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.

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