Introduction to Accelerationism
In his science fiction novel Pop Apocalypse, Lee Konstantinou imagines the existence of a “Creative Destruction” school of Marxist-Leninist thought. The adherents of this school “interpret Marx’s writings as literal predictions of the future, so they consider it their mission to help capitalist markets spread to every corner of the world, because that’s the necessary precondition for a truly socialist revolution.” This means that the Creative Destruction Marxists are indistinguishable, in terms of actual practice, from the most ruthless capitalists. Their actions coincide with those of a group of investors who have concluded that “there’s money to be made off the destruction of the world” and that in fact apocalyptic destruction constitutes “an unprecedented business opportunity.” They therefore seek to precipitate a worldwide nuclear conflagration: “On behalf of our investors, we’re obligated to take every step we can to insure that we corner the Apocalypse market before anyone else does.”
Let this stand as an introductory parable of accelerationism. The term has become quite popular in the last few years, but it seems to be one of those words that has a different meaning for each person who uses it. As far as I am concerned, accelerationism is best defined—in political, aesthetic, and philosophical terms—as the argument that the only way out is the way through. In order to overcome globalized neoliberal capitalism, we need to drain it to the dregs, push it to its most extreme point, follow it into its furthest and strangest consequences. As Bertolt Brecht put it years ago, “Don’t start from the good old things but the bad new ones.” The hope is that, by exacerbating our current conditions of existence, we will finally be able to make them explode, and thereby move beyond them.
Konstantinou’s description of the “Creative Destruction” Marxists is, of course, a deliberate caricature. Pop Apocalypse is satire, not prophecy. More generally, science fiction as a genre does not claim to actually predict the future. Rather, it works to extrapolate elements of the present, to consider what these elements might lead to if allowed to reach their full potential. That is to say, science fiction is not about the actual future but about the futurity that haunts the present. It grasps, and brings to visibility, what Deleuze calls the virtual dimension of existence, or what Marx calls tendential processes.
Science fiction takes up certain implicit conditions of our personal and social lives, and makes these conditions fully explicit in narrative. It picks out “futuristic” trends that are already embedded within our actual social and technological situation. These trends are not literal matters of fact, but they really exist as tendencies or potentialities. In the words of Deleuze, they are “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract, and symbolic without being fictional.” They are potentials for change, growth, or decay, but they have not fully expressed themselves or done all that they can do. And they may not ever do so, since (as Marx points out) a tendency is always accompanied by “counteracting factors” that can inhibit or even reverse it.
In sum, the present moment contains elements of futurity, but the unfolding of these elements as actual future events is contingent and not guaranteed. A match has the potential to start a fire, but there will not be a fire if the match is never struck, or if, when struck, it is blown out by the wind. Science fiction imagines the flame, and the ensuing conflagration. It provides us with narratives in which these potentials of futurity are fully actualized, unfolding their powers to the utmost. In this way, we might say that science fiction is the accelerationist art par excellence, accelerationist in its very nature.
Accelerationism is a speculative movement that seeks to extrapolate the entire globalized neoliberal capitalist order. This means that it is necessarily an aesthetic movement as well as a political one. The hope driving accelerationism is that, in fully expressing the potentialities of capitalism, we will be able to exhaust it and thereby open up access to something beyond it.
Understood in this way, accelerationism has deep roots in classical Marxism. In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe the production-enhancing and globalizing effects of capitalism:
In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature. . . .
The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?
In all this, Marx and Engels do not sound very critical; they have even been credited with—or blamed for—sounding celebratory. However, this is not quite right. Marx’s view of capitalism is dialectical, rather than moralistic. He does not oppose the creation of “new wants” or demand that we go back to the old ones. He does not condemn capitalism for being evil. Indeed, he hates capitalism for causing massive suffering and oppression, but he does not say that, where capitalism has mobilized new technologies, we need to reject them and return to life on a smaller scale. Rather, Marx is fascinated by the way that capitalism creates wealth and poverty simultaneously. It produces the conditions of possibility for a world of affluence and freedom at the same time that it produces misery and alienation. Marx is compassionate toward the victims of history and full of scathing sarcasm toward their oppressors. But he also remains relentlessly non- and antinostalgic. For him, there is no possibility of going back from capitalism’s own convulsions.
Given this “parallax,” or double perspective, Marx argues that capitalism tends toward a point where its very form—the property form—becomes an obstacle to the further development of the productive forces that it has unleashed:
At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.
Accelerationism finds its origin in this passage and others like it throughout Marx’s writings. But of course, Marx’s discussion is far from unambigious; indeed, it has been interpreted in multiple, contradictory ways. In the Hegelian language that Marx sometimes uses, capitalism negates the very being of the workers, by expropriating the fruits of their labor. But this leads to the situation in which capitalism can be overthrown by means of a “negation of the negation.” That is to say, capitalism ironically creates the very conditions for, and even necessitates, its own supersession.
In the Marxist tradition, this sometimes leads to what has been disparagingly called economism. This is the idea that the progression from capitalism to communism is inevitable; or, in Konstantinou’s words, that Marx’s formulations are “literal predictions of the future.” If this were the case, then all we would have to do is to wait for the dialectical contradictions of capitalism to unfold. Of course, this has never happened. If we wait for the dialectical contradictions to unfold on their own, we will find ourselves waiting forever. Despite his indebtedness to Hegel, Marx clearly does not believe that the real is rational or that the material development of society follows laws of necessity. We should rather say that, for Marx, the dictatorship of Capital is itself the realm of necessity; what’s needed is somehow to get beyond it. Marx is notorious for only giving a vague sense of what life beyond the capitalist order would be like. He leaves it open as a realm for speculation, rather than giving detailed plans in the way that some of his “utopian socialist” predecessors did. By virtue of its very openness, Marx’s analyses have more in common with extrapolative science fiction than they do with either Hegelian systematics or naturalistic fiction.
Given the failure of economism, many Marxists have instead gone to the opposite extreme: they have embraced a kind of voluntarism. Capitalism can be abolished by sheer force of will—as long as this is supplemented by proper methods of organization and mobilization. We see this sort of approach in the Leninist doctrine of the vanguard party, and also, I think, in the ultra-leftism of such contemporary thinkers as Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou. But it seems obvious to me that, over the course of the twentieth century, the voluntaristic approach fared as badly as the fatalistic one. It resulted not in human emancipation but in the horrors of Stalinism, the sclerotic tyranny of the later USSR, and the deadly convulsions of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Today, Leninist voluntarism does not even give us that; all that remains is a fantasy of revolution, providing the basis for a self-congratulatory moralism.
The problem may be summarized as follows. Capitalism has indeed created the conditions for general prosperity and therefore for its own supersession. But it has also blocked, and continues to block, any hope of realizing this transformation. We cannot wait for capitalism to transform on its own, but we also cannot hope to progress by appealing to some radical Outside or by fashioning ourselves as militants faithful to some “event” that (as Badiou has it) would mark a radical and complete break with the given “situation” of capitalism. Accelerationism rather demands a movement against and outside capitalism—but on the basis of tendencies and technologies that are intrinsic to capitalism. Audre Lord famously argued that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” But what if the master’s tools are the only ones available? Accelerationism grapples with this dilemma.
What is the appeal of accelerationism today? It can be understood as a response to the particular social and political situation in which we currently seem to be trapped: that of a long-term, slow-motion catastrophe. Global warming, and environmental pollution and degradation, threaten to undermine our whole mode of life. And this mode of life is itself increasingly stressful and precarious, due to the depredations of neoliberal capitalism. As Fredric Jameson puts it, the world today is characterized by “heightened polarization, increasing unemployment, [and] the ever more desperate search for new investments and new markets.” These are all general features of capitalism identified by Marx, but in neoliberal society we encounter them in a particularly pure and virulent form.
I want to be as specific as possible in my use of the term “neoliberalism” in order to describe this situation. I define neoliberalism as a specific mode of capitalist production (Marx), and form of governmentality (Foucault), that is characterized by the following specific factors:
- The dominating influence of financial institutions, which facilitate transfers of wealth from everybody else to the already extremely wealthy (the “One Percent” or even the top one hundredth of one percent).
- The privatization and commodification of what used to be common or public goods (resources like water and green space, as well as public services like education, communication, sewage and garbage disposal, and transportation).
- The extraction, by banks and other large corporations, of a surplus from all social activities: not only from production (as in the classical Marxist model of capitalism) but from circulation and consumption as well. Capital accumulation proceeds not only by direct exploitation but also by rent-seeking, by debt collection, and by outright expropriation (“primitive accumulation”).
- The subjection of all aspects of life to the so-called discipline of the market. This is equivalent, in more traditional Marxist terms, to the “real subsumption” by capital of all aspects of life: leisure as well as labor. Even our sleep is now organized in accordance with the imperatives of production and capital accumulation.
- The redefinition of human beings as private owners of their own “human capital.” Each person is thereby, as Michel Foucault puts it, forced to become “an entrepreneur of himself.” In such circumstances, we are continually obliged to market ourselves, to “brand” ourselves, to maximize the return on our “investment” in ourselves. There is never enough: like the Red Queen, we always need to keep running, just to stay in the same place. Precarity is the fundamental condition of our lives.
All of these processes work on a global scale; they extend far beyond the level of immediate individual experience. My life is precarious, at every moment, but I cannot apprehend the forces that make it so. I know how little money is left from my last paycheck, but I cannot grasp, in concrete terms, how “the economy” works. I directly experience the daily weather, but I do not directly experience the climate. Global warming and worldwide financial networks are examples of what the ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects. They are phenomena that actually exist but that “stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they’re massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience.”
Hyperobjects affect everything that we do, but we cannot point to them in specific instances. The chains of causality are far too complicated and intermeshed for us to follow. In order to make sense of our condition, we are forced to deal with difficult abstractions. We have to rely upon data that are gathered in massive quantities by scientific instruments and then collated through mathematical and statistical formulas but that are not directly accessible to our senses. We find ourselves, as Mark Hansen puts it, entangled “within networks of media technologies that operate predominantly, if not almost entirely, outside the scope of human modes of awareness (consciousness, attention, sense perception, etc.).” We cannot imagine such circumstances in any direct or naturalistic way, but only through the extrapolating lens of science fiction.
Subject to these conditions, we live under relentless environmental and financial assault. We continually find ourselves in what might well be called a state of crisis. However, this involves a paradox. A crisis—whether economic, ecological, or political—is a turning point, a sudden rupture, a sharp and immediate moment of reckoning. But for us today, crisis has become a chronic and seemingly permanent condition. We live, oxymoronically, in a state of perpetual, but never resolved, convulsion and contradiction. Crises never come to a culmination; instead, they are endlessly and indefinitely deferred.
For instance, after the economic collapse of 2008, the big banks were bailed out by the United States government. This allowed them to resume the very practices—the creation of arcane financial instruments, in order to enable relentless rent-seeking—that led to the breakdown of the economic system in the first place. The functioning of the system is restored, but only in such a way as to guarantee the renewal of the same crisis, on a greater scale, further down the road. Marx rightly noted that crises are endemic to capitalism. But far from threatening the system as Marx hoped, today these crises actually help it to renew itself. As David Harvey puts it, it is precisely “through the destruction of the achievements of preceding eras by way of war, the devaluation of assets, the degradation of productive capacity, abandonment and other forms of ‘creative destruction’” that capitalism creates “a new basis for profit-making and surplus absorption.”
What lurks behind this analysis is the frustrating sense of an impasse. Among its other accomplishments, neoliberal capitalism has also robbed us of the future. For it turns everything into an eternal present. The highest values of our society—as preached in the business schools—are novelty, innovation, and creativity. And yet these always only result in more of the same. How often have we been told that a minor software update “changes everything”? Our society seems to function, as Ernst Bloch once put it, in a state of “sheer aimless infinity and incessant changeability; where everything ought to be constantly new, everything remains just as it was.”
This is because, in our current state of affairs, the future exists only in order to be colonized and made into an investment opportunity. John Maynard Keynes sought to distinguish between risk and genuine uncertainty. Risk is calculable in terms of probability, but genuine uncertainty is not. Uncertain events are irreducible to probabilistic analysis, because “there is no scientific basis on which to form any calculable probability whatever.” Keynes’s discussion of uncertainty has strong affinities with Quentin Meillassoux’s account of hyperchaos. For Meillassoux, there is no “totality of cases,” no closed set of all possible states of the universe. Therefore, there is no way to assign fixed probabilities to these states. This is not just an empirical matter of insufficient information; uncertainty exists in principle. For Meillassoux and Keynes alike, there comes a point where “we simply do not know.”
But today, Keynes’s distinction is entirely ignored. The Black-Scholes Formula and the Efficient Market Hypothesis both conceive the future entirely in probabilistic terms. In these theories, as in the actual financial trading that is guided by them (or at least rationalized by them), the genuine unknowability of the future is transformed into a matter of calculable, manageable risk. True novelty is excluded, because all possible outcomes have already been calculated and paid for in terms of the present. While this belief in the calculability of the future is delusional, it nonetheless determines the way that financial markets actually work.
We might therefore say that speculative finance is the inverse—and the complement—of the “affirmative speculation” that takes place in science fiction. Financial speculation seeks to capture, and shut down, the very same extreme potentialities that science fiction explores. Science fiction is the narration of open, unaccountable futures; derivatives trading claims to have accounted for, and discounted, all these futures already.
The “market”—nearly deified in neoliberal doctrine—thus works preemptively, as a global practice of what Richard Grusin calls premediation. It seeks to deplete the future in advance. Its relentless functioning makes it nearly impossible for us to conceive of any alternative to the global capitalist world order. Such is the condition that Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism. As Fisher puts it, channeling both Jameson and Žižek, “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”
Accelerationism claims to offer a way out of this economic and imaginative impasse. It argues that we must meet the deadlock head on. We cannot escape the global “network society” by rejecting the latest technologies and retreating back to a supposedly simpler and better time. We need to embrace, and even extend, the abstractions of capitalist modernity, if we are ever to do anything about them. We cannot put a stop to environmental catastrophe and economic exploitation by adopting “small is beautiful” localism (E. F. Schumacher) or by building “a bridge to the eighteenth century” (Neil Postman). We cannot escape complexity by simplifying. We cannot secede from multinational capitalism, because it is everywhere and nowhere—just like the (heavily polluted) air that we must of necessity breathe.
The actual term accelerationism was first used by Benjamin Noys in his 2010 book The Persistence of the Negative. Noys coined the word in order to designate a certain philosophical current that has its roots in French philosophy of the 1960s and 1970s: philosophy associated especially with the events of May 1968. The failed uprising of that date was an important reference point for Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and for Jean-François Lyotard; it remains one for Badiou today.
In the early 1970s, books like Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy take up Marx and Engels’s invocation of capitalism’s revolutionizing power, the ways that it destroys all traditions and all certainties. Deleuze and Guattari argue that capitalism is founded upon a “twofold movement of decoding or deterritorializing flows on the one hand, and their violent and artificial reterritorialization on the other.” Lyotard, less ambiguously, rhapsodizes over how the factory workers enlisted by nineteenth-century capitalism supposedly “enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in the morning and evening.”
It is worth noting that Deleuze and Guattari’s account of capitalism’s revolutionizing power—if not Lyotard’s—has been widely misunderstood. Their notorious, most extreme and most quoted “accelerationist” passage urges us
to go still further . . . in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization . . . For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to “accelerate the process,” as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.
This passage has in fact been taken out of context and interpreted much more broadly than Deleuze and Guattari ever intended. It is true that, at least to a certain extent, the passage was meant as a provocation. Writing in 1972, Deleuze and Guattari were criticizing Samir Amin, the Third World Marxist economist who urged countries in the developing world “to withdraw from the world market.” And only three years later (1975), Amin’s autarkic policies were in fact adopted by the Khmer Rouge, with calamitous consequences. I do not mean to blame Amin himself, or his theories, for the Khmer Rouge’s crimes, as many right-wing commentators have done. But this history does provide a rationale for Deleuze and Guattari’s position, as well as showing that they are not just urging a violent acceleration of the market for its own sake. Of course, it should also be noted that, in subsequent decades (from the 1980s onward), the wholehearted adoption of neoliberal policies by developing nations in the global South (often under pressure by the World Bank and the WTO) has also led to calamitous consequences: economic stagnation and widespread immiseration.
In any case, the emphasis on capitalism’s destructive, deterritorializing force is picked up in the 1990s by the British philosopher Nick Land. In a series of incendiary essays, Land celebrates absolute deterritorialization as liberation—even (or above all) to the point of total disintegration and death. He simply ignores the reactive side of capitalism in Deleuze and Guattari’s account: the side that blocks its own liberatory potentials by operating a “violent and artificial reterritorialization.” Instead, Land develops a kind of Stockholm Syndrome with regard to Capital. He sees its absolute, violently destructive speed as an alien force that should be welcomed and celebrated. “What appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources.” Marxists denounce capitalism for being inhuman and destructive; traditional defenders of capitalism deny these charges outright. Land, however, jams the circuits by rejecting both sides of the binary; he extols capitalism precisely for its inhuman, violent, and destructive power.
Land’s position has resonances with that of the early twentieth-century Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. Today, Schumpeter is famous for his theory of “creative destruction”—cited by Konstantinou because it is so central to neoliberal ideology. But in fact, the very idea of “creative destruction” comes entirely from Marx. Schumpeter is the only significant right-wing, procapitalist economist who actually took the trouble to read Marx carefully and seriously. And Schumpeter closely follows the Communist Manifesto when he highlights the way that capitalism “incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within.” Schumpeter—like a smarter version of Ayn Rand—celebrates the mythical figure of the heroic entrepreneur. Where Marx emphasizes capitalism’s long-term tendency toward stagnation, Schumpeter hopes that the entrepreneur’s vital innovations can rescue capitalism from its otherwise fatal entropic tendencies. Fifty years later, Land updates Schumpeter’s myth in postmodern and posthuman terms with his vision “of a cyberpositively escalating technovirus, of the planetary technological singularity: a self-organizing insidious traumatism, virtually guiding the entire biological desiring-complex towards post-carbon replicator usurpation.” Here the entrepreneur is replaced by an entirely nonhuman entity: Capital itself as a viral source of new vitality. Both Schumpeter and Land are writing a sort of accelerationist, antihumanist science fiction. But their stories do not include the final Marxist twist of the negation of the negation, or the expropriation of the expropriators. Instead, Schumpeter’s and Land’s extrapolations work to theorize the sort of accelerationism that was actually put into practice by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping—and that continues to be maintained by all their successors.
The question remains as to whether accelerationism can be anything more than the “virulent nihilism” exemplified by Land in theory, and by Thatcher, Reagan, and Deng in practice. Does intensifying the contradictions of capitalism only lead to greater misery and oppression? Or can it also lead to some sort of rupture and affirmative mutation? Is there a way that, as Deleuze once put it, “the techniques of social alienation” can be “reversed into revolutionary means of exploration”? Can we truly start from the bad new things instead of the good old ones?
Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek attempt precisely this in their Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. They call for a new left politics that is “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” Williams and Srnicek seek not to embrace the violent excesses and contradictions of high-technology, neoliberal capitalism but rather to capture this capitalism’s most advanced and intensive technologies, so that these technologies can be “repurposed towards common ends. The existing infrastructure is not a capitalist stage to be smashed, but a springboard to launch towards post-capitalism.”
Such a project is exemplified, perhaps, in Fredric Jameson’s scandalous analysis of the hidden utopian dimension of Wal-Mart. The super-retailer’s hyperefficient global organization of product distribution, Jameson says, is something that a future communist society might well wish to make use of. Wal-Mart continually revolutionizes its technologies; it makes use of the latest developments in computation and communications in order to boost productivity and thereby increase its profits. But under different economic conditions, such technologies could just as well be used—and indeed, something like them would have to be used—in order to free people as much as possible from meaningless toil. Phenomena like Wal-Mart must be understood dialectically, Jameson tells us, rather than moralistically denounced.
Williams and Srnicek follow this line of thought, as they seek to “unleash latent productive forces” and to “accelerate the process of technological evolution.” They reject the idea that the new digital technologies are unavoidably expressive of neoliberal values, but they also reject the “naive” opposing view that technologies are therefore value-free and neutral. They claim, rather, that these technologies are not exhausted by the goals under which they have been initially developed, and for which they are currently used. Rather, “given the enslavement of technoscience to capitalist objectives . . . we surely do not yet know what a modern technosocial body can do. Who amongst us fully recognizes what untapped potentials await in the technology which has already been developed?”
I think that this stance is justified, precisely because, as Marshall McLuhan suggests, new media (or, more generally, new technologies) always far exceed their original premises and uses. Stanley Cavell, in his discussion of film, similarly gives a new (postmodern?) twist to the standard modernist claim that the goal of any art is to explore and express the fundamental properties of its medium. What Cavell adds to this traditional account is that “the aesthetic possibilities of a medium are not givens . . . Only the art itself can discover its possibilities, and the discovery of a new possibility is the discovery of a new medium.” There is no preexisting “possibility space” for any medium—or, more generally, for any technology. The development and deployment of a technology generates its own affordances and constraints, which themselves may differ under different economic and social conditions. Technological development will always have a speculative (and nonutilitarian) dimension.
But for this very reason, I am also uneasy with the way that Williams and Srnicek advocate “a Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” It is precisely because of the autonomy of technical and material movements from the purposes for which they are initially deployed that these movements are not restricted to their capitalist uses. But this same autonomy puts limits on any hopes of “maximal mastery.” Because of what Keynes called radical uncertainty, there are limits to what concerted action can accomplish. We should not expect too much from Promethean foresight, or from the planning and “economic modelling” advocated by Williams and Srnicek.
There has been some confusion on this issue, because Keynesian uncertainty is often wrongly equated with the right-wing doctrine of “unintended consequences.” For Hayek and other “free-market” thinkers, any form of planning or intentional action will go astray, thanks to unforeseeable and unintended consequences of these actions. But Hayek claims that the catallaxy (spontaneous order) of the market—a twentieth-century update of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”—is somehow miraculously free from such distortions. The market supposedly collates, and therefore “knows,” all the available information from all individual economic actors. Prices are “signals” that channel economic activity in an optimal manner. All new events are quickly reflected by changes in prices.
But Hayek’s market utopia does not take Keynesian uncertainty into account. Since we cannot quantify the future in probabilistic terms, it cannot be captured in terms of the “information” provided by the price system. Despite its supposedly self-correcting mechanisms, the “market” is as subject to unanticipated consequences and inefficient, disequilbrating outcomes as any planning mechanism would be. We should therefore reject the entire dichotomy between central planning, on the one hand, and market “rationality” on the other. Neither mechanism is guaranteed to produce desirable (or efficient) outcomes; neither is likely to reach any sort of equilibrium; both are subject to shocks and ruptures that cannot be contained within probabilistic calculations of risk.
And in point of fact, despite Hayek’s idealization of the market, no corporation actually works by responding to the “information” conveyed in price signals. Rather, capitalist firms themselves engage in massive central planning, in order to manipulate supply, demand, and profit. In other words, planning will take place in any case. It is never as efficacious as the planners wish, but neither is it as futile and ineffective as Hayek claims. The real problem, given the actuality of planning, is to ensure that it is done democratically and accountably, rather than (as at present) by managers and plutocrats accountable only to their corporation’s bottom line. But even at best, such planning cannot be foolproof. Williams and Srnicek simply invert Hayek’s dichotomy between planning and emergent order, when the dichotomy as such needs to be abandoned.
Marx famously says that “men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This will remain the case under a postcapitalist economic system. Even as we pass over from the “realm of necessity” to the “realm of freedom,” the field of human endeavor will not be limitless. It will still be constrained by previous social, physical, and environmental conditions, by what Whitehead calls “stubborn fact which cannot be evaded.” Even if capitalist crisis does eventually open the doors to new and better social relations (as Marx hoped), instead of just allowing the system to perpetuate itself indefinitely (as seems to be the case today), the traces of the contradictions that precipitated the crisis will remain. Hegel was never more wrong than when he claimed that “the wounds of the Spirit heal, and leave no scars behind.”
In particular, the affordances offered by new technologies are not limited to their current, consciously intended uses under capitalism; but they are also not entirely flexible. For our tools incessantly modify us, even as we produce and extend them. We cannot simply manipulate them just as we please. This means that we need to engage in alliances with our tools, as Bruno Latour would say, rather than seeing them as flawless instruments or prosthetic extensions of our will.
This brings us back to the ambivalence at the heart of accelerationism. Speculative extrapolation comes without guarantees. When we push potentialities to their fullest expression, or exacerbate contradictions to the point where they explode, we cannot be sure what the outcome will be. We face fundamental uncertainty, and not just calculable risk. Deleuze and Guattari, following Marx, insist that “the real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself.” This means that we live in a regime of “real subsumption,” where all potentials for change are immanently contained within the relational field of Capital itself. Accelerationism may just as well result in the horrific intensification of “actually existing” capitalist relations (Land), as in the radical displacement and transmutation of these relations (Williams and Srnicek). This is why accelerationism needs to be an aesthetic program first, before it can be a political one. Speculative fiction can explore the abyss of accelerationist ambivalence, without prematurely pretending to resolve it.
Richard K. Morgan’s near-future thriller Market Forces is an exemplary accelerationist fiction. It envisions a world in which the corporate practices of the present have pushed to their logical culmination. In the world of the novel, the vast majority of the population lives in violence-ridden squalor behind barbed-wire fences, sequestered in “cordoned zones.” Meanwhile, members of the corporate elite—the only people still able to afford automobiles and gasoline—compete for contracts and promotions through Mad Max–style road rage duels to the death. For it is simply “realistic”—a “hard-edged solution for hard-edged times”—to make life-and-death decisions that can only be enforced through competitive struggle. Under the harsh discipline of the market, morals are an unaffordable luxury. Even the slightest weakness or hesitation is immediately punished. As one character memorably puts it: “I’d say a practicing free market economist has blood on his hands, or he isn’t doing his job properly. It comes with the market, and the decisions it demands. Hard decisions, decisions of life and death.”
This utterance has a kind of blunt, empirical directness, as if to say: “I’m giving it to you straight, no alibis, no evasions. It may not look pretty, but the world is a harsh and cruel place. Tough decisions—pragmatic and realistic, free of illusions—have to be made, one way or another. If you don’t have blood on your hands, you are just an ineffectual dreamer, out of touch with the world as it actually is.” I think this is a tone that we are all familiar with; we hear it often, coming from politicians and financiers alike. Neoliberal logic is perfectly expressed in Morgan’s novel, with the rhetoric ramped up only a little bit: the appeal to a hard-nosed “realism,” the contemptuous dismissal of idle dreams, the cynical justification of rapaciousness as sheer necessity.
Market Forces simply takes at its word the neoliberal dogma that “there is no alternative” to globalized capitalism and that vigorous market competition is the best way to resolve all problems. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes argued that a strong State was needed in order to suppress an otherwise unending “war of all against all.” But in the twenty-first century, Morgan suggests, our policy is very nearly the reverse. Now, the important thing is to incite and promote competition, to make sure that a “war of all against all” takes place, no matter what. As Foucault similarly puts it, for today’s neoliberalism, “competition is not a primitive given”; rather, it is an ideal, a desideratum: something that has to be “carefully and artificially constructed” through a series of “lengthy efforts.” In the terms of Morgan’s novel, we always need to impose “conflict incentives,” in order to force people to perform at their highest potential.
In the world of Market Forces, the hottest field in finance is Conflict Investment, which means funding civil wars and rebellions in “developing” countries, in return for extravagant profits (from kickbacks, interest payments, and the control of factories in tax-free “enterprise zones”) if the side you are backing wins. The rationale for this is entirely market-based. “Human beings have been fighting wars as long as history recalls,” a finance executive tells us.
It is in our nature, it is in our genes. In the last half of the last century the peacemakers, the governments of this world, did not end war. They simply managed it, and they managed it badly. They poured money, without thought of return, into conflicts and guerrilla armies abroad . . . They were partisan, dogmatic, and inefficient. Billions wasted in poorly assessed wars that no sane investor would have looked at twice.
But what governments did poorly, the market can do better. When faced with a rebellion in a poor country, a Conflict Investment manager says, “we are concerned with only two things. Will they win? And will it pay? . . . We do not judge. We do not moralize. We do not waste. Instead, we assess, we invest. And we prosper.”
Market Forces does not offer us a way out from capitalist realism. One of Morgan’s other science fiction novels, Woken Furies, in fact, considers at great length the possibilities for a democratic, egalitarian socialist revolution in a corporate-dominated society much like our own. But Market Forces just explores the extreme ramifications of the neoliberal order, giving us no distance or respite. It’s as if Morgan were saying to the reader, “I’m going to subject you to the worst; I will throw the most violently oppressive social conditions, and the most horrific and disgusting incidents, in your face, and see if you are tough enough to take it.” (Perhaps I should write “man enough,” instead of “tough enough,” since Morgan insists on the male supremacism that underlies the neoliberal order.) This is accelerationism at its purest—without Williams and Srnicek’s hopes for escape or redemption, but also without anything like Land’s apologia-in-the-guise-of-apocalyptic-vision.
The novel ends, rather like a Kurt Russell movie, with its protagonist, Chris Faulkner, as the last man standing—or, more precisely, driving—after having killed off all his rivals. “I can do whatever the fuck I want,” Chris says; “men like me, there’s nothing you can do to stop us anymore.” But Morgan deliberately empties out this action-movie cliché, even as he repeats it. For all of Chris’s macho accomplishment, he is little more than the power of capital accumulation personified; in a world devastated by that relentless accumulation, there is nothing that he can do except “[give] himself up to the snarl of the engine, the spreading numbness of the drugs in his system, and the onrushing emptiness of the road ahead.”