In imagining a homogenized future labor force, accelerationism ignores how capital opportunistically sustains difference to survive
Communists are not supposed to like capitalism. If there’s one thing everyone knows about communists, it’s that we don’t like capitalism. Capitalism, as described in the writings of Karl Marx, is an organized system of exploitation in which the many labor for the profit of the few. Capitalism takes human behaviors and personal relations and shapes them into market behaviors and market relations, leveling difference and originality along the way. It is bad, and we are against it.
That’s the Marxism for Dummies line, and for most intents and purposes it’s not wrong. But Marx has a more complicated relationship to capital than he’s usually given credit for. In Marxism, capital is a necessary historical phase that displaces feudalism and rapidly increases human productivity. There’s a contradiction in the code: Through capital, “the amount of labor necessary for the production of a given object is indeed reduced to a minimum, but only in order to realize a maximum of labor in the maximum number of such objects.” From this tendency, Marx deduces a way not out but through capitalism:
The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labor, but the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labor. Once they have done so—and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence—then, on one side, necessary labor time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all. For real wealth is the developed production power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labor time, but rather disposable time.
Capitalism reduces the cost of being alive to a minimum, but just to shrink the worker’s slice as the pie grows. Eventually through this process “it becomes evident” that the owners are parasites, and the expropriated expropriate the expropriators. If all this is the case, then it logically follows that we shouldn’t be trying to slow the expropriation down, but rather we should attempt to speed the system toward its inevitable doom. This dynamic is the premise for the collection #Accelerate, new from the radically odd publisher Urbanomic.
Starting with Marx’s “Fragment on Machines”—from which I’ve drawn the quote above—#Accelerate is a chronologically arranged attempt at an “accelerationist reader.” Accelerationism is the bend of theory that follows Marx through Gilles Deleuze, Jean-François Lyotard, and the ’90s Cybernetic Cultures Research Unit (among others), concluding that it’s counterproductive to try to block capital’s flows and that revolutionaries ought to increase those flows’ number and speed instead. The collection draws its hashtag from a piece near the end, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, which was extraordinarily popular on Marxist social media in 2013—all the more remarkable considering the manifesto has nothing to do with cats.
#Accelerate (the manifesto, not the reader) was an internal memo of sorts to the Marx-inflected left about our relationship to technology and production. The two London-based academics seek to redeem Marx as the “paradigmatic accelerationist thinker” and argue that a “left politics antithetical to technosocial acceleration is also, at least in part, a severe misrepresentation.” At a time when capital’s most prominent figures and firms claim to be the embodiment of technosocial acceleration, when leftists are assaulting people wearing Google Glass in the street, this is a controversial position to take. “We do not want to return to Fordism. There can be no return to Fordism,” Srnicek and Williams write, positioning themselves not so much against as past the 20th century bargain between capital and organized labor and definitely against the deluded democratic socialists trying to keep the New Deal dream alive.
It’s too bad that #Accelerate and the reader it led to aren’t written for a general audience. Post–2008 economic crisis, Marxist critique has ventured cautiously outside the classroom and the movie theater into mainstream economics. Neither Keynesian liberalism or free-market conservatism has an adequate explanation for why the proceeds of labor are accruing to a smaller number of profiteers. Marxism predicted it, and more and more people across and beyond the conventional political spectrum are willing to listen. Accelerationism takes the restoration of the historical Marxist project seriously, but it’s still shaking off the mental shackles of academic philosophy, and its proponents lack the interest, training, or perhaps the ability to communicate outside a small self-selected group.
As a mostly 20th century academic reader, #Accelerate includes some of the worst examples of self-indulgent left academic frivolity. We can track the evolution of Anglo-French accelerationism through the “Ferment” section, which reads in part like a game of Marxist telephone on acid. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s daring fusion of Marx and Freud yields Lyotard endorsing the joy of being fucked by capital yields Gilles Lipovetsky’s foolhardy “acceleration of critique.” Class struggle falls out of these accounts, as the authors arrogantly pronounce that capital’s blender has abolished such distinctions.
Although these pieces of writing are useful in constructing a genealogy, I wonder what purpose they serve acceleration itself. If we are for technosocial acceleration, then surely one of the things we can leave behind is leftist professors from the 1970s who thought “what is important is to be able to laugh and dance.” They laughed and danced into tenure and home loans, and now here we are.
Compared with Marx, the late 20th century accelerationists weren’t very accurate in their ideas about the future of work. Lyotard compares work under accelerating capitalism to prostitution, which he images to be passive, a question of enduring “how many penises per hour, how many tons of coal, how many cast iron bars, how many barrels of shit.” Here he sees “the jouissance of anonymity, the jouissance of the repetition of the same in work,” “plugging us in here, being plugged in there.” It’s a vision of work not unlike The Matrix, with humans as batteries for machine-capital, living orifices for plugs. But the 21st century hasn’t just meant the acceleration of factory work; it has meant displacement by automation, and the growth of the service sector, the centrality of communication technology. If all work comes to resemble sex work, it’s because service work requires more personality, imagination, and initiative from laborers, not less.
Part of what these accelerationists believe is that capital is effacing difference of all sorts. “Kapital … does away with all privileges of place; hence its mobility … its machinery obeys only one principle of energetic connections—the law of value, equivalence,” Lyotard writes in “Energumen Capitalism,” the same essay where he credits “hairdressers and ‘no sex,’ women’s lib and gay movement clothes stores” with accelerating the abolition of sex difference. With a more nuanced take, Shulamith Firestone’s “Two Modes of Cultural History” is the only piece in the collection specifically focused on differences between workers. She opposes two gendered forms of imagination: the feminine fantastic and the male empirical. Through the acceleration of capital, she imagines the two combining, as technology makes possible what had previously been considered magic. “When the male Technological Mode can at last produce what the female Aesthetic Mode had envisioned,” Firestone concludes, “we shall have eliminated the need for either.”
While #Accelerate is totally unconcerned with racial division, Marxist sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s 2003 Racism Without Racists predicted a less rosy but structurally similar dissolution of the black-white American racial binary and the development of a colorist spectrum. And though the magical tech changes that Firestone imagined are coming true, and though the demographic changes Bonilla-Silva predicted are here, these binaries seem to be sharpening in postcrisis America, not blending. What gives?
While Marxism is often hesitant to “get bogged down” in race and gender divisions, capitalism displays no such compunction. The philosophers in #Accelerate are more interested in higher-order abstractions like the “human.” In his piece “Labor of the Inhuman,” Reza Negarestani rejects what he labels “kitsch Marxism.”
One makes a claim in favor of the force of better reason. The Kitsch Marxist says: Who decides? One says, construction through structural and functional hierarchies. The Kitsch Marxist responds: Control…. We say ‘us.’ The Kitsch Marxist recites: Who is ‘us?’ The impulsive responsiveness of kitsch Marxism cannot even be identified as cynicism. It is a mechanical knee-jerk reactionism that is the genuine expression of norm consumerism without the concrete commitment to producing any norms.
It’s important for Negarestani that we tune out these objections before they name any real social divisions. But these divisions are what lends capital its flexibility and endurance, what has allowed it to keep going despite its core contradictions. Capital can’t afford to pretend race and gender don’t exist, and neither can communists.
Even though it barely comes up in #Accelerate, perhaps the best example of accelerationist political practice put gender front and center. Wages for Housework was a ’70s campaign that sought to bring women’s unwaged domestic labor under the wage relation so that housewives could strike and engage in the struggle for free time. “If technological innovation can lower the limit of necessary work, and if the working class struggle in industry can use that innovation for gaining free hours, the same cannot be said of housework,” Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James write in the pamphlet “The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community.” “To the extent that she must in isolation procreate, raise and be responsible for children, a high mechanization of domestic chores doesn’t free any time for the woman.” It’s a common misconception that capitalism simply means wages for labor; capital has used women’s unwaged labor to bear the costs of reproducing labor power across the board. As Dalla Costa and James write, “the entire class exploitation has been built upon the specific mediation of women’s exploitation.”
How does capital answer this demand? Much like Negarestani’s kitsch Marxist, capital disaggregates. In Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2000 Harper’s essay “Maid to Order,” she looked at when capitalism did start paying wages for housework, from inside the cleaning industry. While Dalla Costa and James wanted to claim the wage so they could reject it, Ehrenreich writes about how white American feminists argued—to Congress no less—that paying for housework would allow “women” to leave the home for better jobs outside. They were right, Ehrenreich reports, insofar as there has been a decrease in women’s unwaged labor and an increase in women’s participation in the waged labor force. But part of that increase has been performed by the women who come in to do their housework, and as moms become employers, they try to decrease labor costs too.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 1.4 million people employed as maids, housekeepers, and cleaners—1.3 million of them women, and over 60 percent of them women of color. This kind of labor is notoriously hard to measure, but Ehrenreich’s research suggests that in areas near the U.S.-Mexico border, only one-tenth of paid domestic labor is on the books. The BLS puts the yearly average housekeeping wage at $19,570, which is both below the poverty line for a family of three and no doubt inflated by underreporting. Domestic workers without immigration papers not only lack the so-called protection of the law; they’re constantly vulnerable to deportation. So much for Lyotard’s “doing away with all privileges of place.” As Evan Calder Williams writes, “the days and bodies of humans are still far cheaper than any automation, provided money knows where to look. And it always has.” White supremacy and the gender division aren’t archaisms that capital will puree into a flow of neutered beige singularities; they’re labor relations, and integral ones.
Capitalism doesn’t function according to the philosophers’ universal terms—or economists’ for that matter. It’s a reckless structure, but in predictably circumspect ways. The American criminal justice system—which libertarians imagine capitalism could survive without—has focused more on race as productive technology has improved, incarcerating blacks at an increasingly higher rate than whites. Once released, the formerly incarcerated take a record with them, one that marks them forever as a second-class worker, unable to demand the same wages and protections.
Accelerationists couldn’t predict this “new Jim Crow” because they’re always expecting capital to double down. Instead, the owners split. Capital is not only able but required to maintain a host of different labor relations at the same time. Two million (mostly young, mostly women) Americans work in illegal unpaid internships. Black unemployment is consistently twice as high as white unemployment. More than 60,000 imprisoned migrants worked in U.S. federal detention centers last year for 13 cents an hour—less than two percent of the “minimum” wage. And that’s just within the U.S. “Who is ‘us’?” isn’t just a kitsch Marxist knee-jerk; it’s exactly the question capital asks and answers over and over a million times a day in order to survive.
Where does this leave us communists? Firestone’s vision of a world with “the full achievement of the conceivable in the actual” is crawling forward, threatening to walk any day now. There’s not much analysis of specific firms, innovations, or individuals in the #Accelerate collection; the authors display a stodgy Scrabble player’s unwillingness to use proper nouns outside citations. I can understand not wanting your philosophy to turn over as fast as popular Internet companies do, but there are costs to being contemporary, and one of them is shelf life. Analyzing particular moves and agents can tell us more about accelerating capital than meditations on what constitutes the human.
In his piece about the “disruptive” food substitute Soylent, Bhaskar Sunkara sees both the capitalist and communist potential. Soylent is a powder you add to water to create a hyper-nutritious shake. The company claims—and so far no one has refuted—that people can subsist on Soylent alone. It’s a new product and a major jump in the direction Firestone envisioned: Imagine making hunger a thing of the past! Imagine food decommodified, a free flow of nutrition to hungry mouths, whoever, wherever, and whenever they are. Disrupting starvation is a Silicon Valley wet dream, but it’s never been the food product that’s the problem. Instead, Soylent is more likely to disrupt lunch breaks. If we end up living in a world where we pay per second to kiss the nutritious gruel spigot, we’ll know for whom the Soylent pours.
Innovations like this continue to lower the cost of getting workers from one day to the next. The “sharing economy,” for example, is a communist-sounding sector of the new economy based on people using their goods and skills in common. There’s no need for everyone on a block to own a chainsaw, so if one neighbor owns one, she can go online and lease it to her neighbors. It’s the same thing neighbors have always done, but rationalized and better suited for a population that’s used to relations mediated through money. Sharing resources is another kind of efficiency, so it can mean one of two things: profit for owners or free time for workers. If you don’t need to buy a chainsaw, you can afford to work a little bit less or you can afford to be paid a little bit less.
“The line between dystopia and utopia is a thin one,” Sunkara writes about Soylent, and it’s just as true about the sharing economy and Google’s driverless cars. That line is the difference between smooching in the backseat of a solar-powered robot car on your way to the beach with a cooler full of synthetic burgers, and beginning your workday on the car’s integrated videochat, using the screen as a mirror so you can wipe the unsightly glob of Soylent from your chin. As labor efficiency improves, that line between what could be and what is gets thinner, taller, better patrolled. Along with labor efficiency, owners’ ability to calculate the divisions they need to make in order to keep the system stable also improve, as does their ability to enforce them.
We can see what that looks like in the accelerated U.S. client state of Israel, where a technologically advanced over-class has built a literal apartheid wall between themselves and a pseudo-stateless Palestinian working class, while simultaneously maintaining a separate though equally threatening labor relation with African immigrants. How do the Israelis see through walls they build? The same way accelerationists do: They read Deleuze. In 2006, Eyal Weizman talked with members of the Israeli Defense Force for Freize about how they use philosophy:
I asked [paratroop instructor] Naveh why Deleuze and Guattari were so popular with the Israeli military. He replied that “several of the concepts in A Thousand Plateaux became instrumental for us […] allowing us to explain contemporary situations in a way that we could not have otherwise. It problematized our own paradigms.” When I asked him if moving through walls was part of it, he explained that “in Nablus the IDF understood urban fighting as a spatial problem. […] Traveling through walls is a simple mechanical solution that connects theory and practice.”
As American police militarize and anti-immigrant fascist parties rise in Europe, we can see a sort of Israelification across the west. Technosocial acceleration means dystopia with a lot of intersecting market and non-market mechanisms of control to keep it that way. Capital can build walls and crash through them too; owners play by their own rules, their own geography. Capital draws, redraws, and enforces lines between workers according to structural necessity: It knows how to fight a class war as a race war and call it a drug war; it knows if you subject women to a culture of physical, psychological, sexual, and emotional abuse, you can pay them less; it knows borders aren’t for keeping people out, they’re for controlling the wages of the people they let in. What here is worth accelerating?
Unfortunately, there’s not much of a choice. No amount of diligent union organizing, tech skepticism, or sharing is going to slow capital down. Saying you’re an accelerationist is like taking a picture with the Leaning Tower of Pisa: You can make it look like you’re doing something, but it truly doesn’t matter whether or not you’re even alive. The real accelerationists aren’t working on dissertations; they’re working at Google or McKinsey or they’re designing the massively open online courses (MOOCs) that are putting grad students out of work. It doesn’t make any more sense to be for technosocial acceleration than against it.
That doesn’t, however, make me a pessimist. I’m not quite blithe enough to repeat Mao’s “The situation is excellent,” but all that potential free time is looking more and more appetizing by the day, especially as people are ground down to produce it. The easiest means of production to seize, the ones nearest at hand, are inalienable from our bodies. Human capital—our ability to use the productive tools around us—is a vital component of technosocial acceleration. We’re getting more capable, faster and faster. A credible communist threat would offer people another use for their accelerating abilities besides creating value for profiteers or trying to become one of them. If Marx was right in his more self-assured moments, then we’re nearing the point when it becomes intolerable that all these innovations and efficiencies are hurting more people than they’re helping. We won’t get there any faster by wishing it so or identifying with the process, but in the mean mean meantime, we can prepare. We can undermine capital’s attempts to divide us by cleaving to the underdog every time they try another split. We might even get really good at it.