Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy

The fourth commentary, and fifth post, on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, delivered by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman. Aggie is a Lecturer in International Politics at City University London. She works on issues relating to violence and international theory/philosophy, including war and wargaming, US foreign policy, Derrida, Nietzsche, and post-foundational ethics/politics. Tom is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, focusing on capitalism, development, and ideology. He is variously interested in (in no particular order) the politics of epistemology, apocalypticism, Adorno, international development, and concepts of science.


In a climate of successive defeats, missed opportunities and the consolidation (and even exacerbation) of unequal and exploitative social relations, there are few acts more thankless than turning the weapons of iconoclasm against those already waging a struggle against insurmountable odds. Inventing the Future seeks to rescue the Left from what its authors term ‘folk politics’: a commitment to horizontal, local, consensual and prefigurative forms of political action, which the authors claim result ultimately in impotence and irrelevance, aimlessness and lack of focus. In condemning a host of the post-68 Left’s most dearly held praxiological and ethical commitments, Srnicek and Williams wilfully risk aggravating and alienating those they seek to influence.

There will be many readers who will find their prescriptions – the revival of universalism, the aspiration to hegemony, the mobilisation of state power – outdated, odious and even obscene. And for good reason: the attack on ‘folk politics’ doesn’t end after the critique that opens the book. Instead, the sheer audacity of the authors’ wager – essentially that our only hope of defeating the Godzilla of neoliberal capitalism is the creation of an equally powerful Mechagodzilla capable of supplanting the former’s hegemony with its own – performs an ongoing rejection of a parochialism and modesty they see as having corrupted Leftist activism and academia. Like all iconoclasm, such a move is necessarily scandalous in response to the perceived sanctity of that at which it takes aim.[1]

It is precisely this scandalous character of both the book and its precursor, the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (MAP), which goes some way to accounting for the attention the authors have generated across the Left. The book’s stated goals are both vast in scope and highly controversial, yet its tone is one of consistent and calm self-assuredness. The magnitude of the risks associated with the project – the casualties of automation (both human and environmental), the tyrannies of engineering consent, the violences of assuming the task of constructing people’s very identities, to point to just a few – would suffice to make most recoil in dread. The authors’ composed confidence in the face of such potential horror makes reading and responding to the seductions of such book a complex and disorientating task.

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(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future

The fourth post in our (already pretty popular) forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, this time from Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell. Sophie is at the University of Manchester, writing up a PhD on surrogacy’s uneven ‘cyborg’ geography and thinking about its utopian potential. She has written about surrogates for JacobinThe New Inquiry, and The Occupied Times; currently, excerpts are included in the 2015 “Technotopia” symposium. She also writes with the Out of the Woods (anticapitalist ecology) collective. She has co-translated Bini Adamczak’s Communism For Kids and written things that appear in Mute, Open Democracy, the ‘Demanding the Future’ tumblr, and on Novara WireDavid M. Bell is a Research Associate on the ‘Imagine’ project in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. He is interested in the potentials and dangers of utopia(nism) within, against and beyond capital, the state and itself. He has written on the politics of musical improvisation, utopian fiction and participatory arts practice; and is currently working on two book projects: Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect, to be published by Routledge in 2016; and A Future History of Sheffield: Art Practice, Hope and the City, with Jessica Dubow and Richard Steadman-Jones.


To The Future! But Whose?

To The Future! But Whose?

1. 

Inventing the Future provides a ‘plausible programme for ‘a world free of work’. It ‘shows us how we can organise’ to ‘realise a postcapitalist world’. So state its back-cover endorsements by Mark Fisher and Paul Mason. You should never judge a book by its blurb, but these claims are not to be sniffed at: here are two prominent thinkers of the UK left positioning this book as, if not a blueprint for utopia, a blueprint for utopianism – a roadmap that doesn’t quite cover the future but certainly takes us to its outskirts. The hyperbole continues away from Verso’s official promotional campaign too: Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani has publicly suggested that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet receive copies of the book’s chapters as bedtime reading pamphlets. We are not so sure. There is much of value in Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF); and it certainly opens up space for thinking about what might be and how we might get there. But there are serious questions about who this future is for, whose labour (re)produces it, and who it will continue to exclude.

Before the reader is let in on how we can invent the future, however, they need to be disabused of various notions that are holding it back. These are grouped together under the rubric of ‘folk politics’ – a supposed ‘constellation of ideas and intuitions within the contemporary left that informs the common-sense ways of organising, acting and thinking politics’ (p. 10). Its key features are the privileging of ‘local particularisms’; the spatially and temporally ‘immediate’ (and ‘unmediated’); ‘resistance’; and the ‘natural’. The attitude that Srnicek and Williams (hereafter S&W) take to this assemblage is remarkably similar to Marx and Engels’ position on utopian socialism: it was necessary in that it locally kept alive the possibility of alternative ways of living while large-scale political change was impossible, but once the material conditions for totalizing political change (supposedly) arrive, revolutionaries should embrace them and move beyond their quaintly uninspiring New Lanarks, exchange banks and workers’ associations. The time! is! (was!) now! (then!).

Against ‘folk politics’, S&W believe that a return to universalism is necessary for the invention of the future. Whilst acknowledging the colonial history (p. 76) of the universal and rejecting ‘Eurocentricism’ (pp. 77-78), they nonetheless argue that abandoning this structure of thought entails ‘licensing all sorts of oppressions as simply the inevitable consequence of plural cultural forms.’ (p. 77) This seems odd given that so many Indigenous and pre-colonial practices, identities, sexualities and cosmologies with liberatory potential have been destroyed in the name of universalism; and whilst these are acknowledged with the claim that there are non-European forms of ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ (p. 77), we are not convinced that these decidedly European terms are the most suitable labels for them. (What does ‘progress’ mean for cultures whose temporalities are nonlinear, for example?). We are more heartened, however, by the call for a universalism that is ‘pluri-versal’ and ‘does not entail homogeneity…does not necessarily involve converting diverse things into the same kind of thing’ (here, S&W refer to capitalism’s ability to sustain and draw power from diverse forms of social organization); and which ‘must recognise the agency of those outside Europe…in building truly planetary and universal futures.’ (p. 78) Continue reading

Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

The third post, and second guest, in the Disorder’s forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Joseph Kay writes on climate change and libertarian communism with the collaborative blog Out of the Woods.


Having drafted the following comment on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ (henceforth S&W) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, it reads more critically than I expected. In mitigation, I should say that I’m on-board with many of the key themes of the book. I am wholly sympathetic to anti-work politics, generally in favour of automating away toil (with qualifications which will become apparent), and agree that the replacement of global capitalism requires scalability, comfort with complexity, long-term strategy, utopian imagination, and a plurality of organisational forms and infrastructure.

The critical tenor of what follows arises less from disagreement as such, than from my focus on what appear to be the ecological silences in the text. In particular, I focus on the implied conception of nature imported through S&W’s adoption of an avowedly modern rhetoric of progress and control, and on the unmentioned premises of both the project of full automation, and their more general contention that “we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path” (p.177). My argument is not to reject a high-tech, low-work future, but to outline some of the problems to be addressed in rendering such a ‘hyperstitional’ image ecological.

Modernity and the Ideology of Nature

Early on in Inventing the Future, S&W summarise their thesis:

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

Read in an ecological light, the conjunction of ‘think and control’ affords two readings. The first and obvious reading is that their argument is situated within what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature. Smith argued that the ideology of nature had two poles. The first, a modernising politico-theological argument which saw scientific progress as the means to conquer and subdue nature. Here, the imaginary is mechanical, and separation from – as dominion over – nature is understood as an emancipatory process.

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Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

The second post in our forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, from Steven Shaviro. Steven is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory.


The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-François Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.‟ By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” – as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx – is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left – one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that Continue reading

Inventing the Future

The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.


Inventing the Future Cover - square

Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.

The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.

On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.

Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Thinking Internationally About The Arms Trade

A guest post, following our recent podcast on the arms trade and its discontents, from Anna Stavrianakis. Anna is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism.


Zapiro - Russia Syria Arms Trade

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that “inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.” Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of “dodgy deals” but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Continue reading

Secular Bodies of Pain and the Posthuman Martial Corps

The penultimate post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence before the author gets the opportunity to respond to all the participants. Previous contributions come courtesy of Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell and Pablo – Lauren’s opening post can be found here.


David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

With Bodies of Violence, Lauren Wilcox performs the much-needed service of bringing the body back to the foreground of international politics. Through both sophisticated theoretical exegesis and a rich treatment of relevant empirical material, the work insistently underlines why embodiment matters in contemporary practices of violence and how so many accounts of international relations to date have been deficient in this regard. To any that might still doubt it, Wilcox further demonstrates how the insights developed by feminist theory are not restricted to its primary object of gender and makes a compelling case that we find in this body of work one of the most important repositories of conceptual resources for thinking physical embodiment and the normative social frameworks in which such embodiment is lived out.

Perhaps Wilcox’s most important theoretical commitment in the book is her steadfast refusal to take bodies, and by extension political subjects, as given. Instead, bodies are always to be conceived of as in-formation, produced within and bound by normative orders all the while resisting and exceeding them. The human body should therefore not be treated as the basic unit of social ontology or serve as the fixed atom upon which the edifice of political theory is to be constructed (as exemplified by liberalism’s usual reliance on the sovereign rational individual). Drawing in particular on Judith Butler’s work, Wilcox proposes rather to conceptualise the subject as ‘ontologically precarious’ (p.190) and our political orders as accordingly contingent and open-ended. Violence is here taken to be of critical importance since it cannot be considered as ‘merely harmful but is constitutive of the embodied subjects of IR’ (p.28).

Bodies of Violence offers much stimulus for reflection but I will limit my comments to developing two lines of thoughts which are presented here as much as general provocations than as pointed questions to Wilcox. The first concerns the status of pain within the ethico-political imaginaries of modern societies, the second pertains to the relation of the posthuman military body to prevalent corporeal norms.

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