Parasites on the Body of Capital
Benjamin Noys, who actually coined the term accelerationism, defines it as “an exotic variant of la politique du pire: if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalise capitalism itself: the worse the better.” But perhaps Noys’s critique is a bit unfair. Accelerationism is a new response to the specific conditions of today’s neoliberal, globalized and networked, capitalism. But it is solidly rooted in traditional Marxist thought. Marx himself writes both of capitalism’s revolutionary effects and of the contradictions that render it unviable. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels write that capitalism is characterized thus:
Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
Note how, in this passage, capitalism’s relentless “revolutionizing” of technologies and social relations also revolutionizes our self-understanding. As capitalism shakes up the material basis of life, it also demystifies and disenchants; it destroys all of the old mythical explanations and legitimations that were previously used to justify our place in society, and in the cosmos. And this destruction has only gone further in the years since Marx and Engels wrote. What Max Weber, somewhat later, called the “disenchantment of the world” has proceeded by leaps and bounds in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While all those “ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions” are still quite vehemently held, they have lost their grounding and their authority. Today we are left, as Ray Brassier puts it, with a world in which “intelligibility has become detached from meaning.”
Weber and Brassier both attribute this disenchantment to the progress of science. Marx would not have disputed such assertions, but he attributes scientific progress itself to capitalism’s overwhelming development of productive forces. This does not mean that science is in any sense arbitrary or “socially constructed.” But without the requisite social and economic conditions, scientific discovery on the scale that we currently take for granted would not have happened in the first place. This is why Brassier’s account, following Sellars, of science as the construction of inferential links in the logical space of reasons is little more than a post hoc idealization. Such an account does not tell us very much about how science actually works, and it is far too vague and general to serve as an explanation for why science works.
In any case, Marx refuses to separate the liberating effects of the “constant revolutionizing of production”—including the accelerated pace of scientific discovery—from its creation of vast human misery. The good and the bad go together. In other words, capitalism is beset by severe internal contradictions. In particular, Marx emphasizes a violent discordance between the forces of production unleashed by capitalism and the relations of production that organize these forces. Beset by this tension, capitalism has no finality. It cannot be the ultimate horizon of history (or of scientific discovery and technological invention). Rather, Marx insists that the contradiction between forces and relations will lead to capitalism’s downfall:
The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I will point out that Marx’s diagnosis of the maladies of capitalism has been amply confirmed by subsequent events. Obviously, though, his vision of a movement beyond capitalism has not come to pass. In today’s neoliberal, globalized network society, “the monopoly of capital” has indeed become “a fetter upon the mode of production.” We can see this in all sorts of ways. So-called austerity programs transfer ever more wealth to the already rich, at the price of undermining living standards for the population as a whole. The privatization of formerly public services and the expropriation of formerly common resources undermine the very infrastructures that are essential for long-term survival. “Digital rights management” and copy protection restrict the flow of data and cripple the power of the computing technologies that make them possible in the first place. Ubiquitous surveillance by both corporate and governmental entities, and the consequent consolidation of “Big Data,” leads to stultification at precisely those points where neoliberal ideology calls for “flexibility” and “creativity.” Investment is increasingly directed toward derivatives and other arcane financial instruments; the more these claim to comprehend the future by pricing “risk,” the more thoroughly they move away from any grounding in actual productive activity. And of course, massive environmental deterioration results from the way that actual energetic expenditures are written off by businesses as so-called externalities.
And yet, none of these contradictions have caused the system to collapse or have even remotely menaced its expanded reproduction. As Deleuze and Guattari say, “no one has ever died from contradictions.” Instead, capitalism perpetuates itself through a continual series of readjustments. Despite the fact that we have reached a point where capitalist property relations have become an onerous “fetter upon the mode of production” that they initially helped to put into motion, this fetter shows no sign of being lifted. The intensification of capitalism’s contradictions has not led to an explosion or to any “negation of the negation.” The “capitalist integument” has failed to “burst asunder”; instead, it has calcified into a rigid carapace, well-nigh suffocating the life within.
Marx was perhaps being too faithful to Hegel when he described the tension between forces and relations as a “contradiction”—implying that it could develop into a higher stage by means of a dialectical resolution or supersession. The discordance might be better understood as an insurpassable paradox. The crippling tension between forces of production and relations of production does not ever truly resolve itself but rather reproduces itself on a larger scale each time that it seems to have been overcome. Hegel was wrong; the real is unquestionably not rational. We are stuck within the process that Hegel stigmatized as the “bad infinity.” Hegelian dialectics is not adequate to describe the delirious, irrational “logic” of capital—even though Marx himself originally analyzed this “logic” by means of Hegelian categories. For our experiences of the past century have taught us that the worse its own internal contradictions get, the more thoroughly capitalism is empowered.
Marx famously writes that “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” But in fact, capital is even more monstrous than this. For it is actively auto-cannibalistic. It feeds not only on living labor but also upon itself. In times of crisis, Marx tells us, we witness “the violent destruction of capital, not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation.” When profit rates decline, then vast conflagrations of value—whether in wars or in economic crises—are necessary in order to allow the accumulation of capital to resume anew. Rather than being undone by its own internal contradictions, capitalism both needs and uses these contradictions; it continually regenerates itself by means of them, and indeed it could not survive without them. It follows that we cannot hope to negate capitalism, because capitalism itself already mobilizes a far greater negativity than anything we could possibly mount against it. This in turn leads us to the paradox that capitalism creates abundance, but at the same time it always needs to transform this abundance into an imposed scarcity. Deleuze and Guattari are right to note that scarcity, or “lack,” is not the attribute of some supposed “state of nature”; rather, “lack (manque) is created, planned, and organized in and through social production . . . The deliberate creation of lack as a function of market economy is the art of a dominant class,” and it ironically takes place “amid an abundance of production.”
Capitalism has to transform plenitude into scarcity, because it cannot endure its own abundance. Again and again, as Marx and Engels say in the Manifesto, under capitalism “there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity—the epidemic of over-production.” The wealth that capitalism actually produces undermines the scarcity that remains its raison d’etre. For once scarcity has been overcome, there is nothing left to drive competition. The imperative to expand and intensify production simply becomes absurd. In the face of abundance, therefore, capitalism needs to generate an imposed scarcity, simply in order to keep itself going.
Accelerationism is perhaps best understood as a response to this strange dilemma. It starts from the observation that actually existing capitalism has in fact brought us to the point where—perhaps for the first time in human history—universal affluence is at least conceivable. We live in an age of astonishing scientific discoveries and technological inventions. Computers process information as never before; we are starting to manipulate life itself on the genetic level; we will soon be able to utilize energy from the sun, freeing us from dependence upon the environmentally destructive, and physically limited, stock of fossil fuels. Thanks to advances in automation, there is probably less need for irksome labor today than at any time since before the invention of agriculture. With its globe-spanning technologies, its creation and use of an incredibly powerful computation and communications infrastructure, its mobilization of general intellect, and its machinic automation of irksome toil, contemporary capitalism has already provided us with the conditions for universal abundance. We no longer need to wait for some distant future: because, as William Gibson famously put it, “the future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
We should not underestimate the significance of this situation. In our world today, there is already enough accumulated wealth, and sufficiently advanced technology, for every human being to lead a life of leisure and self-cultivation. In principle at least (although of course not in practice) we have solved the economic problem of humankind—just as John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, predicted we would do within a century. Keynes rightly foresees such twenty-first century phenomena as “technological unemployment.” But he sees these phenomena as opportunities rather than problems: “this means that the economic problem is not—if we look into the future—the permanent problem of the human race.” Instead, Keynes says,
for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.
Keynes’s vision of the “economic possibilities for our grandchildren” can be contrasted with Joseph Schumpeter’s assertion, made at roughly the same time, that, “in order to identify himself with the capitalist system, the unemployed of today would have completely to forget his personal fate” and instead “comfort himself with hopes for his great-grandchildren.” Schumpeter, unlike his twenty-first century acolytes, takes the “destruction” part of “creative destruction” seriously; you don’t find him celebrating “disruption” in the self-congratulatory manner of today’s management gurus. For Schumpeter, the continual revolutionizing of the means of production also means a continual deferral of our enjoyment of the fruits of that production. But where Schumpeter can only conceive of an endless recession of the moment of prosperity, Keynes regards this prosperity as an actually attainable state.
Keynes’s vision of the future can also be contrasted with that of his contemporary and antagonist, the neoliberal philosopher Friedrich Hayek. Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, compares the two at great length. He notes that both thinkers are concerned with how “liberalism could most successfully be defended” in face of the shocks of the first half of the twentieth century. Keynes and Hayek both seek, in other words, to rescue capitalism, but where “Hayek was a fervent, consistent believer in the virtues of capitalism; Keynes’s belief was certainly not fervent, and perhaps only intermittent.” Keynes sees capital accumulation as only a means; “compound interest” is a tool to lead us to lives of leisure. For Hayek, in contrast, “the end-state cannot be distinguished from the processes which generate it”; the “economic problem” must remain humankind’s permanent one. In Hayek’s vision, there is “no life beyond capitalism, no knowledge of the good life beyond the discovery process of the market.” And this remains a core principle of neoliberalism today. Hayek offers us, at best, the accelerationism of Reagan, Thatcher, and Deng. Keynes, in contrast, offers us the glimpse of a “beyond” to capitalism—even if he wrongly thinks that capitalism itself can get us there.
Indeed, what the Bloomsbury aesthete Keynes foresees as the peaceful outcome of capitalism differs little from the utopian socialism imagined by such nineteenth-century visionaries as Charles Fourier and Oscar Wilde, among others. Fourier and Wilde both regard the “freedom from pressing economic cares”—general affluence and elimination of the constraints of private property—as a necessary condition for human flourishing. Without the restrictions of poverty and ownership, we will be able to truly cultivate our passions (Fourier) and to pursue “Individualism” to its fullest extent (Wilde). In Wilde’s description of “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,”
while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure which, and not labour, is the aim of man—or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.
Marx and Engels themselves, and later Marxist thinkers, tend to oppose their own “scientific socialism” to the “utopian socialism” of Fourier and others. Fourier draws up glorious plans for the future state of society that he called Harmony, but he never explains how we can possibly get there. Marx rather spends his time analyzing the contradictions of capitalism; he is notoriously skimpy on discussion of what communist society might actually be like. Nonetheless, on the rare occasions that Marx does consider the actual shape of a future communism, his vision is not all that distant from those of Fourier and Wilde—or for that matter, from Keynes’s vision of affluence. In their early writings, Marx and Engels describe a society that “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” The Soviet cult of Stakhanovism, and other such dubious glorifications of labor in twentieth-century Marxism, have obscured the extent to which Marx’s aim was not “a new distribution of labour to other persons” but rather a transformation of society that “does away with labour” altogether.
I am entirely serious, therefore, in suggesting that something like Wilde’s aestheticism is a relevant model for postcapitalism. As Terry Eagleton puts it:
The true harbinger of communism is not the proletarian but the patrician, as Oscar Wilde, a man who believed devoutly in communism in between dinner parties, was ironically aware. What better image of the indolent future than the dandy and aristocrat? Wilde thus had a wonderful political rationalization for his extravagantly privileged existence: just lie around all day in loose crimson garments reading Plato and sipping brandy and be your own communist society . . . This is why Wilde is both a convinced socialist and an unabashed aesthete, since he finds in the work of art the paradigm of the profoundly creative uselessness of communism.
Of course, we must add to this that Wilde actually still had to live in Victorian England, rather than in a communist utopia. This is why, despite his “extravagantly privileged existence,” he was made to suffer in the end. In fact, Wilde’s dandyism and self-fashioning is part of a longer history. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, gay men in the West—and other minorities as well, to some extent—turned to an extravagant form of aesthetic self-cultivation, in response to the discrimination and persecution that they faced. This is not necessarily to say that such self-cultivation has ever been politically potent, or even that it can rightly be called a form of “resistance.” It more often works as a secret act of secession from the dominant society than as a form of critique or protest within it. But at the very least, aesthetic self-cultivation proposes an alternative to otherwise universal standards. The tradition of gay male self-cultivation stretches, at the very least, from nineteenth-century aestheticism, through mid-twentieth-century camp, to glam rock of the 1970s, and even to Michel Foucault’s late works, concerned as they are with the care and fashioning of the self.
Aesthetic self-cultivation, no less than universal affluence, is an evident absurdity in today’s neoliberal world where “only the strong survive.” Self-cultivation requires a climate of leisure and indolence that is incompatible, as Jonathan Crary puts it, “with the demands of a 24/7 universe.” Self-cultivation is a kind of reflexive turning inward; as such, it is the opposite of self-branding, where I stylize myself in order to market myself, to be an entrepreneur of myself, and to increase the value of my “human capital.” Self-cultivation is unthinkable under our current condition of austerity, where everything must be made subject to market competition and judged exclusively in terms of the financial profit that it is able to yield under stringent constraints. From an outside perspective, it is quite bizarre that we take the “discipline of the market” so much for granted, while we laugh at the supposed naiveté of Fourier’s intricate calculus of passions and pleasures.
Self-cultivation also contradicts our modern (and postmodern) assumptions about the infinitude of desire. For the last century or more, we have tended to prefer an aesthetic of the sublime to one of the beautiful; or, in Roland Barthes’s terms, we have tended to prefer the radical convulsions of orgasmic bliss (jouissance) to the easier satisfactions of mere pleasure (plaisir). The latter terms in both of these binaries seem complacent and quaint; they are too conservative, and too limited, to match our voracious consumerism, our aggressive boosterism, and our impulses toward rebellion and absolute negation. Today, we take it as axiomatic that—as William Blake wrote—“less than All cannot satisfy Man,” and we see only disparagement in Blake’s observation that “those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
But these are precisely the assumptions that condemn us to suffer from imposed scarcity even in the midst of plenty. Too much, as they say, is never enough. The corollary to “less than All cannot satisfy Man” is that “if any could desire what he is incapable of possessing, despair must be his eternal lot.” In contrast to this vision of infinite desire, aesthetic self-cultivation always has limited aims. It makes do with the finite and the transitory. It is able to relax, with the assurance of being supported by continuing social abundance. The aesthetic of self-cultivation gladly accepts qualified and temporary satisfactions, rather than wallowing in the ironies of perpetually unfulfilled and unquenched desire.
We tend to dismiss this aestheticist vision as a naive fantasy, because we take it so much for granted that we can never really be satisfied. Rather, we continually convince ourselves that a felt sense of deprivation and scarcity will necessarily trump any measure of abundance. As Keynes says, “we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” But against this, Keynes points out that the alleged insatiability of desire is itself only relative:
Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes—those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs—a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.
Even when it comes to competitive emulation, Keynes suggests, we will soon be able to get beyond “the love of money as a possession”—something that he regards, with Wildean disdain, as “a somewhat disgusting morbidity.” The social satisfaction of “absolute needs” will allow our remaining, merely “relative” ones to be expressed in multiple, attenuated forms. Above all, we will be able to turn our efforts toward “non-economic purposes.” Where neoliberalism dreams of transforming every aspect of life into a competitive marketplace, Keynes sees the good life as possible only when we are free from the pressures of such a marketplace.
I think that the neoliberal disdain for Keynes stems as much from this general attitude of his as it does from his interventionist economic policies. Far from dismissing Keynes’s affluent aestheticism as just a symptom of his own narrowly upper-middle-class background, we should appreciate it as an alternative form of life for a postcapitalist world. Indeed, our own unquestioned assumptions about desire are themselves symptomatic of the contemporary state of political economy. Neoclassical economics defines itself as the study of how people make choices under conditions of scarcity. Or, to use the definition cited by Foucault: “economics is the science of human behavior as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have mutually exclusive uses.” Neoclassical economics assumes infinite desires and limited resources, and examines how strategies of substitution work to maximize marginal utility under the constraint of scarcity. This was already the case for the marginalism of the later nineteenth century. The neoliberal innovation is to extend this logic beyond the traditional market economy, by using it (as Foucault says) “to decipher non-market relationships and phenomena which are not strictly and specifically economic but what we call social phenomena.”
Neoclassical economics, and a fortiori its neoliberal extension, is thus founded upon a weird metaphysical dualism. On the one hand, desire itself is unlimited and intrinsically ungraspable. We cannot ground it, explain it, or circumscribe it in any way. On the other hand, and at the very same time, the particular decisions impelled by this desire are themselves entirely rational and quantifiable. People’s behavior exhibits their “revealed preferences,” and market mechanisms work to give a uniform standard of value by pricing all the alternatives. This transformation—from the negativity of unqualifiable desire to the quantitative calculability of “choices” made under the constraint of the price system—reproduces the way that capitalism as a whole both produces abundance, and ceaselessly transforms it into scarcity.
Keynes only breaks in part with the logic of neoclassical economics. But the classical economics of Smith and especially Ricardo, which provides the basis for Marx’s critique of political economy, is revived in the twentieth century by Keynes’s colleague and friend Piero Sraffa. The revived classical approach is quite different from the neoclassical one. Classical economics is concerned not with individual decisions made under constraints of scarcity but with social production, distribution, and expenditure. It examines how a society can materially reproduce itself, and how it can grow by generating a surplus. It is therefore directly concerned with the production, management, and distribution of such a surplus. Classical economics thus assumes abundance rather than scarcity. Its implicit metaphysics avoids the dualism of infinite desire on the one hand and “rational choice” on the other. Instead, classical economics assumes an interplay—involving both accommodation and conflict—among various finitely positive forces. It thereby opens up a space for multiple living arrangements and forms of self-cultivation—instead of submitting everything to the ruthless trials of competition.
In our current age of capitalist realism, and of what may well be called the metaphysics of desire, this ethos of surplus and self-cultivation seems bizarre, alien, and nearly unimaginable. Yet it makes sense as a response to the abundance that capitalism actually produces, though without allowing us to partake of it. This is why I see such an ethos as a necessary component of any accelerationism worthy of the name. Aesthetic reflection and self-cultivation is every bit as crucial to a postcapitalist future as is the political project of “collective self-mastery,” and economic planning and modeling, urged upon us by Williams and Srnicek in their Manifesto. In particular, the very real prospect of posthumanism and transhumanism—that is to say, of technological alterations of the very nature of what it means to be “human”—must be considered in aesthetic terms rather than only utilitarian ones. Radical self-transformation is unavoidably problematic, since it involves changing the very “self” that wills the transformation in the first place. If posthuman self-alteration is not folded into an aesthetic of self-cultivation, then it will only be answerable to the programs of large corporations.
Environmental concerns as well need to be posed in terms of surplus rather than scarcity. Ecology should not be confused with austerity. We must learn not to live with less but to partake more fully of the Sun’s overabundant bounty and to dissipate its gifts more widely. Our current devastation of the biosphere is itself best understood as another form of imposed scarcity, stemming from our fantasies of the violent negativity of desire.
Of course, all this still leaves unanswered the question of how we get from here to there. Is it possible to accelerate the bounty of the forces of production without also accelerating the violent destructiveness and imposed scarcity of the relations of production? I conclude with an accelerationist fable that pushes both of these tendencies to the bitter end. Paul Di Filippo’s science fiction short story “Phylogenesis” confronts the full monstrosity of Capital and especially of the ecological catastrophe that is one of its chief consequences. But it is also a story about living on in the face of this monstrosity, and finding a bounty even in straightened circumstances. As the story promises us, from the beginning: “Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.”
The literal premise of “Phylogenesis” is that an alien species of enormous “invaders came to Earth from space without warning . . . In blind fulfillment of their life cycle, they sought biomass for conversion to more of their kind.” As a result, “the ecosphere had been fundamentally disrupted, damaged beyond repair.” The invaders’ massive predation leaves the Earth a barren, ruined mass: “the planet, once green and blue, now resembled a white featureless ball, exactly the texture and composition of the [invading species].”
Human beings are reluctant to accept the hard truth that they cannot repel the invasion: “only in the final days of the plague, when the remnants of mankind huddled in a few last redoubts, did anyone admit that extermination of the invaders and reclamation of the planet was impossible.” The human agenda is reset at the last possible moment: with victory unattainable, sheer survival becomes the only remaining goal. In this situation of general destruction, there is no longer any environment capable of sustaining humanity. It is necessary, instead, “to adapt a new man to the alien conditions.”
And so “the chromosartors begin to work,” genetically refashioning Homo sapiens into a new species. We are reborn as viral parasites, living within the very bodies of the spacefaring invaders. On the outside, the host presents a smooth surface: it is a “tremendous glaucous bulk,” with skin “like a bluish-gray compound of fat and plastic,” possessed of “a relatively high albedo,” and shaped like a “featureless ovoid.” But a whole ecology pullulates beneath “the sleek uniformity of the host’s thick skin.” Its “interior structure” is “a labyrinth of cells and arteries, nerves and organs, structural tubules and struts . . . A nonhomogeneous environment of wet and dry spaces, some cluttered with pulsing conduits and organs, some home to roving organelles, others like the empty caverns formed in foam.” This is where the genetically refashioned human species takes up residence.
This monstrous host is oddly reminiscent of what Deleuze and Guattari call the body without organs. This is, in one of its dimensions, the socius, or “recording surface” that appropriates to itself the entire social product. In our current conditions, the body without organs is the monstrous body of Capital itself. Deleuze and Guattari tell us that the body without organs “presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier.” But beneath this smooth surface, it “senses there are larvae and loathsome worms . . . so many nails piercing the flesh, so many forms of torture.” In a primary sense, capital is parasitic (or “vampiric”) because it lives and grows by expropriating the products of living labor. But in a secondary, existential sense, predatory capital is the basic fact of our existence, and we can only survive by becoming, in turn, parasitic upon it.
Most of the text of “Phylogenesis” lovingly recounts the physiology, psychology, and overall life cycle of the new parasitic humanity. The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of maximal flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans” mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior—ganging up together when necessary, in order to overwhelm the host’s defenses—and nomadic distribution—“scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks.
Once the neohumans have lived off and finally killed their host, completing a generational life cycle, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use lightweight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically instilled “predisposition toward solving . . . abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”
Di Filippo’s story turns upon devising a brilliant strategy for adapting to capitalism’s catastrophic monstrosity. When “There Is No Alternative”—when it no longer seems possible for us to defeat the monstrous invasion, or even to imagine things otherwise, this parasitic inversion is the best that we can do. The neohumans of “Phylogenesis” evade extinction at the hands of the monstrous aliens and accelerate their own evolution in response to the accelerated reproduction of Capital. They end up devising a situation in which their own survival absolutely depends on the continuing survival of the monstrosities as well. Can they even imagine the monsters going away? “We can’t count on it, we can’t even dream about it.” The parasitic neohumans end up killing whatever host they have invaded, but their continuing proliferation is always contingent upon encountering another host. The extinction of the invaders would mean their own definitive extinction as well.
As far as I can determine, Di Filippo did not intend “Phylogenesis” to be read as an allegory of Capital. Yet the marks are there in every aspect of the story. The downsizing of the neohumans (adults are “four feet tall, with limbs rather gracile than muscular”), the rationalization of their design in the interest of mobility and flexibility, their uncanny coordination and ability to “monitor the passage of time with unerring precision, thanks to long-ago modifications in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of their brains, which provided them with accurate biological clocks,” the “inbuilt determinism” by means of which their sexual drives are canalized “for a particular purpose,” their severely streamlined cultural heritage, and the ways that even their nonproductive activities (singing and nonprocreative sex) serve a purpose as “supreme weapons in the neohumans’ armory of spirit”: all of these are recognizable variations of familiar management techniques in our contemporary post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. The neohumans make use of the only tools that they find at hand; they mimic and parasitize the very mechanisms that have dispossessed them.
The emotional lives of the neohumans are effectively streamlined in a post-Fordist manner as well. Feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, and aware of all the ways that their potential has been constrained, these people see no hope of things ever getting better. But they conclude that “we just have to make the most of the life we have.” Both materially and affectively, they develop an ethos of abundance, generosity, and self-cultivation, even in the face of terror and dispossession. This is, finally, what we must learn to accelerate.