In modern usage, the term “accelerationism” is claimed by far-right groups as a philosophy of destabilizing society to bring about a more authoritarian and conservative future. However, soi-disant accelerationists have no monopoly on accelerationist ideas. That is to say that the perspective of “acceleration” of society through stages is neither new nor confined to the political right; accelerationist mindsets are espoused by various groups aspiring to “accelerate” society toward some predicted end and effect a transformation to a more “ideal” version of society. Though the nominal idea of accelerationism is widely conceived as radical and dangerous in most interpretations, the general concept of “accelerating” society toward a predefined end has a long history on many points on the political spectrum and has through its real-world political effects substantially influenced the modern world. To understand where accelerationist ideas come from, it is worthwhile to investigate, in brief, their history and legacy. It is also worthwhile to investigate their fundamental flaws.
The Philosophical Underpinnings
The concept of society moving toward an inexorable end is not new, but neither is it universal; many ancient peoples kept time with respect to dynasties or the founding of cities, commencing cycles that were inevitably reset every time a dynasty or city fell – for a modern relic of this system, we can see the Japanese imperial calendar or gengō system, in which the current year is Reiwa 2, second year of the reign of the new emperor. Ancient Romans kept time with relation to the founding of the city or by reference to the consuls who were in power in a particular year.[i] With the rise of monotheistic religion, however, societies began keeping time with respect to immutable events, such as the birth of Jesus or the Hijra of Mohammed – fixed dates that allowed a linear outlook on time irrespective of the city or ruling family one happened to live near. These societies also prophesied the eventual arrival at some future event, be it the end of the world or the coming of the Messiah, and even into the early modern era it was common to think that human actions could help bring it about – for example, in the 1500s, Jews began settling in the holy land, not to create a Jewish state like the modern Israel, but rather, they “hoped to accelerate the coming of the Messiah”[ii]. In the late 18th century, the German philosopher Friederich Hegel gave rise to a conception of history moving through a set of defined stages. For Hegel, this progress was most clearly visualized in the form of European civilization passing from pre-civilized barbarism, to slavery under classical societies, to the theological thought during the middle ages and culminating (for him) in the humanism and enlightenment philosophy of his time. For Hegel, this furthering of civilization was in turn furthering the evolution of the Weltgeist, or the Worldspirit, the collective mental and spiritual progress of humanity that developed inexorably toward greater liberation.
“[…]The world spirit, has possessed the patience to pass through these forms over a long stretch of time and to take upon itself the prodigious labor of world history, and because it could not have reached consciousness about itself in any lesser way, the individual spirit itself cannot comprehend its own substance with anything less.” – Hegel, Preface, Paragraph 29[iii]
Without question the most famous application of Hegelian history was made by Karl Marx, who took the idea of historical stages and wedded them to another (and more long-lived) Hegelian philosophical invention of “dialectics” – the idea that a prevailing and dominant idea (a “thesis”) is at some point confronted with a contrary or opposite idea (the “antithesis”), and the result of this conflict of ideas is that one of the ideas would win out but be altered in the process, producing a new idea (the “synthesis”), which in being dominant would be the new thesis, continuing the cycle. Marx took this Hegelian dialectic formula and famously applied it to social classes, seeing one dominant class as the thesis, a rival class as the antithesis, and the result of their inevitable conflict would be a new synthesis and new social order, which would inevitably be challenged by a new class. Thus society progressed from slavery to feudalism to capitalism to communism.
What does this have to do with Accelerationism? Well, the first real example of Accelerationism is tied to Marxist thought. Communism, according to Marx, could only come about once the philosophical infrastructure of Capitalism was in place, for only the underclass of capitalism, the proletariat, could overthrow the oppressive bourgeoisie and institute Communism. Marx was wedded to the inevitability of the entire endeavor:
“The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” – Marx and Engels, 1848[iv]
But to Marxists such as Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ideal socialist society they longed for was decades or centuries away: according to most observers at the time, Russia was not yet even capitalist – rather, with the ascendancy of the church, the czar, and the nobility, (Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality, went the triune slogan of Russian conservatism) Russia was still trapped, economically and socially, in a kind of feudalist proto-capitalism. Thus, in the years leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, would-be Communists were deeply conflicted over the question of Marxists stages of history. The communists wanted Communism now, but according to Marx they would first have to usher in an era of capitalism to create the necessary foundations for their long-awaited Communist system. As a result, many Russian socialists and communists in the early 20th century embraced the possibility that Russia might have to undergo a capitalist, liberal revolution before the infrastructure could be laid for a second, socialist revolution. In the 1920s, after the Russian Civil War had been put to rest, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union embraced the “New Economic Plan” which was (relative to the “war socialism” the Bolsheviks emplaced during the late teens) a market-based system of exports and investment that would aim to get the USSR’s productive capacity on par with the capitalism they sought to surpass. Mao Zedong would embrace the same kind of stepwise thinking at times, not between capitalism and communism, but rather socialism and communism, in the lead-up to the infamous “great leap forward”[v].Should the communists, therefore, support the rise of capitalism? An idea that arose to deal with this problem is an early formulation of accelerationism. If a society has to go through stages to reach a desired end-goal, then those who want the desired end-goal should do their best to speed up the natural processes.
Accelerationism is, then, in its fundamental form, a belief in some kind of set of stages that society needs to be walked through—and support for attempts to destabilize the current system or otherwise put in place the necessary conditions to see the change transpire organically
In the 1970s, Marxist political philosophers Hardt and Negri published an unexpectedly popular book, “Empire”, examining the way in which American Capitalism pervaded the world, but also looking (in a devil’s advocate manner) at ways in which Capitalism was setting in motion global progress toward what would come next. For example, they noted the ways in which corporations were astutely indexing and integrating all world resources and productive capacities into a networked global market. Socialists and communist grappled onto these ideas, contending, as Bolsheviks had done decades before, with the possibility that the best way to arrive at a global transition to socialism was actually to support the growth of these capitalist global structures:
“The huge transnational corporations construct the fundamental connective fabric of the biopolitical world in certain important respects. […] Some claim that these corporations have merely come to occupy the place that was held by the various national colonialist and imperialist systems in earlier phases of capitalist development, from nineteenth-century European imperialism to the Fordist phase of development in the twentieth century. This is in part true, but that place itself has been substantially transformed by the new reality of capitalism. The activities of corporations are no longer defined by the imposition of abstract command and the organization of simple theft and unequal exchange. Rather, they directly structure and articulate territories and populations. They tend to make nation-states merely instruments to record the flows of the commodities, monies, and populations that they set in motion. The transnational corporations directly distribute labor power over various markets, functionally allocate resources, and organize hierarchically the various sectors of world production. The complex apparatus that selects investments and directs financial and monetary maneuvers determines the new geography of the world market, or really the new biopolitical structuring of the world. The most complete figure of this world is presented from the monetary perspective. From here we can see a horizon of values and a machine of distribution, a mechanism of accumulation and a means of circulation, a power and a language.”– Hardt and Negri, Empire, pp 32-33.[vi]
In other words, corporations are not merely exploitative, extractive engines serving the interests of the bourgeoisie in the global north, but are rather organizing forces that mobilize resources (notably labor power) into a global connected system. Thus, Hardt and Negri argue, the modern corporation may be moving some people toward the proletarian organization that early Marxists sought to effect through cadres and labor unions. Echoing Hardt and Negri’s work, it is common these days in some corners of the internet to talk about “late-stage capitalism”, an overt assumption that society progresses in stages and that capitalism’s stage is on the way out, laying the foundation for a transition to socialism[vii]. These communists pay heed to the inevitability in Marx’s work, the teleological inexorability, which classes would find their way to conflict without need of the cadre-driven insurrection embraced by Bolsheviks and Maoists, who truly believed that they could “accelerate” the stages of history, rather than simply letting them unfold naturally.
Another form of accelerationism that had a short-lived but influential moment in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is that of a pseudo-apolitical techno-futurist accelerationism. In this conception of futurism, which held precedence just before the far-right swing in nominal futurism mentioned above, acceleration is viewed in a technological sense: society must invest in technological progress to speed us through this era of directionless sociopolitical uncertainty. In a 2017 conception,
This accelerationism has a conservative flair (at least in the American sense): government should get out of the way and allow technology leaders to chart the path to the utopian post-scarcity future. This is a vision of acceleration, and a known future state, strongly influenced by trends of Science Fiction. “In an era where left-of-center voices increasingly paint a dark vision of the future as fraught with ecological dangers, science fiction conservatives have a near monopoly on utopian dreams of a tomorrow of abundance and technological wonders.”[viii] A prominent proponent of this conservative techno-utopian ideal was former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a self-described pursuer of Star Trek-like visions of the future, who advocated a libertarian approach to scientific advancement: “If you take all the money we’ve spent at NASA since we landed on the moon and you had applied that money for incentives to the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles. And instead what we’ve had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy, and failure after failure”.[ix] This same techno-libertarian futurism was on full display as late as the 2016 Republican National convention, in which billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel declared that “today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain […] Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East […] When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again, he’s not suggesting a return to the past. He’s running to lead us back to that bright future.”[x]
It was as an outgrowth of this culture – conservative, sci-fi influenced techno-utopianism, that in the late 2010s observers characterized “accelerationism” in the following way:
“Accelerationists argue that technology, particularly computer technology, and capitalism, particularly the most aggressive, global variety, should be massively sped up and intensified – either because this is the best way forward for humanity, or because there is no alternative. Accelerationists favour automation. They favour the further merging of the digital and the human. They often favour the deregulation of business, and drastically scaled-back government. They believe that people should stop deluding themselves that economic and technological progress can be controlled. They often believe that social and political upheaval has a value in itself. Accelerationism, therefore, goes against conservatism, traditional socialism, social democracy, environmentalism, protectionism, populism, nationalism, localism and all the other ideologies that have sought to moderate or reverse the already hugely disruptive, seemingly runaway pace of change in the modern world.”[xi]
Today, however, “accelerationism” is nominally more of a right-wing ideology. How did it make this transition? Communists did not maintain a monopoly on the concept of accelerating society through stages. In the 1920s, the German Nationalist (and proto-Nazi) philosopher Carl Schmitt embraced accelerationist attitudes in his belief in the need for a strong authoritarian center for modern society. Given that “the sovereign power of the king has been dissolved, disembodied, and dispersed in the communication flows of civil society, and it has at the same time assumed the shape of procedures, be it for general elections or the numerous deliberations and decisions of various political bodies,” Schmitt believed that it would be necessary for people to develop a new kind of sacred reverence for a new source of authority and legitimacy. Schmitt believed that even supposedly liberal democracies were authoritarian at the core, and that when real and consequential decisions had to be made (e.g. to fight against terrorism or a global pandemic), the pretense of procedural democracy would always be shunted aside. More specifically, he conceptualized that even a liberal democracy would encounter moments—crises—in which “exceptions” had to be made, and as Schmitt put it, “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.”[xii] To that end, right-accelerationism attempts to bring about precisely that destabilization of society in order to reach the exception, with a kind of conservative authoritarianism able to check the undesirable aspects of liberal democracy. His answer was to call for a mythologizable and revered leader, very much like what Nazi ideology embraced regarding Hitler.
Ever since the chaos of the 1930s and resulting ascension of fascism, political observers have noted the relationship between a breakdown in the normal fabric of society and the resulting popular support for authoritarianism. For example, economic shocks such as market collapse are often associated with increased support for tougher, roughshod measures to get things back on track.[xiii]
This brings us to the typical modern instantiation of accelerationism: the white supremacist and far-right accelerationism embraced by, among others, the shooter who murdered 49 mosque-attendees in New Zealand in March 2019. The terrorist attack, committed in the explicit name of “accelerationism”, has set the standard for the popularity and use of the term (see: fig. 1)[xiv]. These accelerationists believe that western liberal democracies must embrace authoritarianism to rid themselves of weak and detracting elements – namely non-white people, feminists, and other components of what they consider to be “others” and part of the cultural left. Further, they feel that this sort of society will naturally come about when society is destabilized enough that the majority demands stronger security and policing. As such, they advocate chaos and anarchical behavior to shock and terrorize society in radical lockdowns and internal transformation.
The Fundamental Error
Accelerationist ideas across all political ideologies stem inexorably from a preconception about two things: first, a prescience about the future trajectory of the sociopolitical; second, a belief in the ability to bring about that future trajectory. From Leninists who believed that a campaign of Bolshevistic force could bring about the necessary transition to sustainable socialism to the New Zealand shooter who believed that his actions would contribute to a destabilization of society sufficient that a critical mass would call for a revocation of liberal and multicultural values, the fundamental assumption of accelerationists is an ability to tell the future. Accelerationists of all political stripes believe that the future is inherently more in line with their political goals and preconceptions, and that certain institutions of the status quo must be overcome or changed in order to arrive at that utopian end.
Indeed, many observers, even those of us who do not believe ourselves to be “accelerationists” of any stripe are guilty of some form of this. A common instantiation of this error is that of the so-called “Whiggish” view of history, that is, that “the arc of history is long and it bends toward justice”. Though this may have been the general trajectory for the past few hundred years, to extrapolate this out a few centuries hence and to assume that society can go in no direction other than the maximization of justice is somewhat presumptive. Believing that the future is inherently on one’s side, and that all one must do to bring about one’s ideal future is clear away certain blockers in the present (e.g. removing certain injustices to accelerate the arrival of an inexorably just future) is certainly a form of accelerationist mindset, albeit a relatively dilute one.
But such an assumption is not unique to those who view inexorable progress only in sociocultural terms – indeed, those who view progress in technological terms are equally fallible, for as desirable as the post-scarcity utopias of Star Trek and related visions of the future may be, they hinge as much on a fixed interpretation of the arc of human progress: indeed technological progress could allow humanity to escape the Malthusian trap and create a prosperous world free of competition, but it could just as likely lead to a world of Orwellian or Huxleyan social control.[xv]
To that end, the way to avoid making the errors and assumptions of accelerationism is as follows: one must forget one’s idea of what the future will be like. Working towards a particular end will not necessarily bring it about, and may, through the invocation of opposition, bring about a countervailing reaction that undoes the entirety of one’s progress. The vicissitudes of history are fierce and many, and few institutions have the capacity to see through plans and goals through more than a few decades before “today’s problems [become] the result of yesterday’s solutions”.
[i] Day, Abby. “Sacred Time”. The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology, 1-8. 2018. doi:10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea1919
[ii] Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. 2012. Ebook version, Section 4, Chapter III, Paragraph 5.
[iii] Hegel, Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Spirit. 1807.
[iv] Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. “Manifesto of the Communist Party”. 1848
[v] Meisner, Maurice. “Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic”. Simon and Schuster, 1999.
[vi] Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2001.
[viii] Kill Screen Staff. “How Much of a Sci-fi buff is Newt Gingrich, and what does science fiction tell us about the GOP?”. Kill Screen, February 29, 2012. https://killscreen.com/previously/articles/how-much-of-a-sci-fi-buff-is-newt-gingrich-and-what-does/. Retrieved June 2020.
[ix] Malik, Tariq. “Newt Gingrich on Space Exploration: ‘NASA Is Standing in the Way’”. Space.com, June 14, 2011. https://www.space.com/11959-gop-presidential-debate-nasa-future-republicans.html. Accessed June 2020.
[x] Thiel, Peter, as reported by Will Drabold. “Read Peter Thiel’s Speech at the Republican National Convention”. Time, July 21, 2016. https://time.com/4417679/republican-convention-peter-thiel-transcript/
[xi] Beckett, Andy. Accelerationism: how a fringe philosophy predicted the future we live in”. The Guardian, May 11 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/11/accelerationism-how-a-fringe-philosophy-predicted-the-future-we-live-in
[xii] Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. George D. Schwab, trans. (MIT Press, 1985 / University of Chicago Press; University of Chicago edition, 2004 with an Introduction by Tracy B. Strong. Original publication: 1922, 2nd edn. 1934.
[xiii] Haggard, Stephan and Robert Kaufman
[xiv] Figure 1: Source: Google Trends. https://trends.google.com/trends/explore?date=2010-07-31%202020-07-31&q=accelerationism. Retrieved July 31, 2020. DOI: 10.6084/m9.figshare.12745526
[xv] A particularly insightful comparison can be drawn from McMillen Stuart, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, Recombinantrecords.com, May 2009. However, McMillen deleted his claim to this comic given claims by copyright holders of Postman, Neil. “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. Viking Penguin, Methuen, UK, 1985.