Srnicek’s horrifying glimpse into the Left Accelerationist future

by Jehu

If I am reading his essay Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in an Age of Crisis correctly, it seems that Nick Srnicek thinks increased application of technology and art can help the Left to visualize global productive activity as a Nasa-Control-e1376606139231totality and thus render the Left’s politics more coherent and viable.

If I understand his argument correctly, (and I want to emphasize this caveat, because he has told me he doesn’t recognize his argument in my first comments on twitter), he appears to believe that it may have been once possible for the Left “to make our own world intelligible to ourselves through a situational understanding of our own position”, but this is no longer the case:

“Jameson argues that at one time the nature of capitalism was such that one could potentially establish a correspondence between our local phenomenological experiences and the economic structure that determined it.”

However, with a globalized economy:

“We can no longer simply extrapolate from our local experience and develop a map of the global economic system. There is a deficiency of cognitive mapping, that is to say, there is an essential gap between our local phenomenology and the structural conditions which determine it.”

Why would this be a problem for the Left? Again, following this guy Jameson, Srnicek argues it becomes increasingly difficult to develop a socialist politics without the ability to conceptualize the social totality.

“With globalised capitalism having become unbound from any phenomenological coordinates, this possibility for a socialist politics has become increasingly difficult.”

Srnicek thinks it helps explain why, although neoliberalism is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, the Left has not been able to exploit this collapse to realize an alternative vision of society. There is an “abyssal void at the heart of alternative political thinking”, expressed in the “woefully inadequate” Occupy movement and a regressive longing to return to fascism’s Golden Age of the 1960s.

The problem it seems, according to Srnicek, is the inability of the Left to visualize capitalism as a totality — a problem that can be solved with a not inconsiderable technological fix:

“What is needed today is a reconfiguration of the basic political aesthetic taken up by leftists. More specifically, what is needed is an extension of our capacities for sensible imagination via the mediation of technological augmentations. In order to develop an alternative that is adequate to today’s complex societies, those on the left need to marshal the latent capacities of technology and science in order to envision a better future.”

Does the Left need a technology upgrade?

Apparently Srnicek believes it is possible to visualize capitalism as a totality by brute force of 21st Century technology and art by tracking the productive activities of society’s members:

“What is needed for cognitively mapping the economy is therefore the construction of an entire sociotechnical system for observing, measuring, classifying, and analysing it. Instead of direct perception of the economy, perceiving it as a complex system is more akin to a symptomology. In the exact same way that a doctor examines a patient’s symptoms to determine the nature of their disease, so too are various economic indicators used to try and discern the underlying health of the economy. There’s the mainstream symptoms most are familiar with (things like GDP, jobs numbers, interbank interest rates, etc.) along with more arcane symptoms that its practitioners swear by (such as electricity usage, shipping costs, etc.).”

The Left Accelerationist project Srnicek proposes here differs markedly from what he states are the two predominant approaches of the contemporary Left. Those approaches can be divided into direct participation in debates over fascist state economic policy, on the one hand, and more comprehensive materialist critique of the mode of production itself, on the other hand. The latter approach, he argues, is crippled by its reliance on uncovering the contradictions inherent in the mode of production:

“The problem is that dialectics is no longer – if it ever was – a suitable tool for understanding the systemic nature of capitalism. Certainly in the wake of Deleuze’s work, it is increasingly difficult to posit contradiction as the driving mechanism of history. Instead, an ontology of feedback loops, emergent effects, and contingent outcomes is necessary to understand the contemporary world.”

If I ignore for a moment the totalitarian character of Srnicek’s idea for “the construction of an entire sociotechnical system for observing, measuring, classifying, and analysing” the productive activities of billions of individuals linked together throughout the world market, and the difficulties arising from questions like, ‘Who, exactly, would be keeping track of whom?’, I can focus on the larger question:

‘Is Srnicek’s diagnosis of the problem of the Left correct?”

Is the Left’s today actually crippled by its inability to visualize the mode of production as a totality? More to the point, is it really true that, in the past, the Left was able to visualize the mode of production as a totality, but now that process has moved beyond our limited human capacities?  I believe this idea must be challenged. Even in the 19th century Marx and Engels were already criticizing their contemporaries for having a naive conception of capitalism.

Let me give two brief examples of how this crude conception compared to Marx and Engels.

Capitalism and complexity

In 1851, in an essay titled, Reflections on Money, Marx explained why he thought money was not as simple and straightforward as others seemed to believe. There was, he argued, not just the exchange that took place between businesses and their customers, but also the exchange that took place among businesses, which many writers failed even to note. Moreover, the relation between a businesses and their customers and among businesses were influenced not just by local conditions but also trade with distant regions of the world market. And these forces were not just distinct, they also influenced each other to such an extent that the entire mode of production could be brought to halt periodically.

To give another, even more significant, example: One of the very first joint critiques Marx and Engels made of capitalism was that it was progressively creating an immense social production machine that took the combined effort of millions (now, billions) of workers, who were geographically dispersed over the whole planet, to place it into motion. Moreover, by creating this huge machine, society was also unconsciously recreating itself. The laborer in capitalism no longer consisted of isolated individual producers whose activity only becomes social through the act of exchange. Instead, the producer of the capitalist epoch was a single social producer consisting of millions (billions) of individuals, all of whose activities have to be coordinated. Simultaneously, the act of labor itself was being reconfigured as a single social act.

There is a very telling argument Marx and Engels make in the German Ideology that points to the implication of their argument. As individual producers placing their individual means of production into motion as individuals, peasant laborers could escape their material conditions of life as individuals. The proletariat, however, as directly social producers engaged in a single comprehensive act of directly social labor and employing what is essentially a single universal means of production, could only escape its material conditions of life all at once and together. This is because all the various means of production at the disposal of the class were no more than discrete nodes of a globe straddling production machine we call the world market and these discrete nodes could not be placed into motion unless they were placed into motion together.

The problem facing ‘the Left’ as Marx and Engels diagnosed it in their time, was labor had become something over which they, as separate individuals, have no control, and over which no social organisation can give them control without an association that encompassed all the social producers. Controlling the process of production required the cooperative engagement of the entire mass of social producers, as individuals, and could be realized only in an association that was their conscious and voluntary creation.

Thus, according to Marx and Engels, there never was any possibility for the mode of production as a totality to be managed by any individual, or any group of individuals — ever. The process of production would escape one after another attempts to contain or manage it, until, at last, it confronted the state itself acting as the national capitalist, leading to the process escaping even the control of the state. The state would become the national capitalist only to, as Engels put it, topple over.

Left Accelerationism and the big board

For some reason, Srnicek thinks this problem, first identified by Marx and Engels in the German Ideology, can be overcome by wedding brute application of the processing power of modern technology to a new aesthetic. And, I think, there is a reason why he has to pose the problem of the Left in this way: he has no other answer. Since he has no coherent theoretical model of the mode of production, he can only propose to track and manage all of its individual elements much as UPS tracks its deliveries.

In the first place, Srnicek thinks he can overcome the Left’s lack of a coherent theoretical model by pure logistical effort. In the second place, he thinks he can resolve the problem of managing a global process of production by means other than voluntary association. I could be wrong, but this guy really seems to believe that the productive activity of the entire planet can be directed by a group of crisply dressed technocrats watching the big board from a bank of computer monitors in a room somewhere like NASA.

Perhaps, I am misreading him, but this seems to be Srnicek’s horrifying glimpse into our future. Which is to say, if I understand Srnicek correctly, Left Accelerationism does not intend a “reconfiguration of the basic political aesthetic taken up by leftists”, but its complete abolition. In this vision of the future, all the economic determinants of politics — which, together, amount to the economic organization of society — are not made comprehensible to mankind, but are simply supervised by a roomful of technicians.

To be clear, Srnicek worries that the Left has completely lost control of the future owing to the increasing complexity of capitalist relations of production and is in danger of throwing up its hands (like, perhaps, Nick Land and his brand of libertarian accelerationism) and thus succumbing entirely to to the very neoliberalist ideology that, earlier, Srnicek told us was collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions:

“The modernist image of a progressive future was premised on both the capacity to extrapolate and forecast the future, as well as the belief in the human capacity to manipulate the direction of history. We’ve now converged on a widespread acceptance of the neoliberal premise that the world is too complex to ever plan, manipulate, accelerate, modify, or otherwise intervene in. Common sense therefore has it that the market is the best we can hope for. There is no way to manipulate a complex system, so why bother? Common sense has become lost in the complexity of the world without a cognitive map to navigate it.”

Fascism as the premise of post-World War II Leftist politics

To be clear, Srnicek’s argument can be more accurately restated this way: Since World War II, the Left’s ‘vision’ of the future has always been premised on the capacity of the individual fascist states to each manage its own national economy according to the democratic will of its citizens. This capacity has already disappeared for most of the nation states within the world market (if it had ever in fact existed at all) and, although a small number of states — MMT’s monetary sovereigns — may still retain some of this capacity, even their grasp is rapidly slipping.

Srnicek clearly wants to salvage this premise on a global scale by applying ever increasing technological means to the effort — something he sees already prefigured at the national level in the form of Chile’s Cybersyn, or the Federal Reserve:

“To give a concrete example of what is being suggested here, there’s perhaps no better instance than Project CyberSyn in Chile during the 1970s. As its preeminent historian notes, Project CyberSyn “was conceived as a real-time control system capable of collecting economic data throughout the nation, transmitting it to the government, and combining it in ways that could assist government decision-making.” The elaborate technical infrastructure underpinning this system was ultimately oriented towards a single control room capable of overseeing the entire economy.”

Thus, as imagined by Srnicek, Left Accelerationism is not, by any means, a vision of social emancipation; it is simply an attempt to once again bring mode of production under some form of centralized management. In fact, the one “Left” phrase you will not find in Srnicek’s essay, or in his Accelerationist Manifesto, is the term, “social emancipation”. Left Accelerationism is not about social emancipation, but about an desperate attempt to regain control of a mode of production that is hurtling out of control toward its inevitable demise.

On cheap shots and something more

It would not be far-fetched to complain that in the preceding argument I am taking a bunch of cheap shots at Nick Srnicek and his argument in this essay. I should first respond to this by saying that, although the shots are indeed cheap, this does not imply they are wrong — there is nothing wrong with wondering how his vision of ‘technological augmentation” of control over the process of production cannot but lead to totalitarian social forms. And it is not a cheap shot to wonder how Srnicek and Williams manage to write a Left Accelerationist Manifesto that conveniently fails to mention social emancipation even once.

But, I admit it, the questions I raise do just consist of just the low hanging fruit, the easy stuff to raise questions about. And my focus on this aspect of his argument has bugged me for good reason: In my argument above Left Accelerationism is simply dismissed as a tendency, not critiqued.

Critiquing something, I think, is not about simply saying why it is wrong, but also why this ‘wrongness’ must appear in that particular form at this time. It is one thing to say Left Accelerationism is wrong, but it might be more productive to say why what is wrong about Left Accelerationism necessarily has to appear in the form of Left Accelerationism and can take no other form. Why, in other words, does the collapse of fascist state economic policy give rise not to an attempt to go beyond it, but to reconstitute it on a global basis?

So let me try to do this at this point.

The reason why the ‘wrongness’ in Left Accelerationism can only take the form of Left Accelerationism is that Marx’s proposal in the Manifesto was based on the concept of the two-fold character of the commodity, while Left Accelerationism only concerns the production of use values.

Srnicek telegraphs this difference with Marx in his agreement with Deleuze’s dismissal of contradiction as the motive force in capitalism. This leads Left Accelerationism to treat the problem of the Left as one where we cannot visualize the production of use values as a totality. In fact, the Left’s problem is, and has always been, that it treats the production of values as the mere production of use values. If the production of use values is also the production of values, the management of the production of use values necessarily entails the management of value producing labor.

This latter management cannot be anything but commodity production, the production of value and surplus value, and hence capital. This is what gives a necessarily totalitarian character to Srnicek’s proposal for “an extension of our capacities for sensible imagination via the mediation of technological augmentations“. It presents us with a chilling picture of a future where, “We are increasingly embedded within a massive network of various sensors and databases that record more and more of our existence.”

I don’t think any sane person can read these words and not wonder for what purpose this recording is taking place. The Left has this very perverse habit where it keeps promising such activity will only be undertaken for the best of intentions; when history has recorded one after another instance that such innovations as unemployment insurance and subsistence support has been co-opted by the fascists to increase the state’s domination of society.

Not the least of these examples is from Nazi Germany, where the Social Democrat social state apparatus was converted by the Nazis into a weapon against the working class. That entire apparatus fell into the hands of the Nazis and all of the information used by the SPD to monitor KPD members was turned over to Hitler. Certainly we have to ask to what end efforts to manage the complexity of modern production can be put by the fascists.

Precisely because there is a two-fold production process taking place — of use values and exchange values — the possibility exists that an effort to simply monitor the production of use values must instead metastasize into a means to manage the production of surplus value. By dismissing the significance of contradiction as the motive force in capitalism, and in particular, the essential problem of the two-fold character of labor, Left Accelerationism is unwittingly walking into a catastrophe.

Land and Labor

And I want to be clear about one thing: I am not speaking here of any Bilderburg style conspiracy. The problem I identify results not from the intervention of some alien influence, but from labor itself within the mode of production.

In his retort to the Left accelerationist critique of his work, Nick Land demanded Left Accelerationism explain how Marx’s labor theory related to Left Accelerationism. Whether Land was conscious of the fact or not, this is precisely the problem with Left Accelerationism. Under the capitalist mode of production, technological innovation is employed for the production of surplus value, not use values. It is not useful to discuss technological innovation without also discussing how innovation affect the production of value and surplus value. This discussion is completely closed off by Left Accelerationism because of its rejection of contradiction.

The challenge posed by Nick Land to come to grips with labor theory remains unanswered by Left Accelerationism — it remains to be addressed. Left Accelerationism has to explain how and under what circumstances the production of use values can be decisively separated from the production of value and surplus value.

And that answer should be fairly easy because there is only one premise on which this can be accomplished: the abolition of wage labor itself.