What is Promethean Politics?

by Dennis Graemer

01: The Manifesto

Left-wing politics in the 1990s and early 2000s were marked by profound defeatism. Not only the social democratic parties but also the radical left had accepted the end of history which had been proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. It was secretly clear to everyone that a realisation of socialism was not to be expected. After Reagan, Thatcher, Stalinism and the fall of the Berlin Wall, revolution and the abolition of capitalism were no longer goals to be worked towards in the first place; instead, these buzzwords served only to calm one’s conscience in the face of political impotence. On the theoretical level, at least, leftists could distance themselves from the ubiquitous misery by committing themselves to the “another world”. In this way, one can repress the fact that one is part of the machinery whose sole goal is the reproduction of capital. The theoretical and psychological bankruptcy of the left has been revealed by the obvious contradiction between the lofty claims of such a critical theory and the limited scope and low ambitions of its practice. The retreat into local small gardening projects, postmodern identity politics, sectarian Marx reading circles and neoliberal, “social-democratic” reform parties are all expressions of this fundamental bankruptcy of the left.

But with the economic crisis of 2007/2008, capitalism is no longer sacrosanct. Social contradictions are intensifying in Western industrial nations, and dissatisfaction is growing. How must the left deal with the challenges of the future? How can it succeed in breaking out of a hopeless defensive and seize the initiative? How must it respond to the complexity of a modern, globalised world? What does a strategy look like that not only aims at preserving temporary freedom and demanding marginal improvements in the status quo but instead actively works towards the abolition of capitalism? In short, how can the left stop losing and start making its utopias a reality?
With the publication of the #Accelerate Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics in 2013, political scientist Alex Williams and philosopher Nick Srnicek attempted to answer these questions. The work calls into question fundamental doctrines of the current radical left of Western industrial nations and proposes a future-oriented poliotics that feels “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology”. The appearance of the manifesto has triggered a lively debate. There was neither a lack of critical voices – such as McKenzie Warks, whose best-known works are A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory – nor a lack of eulogies, such as from the prominent political theorist Antonio Negri. The accelerationism of Srnicek and Williams was also intensively discussed on the Internet. What is most striking, however, is that there are always avoidable misunderstandings. This is mainly because the term accelerationism, which Benjamin Noys coined in his work Malign Velocities to describe the ideas of Nick Land, was used by Srnicek and Williams as a label for their own outlook. Although Lands’ influence on the manifesto for an accelerationist politics cannot be denied, the work goes in a totally different direction than the thinking of the eccentric guru who made a name for himself in the 90s with his provocative actions and texts.

Thus the catchword accelerationism is often understood denote a praxis which attempts to accelerate the development of capitalism as far as possible, thereby amplifying impoverishment and strife. According to this reading, accelerationism wants to drive the capitalist dynamic so far that it succumbs to its own contradictions. The problem with this interpretation is simply that de facto no one holds such a position. Nick Land, on the one hand, does not want capitalism to collapse for the sake of humans, on the contrary, he wants to safe it from humanity. Since he regards technical progress and capitalism as an inseparable unity, technology can only take off if it discards its human scaffold. Srnicek and Williams, on the other hand, criticize Lands’ equation of capitalism and modernity. They recognize that capitalism is no longer a motor of progress, but rather a hindrance to the full development of our technical potential. The project of modernity should not be completed inside of capitalism, but only against it. For Srnicek and Williams, a politics associated with the project of modernity is necessary to replace neoliberal capitalism with a emancipatory and just post-capitalist system. This project is directly opposed to neoliberalism and capitalism.

It is necessary to evaluate the Promethean program of Srnicek and Williams independently of Lands’ work, which are heavily influenced by the works of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, especially Anti-Oedipus. In the following, we will consider three core aspects of left-wing accelerationism and Prometheanism: the demand for an affirmation of social complexity and technology, the idea of epistemic acceleration, and finally the demand for a strategic reorientation of the radical left.

 

02: Modernity and Complexity

Large sections of the radical left identify the complex nature of the industrialized and globalized technosociety with capitalism itself. Modernity and capitalism, industrial progress and surplus value, technology and profit are seen to be inextricably linked. In all existing social institutions and technical apparatuses are suspected of carrying the essence of the capitalist system within them. Exploitation and oppression are already inscribed in them. Therefore, they cannot be used to build a new, better world. This equation of all existing progress with capitalism in many cases takes on delusional proportions. For Alexander Galloway, mathematics itself is capitalist – a view already held by Joseph Stalin – and the infamous Invisible Committee writes in its much-discussed manifesto The Coming Uprising:

Power is no longer concentrated at one point in the world; it is this world itself, its rivers and streets, its people and norms, its codes and technologies. Power is the organization of the metropolis itself. It is the immaculate totality of the commodity world in all its points.

Alex Williams uses the phrase “everything is capitalism” in order to describe such an absurd world-view. It could only arise at all under the conditions of hermetic isolation which has been typical for the radical left in the latter half of the 20th century, caused by a climate of social irrelevance and intellectual irresponsibility. Those who believe that everything is capitalism consequently demand the total liquidation of modernity. Meltdown as a wet dream of rebels in late puberty. The insurrectionist, primitivist thinking of those anti-modernist street fighters wanting to elevate The Coming Uprising to the new program of the radical left can harly be distingushed from Theodore Kaczynski’s idea of a terrorist crusade to abolish industrial civilization, which served as inspiration for Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club.

If humanity were to forego – even partially – the use of modern technology and complex social interdependence, it would necessarily result in the death of billions. For it is only the productivity of a complex technosociety that gives us the means to feed the world’s current population. The people of Guangzhou, Los Angeles and Berlin cannot survive through small gardening. The demand for the renunciation of modern machinery and infrastructure is the demand for an omnicide unseen in human history so far.

It is also a fact that modern technology and civilization have created extensive possibilities for individual and collective liberation. Industry and globalization allow a massive reduction of work and effort in favour of leisure time and political participation. Modern medicine saves countless lives every day and could save even more if a socialist world system made them available to all. Whoever denounces this life-saving and life-enriching emancipation from the tyranny of nature, this source of abundance, has broken with all leftist ideals in favour of necrophiliac barbarism.

It is not the modern technologies themselves that produce poverty and misery, but their present use under capitalist conditions. Marx and Engels did not demand the destruction of the factories and the return to pre-modern misery, but the socialization of the existing means of production. The hostility to science and technology of part of the current left stands in direct contrast to the Marxist view of technology and automation. Rosa Luxemburg, for example, who normally advocates any industrial action to improve the situation of the working class, makes an exception where strikes against the technical development of the productive forces are concerned. Thou shall not strike against the introduction of new machines:

In so far as the union can interfere in the technical side of production, it appears that it can only act in the latter sense, i.e. in the sense of the directly interested individual group of workers, i.e. oppose innovation. In this case, however, it does not act in the interest of the working class as a whole and its emancipation, which rather coincides with technical progress, i.e. with the interest of the individual capitalist, but rather in the opposite direction, in the interests of reaction.

03: Epistemic Acceleration

As a result of the fatal experiences of the Age of Catastrope – Eric Hobsbawm uses this term to denote the era which started with the beginning of the First World War in the year 1914 – the ideas of the enlightenment and modernity, i.e. rationality, abstraction and universalism, have been widely discredited. The optimistic claims of liberalism and socialism, the promise of universal happiness, of a golden era, had not been fulfilled; instead, economic crises and devastating wars plagued humanity. The progress of technology did not realize a utopia of abundance; instead, it found its expression in the corpse-littered moonscape that was Verdun. The idea of universal human rights did not prevent that proletarians, women, and non-white people were excluded from social participation. To some extent, the universalist notion of an industrialized, transcultural, global civilization was even misused to legitimize brutal colonial oppression and exploitation.

Objective reason, universal human rights and scientific knowledge were used in the 18th and 19th centuries as weapons against outdated traditions and irrational rule. But from now on, leftists started to accuse them of complicity with that very rule. In a moderate form, we can observe this line of thought in Max Horkheimer, who in his essay Traditional and Critical Theory attacks “instrumental reason”, which supposedly permeates “bourgeois science”. Far more radical is Jean-Francois Lyotard’s attack on the “great narratives” of modernity. In contrast to the Critical Theory of Horkheimer and Adorno, which, despite its criticism of the “positivist” sciences, affirms the legacy of the Enlightenment, Lyotard completely rejects its universalism of reason. The diffusion of this style of thinking into the radical left cannot be denied – since the second half of the 20th century, broad activist circles have cultivated a hostile relationship to technological society, complexity and empirical science.

The philosophical basis of Promethean politics, on the other hand, consists in the realisation that the program of classical modernism, while it cannot and shall not be revived in its old form, must be fundamentally affirmed rather than thrown overboard by emancipatory politics.

The rejection of the idea of rationally justified knowledge is a rejection of the possibility of social transformation in general. Epistemology dictates politics. Every human action is based on the assumption of discoverable regularities in the world. Even those who get up thirsty to fetch a glass of water act on the basis of theoretical knowledge in a broader sense – only the belief that the glass of water quenches thirst motivates the execution of the action. Practice is always a means to an end and therefore presupposes knowledge of the relationship between end and means. This also applies to political activists. It is doubly dependent on our understanding of reality:

Firstly, anyone who identifies a political problem must first determine what the causes of this problem are – otherwise, the cure cannot be determined. If Marx, for example, locates the cause of poverty in the logic of capitalism itself, in the split between exchange value and utility value, then this diagnosis has to be regarded as a scientific analysis. Such an analysis obviously claims to be factually correct and scientifically justified. To be a Marxist is to think that the Marxist critique of capitalism is rational. Therefore, the possibility of meaningful political practice is directly linked to the possibility of rational knowledge.

Secondly, every activist must also identify the correct way to achieve their goals. Strategies and tactics are acts, and as such depend on the discovery of relations between ends and means. An activist who distributes leaflets, organises a strike or gathers people for a protest does so because she believes that these forms of action are effective. Now, it is possible to err on the question what effective forms of practice are. Anarchists, Stalinists, social democrats, and revolutionaries cannot all be equally right. It is, therefore, of immediate practical relevance for the left to take seriously the question whether the theoretical foundations of various strategic concepts are true or not. This question cannot be answered by the reference to a priori valid principles or moral ideas, but only through the relentless study of empirical reality. It is a matter, to quote Alex Williams, of “using theoretical reflection and empirical analysis to describe specific adequate methods and means by which new and other futures can be designed using the political, social, economic and technical resources at our disposal”, that is, “thinking through a kind of political epistemology that could support a long-term political project”. By thus determining the relationship between politics, epistemology and science, left-wing accelerationism or Prometheanism takes into account the abductive-prognostic, speculative nature of any political action. The purpose of strategy is to determine how abstract ideal situated in the future can be realised through conscious interventions in the present. A strategic concept must therefore be examined and refined with the same conscientiousness as a rocket for a flight to Mars.

Of course, there can be no absolute certainty in empirical research. Any theory that makes predictions about the future – as we know from David Hume at the latest – can turn out to be wrong. But those who believe that there is nothing in between certainty and arbitrary guessing provide us with a false dilemma.

Prometheanism accepts the fact, repeatedly put forward by postmodernism and already acknowledged by “positivists” such as Rudolf Carnap, that no theory can fully grasp reality. However, it also notes that theoretical models, despite being always provisional and incomplete, are both indispensable and highly efficient as “navigational maps” for practical action. Alex Williams on this:

But to reduce politics to the mere task of trial and error would mean to ignore the theoretical and empirical resources available to us – resources that, even if they do not exhaust the richness of social or political realities, can serve to create cognitive maps or reference systems that facilitate navigation in this complexity.

The possibility of producing such a map is often questioned with reference to the emergent complexity of social structures, especially under the conditions of global capitalism. Accoding to this view, (contemporary) society is so complex that any attempt to grasp it even in theory is doomed to failure. Not only primitivists and drop-outs such as the dreaded “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski, whose declared goal was the abolition of industrial society, but also neoliberal ideologues such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek argue in this way. If we cannot understand economics and society anyway, we cannot consciously plan them.

On the other hand, Prometheanism wants to confront the admittedly not easy task of “mapping the existing system”. The Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics says:

[W]hilst we cannot predict the precise result of our actions, we can determine probabilistically likely ranges of outcomes. What must be coupled to such complex systems analysis is a new form of action: improvisatory and capable of executing a design through a practice which works with the contingencies it discovers only in the course of its acting, in a politics of geosocial artistry and cunning rationality. A form of abductive experimentation that seeks the best means to act in a complex world.

Even a doctor cannot be sure that the surgery, which is always based only on a rough abstraction of the complex system that is the human body, will be successful. Nevertheless, we expect her to attempt it. Epistemic acceleration is nothing more than an attempt to overcome the complexity of the object “society” by accelerating thought, i.e. by using all available means, such as the formation of efficient research communities and the use of computer programs.

We can theoretically grasp the functioning of the existing capitalist system. We can develop a comprehensive strategy for overcoming it based on this analysis and various auxiliary theories, such as sociology, psychology and the theory of revolution. The left must stop its ineffectual small-scale politics, its moralistic critique and its idealism and instead tackle the goal of overcoming capitalism as a practical, empirical project. Three things are necessary to make this happen:

Firstly: We need to utilise existing scientific findings, for example in social psychology, computer science or cybernetics, usable for the transformative project of the left. Promethean politics operates at the cutting edge, or it cannot win.

Secondly, leftists must begin to test their analyses instead of speculating beyond any empirical basis. We must conduct empirical research in the fields of economics, sociology and psychology, at the very risk of our hypotheses being refuted. We must no longer demonise empirical social research as a “positivist science”, but rather ensure maximum influence on universities and initiate methodologically clean studies on topics of interest to the global, transformative project of the radical left. Theoretical models are weapons in the struggle for a better world, and they only work if they are correct.

Thirdly, epistemic acceleration as a “politics of anticipation” implies a rediscovery of the future. Karl Marx in particular, who must be regarded as a science fiction economist, is a role model in this respect: already before 1850, and thus before the beginning of the first massive wave of industrialisation in continental Europe, he predicted the developments of the coming age. Marx anticipated the growth of the proletariat into a significant and potentially revolutionary class when it was little more than a growing minority in a sea of farmers and craftsmen. On the basis of his theory, he was able to predict economic crises that did not occur until decades later, 1873 and 1929 respectively. Steam engines and railways, technologies that were only just beginning their march of triumph, were at the center of Marx’ theoretical analysis. He predicted the future and he was right. Anyone who proceeds with the same method today, i.e. who examines existing technological trends with regard to their future economic and social implications, cannot avoid conscientiously working on the topics of digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence. It is precisely here that the existing left has missed opportunities in recent decades, and it is precisely here that a Promethean left must set its priorities.

04: The Primacy of Strategy

During the period between 1905 and 1921, no one, right or left, would think of dismissing the socialist revolution, the much-conjured spectre of communism, as a mere phantasy. The Russian revolutions of 1904/1905 and 1917 and the German revolution of 1918/1919 impressively demonstrated that the elevation of the urban proletariat was a real possibility. During this turbulent epoch, theoreticians such as Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky, Peter Kropotkin, Eduard Bernstein, Lenin, and Trotsky conducted intense and extremely fruitful strategic debates. Revolution versus reform, the question of the relationship between the party and the masses, the evaluation of the majority principle and also the question of violence were precisely analysed and sharply discussed.

In the second half of the 20th century, on the other hand, little attention was paid to strategic and revolution-theoretical issues – except for Maoist ideas which stipulated that the guerilla was the primary weapon of revolution. Such concepts, cribbed from Latin American, African and Southeast Asian liberation movements, were of course completely unsuitable for building a left-wing mass movement in the urbanised, industrialised nations. In principle, we can state that the left of western, industrialised countries has simply ignored strategic issues since the end of the Second World War. This fact can be materialistically explained by reference to the admittedly poor prospects for revolutionary change under the conditions of Fordism and Keynesianism. But this does not change the fatal nature of the theoretical and practical failures of the time. The Mont Pèlerin Society, to which Srnicek and Williams also draw attention in their Manifesto, shows us that a political struggle can be successful even under adverse circumstances with the help of far-sighted strategic thinking. Founded in 1947 by Friedrich von Hayek, the neo-liberal organisation pursued its political goals systematically and gradually, in contrast to the radical left. Just like the socialists, the neoliberals could hardly implement their program as long as the Keynesian model worked. But instead of losing courage or falling into meaningless actionism in the face of poor medium-term prospects, Hayek and his people drew the right conclusions. They anticipated the demise of Fordism, and for 25 years, they did the institutional and intellectual groundwork. They prepared for the right moment. And this moment came with the oil crisis of 1973, when they entered the vacuum and finally pushed for their ideas to be implemented. If the Left wants to win the battle for the future of our planet, it must take a lesson from Hayek and his friends.

A strategic practice has not yet emerged because the left has been completely demoralised by historical defeats such as the successful neoliberal revolution by Thatcher, Reagan and Schröder and the fall of the Soviet Union. Those who, in the face of oppressive feelings of powerlessness, has dropped any hope of victory, prefer to deal with moralist questions of purity – who is up to date with queer theory, who is most consistently loyal to Palestine, who most radically rejects capitalist modernity – rather than with unpleasant questions about the effectiveness of their own political practice. The result: inefficiency, defeat, irrelevance.

Given the growing political instability in Europe and the USA as well as the miserable situation of the current radical left, the old Leninist question “What is to be done?” arises with new force. The answer can only be the revival of strategy. As we have already seen in the chapter on epistemic acceleration, Prometheanism wants to pursue this field of research as an empirical science, the purpose of which is the discovery ofpurpose-means-relationships, which can be utilised by emancipatory forces as tools of social transformation. The instrumental reason so vehemently criticised by Max Horkheimer is a weapon against capital:

We do not believe that direct action is sufficient to achieve any of this. The habitual tactics of marching, holding signs, and establishing temporary autonomous zones risk becoming comforting substitutes for effective success. “At least we have done something” is the rallying cry of those who privilege self-esteem rather than effective action. The only criterion of a good tactic is whether it enables significant success or not. We must be done with fetishising particular modes of action. Politics must be treated as a set of dynamic systems, riven with conflict, adaptations and counter-adaptations, and strategic arms races.

The thrust of the Promethean programme becomes unmistakably clear here: it is not about the purely symbolic gesture of radical demarcation, but about effective action. It is not, as with the Critical Critics in the tradition of Wertkritik and the Frankfurt School, a question of showing off how radically one’s critique of capitalism is, but of triumphing over these conditions. The approach pursued by Srnicek and Williams would be really trivial for anyone not as demoralised as the current left. Anyone who explained to a Russian general or an American CEO that the only criterion of a good strategy is whether it leads to success or not, would probably be laughed at for reciting a well-known truism. The fact that we must teach the most basic tools of political struggle to left-wing activists is a sad expression of the results of learned helplessness. With regard to strategic questions, left-wing accelerationism is nothing but the demand for the reappropriation of the strategic, victory-oriented outlook of orthodox Marxism.

Srnicek and Williams make three demands in the Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics. First, they urge the establishment of an intellectual infrastructure whose goal is to develop and disseminate theoretical knowledge, a Mont Pelerin from the left. Secondly, we must concentrate on creating and influencing media outlets. Finally, it is necessary to build class power, that is, to intervene successfully into social struggles. In this way, the power and the level of activity of the proletariat can be gradually expanded. It is crucial that all these activities are carried out in a coordinated manner, because otherwise there could be primacy of strategy over tactics:

Different groups and individuals are already working on all these points, but each remains inadequate on its own. What is needed is feedback between the three points, in which each influences the current linkage in such a way that the others become more and more effective.

Such coordination is only possible if the fetishisation of openness, horizontality and inclusion so widespread in the radical left can be overcome and replaced by an effective combination of democratic and vertical structures. Successful interventions in social struggles, which have to be selected systematically on the basis of strategic considerations, presuppose coordination and commitment and thus the existence of a centralised transformative executive. While fundamental questions must be decided after extensive discussion by direct democratic majority decisions, operational leadership must fall within the responsibility of a vertically organised apparatus. The base of any transformative party or organisation must, of course, always be able to dismiss thos who lead such an apparatus. Because only a well-organised and professional transformative organisation is capable of implementing the strategic program of Prometheanism, its conscientious construction is the first goal of a left-accelerationist policy of anticipation.

No one has defined the role of such an organisation better than Rosa Luxemburg. In The Mass Strike she states that the social struggles are always initiated and fought by the grassroots movement. No cadre organisation could ever conjure up a strike by hospital workers or a campaign for social housing from scratch – only if people themselves become active can the transformative organisation intervene in a supportive way. Its task is to provide practical support, theoretical insight and tactical-strategic leadership to the fighters:

Social democracy is the most enlightened, class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat. It cannot and must not wait fatalistically with folded arms for the revolutionary situation to enter, wait for that spontaneous popular movement to fall from the sky. On the contrary, it must, as always, anticipate the development of things, try to speed them up. But it cannot do this by suddenly issuing the slogan for a mass strike at the right time and at the wrong time, but above all by making clear to the broadest proletarian strata the inevitable entry into this revolutionary period, the inner social moments that lead to it and the political consequences. If the broadest proletarian strata are to be won over to a mass political action of social democracy, and if, conversely, social democracy is to seize and retain the real leadership of a mass movement and master the whole movement in the political sense, then it must know with full clarity, consistency and determination the tactics to set the goals for the German proletariat in the period of the coming struggles.

With the help of successive, successful interventions in trade union, feminist and democratic struggles, a Promethean organisation can gradually shift the balance of power between the ruling class and the population in favour of the latter and thus establish political power. The question of how democratic co-determination and practical efficiency can be combined must be discussed again and again – the dual threats of authoritarian bureaucracy and paralysing inefficiency always loom over the left.

06: Closing Words

Prometheanism is not a ready-made recipe, but rather an open programme. It consists of working, with the help of scientific theories and strategic guidelines, towards the establishment of a socialist society at the level of technological development and social complexity of our time. This is where the real work begins.

At the intellectual level, this work consists of the theoretical elaboration and empirical verification of analysis and program. We need to design concrete utopias and transformative concepts and thereby challenge the capitalist realism of our time. The left can only go on the offensive if it has a concrete and formulated program.

For this program to be disseminated, it is necessary to build a powerful transformative organization. Such an organization must on the one hand be able to spread emancipatory theory in an appealing and understandable multimedia form, and on the other possess the organizational and logistical capacities necessary to effectively support strikes, social movements and other progressive forces.

Literature

  1. AVANESSIAN, Armen: #Akzeleration. Merve Verlag. Berlin 2013.

  2. AVANESSIAN, Armen, MACKAY, Robin: #Akzeleration #2. Merve Verlag. Berlin 2014.

  3. LAND, Nick: Fanged Noumena. Collected Writings 1987-2007. Urbanomic. Windsor Quarry 2017.

  4. LUXEMBURG, Rosa: Massenstreik, Partei und Gewerkschaften. Link.

  5. LUXEMBURG, Rosa: Sozialreform oder Revolution?Link.

  6. NEGRI, Antonio: Reflections on the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. Link.

  7. UNSICHTBARES KOMITEE: Der kommende Aufstand. Link.

  8. WILLIAMS, Alex, SRNICEK, Nick: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics. Link.

Further Reading

A Cult of Austerity

In the face of climate change, many want us to change our habits as consumers. Such an depoliticised approach is not only useless, it is also defeatist and neoliberal....

What is Folk-Politics?

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams criticise the politics of immediacy that is widespread among the left. If we can not get rid of it, we are destined to fail....