Following the financial crash of 2008, when confidence in the free market’s ability to protect the welfare of citizens fell apart, sci-fi utopian dreams from experimental fringes of academic thought began to influence an ever-more desperate political imagination. But rather than offer a safe relief from the deregulated economy’s evisceration of communities and identities, one such belief, Accelerationism, demands the opposite.
In a world already caught up in dizzying speed and disoriented anxiety, accelerationists insist that brutal globalised competition and hyper-digitisation be dramatically intensified. Automation, robotics and computer technology must be accelerated to punch through and reboot a stagnant and immobile capitalism. Unsurprisingly, Right-Accelerationists, such as philosopher Nick Land of the former Cybernetic Culture Research Unit, call for enhancing the circulation of market capital, mass deregulation and no state intrusion whatsoever in this thrilling display of exponential growth. One recent example of Right-Accelerationist belief reaching the political mainstream is President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty, upholding increased market expansion above ecological concerns.
But at the same time, accelerationism also has its left-wing adherents. Prominent socialist writers such as Paul Mason and Antonio Negri, rather than mourning the loss of a traditional communal social-body, are optimistic in our current perilous situation. Ecological disaster, the liquidation of borders through neoliberal globalisation, human identity altered and advanced through genetic engineering; these are all seen as brimming with liberating potential for Left-Accelerationists. With no regulating scrutiny and an impotent state, intensified markets left to their own devices will run out of control (more violently than they did in 2008) and, amidst the chaos of a new decentred world experienced more and more through virtual online networks, an amorphous people-centred Left movement can emerge. Left-Accelerationism perceives a true alternative to capitalism that can be brought about by capitalism destroying itself.
At first glance, the 2017 UK election appears to be a straightforward competition between new and striking visions of changing society, unlike the varying degrees of cross-party centre-right consensus that has gripped British politics since the Thatcher era. Theresa May has consistently promised that she personally will reinvigorate this divided country with a successful Brexit. But despite her endorsement as the dependable candidate, steering a clear course through our departure from the European Union, this “strong and stable” image is now fraught with U-turns and policy reversals, from a seemingly impulsive call for a general election to uncertainties on social care.
this “strong and stable” image is now fraught with U-turns and policy reversals
Meanwhile her anti-austerity and democratic socialist challenger, Jeremy Corbyn, has reduced her commanding lead in the polls from over 20 points in mid-April to low single digits just days before the election. The sharpest rise of Labour support came after the release of their manifesto with a vision of remodelling society “for the many, not the few”. In our volatile election times, with a tentative and insecure national identity and position before the Brexit negotiations with Europe, ideas of a new direction away from unfettered capitalism are beginning to rise in popularity. The question is, would our deep-rooted system of globalised neoliberal austerity be adequately confronted by Corbynomics? Would a Corbyn victory mean the beginning of a new world on June 9th?
There is little that is forcefully radical about Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy. With a modest increase of corporation tax to 26% (which is still amongst the lowest in Europe even with Labour’s plans) and a further taxation for those earning over £80,000, it is essentially a nostalgic Keynesian welfare system that, in all honesty, does originate “from the 1970’s”. John Maynard Keynes, an economist who experienced the Great Depression of the late 1920’s, provided a working justification for state intervention into the markets in the form of a resuscitation of social welfare programmes and the attentive regulation of capital. After the Second World War, Keynesian theory would inspire significant projects of social security such as the National Health Service, and a belief in the strong role of the state in managing the economy would survive until the neoliberal upheaval of the 1980’s with the Thatcher/Reagan era.
There is little that is forcefully radical about Jeremy Corbyn’s strategy.
But Keynesianism, for its important successes, was never a real threat to corporate power, acting as a vague compromise which only really benefitted the white middle-classes in the 50’s and 60’s. Today, with commercial and corporate structures grown to such an exponential degree, nation-states have become utterly dependent on their investment and support. Through large private loans, bailouts or the circulation of their currency on international markets, national governments have effectively exchanged their sovereignty with transnational financial capital. The very idea of the resurrection of an old Keynes-style nation-state based anti-austerity system, (think of Labour’s proposal for a ‘National Investment Bank’) would be suppressed ruthlessly by the markets with the state becoming paralysed through a withdrawal of corporate backing, or the migration of profit-making companies to countries of more compliant administrations.
Preposterously smeared as a raving hard-line communist who will abolish all our economic freedoms by The Daily Express and The Telegraph, there is actually little sign of extreme alternative imagination in Corbyn’s plan. Corbyn’s nostalgia for dated 20th century forms of welfare-socialism are evident through his frequent references to the healthcare accomplishments of the post-war Attlee government. He also notably tempers his regulationist tone on public debates, simply asking that tax-dodging corporations “pay a little bit more”. This begs the question of what the Left (broadly speaking) is or can be today in our setting of the undisputed triumph of market globalisation.
there is actually little sign of extreme alternative imagination in Corbyn’s plan
Regardless of the destructive legacy of the 2008 economic slump, the Left as a global phenomenon has been disappearing. Even regimes that are commonly believed in the West to be the last bastions of state-socialism, can easily be proven otherwise. North Korea for example is really a neo-feudal society where Kim Jong-un presides over his system of an anti-socialist and modernised divine right of kings. The DPRK is a hereditary monarchy with an unconvincing socialist-realist gloss. Or in the case of ‘communist’ China, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk observed: “If there is a person alive to whom they will build monuments 100 years from now, it is Lee Kuan-Yew, the Singaporean leader who did more than anyone else to promote and implement a marriage of capitalism and authoritarianism”. With China currently proving itself an economic success at the expense of a liberal democracy (or a democratic socialism for that matter), we reach an uncomfortable conclusion that capitalism appears to function more efficiently as the arm of authoritarian regimes. Even some western Right-Accelerationists draw inspiration from ‘techno-orientalist’ totalitarian fantasies to base their utopian visions of a brutally effective capitalism.
we reach an uncomfortable conclusion that capitalism appears to function more efficiently as the arm of authoritarian regimes
It is true that the financial crash in the West did at first incite immediate and widespread responses. One of the most prominent was the Occupy Wall Street movement. Many Marxist commentators (Negri included) applauded the formless ‘leaderless’ quality of the movement, with no hierarchy or central committee in place to impose decision making. But it was precisely this lack of coordination or a shared imagined blueprint of a post-capitalist society that stalled and finished off Occupy Wall Street as a viable movement.
It was not only a problem of a lack of alternative imagination that mired the Left post-2008. After decades of racial disharmony and rising poverty in the London borough of Tottenham, Mark Duggan, a black teenager, was shot by police unprovoked, triggering the 2011 England riots. But rather than organise into a cohesive social body of disciplined agitation, (as was attempted online hence the ‘Blackberry Riots’) Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek describes that, regardless of the physical damage done in the protests, there was no injury made on prevailing capitalist belief-systems on those nights. Most of the rioters ended up running amok on a spree of excessive consumerism, taking electronic equipment and indulging themselves on commercial pleasures. What many on the Left believed was another fierce affront against capitalist power structures was really capitalist ideology reasserting itself.
The unconscious charm of neoliberal ideology has been commonly underestimated as it can also make us blissfully complicit in the worst atrocities. Mobile technology for example is currently organising our ‘spontaneous’ social lives more and more to the extent where we even craft our personal identities in the virtual realm. The mineral Coltan is used widely in the production of tablets, laptops and phones and it is mined largely through slave labour (usually with children) in African countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Rwanda. It has been disclosed years ago already that almost all of the major tech companies, including Apple, Sony and Samsung, were conveniently ignorant of the source of their Coltan labour. This bleak situation of mock-up virtual identity provided by the toil of foreign slave workers is outlined vividly by Iain Hamilton Grant who wrote that in capitalism “we are all small pieces of engineered desire…”.
With a Left movement either absent or in submissive disarray across the globe, why am I casting this darkly pessimistic global outlook onto the UK electoral scene? Because this election is truly unique as it is a clear choice between two of the most predominant but soulless, zombie ideologies of our time. The limits of our political imagination is cast between Theresa May’s continuance of a morbid, trudging neoliberalism which is likely to be made yet more ruthless when EU regulations on the environment and worker’s rights are lost through Brexit. Or Jeremy Corbyn’s drifting, nostalgic neo-Keynesianism which would be at the mercy of international markets and corporate authority.
this election is a clear choice between two of the most predominant but soulless, zombie ideologies of our time
By the state of solutions both Left and Right are offering us in this election, Accelerationism seems a compelling answer, retreating into the future by hastening capitalism to its highest potential or its early death. This election does not promise bold new political frontiers to interpret our rapidly changing world, but reminds us desperately that dreams of a true alternative must be sought.