Beyond Endless Winter: An Interview with Nick Srnicek
A conversation with Nick Srnicek on accelerationism, technology, and political practice.
First published at &&& Journal, a project by the The New Centre for Research & Practice.
The following interview was conducted in October 2017 and was originally intended to serve as printed material to accompany the Grammar of Postcontemporary autumn school near Moscow, Russia, that Nick Srnicek participated in. Beyond a simple introduction to accelerationist theory and its consequences, the talk evolved into a full-fledged discussion that touched upon much deeper and broader topics, enabling it to become a distinct publication. The Russian translation of the interview is published in Logos Journal (Vol. 28 #2, 2018).
Artem Gureev: So let’s begin with what is Accelerationism?
Nick Srnicek: When Alex Williams and I wrote the "#Accelerate Manifesto" it wasn’t really a term that was well known. It had been coined by Benjamin Noys as a critical term when he set a philosophy of negation against the accelerationist affirmation that he found in thinkers like Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. But when Alex and I took up the term it was meant to be a very Marxist project — it was building upon the basic Marxist belief that capitalism was not something that you would try to destroy and reverse away from. Instead, capitalism was building the basis for post-capitalism, for the movement beyond itself. And this is what accelerationism meant for Alex and I: this simple idea. In more concrete terms, this meant taking an interest in the latest technology, thinking about how exactly they can be used as technologies for liberation rather than tools of control, and thinking about the ways in which we can build a world of abundance and experimentation beyond the strictures of capitalist society. So we ended up with a lot of focus on technology, thinking about “What does it really mean to be human?”, trying to get beyond the essentialist idea of the human and integrating this with recent ideas around artificial intelligence, on the nature of reasoning, and collective rationality. Effectively, what we were trying to grasp at was a post-human and post-capitalist vision of the future.
You just mentioned Marxism. One of its central tenets being dialectical materialism, how does dialectics as a method, as a paradigm of thought impact Accelerationism? Does the concept of non-foundationalist, evolutionary reasoning play a large role in the movement? A lot of attention has been paid to Brandom in recent years.
Well, my initial take on dialectics was filtered through my Deleuzian training: dialectics was this blunt instrument to try and understand the nature of development, and that actually we needed a much more subtle and materialist view of non-dialectical becoming. I think this played a large part in the original work on accelerationism when Alex and I were working on it; we both came from that sort of background and it implicitly informed much of the image of change that we have in mind there. But since then, I’ve come around more to dialectics in part due to Ray Brassier and Reza Negarestani’s work, but also becoming a bit more intrigued by the potential of value-form Marxism. With Ray and Reza, I take it that one of their projects is to rethink dialectics using Brandom and Wilfrid Sellars, who have given us much more sophisticated tools to understand the dynamics and intricacies of reasoning processes and the ways in which conceptual apparatus latch onto the real. Philosophically, I think this marks Ray and Reza’s work as some of the most interesting and inventive stuff going on right now.
Maybe something like “creative” dialectics that conceptually allows for emergence rather than determinism?
Yes, I can see something like that taking place — and it aligns nicely with Deleuzian conceptions as well.
Currently there seems to be two currents of Accelerationism: right and left-wing. Is there any ontological principle that can be used to distinguish them, relating to technology perhaps?
To be honest, I’m not sure the idea of a right and left accelerationism makes sense, given that it presupposes some common basis between the two, with a politico-philosophical decision choosing between the two. It’s why I think the term "accelerationism" has become useless; liable to mean anything to anyone. I’ve yet to see any interesting questions, provocations, or insights emerge from the idea that there’s a common accelerationist project that subdivides into a right and left genre. But when people talk about right accelerationism, they mean Nick Land (I’m not sure there are any other "right accelerationists"?) And in terms of his 90s work (I must admit to having read very little of his recent stuff), I think Ray gave the definitive critique of it some time ago — which is that it may be an aesthetically and intellectually invigorating project, but it’s one that cashes out in practical and logical contradictions by effacing the question of representation. It’s this sort of analysis which has led Ray from tarrying with eliminative materialism to tarrying with normative reasoning, and which has led a lot of us to rethinking the role of reasoning. Once you recognize the internal contradictions of the eliminative materialist project, you’re forced towards some difficult questions that get otherwise brushed aside. More broadly, I think Land’s 90s project was of a piece with the historical triumph of capitalism over the USSR, and it was an attempt to ontologize that victory. But that idea, like much of the 90s, seems dated by today’s standards. Far from being an engine of dynamism, capitalism today is defined by stagnation and decrepitude.
To expand on that: Accelerationism criticises capitalism for not being productive enough, not being an absolute deterritorializing agent, yet is it concerned only with something material, like technologies, or also with abstract entities such as social spaces?
I don’t think technology can be separated from the social structure around it and partly this is, once again, a classic Marxist thesis that the relations of production end up constraining the forces of production. And that seems like an apt description of what is happening today. Capitalism has reached this point where it’s unable to develop the forces of production in any significant sense. Here’s the challenge for any proponent of capitalism’s endless dynamic force: why has global capitalism being slowing down on every major indicator since the 1970s? GDP, labor productivity, patent creation, total factor productivity, wages, profits, and so on — all slowing down. The neoliberal era has been terrible for capitalism even on its own terms.
So are there any possible/visible “Events,” in the Badiouian sense, happening to technology and its advancement in the near future even with such stagnation?
I’m hesitant to use language of “events,” in part because it tends towards an approach to politics that is quite Messianic in nature. It also risks courting the ineffable as something valuable in itself — a stance which I think has a rather terrible political and philosophical history. But if we move away from the language of events, I do think there are significant changes going on with things like machine learning and particularly some efforts to create a more general form of artificial intelligence. The issue here is not so much that we might create an AI that takes over the world and Terminator-style decide to wipe out humanity (complete with the anthropocentric belief that a superhuman AI would care enough to eliminate us).
I think the more real threat is the monopolistic use of artificial intelligence and the ways in which it generates political and economic power. What we’re seeing happen right now is the consolidation of AI’s power for control being consolidated into the hands of a few companies with the resources, expertise, and data to be able to build world-leading AI. This seems to be a much more realistic problem to be concerning ourselves with. In any case, present AI research is still heavily constrained, despite the apparent magic it can carry out at times. The AIs that we have now, for instance, are very good at the single tasks that we train them for, but tend to fall apart when we try to move them to a different task. We also have a basic technique — back propagation — that has been around for decades, and is now being mined for all its worth, but with dwindling results. If you look at the industrial internet, for example, Siemens and GE are really struggling with being able to transfer success in one industry into success in another industry. The techniques of modern AI don’t allow for that for that sort of transfer. Likewise with smartphones and apps — we seem to have basically exhausted their impact, so that each new annual replacement makes less and less difference to our world. I think a similar thing could happen soon with machine learning, and it’s quite possible that we’ll see another AI winter.
Maybe we should return to the figure of Nick Land. You have once mentioned that he is “too ‘90s.” This seems to be a theme, rather than an incident with the rise of “retrofuturistic” movements. How can one conceptually escape that?
We can’t escape the past. When we are trying to imagine a future and trying to imagine utopia we are constantly going to be using the tools, ideas, and concepts from the past — we have an arsenal of elements in front of us, and we try to reconstruct something novel from them. This is the basic empiricist retort to utopian thinking: one can’t imagine what one hasn’t experienced. What I think is missed here is that imagination is more a matter of recombining elements in unique ways, along the lines of a more combinatorial approach to imagining the future rather than thinking that we can imagine a future out of nothing. In that sense, I think retrofuturism is inevitable to some degree.
In terms of such processes, what can we say about Science Fiction, especially in regards to rising scholarly interest in this literary genre?
I will say that I think that the recent resurgence in Science Fiction is indicative of the broader interest in the future. And I don’t think it’s any surprise that this occurred post-2008. Prior to the financial crisis, there was very much the sense — on the left and the right — that neoliberal capitalism was at least a pretty stable system that would grow fast enough to be able to dampen down any major criticism or revolt that might arise. The big dot-com bust of the early 2000s, for instance, hadn’t slowed the economy down in any significant way — it was as though neoliberalism really had overcome the boom-bust cycle. Whereas in 2008 that all breaks apart. And 10 years later, we still have a situation where no one knows how to restart the capitalist accumulation process. Neoliberal hegemony has truly been broken — first in a materialist way, and now increasingly in a social and political way. As a result, this re-opens the question of the future in a way that hasn’t really been posed since at least the fall of the Soviet Union. That turn of the century moment when global capitalism appeared unimpeachable is now completely gone. I think that the broader academic interest — and I don’t think it’s just academic interest; there is more science fiction being written itself — is indicative of a broad historical moment that we find ourselves in.
After derivative mentions of certain writers and movements, how would you place such emerging movements as Prometheanism or Inhumanism, which were included in the Accelerationist Reader, in relation to Accelerationism? Do they encompass each other?
Perhaps better than movements might be to see them as conceptual decisions on various issues that then form the basis for further exploration. So, for instance, when Ray talks about Prometheanism he is referencing the basic political and philosophical belief that there are no immutable givens — there is no transcendental which cannot be altered, and that claim then licenses a further series of conceptual and practical moves. A similar sort of disposition lies behind Alex and I’s emphasis on post-work. The project of ending wage labor is underpinned by a strategic analysis that capitalism relies upon — and naturalizes — the condition of the wage laborer. Far from being a deterritorialising movement, capitalism is premised upon the reproduction of a highly constrained class structure that determines and limits what it means to be human. Under capitalism, we get a restrictive image of the human, and the project of moving beyond work is the first step in tearing down those constraints.
It also seems like, at least ideologically, these projects share a lot with Enlightenment. Do they in a way try to revive its ideas?
Yes, though in a very particular way. The basic notion of the Enlightenment as progress through reasoning certainly plays an indispensable role. One issue though is that the original notion relied upon a disinterested, disembodied — but implicitly white, male, property-owning — subject. And numerous critics, postcolonial and poststructuralist, have rightly critiqued that presupposition. That doesn’t mean, however, that we need to give up on the idea of rationality or conceptual progress; it just means we need to complicate our images of these elements. And that’s partly what I find interesting in the work of people like Reza — who try and reinvigorate some idea of the Enlightenment and progress of reason but to do so in a way which also takes into account the critiques that have been made of the Enlightenment. So, yes to reinvigorating the Enlightenment but in a way that is responsive to the legitimate critiques made of it.
One of the concepts that stemmed out of post-Enlightenment criticism is alienation, arguably one of the most important ones. How does it fit into Accelerationist and other contemporary theory? As I understand it, Xenofeminism even describes it as a driving force.
For us, I’d say that alienation begins with the denial of any authentic self. In that sense, subjectivity just is alienation, and the process of determining what it means to be human is a process of continual alienation. Alienation isn’t some aberrant state of existence then, but the basic process of constructing the human.
The accelerationist manifesto posits the viability of both horizontal and vertical actions in political praxis. How does that show up in particular examples?
At the time of the manifesto and when we wrote Inventing the Future, we were very much writing in response to Occupy Wall Street. This was from our own experience and watching the movement spread around the world, where we saw the constant emphasis on the horizontal nature of Occupy. This led, predictably, to the rejection of any sort of verticality whatsoever (this was often the rhetoric of the movement, though in practice there were some exceptions). This also led to a number of problems, culminating in the collapse and ultimate failure of these movements to effectuate any significant change. So when we talk about the need to move beyond the limit of pure horizontalism, it’s the experience and lessons of Occupy Wall Street that we have in mind.
Now, in terms of what represents an alternative, I would say we’ve seen a range of experiments with this since the fall of OWS. Something like Podemos is good example at an organisation level, as a vertical party combined with horizontal, common circles that are more localized forms of groups which can interact and feedback into that vertical system. There is an interesting interchange going on in the way these two systems, in a paradigm which you cannot really describe as being a traditional hierarchy or a traditional horizontal movement. Another example would be Momentum here in the UK. You have the Labour party which is more or less hierarchical, yet which also incorporated more horizontal elements from its very beginnings. With Momentum you have something even more peculiar, a system which enables a spontaneity of people from the bottom up. This enables horizontal organizing to go on as well as feed into a vertical system in a way which has been very productive in terms of what has been achieved in the last general election. I think these are interesting examples that can be learned from (and let me emphasize them as experiments to learn from, rather than models to copy). You cannot categorize them in classical terms of horizontal or vertical. This idea was really what Alex and I were trying to get at: to say that the categories of horizontal/vertical are constraining our imaginations about what’s possible, and that the constant emphasis on one pole or the other is leading us into dead-ends. I think the failure of Occupy and similar movements has, fortunately, spurred on a lot of people to start thinking beyond these categories.
Does it have to do something with cybernetic theory?
Maybe… I’m a bit sceptical of throwing the term “cybernetics” into everything. More often than not it gets used as a trendy term to label something that can be described in a much simpler, more profound way.
In terms of communications then: Ray Brassier has once stated that the internet is not an “appropriate medium for a serious philosophical debate.” Does that, in your opinion, maybe, describe the state of the entire communication system of the internet in general?
I think that effectively the internet is a great medium for discussion under the right conditions (a claim that holds for every communications medium). One of the major differences between discussion on the internet and discussion elsewhere is that there is often an imagined audience online. What happens is that you end up writing not to learn something, nor to necessarily engage with an idea, nor to question something or even question yourself, but instead to perform for this audience. This is extremely detrimental to any type of proper discussion — it leads to a game of trying to appease this imagined audience, with likes and RTs being the most salient metric of success. For that reason, I don’t think Facebook, let alone Twitter, lend themselves to meaningful discussion. That doesn’t mean these media aren’t useful for other reasons, since politics isn’t only about reasonable discussion (for example, what often gets derided as Twitter pile-ons seems to me more often a matter of the weak using their traditional weapon of shame against the strong). But these limits do help explain the (often humorous) frustration that earnest people get when trying to have a reasonable conversation online, and any effective political use of these media needs to recognize them.
Blogging, on the other hand, at least had a moment of utility for developing ideas collectively. At its origins, it was a pretty small community of people who looked at the process of discussion not as a matter of one-up-manship or proof of omniscience. It was a space where you could make mistakes quite openly as well as test ideas and do so in a way that recognized epistemic humility. Those aspects have mostly disappeared from the public eye today, but in my experience it’s because they’ve been recreated in more private ways. So instead of a public blog for anyone to comment on, people use WhatsApp, or Slack, or even G+ to build smaller and more private communities to develop ideas.
Would you then say that the public internet should be re-appropriated? Its former state seems to be much less commercialized and power-driven. Is there such a possibility?
I think so, yes. We can imagine different forms of public ownership that involve taking control of these platforms away from capitalist firms. The demands of capitalism are often at odds with the requirements of a functional public sphere. Twitter is a good example. It could be a fairly interesting space to meaningfully engage with others, but instead the company is concentrated on trying to generate more attention on their service, attracting more advertisers, and incentivizing more superficial engagements. The same thing happens everywhere on the web: from SEO, to content farms, to clickbait, to “fake news." We can imagine alternatives though. For instance, a cooperatively owned Twitter, where it would be owned and managed by the users who could build a social media platform that incentivized less profitable, but more useful behaviors. And the blockchain presents some entirely new possibilities for decentralized ownership of these platforms — though at the moment these exist more in the hype of their backers than in any practical model. But whatever answer we come up with, the point is that we desperately need to claw back control of digital platforms, especially as they come to own and dominate the rest of the economy.
You seem to share the awareness of the possible usage of the internet for manipulation that have been outlined by people like Bifo Berardi.
It’s undoubtedly true that social media has been manipulating people, but the real question is whether it’s to a different degree than previous media. Look at the uproar around “fake news” influencing the US election and bringing in Trump. When you go and look at the data you realize that the biggest influence on the outcome wasn’t Twitter or social media in general. Instead it was talk radio — a very old medium that is heavily political biased, and that a lot of elderly people frequently listen to. That has been influencing them for decades now. (We could also look at the role of tabloid newspapers in the UK for a similar “old” media example.) There is a rush to blame the newest technologies for our ills, but oftentimes that claim doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. I would say that the influence of 4chan was extremely minor during the election, as was the influence of “meme wars.” It is much more traditional things that have been influencing the bringing of Trump to power.
Now, to move a bit back from the particulars: would you say that the 20th century has shown the limits of human politics and economics if not thought in general?
That’s a good question. In one, a bit rudimentary, sense — yes. The sort of humanism that doesn’t give any consideration to non-humans is, obviously, completely obsolete in an age of ecological crisis. Likewise, the romantic ideals of classical humanism seem to me have been definitely taken apart by poststructuralism and neuroscience. These ideals are still effective as rhetorical tools, but as proper guides to politics, we need to move beyond them.
What does that imply for praxis in contemporary society where direct action and what you call “folk politics” alongside dogmatical humanism does not bring about the absolute change?
I think part of it has to do with developing our capacities for abstract and strategic long-term thinking. That is something that, for example, in the early 20th century was very much built up. You would have something along the lines of the vanguard party, that would look out over the course of history, determining where things are going and what the role of the working classes was going to be in bringing about the revolution to a new stage of history. It wasn’t necessarily the correct analysis of history’s structural forces, but it at least gave priority of place to these beyond human elements. Today, we mostly lack these sorts of capacities for thinking long-term and strategically. The result has been more and more focus on tactics and immediacy, and an instinctually reactive politics. So one way to get beyond the limits of humanism and the fetishisation of tactics is to build these capacities again. I think there’s more awareness of the need for this stuff lately, and it appears as though there’s more engagement with trying to solve this problem. But it’s still in the beginning stages.
Is that analysis impacted by “Platform capitalism” in any way? If not, what does such an economical state impact in term of theory?
I think platform capitalism enters in as one of the key actors in the future of politics. If we want to think strategically, these major tech companies need to be in our analysis. Now there’s a couple of elements of how they impact future politics. One major one is the ways in which they exert control over other companies — not only through economic means, but also political means. Google and Facebook’s dominance over the traditional media industry is a perfect example of this, and to me, quite suggestive of the likely future for other industries as they take on platforms. So, the first way is the influence of platforms on intracapitalist competition. Second is the way that platforms influence social movements and people politics, broadly speaking. Jeremy Gilbert has written some excellent stuff on this, pointing out that much like Fordism and post-Fordism make possible certain forms of organizing and certain forms of political action, so does platform capitalism make possible new forms of political action. These platforms offer organizing tools and ways of connecting actions that enable us to act in collective ways that just weren’t possible 20 years ago. Whether or not this is actually sufficient to take down these platforms, I’m not entirely sure. But the awareness of these material changes is important to thinking about strategy and how we approach political action today.
And in terms of simple economic development, the uniting element of different kinds of platforms does seem not only to be raw data mining but also rent. Can it be said that this is the return of the Marxian “rentier”?
I do think that there is something to be said for that. I need to give more thought to the category of rent, because I’m not entirely convinced that it’s the best concept to use here. Oftentimes what we refer to as “rent” can just mean excess profits. But I do think that there is a sort of siphoning of value by platform companies from non-platform ones in ways that are quite intriguing when we think about the aggregate nature and state of capitalism today. I think that the massive accumulation of value by these platform companies is actually not very good for capitalism overall. Far from indicating any kind of revival of capitalism, what we’re witnessing is the concentration and centralization of capital within the hand of fewer and fewer platform monopolies. So there are really important questions on the aggregate levels of capitalism about what platform capitalism means. Despite the hype given to these companies, I think they’re symptomatic of a period of generalized stagnation.
What about race and gender? Do their identities as oppressed subjects also remain stagnant as does the system, or do they change in times of platforms?
On one hand you have — this is not novel to platform capitalism, just a continuation of a neoliberal period — an outsourcing of work back onto the family structure, which remains a highly gendered one. So women still largely do most childcare, do most long term care alongside elderly care, most housekeeping, and all the other tasks of social reproduction. What we have been seeing over the last four years is more of this is being pushed back onto an unwaged sector of the family.
And in terms of race, I’m not convinced that platform capitalism has added anything new, so much as inflected existing racial hierarchies through slightly new mechanisms. We have of course the rise of all sorts of algorithmic biases, and the ways in which machine learning draws upon social data means that it too often transfers existing biases into these automated systems. That’s perhaps a new type of problem, but it seems a relatively minor inflection of racism when compared to the violence perpetuated by racism through more traditional means. Where race intersects with digital capitalism in more significant ways is perhaps the effects of automation and the production of workless subjects, often in racialised and segregated urban areas. This, again, is nothing new, but it may take on new force as automation proceeds ahead.
Returning to technology: how does the Dot Com boom reflect upon the contemporary platform state of capitalism? Does the possible analogy signify a new bubble?
The economist, Lawrence Summers, has been arguing recently about the significance of financial booms and busts to modern capitalism. His argument in principle is: the equilibrium rate of interest is far too low to bring about the balance between savings and investment and the only way in which that gets resolved is by capitalism constantly inciting cheap money and financial booms in order to get any sort of an economic growth. He points to the Japanese housing crisis, the American dot com boom, the kind of boom that happened in European peripheral bonds, and the housing boom in US, all in the last 20 years. Looking at these booms and busts, he says that without them we wouldn’t have had any growth in the main capitalist economies — they’ve been essential to any sense of forward momentum in contemporary capitalism. There is something to be said for that.
But while we undoubtedly have some form of unsustainable boom today (it’d be difficult to think otherwise given the effects of quantitative easing and low interest rates), I think it’s different from the 90s tech boom. One of the major differences is that in the 90s the aim of a lot of these startup companies was to list themselves on stock market, make a massive amount of money from their IPO and then watch their stock value grow and grow. Today we actually see very few IPOs. There are very few startups moving towards the stock market as a way to make profit (Snap being perhaps the most recent big name one). But most of the tech startups have relied on venture capital and staying private. And if they grow large enough, they eventually get bought out by a company like Google or Facebook. Success for tech firms today is getting bought out by a platform monopoly; whereas success in the 90s dot com boom was making money off of the stock market. Now that has a big effect on the potential impact of these companies going bust, because while many Americans are involved with the stock market in some way (whether through pension plans or some other savings), only a miniscule amount are involved in venture capital. So if the tech sector today is seeing a boom, and a bust happens, I think the impact will be relatively small. (And it’s worth recalling that the collapse of the 90s tech boom was limited as well, thanks to it being constrained to the stock market and supported by the Fed’s interest rate cuts.)
Does cryptocurrency somehow fit as a possible future influence on such market conditions? Bitcoin seems to be a financial fetish currently.
I think that it has a future as a marginal currency that serves a few functions. I don’t see any way in which it replaces national currencies. The technical limitations of something like Bitcoin for rapid and frequent everyday transactions are quite significant. There’s also the ecological impact of a lot of blockchain-based systems which again puts heavy limits on how widespread it can become. I think blockchain and, more broadly speaking, digital ledger-based technologies can be quite interesting in use and they have some fascinating potential functions. But I’m quite skeptical that these digital currencies are going to compete with national currencies in any significant way.
Yet speaking solely of blockchain, are there any possible “revolutionary” applications?
Possibly. I need to give it more thought since at the moment it’s incredibly difficult to separate the hype from the reality of the blockchain field. When C-list celebrities are marketing their ICO, you know that things have gone a bit crazy. That being said, there’s undoubtedly some significant transformative potential from blockchain, but as far as I can see, virtually all of it is conceptual at the moment, and little has been proven a success in actual practice.
It would be justified to bring up the concept of Hyperstition then. Alongside platform capitalism are novel structures as the brand, volatile trading, both of which question our conceptions of classical time orientation. With this apparent dependence on the future, is Hyperstition simply a phenomenon or a tool to be used?
I think it’s a tool to be used. The way Alex and I try to formulate it in Inventing the Future is basically to see it as one of the instruments through which non-deterministic progress gets embodied and enacted. This was one of the challenges we tried to think through when we were writing: how to get away from these deterministic ideas of progress? If you give up on those absolutes, does that mean the end of progress per se, do you just have this play of differences and that is it? Hyperstition, by contrast, invokes a sense of direction, it orients momentum towards something, without at the same time positing some absolute trajectory of history. So it’s a way to conceptualize progress without falling back into more classical motifs.
The last question should probably be easy on the ear. Why become leftist today?
The simplest answer is that capitalism is an elaborate system of constraint and ontological stasis, and that we can do so much better. There is the traditional leftist argument that’s based around equality and justice that I find persuasive as well. But one doesn’t have to buy into that in order to recognize that capitalism massively restricts our possibilities and ties us into a repetitive cycle of accumulation, and that the project of the left must be to liberate us from it.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]