Capitalism's last wild ride — Noys' book dissects accelerationism

Malign Velocities: Accelerationism & Capitalism
Benjamin Noys
Zero Books, 117 pages

Benjamin Noys’ Malign Velocities is an attempt to catalogue and describe an intellectual movement within capitalism that’s gaining a new and disturbing influence lately.

Accelerationism — although now largely a right-wing movement — has some origins in leftist thought about capitalism. The idea that the processes of capitalism and its productive forces would themselves drive it to its next stage — or whatever lies beyond — led some to conclude the best thing to do is push capitalism as hard as it can to go as fast as it can.

This, in a nutshell, describes accelerationism. Whether it is the forcing of labour processes to be more efficient, the combination of humanity and machines, or the destruction of borders and identities — it is all viewed as ways to create the higher velocity society of the future.

This might seem crazy, but it holds quite a bit of currency among certain kinds of capitalists — particularly those with connections to US President Donald Trump’s administration.

For example, Peter Thiel is the billionaire founder of internet payment platform Paypal. Thiel, who is quite big in some of the circles that helped organise Trump’s online campaign, has a fascination with conquering death through medical technology.

Right now, he’s trying to preserve his youth by injecting the blood of young people into his veins. That’s right, a literal blood-sucking capitalist.

Space-tech guru Elon Musk has recently announced a brain-computer interface — promising to realise a long-held dream of humans “accelerating” beyond biological limits. Elizabeth Holmes founded the Theranos corporation, which promised to do blood tests without taking blood.

The company raised billions of dollars before it was revealed its promise was physically impossible. Nonetheless, it still has a staggering number of investors.

What these weird rich people have in common is a commitment to pushing capitalism beyond its limits — physical, social, biological — to pursue new forms of accumulation, and higher velocity forms of living and exploiting.  

These capitalists, and others like them, have the bloated ear of Trump. It is therefore worth looking at how they theorise what they are doing.

The origins of accelerationism are in some of the rationalist philosophies of the early 20th Century. Chief among these was probably Futurism, the artistic and social movement that originated in the early part of last century in Italy. Its worship of machinery and speed was epitomised by its love of motor vehicles, jets, trains and — ultimately — war.

Futurism rarely related much to the left, and was more enamoured of fascism. But Noys also charts some of the left-wing expressions of accelerationism in post-revolution Russia.

Revolutionary theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) pioneered a biomechanical theory of acting aiming to create the “new high-velocity man” through factory precision movements.

Aleksei Gastev (1882-1939) was a poet who founded the Central Institute of Labour in 1920. He became fascinated by the demands of “shock production” called for after the devastation of the Russian Civil War.

Gastev’s poetry made workers mere appendages of machines and wanted to replace names with codes to more efficiently organise them. He said mechanisation “permits the qualification of separate proletarian units as A, B, C, or as 325, 075, or as 0”.

Shock labour is described in “The Foundation Pit” by Andrei Platinov (1899-1951), with the slogan “For the Party, for Party loyalty, for the Shock Labour Forcing Open for the Proletariat the Doors into the Future!”

Shock labour gave way to Stalinist forced collectivisation and labour camps stocked by criminalising large sections of the Soviet population.

There are echoes of this valorisation of self-sacrifice in the modern “gig economy”. In 2017, “gig” company Fiverr released this ad copy: “you eat a coffee for lunch / you follow through on your follow through / sleep deprivation is your drug of choice / you might be a doer / in doers we trust.”

This dystopian nightmare is designed to attract potential workers and, presumably, it must work for some people.

Noys regales us with an anecdote from the British miners’ strikes of the ’70s. It was noted that the harsh work in mines — the sacrifice of body and connections to family and friends demanded by the job — were a source of pride for the miners. The very surrendering of themselves to the forces of production was valorised. Noys argues that this “surrender” is part of the appeal of accelerationism.

Libertarians are also drawn to accelerationist ideas. Noys quotes Nick Land (known as “the father of accelerationism”) in the ’90s at the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, arguing for greater globalisation to improve technological progress.

Land said: “Machinic revolution must therefore go in the opposite direction to socialistic regulation; pressing ever more uninhibited marketisation of the processes that are tearing down the social field, ‘still further’ with ‘the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization’ and one can never go far enough in the direction of deterritorialization: you haven’t seen anything yet.”

Noys brings us around to “terminal acceleration”, in his eyes epitomised by Jean-Luc Goddard’s 1967 film Week End — a trainwreck into cannibalism and destruction. And indeed climate change looks like the greatest threat to accelerationist ideas — a higher velocity capitalism would merely lead to a higher velocity destruction of the planet and human civilisation.

Against these visions, Noys explores the counterpoint that revolution would not be a liberation of productive forces, unleashing a higher velocity existence. Rather, it could be a handbrake on a runaway train, slowing us before destruction.

But he rejects this in favour of more nuanced approach, an approach that is more fundamentally political. And this, ultimately, is the real problem with accelerationism — it surrenders politics to the realm of technological progress and thereby to those who control that progress.

This explains why so many of its supporters are the “not remotely human rich” (to paraphrase sci-fi writer William Gibson), but also why it attracts some who are demoralised with political struggle.

Surrendering to blind material progress absolves one from having to build movements or relate to social forces. Building powerful movements of ordinary people requires the all-too-human quality of empathy — an anathema to the prophets of accelerationism.

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