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reason, universal human rights and scientific knowledge were used in the 18th and 19th centuries as weapons against outdated traditions and irrational rule.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.