Beautiful Ideas Which Kill: Accelerationism, Futurism and Bewilderment

futurist soccer player
Umberto Boccioni’s Dynamism of a Soccer Player, 1913 (MOMA). Saw this on my visit in December 2017, it’s a provocative piece.

In trying to construct a progressive, positive view of the future, and design political structures that facilitate such outcomes, there are many ideas. These are the ideas of political philosophy, but they are also the ideas of sociology, economics, psychology, art and literature. When we think of writers like Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, Sigmund Freud, James Joyce – all of them could in some sense be considered to have made significant contributions in several of those fields. My own attempts to understand State Legitimacy, how the state’s claim to legitimacy can be established and maintained, is in truth a combination of those things as well. Ultimately, all of these pursuits fall back on critical theory: that field of study that attempts to understand who we are as peoples, as cultures. The Italian Futurists, from the first half of the twentieth century, and the (new) accelerationists, from the first fifteen or so years of the twenty-first century, each had a vision. And each was in some ways nasty.

The futurists wanted to drive modernisation in turn-of-the-century Italy at a much faster pace. They saw the potential in machines, and technology, to transform the country, to demand progress. It was not however merely an incrementalist approach they were after: words like annihilation, destruction and apocalypse appear in the writings of the futurists, including the author of The Futurist Manifesto, Filippo Tomasso Marinetti. ‘We want to glorify war – the only cure for the world…’ Marinetti proclaimed – this was not for the faint hearted! That same Marinetti was the founder of the Partito Politico Futuristo in 1918, which became part of Mussolini’s Fascist party in 1919. Things did not go well after that.

Italian futurism was an essentially male project, and prized technology over nature. It does appear from my initial reading that the Italian Futurists believed that their mission, and that of their people, was to subdue and control nature and the world, to dominate the world, and that man was to take his rightful place as the most powerful being in the Universe. The environment would bend to concrete and electrical force. It seems to me that this fatal conceit, this hubris, characterises many of the ‘political’ movements that seek change: there are few that accept a more humble position for mankind, Tim Morton’s Object-Oriented Ontology and Buddhism excepted. I am grateful to Laelie Greenwood’s sharing of some of her writing on the subject, some of which I may post here with her permission.

Accelerationism was a subject first brought to my attention through an article in the Guardian in 2017, and further by a recommendation on Hartmut Rosa’s work Social Acceleration. While the Guardian article is a story about the largely British development of accelerationist ideas, and the people who were involved (in particular the University of Warwick’s CCRU, or Cybernetic Culture Research Unit), it appears to have been an academically shallow fusion of full on-capitalism, unlimited technological development and automation, some fundamentally anarchist political philosophy, and hard drugs. The more recent incarnation, through Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams book Inventing the Future doesn’t mention accelerationism at all (it had ‘baggage’) and is much more benign, what they refer to (though not in the book) as left-accelerationism.

Rosa’s theory of Social Acceleration however appears to be a far more thorough and academically rigorous extension of Marxian alienation theory. We are, in simple terms, short on time, Rosa says in his introduction, even though we have created more of it for ourselves than ever before. This is one more contradiction, another incongruity, that contributes to our sense of bewilderment, of cultural failure. Rosa’s too is an analysis of time, and our relationship to time. It echoes Lewis Mumford’s identification of the clock as ‘the key machine of the industrial age’ (Technics and Civilisation, 1937, p. 14), which made time itself fungible, commoditised. As he put it, ‘[t]ime-keeping passed into time-serving and time-accounting and time-rationing…Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.’

There are clear parallels between the Italian Futurist movement and the Accelerationists. In a bold political extension, Andy Beckett’s piece in the Guardian suggested with some evidence that some of the forces behind both the rise of Donald Trump in the US, and Brexit in the UK, are signed-up Accelerationists and are pushing for harder and harder austerity, neoliberalism, and deregulation in the hope of remaking the world once the revolution has come and gone. There is a twisted logic in this, but it would need significantly more research to prove it out; it could be an explanation for the Bewilderment I’m trying to map out, yet I find it difficult to believe people could be so stupid as to destroy everything in the interests of some kind of messianic vision of utopia. That’s exactly how things went in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and we ended up with the Holocaust. That’s no future that anyone could wish for, and its legacy remains with us to this day. The suggestion frankly is in the domain of a cartoon super villain.

But, you know, with all this hubris going around, maybe mankind really is that stupid.

* I should mention that much of this post was triggered by a conference held in Australia in December that I only found out about after the fact (my bad!) called (Un)Ethical Futures. There were some excellent topics covered, the speakers included the aforementioned Ms. Greenwood, plus Vincent Le on Utopian Dystopias: Nick Land, Westworld and Technocapitalism; and Artem Zubof on Zamyatin’s We.

3 thoughts on “Beautiful Ideas Which Kill: Accelerationism, Futurism and Bewilderment”

  1. As someone on the political left, I often feel more conservative-minded than not only the political right but other Americans in general. The position I consistently fall back on is that of the precautionary principle, which seems like it should be the core foundation of conservatism and yet few conservatives ascribe to it. This gives me a slight left-libertarian impulse in my concerns about both big gov and big biz, though without any of the ideological dogmatism typical of right-libertarianism. But even as I’m not a reactionary, I’m not a radical by personality either. What I do take seriously is ‘conserving’ what is good.

    That doesn’t stop me from also being attracted to certain progressive visions of betterment. Even so, I simply feel cautious. I take seriously all that we’ve lost and destroyed through modernization and industrialization, including traditional communities that held society together. American society devours social capital through a constant influx of immigrants while not creating any new social capital, ignoring for the moment the problematic metaphor of the social as capital. I’m not prone to nostalgia to any great degree, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve created a good replacement for traditional culture.

    I am particularly circumspect about nostalgia, in knowing its relationship to the reactionary mind, most clearly seen with the rise of nostalgia as a medical disease in the late 18th century (similar to nerves and later on neurasthenia, not to mention the physical wasting diseases like tuberculosis). Nostalgia is deep within the human psyche at this point, maybe having its origins in the collapse of Bronze Age civilization (and, as Julian Jaynes argues, the breakdown of the bicameral mind). But as you suggest, the reactionary mind can embrace progressive ideology, however distorted and dysfunctional, just as easily as nostalgia. Reactionaries are flexible in that manner, as their mindset-worldview is not built on coherent and consistent ideological principles.

    Here is a thought about Mumford’s clock and the industrial age. Some have argued for the importance of the printing press and lenses (telescopes, microscopes, eyeglasses, etc) as being the triggers for centuries of changes as society headed into the Enlightenment, revolution, and early modernity — indeed, the likes of Spinoza worked as a lensmaker. But the clock maybe doesn’t get enough credit as a social and historical force. We are so surrounded by clocks and so ruled by clock-time that most of us barely notice it. The loss of the commons as space was exacerbated by the loss of a commons as time, an ancestral and divine inheritance of cosmic pattern and narrative.

    According to John Demos’ Circles and Lines, cyclical time remained central well into the colonial era specifically in North America. It probably persisted in rural farming communities much later, as did cashless barter economies still operating as late as the 1940s (Joe Bageant talks about this from his childhood in West Virginia). Eventually, the clock transformed almost everyone’s lives. And this change in the measurement and experience of time has everything to do with nostalgia, specifically in its extreme form. Nostalgia is a genuine loss of the sense of the past, whereas in cyclical time there is eternal return. Hence, progress is invented as a rupture into historical time.

    That rupture is an enervating force, causing both anxiety and excitement. The reactionary, in particular, thrives on disruption, chaos, and violence — or at least the fantasizing about this. Corey Robin insightfully observed that reactionaries get bored easily. That stands out to me since I rarely get bored and have no desire for excitement. Nor do I associate anxiety with a sense of meaning and purpose, as does the reactionary mind. Reactionaries need a sense of conflict and, if lacking it, they’ll invent it or antagonize opponents to this end. They need a fight, as they require enemies and scapegoats.

    The reactionary mind becomes weak or even disappears during times of stability, especially with peace and prosperity. That is why they can never allow war to end, both international war and culture war. Within the reactionary worldview, there must always be moral panic and existential crisis. Whereas you and I look back to the bad ol’ days of fascism as a warning, those like Steve Bannon takes from it an inspiration and plan of action — as he said, “It will be as exciting as the 1930s.” Bannon, by the way, was a major player not only in bringing Donald Trump to power but also in promoting Brexit. He openly admits that he wants economic nationalism, but he conveniently leaves out the other name for economic nationalism, that of fascism.

    Still, too make sure no one misunderstood him, he carefully explained that, “Darkness is good. Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power.” For a reactionary, that is a surprising degree of overt honesty. They don’t tend to state thins so bluntly, as the talent of reactionaries is in their ability to spin rhetoric so that they can’t be pinned down. There was a journalist who visited Nazi Germany early on, presumably before WWII began, and he noted how Nazi propaganda was all over the place. There was no specific Nazi ideologies, as Nazis would say anything that sounded good, which is how they appealed to so many people across the political and class spectrum.

    In this fashion, to keep people confused, Bannon has also called himself a Leninist, which I think is simply his way to say he wants revolution of an elite vanguard, of course with him as part of the elite. Presumably, what he liked about Lenin is that he helped seize power, with Lenin leading to Stalin. The end game is brutal authoritarianism. Calling himself a Leninist has the added benefit of riling people up. Reactionaries love get everyone all worked up because then it becomes exciting. Politics is always a game to such people and they play to win, although they’d rather lose by playing risky and dangerously than get bored. It’s not that fools like this necessarily want to destroy the world, but then again it’s not that they are against destroying the world either. The game they play is high stakes.

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