Technoindustrial capitalism and the politics of catastrophic velocity



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mythic experimentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

The missing homeostat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With thanks to Pale Pink Spectre and Edmund Berger.

Accelerate Marx

accelerate marx

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.