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On ‘exit’ from capital

Gus Lake

Platypus Review 121 | November 2019

WHEN CAPITALISM IS IDENTIFIED AS THE PRIMARY ILL facing society, the search for a time for it to be undone, exceeded or simply left behind, is inevitable.

Shoshana Zuboff’s recent book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019) contains many standout ideas, but one underlying anxiety is the search for an end, or exit, to capitalism. Nowhere is this clearer than when she writes:

Surveillance capital creates a world of ‘no exit’ with profound implications for the human future at this new frontier of power.[1]

The idea of ‘no exit’ evokes a present that is both totalizing and enclosed, a kind of hall of mirrors found in classic horror films. Whichever way you turn, there is continuous multiplication, whether of space, objects or people. Without a potential escape, the critique of capitalism seems an argument without a conclusion.

But the form that this current conclusion has taken as ‘exit’ has some interesting connotations. The very concept of ‘exit’ is itself a quintessentially modern, late-capitalist one. One could argue that some of the ways it is spoken of hold echoes of messianic predictions of old. But the immediacy of ‘exit’ — as opposed to rapture, apocalypse, etc. — as well as the techno-material connotations are impossible to ignore. Just look at your nearest keyboard.

For our context then, what is the function of the idea of ‘exit’?

One answer is that it is there for those of us uninterested in the idea of refusing the acceleration brought on by modern technology as a strategy for overcoming capitalism. Those of us who reject the idea of an oppositional Left committed to resisting the waves of technological advance as yet another harbinger of capitalist advance, King Canute style.

This critique of the modern Left has been most notoriously put forward by left accelerationists Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics (MAP)[2] and later Inventing the Future in which they denounce “folk politics” that prefers “the flimsy and ephemeral ‘authenticity’ of communal immediacy.”[3] For them, the modern Left evokes a version of the 60s mantra 'Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out.’

This rejection of a certain paleo-‘exit’ from capitalism is replaced by Srnicek and Williams with a promise of exit through capitalism. Technology is to be embraced and wielded for its liberatory potential. The danger in the formulation in MAP (which is well worth a read, along with the subsequent Xenofeminist Manifesto written by the Laboria Cuboniks collective[4]) is that the rejection of ‘folk politics’ easily slips into a rejection of politics all together. Seen as slow, laborious and restrictive, deliberative processes are understood to inevitably consign the Left to irrelevance in the face of turbo-boosted capitalist advance.

It is along these lines that one of the originators of accelerationism, Nick Land,[5] was recently asked about ‘exit’ from capitalism. His response, though definitely uninterested in the politics of anything resembling the Left, provides a thought-provoking alternative reading:

Capital is nothing but pure exit.[6]

Land’s contention here is that there is a transcendental error when talking about an ‘exit’ from capitalism. He is saying that you cannot exit from exit.

This does a couple of interesting things. By taking ‘exit’ as currently conceived, off the table Land in some ways responds to Efraim Carlebach’s Marxist reading of both Land and Mark Fisher in a recent Platypus Review article. Carlebach is worth quoting at length. He highlights how both Land and Fisher in their work openly use Marx:

…Land quotes extensively from the famous passage in The Communist Manifesto, in which Marx and Engels describe how “[t]he bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part…The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations…revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Land simply comments: “If Marx and Engels had systematically substituted ‘capitalism’ for ‘the bourgeoisie’ in this passage, its accelerationist credentials would have been vastly upgraded.”[7]

Carlebach points out that this essentially erases the role of the bourgeoisie in progressing society from feudal to capitalist forms (and on from there). Land and Fisher, and accelerationists of all stripes, replace a social relation, with all the dynamic tension that entails, with a machinic conception of capitalism driven by motor-fueled technology. The Landian contention in response then is that in some metaphysical sense we have reached a point where all attempts to ‘exit’ will be co-opted, usurped, and lead back to capital. As he says elsewhere in the same Hermitix interview quoted above, any competent attempt at ‘exit’ is “mushroom fertilizer for capital.” Here we can see the power of the accelerationist position, as well as the reification that Carlebach rightly points out.

But what the accelerationist position also helpfully does is undercut a certain thrashing about for ‘An Alternative’ that has been seen on the Left. It is replaced with an even more finalistic, though potentially more freeing, assertion than Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism when he opened it with the words, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

Taking this in a more hopeful register, we can redirect our energy to something more productive. A response that says, ‘right, so what shall we do now’.

To return to Zuboff, she demands our future back, our sovereignty back, our privacy back. If we look ahead instead, creativity, subversion and new freedoms have almost always come from a reclamation of the modern, a wielding of those technologies that are being used to control us. Srnicek and Williams agitated for “the recovery of the future as such.” This is the right approach, the only way is through wielding the most advanced technologies for better ends.

Audre Lorde once famously said that “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”[8] It is a powerful statement, but what if the response (as I heard at a recent presentation from one of the authors of the Xenofeminist Manifesto) was something along the lines that, “those tools can dismantle and build new houses, indeed they must, they’re the only tools we have.”

The broader point is that, to put it provocatively, we need to cancel ‘exit.’ Dismantlement is not an option. Only wielding the tools we have, making new tools if needed, and building in the present can create a new future.| P


[1] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 21

[2] <http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/>

[3] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future

[4] <https://www.laboriacuboniks.net/>

[5] There is a long-running flame war about Land, which is not unimportant, but I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to say that his ideas need to be contended with, while rejecting many of his political positions. This isn’t meant to sound blasé, I could enter into a discussion of how incidental or not the politics are to the analysis, but we’d never get to the point of this piece, you can read this blogpost for more informed content on those issues: <https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/why-is-nick-land-still-embraced-by-segments-of-the-british-art-and-theory-scenes/6329>.

[6] Hermitix Podcast, “Accelerationism & Capitalism with Nick Land,” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FgEqQujsNTY&feature=youtu.be&t=1330>

[7] Efraim Carlebach, “Forgetting Mark Fisher,” PR 115, <https://platypus1917.org/2019/04/01/forgetting-mark-fisher/>

[8] Audre Lorde is incredible in many other respects, not least her conception of hyphenated peoples. I do not want it to seem like her only contribution is this quote.

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