The Labour of Abstraction: Seven Transitional Theses on Marxism and Accelerationism

June 9th, 2014

Published in Fillip magazine #19. German translation by T. Atzert and S. Karakayali in Akzeleration (Berlin: Merve, 2013). Portuguese translation in Lugar Comun #42 (Rio de  Janeiro, 2014). Italian translation in Gli algoritmi del capitale (Verona: Ombrecorte, 2014). French translation in Multitudes #56 (October 2014).  Dutch translation for Leesmagazijn. Korean translation forthcoming.

 

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1. Capitalism is an object of high abstraction, the common is a force of higher abstraction.  

Marx’s notion of abstract labour identified the inner engine of capitalism, that is the transformation of labour into a general equivalent. In addition Sohn-Rethel (1978) spotted the strict relation between the abstraction of language, the abstraction of commodity and the abstraction of money. In the introduction of Grundrisse Marx (1857) clarifies abstraction as the methodology that will emerge ten years later in Das Kapital (1867). In Marx the concrete is a result, the product of the process of abstraction: capitalist reality, and specifically revolutionary reality, is an invention: “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse. It appears in the process of thinking, therefore, as a process of concentration, as a result, not as a point of departure, even though it is the point of departure in reality and hence also the point of departure for observation and conception” (Marx 1857: 101). Abstraction is both the tendency of capital and the method of Marxism. Autonomist Marxism then took abstraction and sewed it again upon the jacket of the proletarian: abstraction as the movement of capital and also as the movement of the resistance to it. Negri (1979: 66) specifically put abstraction at the centre of the method of antagonistic tendency as a process of collective knowledge: “the process of determinate abstraction is entirely given inside this collective proletarian illumination: it is therefore an element of critique and a form of struggle”. The idea of the common was born as an epistemic project.

  • Marx, Karl (1857). “Einleitung” (Manuscript M). Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. Moscow: Verlag für fremdsprachige Literatur, 1939. Translation: Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. London: Penguin, 1993.
  • Ilyenkov, Evald Vassilievich (1960). The Dialectics of the Abstract and the Concrete in Marx’s Capital. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982.
  • Sohn-Rethel, Alfred (1978). Intellectual and Manual Labour: A Critique of Epistemology. London: Macmillan.
  • Negri, Antonio (1979). Marx oltre Marx: Quaderno di lavoro sui Grundrisse. Milano: Feltrinelli. Translation: Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse. New York: Autonomedia, 1991.

 

 

2. Capitalism has evolved into further monetary and technological abstractions (techniques of financialization and algorithmic governance).

Contemporary capitalism has evolved along two main vectors of abstraction: monetary abstraction (financialization) and technological abstraction (the algorithms of the metadata society). Expressed within the diagram of organic composition of capital (Marx 1867: 762), it means: the technical composition has evolved towards the algorithmic abstraction of networks (data governance), the value composition towards the monetary abstraction of derivatives and futures (debt governance). “Finance, like money in general, expresses the value of labor and the value produced by labor, but through highly abstract means. The specificity of finance, in some respects, is that it attempts to represent the future value of labor and its future productivity” (Hardt in Marazzi 2008: 9). Algorithmic trading or algotrading is a good example of the combined evolution of these two machinic lineages and a good measure of the desperate state of investment capitals. From another point of view, on the ground of the new forms of cybernetic labour, Alquati (1963) tried to combined this parallel evolution in the notion of valorising information (merging the notions of cybernetic information and Marxian value)Alquati described a cybernetic factory that, alike digital networks today, was able to absorb human knowledge and turn it into machinic intelligence and machinic value (feeding so fixed capital). Capitalism started then to show the profile of a global autonomous intelligence: “Cybernetics recomposes globally and organically the functions of the general worker that are pulverised into individual micro-decisions: the Bit links up the atomised worker to the figures of the [economic] Plan” (Alquati 1963: 134). In Alquati’s factory we visit already the belly of an abstract machine, a concretion of capital that is no longer made of steel.

  • Marx, Karl (1867) Das Kapital. Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, vol. 1. Hamburg: Verla von Otto Meissner. Translation: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1. London: Penguin, 1981.
  • Alquati, Romano (1963) “Composizione organica del capitale e forza-lavoro alla Olivetti”, part 2. Quaderni Rossi, n. 3, 1963.
  • Marazzi, Christian (2002). Capitale e linguaggio, Dalla New Economy all’economia di guerra. Roma: Derive Approdi. Translation: Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy. Introduction by Michael Hardt. Los Angeles: Semiotexte, 2008.

 

 

3. Abstraction is the form of both cognitive capitalism and biopower.

The notion of biopolitical normativity was introduced by Foucault in his 1975 course Les Anormaux. Across modernity Foucault identified a form of power that was not exercised through techniques of repression of sexuality but through a positive production of knowledge about sexuality. Foucault (1975: 50) distinguished so between the domains of Law and Norm: “The norm’s function is not to exclude and reject. Rather, it is always linked to a positive technique of intervention and transformation, to a sort of normative project… What the eighteenth century established through the discipline of normalization… seems a power that is not linked to ignorance but a power that can only function thanks to the formation of a knowledge”. The curious fact is that Foucault’s notion of normative power was inspired by his mentor Canguilhem (1966), who borrowed this idea from the neurologist Kurt Goldstein (1934) and then applied it to social sciences. In Goldstein the normative power is the ability of the brain to produce new norms in order to adapt to the environment or respond to traumas. Similarly to Gestaltheorie, Goldstein believed that the normative power of the organism was based on the power of  abstraction. Foucault (1954) started his first book with a critique of Goldstein, transforming later on the power of abstraction into a proper epistemology of power. Biopolitics was born as noopolitics — and  the essential problem that besets the politics of life is still the politics of abstraction. Both the paradigm of biopower and cognitive capitalism should be described as the exploitation and alienation of the power of abstraction.

  • Goldstein, Kurt (1934). Der Aufbau des Organismus. Den Haag: Nijhoff. Translation: The Organism. New York: Zone Books, 1995.
  • Foucault, Michel (1954). Maladie mentale et personnalité. Paris: PUF. Translation: Mental Illness and Psychology. New York: Harper & Row, 1976.
  • Canguilhem, Georges (1966). Le Normal et le Pathologique. Paris: PUF. Translation: The Normal and the Pathological. Introduction by Michel Foucault. Dordrecht: Reidel, 1978 and New York: Zone Books, 1991.
  • Foucault, Michel (1975). Les anormaux. Cours au Collège de France 1974-1975. Paris: Seuil, 1999. Translation: Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France 1974-1975. New York: Picador, 2004.

 

 

4. Abstraction is the spinal cord of the perception of the World (and the Self).

Abstraction is the form of sensation, and therefore of the sensed body and sensed world. Already a century ago Gestalttheorie showed that the visual perception of a figure is based on the brain holistic power to generalise points and abstract lines, that is on a collective power of the organism. “Perception and perceptual consciousness depend on capacities for action and capacities for thought; perception is… a kind of thoughtful activity”, reminds the most recent school of enactivism (Noë 2004: vii). Perception is always a hypothetical construction (or abduction, said with Peirce). From buddhist philosophy to Spinoza and contemporary neuroscience (Maturana and Varela 1980), the mind finally emerges as a swarm — a collective cooperation and abstraction of singularities (atoms, cells, neurons, etc.) producing the ‘tunnel effect’ of the body and the Self (Metzinger 2009). Neuroplasticity is the property of the mind to reorganise itself after a damage but also its intrinsic dis-functionality and openness to chaos. If the atomic swarm recomposes itself in a different way, new forms of Gestalt emerge, for instance, as hallucination, dream, imagination, invention. Abstraction must be considered as an organic and logical collective power of the mind that precedes also language, mathematics and science in general: it is the power to perceive in detail and recognise an emotion, to project the Self beyond its cultural limits, to change habits to recover from a trauma, or invent a new norm to adapt to the environment (Goldstein 1934). It is also the power, of course, to manipulate tools, machines and information. Abstraction is rooted deep into life and time. Also Deleuze and Guattari (1980: 496) reminded that the primeval artistic gesture of the human was an abstract line: primitive art begins with the abstract (Worringer 1908).

  • Worringer, Wilhelm (1908). Abstraktion und Einfühlung. München: Piper. Translation: Abstraction and Empathy. New York: International Universities, 1953.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1980) Mille Plateaux. Paris: Minuit. Translation: A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
  • Maturana, Humberto and Varela, Francisco (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living. Boston: Reidel.
  • Noë, Alva (2004). Action in Perception. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Metzinger, Thomas (2009). The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self. New York: Basic Books.

 

 

5. Eros is the cruel abstraction of the Self.

There is no opposition between life and knowledge as vigorously reminded by Canguilhem (1965: xvii): “We accept far too easily that there exists a fundamental conflict between knowledge and life, such that their reciprocal aversion can lead only to the destruction of life by knowledge or to the derision of knowledge by life. […] Now, the conflict is not between thought and life in man, but between man and the world”. As reminded by Tronti (1966: 14) conflict is an epistemic engine: “Knowledge is tied to struggle. Who truly hates, truly knows”. Still the millenary splitter of mind and body, and particularly eros and abstraction, haunts the interpretations of cognitive capitalism. Many radical philosophers lament the de-eroticisation of the body by digital labour, information overflow and hyper-sexualised mediascape (Agamben, Berardi, Stiegler, etc.) and, as a political response, they appear to suggest but the ‘erotic insurrection’ of naked life. Still if biopower is a machine of abstraction, resistance is not about reclaiming more body, more affection, more libido, etc. but about recovering the alienated power of abstraction, that is the ability to differentiate, bifurcate, and perceive things in detail, including our own feelings (Foucault 1976: 159 on the irony of the dispositif of sexuality that makes one continuously desire ‘sexual liberation’). Against the common reception of the philosophy of desire, Negarestani (2009) has noticed that Deleuze opens his book Difference and Repetition (1968) by posing a fundamental connection between difference and cruelty. Abstraction must not be understood as a drive against ‘life’, but as the violent gesture of any being against its own Grund (identity, gender, class, species, etc.). In Spinoza indeed joy and love mark the passage to a greater perfection. “Human anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the ape” — suggests Marx (1857: 105) in an apparently anthropocentric statement.  On the contrary, these words insinuate anastrophically the step towards a post-human stage: “Alien anatomy contains the key to the anatomy of the human”.

  • Canguilhem, Georges (1965). La Connaissance de la vie. Paris: Vrin. Translation: Knowledge of Life. New York: Fordham University, 2008.
  • Deleuze, Gilles (1968). Différence et Répétition. Paris: PUF. Translation: Difference and Repetition. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
  • Tronti, Mario (1966). Operai e capitale. Torino: Einaudi.
  • Foucault, Michel (1976). La Volonté de savoir. Paris: Gallimard. Translation: The Will to Knowledge. London: Penguin, 1998.
  • Negarestani, Reza (2009) “Differential Cruelty: A Critique of Ontological Reason in Light of the Philosophy of Cruelty”, Angelaki, vol. 14, n. 3, december 2009.

 

 

6. The power to accumulate, the power to restrain, the power to accelerate.

Politics is tactics and strategy of temporality (that is of invention of time). In this regard Marx has been accused of two opposite errors: messianism of kairos (“Marx has secularized the messianic time in the conception of the classless society”, Benjamin 1940) and quantification of kronos, or measurement of surplus value in clock hours (Marx still belongs to Aristotelian tradition of the measurability of the being, remark Hardt and Negri 2000: 354). In between there is the most elegant attempt ever made to compact the whole gear of industrial capitalism in one short formula, that is the equation of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (Marx 1894: 317), that will become the first diagram of accelerationism: “Which is the revolutionary path?… To withdraw from the world market?… Or might it be to go in the opposite direction? To go still further, that is, in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization?… Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to accelerate the process, as Nietzsche put it” (Deleuze and Guattari 1972: 239). Operaism has repeatedly criticized Marx’s formulation of organic composition of capital for being compressed within the perimeter of  the industrial factory and not open to the whole metropolis. After breaking the cage of the organic composition of capital, however Italian Theory (Agamben, Esposito, Virno) has rebuilt a new one under the notion of katechon, or ‘the force that restrains the evil’, that has been taken as the ambivalent model for the institutions of the multitude (Virno 2008: 62). Against the claustrophobic double-bind of the katechon, the accelerationist hypothesis tries to breath again the air of the big Outside.

  • Marx, Karl (1894). Das Kapital, vol. 3. Hamburg: Meissner. Translation: Capital, vol. 3. New York: International Publishers, 1967.
  • Benjamin, Walter (1940). On the Concept of History, draft. In: Selected Writings, vol. 4. Cambdrige, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.
  • Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix (1972) L’Anti-Oedipe. Paris: Minuit. Translation: Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
  • Hardt, Michael and Negri, Antonio (2000). Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Agamben, Giorgio (2000) Il tempo che resta. Un commento alla Lettera ai Romani, Torino: Bollati Boringhieri. Translation: The Time That Remains. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.
  • Virno, Paolo (2008). Multitude Between Innovation and Negation. New York: Semiotexte.

 

7. From general intellect to alien intelligence, or the subject of abstraction.

Autonomist Marxism’s ontology of antagonism often maintained a humanist position within an anthropocentric tradition (for example Berardi 2011): indeed capitalism is a inhuman force, a force that aims to exploit and overcome the human. Nonetheless any project of autonomia should be framed as the becoming-posthuman of the working class itself: as there is no original class to be nostalgic for. “Capital properly thought is a vast inhuman form, a genuinely alien life form (in that it is entirely non-organic) of which we know all-too-little. A new investigation of this form must proceed precisely as an anti-anthropomorphic cartography, a study in alien finance, a Xenoeconomics” (Williams 2008). ‘Speculative Marxism’ can be defined as the shift from the paradigm of cognitive capitalism to a paradigm that describes capitalism as alien intelligence: “the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from the enemy’s resources” (Land 1993). Here no fatalism or dualism is intended: the political autonomy of the General Intellect (Virno 1990) has to transform itself into Alien Intelligence too. The subjectivity of abstraction has to establish new alliances with non-human and machinic forces. Specifically Marx’s  tendency of the rate of profit to fall has to find eventually its epistemic twin. In this sense Marxist accelerationism (Srnicek and Williams 2013) appears  to be not about a mere catastrophic acceleration of capital (like in Virilio, Baudrillard, Land) but about an epistemic acceleration and reappropriation of fixed capital as technology and knowledge (a sort of Epistemic Singularity). Collective intelligence has to organise itself into a hostile intelligence — also in the sense of inoculating the host as a malignant parasite. An alien intelligence is not concerned with any orthodoxy, it proliferates and organises its own heresies.

  • Virno, Paolo (1990). “Citazioni di fronte al pericolo”. Luogo Comune, n. 1. Translation: “Notes on the General Intellect”. In: S. Makdisi et al. (eds.) Marxism beyond Marxism. New York: Routledge, 1996.
  • Land, Nick (1993). “Machinic desire”. Textual Practice, vol. 7, n. 3.
  • Williams, Alex (2008). “Xenoeconomics and Capital Unbound,” Splintering Bone Ashes blog [link].
  • Berardi, Franco (2011). “Time, Acceleration and Violence”. E-flux, n. 27, September 2011 [link].
  • Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex (2013). ”Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”. In: Jousha Johnson, Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside. Miami: Name, 2013 [PDF].

 

First published December 2013

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