As the Gilets Jaunes movement continues, we republish this article by Paul Cudenec of the Shoal...
Leeds Plan C met recently to discuss the Accelerationist Manifesto, an article which has generated widespread and passionate discussion. This meeting followed on from previous reading groups and a “ten minute tub thump” around the theme of the future. We have posted up (edited) notes from the discussion as we think some people may find them of interest. Enjoy!
B: Manifesto idea is great. And the starting point is perfect: a) global environmental crisis and b) a left that’s paralysed and stuck in the past. But the whole thing feels dated, like it was written in the mid-1990s at the height of neoliberal triumphalism. Particular stress on “post-capitalism” rather than communism.
C: Excited by the idea of a manifesto, a programmatic list of what could (and should) be done, but this was disappointing.
K: Lots of good things in here but biggest problem is that it starts from the environmental crisis but then goes on to talk as if the problem of resource depletion doesn’t exist. They don’t deal with the energy problem at all. In some
respects it harks back to earlier types of thinking, pre-climate change. e.g. Soviet Union where the only problem was how to out-grow capitalism.
C: It’s as if there are no resource issues at stake – it’s simply a matter of global planning.
K: Secular crisis is long term crisis within capitalism as living labour is replaced by technology. It’s an analysis that has spread to mainstream bourgeois economists (e.g. Martin Wolf) who are now edging towards policies like universal basic income.
B: Similarities to what other Marxists used to call the long term tendency of the rate of profit to fall…
DR: although that’s more about the inability to squeeze more value from living labour whereas the secular crisis is generally understood from the point of view of consumption.
B: OK, but it’s probably the same problem seen from a different angle. The main thing is that it’s a crisis not caused by particular struggles but a long term tendency. Actually surprised to see so little in here about the crisis of 2007–8.
K: All that financial crisis has done is reveal the long-term secular crisis – and that’s what this manifesto is attempting to deal with. It’s a problem that’s being picked up by mainstream media – long-term trend towards automation and the incipient proletarianisation of white-collar work. This is capital as accelerator. But as the manifesto points out that capital increasingly accelerate in one direction: monomania. “Accumulate, accumulate, that is Moses and the prophets” Hence stagnation, lack of experimentation and innovation.
DE: They talk about weakness of the left, and that we are unable to resist downward pressure on wages etc, but later they talk about building a new global hegemony. Where is the constituency for creating that new hegemony if the forces don’t exist which can prevent the Right implementing their policies?
K: Yes, this is another weak point. They do look too much to the way the neoliberal project was constructed, as if we can simply mirror their top-down strategy.
C: If you’re in a state of opposition to the bosses, you’re not in the same place as the ruling class so you need defence strategies.
B: The manifesto rightly criticises the defensive outlook of the left, but is there a way that those strategies or actions could in some way flip over into something more offensive – less about resisting and more about exercising power? They decry them as “folk politics” but is it fair to write them off?
DR: It’s hard to gather people around you unless you have a credible plan. They have a three pronged approach (points 16,17,18) and they talk about repurposing technologies towards post-capitalist ends – but to do that you need to win over people and build momentum. Surely that sort of class recomposition has to come before (or at least run alongside) the other two strategies of media reform and intellectual infrastructure? And that means some level of popular support behind a credible plan.
K: We need to look at the way neoliberalism worked: introducing market mechanisms into the health service for example. What that does is produce different people, desires, subjectivities etc. This constant training in neoliberalism creates the substance for neoliberalism. So what the manifesto argues is that we should be looking to different technologies or reformatting existing ones to produce a different social substance. I think they’re wrong about popular movements – things like 15M in Spain have changed what is politically possible – but the manifesto’s approach is broadly right. Climate change means we need a planned world economy: either that or we face extinction. We need to work back from that endpoint and develop a way to get there which isn’t horrendous. There are actually only a few truly global problems (plus many more which are global by aggregate), and it’s only these which need to be addressed globally.
B: Yes, global planning makes sense. We have to work back from that to where we are today. But we also have to do that via where we want to be – and the “folk politics of localism, direct action and relentless horizontalism” seem pretty good places to me. The manifesto sees them as problems.
DE: Is that division (“between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology”) really the most important one today?
K: We tried pure horizontalism and it failed.
B: They’re quite dismissive of what they call “affective self-valorisation”. I think they’re right if you mean a small activist scene where people do things primarily to make themselves feel better. But if millions of people are doing those actions, then “affective self-valorisation” doesn’t sound so bad at all. It’s just another way of talking about proletarian counter-power, isn’t it?
DR: It’s more that localised campaigns don’t link up and so lack any sense of strategy or plan.
K: Horizontalism and affective self-valorisation are technologies in themselves: they’re precisely the sort of thing the manifesto is talking about, because they do create different subjects: e.g. 15M in Spain where 70% of the population have been engaged in a social movement. Perhaps the manifesto is a bit guilty of retro-futurism, thinking about technology only as shiny things with buttons (technologies aren’t just about computers and mobile phones). But it is right to try and make the break with pure horizontalism: that project was tried in 2011 and failed…
DE: Yes but it was tried in isolation from any other movement so it was based more around a generalised disgust with corruption and politicians. If those practices re-emerge in the context of widespread strikes and class demands, then it’ll be totally different. I understand their argument about urgency and the need for a plan, but the only way we’re going to get to a position where that plan can be generated (never mind accepted or implemented) is via a massive movement. There’s massive gap between a) the urgency of the problem and b) who’s reading this and what we can do here and now.
K: It’s precisely the urgency which means things have to be messy. When struggles come along, ultra-leftists have the luxury of saying “no, it’s not perfect, I’ll wait for the next one.” But we don’t – first because of climate change; andsecond because of the secular crisis in capitalism. And that means dealing with institutional power. Syriza experience in Greece is instructive: if you go for electoral power and are successful, then you run the risk of demobilising the movement as soon as you are elected. How do you keep a mobilised population? And there’s a second problem. One of Hayek’s arguments against economic planning was the “calculation problem”. He held that economic calculation is only possible by information provided through market prices – any attempt to plan the allocation resources would be irrational and inefficient. The central point that produces the central plan could not compute all the information that flowed through it. Obviously that argument is changed by the massive increase in computer processing power, modern algorithms etc. But how do you ensure that those methods of resource allocation remain “democratic”?
B: There is a technocratic thread running thru the manifesto. They says the crisis of 2007–8 was one of “illegitimate authority” not a fucked-up model of the world. And they talk as if the technosocial platforms can be unproblematically re-programmed and reformatted. Surely those material platforms of finance, logistics, consumption etc would be changed beyond all recognition? They admit that no-one knows what a modern techno-social body can do. And it’s a pretty Eurocentric view.
P: It’s a modern version of seizing the means of production.
K: Think about this in terms of resources. Durruti’s quote about not being in the least afraid of ruins is just not true anymore. We should be afraid. We cannot tear down this world and build a new one because we do not have the energy and resources. So we need to think about how we reformat and repurpose. Housing is a good example: buildings are constructed to suit the flows of capital and engender certain subjectivities and lifestyles. We have to work out how to subvert or re-format them in a way that better suit our needs. And we have to think about algorithms and technologies in the same way. The manifesto is really clear on this: we need to start making plans, how to integrate the use of widespread technology with plans for allocation of crucial resources. It doesn’t make for sexy politics and there are dangers of a technocratic approach but it is definitely what needs doing. In that sense, it’s utterly historical materialist. And it’s what we need in order to move things forward. The other thing they talk about is an ecology of organisations. Again, look at how the neoliberals set about organising the new Right: they managed to knit together a coalition of very different forces (many of whom were in profound disagreement) by amplifying the minimum level of agreement.
DE: That’s the inverse of the entire history of the left.
B: But there is a difference: the neoliberals have power and a shit-load of resources. And our everyday actions (going to work, buying stuff, acting as neoliberal subjects) reproduce and reinforce those neoliberal subjectivitieswe’re struggling against…
K: But at the beginning the neoliberals didn’t have power. They were just 40 people in hotel room at the top of a mountain in Switzerland who drew up a plan and stuck to it…
DE: It’s much easier for the politics of the Right to have that sort of neoliberal coalition because historically they’ve found it easier to line up behind a few basic beliefs or principles e.g. in the Spanish Civil War
K: But the neoliberals were the outsiders in the 1950s.
B: OK, so what is the accelerationists’ strategy? The first task they propose is to build an intellectual infrastructure. Their last task is to reconstitute various forms of class power. That seems to mirror the neoliberals very closely – and it’s arse-about-tit, surely. Plus it ignores the areas where there already is some form of left sociotechnical hegemony…
C: Like the internet, generation of ideas and new technologies etc. An underlying anti-capitalist logic in things like p2p, file-sharing etc.
K: True, the history of the anti-globalisation movement was tied up with precisely those sorts of things. So Indymedia, Linux etc developed in exactly those areas where the Left was strongest – people with roots in late 1960s counterculture or in northern European social democratic experiments.
DR: In the short-term we face a series of problems relating to time and resources, and those need to be dealt with before we can start to make plans for the future. People need more hours in the day, less stress in their lives, more security to enable us to then move forward. In that respect I’m not sure about their media reform strategy. Better propaganda, yes – that’s essential for creating a credible counter-narrative. In any case, the three-prongs of their strategy aren’t really separate: they have to run together.
C: Having technological solutions to the world’s problems isn’t a bad idea… The issue is how to create a situation where we can bring that about. B: But the issue is also how to retain some sort of democratic control. How do you ward off the tendency to organise from the top-down ‘because scientist- planners know best’?
DE: It’s a mistake to think that the people who develop new algorithms, undertake research, devise automation strategies etc are arch neoliberals. They’re mostly not. The problem is that we don’t have power, we don’t represent a force which people can align themselves with.
K: What about the idea of expanding beyond our immediate bodily forms?
B: That section is great, but they also talk about the need to avoid “a capricious emergent order beyond our control”. Isn’t that part of what we want? To be new bodies, to develop in ways we can’t foresee or control in advance?
K: If you have cybernetic planning with social dynamics somehow embodied in algorithms, how does that planning react when it comes up against new problems that can’t be predicted? Example of feminism being a ‘problem’ for the New Left.
DE: There seems to be a slight nostalgia for Leninism emerging in parts of the Left.
B: One of their strongest arguments is that capitalism cannot deliver on the promises it has made to us. It’s a powerful argument, and it goes back to the original neoliberal critique of socialist planning. But isn’t there a problem with the ‘promises’ that capitalism has made to us? I mean, what is it that capitalism can’t deliver – new plasma TV, holidays abroad etc.?
K: There is a problem with that efficient planning approach because the efficient production of stuff is not the model of a good society. Beneath those desires for consumer goods is a desire for respect, for control, for sense of belonging. And that’s what capitalism can’t deliver.
P: If we operate on the terrain of material goods, how are we going to stimulate people to really reflect on what sort of world we want to live in?
C: You can’t even have that conversation now. There needs to be some sort of break to create a space where that sort of discussion can be meaningful.
P: Our ability to imagine ourselves as a force for change is constantly repressed. So appealing to people on the basis that “we will provide for you” is fucked-up and just reinforces those subjectivities.
M: Those neoliberal desires aren’t just about material things though. The council house sell-off wasn’t primarily about selling houses: it was selling an idea of freedom. That desire for freedom is much older than neoliberalism – they just tapped into it.
K: That’s the opportunity for us now. The Good Life that they sold us for the last 30 years is dead. It’s over. The manifesto says any Left has to work with the desires mobilised by neoliberalism which were mostly around freedom. And that approach is a breath of fresh air. There was a whole atmosphere of asceticism and moralism around climate camp politics and it’s great to break from that.
DE: It still leaves the problem of what is to be done. Of practical immediate steps we can take.
B: And there’s no mention of struggle anywhere in it so it’s hard to see where change comes from.
K: But it’s a manifesto, not a programme – it’s just trying to gather people together around a particular approach and then work out what to do next.
B: One of the refreshing things about it is there is no discernible tradition – it’s not bound up with defending any particular Marxism or autonomism etc. That fits well with the experimental approach.
M: And it’s great to read politics that’s about the future.
K: That’s the other opportunity we face – the recomposition of the Left. The 2007–8 crisis should have been the big one the Trots had been dreaming of but their strategy for the last 25 years was blown out of the water (and was laid bare by the SWP rape crisis of 2011). In 2011 horizontalism had its best showing ever (in the guise of Occupy) but it wasn’t enough to change things.
M: We forget how novel the idea of an ecology of organisations might be to people who have just left the SWP, for example. It might seem old hat to us but for others on the Left it could be really innovative and inspiring. It’s a big shift on the Left to give up group patriotism.
B: Is that a deliberate omission in the manifesto? They don’t seem interested in engaging in a project of recomposition.
K: They’re not interested in unity (which is good) – instead we need to work out some minimum level of consistency and some technologies of amplification.
M: Can we say what that minimum level of consistency is? And do we even need to? We tend to work more pragmatically: when it works, it works. And that becomes the bottom line.
K: Traditionally that’s what big movements used to be like – a huge coalition of groups and organisations. The era of the single big party (or federation) is over, probably because of the changing way we work. One of the interesting things about the ecology of organisations approach is that you’d probably need some groups whose task was to work out how all the groups interact, and to help develop technologies to overcome tensions and build consistency. They do say that you need a broad ideological vision to tie together all the different kinds of organisations etc.
B: And what is that vision? Progress?
C: It’s a fundamentally modernist vision: they’re firm believers in Progress with a capital P.
DE: You could argue that accelerationism is entirely the wrong approach. We’re hurtling toward technology-driven ecological holocaust and they want to speed things up when we should be slowing down. Walter Benjamin: “Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake”.
K: The idea of accelerationism owes a lot to Deleuze and Guattari. They were arguing with Samir Amin over how to get to communism. Amin was arguing for secession and autarky. D&G argue that we should go in the opposite direction – go further in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization. It is a gamble, Thelma and Louise-style.
C: Technology is driven by labour exercising its strengths – if you’re a real accelerationist, you’d be arguing for strikes everywhere all the time. That would speed up the development of technology massively.
K: And that’s part of the reason for the current stagnation. Neoliberalism has been so successful over that last 30 years that it has failed to really innovate. The key technological innovation of globalisation was the shipping container, which is very low-tech. Capital can’t undertake the big shifts we need to move from a carbon economy for example…
DE: That’s basically decadence theory.
K: Yes but you can put an autonomist slant on it: capitalism has failed to innovate during the neoliberal years precisely because labour had been defeated and driven out.
B: That’s true of the UK, and north-western Europe and the US, but less true elsewhere. The problem is that strikes in China aren’t currently driving innovation – they’re just speeding up the introduction of already existing technologies of automation etc. In that sense, China is undergoing a crash course in 20th century capitalist development.
K: The big problem is we don’t have power. Even when we occupy squares and mobilise 70% of the population as in Spain, we haven’t got ways in which we can exercise power and act as a social force. And talk of a mass organisation singular is wishful thinking: that form of organisation is just no longer possible.
DE: What’s interesting about the mass organisations of the past isn’t just that they could use their mass base in a disciplined way. It’s also that they formed a complete alternative world, one you could live inside: a real counter-power. So they didn’t have the simple everyday problems of resources and funding that we face.
K: There was a simplicity to that. You knew how to exercise power: go on strike and capital stops. We can’t do that, not in the same way. If there is a nostalgia in the manifesto, it’s not for the early 20th century mass organisations. It’s for a future that seemed possible at one time, was then crushed and now might be possible again. It’s a nostalgia for the Cybersyn experiment in Chile. In 1973 that future was suspended – perhaps it’s now possible again. OK, there are elitist, technocratic overtones but it’s a great starting point.
DE: Yes but the issue of power is also highlighted by what happened to Allende. Perhaps if he’d armed the workers rather than putting his faith in cybernetic planning, we wouldn’t have had neoliberalism.