Park MacDougald

Month: April, 2016

Accelerationism, Left and Right

After my giant NRx piece at The Awl, I’d been planning on leaving the topic alone. Recently, however, I’ve had a few interactions – a conversation with another grad student who’s into Left Accelerationism and ran across my piece, and an e-mail from someone who wanted to discuss a recent Twitter exchange they had with Nick Land – that have gotten me thinking about Land and Acceleration once again, so I thought I’d type out some of my thoughts.

To begin with: I’m not a neoreactionary, nor an accelerationist of either the left or the right-wing variety. I don’t quite have a dog in these fights. At the end of the day I consider myself a liberal, albeit one who is suspicious of some of liberalism’s broader truth-claims (e.g. regarding the source of rights or the efficacy of rational debate). Still, I tend to think that much of the worthwhile political thought out there comes from traditions that are, in their broad outlines, il- or anti-liberal. The Communist Antonio Gramsci and the Nazi Carl Schmitt had more interesting things to say about the political and ideological dynamics of parliamentary liberalism than most liberals do, and I think the best book on modern ethics is the conservative Catholic Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. Liberalism tends, perhaps more than any other ideology, to perceive itself not as an ideology but simply as the way things are, and this tends to obstruct understanding.

All this to say, I think there’s some utility in familiarizing one’s self with anti-liberal thought. Most of us, especially if we go to elite colleges, and especially if we take classes in the humanities, are exposed to the left-wing variety. Marx, Freud, Foucault, Fanon, Adorno, Benjamin, Gramsci, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze-Guattari, Judith Butler, and Zizek (who else?) form a sort of quasi-radical cultural theory canon that achieves a limited but significant penetration in the mind of many American students. Limited, because, despite the revolutionary aspirations of most of these theorists, they are typically assimilated into a vague left-liberal critique of consumer society, patriarchy, and structural racism. Significant, because they do at least transmit, in embryo, the idea that “liberalism,” understood as an ideology that prioritizes abstract individual rights and equal opportunity, might have some problems with it. That these problems have recently been glossed along the lines of “liberal norms unfairly protect the speech of oppressors (read: people I don’t like)” is unfortunate, but neither here nor there.

As for right-wing anti-liberalism, however, many people’s intuitive understanding is that it is some sort of bizarre atavism; a product of racism, religious indoctrination, and/or ignorance, with no possible substantive content. No doubt, some of it is – ressentiment is a powerful thing. But calling someone a racist – even if they are a racist – can only get you so far in dismissing an argument, especially if they don’t actually care about the social consequences that usually give a term like that its power. And it would be foolish to simply assume that the fact of their racism (or whatever else) is in itself evidence of their stupidity. Carl Schmitt was a Nazi, and also a brilliant political theorist. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Nick Land’s neoreactionary, right-wing accelerationism is racist in any conventional sense of that term. Yet Land is also a quite interesting thinker of capitalism, and because capitalism, broadly defined, is the reality that structures and will continue to structure human existence throughout the foreseeable future, he is perhaps worth paying attention to. His overriding political and ethical ‘goal,’ from which his racism, his eugenicism, and technological fetishism spring, is optimize for intelligence, which for him is both the Darwinian law of the universe (‘Gnon’), as well as a functional description of what really-exisiting capitalism actually does. Even to call it a ‘goal’ is misleading, as for Land capitalism is an abolition of Hume’s is/ought distinction. What capitalism ‘should’ do (optimize for intelligence) is, as a matter of fact, what it does. Land’s Acclerationism, insofar as it can be understood as a political program, simply counsels that we let this process be, because we don’t really have the capability to control it anyway.

One of the conversations I had that got me thinking about this again centered around the prospects for a Left Accelerationist politics, and Land’s relation to it. In the context that it came up – beers after a graduate seminar on postructuralism, full of smart people all affiliated with some form of left-of-liberal politics – Left Accelerationism was roundly denounced, based on the (mistaken) notion that the Left Accelerationist program is a form of the Leninist “heighten the contradictions,” or a plan to ‘accelerate’ capitalism, intensifying alienation and exploitation along with technological development, until the entire edifice collapses under the weight of its own immanent contradictions and space opens up for some form of high-tech communism (this is how Malcolm Harris interpreted the phenomenon in his review of #Accelerate). As Pete Wolfendale points out, no one actually holds this position, or at least, none of the thinkers typically associated with Accelerationism of any form – not Nick Srnicek/Alex Williams, not Pete Wolfendale, not Reza Negarestani, not Robin Mackay, not even Nick Land. Its primary thrust is simply that of a high-tech, Promethean Marxism (and is in that sense more orthodox than other strains of post-Marxism), that stresses the political need to re-purpose capitalist technological advances for the goals of communism, and not to get bogged down in localism or nostalgia. It is similar to something like Aaron Bastani’s Fully-Automated Luxury Communism, and some other forms of leftist thought emerging from Italian Autonomist Marxism.

Once we got that out of the way, however, someone mentioned that it was unfortunate that Land had ‘defected’ to the right wing, because he was an interesting theorist and his Accelerationism had a potential to be put to good left-wing use. The thesis I proposed, however – and its one I know that Twitter (in)famous communist Jehu shares – is that for all the good intentions of the Left-Accels, Land’s “right” version of Accelerationism is the only authentic and logically consistent form of Accelerationism, as well as the only one that helps us understand anything about the dynamics of capitalism. For Landian Accelerationism, capitalism is a machinic, ‘techonomic’ (technological-economic) explosion, whose self-reinforcing, self-excitatory mechanism is best modelled as a runaway cybernetic feedback loop (it should be said that if you’re a cyberneticist, everything is best modelled as a feedback loop). This just means that the immanent dynamics of capital push necessarily towards the ever-greater expansion of capital – Marx’s M-C-M’ circuit is cybernetic runaway par excellence – and immanent within that expansion is a necessary co-dependence of technological and economic advance, including ever-increasing powers of abstraction and computation. As ‘capital’ expands in both space and time (imperialism, futures’ markets), the market, understood in its Misesian sense as catallactic, itself becomes a sort of distributed computer for the calculation of prices, spontaneously generating collective intelligence far in excess of what humans are consciously capable of mastering. Thus, the market an sich is a form of ‘artificial superintelligence’ long before the computer is even invented. This is, in part, what Land means by the “teleological identity of capitalism and artificial intelligence.”

There is a certain perversity inherent in this runaway which animates Marx and much subsequent critique of capitalism: exchange is ‘supposed’ to serve human ends by allowing us to trade useful items, yet capitalism makes exchange an end in itself, to which humans are then subjected; the abstraction makes itself real, supplanting the ‘real thing’ itself. As a beneficial side-effect, we’ve gotten richer, and our science, medicine, and diet have advanced to the point that we’re smarter, healthier, and live longer, but we are no longer masters of our own destiny in any meaningful sense (whether we ever where is another question altogether). This critique of capital in the name of human self-control tends to split into (at least) two political tendencies: the ‘machine-breakers,’ who want to simply abort capitalism/industrial society for some previous social arrangement (this can be a form either of nostalgist leftism or conservatism), and the futurists, such as orthodox Marxists and the Left-Accelerationists, who think that we can overcome (sublate/aufheben) alienated industrial society and build a non-alienated utopia that nonetheless retains the myriad benefits of industrial society.

Machine-breaking might be a viable, though dangerous political program. The left-futurism is, in my view, a delusion, that can itself only end in another form of machine-breaking. For Land, as for Marx, as for Weber, the entire point of capitalism is that it is not amenable to human aims. ‘Capital’ is in a sense an abstraction, as there is no such thing existing in the world, and Marxists are quick to point out that capitalism, as a mode of production, is a totality of social  relations between humans that nevertheless imposes itself upon us as if it were a real thing – it is ‘reified,’ it is, a ‘social construct.’ Yet it is not any less real for being a construct, and its constructedness does not imply an ability to de- or re-construct it in accordance with our intentions. A sandcastle is a social construct, but there are ways you can build them, and ways you can’t, no matter how much solidarity you are able to mobilize on behalf of better sandcastles.

The capitalist, though himself a human, in order to exist as capitalist must act in accordance with the laws imposed by the logic of the system (i.e. the profit motive). These laws according to which he acts, however, are not the ‘laws’ of e.g. a central bureaucratic state, but the emergent properties of a vastly complex and decentralized system of interactions, whose outward manifestations (like ‘prices’) are the products of distributed calculations that exceed any single agent or group of agents’ capacity to calculate. This is why central planning doesn’t work – elite financiers hardly understand the market, and it would be absurd to expect a government agency to do so. While the conditions, or parameters, for these interactions are not ‘given’ – one can certainly destroy an institutional structure, or design it poorly enough that it ceases to support market mechanisms – that is not the same thing as saying that you can tweak the parameters to make them give you any desired outcome. And as we see with things like Bitcoin and shadow-banking, localized efforts to (re-)direct capital towards consciously-chosen human aims are simply obstacles that Capital routes around. To stop this you would need something like a Hegelian world-state, but even then, its unclear how you dodge the calculation problems.

The intractability of capitalism is something that Marx understood, and was accordingly derisive of voluntaristic attempts to reform the system. However, within the orthodox Marxist schema, the labor theory of value (LTV) provided a built-in theoretical escape hatch from capitalism in the form of the revolutionary proletarian subject. Both Landian Accelerationism and orthodox Marxism acknowledge that the technological drive of the capitalism leads towards the increasing superfluousness of human labor to economic production. Within the LTV frame, however, as living human labor is the ultimate source of all value, the abolition of human labor from the productive process is ultimately the abolition of the law of value itself: a work free, high-tech Eden, the end of mankind’s prehistory, communism. Yet absent the LTV – which has grown increasingly difficult to maintain in the 20th and 21st centuries, and which Left Accelerationism makes no serious attempt to defend – the entire schema falls apart. As Land writes in his critique of Srnicek and Williams:

If the Law of Value is to be defended, value production is measured in (labor) time. Marx’s transformation factor is designed to conserve the equation between quantified — timed — work and economic values, as expressed in prices. If this patch fails, the entire analysis of Capital loses application to determinate social fact. There would be no Marxian economics at all (a conclusion Negri and the Autonomists seem willing to accept).

It is hard to see how a Left Accelerationism could be maintained under these conditions. Historical time would no longer have any calculable relation to labor commoditization, working life, or any constructable proletarian class identity. The real time of (capitalistic) modernity — onto which accelerationism latches — could no longer be described as the time of work. At the limit, human work-forces are relegated to “aphidian parasites of the machines”. Once the class struggle over labor time is divorced from a fully-determining role in the production of value, the proletariat is stripped of the potential to incarnate history for-itself, consigning ‘Marxism’ over to an articulation of marginal grievances, and ultimately to the heat death of identity politics. (This, of course, is exactly the trend that has been sociologically apparent.)

Absent LTV, all that Left Accelerationism can really hope for is a sort of socialist voluntarism that subjects production and exchange to supervenient political aims. But here we’re back to the problem of central planning, and thus have lost whatever libidinal futurist appeal Left Accelerationism had in the first place . More strikingly, absent LTV, the problem posed to humanity by the technological drive of capital is not how to reach the New Jerusalem that the elimination of human labor from the production process will allow, but that this elimination will simply result in humans becoming superfluous to an increasingly autonomic system of machine production. What we will do with a warming planet of 10 billion people when progressively fewer of them can be productively integrated into the global economy, the marginal cost of their labor sinks below the cost of their own social reproduction, and states are obliged to provide for larger and larger numbers of unproductive workers at the expense of smaller and smaller numbers of high-skill workers who can still be plugged in to economically-productive roles? This is an entirely different economic, political, and ethical problematic. In this landscape, Land’s killer AI, speciation, and Galt’s Gulch-style ‘exit’ all begin to look like provisional speculative (if malevolent) answers to the question of: what do you do with all these (economically) useless people?

I’ve got a bit more to say on the subject of the (Landian/Moldbuggian) autocratic-libertarian differentiation between dialectics and difference (voice/exit) as a potentially useful frame (for non-reactionaries!), but this is long enough as is so I’ll leave that for later.


Speech and all that

Since I’ve been back in a university setting this year (I’m currently at Brown), I’ve been struck by the recent wave of campus activism; both the nature of the protests themselves and the media reactions they’ve provoked. They’ve received extensive coverage in the mainstream press, and some prominent journalists, such as the Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, have made “campus protest” one of their regular beats. One should keep in mind that much of this protest has taken place at the elite colleges where so many prominent journalists went to school, but narcissism only goes so far as an explanation; it seems likely, rather, that many see in campus activism a microcosm of larger social dynamics in America.

The facts of the matter, of course, depend on your point of view, but the best attempt I can do at neutral summary goes something like this: a number of student activists, acting principally as spokespersons for marginal identity groups, have charged their colleges with failing to provide institutional spaces in which they feel respected and validated. The range of alleged crimes on the part of the colleges is vast, and includes institutional complicity with macro-scale historical injustices, such as racism, colonialism, slavery, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and cissexism, but the offenses most typically targeted for action are smaller-scale: institutional underrepresentation of minorities, hostile learning environments, implicit bias and discrimination on the part of professors, and frequent low-level insults endured from fellow classmates.

The students have demanded a number of major institutional reforms, including more money for scholarships, more resources for students, increased diversity in hiring, mandatory diversity training for students and faculty, and more effective punishments for those who deviate from universities’ communal norms of respect, diversity, and progress. The students were only partly successful, typically eliciting praise, symbolic gestures, and even large changes in spending and hiring priorities, but rarely getting the radical institutional reforms they demanded. Critics of the activists, both inside and outside of the academy, have accused them of violating important liberal norms such as freedom of speech and academic freedom, which in turn has provoked a wider, though generally unproductive, debate on the nature and limits of free speech.

On the left, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on weighing the demands of the protestors with liberal procedural norms; some deny there is any conflict, while others are openly contemptuous of “free speech” and other bourgeois legalisms; the question is not whether abstract speech should be protected, but of the content of particular speech. Speech by oppressors or which legitimizes or fails to interrogate oppression is itself a form of oppression and should not be tolerated. As Jonathan Chait noted to some controversy, this is essentially a Marxist-derived theory of political rights; that is, abstract individual rights are subordinated to the overriding goal of class, race, or gender justice. Abstract liberal protections for speech in this view can only ever be protections for speech of the oppressor, and serve to further reveal liberalism’s complicity with oppression, i.e. its moral and ideological bankruptcy. It should therefore not be considered a pejorative to term this worldview “illiberal.”

The rise of this relatively anti- or il-liberal radical left, supported by a lively far-left media presence perfectly captured by the prominence of Jacobin magazine, occurs within a larger national context in which, as we read every day, a right-wing demagogue is summoning the forces of reactionary populist darkness, promising strongman rule and a disregard for the law, scapegoating foreigners and domestic minorities, and pointing dangerously to a sort of incipient white ethno-nationalism. While the candidacy of Hillary Clinton suggests that liberalism is still a winning political platform (though perhaps an unenthusiastic one), it would seem that ideologically, American liberalism is threatened from both ends of the political spectrum. Its not surprising, then, that a few Cassandras are speaking of a Weimar America.

Crises tend to polarize, and that is what we are seeing: a nation that is increasingly split into two hostile, perhaps irreconcilable political tribes, each convinced that the other is evil, stupid, and bent on total victory. Liberalism doesn’t tend to fare well in these situations, because it is primarily an ideology of proceduralism that remains agnostic on values beyond those of “rights,” typically defined in the negative. Of course, as any good Marxist or Catholic knows, placing the rights of the individual metaphysically prior to the claims of the community or to an analysis of the social dynamics in which those rights were conceived and are embodied is not exactly an agnostic position when it comes to organizing a society. It obstructs revolutionary plans for social transformation, yet in the long run tends towards the progressive abolition of the claims of tradition. More fundamentally, when the enemy is conceived not as someone who disagrees with you, but someone who is simply wrong and whose errors can only be caused by stupidity or evil, there is little reason to grant them rights, except perhaps as a tactical concession until your side has sufficient power to annihilate them. So there’s no surprise, really, that young radicals are rejecting liberalism.

Within the context of the university, as long as one maintains that the purpose of the university is intellectual inquiry of some form or other (which may be naïve), it seems obvious that one cannot concede to the demands of activists on certain points, such as, notably, persistent demands that schools grant power to certain students and faculty to discipline or fire other students and faculty members for perceived ideological infractions. However noble the nominal goals, Chait rightly points out that the question of “who are the oppressed, and who the oppressor?” has typically been answered by leftists as “the Left is the oppressed, and whoever opposes the Left is the oppressor,” and once party unity breaks down, the question of “who is the authentic Left?” is generally resolved in favor of whoever has the power to assert their will. One doesn’t have to go back to the Stalinist purges to observe this dynamic – enough time spent on left-wing Twitter gives a sufficient example of radicals’ congenital inability to avoid self-destructive purges, witch hunts, and purity contests, with the role of General Secretary played by whoever has amassed the most social capital in the relevant milieu. It’s impossible to watch something like Jacobinghazi and think, “these people should hold power.” At a more basic level, this sort of politics is only really justifiable if you are convinced you have some sort of unmediated access to capital-t Truth, a claim that no university should accept.

However, I think that the concern about Whats Wrong With the Kids These Days speaks to a larger anxiety that we are slipping into some sort of low-level civil war in which the gloves are finally being thrown off, and we are generally unsure that our liberal foundations – in the broad sense that encompasses both the mainstream right and left – will hold. Paradoxically, however, it is exactly these conditions of intense conflict in which liberal procedures are most likely to be rejected and in which they are also the most important. Aside from somewhat tired pleas for humanity and civility, or invocation of free speech as if it is natural law, we might settle for that classic of the liberal canon, self-interest: insofar as you consider your enemy to be the worldly manifestation of evil, treat rights, norms, and procedures with the knowledge that at some point, your enemy will hold power.