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…’

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.