Last November, Zach Beauchamp of Vox purported to find the idea underlying worldwide white nationalist violence: accelerationism. Similar reports have been issued by both the Anti Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. The term, one as much associated with Internet cyberpunk jargon as actual philosophy, was not only being picked up by popular outlets and mainstream institutions but also was being accused of fueling heinous crimes. How did an obscure theory on the margins of contemporary philosophy become a global ideology of terror? It didn’t.
Accelerationism is the claim that history has a direction and by embracing some set of practices to feed the drivers of history it can be accelerated. It is most closely associated with philosopher Nick Land. Famously elusive, Land worked in academic philosophy at the University of Warwick through the 1990s, focusing mostly on continental philosophy. For those unfamiliar, Land has always been a unique character, to say the least. By rumor, he trembled with stimulants as he delivered epic soliloquies on his idiosyncratic interpretation of the history of philosophy chain-smoking as he went. Land is said to have had a strong traditional philosophical background, but chose instead to work in deeply unconventional material—interested in The Matrix and William Gibson alongside Immanuel Kant and Martin Heidegger.
Under the influence of thinkers like Gilles Deleuze, Land became interested in cybernetics and “hyper” realities. Late in the 1990s, he, along with Sadie Plant, founded the Cybernetic Culture Research Unit (CCRU), a legendary, unofficial research group at the University of Warwick active from 1997 to 2003, Land’s work while affiliated with CCRU is notoriously difficult: a strange combination of speculative fiction, post-structuralism, occultism, and rave culture. Indeed, some have even read this period of work as a literal mental breakdown, culminating with his departure from the academy under accusations of dealing drugs to students. It is during the CCRU that accelerationism entered into the lexicon. It is hard to say how and where exactly the group conceptualized it, as their work can be largely indecipherable.
Land’s work, though it had something of a left-wing flavor through most of his time with the CCRU, took a markedly right-wing turn at some point in the 2000s. He became closely associated with neo-reactionary thinkers like Curtis Yarvin and published pieces like “The Dark Enlightenment.” Land is now thought to reside in Shanghai.
Land’s recent output aside, what is important to understand is that his recent neoreactionary work has led to major confusion, as some have read his strange biography into accelerationist theory itself. That is to say, they take his coinage of “accelerationism” and his later rightward pivot to mean that acceleration is primarily a right-wing enterprise. Some have even assumed his CCRU work was far-right, although a cursory review of it reveals it to be mostly strange beyond political dimension aside from its relentlessly revolutionary attitude.
Despite Land being most closely associated with the idea, its roots are obviously much older. Indeed, the foremost anticipatory example is Hegel, who first posited that history moved towards its ultimate destination of human freedom. This theory, that history can be understood as having a direction, can be called historicism.
From historicism, it is easy enough to reason that one should attempt to accelerate historical progress depending on the desirability of history’s supposed end point. Acceleration can be thought of as the praxis to historicism’s theory. It is the process of accelerating history.
In the past, the attempt to accelerate history is most apparent in Marx’s calls for revolution. Marx began with a Hegelian conception of history, believing that the progression of history would require moving through and beyond capitalism. Marx, like Hegel, had a strong descriptive understanding of the trajectory of history, but he added a certain element of human action.
This shares similarities with reactionary accounts of history, although these describe history as moving in an innately undesirable direction. It is the job of he who understands this to attempt to “turn back the clock” or, at least, mourn what has been lost. A different descriptive understanding of history leads to a different prescription.
Beyond Hegel and Marx, #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader includes pieces by Samuel Butler, Nikolai Fedorov, and Thorstein Veblen as other anticipatory examples. Deleuze is also a recurring example of an accelerationist before the term was coined. In Anti-Oedipus, Deleuze illustrates his approach when quoting Nietzsche, “Accelerate this process.”
Land, if he is to be given philosophical credit in the development of accelerationist thought, should be most credited for coining a sticky term to make the idea more readily available. He certainly didn’t make the idea easier to understand; even his “quick and dirty” introduction to it features his hallmark inordinate amounts of jargon.
While some, like Vox’s Beauchamp, have wrongly read right-wing thought as characteristic of current accelerationist thought, what has often been forgotten is the degree to which accelerationism has been useful to left-wing thinkers. Indeed, the German tradition from which it arises is broadly left wing, as were its twentieth-century French adopters. More recently, #Accelerate Manifesto: For Accelerationist Politics was published by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in 2017. The two have been on the vanguard of left-wing thought, and accelerationism has been an analytically essential concept in their work. To them, “It is Marx, along with Land, who remains the paradigmatic accelerationist thinker” and it is capitalism most closely associated with the ideas of acceleration. Land may have revived the discussion or provided its terminology, but it is Marx who truly understands and explains capitalism’s ability to strip away traditions and accelerate technological progress and wealth creation. Marx identified capitalism as this moment’s prevailing system, the thing to be surpassed.
Williams and Srnicek expand on what they see as the inevitable in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. The book is a manifesto for universal basic income (UBI). The pair believe that capitalism-fueled technological progress will lead to a world without scarcity where UBI is inevitable. This is, in some sense, an updated version of Marx’s understanding of history which considers capitalism’s technological and material developments that have occured since Marx wrote.
But left-accelerationism perhaps had its greatest recent moment when Bernie Sanders dropped out of the primaries. On Twitter, especially in circles associated with the “dirtbag left,” frustrated Sanders supporters proclaimed “Bernie or Bust,” directly citing an accelerationist motivation for allowing Trump to win in order to bring about a socialist future.
These left-accelerationist narratives, which view capitalism as the prevailing global force beyond which history must accelerate, are prima facie much more plausible than the supposed white nationalist ones. By their own account, the white nationalist narrative holds that the world is becoming more multicultural, globalist, and diverse. How could accelerating be the solution? In a world dominated by consumer cultures, a more clear interpretation would be the hyper-consumption of Disney products. Perhaps the “hype beast,” who relentlessly consumes and displays brand name products, is accelerationism’s greatest practitioner.
Do Bernie or Bust supporters have a theory of history? They seem to have a vague plan: Trump is elected a second term, he governs poorly, the democrats realize they need to lean further left. Yet this is a series of highly contingent events, not a series of historical inevitabilites. In fact, it is not even apparent that they see the series of events is inevitable, rather than a potentially fruitful strategic approach.
If Sanders’s supporters do not actually vote in the general election, their actions will, more likely than not, be to the detriment of their own long-term political goals. There is a chance that a second term of President Trump will provoke a leftward shift of the Democratic base, but it is only a chance. A leftward shift may have happened anyways, or it may not happen at all.
Herein lies the same pitfall to which Beauchamp falls victim. He is simultaneously insufficiently charitable to the depth and range of accelerationist thought and overly charitable to attention-desperate Internet white nationalists. White nationalist violence is evil, but it is the fleeting cry of a reprehensible and failed ideology. The piece gives ordinary terrorism an academic and philosophical veneer. It plays to white nationalists’ self-image, ceding them intellectual merit they do not deserve.
Beachamp’s white nationalists, like the Bernie or Bust left-accelerationists, seem, at best, to reach towards accelerationism as a way to give higher meaning to actions they already saw as good and correct. They seek a term to put their actions in the context of a historic struggle, rather than recognizing them for the feeble strategies they are.
When one reads Beauchamp’s account, not to mention the ones by the ADL and SPLC, it is clear they are completely confused. This is mostly because the accounts, like so many claiming to “investigate right wing extremism,” are more interested in fear mongering and finding boogeymen than understanding the intellectual underpinnings of their subjects. Accelerationism has become a convenient target. Provided the opportunity to explain radical ideology and elucidate philosophical concepts, these outlets choose to do neither.
There is a trivial sense in which anyone can throw fuel on the cultural fires and excesses of their time. In a similarly trivial sense, we may call this “accelerationism.” But is it really so, without a strong conception of where history will actually lead? These actions are better understood as the actions of flailing nihilists, the politically powerless consoling themselves through vague hopes that history will be their savior.
That is not to say it’s impossible to be a genuine accelerationist. Williams and Srinick are. They have a theory about how history works and how human action can drive it. Yet, as they write, “we must remember that Marx himself used the most advanced theoretical tools and empirical data available in an attempt to fully understand and transform his world.” For them, a serious attempt must be made to understand history using the tools available to them, as they see Marx as having done. There are certainly elements in the Williams and Srinick account, especially in the more detailed Inventing the Future, that involve hand waving. But their picture is still largely a detailed one, with a political economic model of why things in the future will happen. This is distinct from vague predictions about future election cycles.
To the extent white nationalists have ever been compelled by accelerationist ideas, they are fundamentally confused about the nature of the world, their own ideology, and the meaning of acceleration. When someone acts on an implausible interpretation of a set of ideas, we tend to say that they are acting under a perverse interpretation or not acting within the tradition at all. When Vox attempted a similar piece on the connection between alt-right ideologies and Nietzche—where there is a more plausible connection—Sean Illing wrote that they were “drunk on bad readings.” Perhaps Illing should have been more evenhanded in his analysis, but the basic instinct is correct: We should not simply hand over an important set of ideas to a heinous group of people when they aren’t even employing them correctly.
Acceleration can’t be intellectually serious if historicism isn’t actually true. The greatest problem with accelerationism is that history does not truly have a direction. One way to think about this is that prediction is incredibly difficult. As Philip Tetlock and others have demonstrated, everyone, especially experts, are terrible at predicting the future. History is littered with failed predictions and massive events that virtually no one saw coming.
The world in which we exist does not look like a world where historicism is true: We would have seen people with a track record of making accurate predictions about the future based on historicist models. It’s possible that there exists a correct historicism that has yet to be discovered, but this seems highly unlikely. Complex systems are chaotic, randomness takes place on a quantum level, and if there were a correct historicism, it would be highly profitable and we might wonder why someone hadn’t discovered it yet. Our most prominent historicist narratives, like that of Marx or the post-Cold War dream of a liberalization and democratization, have led to drastic miscalculations and failed predictions.
Karl Popper famously attacked historicism in The Poverty of Historicism. Consistent with his larger approach to the philosophy of science, he saw historicist explanations as pseudoscientific. History was something that only happened once, so any laws surmised from it were not falsifiable. As he argued, trends aren’t destiny. Trends depend on initial conditions, which are themselves contingent. There are plenty of things that are likely to happen, but one cannot derive universal laws from them as the historicist seeks to do. For most intents and purposes, history is more akin to a massive random number generator. History may have certain “speeds”—like technological progress, economic growth, and perhaps state development patterns. But direction it has not.
That left-wing thinkers are left-accelerationists and right-wing thinkers are right-accelerationists suggests the folly of the entire project. There is a suspicious convenience in thinking that the inevitable direction of history leads to one’s own desired outcome. If the project were purely descriptive, history would accelerate irrespective of ideology. Indeed, the ideologies of individuals would be wholly irrelevant.
Considering history through an accelerationist perspective may have analytical value: If this is the state of affairs right now, what must come next? This sort of thinking can help those of any disposition imagine how the future might look, for better or worse. It may help us think about where our current trajectory will lead if left unchanged. But “left unchanged” is doing a lot of work. History is often changed, whether it be by a random event like a global plague, or by the tremendous will of a single person.
If one intends to change history to their will, if that is possible at all, it will be through leadership and decisive action. It will not be through purported acceleration. Accelerationism is best left to late-night dorm room conversations.