Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

The problem with accelerationism is precisely that it is not boring enough

The store known as La Chaussee d’Antin had recently announced its new inventory of yard goods. Over two million meters of barege, over five million of grenadine and poplin, and over three million of other fabrics-altogether about eleven million meters of textiles. Le Tintamarre now remarked, after recommend­ing La Chaussee d’Antin to its female readers as the ‘foremost house of fashion in the world; and also the ‘most dependable’: ‘The entire French railway system comprises barely ten thousand kilometers of tracks – that is, only ten million meters. This one store, therefore, with its stock of textiles, could virtually stretch a tent over all the railroad tracks of France, which, especially in the heat of summer, would be very pleasant.’ Three or four other establishments of this kind publish similar figures, so that, with all these materials combined, one could place not only Paris … but the whole departement of the Seine under a massive canopy, ‘which likewise would be welcome in rainy weather.’ But we cannot help asking: How are stores supposed to find room to stock this gigantic quantity of goods? The answer is very simple and, what is more, very logical: each firm is always larger than the others.

You hear it said: “La Ville de Paris, the largest store in the capital,” “Les Villes de France, the largest store in the Empire,” “La Chaussee d’Antin, the largest store in Europe,” “Le Coin de Rue, the largest store in the world” – “In the world”: that is to say, on the entire earth there is none larger; you’d think that would be the limit. But no: Les Magasins du Louvre have not been named, and they bear the title “The largest stores in the universe.” The universe! Including Sirius apparently, and maybe even the “disappearing twin stars” of which Alexander von Humboldt speaks in his Kosmos. (Ebende, Lebende Bilder aus dem modernen Paris, quoted in Benjamin, The Arcades Project)

One of accelerationism’s central claims is that, although contemporary capitalism continuously uses the language of innovation, what it actually produces is mediocrity or stagnation, endless small changes that don’t really change anything (new phones with marginally different specs, that kind of thing). The accelerationist response to this is to challenge capitalism by taking seriously its claims to innovation, and to show that only an anti-capitalist politics can produce in reality the innovation that capitalism proposes as ideology. This is a misunderstanding of the dialectic. 

The Marxist position is not to take the ideological claims of capitalism and then propose to realise them, but rather to take what is actually being produced by capitalism, and find a way to radicalise this reality. So, for instance, the Marxist position on equality is not the one proposed by Rancière or Žižek, in which we take the formal equality of liberal ideology as an ideal that capitalism cannot realise but communism can. Marxist equality begins with the actual equality produced by the deskilling which renders workers equivalent to one another, and tries to imagine what a future society would look like based on this form of equality.

So, what would be the dialectical approach to capitalism’s ceaseless and stagnant “innovations”? One of the problems with capitalism is that it produces mediocrity but also renders that mediocrity unsustainable: capitalism needs average workers, but capitalist ideology insists that only the exceptional deserve the rewards that would allow them to live a decent life. We see this in almost parodic form in Silicon Valley tech boosterism, where every half-assed Uber-for-pugs startup insists that its rockstar programmers are radically changing the world; or in academia, where any continued employment is contingent on demonstrating exceptional talent (the UK’s “Research Excellence Framework” doesn’t even count any research that is less than “internationally excellent”; at many institutions, work is only deemed worthy of submission for funding applications if it is “world leading”).

In fact, of course, this “productive” worker cares as much about the crappy shit he has to make as does the capitalist himself who employs him, and who also couldn’t give a damn for the junk. (Marx, Grundrisse)

Against this tiresome insistence on excellence, communism should base itself on the actual mediocrity produced by capitalism, but we need to make it possible to live our mediocre lives, in contrast to our current situation where failing to achieve an impossible excellence leaves everyone one step away from penury. We should ask, what would it mean to make a society that was good enough, rather than one which claims greatness and actually treats the majority of the population as disposable garbage.  Of course, it may be utopian to hope that we can give  “mediocrity” the kind of positive valence that would allow us to inscribe it on our banners, but other ways of talking about mediocrity have more purchase: the struggle for a good enough life, for freedom from worry and for free time, were components of the mass movements for post-war social democracy and the post-68 movements organised around social reproduction. We need to reclaim this often overlooked continuity between previous movements, and to do so, we should give up the seductive ideology of excellence.