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find their prescriptions – the revival of universalism, the aspiration to hegemony, the mobilisation of state power – outdated, odious and even obscene.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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Bad Infinity?: Hans J. Morgenthau’s Double Critique of Depoliticisation

VassiliosA guest post from Vassilios Paipais, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Vassilios holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE and has published in Review of International Studies, International Politics and Millennium, and held various teaching posts at the LSE, SOAS, UCL and the University of Edinburgh. His work focuses on International Relations theory and international political theology. He is also co-founder of Euro Crisis in the Press and Associate to the LSE IDEAS Southern Europe International Affairs programme. You can read his Euro Crisis posts here, as well as follow him on Twitter.

This post is based on a recently published article in Millennium where he explores the implications of post-foundational political ontology for IR via a reading of Martin Heidegger and Oliver Marchart.

Hans Morgenthau

Post-foundational political thought offers the conceptual tools to theorise the experience of dislocation in politics signified by the difference as such between politics and the political. According to Žižek, the political designates the “moment of openness, of undecidability when the very structuring principle of society, the fundamental form of the social pact is called into question” whereas politics describes the positively determined outcome of that process, a “subsystem of social relations in interaction with other sub-systems”. The difference as such between politics and the political implies that any effort to cancel this gap or gloss it over by using ethical, political, juridical or economic arguments is nothing else but an attempt to hegemonise the social by ideologically displacing politics. The political signifies the moment of grounding/de-grounding of the social that is suppressed or forgotten by the operation of politics but can be reactivated at any time through dislocation and antagonism. Politics is incessantly trying to colonise the political but we are each time painfully reminded that an unbridgeable chasm separates the two. It is exactly the irresolvability of this gap that makes politics the name for a paradoxical enterprise which is both impossible and inevitable – which is why none has ever witnessed ‘pure politics’ either. The political cannot be brought about voluntaristically but, whenever we act, it is as if we always activate it or, better, we are always enacted by it. Both gestures of eliminating the force of the political (post-politics) or of introducing it unmediated into politics (total war, revolutionary terror) end up abolishing the political difference and ultimately result in an ideological displacement of politics.

Against this backdrop, I read the sophisticated realism of Hans Morgenthau as a promising but inconclusive attempt at a post-foundationalism political ontology. In fact, I argue that by equally shunning a facile surrender either to the immanence of power (ultra-politics) or to the technologisation of politics (post-politics), Morgenthau’s theory of the political strove to maintain a reflexive fidelity to the logic of political difference as such. At this point, the question naturally arises: why Morgenthau? Isn’t he the archetypical exponent of a tradition that prioritises a static view of international relations and the adoration of power politics? Well, for those who have been following the recent revisionist literature on classical realism, not really; Morgenthau, in contrast, emerges as an apparent candidate to discuss the crisis of foundationalism in (international) political thought and the paradox of its necessity and impossibility, not least because he is one of those rare thinkers that offers no facile solution to, or redemption from, the existential anxiety caused by the interrogation of ultimate foundations in late modernity.

Such an exercise highlights the strong affinities between Morgenthau and critical historicist currents in social and political theory, but this would come as a surprise only to those who equate Morgenthau’s realism with stasis and conservatism and are ignorant of his debt to the thought of Dilthey, Mannheim and Nietzsche. And yet, why inconclusive? Short answer: because of his failure to be radical enough in his Kantian antinomism or, to put it reversely, in his Nietzschean skepticism. And yet, my intention is not to award or withhold credentials of criticality, nor to indict Morgenthau for failing to live up to standards that he never set for himself. On the contrary, in an authentic act of immanent criticism, one does not seek to oppose the other(s) but, instead, to bring out a certain ‘internal contradiction’ to them, in a sense repeat all that they are saying but for an entirely different reason. The purpose of this critique is not to identify shortcomings in Morgenthau’s arguments but to interrogate the ‘transcendental’ conditions of his discourse: that which is in it more than itself. My thoughts on Morgenthau’s unfinished project then should be seen as a propaedeutic towards an investigation of the conditions and challenges involved in practicing international theory as a constant critique of depoliticisation.

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Assessing Ernst Jünger: Prophet, Mystic, Accelerationist

Following on from the two previous posts (here and here), this final entry will conclude the story of Ernst Jünger’s intellectual trajectory from exalted warrior-poet to withdrawn mystic. I will then propose a brief assessment of Jünger’s legacy and contemporary relevance to our present concerns, notably to a putative political accelerationism.

We pick up our story with the entry of Germany into the Second World War and Jünger’s new conscription into military service. Now aged 44, his experience of the war would however be quite different from the one that had so decisively shaped him as a young man. Following the successful French campaign, he would spend most of the war in an administrative posting in Paris where he assiduously frequented the literary and artistic circles, meeting collaborationist figures like Pierre Drieu La Rochelle and Louis-Ferdinand Céline but also Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau. As during the first war, Jünger kept a diary that would eventually be published in 1948 under the title of Strahlungen (“Radiations”). However we encounter within it a markedly different tone, reflective of the different circumstances in which he found himself but also indicative of a retreat from the ideas he had espoused up to the early 1930s. Devoid of much enthusiasm for the war, his writings appear at times almost indifferent to the wider drama playing itself out across Europe but become progressively more somber as the fate of Germany darkens, reports of atrocities in the East filter through, and his eldest son is killed in Italy.[1] Already looking ahead to the end of the conflict, Jünger also worked during the war on an essay called The Peace that proposed a vision of a united federal Europe and was circulated among the internal opposition to Hitler in the Wehrmacht. Several of these figures would be subsequently involved in the failed attempt on the Führer’s life in July 1944, a plot Jünger was seemingly aware of but took no direct part in.


The end of the war would nevertheless see Jünger being called to account for his inter-war writings. Having refused to submit to denazification, he would find himself barred from publishing for four years and he returned to live in the German countryside where he would reside until the end of his life. His remarkable longevity would grant him the opportunity for an abundant literary production, penning novels, essays and diaries ranging from science-fiction and magical realism to early ecological thinking and reflections on his multiple experiences with psychedelics. I will however restrict myself here to discussing Jünger’s immediate post-war writings since we find within them a clear statement of both the continuities and breaks with his prior thinking. Of particular importance is the text that he originally composed in 1950 on the occasion of the Festschrift for Martin Heidegger’s sixtieth birthday, Über die Linie (“Over the Line”).

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Ernst Jünger and the Search for Meaning on the Industrial Battlefield

This is the first in a series of posts on the German war veteran and author Ernst Jünger that draw on research I have presented at seminars at the University of CambridgeUniversity of East Anglia  and University of Sussex over the last year or so.  [Edit: The follow-up posts can now be found here and here]

A complex and controversial character, Ernst Jünger is mostly known today for the vivid autobiographical account of life in the trenches of the Great War he penned in Storm of Steel, one of the defining literary works produced by its veterans. Alongside its unapologetic celebration of war, it contains an unflinching, at times clinical, description of the unprecedented destruction wrought by the advent of modern industrial war. As we approach the centenary of the First World War, the text has lost none of its evocative power and is likely to remain a lasting document of the soldierly experience.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Jünger’s subsequent writings, published throughout a long life that ended in 1998 at the ripe old age of 102, are however far less well known in the English-speaking world and many of them remain untranslated to this day. And yet I want to argue that, as problematic a figure as he is, the trajectory of Jünger’s thought and work is worthy of our attention in that it crystallises in a particularly stark and vivid fashion some of the tensions and internecine struggles of the twentieth century. Jünger liked to refer to himself as a seismograph registering the underlying tectonic shifts that prefigured the tremors of his age and in the often exalted and rapturous form that took his writings they can indeed be read as a wilful exacerbation of contemporaneous trends, his failings as much his own as that of his times.

Jünger wrestled in particular with the problem of meaning and human agency in a world increasingly dominated by technology and instrumental rationality that appeared to reach their paroxysm in total war. Inheriting his philosophical outlook from Nietzsche, he understood the problem of the age to be that of nihilism, of the devaluation of all values and the increasing inability to posit any goals towards which life should tend after the ‘death of God.’ He came to view the domination of technique as central to the growth of nihilism, a proposition that appears in an inchoate but nonetheless suggestive form in Nietzsche’s own writings. This Nietzschean perspective would so come to dominate Jünger’s outlook and work that Martin Heidegger would not hesitate to dub him ‘the only genuine continuer of Nietzsche.’[1]

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The Anglosphere, Part One: What’s in a Name?

What do you get when you intersect indices that rank top two dozen nations of the world by political freedoms, GDP per capita, productivity, literacy, and patent applications in late 2000s? The answer is you get some kind of an “Anglosphere” – usually the quartet of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the U.S., but also, depending on the underlying measures and thresholds, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and so on.

Using data from the World Development Indicators, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and International Labour Organisation, among others sources, I’ve played this game in my research methods classes quite a bit. No methods textbook endorses such mindless empiricism, but students, from what I can tell, tend to appreciate the loose structure of the exercise. This is because the objective – familiarizing students with comparison, measurement, scaling, and so on – almost always shifts onto the “why?” questions, at which point everyone (ok, not everyone) tries to come up with his/her social scientific narrative on what makes this or that grouping “interesting,” “different,” or “special.”

Joel Kotkin, one of America’s premier demographers, and his nine collaborators have shown me how this game can be played at an infinitely more sophisticated level. Their argument – developed primarily in a collection of the Legatum Institute papers entitled “The New World Order”, but also in two shorter pieces penned by Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar at and in City Journal – is that globalized economy by and large operates in and through three large “tribal groupings” or “spheres”: the Indosphere, the Sinosphere, and the Anglosphere [1]. As the authors note, their narrative can claim a formidable intellectual pedigree: “we have followed the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s notion that ethnic and cultural ties are more important than geographic patterns or levels of economic development.”

Kotkin et al offer no shortage of interesting and novel observations and analytical points, but one of the project’s key punchlines is in the title of the Anglosphere section in the New World Order: “We are not dead yet.” The project’s foil, in other words, is the current wave of American declinism:

The era of unipolar domination by the United States and its key allies — which dates from the fall of the Soviet Union — has come to an end. Yet despite this, the core Anglosphere remains by far the largest cohesive economic bloc in the world. Overall it accounts for more than 18 trillion dollars, one quarter of the world’s GDP, far more than any other cohesive global grouping.

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Damage, Unincorporated*, Part Two: War Studies in the Shadow of the Information Bomb

I’m thinking about something much more important than bombs.
I am thinking about computers.

John von Neumann, 1946 (via The Scientific Way of Warfare)

Modern war has become too complex to be entrusted to the intuition of even our most trusted commander. Only our giant brains can calculate all the possibilities.

John Kemeny, 1961 (ditto)

‘Extreme science’ – the science which runs the incalculable risk of the disappearance of all science. As the tragic phenomenon of a knowledge which has suddenly become cybernetic, this techno-science becomes, then, as mass techno-culture, the agent not, as in the past, of the acceleration of history, but of the dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality – and that to the detriment of all verisimilitude.

Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (1998)

Non-Consensual Hallucinations

A recent spate of cyber-attacks, and the civilian-military responses to them, have pushed questions of collective violence, technological complexity and the very relation between war and peace into a more mainstream arena. Alongside diagnoses of the political impact of Web 2.0, the analysis of contemporary technoscience and its militarised uses seems less neophiliac marginalia than urgently-required research program. As previously indicated in Part One of this review, a number of recent works have broached this subject, and in the process have addressed themselves to the very relation between bios and technos, sometimes with the implication that the latter is on the verge of overwhelming the former. Skynet gone live!

Critical engagement with the boundaries and possibilities of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) thus opens a range of complex problems relating to the co-constitution of war and society, the place of ethics in military analysis (and military practice) and the adequacy of standard categories of social science to world-changing inventions. To expect answers to such broad questions is perhaps to overburden with expectation. Yet it is interesting to find that both Guha and (Antoine) Bousquet, who are most concerned with the radical newness of contemporary war, implicitly operate within a rather traditional understanding of its boundaries. For both, ‘war’ means the restricted arena of battlespace, and in particular that battlespace as viewed by the soldiers and generals of the United States of America.

James Der Derian is intrigued by many of the same questions, but his view is more expansive, and his diagnosis of the connection between NCW and international politics generally more comprehensive. Continue reading