Accelerationism

16 June 2017

Friday


Salvador Dali, ‘Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man’

In the Salvador Dali painting “Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man” (1943) we see a prophetic figure (sometimes identified as the old world) indicating to the Geopoliticus Child the emergence of a new order, represented by the New Man. Here the Earth is an egg, from which new life emerges, and the Geopoliticus Child, already itself new life, watches from safety the struggle of the New Man to be born. If one could place oneself in this archetypal context (perhaps, as a thought experiment, inhabiting the person of the Geopoliticus Child), there are at least three possibilities as to how one might respond:

one might passively observe the birth of a New Man while taking no action
one might actively seek to facilitate the birth of the New Man
one might actively seek to prevent the New Man from being born

The second of these possibilities represents what I will here term “accelerationism,” which is the conscious and purposeful effort to expedite an historical process so that the process in question will be more rapidly brought to its end or fulfillment.

The terms “accelerationism” and “accelerationist” are sometimes employed to discuss accelerating technological change, especially exponentially accelerating technological change (which is sometimes called “exponentialism”). That is not how I will use the term in this context. In the present discussion, I will use “accelerationism” to refer to the view that certain events or processes could or should “speed up” the collapse of existing political institutions, which can be understood as a good thing if one believes that the ground must be cleared in order to frame new institutions de novo.

Accelerationism in the sense of accelerating the collapse of a decaying and doomed social order is a species of contemporary apocalypticism. I have touched on apocalypticism in several posts, most recently in Vernacular Declensionism focusing on contemporary “preppers” (who were formerly called “survivalists”). There is both a vernacular apocalypticism (such as I wrote about in my “vernacular declensionism” post), which appears to be independent of political orientation, and a high-culture apocalypticism expressed in academic and scholarly terms. It has been my intention for some years to write more generally about apocalypticism, since it has become so widespread, and is rarely challenged on principle. This is a project that still remains in the offing.

It is of some interest to me that contemporary apocalypticism has become prevalent on both the left and the right, including being prevalent among the emerging political permutations that go beyond traditional left and right, and these are the social justice ideologues as the transfiguration of the left, and the alt-right and neo-reaction as the transfiguration of the right. (The most famous neoreactionary is Curtis Yarvin, blogging as Mencius Moldbug; the neoreactionary whose work I follow is Youtube vlogger Reactionary Expat, who has touched on accelerationism in some of his posts.) As I noted in my post on Vernacular Declensionism, this form of apocalypticism has mostly represented the political right, and the idea of the collapse of modern civilization easily plays into the narrative of a return to traditional forms of society. Obviously, a traditionalism predicated upon the destruction of existing social institutions is a radical form of traditionalism, but if the intention is to restore traditionalism by eliminating modernity, sooner rather than later (in virtue of accelerationism), then I guess this still counts as some form of traditionalism.

In recent years, the left has joined in vernacular apocalypticism with gusto, especially with scenarios of environmental apocalypse, to which a growing literature of popular fiction is devoted. However, there is little sign of accelerationism on the left; the hints I have glimpsed of accelerationism have been almost exclusively concerned with hastening the demise of corrupt modern society. There is, however, an important exception: anarchism. This will be discussed below. But, more importantly, accelerationism is apocalypticism with a purpose, and not apocalypticism for its own sake.

Accelerationism is not apocalypticism simpliciter, but rather it is a tactical apocalypticism, i.e., an apocalypticism only for the sake of that which will follow after the apocalypse; in other words, the means of social denudation will be justified by the end of the social order that replaces the existing social order of the present. What social order will replace the existing social order that is to be accelerated in its trajectory of self-destruction? Here there is a clear bifurcation of the visions of the future held by left and right.

It is possible that the surviving vestiges of the past will hamper the emergence of a truly new order to supplant the old order, and this could be an argument for a complete and total extirpation of the old order so that a new order can arise in its place. I am not advocating this argument, but I can see how the argument could be made. Many twentieth century communist regimes attempted to follow this line of reasoning, attempting to utterly obliterate traces of the pre-communist past (the entire Cultural Revolution in China could be framed in these terms). These efforts could be understood as an example of leftist accelerationism, attempting to more rapidly bring into being the communist utopia of a classless society.

Anarchic utopians have long held that the realization of a better social order is just around the corner if only we will take the radically appropriate action of extirpating traditional institutions that have held us back from realizing our human potential. This is an idea that goes back at least to Rousseau (for purposes of Enlightenment thought), and probably is much older. I will not, at present, attempt to elucidate a more thorough history of this idea. While utopians who project a peaceful anarchic society in the near future tend to identify with the political left, we cannot fully assimilate them to the traditional left, in the same way that we cannot fully assimilate social justice ideologues to the traditional left. I cannot, however, think of any anarchists on the right, as the right tends to believe in human fallibility (original sin), and so are distrustful of human nature released into the wild, as it were. The Rousseauvian dream is, for the right, a Hobbesian nightmare. And so we usually find the radical right looking not to anarchy, but to a reaffirmation of order, and of the symbols of order. The apocalypticism of the right thus plays into accelerationism; the two go together as tactic and strategy.

Implicit in the accelerationist view is that there are historical changes occurring anyway, albeit gradual and incremental change, and while this change must be accepted, it is nevertheless amenable to being managed. The accelerationist, then, understands that history transcends itself when an old order is replaced by a new order, so that the accelerationist may be characterized as facilitating historical transcendence, and that, moreover, the historical process must be brought to its fulfillment. In true Hegelian form, we cannot skip a step in the historical process, but not skipping a step in historical evolution does not preclude the possibility of accelerating a step so as to reduce the amount of time spent in a suboptimal form of civilization and therefore to maximize the amount of time spent in a preferred mode of civilization.

Accelerationism on the right, which I believe to be the more common form of accelerationism, understands the preferred mode of civilization to be a society dominated by traditional institutions. How are traditional institutions to be brought into being in the wake of accelerated apocalypticism? This, I think, is the nub of the problem, as the traditionalist favoring accelerationism as a means to realizing a traditional society must either hope for new traditionalist institutions to emerge, or for the reconstitution of defunct institutions. Both of these horns of the dilemma are a problem.

Part of Burke’s criticism of the French revolution was the folly of attempting to craft de novo institutions on the basis of abstract and theoretical propositions about human beings and human society, especially in the light of existing institutions that apparently are adequate to their institutional role, and which are, in some sense, the preserved wisdom of our ancestors. (The attempt to frame new institutions de novo was the source of Goya’s famous etching, “The sleep of reason produces monsters,” which was a symbolic response to the terror that followed the superficial rationalism of the French revolution; more simply, we can call this an instance of the law of unintended consequences.) Burke wrote before an evolutionary understanding of human beings and human society had been formulated, but in the light of evolutionary psychology and the slow evolution of human society we could easily reframe Burke’s critique so that any nebulous invocation of the wisdom of ancestors can be replaced by traditional institutions being the cumulative result of natural selection. This is far more satisfying from a scientific point of view.

The argument can be made that if an episode of social denudation stripped away existing social institutions, surviving human societies would revert to a model of social organization that is naturally emergent from the kind of beings that we are, that is to say, a social order predicated upon our particular cognitive endowments and cognitive biases (as well as that which I have called less than cognitive biases, which might be called “breaking human”). The traditionalist assumes, or would assume, that these naturally emergent institutions would be traditionalist institutions. In this view there is a hint of a venerable pre-modern idea, that truth lies at the source of things, so that if only we can return to the source of being, the source of our being, we will find the authentic truth that has been hidden from us by the overgrowth of thousands of years of extraneous developments that have led us far from our origins. This view stands in stark contrast to the idea that truth is a distant goal to which we aspire, and which we always approximate more closely, but which we never fully possess.

If, instead of seeking to frame traditionalist institutions de novo (which may be a contradictory idea anyway), the accelerationist seeks the reconstitution of defunct traditional institutions, I am skeptical that this effort would fare any better. There have been many times when regimes have attempted to turn back the clock on developments that did not seem to favor their vision of how things ought to be, but I cannot think of any of these attempts that were successful. Old or traditional institutions transplanted into new circumstances will neither function as these traditional institutions functioned, nor will they remain true to the tradition from which they are drawn. The same logic is to be found in arguments over the historically informed performance (HIP) movement in music: can we ever truly make our instruments and performances sound like those of the past, or must our contemporaneous recreations always be performed with modern instruments in a modern setting? This is an interesting debate, and many books of musicology have been devoted to the HIP controversy. Perhaps the discussion of the accelerationist reconstitution of defunct traditionalist institutions could learn something from this discussion.

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Plate 43 of Goya’s Los Caprichos series of etchings: ‘The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.’

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3 Responses to “Accelerationism”

  1. Gregor L Hartmann said

    “To Be A Machine” by Mark O’Connell (Doubleday, 2017) is full of interviews with people who are working hard to immanatize the transhuman utopia. In your schema I suppose they would be called “accelerationists of the right,” since they skew libertarian.

    What strikes me about that crowd (as seen through O’Connell’s eyes) is that they seem more interested in personal transformation than building a mass political movement or restructuring society. Here and there O’Connell encountered a small collective, but overall it is very much an every-man-for-himself crowd (I can say “man” because almost all of them are male). Why waste time arguing with reactionary mopes and trying to convert them? Better to put your energy into acquiring a cyborg body or uploading your mind to a platform where you could live forever. Now and then someone says there will be a trickle-down effect, that all of humanity will eventually benefit, but it seems like an afterthought

    Every leftist movement I can think of is socially oriented. They contemplate how to convert others. How to form alliances with ideological kinfolk. What combination of tactics and strategy will enable them to take over existing institutions? These right accelerationists just want everyone else to stay out of the way and not interfere while they get their superpowers going.

    I could draw an analogy with Buddhism: the split between the Theravada school (emphasis on individual salvation) and the Mahayana school (emphasis on social/universal salvation).

    If any left accelerationists out there read your post, I’d love to hear what they have to say.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I think it is inevitable that, in a society as diverse as ours, that all of these different pathways are going to have their representatives, and no one should be surprised that there are individuals interested in their own future but not greatly interested in wider society, just as there are people who have entirely surrendered their identity to the wider society and who live out the industrial society equivalent of tribalism. And every group, without exception, has sectors of society that they regard as an afterthought beyond hope and, essentially, unworthy of making the transition to the next stage of social development.

      I disagree that, “…right accelerationists just want everyone else to stay out of the way and not interfere while they get their superpowers going.” I have spent a lot of time recently listening to representatives of the far right and reactionary community, and this doesn’t seem to be the thought process at all. Indeed, we could even compare them to the “hippie” movement, in so far as many of them talk about leaving cities, getting a farm in the countryside, raising their children far from the corrupting influences of contemporary civilization — sort of like a mirror image of Rousseavian natural man, except with original sin superadded. And they are actively seeking to form communities with like-minded individuals, as you noted the left has usually done, so it is very much a grass roots movement. Far from dreaming of superpower status, the accelerationist right sees a return to 19th century modes of life when the rotten institutions of contemporary society collapse under their own weight.

      What really interests me about the left/right division in our time is that the left ideologues are mouthing platitudes, whereas the right ideologues are actually trying to think through the problems of contemporary society and to offer solutions. I may not agree with the reasoning or the solutions, but the process of reasoning is nevertheless interesting to me. The left, on the other hand, is so ideologically possessed that they have lost the ability to think through things on their own. The same talking points get thrown out over and over again, but no one seems interested in questioning the assumptions of these talking points.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

    • It’s important to remember that humans differ on far more axes than a simplistic left/right dichotomy. One may well argue that an authoritarian-libertarian axes (how much the state, i.e. force-using body, should interfere in peoples lives), a hierarchical-egalitarian (how organisations should be structured), and a traditionalist-libertine (how people should behave in their own lives) set of axes, is a far better system for understanding modern politics. There are, of course, other potential axes which could be useful (a tribal-universalist one, perhaps, relating to identity grouping? A precautionary-proactionary axes that maps roughly onto a straight reading of conservatism-progressivism, measuring how conservative someone is when it comes to changes).

      To be honest, they probably map the big five personality traits as well, if they mean anything. Oh well, I think they could still be useful.

      So a neoreactionary libertarian would be high on libertarianism, traditionalism, and precautionary/conservative, and lean towards hierarchical and tribal. An SJW, on the other hand, would be high on authoritarianism, libertinism, and tribalism (identity politics).

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