Redwashing capital

by Rob Wallace

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Aaron Bastani, author of Fully Automated Luxury Communism, called refusals to adapt capitalist technologies under anti-capitalism’s banner a failure of imagination:

Ours is an age of crisis. We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.

But the most pressing crisis of all, arguably, is an absence of collective imagination. It is as if humanity has been afflicted by a psychological complex, in which we believe the present world is stronger than our capacity to remake it—as if it were not our ancestors who created what stands before us now. As if the very essence of humanity, if there is such a thing, is not to constantly build new worlds.

If we can move beyond such a failure, we will be able to see something wonderful. The plummeting cost of information and advances in technology are providing the ground for a collective future of freedom and luxury for all.

There is much to unpack here, part and parcel of a futurism more social democratic than communist already critically reviewed here, here, and here.

Are democratic politics even possible under capitalism, as Bastani off-handedly presumes? Is high growth an appropriate economic marker even out of capitalist hands? And what of the apparent disconnect here between all the new toys Bastani stans and that poverty in the global South?

I’ll be confining my objections here to the analytical core of Bastani’s thesis, before briefly turning to what a science (and tech) for the people, tied to a truly transformative shift in human relations, is already looking like instead.

On its face, the thesis is simple enough. Karl Marx, Bastani argues, was a capitalist. He even wrote a book about it. It’s a line for which the internet fed billionaire Elon Musk through a digital woodchipper. Herman Melville was a white whale, one wag riposted.

Here, Bastani spins the reversal with a more erudite flair, claiming Marx’s affinities for capitalism were more utilitarian. Communism depends on capitalism, much as children depend on their parents. There must first be a means of production to seize, after all. The deduction capsizes the standard interpretation that Marx pursued his studies as a critique—right there in the subtitle of his major work—by which we might break from capitalism.

That doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It follows, Bastani continues, that a techno-optimism around the best of what capitalism produces is the only communist future possible. It’s a veritable truism that any new future will begin with where history to this point has left us off. To various degrees, all of us are presently slated inside capitalism’s historical moment. But, against Bastani, that doesn’t mean socializing capitalism is by definition the only option forward. Now that would be a failure of imagination.

It’s a notion that also opens a path to capitalizing socialism, exactly as Marx himself warned. Such strategy assumes capitalist power bends to good ideas and not, with enough cash and violence, the other way around. “In Amerika,” to reappropriate the prototypical Cold War sendup, “capital socializes you.”

Cyborg Marx vs Ecological Marx

In a follow-up on the Verso blog, Bastani paints Marx an out-and-out tech-utopian, ignoring the documented ecological Marx and more critical interpretations of the Grundrisse’s “Fragment on Machines” on which Bastani bases his argument:

An aspect of Marx’s thinking which remains underemphasised is how he recognised capitalism’s tendency to progressively replace labouranimal and human, physical and cognitivewith machines. In a system replete with contradictions, it was this one in particular which rendered it a force of potential liberation.

Media philosopher McKenzie Wark, for one, is sympathetically dismissive of this middle Marx:

Read as low theory, rather than philosophy, Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” turns out to be interesting but of its time. He is bamboozled by this new machine system form of tech. He describes it, in mystified form as “a moving power that moves itself”. Actually it isn’t. A whole dimension is missing here: the forces of production are also energy systems. Entirely absent from this text is the simple fact that industrialization had run through all the forests of Northern Europe and then switched to coal, which was in turn more or less exhausted by our time. This is connected, as we shall see, to Marx’s failure to think through the metaphor of metabolism in this text.

By way of human ecologist Andreas Malm and environmental sociologist John Bellamy Foster, Wark argues that Bastani-like celebrations of communist cyberocracy, in which machines reduce labour time in favor of people’s leisure, omit a critical element. They miss our relationship with the environment, the other key component of human appropriation. “Notice,” Wark continues,

how energy finally appears here, but only the energy of human labor. [Marx] has not [yet] grasped the extent to which the replacement of human energy with fossil-fuel energy is very central to how capitalism unfolded.

A mature Marx concurred, placing the correction front and centre. Indeed, in terms that read as if directed at Bastani point-by-point, he begins the Critique of the Gotha Program by explicitly denouncing such an omission as a part of the bourgeois program:

“Labor is the source of all wealth and all culture.”

Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labor, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labor power. The above phrase is to be found in all children’s primers and is correct insofar as it is implied that labor is performed with the appurtenant subjects and instruments. But a socialist program cannot allow such bourgeois phrases to pass over in silence the conditions that lone give them meaning. And insofar as man from the beginning behaves toward nature, the primary source of all instruments and subjects of labor, as an owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labor becomes the source of use values, therefore also of wealth.

The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labor; since precisely from the fact that labor depends on nature it follows that the man who possesses no other property than his labor power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labor. He can only work with their permission, hence live only with their permission.

Much else is missing. Bastani’s steampunk portraiture—Marx’s telescopic eye short-circuiting his own beard afire—sidelines the ways capitalist tech, and the limited problems its owners choose to solve, penetrate our social relations at their foundations. The modes of production Bastani celebrates in capitalism co-produce the relations of production—capital dominating the proletariat—to which he says he objects.

In agriculture, for instance, the gene editing Bastani champions isn’t really about solving problems presented in an albeit historicized natural economy still dependent on the sun, seasons, and organisms’ life cycles. These problems are dealt with in direct terms today by those agroecologies worldwide that haven’t been smashed by capitalist land grabs. The latest and greatest in genetic engineering aren’t needed where traditional breeding programs are perfectly capable even under rapid climate change. Proprietary GMOs are more about looping farmers into a ratchet of production that both subjects them to labour discipline and helps garnish the near-entirety of farm revenue.

Indeed—funny enough given Bastani’s tech fetish—capital is perfectly happy trashing research and development if its monopolies in economy and State power succeed in depressing competition and externalizing such costs of production to labour, consumer, government, and nature. In other words, the efficiencies for which capital incessantly searches, squeezing out every iota of surplus value, often have little to do with commodity production directly.

New tech can even get in the way of profit. Solar energy is only the most obvious example. But the drag is everywhere. Alongside reducing the number of breeding lines across plant and animal species, agribusiness consolidation reduces the numbers of geneticists working in the sector. Homogenization divorced from the biologies and behaviors of livestock extends to the science pursued.

Tech’s environmental hoaxes

By these trajectories, Big Ag, emblematic of other industries, corners itself into some darkly hilarious traps of its own making.

In the face of African swine fever, presently the world’s largest-ever livestock disease outbreak, the hog sector is pursuing suddenly fashionable facial recognition software to keep track of sick pigs (without changing the husbandry that sickens them). Despite efforts on the part of the sector to blame backyard producers, the outbreak is progressing hand-in-hoof with sharp increases in the numbers of total and per-farm head, declines in hog diversity, explosive growth in international exports shipping millions of head country-to-country, and a system design disallowing hybrid hogs who survive from breeding on-site and passing on their immunity. The incapacity to respond to African swine fever and other deadly diseases is built into the economic model before a single hog gets sick.  

In other words, the sources of liberation technology Bastani upholds in actuality embody the very alienation to which Marx objected, divorcing both nature and humanity from possible solutions as problems arise. I’m not the first to point this out. Rut Elliot Blomqvist directly addressed this gap in Bastani’s argument last year. But power, as apparently playacted by the ecomodernist Left, is found in refusing to respond to such counternarratives with anything other than tweeted insult.

There are other interactions between our two sources of wealth—labour and the environment—that belie tech’s easy payoff. The environment can destroy labour and machines; earthquakes, for instance, to choose what was up until fracking the least socialized “natural” disaster outside a meteor strike. Of course, choosing to build a nuclear facility on a major fault is entirely money over matter run amok.

By the second contradiction of capitalism, labour and tech, in the other direction, can destroy the environments upon which they depend. Much of colonialism involves spatial fixes by which this damage is externalized onto the Indigenous, up until imperial might or the resources themselves or both run out. The cycle of accumulation then retracts into internal colonization as capital cashes out, as in the case of fracking in the U.S. Unless the resulting damage just offers the next window of investment, as, for instance, with oil and sand opening up in a melting Arctic.

Should the chain of relative opportunities conclude in abandoning the planet, dead Mars, as even well-intended techno-optimism has cheered, somehow represents a happy ending and not a recursion spun off into space. A Hard Times headline summarized an analogous trap in all its dialectical tragicomedy: “Desperate Attempt to Escape Mosh Pit Looks Exactly Like Moshing.”

As Marxism has long observed, even under the neoclassical model, tech repeatedly drives itself into a ditch. Innovations score quick profits until the new fixed capital spreads, competition intensifies, and economic crises precipitate, to be alleviated, or, better put, reconstituted by exports, monopoly, and war.

And by out-and-out murderous fraud. As we learned earlier this year, why deliver a fully functioning plane when you can upsell basic safety features? With Big Pharma in a productivity crisis, and the number of new drug classes in secular collapse, Sackler-owned Purdue Pharma pursued a “Project Tango” by which it sold cures to the opioid addictions that company reps, “turbocharging sales,” pushed doctors to prescribe in the first place. The company, turning rent-seeking from land to body, aimed to make itself an “end-to-end pain provider.”

In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it.

Another round of innovation isn’t necessarily about use value, as tech-optimists focus on, but on resetting such market grifts. As the payoff is the endpoint that matters, many an innovation is only tangentially related to what the commodity is used for by the consumer. In promising fully automated communism, left technologism quietly factors out our present pace in tech evolution from the market cycles underlying it. But planned obsolesce and other such sleights-of-hand shouldn’t be folded in as virtues in any vision of modern communism.

It isn’t just the resulting despoliation of land and sea that shows environmental conservation is antithetical to the rules of this game. Against the hype of green capitalism, more efficient production, say, growing more food per hectare, doesn’t save the environment. By the Jevons paradox, such successes only spread out, taking the lead eating through the “saved” resource. Along the way, as more of the resource is destroyed, what’s left of what once was part of our shared commons suddenly accrues value it never had. Under Lauderdale’s paradox, a decaying resource base isn’t grounds for good corporate governance but serves as the basis for a fight for the leftovers, as in the case of the multinational rush for the last of the world’s “virgin” farmland in Africa.

As if right off the pages of the National Review, left accelerationists square this circle by dismissing environmentalism as neo-Malthusian catastrophism. There are no ecological precipices, they claim. A boundless nature automatically cleans up after humanity’s expropriation. Water, for one, doesn’t disappear, Jacobin accelerationist and Verso author Leigh Phillips posted on a recent Facebook thread, it just transforms into another form something else in the food chain can use. It’s a Žižekian gambit, the philosopher’s lateral lisp ablazing: DEY VILL BE MORE ECOSOCIALISH DAN DA ECOSOCIALISH DEMSHELVE. With a neoclassical faith in Earth’s regenerative powers that outstrips the biosphere itself.

Back on this planet, on the other hand, with an uneven relational geography of per capita freshwater use largely driven by global North agriculture and industrial production alienated from the very ecological processes appealed to here, many a region’s quantifiable, and, yes, limited supply of potable water is crashing out.

History isn’t deterministic

The ecomodernist missteps track back to inception.   

Marx hypothesized capital originated in a similar if era-specific game of socioenvironmental whack-a-mole. To return to the very Grundrisse to which accelerationists appeal and, as excerpted here, in the earlier German Ideology he wrote with Engels, Marx traced capitalism’s genesis as a spiraling dialectic of population, machine, expropriation, and geography:

The labour which from the first presupposed a machine, even of the crudest sort, soon showed itself the most capable of development. Weaving, earlier carried on in the country by the peasants as a secondary occupation to procure their clothing, was the first labour to receive an impetus and a further development through the extension of commerce. Weaving was the first and remained the principal manufacture. The rising demand for clothing materials, consequent on the growth of population, the growing accumulation and mobilisation of natural capital through accelerated circulation, the demand for luxuries called forth by the latter and favoured generally by the gradual extension of commerce, gave weaving a quantitative and qualitative stimulus, which wrenched it out of the form of production hitherto existing.

Alongside the peasants weaving for their own use, who continued with this sort of work, there emerged a new class of weavers in the towns, whose fabrics were destined for the whole home market and usually for foreign markets too. Weaving, an occupation demanding in most cases little skill and soon splitting up into countless branches, by its whole nature resisted the trammels of the gild. Weaving was therefore carried on mostly in villages and market-centres without gild organisation, which gradually became towns, indeed the most flourishing towns.

That is, by its very own combos of due cause and historical chance, feudalism arrived upon the circumstances that prefigured capital. In a dizzying dance, the effects of one feudal process turned into the causes of another, to and fro.

So contrary to tales left and right of capitalism’s genesis, capital never sprang from Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s (or Dr. Dre’s) head fully formed. The transition in the prevalent mode of production, as Marx and Engels tie it off here, emerged woven out of conditionally translated factors:

With gild-free manufacture, property relations also quickly changed. The first advance beyond natural, estate-capital was provided by the rise of merchants whose capital was from the beginning moveable, capital in the modern sense as far as one can speak of it, given the circumstances of those times. The second advance came with manufacture, which again made mobile a mass of natural capital, and altogether increased the mass of movable capital as against that of natural capital. At the same time, manufacture became a refuge of [free labour] peasants from the gilds which excluded them or paid them badly, just as earlier the gild-towns had served as a refuge for the peasants from the oppressive landed nobility.

Feudalism could very well have ended a different way. If we leap-frog forward into what we presume will be the far side of the age of capitalism, we should expect a similar storyboard, with cause and effect and happenstance pinballing back and forth. Facile determinism was, and will never be, the order of the day. Stochastic outcomes burble out from between social systems’ historical constraints.

Liberation, then, isn’t just a matter of seizing physical factories, as if the objects they produce, the ring of all rings, my precious, are revolution in a package. It’s fascinating the extent to which some liberals grasp this point better than our leftish techno-determinists. In encapsulating the grim scientific projections for climate change in his recent book, a David Wallace-Wells still bewitched with “our” present lifestyle hedged that

these twelve threats described in these twelve chapters yield a portrait of the future only as best as it can be painted in the present. What actually lies ahead may prove even grimmer, though the reverse, of course, is also possible. The map of our new world will be drawn in part by natural processes that remain mysterious, but more definitively by human hands. At what point will the climate change grow undeniable, un-compartmentalizable? How much damage will have already been selfishly done? How quickly will we act to save ourselves and preserve as much of the way of life we know today as possible?

For the sake of clarity, I’ve treated each of the threats from climate change—sea-level rise, food scarcity, economic stagnation—as discrete threats, which they are not. Some may prove offsetting, some mutually reinforcing, and others merely adjacent. But together they form a latticework of climate crisis, beneath which at least some humans, and probably many billions, will live.

The urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong.

One can see why historian Eric Hobsbawm, bashing the arguments of Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara’s socialist manifesto before it was fashionable, insisted, as much as a matter of method as fact, that the urban legend that Marx saw the most industrially advanced countries as necessarily the communist vanguard was dead wrong. In fact, Hobsbawm continued, for better or worse, Marx and Engels placed early bets on a revolutionary (and decidedly agrarian) Russia:

No misinterpretation of Marx is more grotesque than the one that suggests that he expected a revolution exclusively from the advanced industrial countries of the West…

Engels records their hopes of a Russian revolution in the late 1870s and in 1894 specifically looks forward to the possibility of “the Russian revolution giving the signal for the workers’ revolution in the West, so that both supplement each other.”

Such a series of retroactive reversals—an ecological Marx, the gap between tech and problem-solving, and the possibility that communisms can emerge on the periphery out of a different combinatorial of production—is hard to assimilate if you’ve founded your political program upon radicalizing commodity fetishism at capital’s centre.

Turning outer space into Flint

The particulars are as goofy as they are galling.

If, as it appears in his Times piece, Bastani thinks food is only about basic nutrition or good taste (however important these both are), then he has bought exactly into an agribusiness productivism that making lots of (marketable) food is the task at hand.

No wonder lab meat and other examples of cellular agriculture ring his bell. Never mind food fully engulfed by industrial processing represents the next generation in expropriation. No peasant in the Amazon helping cultivate regenerative agroecologies need apply under Amazon’s (or Uber’s) business plan for drone-striking edible petri dishes to your shipping container’s door. Never mind such pellets are being produced by the very venture capital that helped bring about the environmental crises in the first place. It’s as if tech frisson alone is enough of a rationale to keep capital in power and objections to cease fire.

Food sovereignty, in contrast, extends beyond such vulgar food security to a people’s right to control their land and labour in the course of producing culturally appropriate food they—they!—wish to grow and eat, if under the constraints of regional planning and wider gyres of global circulation.

Bastani’s wanton oversimplifications extend to health and energy. In an age of poisoned water in Flint, Michigan and the opioid epidemics spreading across farming communities around the world, he calls for tech-led interventions into health that are grounded in commoditization-friendly preformationisms about human biology. Health and disease are inside you from the start. One just needs a pill or genetic intervention to cure you. But in reality, such reductionist medicine works for only some diseases and is conspicuous in its dearth of notions of shared public health outside pharmaceutical market shares.

Backing an anti-Marxist ecology, Bastani pegs our energy demands to mining asteroids. Marx’s “Theft of Wood” in outer space. At what cost to Earth will it take to get us up there? Who will control the mines across The Expanse? Does this political economist’s effort to think through the likely political economy to emerge out of such a program extend beyond the cheery engineering porn many such Left proponents can’t seem to understand as it is?

Philosopher Alain Badiou is scathing of such a cheap politics, in this case so literal in its actualization:

Blind worship of “novelty” and contempt for established truths. This comes straight out of the commercial cult of the “novelty” of products and out of a persistent belief that something is being “started” that has already happened many times before. It simultaneously prevents people from learning from the past, from understanding how structural repetitions work, and from not falling for fake “modernities.”

A Left actually working in the natural sciences is arriving at different conclusions, sketching out the horrific details of emerging capital-led tech.

Over a series of technical monographs (here, here, and here), mathematical epidemiologist Rodrick Wallace uses information theory and control theory to show efforts at developing artificial intelligence for driverless cars or electric grids are grounded upon badly supported models of human consciousness. The resulting fast-tracked experiments in silicon cognition, conducted on public roads with little regulatory supervision, are lining up as high-stakes demonstrations of what Wallace has described as machine psychopathology:

The asymptotic limit theorems of control and information theories make it possible to explore the dynamics of collapse likely to afflict large-scale systems of autonomous ground vehicles that communicate with each other and with an embedding intelligent roadway. Any vehicle/road system is inherently unstable in the control theory sense as a consequence of the basic irregularities of the traffic stream, the road network, and their interactions, placing it in the realm of the Data Rate Theorem that mandates a minimum necessary rate of control information for stability. It appears that large-scale [vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure] systems will experience correspondingly large-scale failures analogous to the vast, propagating fronts of power network blackouts, and possibly less benign but more subtle patterns of individual vehicle, platoon, and mesoscale dysfunction.

The moral calculus of the resulting accidents—who will driverless cars choose to kill—is giving even sociopaths such as Henry Kissinger the kind of pause that escapes our future-so-bright Left.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly even on days in which operations work perfectly.

The information and tech revolutions Bastani presents as a cheap exit out of our present mess are proving costly beyond such failures, even, much like infamous Bitcoin, on days in which operations work perfectly. Technology Review reports:

In a new paper, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, performed a life cycle assessment for training several common large AI models. They found that the process can emit more than 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalent—nearly five times the lifetime emissions of the average American car (and that includes manufacture of the car itself).

The fully automated communist equivalent, sharing similar presumptions, much as Stalin and Cargill on industrialized agriculture or the convergent political ergonomics behind Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, would likely differ little in its catastrophic outcomes save perhaps who exactly picks up the tab.

In parallel to the misplaced magical thinking that disappears such inconveniences, the ecomodernist program is fitted with a political tin ear as if a single EarPod (the other lost at a boozy IPO launch). “Let’s leave Earth!” enthuses one of its planks.

Now there’s a rallying cry for the proletariat who are to be left behind. Space exploration extending beyond telescopy and into colonization represents the kind of innovation in accumulation that until now has given only more power to the Jeff Bezoses of the world. Or the Adam Dunkels, in the social democratic version. Through the guarded gate of a gravity well and with every canister of food, water, and air necessarily manufactured—and, as in Flint’s water, turned into a fictitious commodity—the powerful, already remote-programming on-the-spot firings, would be better able to control the people Bastani claims he aims to liberate.

Socializing sciences for the people

Even on their own terms, these phantasmagorias suck. Are other futures possible?

Ecosocialism and ecocommunism aim to transform society “away from socially and ecologically destructive systems.” Our capacity to socially reproduce ourselves as a species requires we integrate production, conservation, and human liberation—across labour, race, indigeneity, and gender, among other axes.

Against ecomodernist smears, alternatives in ecosocialism (here, here, and here, for a starter kit) aren’t organized around prelapsarian fantasies of returning to a mode of production that existed nowhere save in the minds of its critics. They are not, as left business observer Doug Henwood and other accelerationists repeatedly troll, neo-primitivisms championing eating twigs, living in huts, and reducing the human population by 90%.

“[Accelerationism’s] main shortcoming,” anarchist social theorist Kevin Carson rolls his eyes,

is a failure to understand the significance of the technologies it sees as the basis for the post-capitalist system. Although Accelerationism celebrates advances in cybernetic technology and network communications as the building blocks of post-scarcity communism, it is tone deaf when it comes to the specific nature of the promise offered by these technologies, and actually runs directly counter to them. This failure includes a lazy conflation of localism and horizontalism with primitivism and backwardness (to the point of treating ‘neo-primitivist localism’ as a single phrase), and a lionization of verticality, centralism and planning.

Dark ecologist Timothy Morton engages this position at its source:

[The] Severing [between the reality of a human-centric world and the real of ecological symbiosis across species] has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real. One thinks of the Platonic dichotomy of body and soul: the chariot and the charioteer, the chariot whose horses are always trying to pull away in another direction. The phenomenology of First Peoples points in this direction, but left thought hasn’t been looking that way, fearful of primitivism, a concept that inhibits thinking outside agrilogistic parameters [of an industrial ecology without nature].

Agroecologies and other community-led models mind this gap, organizing their ethoses around nature’s intrinsic fecundity while regularly adapting to the latest that soil and other regenerative sciences have to offer when made available. Along the way, these ‘back road’ methods refuse to divorce modes and relations of production as a matter of first principle. Nor do they just hand over their land and labour to assuage the brand loyalties upon which the Henwoods of the world glom as if in existential terror. 

In something of an afterthought in the best annihilation of the ecomodernist program I’ve read this year, development sociologist Max Ajlexplains how new tech can indeed be used, but from the start must be folded into a recursively negotiated model of how we are to socially reproduce ourselves as a society:

A second potential course of action is devoting as much research as possible into lessening the difficulty of the [agriculture] labour involved, through—of course!—technology. In both [what is now capital’s] core and periphery, how much farming will be mechanized and, more importantly, which tasks should not be mechanized remain open questions. So, too, is the meaning of mechanization, and what kinds of tools can spare labour without excess energy-intensive extraction. How much we can replace hard labour with constant attention through human presence and careful intervention in natural cycles is another open question.

In describing a novel municipal food program in Brazil that central planning, without a single robot deployed, scaled up to feeding hundreds of thousands from forest-adjacent farm to city table, political agroecologist Jahi Chappell suggested our social institutions can be as unworldly an advance as any handheld gadget:

The truth is that the future will be based not on the promises of whiz-bang technology, but on the more mundane features of the decisions our societies make about what we will do, how we will do it, and who will get to decide. That is, our future fates are based on our institutions. “Institutions,” as a technical term, refers to the rules prevalent in a society. They are essentially about how we run our lives individually and collectively, and the many conscious, and unconscious, mechanics underneath the surface. Our ancestors would likely be just as shocked at these institutional foundations of our current societies as they would be at the tools and technology that support them. Institutions, in this way, are as much the stuff of sci-fi fantasy as bleeding-edge plant breeding techniques and the Dick Tracy wrist-radio/watches some of us now wear on our wrists. 

It’s as if, as environmental humanities scholar Anthony Galluzzo posted recently, humanity, not tech is—ha—the engine of history. Again, it’ll be people, not science alone, environmental scientist Erle Ellis wrote in another Times op-ed, who’ll save us from ecological collapse.

Tech bros win-winning the world away

So what to make of this fringe of Marxian tech bros with outsized access Chappell and Galluzzo dubbed the Jetsonian Left, beyond its recapitulating industry’s penchant for finding due cause in objects, rather than in an ecosocial scope capital can’t easily flip into commodities?

Given the generic corporate marketing in what presents itself as anti-capitalist doctrine, one of the few explanations that lines up the albeit scattered dots is that Bastani and his fellow Prometheans see something they like of themselves in their bourgeois enemies. It may explain in part why Bastani, hog-tying himself this way, got his ass whipped on TV by a doddering foursome of system apologists.

And capital, so skilled at such flattery, is happy to oblige. By historian Joseph Fracchia’s account, Marx saw materialism outside merely the “stuff” of the world. Capital also deploys innovations in the social and the semiotic—through many of Chappell’s institutions it’s captured—to help organize production and the greater cultural environment in its favor.

The resulting dynamics now playing out are textbook. Reformists, observed historian Doug Greene on Facebook, are demanding revolutionaries skip what was the centennial of an outdated communist revolution. Also, they continue, “‘We should adapt the exciting ideas of [long-dead social democrat] Karl Kautsky!‘”

When the spectre of revolution re-emerges—percolating today from the Yellow Vests to Sudan and it seems increasingly underneath elsewhere—there’s always room for Leftists who propose more of the establishment as the radical path forward. It’s a road their capitalist allies and even out-and-out employers—Galluzzo points out Jacobin author Leigh Phillips works for the nuclear industry—would never let them anywhere near commandeering. 

With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged.

In other words, there’s always a future, even a communist futurism, for useful idiots too smart to fail. With capitalists scared sleepless by revolution, redwashing has re-emerged. While the term has been used to denote corporate donations to Indigenous causes or redbaiting progressives, in the face of growing public abjection, the capitalist class now appears searching for the shelter of left paraphernalia beyond selling back revolt.   

And the customer-centric talent that capital seeks, showing up as if incarnating an epochal process, is now offering to scale up these win-win deliverables. Just six months ago, his Fully Automated manuscript already in press at Verso, Bastani tweeted:

I’m a big fan of capitalism from 1800-1980. It’s just now that record is facing serious, sustained, and arguably secular challenges.

Just now, mind you. After Native American genocide, Black slavery, Victorian holocausts, child labour, the Great Depression and Nazi Germany, Vietnam and fifty years of other proxy wars, and environmental ruination across the global South. “Challenges,” he calls them, as if on spec, pitching some Silicon Valley moneybags. Because, yeah, those guys, biohacking their computer selves to liver failure or dying in line at the Mount Everest gift shop, should arbitrate the world’s next steps.

The automation pursued out of such base appeals may be increasing in extent and luxury, but there’s little communist about it. People and the planet deserve far better.

Rob Wallace is an evolutionary biologist and public health phylogeographer. He is author of Big Farms Make Big Flu: Dispatches on Infectious Disease, Agribusiness, and the Nature of Science and, most recently, co-author of Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection

June readings

A Latvian ecovillage based on The Ringing Cedars of Russia. (Santa Zembaha/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA)

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory. 

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Not Afraid of the Ruins is back! In June, we launched the second season of our series of science fiction with an environmental justice twist. And we have two excellent new articles for you, one on women’s organizing against extractivism in southern Africa, another continuing the debate on utopia and science, by Max Ajl. We also highlight more articles criticizing Fully Automated Luxury Communism, and feature a discussion on the merits of and problems with utopian thinking. Finally, we are featuring an older article by Peter Staudenmaier on fascist environmentalism—something every ecologist should be aware of. 

 

Uneven Earth updates

The right to say no | Link | Women organizing against extractivism in southern Africa

All the water | Link | “Everything was on autopilot; the only thing the operator had to do was push a virtual button to engage the missiles.”

Dispatch from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec | Link | What it will take to build alliances with our neighbors to the South

How much will the US Way of Life © have to change? | Link | On the future of farming, socialist science, and utopia


Top 5 articles to read

Ecofascism / fascist ideology: the “green wing” of the Nazi Party and its historical antecedents

Social collapse and climate breakdown

Climate change, dust bowls, and fishery collapse: metabolic rifts of capitalism and the need for socialism

“Batshit jobs” – no-one should have to destroy the planet to make a living

Why a hipster, vegan, green tech economy is not sustainable


News you might’ve missed

State projects leave tens of thousands of lives in the balance in Ethiopia

Dam in Ethiopia has wiped out indigenous livelihoods, report finds

Only 60 years of farming left if soil degradation continues

Climate change-fueled valley fever is hitting farmworkers hard

340+ organisations call on the EU to immediately halt trade negotiations with Brazil on the grounds of deteriorating human rights and environmental conditions.

Faces of war: Kurdistan’s armed struggle against Islamic State

Carbon emissions from energy industry rise at fastest rate since 2011

African city heat is set to grow intolerably

To stop destruction of Liberia’s rainforest, he put his life on the line. Alfred Brownell had to flee Liberia after challenging the powerful palm oil and other extractive industries that were clearing its forests. But he remains committed to seeing that the West African nation’s biodiverse lands be developed sustainably and the rights of its indigenous peoples respected.

Public concern over climate crisis reaches record high in UK



Indigenous struggles

Old neighbors, new battles

White allies, let’s be honest about decolonization

The shoreline still provides dinner, despite climate change and private property



Utopia, sci-fi, and the apocalypse

Change is divine: How sci-fi visionary Octavia Butler influenced this Detroit revolutionary

Utopia isn’t just idealistic fantasy – it inspires people to change the world

The end of the world will be a non-event

The empty radicalism of the climate apocalypse



Where we’re at: analysis

The Great Wheel.  A 2015 article debating accelerationism vs. autonomism. 

The dictatorship of the present

Touted as ‘development,’ land grabs hurt local communities, and women most of all

Largest animal epidemic in history is due to industrial farming

US military is a bigger polluter than as many as 140 countries – shrinking this war machine is a must

The significance of the Sudanese revolution

One hundred years after World War I, are we heading back to the abyss?

Connecting the dots: Insane trade and climate chaos

The roots of the French far right’s rise

The European far right’s environmental turn

How to truly decolonise the study of Africa

A Chernobyl guide to the future

Who owns tomorrow?



Just think about it…

Will climate change kill everyone — or just lots and lots of people?

Ancient water-saving can help modern Peru

Decentralized microgridding can provide 90% of a neighborhood’s energy needs, study finds

Carmageddon: it’s killing urban life. We must reclaim our cities before it’s too late

Why ‘Game of Thrones’ was about ecomodernism

The mindfulness conspiracy. It is sold as a force that can help us cope with the ravages of capitalism, but with its inward focus, mindful meditation may be the enemy of activism.

Training a single AI model can emit as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes

The easy way out: How the pursuit of convenience produces new forms of inconvenience

How a ‘repair economy’ creates a kinder, more caring community

How ‘maintainers’, not ‘innovators’, make the world turn. “The vast majority of technologies that surround us and underpin our lives are not innovations, and the vast majority of labor in our culture is not focused on introducing or adopting new things, but on keeping things going.”

The Chinese government should support small scale agriculture for a green China

Think prairie grasslands are just “boring grass”? Think again

As climate change worsens, some people might decide to DIY a solution

The reason Australia doesn’t have nuclear power: the workers fought back

Steven Pinker is selling Reason™, not reason



Fully automated luxury communism—and its critics

Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Artificial stupidity

Gee Whiz! Communism is sure gonna be keen!

A utopian vision of communism’s techno-future



New politics

To free ourselves, we must feed ourselves. Leah Penniman on bringing people of color back to the land.

Building the new left economics: public-commons partnerships and new circuits of ownership

We don’t just need a Universal Basic Income, we need a Universal Basic Services System. Here’s what it would look like.

Agroecology: a systems approach. How scientists propose that we feed the future… and solve a host of other problems at the same time.

Modern Monetary Theory: meet the economists fighting the economy

Paper straws won’t save the planet – we need a four-day week

I work in the environmental movement. I don’t care if you recycle. Fight the oil and gas industry instead.

The new left economics: how a network of thinkers is transforming capitalism

Why I’m no longer Vegan™. A video essay on why vegan activism needs to be anti-capitalist.



Radical municipalism

Is Strong Towns NIMBY, YIMBY, or what?

Every NIMBY’s speech at a public hearing

What if a city decides it can live without a freeway?

How a Montreal working-class neighbourhood’s activists changed Quebec and Canada 

Tenants won this round

From green gentrification to resilience gentrification: An example from Brooklyn

Berlin senate approves a five-year rent freeze

Follow the carbon. The case for neighborhood-level carbon footprints.



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

Is it time to end our fixation with GDP and growth?

Economic growth: a short history of a controversial idea

The Green New Deal: whither capitalism?

10 pillars of the Green New Deal for Europe

New study dismisses green growth policies as a route out of ecological emergency

Degrowth: a call for radical socio-ecological transformation

The “do more” mindset is ruining the planet. A video explainer.



Plastics and waste

We might not have enough materials for all the solar panels and wind turbines we need

The economy of wastefulness: the biology of the commons

The feminist, anti-colonialist scientific approach to micro-plastics and pollution

Where does your plastic go? Global investigation reveals America’s dirty secret

Boom goes the plastics industry

Humans have made 8.3bn tons of plastic since 1950. This is the illustrated story of where it’s gone



Resources

An alternative economics summer reading list

Against militarism on Mother Earth. A collection of readings.

Caring labor. An archive of resources.




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May readings

Illustration by Annie Xing Zhao

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

This month, we’re highlighting a few articles on the work of activist organizing, the work of gestation, and… on doing less work. There’s also been a flurry of conversation about futurism on the left, spurred on by the release of Aaron Bastani’s new book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. We highlight several critiques. From the recent setback to the municipal movement in Barcelona, to urban environmental justice struggles, we once again feature lots of pieces on radical municipalism. And, our section on the Green New Deal and Degrowth has basically become permanent, as the debate between them rages on.


Top 5 articles to read

Spadework. On political organizing.

The radical plan to save the planet by working less

Aaron Bastani just released his book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. Read two critical reviews of the book: Cookshops of the future and Climate, communism and the Age of Affluence?. And two previous articles on the subject by our co-editors Aaron Vansintjan and Rut Elliot Blomqvist here: The shitty new communist futurism, Where’s the ‘eco’ in ecomodernism?, and Pulling the magical lever.

How a beloved Bay Area bakery is tackling the housing crisis

Labor does you



News you might’ve missed

Let’s be clear, says Mexico environment minister, ‘parasitic and predatory neoliberalism’ to blame for climate crisis

The rise of the superbugs – and why industrial farming is to blame

Sudan protesters plan general strike as talks falter. And an update. And another (bad news).

The Yellow Vests of France: six months of struggle

MPs make history by passing Commons motion to declare ‘environment and climate change emergency’

New Zealand’s world-first ‘wellbeing’ budget to focus on poverty and mental health

Why the Guardian is changing the language it uses about the environment

Corporate trade tribunals used by mining companies against communities and governments

The West has been dumping tens of millions of tons of trash in Southeast Asian countries for more than 25 years – now they want to send it back



Indigenous struggles

The long read: bullet ants and stolen land

The Yurok nation just established the rights of the Klamath river

Brazilian Indigenous peoples propose boycott

Native knowledge: What ecologists are learning from Indigenous people

Dam violence against environmental defenders

The Zapatista women’s revolutionary law as it is lived today



Where we’re at: analysis

The ruin of the digital town square

The price of meat. And Two amputations a week: the cost of working in a US meat plant.

Far-right identity politics and the task for the Left

Time’s up for capitalism. But what comes next?

The problem of the Left is its reactive position in politics

It may not be fully visible, but we’re in the final years of the American Empire

The reason renewables can’t power modern civilization is because they were never meant to

Favelado’s diary. “The criminalization of poverty is the strategy to keep the system functioning against black populations in Brazil and in the world, because if the favela exists and is marked by the stigma of social violence, it does not come free or without interest.”



Just think about it…

The Blackfoot/Maslow connection. How Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was stolen from Indigenous Blackfoot spirituality.

New Yorkers’ poop will soon be used to fuel their own homes

How to make wind power sustainable again

Psychedelic socialism

Loving a vanishing world. I want to move this away from the instrumental question of what you can do about climate change, important though that is, and back to the intrinsic value of what it means to love the world.

Why green pledges will not create the natural forests we need

International Relations Theory and ‘Game of Thrones’ are both fantasies

AirPods are a tragedy. If AirPods are anything, they’re future fossils of capitalism.

Could you give up flying? Meet the no-plane pioneers

When climate change starts wars. Rising temperatures are bringing ethnic tensions to a boil in Central Asia.



New politics

For the love of winning: An open letter to Extinction Rebellion

How to build a sustainable food system

Solidarity economy: Case studies from Rojava and Jackson, Mississippi

Cymru burns, but Northern Syria may help us douse the flames

‘Now is the time of monsters’: The future at a crossroads in Rojava

Inside the growing Indonesian anarchist movement

Water democracy. Farmers in New Mexico have banded together to protect scarce water resources from developments that could end their way of life. Their collective activity is a model for grassroots politics in the age of climate change.



Radical municipalism

Can Barcelona rekindle its radical imagination? Barcelona En Comú narrowly lost the popular vote, and possibly the city government. But there is much more to life than governance.

Why America can’t solve homelessness

NYC’s segregation was carefully planned. Its integration must also be.

Dozens died from heat in Montreal, yet zero in Ontario. Here’s why

How parks help cities adapt to climate change

How communities are contesting green inequities

Rebel Cities 24: How Catalonia’s CUP party is helping reclaim towns, cities and nation

Mobile home residents are trying to save affordable housing

Why councils are bringing millions of pounds worth of services back in-house

Which US cities have concrete strategies for environmental justice?



Degrowth and the Green New Deal

A ‘Green New Deal’ needs to be global, not local

Plan, mood, battlefield – reflections on the Green New Deal

A Green New Deal beyond growth (II) – Some steps forward

How the Green New Deal happened: the view from 2030

Our obsession with growth is ruining the planet. A Green New Deal can save us

An Indigenous critique of the Green New Deal

The ‘green new deal’ supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Corbyn is just a new form of colonialism. And a prior companion piece: A Green New Deal must deliver global justice.

Between ecosocialism, extractivism, the future and the Left in power

Time for Europe to stop growing and grow up

Debate between Giorgos Kallis (Degrowth) and Ted Nordhaus (Ecomodernism)



Resources

Elements of the democratic economy

History from below: a reading list with Marcus Rediker

Global tapestry of alternatives. An initiative seeking to create solidarity networks and strategic alliances amongst radical alternatives to the dominant capitalist, patriarchal, racist, statist, and anthropocentric regime on local, regional and global levels.



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Accelerationism… and degrowth?

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927).
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

by Aaron Vansintjan

For the past little while I’ve been involved with a group in Barcelona, which studies and advocates ‘degrowth’: the idea that we must downscale production and consumption to have a more equitable society, and that we therefore must dismantle the ideology of ‘economic growth at all costs’. As you can imagine, they spend much of their time trying to clear up misconceptions: “No, we’re not against trees growing. Yes, we also would like children to grow. Yes, we also like nice things like healthcare.”

But this last year I was living in London. There, activist ideology seemed to be permeated by the ‘accelerationists’—who argue that capitalism and its technologies should be pushed beyond their own limits, to create a new post-capitalist future. Accelerationism is almost like, having tried hard to evade a black hole, a ship’s crew decides that the best course of action would be to turn around and let themselves be sucked in: “Hey, there could be something cool on the other side!”

After a year of experiences in some of London’s activist circles, I now understand better where this is coming from. Decades of government cutbacks, squashing of unions, total financialization of the city, and lack of access to resources for community organizing has meant that London activists are systematically in crisis mode—exhausted, isolated, and always on the defensive.

accel-degrow
Source: Institute for Social Ecology

These worlds of thought are best encapsulated in two recent books. In Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, edited by Giacomo d’Alisa, Federico Demaria, and Giorgos Kallis, its authors explain concepts such as care, environmental justice, basic income, commons—all of which are seen as part of degrowth’s “interpretive frame”. For them, degrowth is an umbrella term that houses a variety of movements, ideologies, and ideas for a more sustainable, and less capitalist, world.

In Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work—an extension of their viral #Accelerate Manifesto—authors Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek discuss the promise of basic income, increase in automation technologies and utopian thinking for creating a kind of “fully automated luxury communism”.

Surprisingly, both books have a lot in common. You have the utopian imaginaries, a renewed focus on alternative economics, the willingness to think beyond both neoliberalism and Keynesianism, and the ability to grapple with contemporary technology’s effects on society and the environment.

But they are also quite different. These differences were made real to me on a dreary Saturday afternoon last winter at an event in London called “Future Society Forum”. After a short introduction by Nick Snricek, activists from around London were invited to brainstorm what a leftist utopia could look like.

The room was divided into different ‘themes’: work, health, environment and resources, education, etc. We were first asked to place post-its with ideas for “futures” particular to each theme. (Comically, someone had put ‘basic income’ on every single theme before the event had even started—an attempt at subliminal messaging?) Then, we were asked to split into groups to discuss each theme.

Given my background, I decided I could contribute most to the ‘environment’ theme—though I was certainly interested in joining the others. After a 15-minute discussion, the time came for each group to feed back to the larger collective. Unsurprisingly, the environment group envisioned a decentralized society where resources were managed by bio-region—a participatory, low-tech, low-consumption economy, where everyone has to do some farming and some cleaning up, and where the city is perfectly integrated with the country. I’m pretty sure I heard sniggers as our utopia was read out loud.

The ‘work’ group, on the other hand, envisioned a future with machines that would do everything for us—requiring big factories, where all labor (if there was any) was rewarded equally, where no one had to do anything they didn’t like, in which high-tech computer systems controlled the economy. Basically the “fully-automated luxury communist” dream.

Talk about selection bias.

Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes. Was it just an armistice to prepare for a bigger battle down the road, or was there really less animosity than I imagined?

Part of me had expected more than a snigger, though. But the direct challenge never came. The accelerationists begrudged the enviros their grub-eating utopia while they ruminated on their own techno-fetishes.

Of course such differences are not totally new on the left—similar opposing strands played their part in social movements of the past: should we smash the machines or take them into our own hands? Should we grab the reigns of the state or disown it outright? Friedrich Engels may have totally dismissed peasants as possible revolutionaries, but the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakhunin insisted that peasants could, and would, be crucial in creating a world beyond capitalism—and that the left could learn from peasant communes for an idea of what another world would look like.

These same tensions are competing in the accelerationist and degrowth ideologies. Accelerationists like Srnicek and Williams emphasize automation, the role of unions, and reduction in the working week as the primary variables in shifting the gears beyond capitalism. Their focus is on the big stuff (labor, global trade) and they argue a focus on small interventions by the left is part of the problem, not a solution to it. Degrowth scholars look toward small “nowtopias” and make alliances with those struggling against extractivism—often peasants, forest-dwellers, and indigenous peoples.

When I was done reading Srnicek and Williams’ book, I realized that degrowth and accelerationism (although I’ve since learned that Williams and Srnicek now distance themselves from the term, so as not to be confused with more right-wing strains of the movement) actually have more in common than I initially thought—both in practical terms (policies and strategy), and in their general ideological positions. And they have a lot to learn from each other.

What follows is a bit of a report: a conversation between the two proposals. There will be some critique, but also some cross-pollination. My discussion revolves around a couple of themes: the importance of utopian thinking, technology, economy, and political strategy.

If there is commonality there is also difference. How is it possible that, considering so many agreements, they have such an oppositional framing of the problem at hand? By way of a conclusion, I suggest that the notion of ‘speed’—and their divergent views of it—is fundamental to each position.

 

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Utopian Thinking

As David Graeber put it in yet another tasty essay, social movements today are experiencing a kind of “despair fatigue”: no longer content with merely commiserating about cuts to social services, there has been a rebirth in futuristic, positive thinking.

Indeed, it seems that a key uniting principle between accelerationism and degrowth is their promotion of utopian ideas. This might come as a surprise with those unfamiliar with the degrowth literature—recently, a whole book was dedicated to attacking the degrowth hypothesis as anti-modern and a form of “austerity ecology”.

However, the fact is that degrowth thinkers have put a lot of thought into how to go beyond primitivist flight from the modern and envision a future that is low-carbon, democratic, and just. Despite the negative connotations that may come with a word like ‘degrowth’, there have been many positive, forward-looking proposals within the movement. Key concepts here include “desire”—that is, the emphasis that a just transition should not be forced but should come from people’s own political will; “commoning”—in which wealth is managed collectively rather than privatized; the support of innovative policies such as basic and maximum income as well as ecological tax reform; the resuscitation of Paul Lafargue’s demand for ‘the right to be lazy’ (also picked up by the accelerationists); the embracement of ‘imaginaries’ inspired by ‘nowtopias’—actually existing livelihood experiments that point to different possible futures.

The same is true for the accelerationists. Indeed, the launching point of Srnicek and Williams’ book is that much of leftist activism in the past decades has forsaken the imaginative, creative utopias which characterized left struggles of the past. Progressive activism, to them, has largely been limited to what they call “folk politics”—an activist ideology that is small in its ambit, focuses on immediate, temporary actions rather than long-term organizing, focuses on trying to create prefigurative perfect ‘micro-worlds’ rather than achieving wide-ranging system change. This, they argue, is symptomatic of the wider political moment, in which a neoliberal consensus has foreclosed any ability to think up alternative policies and worlds. And so they propose a vision of the future that is both modern and conscious of current economic trends. Like the degrowth movement, they propose that the dominant pro-work ideology must be dismantled, but unlike degrowth, they take this in another direction: proposing a world where people don’t have to submit to drudgery but can instead pursue their own interests by letting machines do all the work —in other words “fully automated luxury communism.”

What unites the two is a counter-hegemonic strategy that sets up alternative imaginaries and ethics, that challenges the neoliberal moment by insisting that other worlds are possible and, indeed, desirable. For degrowth scholars like Demaria et al., degrowth is not a stand-alone concept but an interpretive “frame” which brings together a constellation of terms and movements. For accelerationists, part of the strategy is to promote a new set of “universal” demands that allow new political challenges to take place. In addition, they call for an “ecology of organizations”—think tanks, NGOs, collectives, lobby groups, unions, that can weave together a new hegemony. For both, there is a need to undermine existing ideologies by, on the one hand, providing strong refutations to them, and, on the other, through setting up new ones (e.g. post-work, conviviality). The result is two strong proposals for alternative futures that are not afraid of dreaming big.

metro_4
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Economic Pluralism, Political Monism?

Forty years after neo-conservative godfather Irving Kristol indicted the New Left for “refusing to think economically” in his well-known speech at the Mont Pelerin Society, it is interesting that these two emerging frameworks are once again centering economics in their analysis. Indeed, both frameworks propose startlingly similar economic policies. They share demands such as universal basic income, reduction in work hours, and the democratization of technology. However, they differ in other demands: Williams and Srnicek stress the potential of automation to address inequality and focus on the role of technological advances in either further driving precarity or liberating society. As part of this, they talk at length about the importance of state-led innovation and subsidies for research and development, and how this needs to be reclaimed by the left.

In contrast, Degrowth scholars such as Giorgos Kallis and Samuel Alexander have proposed a more diverse platform of policies, ranging from minimum and maximum income, working hour reduction and time-sharing, banking and finance reform, participatory planning and budgeting, ecological tax reform, financial and legal support for the solidarity economy, reducing advertising, and abolishing the use of GDP as an indicator of progress. These are only a few of the many policies proposed by Degrowth advocates—the point is, however, that Degrowthers tend to support a broad policy platform rather than a set of strategic, system-changing “easy wins”.

At multiple points in their book, Srnicek and Williams urge the left to engage with economic theory once again. They argue that, while mainstream economics does need to be challenged, tools such as modeling, econometrics, and statistics will be crucial in developing a revived, positive vision of the future.

Indeed, near the end of the book, they make a bid for “pluralist” economics. In the wake of the 2008 crisis, the left responded with a “makeshift Keynesianism”—because the focus had largely been on a critique of capitalism there was a severe lack of alternative economic theories available to draw from. They urge thinking through contemporary issues that are not easily addressed by Keynesian or Marxist economic theory: secular stagnation, “the shift to an informational, post-scarcity economy”, alternative approaches to quantitative easing, and the possibilities of full automation and a universal basic income, amongst others. They argue that there is a need for the left to “think through an alternative economic system” which draws from innovative trends spanning “modern monetary theory to complexity economics, from ecological to participatory economics.”

However, I was a disappointed by what they considered “plural” forms of economics. There was little discussion of the content of alternative economics such as institutional economics, post-Keynesian economics, commons theory, environmental economics, ecological economics, and post-development theory. It is these fields that have offered some of the strongest challenges to neoclassical economics, and present some strong challenges to their own political ideology as well. They would do well to engage with them more.

This gap is not minor. Rather, it reflects deeper issues within the whole accelerationist framework. For a book that mentions climate change as one of the foremost problems we face—also mentioned in the first sentence of their #Accelerate Manifesto—there is surprisingly little engagement with environmental issues. And yet it is these unmentioned heterodox economic fields that have provided some of the most useful responses to the current environmental crisis—even going so far as providing robust models and econometric analyses to test their own claims.

The same gap is not found in the Degrowth literature. Indeed, the movement has been inspired to a great extent by rebel economists such as Eleanor Ostrom, Nicholas Georgescu-Røegen, K. William Kapp, Karl Polanyi, Cornelius Castoriadis, Herman Daly, and J.K. Gibson-Graham. Degrowth sessions are now the norm at many heterodox economics conferences—just as degrowth conferences are largely dominated by discussions of the economy.

Taking the lessons from institutional economics in stride, degrowth thinkers have stressed that there are no panaceas: no single policy will do the trick, a diverse and complimentary policy platform is necessary to offset feedback loops that may arise from the interplay between several policies.

From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic. Focusing on three core policies makes for elegant reading and simple placards, but also comes at a price: when these policies are implemented and result in unforeseen negative effects, there will be little political will to keep experimenting with them. I would rather place my bets on a solid, multi-policy platform, resilient enough to deal with negative feedback loops and not too dogmatic about which one should be implemented first.

From this perspective, the strategic policies proposed by accelerationists—basic income, automation, reduction in working hours—start to look rather simplistic.

A strong point of the accelerationists is their emphasis that economic policies are political—and thus must be won through political organizing. In doing so, they make the crucial step beyond economism—the term Antonio Gramsci used to refer to leftists who put counter-hegemonic activism on hold until “economic conditions” favor it. The same cannot always be said of the environmentalist left: scarcity, environmental limits—these are often imposed as apolitical spectres that override all other concerns.

And yet, for all their calls for a united, utopian vision, I remain apprehensive about the kind of utopia they proposed—and therefore the kind of politics they see as necessary. While ‘folk politics’ is in part a promising definition of activism that fails to scale up, it also easily becomes a way to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their idea of what politics really is.

Take, for example, their take-down of the Argentinean popular response to the financial crisis. Under their gaze, the “large-scale national turn towards horizontalism” involving neighborhood assemblies after the 1998 recession  “remained a localized response to the crisis” and “never approached the point of replacing the state”. Worker-run factories failed to scale up and “remained necessarily embedded within capitalist social relations”. In conclusion, they claim that Argentina’s ‘moment’ was “simply a salve for the problems of capitalism, not an alternative to it.” They maintain that it was simply an emergency response, not a competitor.

But this is a very problematic view of what constitutes ‘the political.’ Drawing on decades of reporting on Latin America’s popular struggles and involvement in them, Raùl Zibechi argues that, following neoliberal abandonment by the state, peasants, Indigenous peoples, and slum-dwellers are creating new worlds and resources that operate differently from the logic of the state and capital. These new societies make no demands from political parties and they do not develop agendas for electoral reform. Instead, they organize “con/contra” (with/against) existing institutions by ‘reterritorializing’ their livelihoods, building diverse and horizontal economies, and rising up in revolt at critical junctures.

Under Zibechi’s gaze, the very same Argentinean popular reaction is described as a moment when “the unfeasible becomes visible”. What was simmering under the surface is revealed “like lightning illuminating the night the sky”.  Rather than being “emergency responses”, the Argentinean response was practiced and strategic—not quite as spontaneous and disorganized as Srnicek and Williams depict.

Likewise with gender politics; even as Williams and Srnicek acknowledge feminist economic theories around care and reproductive labor, what qualifies as ‘real’ politics falls into very hegemonic realms: lobbying, the formation of think-tanks, policy platforms, unions, and economic modeling. But what about other types of resistance, such as the ones Zibechi highlights: childcare collectives, squatted and autonomously organized settlements, community-organized schools and clinics, collective kitchens, and street blockades? How do such practices, now being referred to as ‘commoning,’ fit in their ‘ecology of organizations?’

I worry that accelerationists, like Friedrich Engels’ dismissal of peasants as revolutionary agents, implicitly reject the possibility that Indigenous and anti-extractivist struggles are important potential allies. If political success is measured solely by statist goals, then non-statist victories will remain invisible.

In contrast, degrowth thinkers have collaborated with post-development scholars like Ashish Kothari and Alberto Acosta, and have helped to create a worldwide environmental justice network—forming alliances with the very groups that would be the most affected by an increase in automation and the least likely to benefit from accelerationist policies like basic income.

What Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North

Unfortunately, what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’ ends up justifying their specific vision of the political—one that is quite strikingly a vision from the North, unable to break away from hegemonic ideas of the ‘right’ political actors. By this logic, the Argentinean movement ‘failed’ because it could not replicate or replace the state. To this end, they might find it useful to engage with subaltern theorists, decolonialization studies, post-development scholars—all of whom have in different ways challenged Western conceptions of what resistance, alternatives, and progress looks like. Further, they might engage with commons theorists who demonstrate how commoning practices open up very real alternatives to neoliberalism. Beyond theoretical alliances, this might help them not to dismiss “failed” movements simply because they do not seek to copy the state.

 

Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

Technology, Efficiency, and Metabolism

For many on the left, technology is secondary to redistributive policies (welfare, health care, employment equity) and innovation is the realm of private companies, not the government.

In contrast, accelerationists recognize that technology is a key driver of social and economic change. For Srnicek and Williams, an important strategic goal within the left would be to politicize technology, to transform capitalist machines for socialist goals. We must take the reigns of technology, democratize it, if we are to deal with the multiple issues facing humanity today. This ‘modern’ gesture, which avoids primitivism and the wish to return to a ‘simpler’ past, is certainly appreciated.

Srnicek and Williams spend much of the book discussing how automation is transforming social and economic relations worldwide. Not only is the roboticization of the workplace rendering so many workers in the Global North useless, automation is starting to have its effects in rapidly developing countries like China. They go so far as to link the informalization of huge swathes of humanity—slum-dwellers, rural-urban migrants—as an indication that capitalism no longer even needs its “reserve army of labor”. The onset of automation means that we may once again enter a world of mass unemployment, where labor becomes cheap and all the power will be in the hands of the employer.

Their response to this is quite brave: rather than fleeing this modern ‘reality’, they suggest pushing for ever more automation—eventually ending the need for rote labor and bringing about “fully automated luxury communism”—their vision of a desirable future. As part of this, they argue that public investment in innovation will be key in achieving this goal.

As they try to show, automation is already helping to deindustrialize many countries (developed and developing), meaning that regardless of whether full automation happens or not, there is a critical need for social movements to fight for political advances to guarantee social safety nets. As a response to this, they argue that unions should actually be fighting for less working hours, not more, and that basic income will help address the mass unemployment that automation seems to be causing.

I agree that such political responses will be necessary in the years to come, and that automation certainly presents a predicament, but, for several reasons that I’ll list below, I’m not sure if it’s really the central predicament—as they seem to assert. First of all, is automation really occurring at such a rapid and destructive pace? It’s true that the rate of growth of employment worldwide is decreasing, but this could be explained by a number of factors, many of which are more and more being highlighted by mainstream economists: the onset of a ‘secular stagnation’ in Euro-America, the decline in conventional oil extraction, and the exhaustion of ‘easy’ growth that was already being felt in the 1970s. Indeed, once I dug into their citations, I didn’t find much research showing how automation’s role in current economic transformations compared to these other factors. However, not being a labor economist, I’m not well-versed enough in the numbers to discuss further. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Second, and more problematically, I follow George Caffentzis in his skepticism of the claim that soon Capital will not need workers in the future, and will therefore bring about its own demise:

Capital cannot will itself into oblivion, but neither can it be tricked or cursed out of existence… The “end of work” literature… creates a failed politics because it ultimately tries to convince both friend and foe that, behind everyone’s back, capitalism has ended.

This was a critique of Jeremy Rifkin and Antonio Negri in the 90s, but it might as well apply to the works of Paul Mason, Snricek, and Williams today. There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism. Even if they claim at multiple points that automation is not a technical but a political goal, they’re in many ways letting automation drive the cart of politics. I’ve already mentioned the dangers of economism. Today, something new seems to be emerging, which seems to very prevalent amongst “ecomodernist” progressives: technologism. The belief that a low-carbon future is only possible through ramping up innovation and technological advances, rather than a full-scale transformation of our social and political relations. Snricek and Williams try to skirt technologism, but their over-fascination with automation brings them dangerously close.

There’s something magical about letting automation do the anti-capitalist work for you. Unfortunately, there is no trick that will end capitalism.

Third, even if automation were on the rise, I’m skeptical as to how it could possibly limit capitalism’s outward expansion. As Peter Linebaugh has argued, the Luddites opposed automation not just because it was costing them their jobs, but because they knew the automation of textile manufacturing meant the enslavement, and drawing in to the capitalist system, of millions of slaves and indigenous people in the colonies.

Automation, from this viewpoint, is a local “problem” borne from a myopically Northern perspective: it will not do away with ever-expanding forest-clearing, enclosures, destruction of subsistence livelihoods, and the creation of itinerant classes forced into the extractivist economy. Regardless of whether automation is capitalist or communist, without being regulated, it stands to increase environmental conflicts globally. But rising rates of resource extraction are not mentioned as a problem in the book, nor do they propose a strategic alliance with those affected by the extractive industry.

This leads to what is perhaps the most frustrating gap in the whole book: their very weak environmental proposals.

Surprisingly, there are only two instances where they present ways to address the ‘environment problem’: when discussing why automation could actually be a good thing, they also mention that greater efficiency would decrease energy use. Elsewhere, they suggest that shifting to a four-day workweek would also limit energy use from commuting.

But efficiency doesn’t work that way. If you would take away one lesson from ecological economics, it is this golden rule, to be repeated to every techno-optimist you come across: without limiting in some way the use of resources and energy (e.g. by taxing it), any advance in efficiency will likely lead to progressively more resource use, not less. This is called the rebound effect, or Jevons’ Paradox.

It follows that there is no guarantee that truncating the workweek will be more environmentally friendly. Efficiency and more free time can just as easily lead to more ecological damage, not less. In any political regime where there are insufficient limits or regulations on total energy and material use in society (capitalist or communist), and the profits of investment are invested in more production, advances in efficiency will cause energy and material throughput to increase exponentially.

When discussing this issue with people in the degrowth community, Viviana Asara pointed out that this is not just a problem of environmental justice—who stands to loose by the increase in production—but also one of energetic limits.

The concept of EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) illustrates that, unlike fossil fuels, renewable energy has a very low return on investment. For the sake of the argument, let’s assume that a fully automated luxury economy has about the same total energy consumption as today’s economy—more efficient but producing more stuff. But because of renewable energy’s extremely low EROEI, such an economy might just require the total transformation of the Earth’s surface into solar panels—not just a hellish vision of the future, but also impossible.

We can argue at length about whether it is indeed possible to produce the same amount of energy using renewables alone, but the point is that Srnicek and Williams neglect to even hold that argument—something you might think necessary if you propose to scale up global industrial activity in times of climate change. As Asara put it to me in an email, “their ‘supposedly sustainable’ utopia of automation misses any sense of biophysical reality.”

This is where accelerationist and degrowth analyses differ the most. Degrowth takes as a key question the ‘metabolism’ of the economy—that is, how much energy and material it uses. As innovation enables the speeding up of this metabolism, and because an increase in metabolism has disastrous social and ecological impacts—too often offloaded on people who do not benefit from the technology—there needs to be collective decision-making on technology’s limits.

In this way, simply reappropriating technology, or making it more efficient, is not enough. In fact, without totally transforming how capitalism reinvests its surplus—requiring a fundamental transformation of financial systems—automation will unfortunately help expand capitalism, rather than allow us to overcome it.

If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations.

If capitalism always seeks to collectivize impacts and privatize profits, then communism should not be about collectivizing profits and externalizing impacts to people far away or future generations. This is the danger of ‘fully automated luxury communism’. These dangers are not discussed by accelerationist texts—but they should be.

Perhaps this is the key ideological difference: accelerationists make such an extreme modernist gesture that they refuse the need to limit their utopia—there are only possibilities. In contrast, degrowth is predicated on politicizing limits that, until now, have been left to the private sphere. This might involve saying, in the words of one Wall Street employee, “I would prefer not to” to some technologies.

 

What is Speed?

It says something about the times when two important segments of the radical left have gravitated to the terms ‘degrowth’ and ‘accelerationism’—about as opposite as it could get.

In my opinion, there is something rather new here, which brings the discussion beyond peasants vs. workers, localism vs. taking over the state: the introduction of the question of speed into leftist thought.

They do so in very different ways.  For degrowth, ‘growth’ is the acceleration of the energetic and material flows of the economic system at exponential rates, as well as the ideology that justifies it. Let’s call this socio-metabolic speed. Their political project then comes down to challenging that ideology head-on, as well as re-thinking economic theory to allow societies to ensure well-being but also transform how energy and material is used—necessary for a more just economic system.

Accelerationists, on the other hand, think of speed much more figuratively: they are referring to the Marxist concept of the material conditions of human relations—for them, acceleration means moving beyond the limits of capitalism, which requires a totally modern stance. This is socio-political speed: the shifting gears of social relations, as a result of changing technological systems.

Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized?

Both, I think, have put their finger on a crucial question of our times, but from slightly different directions: can what gives us modernity—a colossal global infrastructural web of extraction, transportation, and fabrication—be democratized? For accelerationists, this would require making that web more efficient and modifying political systems to make it easier to live with—shifting the gears of social relations beyond capitalism. For degrowthers, it would require slowing that system down and developing alternative systems outside of it. I don’t think these two aims are mutually exclusive. But it would require going beyond simplistic formulas for system change on one side, and anti-modern stances on the other.

But it’s also worth going one step further and asking whether that infrastructural system would really take kindly to these shifts in gears, or if it will it simply buck the passenger.

To navigate this question, it’s useful to briefly turn to the foremost “philosopher of speed”: Paul Virilio. In Speed and Politics, Virilio traces how changes in social relations were brought about through the increased velocity of people, machines, and weapons. Through Virilio’s eyes, the history of Europe’s long emergence out of feudalism into 20th century modernity was one of increasing metabolism of bodies and technologies. Each successive regime meant a recalibration of this speed, accelerating it, managing it. For Virilio, political systems—be they totalitarian, communist, capitalist, or republican—emerged both as a response to changes to this shift in speed and as a way to manage human-technologic co-existence.

What’s important for this discussion is that Virilio does not separate the two types of speed: changing social relations also meant changing metabolic rates—they are the same, and must be theorized simultaneously.

Doing so could be useful for both degrowth and accelerationism. While degrowth does not have a succinct analysis of how to respond to today’s shifting socio-technical regimes—accelerationism’s strong point—at the same time accelerationism under-theorizes the increased material and energetic flows resulting from this shifting of gears. Put another way, efficiency alone can limit its disastrous effects. As degrowth theorists have underlined, environmental limits must be politicized; control over technology must therefore be democratized; metabolic rates must be decelerated if Earth is to remain livable.

To conclude, accelerationism comes across as a metaphor stretched far too thin. A napkin sketch after an exciting dinner-party, the finer details colored in years afterwards—but the napkin feels a bit worn out.

Big questions need to be asked, questions unanswered by the simplistic exhortation to “shift the gears of capitalism.” When the gears are shifted, the problem of metabolic limits won’t be solved simply through “efficiency”—it must acknowledge that increased efficiency and automation has, and likely would still, lead to increased extractivism and the ramping up of environmental injustices globally. Or another: what does accelerationism mean in the context of a war machine that has historically thrived on speed, logistics, and the conquest of distance? Is non-violent acceleration possible, and what would class struggle look like in that scenario?

To be fair, degrowth doesn’t answer all the big questions either. There has been little discussion on how mass deceleration would be possible when, as Virilio shows, mass change has historically occurred through acceleration. Can hegemony decelerate?

If degrowth lacks a robust theory of how to bring about regime shift, then Williams and Snricek’s brand of accelerationism doesn’t allow for a pluralist vocabulary that looks beyond its narrow idea of what constitutes system change. And yet, the proponents of each ideology will likely be found in the same room in the decades to come. Despite their opposite ‘branding’, they should probably talk. They have a lot to learn from each other.

metropolis-metropolis-1927-15539888-2560-1804
Source: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)

A version of this article originally appeared on the Institute for Social Ecology Blog.

Aaron Vansintjan is currently completing a PhD on food politics and gentrification at Birkbeck, University of London. He is co-editor at Uneven Earth.