Apocalypse, accelerationism and the unscrupulous argument of Ben Noys
In his essay, “Apocalypse, tendency, crisis”, Ben Noys begin innocently enough by appropriating the anti-communist charge that several well known Marxists have a religious, even apocalyptic, interpretation of historical materialism. However, he explains, he isn’t going to hold it against them:
“I’m not concerned with the old Cold War trope that Marxism is really a form of religion with its own eschatology.”
After which, bizarrely enough, Noys goes on to accuse these Marxists of being just that:
“I am, however, critiquing the remnants of a religious model of providence, in which we suppose history is necessarily on our side.”
I like how, in the opening paragraph of this essay, Noys employs the words of the anti-communist author, Norman Cohn, to accuse Marxists of having “apocalyptic desires”. It really is a nice touch to see a Marxist editor of the journal, Historical Materialism, basically accuse Marxists of being moonies while slyly distancing himself from the charge.
He then goes on to link Marxism to “dreams or nightmares of a world ‘cleansed’ of humanity” under the pretext that he is simply “thinking more closely the relation between radical and revolutionary thought and an ‘apocalyptic tone’ in our current context.”
Ben Noys, who I know nothing about save this and one other essay, is, in my opinion, completely unscrupulous.
Although this may appear to be an outrageous charge against Ben Noys, I will show why it is nevertheless a true one.
Noys is going to show us why for Marxism, unlike for a bunch of German peasants, “apocalypse is not generated by some external superior transcendent vision but by the immanent tendencies of the present.” And he wants to “problematise the radicalisation of Marx’s argument that suggests if history advances by the ‘bad side’ then the worse things get, the better the potential results.'” Noys argues the four writers, “imply that by a kind of radical or quasi-Marxist ‘cunning of reason’ the very worst will produce the ‘good'”.
All of which is kind of weird for me because I agree that any apocalyptic radicalisation of Marx’s argument should not only be problematised but euthanized as well. Oddly, Noys and I are in complete agreement that it is not true that the worse things get, the better the potential results. Instead, it seems to me, things get worse, and then they get ‘worser and worser’ and at no point in this process do the results ever get better.
However, although at least in part Noys and I have some point of agreement, he is still unscrupulous, because he, like most Marxists, also believes things must get worse in order to get better and, moreover, he has no other mechanism for radical political change. In fact, there is not a single Marxist out there today who has mechanism for social emancipation that’s not premised on things getting worse. Not one Marxist I have ever read who thinks the longer capitalism hangs around the better things are going to get for the working class; and since every Marxist I know of, thinks socialism is the only thing that stops things from getting worse, they all agree things will eventually get so bad the working class can’t take it anymore and will be compelled to rise up — or something to that effect.
Noys believes this too — which is why he is unscrupulous enough to throw his comrades under the bus over it instead of actually coming to grips with the strategy itself. Moreover, this is not just a premise of Marxist politics: anarchists, libertarian communists, progressives, even anarcho-capitalists hold to this view. And not just the radicals — even the Democrat and Republican parties think this at some level. Things getting worse is the only known mechanism for radical political change in a democratic capitalist state. The only people who don’t want things to get worse are defenders of the status quo — the party in power. I would suggest that there is no political tendency you can name that does not premise its gaining influence on the likelihood things will get worse if they continue as they are.
Despite this almost complete unanimity that things will get better by getting worse, what we need to understand is why, in historical materialism, this strategy cannot work for the proletarian class at all: No matter how much worse things get, the proletarians as a class likely will never attempt to seize state power. And this is the point, not Noys despicable attempts to link Marxism to medieval apocalyptic visions of some German peasants.
My argument has to be true because there is no mechanism in labor theory for the class – as a class – to take power and wield this power on its own behalf. Any possibility of the working class taking power was (and remains) premised on the assumption of an external event: i.e., on the formation within the working class of a political consciousness.
Unfortunately, there is a small problem with this scenario: historical materialism was founded on the assumption that the working class has no interest to assert against the ruling class and does not find its interest as a class in conflict with the interest of the ruling class of society.
What is important in this regards is not that every political party in society has this view, but that it cannot work as a political strategy for the proletarians. There is, in fact, no amount of abuse and suffering capitalists can impose on the working class that will trigger a proletarian revolution. It does not work this way; could not work this way; and was always assumed to be unable to work this way since 1846.
As a class, proletarians are a product of bourgeois society and have no interest to assert against the bourgeois ruling class. Anyone concerned to understand why this must be true in historical materialism can read Marx and Engels discussion of it in the German Ideology.
The argument I am making here is critical to all of Marxist politics, because the assumption that working class has no interest to assert against the ruling class is the very condition Marx and Engels call on to explain why the proletarians bring the era of classes to an end. Classes, they argue, cannot disappear until a class emerges that has no class interest to assert.
This is not a little problem for people who think deteriorating conditions of class under capitalism will lead to proletarian political revolution; it is a fucking HUGE problem. Because if Marx and Engels were right, there is no way any decline in their material conditions will trigger the proletariat to take power.
In their argument, Marx and Engels state there is only one mechanism for this sort of alteration of society: the conscious voluntary association of the proletariat. No other mechanism exists or can exist. And this might explain why at the moment when, in Noys words, society had to choose between “‘the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large’ and ‘the common ruin of contending classes'”, society opted for fascism. Its other choice, Socialism, required a level of political consciousness that the proletariat was unable to muster.
So, the problem with the idea that as things get worse the working class will be forced to seize power is not that it is apocalyptic, but that it is complete bullshit and was demonstrated to be bullshit in the Great Depression era. This argument is not of itself inconsistent with Berardi’s view of the implications of the present crisis, nor the explanation given by Mitropolous and Cooper for the cause of the crisis, nor even Negri’s argument that no New Deal is possible to resolve the present crisis. It just means that, no matter what the implications, causes or resolution of the present crisis turns out to be, the proletariat will not likely seize political power because it lacks the requisite political consciousness.
What the four share, says Noys, is a peculiar model of the ‘dialectic’ between the forces and relations of production that assumes history is on our side. Which is a really odd criticism for an editor of Historical Materialism to level against the four, since, as Noys admits, the notion of a contradiction between the forces and relations of production is a fundamental premise of historical materialism. So why is Noys accusatorily charging the four of holding a position he himself holds or should be holding again? Noys assures us he only wants to “problematize” the “apocalyptic tone” of historical materialism today.
“Problematize” is a great word because no one really knows what it means. It is one of those meaningless terms academics throw in your face precisely because it is meaningless. Noys is not only able to define what he means by the “apocalyptic tone” of a well known oft-quoted fundamental premise of historical materialism, he also gets a chance to define for us exactly what he means by saying he wants to “problematize” it. And this is great because, having sandwiched the quotes from Marx between two nonsense terms, he can now insert anything he needs to into not one but two nonsense phrases in order to carry his argument to its conclusion.
Noys has already put his spin on the term, “apocalyptic tone”, by linking it to German peasants who believed the crisis would, “create a new heaven on earth in which princes would bow to peasants.”, but what does Noys mean when he uses the term, ‘problematize’? At first reading it appears Noys has found a problem with a fundamental premise of historical materialism. But perhaps not. Noys has turned the word ‘problem’ into a verb of doing. He is going to “problematise” something — i.e., he means to turn what is not a problem into a problem. He intends “to complicate the model that the tendencies of the present will deliver the apocalyptic realisation of communism.”
Now in the oft-quoted passage from 1859, Marx never proposes an “apocalyptic realization of communism”. Nowhere in either of the quotes Noys take from Marx does Marx use that term. And nowhere does Noys cite any of the four writers using that term either. What Noys has done is appropriate an argument against Marxism from an inveterate anti-communist and apply it both to Marx and the four Marxist writers. And Noys does this because, in order to make his following argument, he has to introduce doubt in your mind about a passage from Marx that really has no ambiguity at all.
Thus, when Noys says he wants to “problematize” the quote from Marx, he means he want you to think there is a problem with the quote itself that lends to it an apocalyptic interpretation.
What would be the problem? Now the problem obviously can’t be that the text is wrong; so it has to be that the four writers have a dogmatic, religious interpretation of what is means. If he is going to change that interpretation … well, the words cannot mean what they think they mean, now can they?
Borrowing the argument of a known anti-communist, Noys blames these Marxists writers of wanting things to gets worse in order to trigger a socialist revolution. In my opinion, the problem with Noys’ argument is not that he is wrong; rather, he has tossed these other Marxists under the bus for holding virtually the very same view of society he does himself. What makes Noys a completely dishonest about this is that he has no other mechanism for a socialist political revolution except “things getting worse”; yet he accuses the writers of having this view as if he stands innocent of the same accusation.
Clearly, there can be no alteration of the existing political relations in any society without some level of dissatisfaction with existing relations. All political parties hoping to expand their influence must assume things will get worse if the changes they propose are not adopted. There is, in fact, nothing apocalyptic about this view.
But all of this is beside the point. What is at issue is why Noys thinks this has anything to do with a fundamental assumption of historical materialism regarding the relation between the forces of production and the relations of production. In fact, the relation Marx establishes in the 1859 quote between the forces and relations of production has nothing at all to do with a discussion of proletarian political rule.
In the 1859 quote, as cited by Noys, Marx is not talking about an alteration of political relations, but the alteration of the material economic relations underlying all political relations. The social revolution referred to in the quote is a material social revolution in which the forces of production are being retarded by the relations of production. Noys is correct that this material social revolution implies “a crisis that delivers its own radical solution”; however, the radical solution delivered by this sort of crisis is not, in any sense, political; it is a materially radical alteration of the relations of production.
What is the distinction between the two?
The radical political resolution of the crisis involves the conscious, voluntary association of the working class, while the radical material resolution of the crisis does not in any way require an association of social producers at all — rather, it is the solution imposed on society by the mode of production itself. The forces of production are being strangled by existing relations of production and those relations must be snapped, broken, dissolved. They must be replaced by new relations of production that allow for the freest possible development of the productive forces.
Let me explain what I mean by this: In history since 1859, the relations of production have undergone more or less continuous changes under the influence of the rapidly expanding forces of production — joint stock companies, trusts, monopolization, cartelization, scientific (fordist) management — however you want to characterize this process, many writers have discussed it. These alterations of the relations of production are nothing more than the replacement of older obsolete forms by improved forms and in time these new forms themselves become obsolete and are replaced.
We know this — none of this shit is new.
The alterations of the relations of production are alterations taking place in the material economic structure of society and have nothing directly to do with politics or political relations; however, at a certain definite stage in the development of the productive forces, this conflict must necessarily be expressed in an alteration of political relations as well.
We witnessed two world wars that expressed this profound influence and Marxists correctly diagnosed the cause. Marx and Engels correctly predicted it would happen and, as it occurred, Marxists described and explained it. At a certain point in the development of the productive forces, the two argued, the state would have to step in and directly manage the production of surplus value. All of the successive forms of increasingly socialized forms of management had to culminate in the state itself becoming the national capitalist. Again, although this had nothing at all to do with bourgeois politics directly, management of the production of surplus value would eventually become a direct function of the state.
Like all Marxists, Noys conflates proletarian political rule with this latter material (communist) movement of society. In fact, the two have little, if anything, in common. The proletarian political revolution can only be effected by the whole class acting as individuals to create their own association. This association, which is nothing more than coordination of their own free activities, must be conscious and it must be voluntary.
The assumption by the state, however, is neither conscious nor voluntary — it is imposed on society by the mode of production and reflects the necessary material conditions of production. There is nothing at all voluntary about this imposition — society is forced to it under threat of complete ruin. And there is nothing conscious about this — it is imposed on society irrespective of its conscious wishes as the law of value.
Fifty years before it occurred, Engels argued society would eventually be forced to recognize the social character of its conditions of production. Thus, even if the proletarian revolution failed, society still would be forced by the material conditions to socialize the means of production. To be clear: There is nothing in this scenario that is optimistic; it presumes things get bad only to get worse, with no interruption. Yes, the crisis does deliver its own solution but the classical Marxists called that solution “barbarism”, and they did not think it would be a “heaven on earth in which princes would bow to peasants” in any sense of that phrase. They thought it would be a full blown social catastrophe and they were right.
What I find particularly troubling about Ben Noys is his rather unscrupulous method of argument. In the opening to his essay, he appropriates the argument of a known anti-communist, Norman Cohn, as the starting point of his critique of Accelerationism. At another point he employs the argument of another anti-communist, Karl Popper, to accuse Marxism of being self-confirming. At still another point he introduces the argument of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, only to later admit Accelerationism cannot be traced to that work.
This is a pattern of behavior in his polemic that cannot be ignored because, I believe, it is a deliberate attempt to distract us from his argument.
In still another portion of his essay, Noys introduces “the tendency” which, he off-handedly argues, can be traced to what he says was “Marx’s speculation” in volume 3. What the fuck was speculative about Marx’s argument in volume 3? Noys wants to change the subject: “I do not want to consider the lengthy and vituperative debate”.
How in the middle of a fucking essay on Accelerationism, can you just throw out there that Marx was “speculating” about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall and then say “But I don’t want to get into it?” How do you introduce a statement saying Marx was “notoriously unclear” in his argument, but you don’t want to get into it?
I am telling you Noys is an unscrupulous person who is using his position at Historical Materialism to strangle historical materialism. In the space of his first nine paragraphs of this essay, he has accused Marx of being apocalyptic, engaging in speculation and of being “notoriously unclear” about one of his most his basic and important arguments on the historical trajectory of the capitalist mode of production.
And this is all before he has even gotten to the meat of his argument — this is just the fucking introduction to his argument! How in the world can Noys claim Marx’s concept of “the tendency” is crucial to understanding the defect of the four peasant philosophers and then say Marx was unclear about the tendency — can anyone tell me how this is fucking possible?
After giving us a tour of Lukacs’ bullshit argument, Noys then offers or references, in the following order, the arguments of Negri, Deleuze and Guattari, Polanyi, Amin, Nietzsche, Lyotard and Baudrillard, Badiou, Althusser, Adorno, Postone, Rancière, Virno, Balakrishnan, Jameson, T. S. Eliot, and, finally, Marcuse.
Yet, in all of this bullshit name dropping, the one thing Noys never refers to or references is the precise passage in the Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels make what most seem to believe is the first argument for what is today called Accelerationism:
“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
How is it that, in an essay on Accelerationism, Noys never once references the single passage where, most people agree, Marx appears, at least, to speak of accelerating anything?
And here is the thing about that passage, which should have immediately hit Noys if he didn’t just dismiss Marx’s alleged ‘apocalyptic tone’: In the passage Marx speaks of the proletariat first raising itself to the position of the ruling class. Which is to say, in Marx and Engels’ conception, Accelerationism (i.e., speeding up the development of the productive forces) was a possible strategy for the working class once it was already in power. No one on either side of the debate on Accelerationism seems to have noticed this little problem for an accelerationist strategy.
Situated in its proper historical context, Marx and Engels seemed to feel what we call socialism (or the lower stage of communism) could serve as the political basis to accelerate the development of the productive forces.
Since no one has noticed this little problem, no one has ever asked an obvious question:
“Well, what happens if we attempt to accelerate the development of the productive forces while the capitalists are still the ruling class?”
In other words, by simply dismissing Marx as ‘apocalyptic’ Noys cannot even formulate the problem posed by current theories of Accelerationism properly. All he can actually accomplish is to impute a religious apocalyptic tone to his four comrades.
To be absolutely clear, Marx and Engels never proposed in the Manifesto to accelerate capitalism; they proposed to accelerate the productive forces under an association of the working class.