A lightly edited transcript of a paper given at a symposium on machines and automation in Cardiff on May 5, 2017.
Is it possible to conceive of society without politics?
Even in principle the question seems hard to fathom. Though many of us may wish to minimise the influence of politics on our lives, it seems that the existence of any society must, in some sense, be preconditioned by it. That distinction between friend and enemy which Carl Schmitt posited to be the heart of ‘the political’ is a radical consequence and condition of the very existence of societies as objects distinct from other societies, and as attempts collectively to reconcile the antagonisms inherent to human existence. The polis emerges necessarily from the socius as a unit of human life.
Yet while the idea of philosophy as being even potentially an antipolitical enterprise is now unfashionable, indeed in view of the semantic extension of politics today and the breakdown of the conceptual barriers that have traditionally separated politics from other spheres of life increasingly unfashionable, in the history of modern thought it has an undeniable pedigree. The intellectual historian István Hont highlighted this by posing a radical distinction between Thomas Hobbes and Marx, whom he placed at two ends of an immensely important intellectual-historical transformation. Where for Hobbes, Hont says, ‘there is no place for an economy’—his theory is one of ‘practically pure politics’—in contrast, ‘Karl Marx’s visionary theory of postcapitalism had no use for politics at all. Marx saw modernity as political, but also as insolvent. … For Marx, the ultimate goal was a pure exchange economy of genuine human utilities, cleansed of the distorting effects of private property and its political guardian, the state’. If politics is undeniably at the heart of existence today, in other words, the point of philosophy—Marx’s culmination of the anti-Hobbesian argument—must nonetheless be to abolish it. Marx was not the only philosopher who had ‘no time for politics’ in this sense. Friedrich Nietzsche, too, notoriously described himself in an early draft of Ecce Homo as ‘the last antipolitical German’, and though this declaration may seem strange in view of Nietzsche’s own concern from 1884 onwards to construct a ‘great politics’ of his own, this ‘great politics’ was a concept of special, even ironical significance, relentlessly juxtaposed against the ‘petty politics’ that Nietzsche identified with the whole spectrum of political thought and activity in his day.
As in Hont’s own case, the modern interpreter may be inclined to take these ‘antipolitical’ disavowals as reasons in themselves for scepticism: Hont inferred that we should reject both Hobbes and Marx, and alighted on Hume as the exponent of a political economy of ‘jealousy of trade’ that was genuinely both economic and political. If we are political animals, indeed, the posture of the philosopher as antipolitical must be hypocritical, and this conclusion finds apparent support in the contradictions that rive both Marx and Nietzsche. Whatever his antipolitical pretences, Nietzsche seems to have been happy enough to endorse, to greater or lesser degrees, particular forms of government and states. He listed in one fragment of 1885 a whole series of specific ‘great governmental artists’, ‘Confucius in China, the imperium Romanum, Napoleon, the Papacy’. And if the antagonism between Marx’s politics and the radically antipolitical implications of his economics has struck many of his later followers and interpreters as obvious enough, a substantial effort has been made to detach the former from the latter, restoring the humanist Marx from the relentless computational ‘economism’ that is sometimes seen as especially characteristic of his later work and that led in practice to the mishaps of the Second International. An opposition to particular pathological forms of politics is reasonable enough, but an opposition to politics as such seems quite embarrassingly incoherent. Marxism in the twentieth century has tended to take quite the opposite view. Thus Theodor Adorno in his 1965 lecture on progress suggests that even after capitalism there must by definition remain a process of continual resistance to safeguard our gains and to stem the tides of reaction: politics, then, the organisation of human antagonism, can never, never end.
So far, so good, we might think. Yet this narrative of a romantic longing soon shut down by the return of political realism does not suffice as an intellectual history of antipolitics. If we follow seriously the historical transformation identified by Hont, there does not seem to me to be anything in the ‘antipolitical’ gestures of either Marx or Nietzsche to contradict this Aristotelian assertion, analysed to the greatest depth in our own time by Arendt, that the human is a political animal. For Marx in particular, the abolition of politics is not a task to be undertaken through fine hypocritical human intentionality. It is a consequence of the tendency towards the economic overthrow of the human as such.
Let us return to the start of this transformative process, to one of the most profound analyses of the modern state, that of Thomas Hobbes. The three themes of this conference—labour, surveillance, and warfare—map closely to the basis of Hobbes’s commonwealth. In Chapter XIII of Leviathan, just a few paragraphs after he offers his famous description of the life of man in the state of nature, Hobbes states that ‘Kings and persons of Soveraigne authority’, for their part, ‘are in continuall jealousies … having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another … which is a posture of War’. Yet it is precisely ‘thereby’, in their continual condition of war, that they uphold the ‘Industry of their Subjects’. This tight interweaving of war, surveillance, and labour in the fabric of the commonwealth is repeated from a different perspective in Chapter XXIV, where Hobbes discusses the ‘nutrition and procreation of [the] common-wealth’, concluding that since ‘there is no Territory under the Dominion of one Common-wealth … that produceth all things needfull for the maintenance and motion of the whole Body; and few that produce not something more than necessary; the superfluous commodities to be had within, become no more superfluous, but supply these wants at home, by importation of that which may be had abroad, either by Exchange, or by just Warre, or by Labour’. ‘A mans Labour,’ Hobbes adds, ‘is a commodity exchangeable for benefit, as well as any other thing’, and it is through labour and its ‘Manufactures’ that commonwealths have gained in power without expanding their territory.
Much of the contemporary discourse on the question of automation assumes, intentionally or not, a basically Hobbesian perspective. Machinery is subsumed as part of the perpetually urgent ‘maintenance and motion’ of the state. Machines today are used to carry out war, to conduct surveillance internal and external, to abet industry, produce manufactures. They are inextricable from the modern regimes identified by Foucault, himself drawing on Hobbes, of territory, population, security. Mass production, mass politics, mass government—crossing and interpenetrating the state, they are radically interlinked. Wherever industrial revolution takes place, an enormous expansion of the capacity, the power, and the reach of the state, or more fundamentally of politics, seems to follow in its wake. This was the reality of machine massification and escalating cybernetic interconnection that Carl Schmitt called ‘total technology’, worrying that it would ‘quantitatively’ destroy the distinctive character of the political by infecting all the spheres of human life with politics while forcing a disastrous invasion of the political itself by the economic and social considerations of the machine. It was also the realisation that drove Japanese intellectuals in the 1930s, for instance, to reformulate Japanese imperialism on a mass plane, with Kanji Ishiwara perceiving in this technoindustrial process a geometric transformation of war from the pursuit of elite aspirations to an impending ‘final war’ that would volumetrically involve and engulf the entirety of society, and not just society, but the very territory—‘rivers and trees’—itself.
Far from doing anything ‘antipolitical’, the advent of modern machinery seems historically to have agitated politics to an immense and even nightmarish degree. Why, then, could Marx at the other end of the Hontian transformation—living long after Hobbes, as the industrial revolution was sweeping the world—believe that politics was in any danger of being overthrown? Hont draws Marx’s scepticism of politics against Hobbes to Rousseau, who already emphasises forms of conflict between classes that wrack the state with an incessant internal war. Yet the arrival of machinery suggests another reason for Marx’s belief in the overcoming of politics: we may do better to trace this not to Rousseau, but rather to the debate over labour-saving machinery that took place at the origins of modern political economy between Ricardo and Malthus. This controversy may be summed up, simplistically, as follows—for Malthus, the introduction of labour-saving machinery would not replace the need for human workers, since the escalation of agricultural productivity will directly increase the population such that demand continually outpaces supply, and automation must always be supplemented by readily available human labour. For Ricardo, by contrast, it would—the ‘use of machinery’, he says, ‘may be injurious to the labouring class, as some of their number will be thrown out of employment, and population will become redundant, compared with the funds which are to employ it’.
The consequences of the Ricardian view on automation are enormous, as Marx only gradually came to realise. It is in the third volume of Capital, a book that took Engels a decade to edit, that the argument reaches its culmination. Marx conceives of the ‘organic composition of capital’, as he calls it, to measure the relative contribution of human and machine labour to the production of surplus value. The rising organic composition of capital precipitates a decline in the rate of profit as the higher ‘productive force of labour’—that is, the higher level of automation—creates more and more commodities for less and less value. Crisis results—but in each crisis of overproduction capitalism explodes to ever newer, ever greater spheres of production. Finally, Marx says: ‘Capital becomes an alienated, independent social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power’. It is here and only here, on his theory in Capital, that the self-overcoming tendency of capitalism can be located: more radically, the ‘revolutionary subject’, such as it is, is not labour on its own, but capital, which its tendency to abolish the human element of the production process—and thus render the capitalist as irrelevant as the labourer.
Marx draws this point explicitly back to Ricardo: ‘It is that which is held against him,’ Marx says, ‘his unconcern about “human beings”, his having an eye solely for the development of the productive forces, whatever the cost in human beings and capital-values—[but] it is precisely that which is the important thing about him. Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital’.
Just as it was when the third volume of Capital finally appeared in the closing years of the nineteenth century, I do not think it is overly derogatory to say that the analysis of machinery advanced by Marx’s economics has remained a closed book to many radical theorists, and the general question of understanding the formation of capital and its consequences is similarly foreign to the mainstream of today’s neoclassical economics, notwithstanding the technically sophisticated efforts of Piero Sraffa in the Cambridge–Cambridge controversy to rescue a neo-Ricardian understanding of the subject. Recovering it, however, is essential to any historically informed comprehension of the social consequences of machine and automation.
From Marx we come to see that the regimentation of human labour is to be escaped only by the constitution of capital itself as an alienated object, and by the absolute automation that the suicidal process of capitalism unbound necessitates. Machinery, following an uncompromising Ricardian line, tends to abolish labour. To understand the full panoply of the antipolitical implications of this thought, however—to return to surveillance and war—we must cross the link between Marx and Nietzsche. We must understand the process of technological acceleration as insurrection.
This term ‘insurrection’ was introduced as a distinctive figure of political thought—in German, Empörung—by Max Stirner, that anarchist philosopher once viciously attacked by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, but who has recently experienced a strange and timely revival of interest online. Whatever we may think of Stirner’s intellectual system as a whole, his distinction between revolution and insurrection is of vital interest to understanding the significance of antipolitics. For the benefit of those who have not read him, the passage in which Stirner introduces this distinction is worth quoting in full. It runs as follows: ‘Revolution and insurrection must not be looked upon as synonymous. The former consists in an overturning of conditions, of the established condition or status, the state or society, and is accordingly a political or social act; the latter has indeed for its unavoidable consequence a transformation of circumstances, yet does not start from it but from men’s discontent with themselves, is not an armed rising, but a rising of individuals, a getting up, without regard to the arrangements that spring from it. The revolution aimed at new arrangements; insurrection leads us no longer to let ourselves be arranged, but to arrange ourselves, and sets no glittering hopes on “institutions”. It is not a fight against the established, since, if it prospers, the established collapses of itself; it is only a working forth of me out of the established.’ By and large, this is a relentlessly negative definition. If, as Marx finally seems to imply in Capital III against the obvious readings of his earlier idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the impossibility of a political reprieve from capitalism becomes overdetermined by the relentlessness of the process itself—the breakdown of social time—Stirner with the idea of the Empörung offers an alternative conception: not the construction of a positive alternative hegemony, but a continual escape, the prevention of hegemony as such.
The influence of Stirner on Nietzsche has been much debated. There is no conclusive evidence to assume that Nietzsche drew radically on Stirner. Nonetheless, there is an important continuity in their thought which Stirner’s systematic definition of ‘insurrection’ helps to illuminate. In a surprisingly little-examined passage of his 1881 work Morgenröthe, aphorism 206—one of the few explicit references to capital in the Nietzsche corpus—Nietzsche offers his advice to ‘the workers of Europe’, declaring that rather than organising on a revolutionary basis, they ‘ought henceforth to declare themselves as a class a human impossibility and not, as usually happens, only a somewhat harsh and inappropriate social arrangement; they ought to inaugurate within the European beehive an age of a great swarming-out such as has never been seen before, and through this act of free emigration in the grand manner to protest against the machine, against capital, and against the choice now threatening them of being compelled to become either the slave of the state or the slave of a party of disruption.’
Clearly here we have a rather similar negative conception to Stirner’s idea of the Empörung, of insurrection. The choice of being either a slave of the state or a slave of a party of disruption illustrates the ultimately antipolitical thrust of Nietzsche’s conception: far from being diametrically opposed, the constitution and revolution of the state constitutes a circuit, against which insurrection—identified with exit—directs itself in its entirety.
But what does this have to do with the process of automation? There is greater continuity between these ideas and Marx than may be imagined. The distinction between political and social revolution in Marx is another aspect of his thinking that has fallen out of fashion. In his critiques of the Lassalleans in particular Marx becomes more and more insistent that political regulation, democratic centralism, cannot abet the advent of any postcapitalism—in fact, it will hold it back. The revolution must be social—and communism can only be ‘the real movement’ of society, such as it is, and not a Blanquist vanguard revolution or a Lassallean state hegemony. Thus Steve Metcalf evocatively describes what he calls ‘K-class communism’ as ‘Purpose effectuated as emergent havoc, rather than historical destiny’. So if in the passage of Daybreak I quoted earlier Nietzsche conceives of his ‘swarming-out’ as a ‘protest against the machine, against capital’, Marx suggests that we may consider it a protest alongside capital. In the final years of his sanity, Nietzsche appears to grasp this connection. ‘Humanity is something to be overcome,’ he famously declares, and in the ‘accelerationist fragment’, quoted incidentally in Anti-Oedipus but rarely read in its own right until very recently, Nietzsche clarifies the point: the escape from the condition of humanity—implicitly to the overman—means a levelling of humanity as such, an identification with what he calls the ‘great process’, the nihilist, machine-infected drive towards the admixture and the suppression of humanity. All that remains—inevitably—is on the other end, left like Napoleon after the French Revolution for Nietzsche, to pick up the pieces after it’s over.
Technology ambivalently proliferates means of control and means of resistance, yet the so-called ‘cybernetic’ architecture of modern technology puts this onto a new pitch with its massive distribution. It suggests the category of insurrection as a description of the age of massively distributed ‘total technology’ as such. ARPANET was—at least in myth—designed to be resilient against any attack on one of its determinate nodes. It is in other words resilient against hegemonic regulation: by indifferently increasing the resilience and the capacity of different social actors, proliferating technology tends, as Schmitt once feared, to render the state itself irrelevant. The introduction to Wikileaks’ recent ‘Vault 7’ release makes an interestingly similar point regarding contemporary cyberwarfare, perhaps extending Günther Anders to the information age: ‘Cyber weapons are not possible to keep under effective control. While nuclear proliferation, for instance, has been restrained by the enormous costs and viable infrastructure involved … cyber weapons once developed are very hard to retain.’
The radical conclusion is this: if the state unifies the regulatory tendencies of labour and surveillance—and one particular species of war—this specific conjuncture which we label politics diminishes in tandem with the diminishing importance of the human. Integrating Marx and Nietzsche, we may say that as automation extends further and further the state, like capitalism as a human, social formation, is itself poisoned.
In the introduction to his unpublished work NecroPhysics—so far circulated only in manuscript form—Rhett Allain, an associate of Warwick University’s Cybernetic Culture Research Unit now working as a physicist in America, puts the point explicitly. ‘If we are worried of the machine, it is for good reason. Radically conceived not in the Guattarian sense but in its constituted technoricardian sense as an other to human life itself, the machine is a threat to the very basis of human existence. It is an icon of dead labour, an icon of death as such. But so much the better…’