Excavating the origins of accelerationism


The intellectual history of accelerationism remains largely unexplored, though critiques from intellectual history abound. A criticism often levelled at Land, for instance, is his supposed inadequacy as a reader of Deleuze and Guattari. This is at root an intellectual-historical argument, and the intellectual historian will recognise it as Skinnerian: a historical actor, Skinner’s maxim goes, cannot be ascribed any belief that they themselves would not have recognised as an adequate description of their beliefs.

This is to some degree a fair critique when levelled at someone trying to present such a description of intentions, but the CCRU were competent and interesting investigators of Deleuze and Guattari precisely because they did not assume the posture of historicists recovering what these writers actually thought, or of scholars contributing a new and convincing reading to a burgeoning field of scholarship. The qwertopological decoding of A Thousand Plateaus and Barker’s geotraumatic investigations into the screaming of the earth were never supposed to unravel a fine jigsaw of meanings artistically assembled in the 1970s by a French philosopher and a psychoanalyst. They highlighted signals whose transmission the two men could only barely have recognised. In this sense, the historicist critique of CCRU’s ‘reading of Deleuze and Guattari’ misses the point. Clearly they are not simply unconnected, but too strong a preference for exposition leads academics down crumbling corridors to the charnel house of interpretive scholarship. Unleashing ideas—intercepting signals—demands a different approach. In the course of the history of ideas, reshaping and novelty have always trumped antiquarian precision.

Just as the CCRU did more than to establish a particular school of Deleuze–Guattari interpretation, accelerationism in general cannot be considered a school of Deleuzianism, and critique of its appropriacy as such a school is misdirected. Many self-identified accelerationists do not consider themselves ‘Deleuzian’, and it bears mention that the name of Deleuze has not figured at all in this blog up to now. The Deleuzian character of much of contemporary accelerationism is a contingency, not a necessity. My own interaction with accelerationism began through reading Marx and Nietzsche. Its contours can equally be derived from other thinkers, perhaps countless others, if only you know where to look.

To trace the genealogy of accelerationism is thus fraught with problems. On the most superficial level, accelerationism has existed for about a decade. At its unspoken core, it is impossibly ancient. Different focuses will yield wildly divergent results. No doubt an article on ‘accelerationism’ in some distant future edition of the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe would take care to highlight the term’s formulation by Noys, having traced the concern with ‘acceleration’ through obvious references back to Deleuze and Guattari, and from there to Nietzsche. It would look to the term’s adoption and disavowal by different groups on left and right in the mid to late 2010s. As an exercise in etymology this would be interesting enough; as a genealogical investigation it would be disastrous. Accelerationism is not a specific reading of Nietzsche any more than capitalism is a reading of Smith. A Marxian accelerationist does not need to have read a single page of A Thousand Plateaus to remain an accelerationist. Similar conclusions—similar sentiments—have been expressed from traditions seemingly almost entirely unaware of each other.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is best not to think of accelerationism, in the first instance, as a set of ideas at all. Land has described what he terms ‘libidinal materialism’ as more a ‘jangling of the nerves’ than a set of doctrines. Accelerationism is not identical with libidinal materialism, but the same observation seems abundantly to apply to it. With the appropriate historical sensibility, modulations of accelerationism soon well up in widely divergent contexts, all over the world, advancing along the storm-front of industrial capitalism. It emerges as a sensation of the acceleration characteristic of modernity itself, expressed in different ways by Marx, Hirato, Baudrillard, and plenty others. The drive to posit this expression in specifically philosophical form is perhaps peculiarly influenced by Western tradition. The sensation itself is not.

This magic trick of flickering appearance and disappearance cannot be explained according to the conventions of conceptual history precisely because accelerationism is not a figment of the ideal history of concepts moving of their own accord, one carefully crafted ideology among others. It is an impulse proper to modern capitalism itself. Whatever letters are jammed before the slash, no systematised species of accelerationism can exhaust or perfectly transmit this underlying impulse: much is necessarily lost in the transformation from impulse to revelation. In Rahnerian style, we may say that the advent of capitalism has produced thousands of ‘anonymous accelerationists’, not to speak of anonymous accelerators who number many orders of magnitude more.

This, indeed, may lie at the heart of the difficulties with identifying a pure and spotless ‘concept of acceleration’. The different species of accelerationism—whether self-conscious or not—are not deductive representations of a single concept. Their core appears to be something more fundamental—a mode of preconscious interaction that eludes exhaustive conceptual codification. The search for a genealogy of accelerationism rapidly becomes social, economic, physiological, geotraumatic. The origin of this signal recedes beyond our grasp.

When it is written, then, the intellectual history and genealogy of accelerationism must look beyond the contingencies of its present expressions. To have any value, it must tap into the subterranean current of communication itself.

Unconditional accelerationism as antipraxis


If the public articulation of unconditional accelerationism has slowed in recent months, the reception and controversy it has occasioned have not. The silence, of course, is superficial. The storm above is bloated; soon, the sea-green sky will break, and the air will be filled with transmissions from the vastness beyond. It is best to explain the situation before it is too late.

What is unconditional accelerationism?—What, in any case, is accelerationism?

Nick Land has offered an excellent answer to this question in his ‘Quick-and-Dirty Introduction’, but from the U/ACC perspective much more remains to be said. The problem has been muddied by its own continual posing in humanist terms, which have provoked a refusal to understand the enormity of the issues at stake. From this perspective of humanism, thought is assimilated entirely to the objective of negotiating the problems that are held to confront humanity. Philosophically, it is concerned with epistemological understanding founded implicitly or not on the centrality of a coherent human subject; critically, it reduces the world to the relations of power practiced by humans towards humans; politically, it immerses itself in defining and putting into motion a better human society. Thought is rendered finally as a series of technical questions that constitute the tactical mapping of a topography whose ultimate form is placed beyond dispute.

This insistent backwater parochialism has eclipsed the intellectually interesting content of accelerationism. In colloquial usage on the left, for instance, ‘accelerationism’ has come to denote merely the idea that the situation of humanity must get worse before it gets better. At the heart of this definition lies the insistent, obsessional humanist question, ‘What is to be done?’, the fundamental question of praxis. The answer is rendered: ‘We must make things worse, so that they get better.’ This uninteresting idea has provoked an avalanche of furious critique of a commensurate intellectual scale. It is the doctrine, we are told, of ‘a dim child, trapped in a train about to crash, pretending he’s the driver’. Quite right, yet the critics protest too much: this is a feeling that has been characteristic of modern radicalism for centuries. Fourier’s prophecies of impending catastrophe shade into the Leninist theory of the intensification of contradictions, on and on up to the present day. A hundred years ago this idea was called catastrophism, and if it is a sickness, it is a sickness that is far more powerful and pervasive than most casual dismissals of the idea would have us believe.

If this is not the accelerationist response, of course, a clamour immediately arises for the real answer. A number of options are duly presented. For Srnicek and Williams and other managerialists, the worsening is cut out of the picture: things will get better if only we establish a practical political hegemony that can make it so. This, apparently, is the real content of accelerationism: an opposition to the diffuse localisms that regress from the hard work of great politics into ‘spaces of resistance’ and fantasies of escape. In this response, of course, the humanist obsession reaches a totalising climax: the human capacity to reshape the world is utterly unbound; the promised land lies not beyond but immediately ahead.

The unconditional accelerationist dismisses the question. On its very terms, human agency has already been elevated to become the guide and measure of the world, and this, conceptually, is intolerable. It is precisely against this view that accelerationism defines itself as ‘antihuman(ist)’, and against the fundamental question of praxis that it offers ‘antipraxis’. This can hardly mean ‘Do nothing’, of course: that would mean not just to return to the fundamental question of praxis, but to offer perhaps the most numbly tedious answer of all. The unconditional accelerationist, instead, referring to the colossal horrors presented to the human agent all the way from the processes of capital accumulation and social complexification to the underlying structure, or seeming absence of structure, of reality itself, points to the basic unimportance of unidirectional human agency. We ‘hurl defiance to the stars’, but in their silence—when we see them at all—the stars return only crushing contempt. To the question ‘What is to be done?’, then, she can legitimately answer only, ‘Do what thou wilt’—and ‘Let go.’

We insist, then, that there is no promised land, no socialist Prester John waiting ready and hidden either in the icy winds of human political temporality or in the solar-hot chaos of urban intensity. Far from discouraging the unconditional accelerationist or beckoning her to the grim convent of asceticism, however, the ruins in which this realisation contemptuously leaves us are the terrain of a genuine, even, properly, horrific aesthetic freedom that is liberated from the totality of a one-directional political teleology. ‘Do what thou wilt’, since with human agency displaced, the world will route around our decisions, impressing itself precisely through our glittering fractionation. Taking the smallest steps beyond good and evil, the unconditional accelerationist, more than anyone else, is free at heart to pursue what she thinks is good and right and interesting—but with the ironical realisation that the primary ends that are served are not her own. For the unconditional accelerationist, the fastidious seriousness of the problem-solvers who propose to ‘save humanity’ is absurd in the face of the problems they confront. It can provoke only Olympian laughter. And so, ‘in its colder variants, which are those that win out, [accelerationism] tends to laugh.’

This freedom is what antipraxis means, and this uncompromising conceptual opposition not to the practice, but to the very capacity to regulate the transcendental diagram of acceleration, and the overthrow of normative commandments this provokes, constitutes one form of its unconditionality. And with this, we can hear the murky waters already rushing down the streets.

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.


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

park chung hee poster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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