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.

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A conceptual preliminary to understanding meme warfare

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

Instrumental-regulatory digital politics

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

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

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

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

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

Cyberpolitics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this is just more reaction mass.

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

Mark Fisher and the fading of the left

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Inevitably, on the occasion of Mark Fisher’s death, my attention has been drawn back to the seminal essay he wrote in 2013, ‘Exiting the Vampire Castle’. Roundly mocked and ferociously denounced at the time it was written, what is striking now is the number of leftist commentators, like Sam Kriss, who have taken the opportunity to recant their previous opposition to Fisher’s analysis. There is little I can add directly to ‘Vampire Castle’. Fisher’s insights stand for themselves. Rather than monotonously repeating ‘I told you so’, I think it is worth investigating the reasons Fisher’s analysis is so much more acute today than it seemed in 2013.

The basic point that leftist political organisation among the middle class has proven peculiarly susceptible to authoritarianism was nothing new. With his usual pessimistic acuity, Adorno had already identified the totalitarian tendency of leftist political organisation in the West in Minima Moralia when he observed that ‘solidary itself has become sick’: ‘Solidarity is polarized into the desperate loyalty of those who have no way back, and virtual blackmail practised on those who want nothing to do with gaolers, nor to fall foul of thieves.’ As Adorno saw, this tendency expressed itself not just in the enormous hierarchies of really existing mass socialism, but in the petty authoritarianism of minor leftist parties and movements in the West. To some extent this exists in all political and social movements that find themselves excluded from the mainstream of contemporary society, whether on right or left, whether political parties or hippie communes. Fisher’s insight in ‘Vampire Castle’ was to grasp, before most others, the new and particularly pathological form that this authoritarianism had assumed in the core networks of the left today.

Mark Fisher, like many of those who graduated from the mad intensity of Warwick’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, was a man out of time. His analysis in 2013 seems bizarrely, retrochronically infected by the events of 2016. But there are, perhaps, rather worldly reasons for this. The pathological form of left-liberalism he identified in ‘Vampire Castle’ emerged from two destructive historical tendencies that have stepped into overdrive since 2015. The first of these is the constant retreat of the left—a story repeated since the advent of neoliberalism. From the 1980s on, the left has suffered such a relentless and unremitting series of defeats in the economy, in politics, and in wider society alike, that it has been forced out of necessity to transition from acting, in its bulk, as a watchfully progressive support for postwar welfarism, to becoming a forlorn rear-guard defence of the crumbling welfare state.

Secondly, with the successful universalisation of the neoliberal world order, the forces of popular democracy and technocapital have now begun seriously to erode the social and political foundations of liberalism itself. This has paradoxically forced a considerable section of middle-class liberal opinion into a ‘radical’ defensive posture that momentarily aligns it with the welfare conservatism characteristic of the left-wing mainstream—a conjuncture that became especially acute in 2016 in the opposition to Brexit and Trump, and that will no doubt intensify for the foreseeable future. Leftist politics has thus inevitably become powerfully infected by modern liberalism, with all the various individualist pathologies outlined in ‘Vampire Castle’. The intensifying awareness of this problem has triggered an escalating civil war within the left.

Neither of these historical tendencies—the left being forced into retreat, liberalism being forced towards the left—is strictly new. There are innumerable examples in modern history of liberalism and leftism being forced to cooperate, particularly against unambiguous atavisms like institutionalised sexism and racism. But the screaming urgency of the current political climate is unprecedented: liberalism finds itself under a sustained assault unseen since the 1930s at the same time that leftism teeters on the precipice of total collapse. The forcible collision this has occasioned between the two decaying forces has created new and often pathological political phenomena. In this context, the temporary success of radical figures like Corbyn and Sanders who have capitalised on the left-liberal marriage of inconvenience indicates not the advancing progress of the left but its mounting desperation. As the confusion and infighting that surrounds these two old men who represent the last great hope of Anglophone leftism amply demonstrates, they are not the rebirth of the left. They are its rigor mortis.

‘Intersectionality’ is the watchword of this coalition of the damned, designating more the absence of a theory of action than a particular type, a kind of Rousseauvian hope that a general will can constitute itself mathematically out of the conflicting interests of all the different groups who lay claim to some restitution of injustice. Ostensibly influenced by poststructuralism, as an impossible struggle against the existence of power itself it proves itself radically opposed to its theoretical progenitors. It has no successful political leaders because it is incapable of political praxis. It offers only conservative nostalgia for a now-impracticable welfare state through its leftist side and, as Fisher explained so clearly in ‘Vampire Castle’, the administration of guilt based on the exclusionary norms of bourgeois civility through its liberal side.

Solidarity itself is sick.

The future for progressive politics is darkening on every side. As the options for averting systemic crisis run out and globalisation kicks into reverse, hope recedes into the distance, becoming catastrophically remote. Divorced from any hope of political power, the ferocious internal criticism perfected by the left has combined grotesquely with an increasingly anachronistic liberal insistence on individuality, creating a monster that now runs rampant over the corpse of mainstream leftism as the iron dawn of cyberian politics shatters old forms of state organisation, kicking the ruling class into securitisation overdrive.

What, then, is left? The doomed struggle waged by leftists against neoliberalism is now fading into history, giving way to a far more symmetric, all-pervading, kaleidoscopic struggle between populists and managerial technocrats. The lightning bolts of 2016 threw disturbing flashes of light on this process that have now shocked many leftists out of their complacency, triggering, in part, the ongoing civil war now wracking the left. The sheer hysterically reactionary quality of the left-liberalism embodied in Twitterati Clintonism in the US and radical Remainism in the UK, its totalitarian view of its own allies, has now become frighteningly obvious. Now, as this left-liberal coalition works its way towards its inevitable collapse, the endlessly, monomaniacally repeated question over the shape of a world beyond capitalism must give way to a more fundamental one: what is the point of the left today?

2016: The accession of the Internet

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Europeans used to perish of diseases in the tropics, swathing their camps in mosquito nets as a defence against malaria. Now cyberpositive diseases are spreading strange tropics to the metropolis, and the screening systems are exploding out of control. The netting no longer filters out the invaders, they have learnt to infiltrate the networks. Now even the test programs are unreliable, the net itself is infected. (Sadie Plant and Nick Land)

2016 was a turning point. It marked the high tide of the most recent wave of globalisation as a material force. Geopolitically, it saw the conclusive failure of the attempt to reassert American hegemony on a liberal basis. But the lasting and historic significance of 2016 is that it saw, at last, the long-heralded emergence of the Internet as a social and political force. And everything began to fall apart.

The moment of hubristic and profoundly delusional technopolitical optimism that flourished at the opening of this decade has, in most places, given way to embarrassment and anger. The cyberpolitics that Obama supposedly deployed so effectively has proven itself to be only a throwback to an earlier age. Only the least timely and the most disingenuous commentators still maintain the fiction that the Internet is a force for the universal unfolding of liberalism—perhaps because the reality is too disturbing for them to contemplate.

Experience has now shown that cybertechnology insists on its autonomy, defying attempts to impose political control to one end or another from above, while itself decomposing and reaggregating the characteristics of human existence from below. But this experience is provoking contradictory reactions: denial, petulance, blissful ignorance, only very rarely acceptance.

Nevertheless it persists, and things continue to fall apart. The mechanical reproduction of ideology through the domineering apparatus of the culture industry, where each deviation could be checked and pathologised by the consensus of a uniform media and the birthing of new sociopolitical movements required significant material investment, is giving way to an age of cybernetic reproduction in which ideology regenerates and mutates endlessly, refracting through limitless multiplicities on platforms of free and instantaneous communication, through which new movements are daily, hourly, conjured and dismissed glitteringly from existence.

Politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.

The liberals are turning up the pressure, displacing all political argument to the level of the individual. As old political distinctions descend into irrelevance, forced to rearrange themselves around the abomination of Internet-populism which itself struggles against its own perpetual disintegration, the liberal political imaginary transitions into the paranoiac administration of guilt.

Dimly, there is a dawning recognition that something has gone badly wrong. The circuit of virtue connecting the generation of value and ideology in academia, the healthy competition of the democratic political arena, and the maintenance of liberal policy has fallen apart. ‘The people have had enough of experts’: experts have had enough of the people.

All the while, the ground is falling away. In cyberpolitics, the process of Kantian individualisation is carried to its logical, self-annihilating Nietzschean conclusion as the rational individual itself is destroyed, disintegrating inevitably into online refractions and permanent irrationality. Authenticity is being swept away, replaced by all-consuming technicity. Without its object of concern, the politics of the individual becomes pathetic and impotent, even as it grows fiercer and fiercer in its rhetoric.

Unaccustomed to anything else, the intellectual ancien régime adheres ever more closely to its outdated analysis, misinterpreting the phenomena of the new age through the lens of the old. ‘Trump became president because he manipulated the media’ (as if the 2010s were the 1910s and media manipulation were a novel phenomenon). But the ‘mass media’ are dying, ceding way to mass intercommunication.

Monsters are emerging as the material circuit of capital grinds to a halt and cyberpolitics runs away ahead of it.

The lesson of this year was that cyberpolitics is not a force of globalisation. It is the end of the human world itself.

Crisis and decadence

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[Edit 03/03/2017 — I no longer agree with much of this post, particularly the prescriptions of the concluding paragraphs. Its genesis was an attempt to rescue conventional left-accelerationism when I still thought there was a need for it, but I’m leaving it up since in fact it serves as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of the left-accelerationist project itself. The decadence/crisis distinction continues, however, to be necessary.]

The liberal-capitalist system is dying again. For the first time in seven decades, globalisation and liberalism have fallen into retreat. The sinking tide is uncovering states that are either hollow shells devoid of political and moral legitimacy, or vessels for new forms of revivalist authoritarianism. The emerging economies that were once scheduled to take on the burden of supporting world capitalism from an anaemic West have found the ground crumbling beneath them. Russia has formally abandoned the liberalising project, returning to the great-power politics of a previous age. Brazil has fallen into deep recession, ruled by a putschist, kleptocratic government that has busied itself mutilating what remains of the country’s economic prospects. China teeters on the brink as the return of protectionism threatens to plunge it into paralytic recession. The flow of investment to emerging markets has reversed. In wealth, if not in market size, the West has once again begun to pull away from the rest.

The titanic war-machines of populism and market-technocracy are grinding the Left to dust. The left-populist project has proven, so far, an abject failure, whether in government as in Greece, or outside of it as in Spain, Britain, and the United States. Now the barest defeat for fascism is counted as a cause for celebration, while the darkness closes in from every other side. The Internet has created a new fabric of political mobilisation, new forms of information technology acting as pylons for political mobilisation outside the decaying frame of the liberal political horizon. ‘Rotted by digital contagions, modernity is falling to bits.

Many of the attempts to diagnose this condition have been hindered by a refusal to engage with its material basis. Detached idealism and sweeping generalisations are the order of the day. It’s just individual people who’ve come up with cunning political strategies. It’s a ‘reaction to globalisation’. It’s ‘angry white men’. Progress will win out in the end: it’s inevitable. There are simply bumps along the way.

Most of these analyses are too insubstantial to merit a response in detail. The world didn’t ‘stop making sense’ in 2016: you had never made sense of the world to begin with. It’s not true that ‘nothing matters’: it’s just that the things you thought mattered, in reality, never did.

If we’re being charitable, we might allow that journalists and analysts writing on these lines have certainly not been provided much help by the mainstream of academic political science and theory, which has been equally blindsided by recent events and has become a cottage industry dedicated to the production of inventive declarations of despair and vague and unhelpful recommendations for revitalising political engagement at the level of the local (often via the kind of necessarily impotent political practice that Srnicek and Williams term ‘folk politics’, and that Nick Land more unkindly labelled ‘socialism in one Bantustan’).

Mysteriously gesturing towards Rawls and Habermas or—in the case of the more critically inclined—the more authentic Western Marxists does not constitute a legitimate avenue towards a political praxis.

If we’re to answer the question of why things are falling apart, we need to search for a failure in the fundamental processes undergirding capitalism as we understand it today. Those who have searched for this explanation—people like Wolfgang Streeck, Yanis Varoufakis, or Andrew Kliman, to name just a few—have tended to alight on the idea that the economic crisis of the 1970s never really ended. The advanced economies have been rescued from depression only by prolonged bubbles, in the financial industry during the era of high neoliberalism, in the form of credit prior to 2008, and through increasingly unconventional economic remedies in the last eight years. All the while, real productivity has plateaued. The side-effects are piling on top of each other, the remaining options are running out, and, in 2016, the entire edifice has at last begun to unravel.

After almost 50 years, however, to call this a ‘crisis’ seems a conceptual confusion. Crises are momentary. The annexation of Crimea was a crisis. It was a discrete disturbance in the international order that demanded a determinate political response. The continuing sequence of events in eastern Ukraine, by contrast, is no longer a crisis—it is a kind of self-perpetuating anomaly. As offensive as it may be, the Donbass People’s Republics continue to exist in a kind of unstable equilibrium, presumably not indefinitely sustainable, yet, as far as we can see, prolonging themselves on an indefinite horizon.

We can perform a similar conceptual separation for the world-system as a whole. In Marxian economic theory, an economic crisis offers an opportunity for capitalism to clear the board, to reset the variables that determine the successful extraction of surplus value. In general, it is sharp and explosive; the scramble for profit in the conditions of the decline of the rate of profit takes the form of a desperate investment in new technologies and methods of production. But though the rate of profit has fallen, this desperate effort to intensify production does not, despite it all, seem to be happening: the decline in the rate of profit cannot in itself be a sufficient explanation. This, in the end, is not a crisis: it is a condition. And it happens that an often overlooked and disparaged current in the history of political thought provides a precise designation for this condition, namely decadence.

‘Decadence’ is a term that has fallen into disrepute. It has often carried moralising, or, at worst, racial overtones. The image of a revitalised masculinity arising from the ruins of an effeminate, ‘decadent’ society is a common one in fascist thought. But this is only one inflection on the concept. Decadence, at root, describes a condition of social and economic stasis. If ‘catastrophe’ for a figure like Walter Benjamin meant the rubble piled up by the relentless progress of modernity, decadence is precisely where the clock stops.

Contemporary capitalism is adept at producing technological innovation on a small-scale and iterative basis. This has produced great rewards in the computer industry, where indeed the vast majority of manufacturing expansion has been concentrated, but cannot be sustained forever. As industry stagnates and the precise sciences struggle against falling government investment, we seem to have lost the capacity for the more fundamental kinds of technological advance that represent (following, if we like, Land and Bergson) the basic struggle of human society against the infinite surrounding entropy of the universe, the real and tangible arc of material and historical progress.

Quite apart from the lack of new markets available for expansion, from the more general stagnancy of contemporary production, at the crucial level of the technoeconomy this kind of consumerist iteration has proven itself incapable of opening new avenues to economic growth.

The critics of accelerationism ought to take note: The brakes have been applied to capitalism. Globalisation is faltering, markets are failing to grow. What has resulted is not, in the first instance, a revitalised socialism, but fascism.

The kind of policy that results from this observation will need a much longer space to detail. A brief prescription, however, would look like this: End the decadence, and bring on the crisis. What is needed is a concerted and intelligent attempt to reset the intensification and concentration of industrial production. This is not something that capitalism can accomplish on its own: capitalists don’t invest for the sake of investment, but on the expectation of profit. In the anaemia of contemporary capitalism, then, this reset can only take place under state direction (though not, of course, necessarily direct state planning—the examples of German and East Asian development are an apposite guide). Just as it has in the past, the state must equally take on the responsibility of pushing forward the horizons of technological development.

This will require a strong concentration of political power—as well it should, since decentralising projects have severely undermined the capacity of popular democracy—supported, in the sphere of commerce, by a temporary dose of protectionism to cultivate new sectors of industry. It will necessarily imply the rejection of certain liberal principles and the adoption of populist methods, undergirded by modern information technology. In the political sphere, this will enable the construction of a functional postliberal democracy, while in the economic sphere it will set the conditions for a higher stage of capitalist development.

This is only a very schematic overview. I will deal with individual aspects of it in future posts.

The truth is irrelevant

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Attempts to conceptualise the relationship between truth and political action have been pervasively hindered by the pejorative attitude of those who have tried to explain it. There is a sneer implicit in almost any academic or journalistic discussion of conspiracy theories, a knowing smirk that says, implicitly or outright, ‘Imagine believing such stupid things, when we, after all, know better!’ As the power differential sustaining this attitude has begun to collapse, the smirk has transformed into overt fear, disgust, and anger: ‘Post-truth politics’, ‘fake news’: ‘How dare they believe these things?’ In its most acute form, the reaction has been melded into sweeping Platonic denunciations of the principle of democracy itself, which present millennia-old defences of oligarchy as trendy liberal opinions. This is hardly by accident: as we can already see in Plato himself, the flight from democratic politics, indeed from all politics, and the obsession with abstract truth are intimately connected.

In reality, this devotion to ‘the truth’ has proven itself concerned with ‘facts’ in only the shallowest sense. What is striking, indeed, is how often the people who are fastest to decry ‘post-truth politics’ are simply wrong—and not just in their predictions, as Paul Krugman was when he foresaw markets irrecoverably ‘plunging’ upon Trump’s election (this may be excused). The widely circulated claim in the EU referendum campaign that there were no academic experts supporting Leave could easily have been debunked by a cursory Google search. A more recent example serves as another case in point. When Donald Trump tweeted that the costs for a replacement to Air Force One furnished by Boeing had reached the order of $4 billion, liberal celebrities like George Takei were quick to rush to the side of the multinational corporation whose image was at stake, announcing with the requisite smugness that per their own press release Boeing had only asked for a sum many times less than that. But Trump was correct: the total appropriations for the project were indeed expected to reach the region of $4 billion. Slate’s headline speaks for itself: ‘In a Twist, Trump’s Disputed Twitter Claim About Air Force One Turns Out to Be Completely True’. (The original headline remains in the URL.)

The reason for this, of course, is that the obsession with the truth is disingenuous. It is predicated on the idea that the opponents of liberalism or globalism, whatever we call that hazy mixture of ideas reproduced ceaselessly in the nexuses of global power, are prophets of untruth. By definition: because the obsession is not, as its proponents claim, a defence of rationality against unreason. It is in the first instance a defence of power. They are not interested in the facts, but in using facts as an instrument to demolish their opposition.

Yet it is not just that the liberals are hypocritical. Even in an entirely transparent form, it is not exactly obvious that ‘the truth’ is a worthy end in itself in politics. What, exactly, is wrong with untruth? What is wrong with conspiracy theories, even assuming they are incorrect?

The indignation over conspiracy theories tends to focus on the anxiety that they make politics as a whole dysfunctional. The prevalence of conspiracy theories, we are told, weakens the legitimacy of political institutions. So they do. But why is it so important that our present political institutions be seen as legitimate? Why shouldn’t Muslims disbelieve the responsibility of al-Qaeda for 9/11, as indeed they overwhelmingly do in Britain, when they receive that idea from institutions and interests that collaborated to marginalise them in the aftermath of 9/11? Why shouldn’t white Rust Belt workers, in their turn, believe that the economists and politicians whose policies marginalised them were working in the service of a conspiracy?

This is quite an imposing series of rhetorical questions. But they are getting at a fairly simple conclusion. It is entirely wrong to believe that in themselves conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ are pathological. In the end, they are an understandable, even a desirable, response for people marginalised by the structures of global power to construct theories to explain their predicament. When American liberals recall the Founding Fathers in their defences of the Electoral College, let us also remember that the American Revolution could never have been accomplished without the proliferation of conspiracy theories. There was, after all, no grand British conspiracy to enslave the colonies, not to speak of the more specific, and more lurid theories to which the British government of the time was subject.

Just as in the 18th century, indeed, the conspiracy theorist is closer to an authentic engagement with the reality of politics than the entirely uncritical establishmentarian who protests endlessly in favour of a ‘truth’ constructed by power without ever examining the forces underlying it. As Hardt and Negri noted,

The spectacle of politics functions as if the media, the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions, and so forth were all consciously and explicitly directed by a single power even though in reality they are not.

In the far more conflict-ridden era we are entering, it may perhaps be better to write that rather than politics as a whole, in much of the West it is specifically the defence against the populist tide that is functioning in this manner. We may note how many self-proclaimed leftists have fallen in with ‘the military, the government, the transnational corporations, the global financial institutions’ in their drive to defend the truth at any cost. (It takes a certain level of cognitive dissonance to believe that the academics and journalists who have repeatedly failed to foresee the present course of politics are superior sources of authority on it. And it is extraordinarily forgetful to continue, eight years after 2008, to legitimate the bulk of the economic profession as high priests of the truth in a stagnant and deglobalising world economy when their prognostications have been based on indefinite growth and globalisation.)

How should we understand the interest in defending this ‘truth’ at this moment in time? Part of the reason it is under attack is material: the condition of the world economy no longer supports the political hegemony of liberalism, and if the defence of ‘truth’ is a defence of power it makes perfect sense that it has just now become the issue it has. Part of it is also instrumental. The advent of new media and the ascendancy of the Internet have radically decentered the manufacturing of political discourse. Both of these claims deserve much longer analysis, but I will note a few things on the second point.

The curious claim of Angela Merkel that ‘the history of the printing press’ shows the need to ‘find the right kind of policies to contain this and to manage and steer this’ is characteristic of the liberal response to the entry of the Internet into politics. In this there is a breathtaking reversal of historical reality. It is plainly not the case that the introduction of the printing press provoked anarchy and chaos until it was tamed by the careful management of the more enlightened sort. Regulations of printed material were not extended and improved in the two centuries between the Index Librorum Prohibitorum and the First Amendment: they were abolished, restricted, and, in the American case, constitutionally outlawed. Like printed material, though to a far greater extent, the Internet is a new space of political confrontation (and on that, there is much more to be said). By its very nature it is insusceptible to cack-handed discursive regulation. The modern samizdat, whether radical or merely ‘fake news’, proliferates far more easily online than it did in the classical totalitarian regimes. It is orders of magnitude easier for a Chinese citizen to set up a VPN and a WordPress blog than for a Soviet citizen to establish an underground printing press.

Successful attempts to channel the course of online politics have not been directed at ‘managing’ or ‘containing’ it: they have engaged it organically and positively. They do not command the tides to turn back: they shape them, and ride them. The Russian propaganda programme, with its gleeful and indiscriminate promotion of conspiracy theories and a kaleidoscope of different political narratives, provides an excellent example, and we may contrast the robustness of this Russian offensive with the declining trust and influence of the traditional Western media. Its tools cannot be abandoned to the Russians or the alt-right: they mark the course that any successful politics must take in the Internet age.

To be successful, the left cannot defend forever an abstract ‘truth’ whose content is supplied by power. If such a course is incompatible with contemporary liberal doctrine, then so be it. In such a struggle between the petty short-termism of our present politics and the tectonic forces undergirding our new era of modernity, the result will never be the successful regulation of the Internet or the wider sphere of public discourse. It will be the obsolescence of liberalism as a political ideology.