The Decelerating Engine

Turning to a blog I visit often, I happen upon a link to a talk, recorded over a year ago in Ljubljana and presented by Benjamin Noys, a theorist whose work I’ve followed off and on and whom I suspect, based on only the most superficial of evidence, of a few years back and under an assumed name having engaged me in an amusing intermittent email correspondence. So, to begin with Marx, the recorded talk begins, Noys reading aloud from his own printed text:

Marx, in his work of the 1840s, defines the productive forces as the objectifications of human powers. Under capitalism these objectified powers are subject to alienation, so the task must be to repossess these powers. In the 1844 manuscript he writes: ‘It can be seen how the history of industry and the objective existence of industry as it has developed is the open book of the essential powers of man.’ Marx aims to make this book legible, to return us to a capacity to read, in industry, our own powers.

The book business constitutes one short chapter in the history of industry. A book isn’t just an inert object; it’s an engine, powered by the combined forces of writer and reader. By reifying a book into a commodity, industry objectifies the essential human powers of writing and reading. Originally a medium of communication between writer and reader, the book-as-commodity imposes a barrier between them, alienating them from each other.

How to repossess these alienated human powers? I continue listening to the prerecorded Ljubljana talk. Marx, Noys informs his audience, doesn’t propose rewinding history, flipping nostalgically back through the pages of the book of industry to its early chapters, before human subjectivity became objectified, back to the pre-industrial days of peasant farming and craftsmanship and oral storytelling. Engage in struggle, Marx exhorts. But how?

Noys outlines one option: accelerate. Resistance is futile, the accelerationists assert. Instead of slowing down the machinery of alienation, speed it up. Left-wing accelerationists presume that, by pushing the machine to its breaking point, exhaustion will morph into desperation, and desperation will trigger revolt. Destroy the machine or, better, seize the controls! So: accelerate the writing of books; accelerate the automation of publishing and distributing books; accelerate the decline in writer pay to zero; accelerate the book industry capitalists’ return on investment to infinity. Frustrated and enraged writers and readers: cast off the shackles of capital; join forces with one another to produce your own books! There’s no money in it? Pretty soon there won’t be any money in any jobs. Demand universal basic income! No work and pay! Accelerate into leisure and artistry.

In contrast, accelerationists of the right don’t want to crash into the apocalypse; they want to accelerate through it, pushing the pedal until they reach escape velocity. Writers are already prepared to work on spec for little or no pay. Hell, they’ll even pay for the privilege of being a writer – consider not just the vanity presses but, even more extravagantly, the MFA programs. Meanwhile, readers are still willing to buy books. Steady or rising revenues with costs decreasing to near zero: it’s a capitalist’s dream. But the dream goes on. If publication and distribution can be automated, why not editing? Why not writing? Why not, for that matter, reading? Marx’s objectified powers of labor are rendered obsolete, replaced by the abstract forces of capital, intelligence, and creation. These forces have, first by necessity and eventually by force of habit, been channeled through humans. Now comes the age of the intelligent machine: already faster and more proficient than humans in most realms, the machine is continually learning, continually expanding its powers, continually accelerating into a posthuman future.

The speaker in the recorded video from Ljubljana thinks that neither left nor right accelerationism is desirable or likely. What alternative does he propose? Well, this is a critique he’s offering his listeners, not plan C. But now I find myself captivated by the two variants of accelerationism that he’s served up. Neither one is a plan really; both seem to operate in a rather deterministic fashion, as though the outcomes are inevitable – which makes sense, accelerationism being predicated on the idea of an abstract machine that runs itself. The two variants, right and left, trace the unfolding of more or less the same future trajectory. Riding the machine into the future are two factions: one seeks escape and transcendence; the other, resistance and fully realized humanity. Are they pitted against each other as adversaries, these two factions? Are the Rights immune to the alienation and desperation into which the machine is accelerating them, or do they somehow hunger for their own abjection, thirst for their own annihilation? Can the Lefts see past the Apocalypse into the Millennium that seems sure to rise up from the ashes? Can either side derail the other’s machine? Will heroes step forward, and villains too? Faster and faster the machine churns out the situations, the conflicts, the confrontations – alienating, but also exciting.

Accelerationism: it’s a more exciting narrative than the one I seem to be stuck in. Everything seems to be slowing way down. I write less. I read less. I’m neither nostalgic nor hopeful. I rarely talk with anyone, and when I do I usually wish I hadn’t. If I’m strapped to a machine, it must be running out of gas. Not with a bang but a whimper.

Then something happens. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but one thing leads to another, and next thing you know… How often has a story taken shape from an unpromising setup like this?

In this particular setup the machine continues to accelerate, partly by jettisoning its excess weight. Workers have been powering the machine to be sure, but they’ve also been pulled along by it. Now they’re left behind, watching as the machine surges toward the singularity, shrinking into the vanishing point on the technological event horizon. Don’t merely destroy the means of production: seize them, take control of them – the workers never had a chance really, and now the controls are way out of reach. Revert to the pre-industrial age of smallholders and herders, of wandering minstrels and storytellers? It’s the nostalgic yearning for a past that none of them had ever experienced in their lifetimes. Mystical post-apocalyptic millennialism? It’s so difficult to set aside the self-reflexive irony. Demand that the machine reverse its thrusters and return, putting the workers back on the job in the engine room or else just carrying them along for a free ride? Right.

Maybe the obvious scheme is for the redundant workers to start cobbling together their own machine from the obsolete and abandoned components of the accelerating machine that’s left them in its dust. Left to their own devices, the obsolete workers can improvise a world of their own in the abandoned ruins. The problem, though, lies in the central metaphor. The machine isn’t accelerating away; it’s accelerating through. Nothing is left behind; the machine turns even the rubble and the rubbish and the homeless into profit centers.

And maybe too there’s something wrong with the acceleration idea. Corporate profits continue trending upward, but the economy as a whole is pretty sluggish, with the GNP in most advanced Western economies growing at 2 percent annually. Other than a lot of job automation and ecological destruction along with some cool phone apps, the technological thrusters aren’t generating much that’s truly innovative or catalytic. Government is shrinking too. Also the book industry: fewer readers and lower sales, with adult coloring books being the fastest growing sector. Mostly what’s accelerating is the gap between the one percent and everyone else. That’s the case even among writers, with revenues increasingly concentrated in the upper tier of best sellers.

In short, I’m probably not the only one who feels like everything is slowing down. I understand that most people who actually still have jobs are working harder and longer for less pay, that even filling in a coloring book presents a challenge when it comes to filling in one’s limited down time. And for what? It’s harder to stay fully engaged in work that seems so pointless, so destructive, so stagnant. That’s not just my view either: the Gallup pollsters find that only about a third of American workers are “engaged employees” who are “involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.”

Maybe there are two machines. One is the accelerating engine, run by and for the one percent, devoted primarily to increasing investor profits. The accelerator pushes workers harder and faster until, inevitably, it cuts them loose. The other engine, the decelerating one, is characterized by widespread apathy, disengagement, anhedonia, hopelessness. Together the two engines are playing a zero-sum game, with the accelerating engine being fueled by the decelerating engine. Sort of like the human batteries energizing the AIs in The Matrix (though that seemed like an awfully inefficient energy source, as well as a rather pointless expenditure of that energy by the AIs just to keep the illusory world up and running).

Fictional narratives – sometimes books, but more often TV and movies – function as components in both engines. The fiction industry is a component in the accelerating engine, a source of revenues and profits. The industry’s product – fiction as a commodity – keeps the decelerating engine chugging along, serving as circuit breaker, escape valve, recharger, distraction, and propaganda device for the workers whose efforts to turbocharge the accelerator are grinding them down into obsolescence. Too cynical? The Matrix was marketed as a wake-up call for would-be insurgents, but mostly it spawned two really bad sequels while generating hundreds of millions of dollars for the accelerating engine. The red pill is the blue pill.


6 thoughts on “The Decelerating Engine

  1. Good post.

    “Accelerationism: it’s a more exciting narrative than the one I seem to be stuck in. Everything seems to be slowing way down. I write less. I read less. I’m neither nostalgic nor hopeful. I rarely talk with anyone, and when I do I usually wish I hadn’t. If I’m strapped to a machine, it must be running out of gas. Not with a bang but a whimper.

    “Then something happens. It doesn’t seem like much at first, but one thing leads to another, and next thing you know… How often has a story taken shape from an unpromising setup like this?”

    In the early days of the Google Empire, they talked about how important boredom was to the creative process. Now that Google has “grown up” (i.e. they are a corporate empire, existing to please shareholders and the 1%) the company itself isn’t really into creativity, but that’s beside the point, I guess. In the old days, they were willing to be counter-intuitive: boredom was productive.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure if this is of interest or not, to your project, but I was just reading a Jacobin article fron 2016, evaluating the co-op craze on the left. The idea is to work within the capitalist system and develop worker-run businesses: ‘the eclectic development of “interstitial alternatives” that grow in the cracks of capitalism — “real utopias” that can eventually spread to capitalism’s core.’

    The author of the article is skeptical that such a strategy can work if it is not combined with a substantial and full-throttle assault on the state, the power that supports the capitalist structure. He cheers the idea of co-ops but notes that they don’t always support a greater leftist goals, and in some cases they present no challenge or threat, whatsoever, to capitalism. What is more, they can face unique challenges, operating as they are without the aid of Big Capital.

    It’s a good article:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “in order for socialist democracy to work, everyone affected by workplace decisions — other workers as well as consumers and the community — must have a say in how to spend the surpluses generated by production.”

      Yeah I think that’s right. In context of Ficticities it’s not just the writers but the readers who must have a say. Decommodify the book; have readers’ purchasing co-ops work collaboratively with writers in encouraging widespread readership.

      “these groups of workers essentially become their own capitalists. They have ownership rights, mobilize their own finances, and control and reinvest “their” surplus for their own advantage.”

      This is certainly an issue, and I’ve seen it played out with doctor-owned medical groups that maximize their gains by gouging the patients and underpaying the tech staff. A while back we talked about credit unions, which are worker-owned but operate like for-profit banks, as the article points out.

      In contrast, writers are the underpaid ones in book capitalism, with even the tech staff making more dough than the writers do, so in a sense it’s a fear of success to think that writers’ co-ops would have a surplus to exploit. Similarly with workers’ co-ops inheriting debt from the former investors — it’s not relevant for writers’ syndicates publishing e-books. I.e., not all industries fit the abstract theoretical model in the same way; industry differences need to be understood and taken into consideration in moving toward postcapitalism.

      Liked by 1 person

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