Capitalist Accumulation and the Blind Accelerationism of the Left

by Jehu

This is how I would summarize Nick Land’s critique of the Left accelerationism of Srnicek and Williams:

“As a basis for a movement, accelerationism fails whenever it assumes the future is uncertain.”

But the term accelerationism in this case is unnecessary as this defect equally applies to Marxism and all radical critique now.

Basically, you cannot at one and the same time say you want to speed up the transition to communism by some means and at the same time hold the outcome of this sped up transition is uncertain or open. When Rosa Luxemburg argued mankind was facing a choice, socialism or barbarism, she was essentially saying that the political outcome of the capitalist development in her day was uncertain. Her conclusion was likely correct, because Marx’s theory predicted a breakdown where the political outcome of that crisis was itself uncertain.

First, it could lead to the breakdown of production based on exchange value, but not necessarily production for profit. Second, it could lead to the abolition of capitalist private property, but not property as such. Third, it could lead to social management of the national capital, but not necessarily through a commune.

How the breakdown of production based on exchange value would turn out depended on a contingent class (political) struggle. If the proletarians won this conflict, the outcome would be socialism; but if the bourgeois class won, the outcome would be barbarism.

It is interesting in this regard that barbarism is never actually defined in Marxist theory, but it seems to imply that the untrammeled rule of capital, expressed in ruthless exploitation of colonies, would come home to the metropolis. For her part, Luxemburg put it this way:

“Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery.”

The image here is a rather terrible one, amounting to the end of human civilization, almost a headlong collapse into some earlier stage of history. Yet, surprisingly, Luxemburg’s assertion is nowhere supported by the letter or spirit of Engels writings. She appears to have just invented it.

Barbarism as an economic advance

The closest we can come to Luxemburg’s argument in Engels’ writings is a statement in Socialism, Scientific and Utopian. This pamphlet written by Engels (with at least considerable contribution by Marx), paints an altogether different picture of the consequences of capitalist accumulation. In it Engels states that even if the proletariat did not gain power, the state would be forced to step in and assume the management of production.

Literally, the state would be the national capitalist and the direct exploiter of the proletariat — with all the implications for politics that this incredible event implies. But, despite these implications, Engels makes this assertion in a footnote:

“For only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint-stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.”

This remarkable statement by Engels completely contradicts Luxemburg’s: the breakdown of production based on exchange value would not result in a historical regression of society to some earlier epoch, but would constitute an economic advance that moved society further along the path to communism.

The reason for Engels conclusion is obvious: capital socializes the production of material wealth and this directly social form of production required directly social forms of management. Through the state, society would be forced to recognize the social character of the productive forces engendered by capital, whether it wanted to or not.

Mind you, Engels wrote this in “Socialism”, which at the time was the primer for Marxists, more widely read than the Manifesto. Although the Manifesto is today considered the most important statement of communism, “Socialism” was actually the state of the art of three more decades of study and research.

Chapter 3 of Socialism is a condensed restatement of the entire argument of Capital. If we take that restatement as written, Marx and Engels appear to be saying, “No matter what the outcome of the struggle over state power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat following the breakdown of production based on exchange value, society will move closer to communism.”

Barbarism and the demise of the state

Unlike Luxemburg, Marx and Engels do not appear to see barbarism as a historical regression of civilization, but an economic advance toward communism. There is a sense in Luxemburg, and especially in present day Marxism that barbarism implies a historical regression. Consistent with this, few Marxists have even written about the political-economy of barbarism and, I would imagine, most Marxists don’t even realize it has a political-economy. That Marx and Engels thought barbarism had a political-economy is evidenced by this statement from Socialism:

“The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers — proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is, rather, brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over.”

According to Socialism, then, by undertaking management of production, the state sets the stage for its own demise. In other words, beginning with “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, which appears to have been written in 1880, more than three decades after the Manifesto, Marx and Engels present 2 alternate visions of the future after the breakdown of production based on exchange value

The first envisions a commune, a dictatorship of the proletariat that seizes power and undertakes the management of social production. The second envisions this attempt fails and the state directly assumes the function of the national capitalist.

As we know from other works of Marx this first vision ends with the withering away of the state; but, in the alter universe of barbarism, the state meets its end as well, not by withering away, but by “toppling over.” In either case, the breakdown of production based on exchange has the same result with regards to the state: it meets its end.

But the path to this end is decidedly different: In the first scenario, the proletariat replaces the state with its own dictatorship, a commune, that eventually loses all political function. In the second scenario, the state, rather than being replaced, instead replaces the capitalists and becomes the national capitalist. But this assumption of the functions of the capitalists has a result of bringing the state itself under the law of value, thus sealing its fate. Whether the state is done away with initially by a political event or eroded by the law of value — in either case the state is finished.

The period between the breakdown of production based on exchange value and communism has the same character no matter whether this period takes the form of socialism (rule of the proletariat) or barbarism (rule of capital). The state either in the form of the existing (bourgeois) state or in the form of the commune disappears. And in both scenarios we end with a stateless society, i.e., communism.

It can be seen from this that Marx and Engels could propose the proletariat undertake to speed up development of the productive forces in the Communist Manifesto precisely because no matter what the zigs and zags in the middle, the process itself always had to end with communism.

Acceleration versus Exit

This further confirms Nick Land’s critique of Left accelerationism, at least in the form it is proposed by Srnicek and Williams, that it is fatally flawed precisely because they have no idea what the result of their proposed brand of accelerationism would be. If we accepted Left accelerationism on this basis, we would be blindly speeding up a destructive process whose result we could not know.

In other words, it is precisely in the form of Left accelerationism that the entire idea of accelerationism can be dismissed by scribblers like Ben Noys. Noys’ critique of Land is that we don’t know where this mess is headed and we need to figure out how to exit capitalism. He likens capital to a runaway train and conceives of socialism as an emergency brake, which view, he explicitly states, contradicts that of Marx and Engels:

“The conclusion is that the emergency brake is not merely calling to a halt for the sake of it, some static stopping at a particular point in capitalist history (say Swedish Social Democracy – which the American Republican Right now takes as the true horror of ‘socialism’). Neither is it a return back to some utopian pre-capitalist moment, which would fall foul of Marx and Engels’s anathemas against ‘feudal socialism’. Rather, Benjamin argues that: ‘Classless society is not the final goal of historical progress but its frequently miscarried, ultimately [endlich] achieved interruption.’ (Benjamin 2003: 402) We interrupt to prevent catastrophe, we destroy the tracks to prevent the greater destruction of acceleration.

In this sense the emergency brake is the operator of Benjamin’s non-teleological politics of temporality predicated on the wresting away of the classless society from the continuing dialectic of production/destruction that is the constant ‘state of emergency’ (Benjamin 2003: 392).”

Now, to completely understand what Noys is speaking of in this statement, remember that, in “Socialism”, Engels predicts that the state takes over the management of production only to itself topple over. It would appear, in fact, that Noys preoccupation, as well as the preoccupation of all Left politics today, is to prevent the state from toppling over.

Thus Noys does us the favor of demonstrating the profoundly conservative, even regressive, character of Left politics today. The regressive character consists entirely of turning communism on its head, to propose as our task to prevent the abolition of the state.

Accumulation and communism

You see, a very weird thing happens with Bernstein’s challenge to Marx and Engels and you might miss it if you don’t follow it closely. Bernstein challenges the notion that capitalism would suffer a breakdown as predicted by labor theory. But then this other thing happens: the idea capital is eventually replaced by communism also disappears from the literature.

Although they may look like one and the same thing, they are not: The idea that capital would suffer a breakdown has nothing directly to do with the idea that capital is replaced by communism. Capitalist breakdown is assumed to be the trigger for a struggle over state power. But, as I have argued above, no matter how this struggle turns out, capital is still replaced by communism. Whether the transitional period proceeds under the bourgeois state or the commune, the productive forces develop to communism. The breakdown has nothing to do with this and only affects which class oversees the transition between the breakdown and communism.

This is decidedly not how things are seen today.

If you ask any Marxist, she will likely tell you that communism still requires the overthrow of the state and a period of proletarian rule. Capitalist breakdown has been completely erased, but also erased is the idea that capitalist accumulation leads to communism. All that remains is the idea of a conflict between the two classes over which will hold the state power.

Thus, from Bernstein on, most Marxists deny there can be a capitalist breakdown or that such a breakdown is inevitable. But this is now accompanied by the argument that the end of capitalism does not in any way mean communism necessarily replace capitalism. Capitalism might end, these folks say, (although they can never tell you how or why this would happen), but this doesn’t necessarily mean we get a communist society.

Another way to says this is that capitalist accumulation is economically insufficient in and of itself to bring about a communist society. Even if, by some unknown mechanism, the whole of capital were concentrated in the hands of one capitalist and the whole of the proletarians were unable to sell their labor power, this would still be insufficient in and of itself to produce a communist society. All we would get, oddly enough, is Luxemburg’s barbarism.

Back to the future

Barbarism is always presented in the form of a militarized society complete with concentration camps and intimations of the mass exterminations of unwanted surplus populations — in a phrase, barbarism looks a lot like Nazi Germany. A real event from the past is somehow projected on to the future as the inevitable outcome of capitalist accumulation, not communism. And this is so that the Left can posit a movement from an even earlier period and project this movement as our task to prevent this “past-future” outcome. To put this more clearly, our task today is pretty much posed as it was at the turn of the 20th century: to gain state power so we can prevent something that already happened mid-20th century, Hitler fascism.

This, I think, explains the continuing appeal of Luxemburg’s slogan, “Socialism or Barbarism”. We are permanently frozen in the period before the outbreak of World War I and unable to make sense of anything that has happened since then. In our frozen state Hitler is always in the future, an ever present threat should we fail to win socialism. The terror if we should fail is all the more real because we have the experience of the actual Hitler regime to give our imagination a “real” substance.

What Bernstein proposed at the turn of the century is basically this: “Let capitalism do its thing and it will get us to communism.” Folks like Luxemburg may or may not have agreed that capitalist accumulation would inevitably lead to communism in the long run, but they all knew Bernstein was ignoring unimaginable horror of this process in the short run, which she called barbarism. Precisely to avoid this barbarism, communists of that period were organizing, trying to prepare the proletariat for the conflict to come.

Mostly it didn’t work. However, as far as I can tell, Bernstein, although dumb as shit, wasn’t wrong about the long term implications of capitalist accumulation: everyone seems to have agreed that in the long run, capitalist accumulation had to result in communism. There was no other possible outcome. This has profound implication for us here in the 21st century, in the long aftermath of capitalist breakdown:

Capitalist accumulation can still only end in a fully developed communist society; there is no other possible outcome.