‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.

Assymetrical warfare

As we’ve discussed before, I’m no expert in the practicalities of politics. Yet I find the response to the Occupy protests absolutely baffling, just on a practical level. The police are routinely responding as though the Occupy people are a guerilla group trying to stage a coup — and as though they have a better than even chance of succeeding if the police don’t put their all into the counter-attack.

It’s well known that people who are convinced they are in the right are strengthened in their convictions when they are persecuted. It’s also well known that the best way to pacify opposition is to give in to at least some demands. The Occupy movement famously doesn’t have any explicit demands, other than their implicit demand to be allowed to protest — so why not try to domesticate them by simply giving them a defined place where they’re allowed to have their encampment? Even as recently as the Iraq War, there were the officially sanctioned “free speech zones” that seemed to give people an adequate release valve to make them feel like they’d protested, after which the protest movement shrank to negligible proportions. Or if that doesn’t work, why not make some token gesture toward social justice — cutting the police budget by 1% and putting the money toward schools or something? Or in the extreme case, why not, you know, actually punish a particularly brutal perpetrator of police violence?

There are so many peaceful options here — why has the universal response been such hugely disproportionate and even ridiculous violence?

The Aesthetics of Authority

This post grows so directly out of my daily Google Chat conversations with Brad that it is essentially co-authored.

Yesterday, Brad was telling me about a David Graeber lecture that he attended and suggested that the reason so many academics tend to favor the Marxist left over the anarchist left is our desire to have the right answer, which I generalized to a latent (and sometimes not so latent) authoritarianism of academics. Continue reading “The Aesthetics of Authority”

Hayek occupies London

Twitter is abuzz with Jodi Dean’s post on a depressing Financial Times column (which I can’t find on the FT site for some reason) from the Occupy London economics working group, which embraces Hayek:

Fans of Friedrich von Hayek may be surprised to learn that the Austrian economist is the talk of Occupy London. Hayek’s observation that distributed intelligence in a voluntary co-operative is a hallmark of real economy rings true beneath the bells of St Paul’s. Occupy is often criticised for not having a single message but that misses the point: we are committed to incorporating different preferences before coming up with policies. In this sense, it could be said we work more like a market than the corporate boardroom or lobbyist-loaded politics – our ideas are radical but also just and democratically decided.

The policy proposals that follow focus on reducing tax-avoidance, using monetary policy to boost the housing market, and changing the way executives are compensated — hardly revolutionary stuff, but probably beneficial. (I’m not sure, though, how the idea for the Bank of England to use “quantitative easing… to fund housebuilding” would work either logistically or in terms of getting the desired outcome.)

I understand that these kinds of demands are uninspiring for any number of reasons, above all because they embrace the logic of capitalism and implicitly legitimate the system by reference to a “better way” to execute it. At the same time, I don’t think there is widespread understanding of more radical alternatives, in large part because it’s not at all clear, objectively, what the desired answer would be. (In this respect, I’m reluctant to embrace the notion that the problem is the open-ended, anarchist nature of the Occupy movement — though I’m skeptical of that approach to some degree, I don’t think that having greater discipline and structure would be beneficial in the absence of an actual workable program. If an anarchistic/democratic form doesn’t automatically lead to good results, surely we can agree that a centralized “organized” form doesn’t either.)

Indeed, what’s most depressing isn’t that this group would cite Hayek, but that Hayek is objectively to the left of mainstream neoliberal economic ideology at this point — and of course Keynes counts as a radical leftist in this context. To put it another way: what’s most depressing is that drawing on Hayek genuinely counts as a step in the right direction compared to the idiocy that’s driving most policy makers.

Open thread: Occupy Adorno

I have been reading a lot of Adorno of late, and this morning I just read his essay “Resignation” from The Culture Industry, in which he discusses the relationship of theory and praxis.

This inspired a question in me: if Adorno were alive today, what would he think of the Occupy movement?

I’m not prone much to hope, but I do welcome enthusiasm

I have to say, the Oakland protesters have been surprising me very much. I remain wildly impressed at how savvy & diverse they are on this side of the Bay. (I’ve only visited the SF site a couple of times, but it seemed similar. They had a stressful night yesterday, w/ cops looming then gathering, gathering then looming, and all in all threatening to close down the camp. The presence of five council members most of the evening, as well as general round-the-clock vigilance, kept the cops at bay. The failure of the crackdown in Oakland may have contributed, too.)

As many of you no doubt know by now, last night in Oakland there was a call for a general strike on Nov. 2. (More specifics on this tonight or tomorrow.) To discuss it, we broke into impromptu twenty-person groups. (There were about 1,500-2,000 of us in the Plaza, I’d say. Originally, we were dangerously hemmed in by the weakly fortified fence erected by the city to keep us off the grass, but it was dispatched quickly enough. & later was put to more aesthetic use. Tents will surely follow.) In my group alone, the diversity was striking: one woman’s English was very rudimentary; three very articulately angry Latinas, one with a child on her back whose laugh was matched by her stare; a Vietnamese nurse who schooled us on healthcare unions; an African-American guy who said he hadn’t participated in anything like this before, and only just happened to wander by at all, but was remarkably eloquent about the power of the bus strikes in Alabama; and, interestingly, more white girls than white guys. Now, while I’d admit that the process from that point was interminably democratic & boring, the conclusion — i.e., let’s fucking strike on Nov. 2 — was not. It was raucous & celebratory, and I think it may well have legs.

There is, I find, a certain allure to the unknown with all this and where it might lead. I’m not prone much to hope, but I do welcome enthusiasm.

Police, they do what they do

Let me start with the confessional preface: I’m not a protester. I used to be. I had my day, bandanaing-up on the streets of Edinburgh, say; or marching with thousands in the build-up to a war in Iraq whose inevitability proved more powerful than our collective will. I stopped not because I felt it was useless, though largely they seem to be. Or because they can be dreadfully boring, though all that talking and bombast, the avoidance of rhetorical landmines, it can certainly be tedious. I simply stopped, opting for different diversions, I suppose. I supported many a cause, mind you. Money here; pillows there. More than a few conversations. But I was no longer “on the ground,” as it were.

That stopped, at least for a night — beyond that, I don’t know — yesterday in Oakland. I’m not going to play maudlin. I kind of did that yesterday. But something snapped, or at least bent in a really awkward way, when I saw the Occupy Oakland camp upended the way it was. I had no real stake in that camp. I visited several times, and each time I joked that the medical tent needed to stock up on some more maximum strength deodorant. Moreover, I did not even think their presence would effect much, quite honestly. But I was happy they were there, and certainly planned to keep supporting them in spirit. Seeing the police trample through the remains of that spirit, lingering about and guarding it, protecting the occupants from themselves, was the official word, was simply too much. I commented elsewhere that at least rioters & looters have the good decency to leave after their destruction — that it takes a mob with a badge to honor its mayhem the way I saw yesterday. And, as I said then, I was angry. Angry enough to become once again a protester. Continue reading “Police, they do what they do”

A critique of the police

What the police did in Oakland the last two days was, by any reasonable standard, a terrible crime. Faced with a group of peaceful, unarmed people exercising their constitutional right to free speech and free assembly, the police used brutal, military-style tactics to disperse them. They used chemical weapons whose use in war is banned by international treaties. They fired rubber bullets that, while not as deadly as normal bullets, can still cause very serious injury.

They did all this in order to disperse a group of people that was doing absolutely nothing wrong. As I said, this was a crime — and on the face of it, a profoundly malicious act as well. No moral person should consent to participate in such activities. Yet the Oakland Police Department not only apparently faced little resistence within the ranks, but was also able to get neighboring departments to contribute supplemental forces.

The degree of moral bankruptcy this act displays is shocking. Willingness to go along with it is indicative of one of three things. First, it might indicate that the person involved is morally depraved. We should not be surprised if a profession that requires the use of violence attracts people who enjoy using violence. Second, one might conclude that the person involved is completely unthinking, blindly following orders. Finally, it might indicate that the person involved is a moral coward who realizes what they’re doing is wrong but goes with the flow anyway. And this goes not just for exceptional acts like the breakup of these riots, but for the everyday acts of racism and repression that are part and parcel of contemporary law enforcement.

From this, I can only conclude that America’s police forces are profoundly corrupt and corrupting institutions. If you go into the police force as a basically good person, the odds are much greater that one will grow more morally callous than that one will remain true to one’s conscience. It is only in this context that the hero-worship surrounding police in American culture is understandable: only by imagining all police officers to be saints and heroes can we ignore the obvious facts about the nature of the job. I can imagine situations in which joining the police force would be a necessary or appropriate choice, but contemporary America is not one of them.

Okay, Now I’m Just Mad

While I’ve been supportive of #OccupyOakland since it’s beginning, showing up from time to time for marches, chatting at the camp, scratching some of the Occupying Doggie bellies, I remained pretty dispassionate about it all. But this shit . . . this shit ain’t right.

I bailed on work for a few hours this morning to check out the aftermath. I was expecting the worst but not quite how emotional the worst would make me. I was, quite honestly, shaking with a mixture of rage and sorrow. I was, to be even more honest, close to tears. Perhaps it was because I had so little invested in it all, and thus felt slightly guilty? Maybe it was just a general sense of impotence? But I wanted to scream “You break ours … We break yours,” and not as an idle threat.

This is all so unbecoming the distanced posturing we’re supposed to take at AUFS. But fuck it: I am angry.

UPDATE: This post was written in a strange emotional place. I want officially to retract my “distanced posturing” comment here. It wasn’t intended as a snipe but I certainly see how it functions as such. Not in any way related to the greater point of the post, such as it is, but I do retract.

Occupy Galatia!

It occurs to me that the current Occupy Everywhere movement bears certain similarities to (at least a certain interpretation of) the Pauline communities. The emphasis on consensus-based decision-making certainly coheres with Paul’s insistence on group unity, and the open-ended, process-oriented nature of the movement has certain parallels with the emphasis on creating a way of life that wouldn’t be mediated by an extrinsic law. And of course both movements are prompted by an injustice — whether it be the contemporary abuses of Wall Street or the Roman oppression symbolized by the crucified messiah.

It’s at this point, however, that the parallels seem to me to break down, because there is no single Transcendent Victim that the Occupy protesters are rallying behind. Continue reading “Occupy Galatia!”