Is Consuming Like Crazy the Best Way to End Capitalism?

A conversation with philosopher Steven Shaviro about "accelerationism," which is essentially the belief that the best way to shorten capitalism's lifespan is to push it to the extreme.

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Mar 19 2015, 3:15pm

Photo of a human female consumer via Pixabay

Hang out on Tumblr or in a dorm lounge long enough and eventually the talk will turn to ending capitalism. These discussions are all theoretical, of course—there have been endless attempts at shifting from our market-based economy to something more egalitarian and enlightened, but nothing has stuck, and some of the larger scale efforts have turned into horrific disasters. Anti-capitalists of various stripes haven't stopped coming up with theories about how this system could finally fall, however. One of these theories is called accelerationism—the idea is that hyper-stimulation of the market on a mass scale will end with the collapse of capitalism. Consume like crazy, only drink from styrofoam, and throw handfuls of dead batteries into our oceans so the impending apocalypse can hurry up and get over with.

The spread of this idea is rooted in Marx's belief that capitalism can't sustain itself forever and will eventually fizzle out. The means by which people will bring about its end are unclear, but that's where the ideas about accelerationism come from. Accelerationism is essentially the belief that the best way to shorten capitalism's lifespan is to push it to the extreme. If normal capitalism is Mick Jagger, accelerationism is Jim Morrison.

A while back, Steven Shaviro, who teaches at Detroit's Wayne State and studies the impact of technological capitalism on culture and everyday life, wrote an essay about accelerationism, explaining what it is in language that wasn't clouded by the usual academic jargon. Accelerationism has been explored by philosophers like Nick Land and Reza Negarestani, but Shaviro has become known as an authority on the topic—probably because he can articulate these complex philosophical ideas in a simple way that we plebs can understand. Shaviro just finished up a book out on accelerationism called No Speed Limit, so I called him up to learn more about the theory and see whether my Amazon Prime addiction is actually helping society.

Selfie courtesy of Dr. Shaviro

VICE: Accelerationism confuses me, but what I do understand is really interesting. Can you tell me a little more about it?
Steven Shaviro: Broadly defined, "accelerationism" is the idea that the only way out is the way through. If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.

Accelerationism rejects certain ideas currently popular on the left, like "small is beautiful," and the Luddite enmity towards new technologies. Instead, it urges us to embrace and repurpose all the most advanced technologies.

If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.

Fascinating. I always thought accelerationism basically said that the most impactful anti-capitalist was the captain of industry. Like, pushing the system faster and increasing inequality even more will help destroy it. But maybe that's not the case? How can the redistribution of wealth be considered an accelerationist move?
There are different varieties of accelerationism. At one extreme, accelerationism might embrace the idea that the worse things get, the better the prospect for a revolution to overthrow everything. This seems obviously foolish to me, and I don't think that it is actually advocated by many accelerationists.

Much more subtly, Marx claimed that the contradictions that beset capitalism would eventually lead to a struggle between workers and capitalists. He hoped that this struggle would end in the establishment of communism, but he warned that it could also result in "the mutual destruction of the contending parties."

Are you saying that the end is near?
Marx was saying that, due to its inherent strains and stresses, capitalism will lead to catastrophe if it isn't somehow overcome. This is an accelerationist view, to the extent that it sees the possibilities for overcoming capitalism arising out of the very development of capitalism as a world system. But this doesn't happen in any mechanistic or predetermined way.

As for how redistribution of wealth might be related to accelerationism—when somebody like Thomas Piketty argues for global taxes in order to force a redistribution of wealth, he is trying to save the capitalist system from its own self-destructive excesses. But as Slavoj Zizek has observed, the rich will never pay such a tax voluntarily; so just getting such a tax enacted would involve other changes as well, indeed radical ones that would change capitalism substantially.

This is fascinating, for someone who was spoon-fed a lot of simplified Marxism in college. What further reading would you recommend on the topic?
Read #Accelerate—The Accelerationist Reader, edited by Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian, for important essays about accelerationism, andMalign Velocities, by Benjamin Noys, for a critique of accelerationism. My short book on the topic, No Speed Limit: Three Essays on Accelerationism, has just come out from the University of Minnesota Press.

Cool. Can you explain what your other book, The Universe of Things, is about?
The book is about speculative realism—a recent philosophical movement that tries to consider what it would really mean to consider the universe as it exists in and for itself, apart from us. Psychologists have shown that our perception of the world is never objective; it is molded by our own needs and interests, both on the individual level, and in general, evolutionary terms. We notice what matters immediately to us, and often fail to notice what doesn't.

Speculative realism asks how it might be possible to approach things in the world, apart from the meanings and classifications that we impose upon them. If we were truly able to do this, what would we find?

Sounds like a good humanity-wide exercise in humility. How'd you get into it?
"Speculative realism" only became a term in 2007, when a philosophy conference was held with that title. The thinkers grouped under this title are very different from one another, and often have sharp disagreements. But they all question the notion that "man is the measure of all things."

They urge us to pay more attention to nonhuman entities, even nonliving entities, and to consider how all these entities are not just tools we use, or impediments to our actions, but "actants"—as the French sociologist Bruno Latour calls them—in their own right. They have their own tendencies, desires, and needs.

That's especially important at this point in history.
Right! At a time of impending ecological catastrophe, it is important for us to recognize as fully as possible the presence of the entities that share the world with us.

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