The Speed of Future Thought: Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek interviewed

by C. Derick Varn and Dario Cankovich on July 15, 2013

Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek are the authors of the Accelerationist Manifesto.

There has been a lot spoken on Nick Land’s vision of accelerationism and your acknowledgement and distancing from Land’s anti-human embrace of neo-liberal capitalism. Would you draw out your implied critique of Nick Land’s conclusions?

First, it is worth emphasising that the manifesto bridges two sets of ideas, some more philosophical and others more political. The critique of Land (beyond the most obvious humanist-left rejoinders) is multilayered. But the most important of criticisms is the distinction between Land’s presentation of capitalism (akin to a science fictionalised hyper-inhuman variant on Hayek) and its humdrum actually-existing reality. This is why we believe it is worth engaging with figures such as Land as they present a reductio ad absurdum of neoliberal capital’s own popular self-image. We think there are important elements within this image that are necessary for any new left to engage with: real desires that this political-economic form has captured and conducted towards its own ends. If, as seems plain, it is insufficient to simply negatively oppose the worst incursions of capitalism, then working out what within neoliberal ideology is seductive and worthwhile is one starting point. So the most obvious critique of Land’s conclusions is the empirical reality we dwell in everyday: a world, at best, of profound disappointment, and at worst, of staggering inequality and squandering of human potential. But what is interesting is that the neoliberal hegemony remains relatively impervious to critique from the standpoint of the latter, whilst it appears fundamentally unable to counter a politics which would be able to combat it on the terrain of modernity, technology, creativity, and innovation. This is because of neoliberal capitalism’s value proposition: inequality and misery, yes, but dynamicism and growing prosperity on the other hand. So the conclusion is that Land (and the set of more conventional right economic social theorists he effectively glosses) are entirely insupportable. Our friend Mark Fisher has a riff on a similar idea with his critique of ‘actually existing capitalism’. There are also a series of very significant long-term processes which ultracapitalists have no answer for: principally climate change and secular crisis.

What do you think will be the content of the “post-capitalist planning” called for in the Manifesto.  How would this be significantly different from schemes, not only of GOSPLAN but also of Technocracy, Inc or Italian Futurism?

Our conclusion that post-capitalist planning is required stems from the theoretical failures of market socialism as well as from our own belief that a planned system can distribute goods and resources in a more rational way than the market system. This differs from previous experiments with such a system in rejecting both the techno-utopian impulse of much recent writing on post-capitalism, and the centralised nature of the Soviet system.

With regards to the former – we valorise technology not simply as a means to solve problems, but also as a weapon to wield in social struggles. So we reject any Silicon Valley-ish faith in technology – a problem that the liberal left often falls into. On the other hand, we reject any discourse of authenticity which sees technology as an aberration or as the source of contemporary problems – a problem that the proper left often falls into. The question has to be ‘how can we develop, design and use technology in a way which furthers leftist goals?’ This means thinking how infrastructures, data analytics, logistics networks, and automation can all play a role in building the material platform for a post-capitalist system. The belief that our current technologies are intrinsically wedded to a neoliberal social system is not only theoretically obsolete, but also practically limiting. So without thinking technology is sufficient to save us, we nevertheless believe that technology is a primary area where tools and weapons for struggle can be developed.

With regards to the centralised nature of planning, it should be clear to everyone that the Soviet system was a failure in many regards. The issue here is to learn from past experiments such as GOSPLAN, and from theoretical proposals such as Parecon and Devine’s democratic planning. Particularly inspiring here is the Chilean experiment, Cybersyn, which contrary to the stereotype of a planned economy, in fact attempted to build a system which incorporated worker’s self-autonomy and factory-level democracy into the planned economy. There remain issues here about the gender-bias of the system (the design of the central hub being built for men, for instance), yet this experiment is a rich resource for thinking through what it might mean to build a post-capitalist economy. And it should be remembered that Cybersyn was built with less than the computing power of a smartphone. It is today’s technology which offers real resources for organising an economy in a far more rational way than the market system does.

It has to be recognised then that communism is an idea that was ahead of its time. It is a 21st century idea that was made popular in the 20th century and was enacted by a 19th century economy.

There is very little talk of class in your manifesto.   What are the models of class you building on? Marxist models focusing on production?  Liberal models focusing on consumption?  World Systems models?  What do you think should be accelerationist class analysis?

In thinking of class, we enter very complicated territory. As your question points out, there are a large number of differing models by which class can be considered, focusing on variously the position within production relations, within consumption relations, as history, or identity, or geography. Moreover, this is additionally complexified in intersectional terms with gender, race, religion and sexuality. We cannot pretend to have all the answers, but we certainly believe that some European attempts to demand a return to Fordism to resolve the structural crisis in left organisation are utterly absurd. The intentional and unintended effects of the neoliberal project to restructure labour and production relations imposes real challenges which must be confronted head-on. In addition, we want to reject attempts to bind the left to any singular model of organisation (and hence also, to any pre-nominated ‘revolutionary’ class). Instead we favour what we call an ecology of organisations, which in class terms means heterogeneous networks of smaller organisations.

The recent resurgence of calls for a left unity are worthwhile, but remain constrained insofar as they think in terms of a unity. It’ significant to note that there isn’t really a ‘right unity’ either. What the right does have though is a set of different actors, all doing different things that have lines whereby they can come together and massively amplify their praxical power at key points. Harvey’s analysis of the tension-filled assemblage between American social evangelicals with neoliberal economic elites is but one example of how despite the lack of a unity, an ecology can nevertheless be immensely influential. So it is not unity per se that is important for the left, but instead a matter of minimal consistency, and mutual amplification. It’s a basic consequence of thinking in terms of complex systems too – there can be no guiding Master or vanguard. To presume otherwise is to fall back into early 20th century ideas.

Portions of the manifesto sound outright Gramscian, with phrases like “the left must develop sociotechnical hegemony,” their call for the creation of “intellectual infrastructure,” “wide-scale media reform,” and, finally, what sounds like a call for the constitution of a new counter-hegemonic bloc when they say that we need to “knit together a disparate array of partial proletarian identities, often embodied in post-Fordist forms of precarious labour.” Do you see yourselves calling for a clear cultural shift?

We certainly see the Left as requiring a new hegemonic politics. In certain sectors it has become fashionable to decry power as such, and to see hegemonic politics as some kind of intrinsically abusive practice. The problem for such thinkers is that it is very difficult indeed to envisage a scenario where a non-hegemonic politics would be able to achieve significant victories over a hegemonising one. That being said, our perspective on what hegemony is, whilst clearly in debt to that espoused by Gramsci, is somewhat different in character. While civil society (and ‘culture’ more broadly) is evidently an important political battleground, any understanding of what hegemony is today must entail a far broader conception: in essence, the ability to configure the social possibility space, the space on which politics itself occurs. For us, this means more than simply normative or ideological claims, but will also include technological systems (i.e. above all else infrastructures of different kinds). This is why we believe it isn’t enough even to havemassive populist movement against the current forms of capitalism. Without a new approach to things such as economics, production and distribution technologies, and labour practices, a ‘radical’ left will always find itself warped back into capitalistic practices.

It seems to me that we already have an “ecology of organizations” on the left (an ecology that might be described as one of scavengers who primarily aim to pilfer members from other organizations) including “heterogeneous networks of smaller organisations.” Many organizations which resist calls for left unity emphasize the point that they already engage in various activities with other left and even liberal organizations — to give a few examples from the UK: Stop the War Coalition, RESPECT, United Against Fascism, etc., various other electoral and activist united fronts. What you’re calling for has to be different from that. I suppose the question is: what kind of organizations do we need, what kind of ecology of these organizations do we need, and what sorts of networks between them are required?

The sorts of organisations that we need are ones like Plan C, the New Economics Foundation, as well as various long-standing feminist movements around basic income as a necessary demand. Kathi Weeks’ recent The Problem with Work is exemplary here, and a truly important text. There are also media organisations such as NovaraMedia and Jacobin, which are all in their own ways at least attempting to bring left-of-liberal ideas to the mainstream – a crucial task for any counterhegemonic approach. Dan Hind’s work on media reform and the potential to repurpose media infrastructures is crucial on these sorts of issues. All these organisations are working along the right lines. There are also formations blending horizontal social movements (of heterogeneous character) with strong state leadership such as we find in Venezuela which, while difficult to see how to generalise, are definitely worthy of investigation.

Still, these organisations are far from resolving many of the major problems we face, in particular in terms of modulating labour interests in a broadly successful fashion, or in being able to generate more fully worked out new economic counter proposals. A lot of this is still, necessarily perhaps, remaining at the level of critique. While it is a time honoured tradition of the left (one which we seek to uphold) that progressive politics must begin with the moment of critique, there is of course the need to move beyond such a moment. Many of these problems can perhaps be resolved by existing (or revised versions) of pre-existing organisational forms, but only once their efforts undergo something like a qualitative shift at the level of their emergent effects, that is to say, in terms of the resonance between different kinds of agents working on different projects at different levels (local, regional, transnational, global).

Why have the current ecology of organizations failed so completely in your view?

The image of scavengers is quite a nice description of a lot of ultra-left activity, a sort of zero sum game regarding members. You’re right to point out that, in the UK for example, there are a number of examples from recent years of united fronts, focusing upon particular issues. But outside of Unite Against Fascism, most of these have ultimately been failures (though obviously Stop The War faced an incredibly tough challenge in seeking to shift Tony Blair and New Labour from their determination to make war in Iraq). Most of these are fronts which come together to confront particular issues. The problem of this approach is that they are habitually short-termist and lack any kind of ‘big picture’ beyond immediate objectives and attracting membership. The left remains reactive, and there is little sense that the current mix of organisations and the relations between them is going to be able to mount a serious challenge to neoliberalism, even given that after the crisis it is totally intellectually and economically discredited.

Our alternative is not that there should be a single organisation doing the long-term thinking, or that all organisations ought to be doing so – instead a ‘healthy’ political ecosystem will feature a kind of division of labour between different kinds of organisations, with different kinds of structures and interests. What is missing to tie these together is a broad ideological vision. And just as with the right, the important thing about such a vision is not that it be necessarily coherent, but that on a material basis it works, that it has a kind of efficacy in conducting action and conjoining political entities together in virtuous cycles of feedback.

There is no single model for an effective organisation, at least not one that can be known fully in advance. Leftist politics therefore must become more experimental, less tied to certain ways of organising and acting which, whilst once effective, have now become blunted. This is what we call ‘folk politics’ – how previously cutting edge ways of organising and acting become worn out, through arms race dynamics with opposing political forces, and through broader socio-technical-economic change. Much of the debate around the question of organisation at the moment traffics in tired homilies about certain caricatured forms – the party or the horizontal network. In reality, these are merely ideal forms, and you actually find always some mixture between the two. The question of organisation can only be resolved through experiment and reflection on the results of such experiments.

You mention that communism “is a 21st century idea that was made popular in the 20th century and was enacted by a 19th century economy.” The language of your manifesto suggests that you believe capitalism has finally become “decadent,” that it is no longer capable of advancing the productive forces, that it has become “a fetter on the productive forces,” to use various Marxist locutions. Is it that the productive forces were insufficiently development for the implementation of communist social relations during the 20th century? What has changes as to make communism possible today? What technological advances render communism possible?

This is partly a speculative hypothesis of ours, though one that we think is fully consistent with a traditional historical materialism perspective. Namely that some mode of post-capitalist polity requires a certain material infrastructure to be built, and that (historically at least) it has been capitalism which accomplishes this. On a theoretical level, this intuition also stems from debates about the socialist calculation problem – which goes to the heart of the debate between market and planned economies. Famously, the argument was made in the 1930s that socialism could never match up to the efficiency or productivity of a market system of prices, and would therefore always lag behind in terms of growth. This idea, in turn, becomes one of the foundational claims of Hayek’s arguments for capitalism. It’s important to note though, that these arguments were made prior to the existence of the computer. Today you now have economists who have gone back to these original debates and re-analysed them with the knowledge of contemporary computing power, and who find that in fact the socialist calculation problem is (at least theoretically) no longer a problem. This is an example of where advancements in technology are eliminating practical problems associated with a post-capitalist economy.

Another broad example comes from the Chilean experiment. Here, one of the major issues in trying to operate a national economy came from the lag in both input data and output data. Simply put, the system wasn’t responsive enough to fully overcome some major issues having to do with a dynamic economy. Today, the problem is the opposite – we have technology which moves far too quickly. High frequency trading is extending into the nanosecond scale, and you have the perverse system where organisations are imagining privatised particle accelerators in order to shave off milliseconds of trading time. Slowness is no longer a problem for analysing economic data; it’s speed which is the problem.

We are also obtaining more tractable data in the form of all-digital economies, which are being described by the work of economists like Yanis Varoufakis. In digital worlds where every action and transaction can be known immediately, we will find a much higher resolution of empirical evidence, necessary to begin to model better the interactions between micro and macro scales within an economy. Rather than the stale formalism of much current economic modelling (particularly DSGE models), there’s the potential here to start properly learning how to organise an economy.

While it rarely goes mentioned except in a mutated form by Austrian economists, central banks today are massive examples of institutions which employ cutting-edge technology in order to shape, manipulate, and intervene in economies. You have not only huge macroeconometric models being developed and used here (with thousands of equations involved), but also a real experimentation going on with the possible uses of big data. Now the uses that are made of this technology (e.g. quantitative easing and the inflation of asset prices) are contestable, it still demonstrates that technology for modulating an economy is rapidly developing. The question to be asked is how can this machinery be repurposed towards collective and post-capitalist ends?

Our overriding theory of change is one which is revolutionary in character without either being tied to the model of change via spectacular state-takeover, nor a secession or subtraction from the state. Instead it proposes we need to begin to think in terms of a technics of transition(s), identifying capitalism as a technology itself (both conceptual and employing technical systems) – and that therefore previous radical attempts to surmount this technical system have failed in part because they lacked the tools, and the intellectual resources to fully supplant it, to fully repurpose techniques, machines, and concepts in a way which enables a full phase transition towards a post-capitalist state of affairs. What they didn’t lack, and what we will also need, is of course popular and widespread mobilisation also. We consider the development of a technics of transition(s) to be a singularly important task for left actors today, in particular because the technical environment now enables various points of ingress which were previously absent. This entails establishing platforms for further transformations. For instance, basic income (if properly implemented) could drastically alter the labour-capital relationship by negating the forced quality of work. It could liberate leisure time for the pursuit of collective ends. And it could weaken the disciplinary aspects of the welfare state by making income unconditional. From this configuration of the social platform, all sorts of new options begin to open up.

Do you think that the open-source and peer-2-peer communities (which have in many ways been at the forefront of defending the Internet infrastructure against neoliberal incursions), or the Internet itself, can serve as a model of how to build networks? How do we harness the power of the Internet to our cause?

The internet, like every technology, alters the costs and benefits of a wide variety of behavioural possibilities. It decreases the costs of organising, while also decreasing the costs of state and corporate surveillance, for instance. There’s nothing inherently liberating (or repressive) about it, and so the problem is always how to use it best.

Certainly the P2P and open-source movements, along with pirated intellectual property (and with 3D printing, potentially material property as well), are all important movements. They are contributing to the material basis of a post-capitalist economy by eliminating some areas of resource scarcity and forming networks to make collaboration and distribution easily possible.

Despite these material advances, two tendencies need to be warded off – tendencies which are particularly prevalent in the discourses around the internet. The first is naïve techno-utopianism, privileging the new in itself. There’s nothing inherently progressive about novelty, and there’s no reason to think technology will supersede political conflicts. Instead it has to be recognised that any new technology can be employed as a weapon in these conflicts. There’s no utopianism here, merely a recognition that the terrain and infrastructure of political conflicts are constantly being transformed by technology, and any left worth its name needs to recognise this and adapt.

The second tendency to avoid is the reduction of politics to internet issues. While open sources, freedom of information, and privacy in the face of big data are all significant issues, there is nevertheless a large group of internet activists for whom these issues become the totality of politics. More interesting to us, is work that seeks to bridge how computational infrastructures are altering traditional politics. As one example, a friend of ours does immensely interesting work on Amazon cloud computing, demonstrating how the platform logic of such entities evades traditional boycott methods. Others, such as Benjamin Bratton, are looking at the emerging geopolitical transformations being wrought by massive internet companies – these are increasingly taking on the function of polities, and the question to be raised is what can be done with or against them?

Lastly, this is something we unclear on from your manifesto: How much could accelerationists focus on particular polities (such as specific) nation-states and how much should we be working around such entities?

We need to begin from what we know about power. Politics, for all the transformations of the spatiality of power, remains deeply imbricated with the nation state. At the very least, we cannot ignore the state as probably the principle battleground of action today. This isn’t necessarily because of a reformist or entryist position, but simply that, when we look at the spread of new political ideas, the state is the key territory within which they occur. Scalarity is important here. The state, in spite of the growth of transnational networks and organisations of different types (from new social movements to corporations), retains a high degree of territoriality.

Globally spreading ideas must localise at the level of the state, as well as at the level of the local. The history of neoliberalism demonstrates the use of key states as hubs within the establishment of broader networks of power. The old 1990s activist maxim to ‘think global, act local’ was an attempt to think the complexities of power in a multiscalar political world, but one which posits only two poles: the global and the local. We consider both of these to be important, along with the regional, the national, and the transnational. Each of these is involved in the geometries of power – and we cannot fetishise as horizon of action any of these.

While the nation state is (highly) problematic, in particular for the global dynamic of international competition which generates immensely perverse problems, this does not mean that it can be ignored.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl Davidson July 15, 2013 at 3:34 pm

‘Our conclusion that post-capitalist planning is required stems from the theoretical failures of market socialism…’

I stopped right here. What failures of market socialism, theoretical or otherwise? Seems to me its the only socialism left standing, and those that claimed they were anti-market, had markets anyway, even if they’ve bit the dust.

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Paul July 15, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Maybe you should have read further then?

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Carl Davidson July 15, 2013 at 7:31 pm

I did scan through the whole thing. Couldn’t find any argument describing the ‘theoretical failures of market socialism.’ Maybe I missed it.

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Marq Dyeth July 16, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Thanks for this; it is highly stimulating and suggestive. Here at least the interlocutors are asking questions and developing tentative answers. I’m especially excited about your mention of Project Cybersyn (though it’s unclear whether it would have worked as advertised.)

But now, what of it? What work would be necessary, and what changes in the world, in order to bring these questions out of the seminar room? In other words, what relationship can be drawn between the questions of democratic planning and existing struggles in the workplace, neighborhoods, universities, state institutions?

This is not a call to “go to the working class” or to stop theorizing and just do campaign work: these questions have bearing on the lives of students and intellectuals as well as poor and oppressed people. But what field is there to test these ideas in a systematic way? PARECON, for example never broke out into practice. Could it? How? Under what circumstances?

Otherwise how will we know?

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Matthijs Krul July 16, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I’d be interested too in knowing what Williams & Srnicek see as 1) the solution to the calculation problem, mentioned in the text, and 2) the insoluble problems with market socialism. I came to the same conclusions on both (and much of the rest) independently, but I am curious to see if we have the same arguments.

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El Mono Liso July 17, 2013 at 12:29 am

It’s reductio ad absurdUm. I hate to be a stickler on this, but those years I slaved away in Latin classes translating Cicero have to serve for something. You may delete this comment once this has been corrected.

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