Maybe This Grammar Does Not Hold: Accelerationism as Dialect
Can consumption inadvertently lead to freedom? Can more neoliberalism be the answer and not less? Accelerationism, coined by Benjamin Noys in 2008, at its most basic claims that the only way to move beyond capitalism is by accelerating capital’s own flawed processes, elaborating on Marx’s inquiries into the internal contradictions of capital.1 Later, in the 1970s, as the ability to exist outside of capitalism — and therefore resist capital – was increasingly questioned, the beginnings of contemporary accelerationist theory began to materialize.2 In the 1980s and 90s, the fall of communism, new forms of technological fetishism, and emerging theories of the cybernetic led to reimaginations of accelerationism like Nick Land’s dreams of a technological singularity and merging of man and machine. For Land, speed alone will propel us to a post-capitalist — and perhaps post-human — world.3 Others, like Alex Williams and Nick Srnecik, went past Land’s philosophies to forward a more directly Marxian interpretation of the term focused on the emancipatory potential of new technologies and a general disregard for local change and horizontalism.4 Instead, they argue for a return to modernist “mastery over society” and value the power of production.
What unites these disparate theories are a few key claims: they argue that capitalism must be sped up; its idiosyncrasies must rise to the surface; its muddy depths must be made clear; our creativity and technology must re-emerge; new techno-social bodies and formations will be released. March, march on! The future awaits.
Accelerationism has also long had influence in the art world; many practices today rely on a type of corporate realism that wryly and obliquely critiques company life without denouncing the many externalities of neoliberalism. Similar to accelerationism itself, these practices investigate and often celebrate the excesses of neoliberalism and only offer a weak critique. The line between the aestheticization of corporate life (re: mildly leftist apartment art, trendy shows at PS1) and the corporatization of aesthetics (re: burgeoning biennial cultures) is ever thinner. Corporate excess is never radical under neoliberalism, and no matter how much one critiques capitalism, work that is sponsored by corporations is sponsored by corporations.5 Accelerationism, especially in its simplified art-world iteration, is a risky bet that paradoxically favors stasis over action and forwards a laissez-faire approach to social change over direct action.
What follows are a series of questions and theses that examine the goals of accelerationism and highlight the perhaps myopic cosmovision of its protagonists. Is acceleration an answer, or an excuse? Is it a solution for a disaffected creative class struggling just to hold onto its creative capital, or a new site of resistance? Does it offer a viable politics or is it disguised reformism, meant to keep us inside the confines of capital? Finally, how does the impact of accelerationism change outside of global financial centers?
- What does it mean to accelerate the world economy? To accelerate, coming from the Latin “acceleratio” through the French “accélération,” means to hasten or to quicken. In physics, it means the increase in velocity over time. In accelerationism, it means both; it is both a hastening of a foreseen end of capitalism and also the literal acceleration of rates of growth. The second question must then be: what does this look like? There are many possibilities, but it seems that most of them rely on continued exploitation of workers around the world and the faith that the emancipatory power of new technologies is greater than government and capital’s power to use such technologies against us. Work harder, extract more, consume until all that is left is debt. Consumption, here, seems to be a primary motivator. Revolution is ugly and shopping is fun.
- A second fallacy of accelerationism is that it buys into neoliberalism’s myth that the world is flat by prescribing a single solution for a multi-faceted problem. There are well-watered free trade zones next to sweatshops and skyscrapers overlooking extreme poverty. The teleology that accelerationism is based on seems fairly quaint. Accelerating capitalism looks very different for a miner than it does for a banker, or for an artist. Perhaps this is because theory all too often emerges from a select group of cities that are simultaneously centers of global capital.
- As global, nodal, and interconnected as neoliberalism is and accelerationist strategies are, they are also extraordinarily site specific. New York, Abu Dhabi, London, Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai; these are the cities where extra speed seems profoundly possible. The future certainly looks different from an abandoned farm or crumbling factory. Accelerationism is founded on visions of a new economy that, despite its claims, is inherently local. Even if profit is extracted from around the world, these are the places where the excesses and contradictions of capital are supremely visible. This issue becomes even more critical when we think about the roots of accelerationist and corporate aesthetics. They are focus on sites of excess not zones of extraction even though these phenomenons rise hand in hand. Skyscrapers soar as precarity increases and new deterritorialized financial systems emerge. Everything in these cities seems to be teetering on the brink, ready to fall, waiting for that push, the extra gas on the pedal, that will bring it all crashing down. But there is not here and here is not there; some divisions still hold.
- Such speed is a fallacy; it is not a universal truth and capitalism will not simply implode. Even if we imagine this scenario, accelerationism seems to value the act of destruction simply to value destruction. Working harder and buying more can also be paths to more exploitation and catastrophe, anyway, is the perfect time to accrue power. Capitalism mutates and crisis breeds strength; one only has to look at the transformation of New Orleans post-Katrina into a whiter and wealthier city. What comes with disaster is not always freedom but control as those who have access to resources gain even more power over those who don’t.
- And now, onto the personal: Last year I moved back to New York from St Louis and re-entered the zone where accelerationism feels extraordinarily possible. Global flows of capital and information seem palpable here. The endless onslaught of Wall Street and the continuous encroachment of mid-level investment bankers render the city bland and beige, and the myth of the impossibility of placing brakes on the system is evermore tantalizing. A certain theoretical and aesthetic vocabulary, often relying on surface textures, can be used to articulate these developments; gleaming, shiny, smooth, lubricated velocities, mirrors, reflections, consumption, speed, trade shows, smiles.
- This is opposed to the dominant vocabulary — dialect — of St Louis. Dirt, decay, bricks, inequality, racism, segregation, autonomy, organizing, communal. Striking workers, blocked highways, occupied sites of production. There is less cynicism in St Louis, and perhaps more faith. The surge of activism post-Ferguson is strikingly anti-capitalist, connected to demands for a higher minimum wage, and aimed at breaking corporate control of civic life. History is something to struggle against and justice is something to be demanded; no one is simply waiting for the system to fall. According to accelerationism, these fights for, or rather any fight for, autonomy are naive. But what is life without even attempting to affect change?
- Accelerationism is not plausible in a place like St Louis. There is nothing to be sped up as the region has been mired in decades of stagnation and entropy and slowness are greater threats than overexuberant growth. What would it mean to accelerate a city in decline? Does it mean high speed trains and fibre optic cables, garish new malls and modes of consumption, more foreign investment like the failed Midwest China Hub, or does it simply demand a rebranding of the city. More incubators, more young, white workers, more money flowing through and flowing faster. An expansion of the Wells Fargo wealth management complex and a new arch — even shinier thanks to modern technology! Although the economic system accelerationism attacks is fragmented and deterritorialized, it is still linked to a few key cities and St. Louis is not among them. Capital, of course, exists in St Louis, as does the security state — the city is currently trying to redevelop the old Pruitt-Igoe site as a new facility for the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency — but it is the old, rooted capital of yesteryear, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, Ameren and Boeing, not the promising startups of tomorrow.
Maybe the truth is St Louis and the fantasy is NYC. Maybe the answer isn’t to accelerate, but to to slip outside, to create new parallels instead of new futures. The answer isn’t necessarily a luddite revolution or what Williams and Srnecik call “neo-primitivist localism” but it does requires action and movement.6 If the irony of accelerationism is that in attempting to speed up capital it perversely places us in stasis — inactive bystanders who simply watch the world move on at the whim of outside forces — then perhaps the simplest retort is the flip the equation. What that will look like remains unknown, but I hope that the answers emerge from cities like St. Louis, from artistic and economic peripheries, rather than from the same, speedy center.
- Noys, Benjamin. “Accelerationism.” 10/20/2008 http://leniency.blogspot.mx/2008/10/accelerationism.html ↩
- Lyotard ↩
- Land, Nick. “Circuitries.” #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader. Edited by Robin Mckay and Armen Avanessian. Urbanomic, 2014. 251-275. ↩
- Srnicek, Nick and Alex Williams. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. May 2013. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics ↩
- Last year I went to a show sponsored by a large media corporation that critiqued large media corporations. The show, in skyscraper in Chicago, show was only open to workers of said large media corporation (I knew someone working there). I’m pretty sure the critique fell flat. ↩
- Srnicek, Nick and Alex Williams. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. May 2013. http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/ ↩