More than ten years ago, Robert Kurz, one of the pioneers of the German Value School, compiled a short survey of contemporary left-wing thought at the turn of the twenty-first century. In an essay published for the journal Mediations, Kurz accused the Left of being incapable of formulating a theory that could escape the ‘form-determinations of capitalism’, calling instead for ‘an ontological break’ with ‘the categories of capitalist sociality’.[1]  As he writes:

 

What is required here is an ontological break — from which global discourse, however, still shies away, even the radical Left. What predominates in its place are regressive ideas that seek to reverse the movement of the wheel of history…They fall back on hopelessly reactionary paradigms of nation, politics, and Keynesian regulation, or journey even further back in time to the ideals of romanticized agrarian societies.[2]

 

Upon reading the passage, contemporary commentators might be tempted to disregard the gloomy diagnosis of the contemporary Left offered by Kurz. In recent years, that part of the Left which once proposed ‘reversing the movement of the wheel of history’, has seemed to dwindle in numbers. Those, on the other hand, who advocate a new left-wing politics seem to agree on one thing: the point is not to ‘reverse the wheel’, but rather, to accelerate it.

 

What is required here is an ontological break — from which global discourse, however, still shies away

Against Kurz’s ‘hopelessly reactionary paradigms’, and ‘new calls for Keynesian regulation’, a distinct strand of left-wing theory has, in recent years, congregated under the ideology of so-called accelerationism. The accelerationists, we are told, prefer the future over the past, revolution over resistance, the global over the local, the abstract over the concrete. As with most political labels, the term accelerationism still lacks exact description. Often used more for polemical than descriptive purposes, it is rarely mobilized by those who are grouped under its rubric. The most emblematic expression of the ‘accelerationist tendency’ in contemporary left-wing thought – Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s 2013 manifesto #Accelerate – might be one of the few works to hone the label as laudatory rather than negative.[3]

 

In other works, both authors prefer a more circumspect approach. Their 2015 book Inventing the Future, while not mentioning the label, does breathe an air of political heterodoxy. Against what they call thirty years of ‘folk politics’ in the age of neoliberal accumulation, theirs is a manifesto for an unabashedly futurist Left, not afraid of embracing the world it purports to dissect. Calls for a Universal Basic Income are coupled with a plea to the Left ‘to return to representation’, stating that one should create an ‘ecology of organizations’ in parliaments, national trade unions, and neighbourhood groups.[4] ‘In the face of a globalised capitalism that is always on the move’ they write incantatorily ‘opposition to it must pre-empt the transformations of tomorrow in a supple politics of anticipation’ The word “anticipation” is indeed crucial here: throughout their book, both the authors’ outlooks remain explicitly activistic: Inventing the Future is a call for action, not a philosophical pamphlet. More than questions of strategy, the focal point for Inventing the Future is above all the emancipatory potentials of contemporary technology. ‘The traditional battle cry of the left of demanding full employment’ Srnicek and Williams write, ‘should be replaced with a battle cry demanding full unemployment.’[5] Against Mark Fisher’s ‘capitalist realism’, in which ‘the future has been cancelled’, Srnicek and Williams propose four ‘non-reformist reforms’[6] which can serve as a guidance for a post-capitalist platform: ‘full automation’, ‘universal basic income’, ‘the reduction of the working week’, and a ‘devaluation of the work ethic.’[7] Leaving behind both ecological fatalism and post-historical melancholy, Srnicek and Williams urge Marxists to return to their original Promethean impulse.[8]

 

‘None of the activity stolen by work can be regained through submitting to what work has produced.

The congruence of this critique with Marxist approaches – Prometheus was, after all, Marx’s favourite mythological hero – is clear to see. Most importantly, Srnicek and Williams’ work is characterized by what one could call a rediscovery of the virtues of the abstract: instead of fulminating against the dangerous consequences of automation as devaluing the dignity of labour, one should celebrate postmodern technology for its capacity to finally liberate us from the ‘drudgery of work’.[9] While the ‘subjective’ factor in production – i.e., labour power – might be under a constant threat due to its possible replacement with the “objective” factor – i.e., technology – capitalism itself also recreates the need for this subjective factor (‘machines don’t create value’[17], as American Marxist Moishe Postone once put it). While the last thirty years have seen a proliferation of defences of this “subjective” factor in production – be it in trade unionism, be it in calls for “artisan” production – accelerationism is not afraid of making the case for the objective factor. Technology is rather, as Srnicek and Williams state, ‘neither good or bad, nor is it neutral’.[10] It is, in their view, always open to contingent instrumentalisation. Of course, a starry-eyed optimism is not an option. As the authors note, some kind of contemporary devices – such as Humanyze, the app which monitors employees’ speech patterns to measure their degree of productivity[11] – might be intrinsically obstructive to the realization of a post-work society. One could, on the other hand, make a sensible case for the usage of Amazon’s customer-delivery system, which could be a key component of how distribution and production might be brought into equilibrium in a post-capitalist society.[21]

 

Prometheus was, after all, Marx’s favourite mythological hero

Intellectual historians yet cannot fail to notice the continuity between these discussions and twentieth-century ones. Daniel Bell’s 1976 book The Coming of Post-industrial Society already championed the idea of a ‘post-work’ settlement, in which the cultural contradictions of consumer capitalism might come to erode its original ethos. Bell did so by proclaiming the historical end of the Marxian ‘labour theory of value’ in the age of the supercomputer, stating that “technology”, instead of “labour”, would become the basis for innovation under the post-industrial system. In the 1980s, French postmodernism wrote a similar farewell to a class. In 1982, André Gorz published his own version of Daniel Bell’s argument, saluting “Saint Marx” and the “Holy Proletariat” as sacral entities who had had their day.[12] With the rise of global “surplus populations”, fewer people would become part of the production process, turning instead into supplementary human elements in need of discipline (according to the same Robert Kurz we mentioned, about one quarter of the world’s population, who is either out of work or in prison, now serves as a mere onlooker to the process of accumulation, forced into the position of a “societal spectator”[13]). Upon reading the recent accelerationist literature, with its calls for a “post-work” society and elaborations of the concept of the “surplus population”, their diagnosis suddenly appears depressingly familiar.

 

The same yet also holds for its latter-day opponents. In 1976, American cultural critic Christopher Lasch already lambasted the so-called proponents of a “counterculture” for their rejection of the work ethic. As he saw it, the post-work imaginaries of the New Left pictured ‘utopia as generalized leisure, thereby reaffirming, instead of contradicting, the vision of industrial society itself.”[14] Utopia, in their eyes, was portrayed as ‘democratized laziness’, while Lasch insisted that ‘centuries of experience have taught us… that work is one of man’s deepest drives’.[15] (Remark on Plato). Ten years before, Adorno had written that the greatest evil of late-capitalist society was not that it depraved workers of their free time, but rather, that it dictated the contents of that free time according to a capitalist rulebook. ‘Unfreedom,’ he wrote, ‘is expanding within free time, and most of the unfree people are as unconscious of it as they are of their own unfreedom.’[16] Adorno’s plea is echoed in English philosopher Peter Osborne’s remark that contemporary Marxists are yet to understand the exact repercussions of late-capitalism’s monopolisation of time. ‘Existing society,’ he writes, ‘has turned free or disposable time into the site of the realization of value… in a manner that was unimaginable in the nineteenth-century.’[17] As much as “labour” – the social activity that serves as an objective mediator between producers within capitalism – was an invention of industrialism, “leisure” was equally so. Or, as Guy Debord put it: ‘None of the activity stolen by work can be regained through submitting to what work has produced.[18]

 

Intellectual historians yet cannot fail to notice the continuity between these discussions and twentieth-century ones.

All of this is apparent enough to the authors in case. In an important passage, Srnicek and Williams take aim at pessimist views that speculate on the continuation of ‘mindless consumption’ in an age of post-work. Such visions, they state, are as much conditioned by the current society as they pretend to escape it: they ‘neglect humanity’s capacity for novelty and creativity’, invoking ‘a pessimism based upon current capitalist subjectivity.’[19] Yet this begs the question with regards to the argument put forward by critics of “generalized leisure” in the 1970s. Their point was precisely that a post-capitalist society could not come into being without an appropriate democratic culture to sustain its ramifications. To reduce the question of post-capitalism to a pure task of technological organization – or, how one could go about freeing the Gods of the information age from their neoliberal shackles – obscures one of the most crucial insight of Marx’s: that communism is a political rather than a technological question. In contrast to the nineteenth-century, twentieth-century capitalism has long fulfilled what Lenin called ‘the material conditions for socialism;’ late capitalism has overdeveloped rather underdeveloped – a point exemplified by its capacity to exhaust even the most basic sources of value-production (namely, its planetary habitat). French theorist Gilles Dauvé rightly notes that the locution of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ – much favoured on the contemporary Left – is a contradiction in terms: it pictures capitalism as a system of production rather than a specific set of social relations, thereby succumbing to an easy technological determinism. In his 1968 book The Agony of the American Left, that same Christopher Lasch finished with a different credo: ‘The cultural task confronting the Left is not to overthrow the work ethic’, which, in his words, ‘was already under attack from within capitalist society,’ but rather, ‘to invest it with new meaning.’[20]

 

‘Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.’

Such a message indeed has little appeal to the current proponents of a post-work society. Confronted with Kurz’s calls for an ‘ontological break’, accelerationism politely refuses the offer. Instead, it proposes to strengthen the abstract against the concrete, driving the contradiction between living and dead labour towards its dialectical extreme. One is left wondering how likely the prospect of communism is within such a strategic schema. As the German theorist Werner Bonefeld notes, exiting capitalism cannot be achieved ‘immanently’ or by its own means (whatever Antonio Negri might tell us); post-capitalism, above all, means breaking both with the glorification of the abstract and the glorification of the concrete. Communism must therefore reject localism and globalism, futurism and primitivism, productivism and hedonism – it must, in Bonefeld’s words, ‘found society anew’.[21]

 

In a 1940 text later published in his Theses on History, Walter Benjamin described his vision of a communist revolution in the image of pulling the emergency brake on a runaway train. ‘Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.’[22] Those advocating an accelerationist ride on the Late Capitalism Express might want to take heed of his metaphor. Against the calls for either ‘reversals’ or ‘accelerations’, there might be only one way of truly escaping the capitalist ‘wheel of history’: bringing it to a halt, thereby giving way to what Adorno called ‘true progress’.

 

References

[1] See Robert Kurz, ‘The Ontological Break: Before the Beginning of a New World History’, in

Mediations 27 (2005).

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, #Accelerate – Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics

on Critical Legal Thinking Blog, May 5 2014 available at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013

/05/14/ accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics

[4] See Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and World

Without Work (London: Verso Books, 2015).

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Ibid See also Moishe Postone, ‘Necessity, Labor, and Time: A Reinterpretation of the Marxian Critique of Capitalism’, in Social Research 45 (1978).

[11] For rather frightening examples, see http://www.humanyze.com/ and Thomas Heath, ‘This

Employee ID Badge Monitors and Listens to You at Work – Except in the Bathroom’, Washington

Post, September 7 2016, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/busines s/wp/2016/

09/07/this-employee-badge-knows-not-only-where-you-are-but-whether-you-are-talking-to-you

r-co-workers/

[12] See Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic Books, 1973); The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, 1976). See also André Gorz, Farewell to the Working Class (New York: Pluto Press, 1982). See Daniel Zamora, ‘When Exclusion Replaces Exploitation: The Conditions of the Surplus Population Under Neoliberalism’, in nonsite 10 (2014), for an excellent overview of this ‘anti-producerist’ turn in French postmodernism. See also Ross Wolfe, ‘Demonology of the Working Class’, in The Charnel House, September 8 2016, available at https://thecharnelhouse.org/2016/09/08/demonology-ofthe- working-class/ .

[13] See Josh Robinson et al. (ed.), Marxism and the Critique of Value (Chicago: MCM’ Publishing, 2015).

[14] Christopher Lasch, The World of Nations: Reflections on American History, Politics, and Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).

[15] Ibid

[16] See T.W. Adorno, ‘Free Time’, in The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (London: Routledge, 2001).

[17] See Peter Osborne, ‘Marx and the Philosophy of Time’, in Radical Philosophy 147 (2008).

[18] See Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (London: Verso Books, 2011).

[19] See Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future.

[20] See Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Knopff Books, 1967).

[21] See Werner Bonefeld, Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion

and Negative Reason (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014). See also Werner Bonefeld,

‘Negative Dialectics and the Critique of Economic Objectivity’, in History of the Human Sciences

29 (2016), for an Adornian interpretation.

[22] See Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ in Gesammelte Schriften (Berlin:

Surhkamp Verlag, 1974). See also Michael Löwy, Fire Alarm: Reading Benjamin’s ‘Concept of

History (London: Verso Books, 2005).. See T.W. Adorno, ‘Progress’, in Critical Models (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

I thank Camille Walker, Janne Van Beek and Gerard-Jan Claes for preliminary comments on drafts.

Editor: Janne Van Beek

Anton Jaeger

Anton Jaeger

Anton Jäger is a PhD-student in Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. He is currently working on a dissertation about the history of European populism. His writing has been published by De Groene Amsterdammer, Dewereldmorgen.be, and Apache.