Accelerationism: Tomorrow, we're not going to work!

Article published on Feb. 22, 2016
Article published on Feb. 22, 2016

What exactly is accelerationism, this mysterious theory promising the re-orientation of capitalism in a way that will make it useful for the masses and not only for oligarchs? How are accelerationists planning to free us from work in the future? I went to London to ask Nick Srnicek, the co-author of the #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO, to explain the movement. Long read.

cafébabel: Thank you for meeting me, Nick. Tell me, what is accelerationism? Can we simplify it by saying it's a political theory?

Nick Srnicek: At its most basic level, accelerationism is an idea that states that a post-capitalist future will be built on top of the advances made by capitalism. It’s not a simple rejection, destruction or negation of capitalism, but rather its re-purposing. Now a key part of this, which has been controversial, is the belief that existing technology can be deployed in ways that benefit people rather than profits. We have focused on automation as one of the key examples of this, but the essential point to note is that any change in the uses of technology will necessarily require a massive political project. So the belief that technology can be used differently is only a starting point; the real challenge is in understanding the political and social dynamics of our world in order to build up a political movement that can effectuate change.

cafébabel: Could you tell me the story of the #ACCELERATEMANIFESTO that you co-wrote with Alex Williams?

Nick Srnicek: When I was studying philosophy, I became interested in speculative realism. Inevitably, I started to ponder on the question: "What is the politics of speculative realism?" How do you translate all these interesting ideas into practice? Then came the vast economic crisis of 2008. Having been trained in Badiou, Žižek, and Deleuze and Guattari, I thought: "This is the way that you are supposed to think about radical politics." But they didn’t seem to offer any purchase on what was happening in the world, and I became increasingly disillusioned with these traditional touch points for radical thought.

So I started rejecting the philosophical aspect and searching for a political layer behind it. At the same time, Alex and I were participating in a bunch of occupations – for instance Occupy London – and we became involved in events in the activist scene. We could see that despite the level of passion, effort and ambition that would go into these projects, they repeatedly failed.

So the question we began to ask ourselves was: "What was going wrong?" This is where our critique of folk politics initially came from. We looked at the elements that were lacking in Occupy, but also from the point of view of philosophical and academic movements. One of the major things that stuck out to us was that there didn’t exist any big vision of how a future society would look. There were plenty of critiques of existing society, but nothing that seemed capable of mobilising people towards an alternative society.

It was the combination of these elements that brought us to writing the manifesto. In the beginning, it was meant to be a summary of the book Inventing the Future, with a distribution of around 50 copies. Then the manifesto got leaked online, and ended up spreading around the world.

cafébabel: If I’ve understood it correctly, one of the core assumptions of accelerationism is that capitalism can't sustain itself forever and will eventually self-destruct, giving way to a new reality. Is that correct?

Nick Srnicek: I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary. I think that there is a tendency to lean towards this definition, but I think capitalism has an immense capacity to reinvent itself, so I don’t ascribe any necessity to a crisis or final endpoint. Capitalism also has a great potential to inflict suffering on people and I think that, given that the current conditions of capitalism are unable to generate profit in traditional ways, it is in turn generating more and more exploitation. Combined with the lack of power people have nowadays, this exploitation and misery is likely to increase. This is not going to lead to the end of capitalism, however. We can’t rely on historical necessity, and instead have to build our way out of it.

cafébabel: In order to accelerate the end of capitalism, is a neoliberal government, like David Cameron’s, more useful than a neo-Keynesian government, like the one proposed by Jeremy Corbyn?         

Nick Srnicek: If you believe that accelerationism is meant to make things worse as a pathway to revolution, then Donald Trump is its biggest advocate. But my project is not about making things worse – in fact, that seems a rather naïve idea of revolution to me. I’m more interested in how we can use existing resources to build a better world, and I think the political imperative today is to think about how we can change existing conditions in order to make it possible for people themselves to take power. I don’t think that Cameron could do that, and I think his project will simply exacerbate the worst elements of our world. Corbyn has much better chances in this regard – even if political parties inevitably have limitations.

cafébabel: In the manifesto, written in 2013, you say that the left should refuse horizontalism and embrace verticalism. However, from that moment on, lots of horizontal leftist political movements arose in Europe, for example Podemos, Syriza, and Italy's Five Star Movement. Do you think that reality contradicted your ideas?

Nick Srnicek: No, I don’t think so. In the "Manifesto" we draw a (perhaps too) sharp distinction between folk politics and accelerationism. However, we also say that we have to marry the network with the plan, which points towards the necessity of thinking about hybrid organisational forms. I think that this is what you see in Syriza to some extent. Podemos is an even better example – it’s effectively an experiment combining horizontalism at the ground level and a vertical organisation that is trying to generate effective action at the national level. It’s exactly the sort of experiment that we call for in the book, and in short, we have to learn from what happens, experiment and invent new ways to proceed without rigidly holding on to horizontalist ideas or going back to traditional vertical forms of organisation. I think both of those pathways have failed.

cafébabel: The correlation between accelerationism and the intensification of consumerism seems intuitive, but is it correct? The American version of Vice has published an article about accelerationism: "Consume like crazy, only drink from Styrofoam, and throw handfuls of dead batteries into our oceans so the impending apocalypse can hurry up and get over with."         

Nick Srnicek: Yeah, the Vice article completely missed the point. Accelerationism is not about expanding consumerism and being more wasteful with the aim of (somehow) overturning capitalism. Following that idea would simply make things worse for everybody in the end and it’s not a revolutionary pathway. That being said, consumerism is not entirely bad – or rather, we need to distinguish between the expansion of desires generated by profit-seeking, and the expansion of desires generated by genuine human liberation. The two are conflated under capitalism – i.e. having more options for shampoo is considered freedom. But the anti-consumerist alternative seems wrong to me as well – it presupposes there are innate real needs and that anything beyond those needs is pure excess generated by capitalist consumerism. I don’t think that’s right – I think humanity is an open-ended project and any attempt to ascribe rigid desires to humanity is tied to conservative ideals.

cafébabel: The idea of the "jobless future" appears in both the manifesto and the book Inventing the Future. Do you think that we would be comfortable not working? For centuries, money has not only been a reward for work but also a universal point of reference as a determinant of social status, thus also of human dignity. Don’t you therefore think that in order for a jobless future to be able to exist, the role of money in society would have to change?

Nick Srnicek: I think that many people could be very happy in a world where you don’t have to rely on a job to survive and you don’t have to make money that way. It’s a common case that people take shitty jobs in order to survive – and one of the biggest challenges for management is that workers almost universally hate their jobs. In a post-work future, where something like a universal basic income had been implemented, the value of jobs that are socially necessary, but that people see as degrading, would likely increase in monetary terms. If you didn’t have to take a shit job just to make ends meet, then society will have to pay more in order to get those jobs done. At the same time, the value of jobs that are pleasurable, but less socially necessary, would likely decrease. I also think that a basic income serves as recognition of unwaged labour that is socially necessary and serves to maintain the populace but is not currently remunerated. Getting rid of the coercive aspect that keeps us in jobs is a huge step in changing the power imbalances between labour and capital, and I think it entails all sorts of interesting consequences.

cafébabel: Is it a fair assessment to say that modern society has developed Stockholm Syndrome with regard to work, money and capitalism? We are haunted by the awareness that we have been trapped in capitalist lifestyles that need to be financed, but at the same time there is no other option and everyone else does the same thing, so we reconcile ourselves with it and comply?

Nick Srnicek: I think that is true to some degree, and it is a manifestation of the structure of capitalism. The fact that you need a job in order to survive means that everybody works and it becomes a focal point of our identities. There has also been a shift from the old factory job in which you worked, and then returned home at the end of the day to become somebody different. Nowadays, we have occupations that infiltrate our entire lives, and as a result work has become central to our lives and relationships. When you first meet someone new, you inevitably ask them, "What do you do?" by which you mean, "What is your job?" and not "What are your hobbies?" There is also real social shame in saying that you are unemployed, which I find quite interesting. I was unemployed last year and despite being very much for a "post-work" world, even I felt a bit embarrassed. I always felt compelled to say that I worked as a freelancer. So, yes, there is Stockholm Syndrome, but it is an objective necessity too.

cafébabel: If accelerationism means overcoming borders and liberating technology from capitalist subjugation, can we understand Wikileaks and hacking as proto-accelerationist?

Nick Srnicek: I think that open source platforms are proto-accelerationist in the sense that they are operating outside of the capitalist valorisation of commodities – something is freely available and replicable at no cost. Open source platforms are post-capitalist, but too often people jump on this idea and think it is going to undermine the hegemony of Google, Microsoft or Apple. I don’t think that’s a persuasive argument. I think these are still marginal tendencies and the question is: "How do you take them from the edges of capitalism and turn them into a fully functional alternative?" I haven’t seen any plausible vision of how that is done. You need a political force to carry it out and this force does not exist at the current time.

Nick Srnicek: How does accelerationism view the rise of the sharing economy, such as BlaBla car, Airbnb and Uber?

I think at the present moment, they’re insidious ways of imposing further exploitation.  They’re presented as a matter of turning workers into entrepreneurs, but it’s instead a matter of increasingly exploiting every aspect of people’s lives. The mechanism works like this: if you need more money – because there are not enough good jobs – you start driving an Uber cab in your spare time. The sharing economy creates a flexible workforce as and when the capitalist system needs it. That being said, a different reality is possible – you can imagine cutting out the actual platforms themselves and turning them into something that was owned and controlled by the workers. This way cab drivers could make use of the Uber platform and raise their wages to a meaningful amount, but any profits would go into reinvestment and improving the service rather than into the pockets of a handful of parasitical techies.

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Nick Srnicek was born in 1982 and is currently living in London, working as a Visiting Lecturer at City University and the University of Westminster. He is the author of Postcapitalist Technologies (Polity, forthcoming), co-author of Inventing the Future (Verso, 2015, with Alex Williams) and co-editor of The Speculative Turn (Re:press, 2011, with Levi Bryant and Graham Harman).

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This article is a complementary addition to our EUtoo series and the article: Accelerationism: a post-capitalist future is no longer science fiction.