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.

The end of (your) humanity: Cybernetics casually defined

I have written before, and repeatedly, that I believe two dynamics prevalently characterise ‘modernity’, namely the radical expansion of capital and the radical compression of communicative cybernetics, and I think it is often useful to analyse the history and the contemporary characteristics of modern society through the interaction of these two forces. Generally, however, when I make this argument people accept the former tendency—mass production and commodification is more or less an inescapable feature of modern life—but question the significance and, more fundamentally, the meaning of the latter. So here I will offer a casual, by no means rigorous, definition and historical overview of what I mean by ‘the compression of communicative cybernetics’.

‘Cybernetics’ is a complex term with a rich diversity of contemporary usage. Often it is rather loosely, and correctly, associated with computer technology, but its significance substantially predates the advent of modern computing and encompasses a great deal more than it. When I talk about cybernetics, I generally mean it in the way it was characterised by Norbert Wiener in 1948, that is, technologies ‘of control and communication’. The former of these two concepts is usually the one being emphasised when the term is used—kubernaô is, after all, ‘steer’ or ‘govern’ in Greek—so I often refer specifically to ‘communicative cybernetics’ to redistribute the focus a little. Of course, a technology of communication is already by definition a technology of control—anything that mediates interpersonal relationships transmits relationships of power; at the minimum, a communicative technology can communicate commands—so this remains only a difference in emphasis.

What does it mean, then, to say that these technologies have had a ‘compressive’ tendency? This is simply an attempt to describe the historical development of modern politics as a whole. Control-and-communication is not just about orders issued from on high: the institutions that represent ‘crystallised’ architectures of power stand as a small minority in contrast to the dynamic fluidity of power relations that characterises most of our everyday life. Communication also means mobilisation, the spontaneous arrangement and distribution of power among groups of people whose size and coherence will depend on the forms and capacities of the technologies being deployed. Modern technology—both in the everyday sense of machinery like railways and radios, and in Foucault’s sense even ideas, like novel forms of political thought—has tended to bring, or force, ever larger groups of people into ever closer spontaneous arrangements. In other words, it has tended to compress them.

In his intellectual history of the twentieth-century challenge to liberal democracy, Contesting Democracy, Jan-Werner Müller characterises the eruptions of early-twentieth-century mass democracy through an image used by David Lloyd George: the ‘molten mass’. The implication of the ‘molten mass’ is that in mass politics we are dealing with a fundamental disintegration of rational individuality—the kind of thing that peaked, conceptually, in 18th century Enlightenment philosophy—into a fluid mass consciousness. Compressive cybernetics means melting the masses: as Müller puts it in an interesting echo of Nietzsche, it means the ‘levelling and homogenizing’ of sociable humans.

The tendency of drastic compression in the early twentieth century, which gave rise in the end to totalitarianism, was permitted and abetted by the emergence of many different kinds of cybernetic technologies in the period. Breaking through the fragile gates of established politics, it provoked a hurricane of disorder and contributed to the ravaging of the world in the 1940s. In reaction, in the postwar period the molten masses of the West were, if not resolidified, tamed and regulated to a considerable extent by a new liberal elite order supported by far-reaching welfare systems that averted the need for mass organisation. In most Western countries social democracy divorced itself from the masses and crystallised progressively into managerial technocracy. Neoliberalism kicked out one important pillar of this order—and it’s not coming back—but to a large extent it remained a managerial ideology; as a mode of internal political organisation it even represents the culmination of the original postwar trend (consider Blair’s autocracy in New Labour). This has become all too clear today in the escalating standoff between technocracy and the new populism.

New technologies have arisen, however. Among them, the Internet is the most radical and the most totalising: it has kicked the ‘melting of the masses’ into a new phase of overdrive, converting the basis of society from rigid individuality into what Ccru called ‘flat productive collectivities’. The consequences are already running riot. The Internet far exceeds what was available in the early twentieth century. Where cybernetic mobilisation was hitherto a sporadic and temporally limited phenomenon—the heightened phases of politicization of the twentieth century tended in the end to spend themselves relatively quickly, as the Cultural Revolution showed in China—the Internet is distorting, compressing, and collapsing all our social relations, all of the time. It’s driving people mad, and it’s questionable whether ‘individuals’ will still exist in any meaningful sense once it’s finished years from now, torn apart as they are between the constant spontaneous mass action and the endless proliferation of identity that the Internet encourages.

Is this something we should be worried about? I have written that the current effects of the dominance of cybernetics are well-characterised as ‘catastrophic’. Yet in the long run it’s only an apocalypse, without reprieve, if you’re attached to the glory of the individual and to humanism as an end in itself. In the short term, to be sure, all kinds of pathological phenomena will result, and are resulting, from this intensifying cybernetic delirium. Yet Nietzsche suggested that the process of ‘levelling mankind’—like the process of nihilism—tends to overcome itself. This, I think, is precisely the wager and the motivating optimism of the ‘fundamentalist accelerationist’ who can find it within themselves to identify with this process (exit is hard to imagine).

Nietzsche, for his part, offered political analogies: the French Revolution, which went through similarly pathological phases, led in the end to a new order under Napoleon; the docility of mass Confucianism led to the glory of imperial China. Questionably encouraging exemplars, to be sure, but when projected to the level of the species, the levelling of mankind, the end-point and disintegration of the Enlightenment’s autonomous individual drives us inescapably from humanist society to a posthumanist society, from a society based on competing relationships of power to one where power itself, as Baudrillard predicted, becomes increasingly meaningless. Cybernetics is generating all-encompassing blackness, but combined with the force of techonomy it is a fair wager that in these extraordinary conditions something new will emerge. We can only hope the ride there isn’t too rough.