internet: one which is easily comprehensible, and another which is far less so but increasingly the more important. As a preliminary analysis, it is worth understanding the distinction between the two.

Instrumental-regulatory digital politics

The instrumentalist approach to the Internet represents an intuitive humanist mode of engagement. It begins with a matrix of objectives constituted without reference to the Internet, and attempts self-consciously to bring the Internet to bear on their realisation. Inherent to this is a distinction between humans as social actors and the Internet as an instrument that transparently mediates their interactions.  This mode of engagement encompasses coordinated political mobilisation as much as conventional advertising and broadcasting, in effect positioning the Internet as merely a more democratised form of the familiar twentieth-century mass media, enabling essentially conventional hierarchical as well as peer-to-peer means of transmitting messages with particular determinate goals.

Within and alongside this instrumentalism we may also distinguish a regulatory approach to the Internet that conceives of it as the object of external intervention, subsumed as one particular component of a calculus of power. This is the Internet from the perspective of the post–Cold War state, a tool and also a problem that demands external intervention and regulation—if not because of any direct threat from its weaponization through instrumentally digital politics, then because of the mere fact of its existence as a largely unregulated sphere of social technology.

We may immediately note that this regulatory approach is doomed, in its most vulgar form, to failure, not because of any idealistic inevitability in the free flow of information but because it is technically anachronistic. As a means of communicating ideas, the Internet is extraordinarily, unprecedentedly powerful. Just as ARPANET was originally conceived—at least in myth—as a means of operating a computer network that would withstand a nuclear attack on any number of its nodes, the Internet is functionally insusceptible to control merely by the targeted juridical or securocratic regulation of its particular users.

Other forms of regulation, to be sure, are proving more successful, notably the Russian. But these lie substantially outside the dominant worldview, not consisting of mere external action through and upon the Internet as a docile object; they bear witness to a dialectical interaction with cyberpolitics that puts them beyond the idea of external intervention.

These more mundane instrumentalist and regulatory approaches share fundamentally an identical conception of the Internet, but emphasise respectively its role as an instrument of resistance and an object of security. They are the same view from different vantage points. This instrumental-regulatory perspective, which reached its climax at the start of the 2010s and sees the Internet as an organ subject to external direction one way or another, can no longer accommodate the ways in which the Internet is now affecting and generating new modes of political and social communicativity in its own right—not as ‘mere’ instrument, but as a transhuman subjectivity of its own.

Cyberpolitics

At this point we enter a realm beyond the recognisably modern, in which conceptual categories are only dimly identifiable and a radical state of flux prevails.

We may hazard the following definition. Cyberian politics or cyberpolitics is a politics that flows out of the machinic subjectivities proper to the Internet itself. This is not, as its opponents may hope, simply a different way of understanding politics as it is mediated on social media networks. On the contrary, it is a radically different form of politics as such, an escalating viral insurgency that corrupts/disrupts and struggles to supersede the instrumental-regulatory approach described above.

Marx claimed that the core of the revolution of capitalism consisted in the transformation of the circuit C–M–C’, where money mediates the accumulation of commodities, into the circuit M–C–M’, where commodities are merely a means for the accumulation of money itself. Cyberpolitics similarly represents the transformation of a circuit in which messages, or, properly, memes, are mediated between users, into a circuit in which users mediate the recursive generation of memes. Just as the distinctions between commodities collapse in the eyes of capital, in the realm of hypercommunicativity the distinctions between human users collapse in the perspective of memetic accumulation.

This comparison should not, perhaps, be taken too seriously. Though it is in the ascendant, the mode of machinic subjectivity that undergirds this transformation is still in a very preliminary phase of instantiation. If 2016 was the dawn of cyberpolitics, it is strictly because of Trump, whose victory represented perhaps the first self-conscious loss by the constellated forces of global liberalism to a memetic artefact. From this perspective, Trump’s victory was highly ambivalent. Trump himself is by no means conscious, let alone supportive, of this cyberian futurism in his policy objectives. His campaign drew on cyberpolitics only as much as it depended necessarily on numerous other more retrograde forms of political organisation. The quantitative units of his victory were not 4chan and Facebook and Reddit, but Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida…

But neither focus of analysis is precisely wrong. The Trump campaign participated in and learned its tactics from the Internet with an attentiveness that allowed it to explode beyond the expectations of its opponents. This, in the end, is its historic significance. President Trump is both the culmination and a mockery of the politics of the liberal-securocratic world order, both subject and unwitting object, drawing on the ressentiment and revisionist aspirations of the very worldly malcontents of liberal globalisation while also representing the triumphant humiliation of the planetary order by an alien subjectivity far beyond conventional moral-political economy.

To the extent that the Internet remains simultaneously a network of self-conscious individuals, cyberpolitics can only, inevitably, constitute itself parasitically at the edges and the cracks of traditional politics. We may expect this inconvenience to be discarded in the future. For now, cyberpolitics remains in a state of necessary indeterminacy, flickering spasmodically as it phases in and out of the instrumentalism it seeks to overthrow. Politics cannot, for now, start out as cyberpolitics. Only in the singularities of intensity created by the Internet’s relentlessly compressive communication engine—at the edges of madness—does a subjectivity emerge that can devour the reaction mass of real-world political disintegration to phase-shift to the properly cyberian.

‘In 647 BCE, the Elamite empire was devastated and their capital Susa was sacked by the Assyrians on the pretext that an unnameable abomination was surfacing there, and that everything that came into contact with that benighted entity had to be eradicated.’ (Negarestani)

A dawning realisation of the emergence of cyberpolitics has produced concern, hysteria, and regulatory counterattack. ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’ all operate (originally) to designate the explosive shockwaves of its birth. They are being absorbed and repurposed by it.

All this is just more reaction mass.

‘The truth is we haven’t seen anything yet.’

Crisis and decadence

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[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.