Blog Post

A Tale of Two Prometheuses (II): Against the False Idols of Accelerationism

Graphics by Michelle Jia : Image Flickr ( I, II 

What is the new relationship to necessity and the natural world envisioned by Percy Shelley in his 1819 poem Prometheus Unbound? And what is its relevance in our present moment, when the capitalist appropriation and exploitation of human and non-human natures that Shelley depicts in nascent form have grown up into our own planetary eco-social catastrophe? This relationship cannot be reduced to the standard caricature of romantic primitivism; nor should we read Thomas Malthus’s theory of the natural limits to growth, selectively applied to the lower orders of course, in the work of Shelley, the poet who chose damnation “with Plato and Lord Bacon” over “Heaven with Paley and Malthus.” 

If technology, as Jean-Pierre Dupuy contends, is the discourse “of and about the technique, which fits it into a system with other techniques or know-how, with symbolic or imaginary representations, with conceptions of the world, but also with institutions, rules and norms,” then we need to approach accusations of “primitivism” with some trepidation. In popular discourse, the primitivist, like the Luddite, suggests someone who is opposed to technique in Dupuy’s sense: the constitutively human capacity to use tools in order to reshape our environments with specific ends in view. Technique is in this way an outgrowth of forethought, tactics, strategy, and as such, one would be hard-pressed to find an opponent of these things, let along a programmatic opposition, since such a program would require forethought, tactics, and strategy, in addition to concrete tools.

In fact, “primitivism” is more often than not a rhetorical club used by partisans of one technological system — a discourse, but also a preferred set of social relations — to delegitimize advocates of an alternative system with an alternative set of techniques. So, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, in their Accelerationist Manifesto, argue for strategy and organization as the only feasible response to “the breakdown of the planetary climatic system,” about which the most resolutely decelerationist eco-socialist would no doubt agree. But, on closer examination, their program is not a program so much as it is a myth and one more in the mold of Carl Schmitt than Karl Marx. Hence our accelerationist myth-makers draw the line between “those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” Which modernity? What technology?

Our new futurists repeatedly insist that neoliberal capitalism is a fetter on techno-science, and therefore human liberation, while their promotion of “secrecy, verticality, and exclusion” and a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment” could easily be mistaken for Silicon Valley start up copy or perhaps the transhumanist speculations of some capitalist singularitarian.

Similarly, Alberto Toscano, in an otherwise laudable essay entitled “The Prejudice Against Prometheus” identifies Prometheanism with “knowledge, scale, and purpose,” which he counterposes to a left wing anti-prometheanism that, in his estimation, is a symptom of the melancholia born of political defeat. But is there a principled opposition to knowledge, scale, and purpose as such? Or is framing such significant debates about left wing political strategy in this manner a roundabout way of elevating one Prometheus to the only god in heaven, while recasting the alternatives as so many dark and primitive idols to be smashed? Even Marshall Berman, the most persuasive advocate of Prometheanism in this vein ( on which more below), recognizes in certain explicitly anti-Promethean sixties era “advocates of solar, wind, and water power, of small and decentralized sources of energy, of ‘intermediate technologies’ of the 'steady state economy,'" a Promethean program that would require “a redistribution of economic and political power” and “the most extensive and staggeringly complex reorganization of the whole fabric of everyday life.”

The alternative Prometheanism that we can limn in Shelley’s work envisions a qualitative break with “things as they are,” and, more specifically, capitalist social relations. Mechanical Prometheanism foregrounds the cult of increased labor productivity, an investment in a certain kind of material abundance tied to the capitalist value form and its class society, and the domination of the natural world — recently rebranded, in an ideological reprise of Gnostic fantasy, as “decoupling,” despite our being a part of and therefore dependent on this same nature. Even the most emphatically utopian version of  these “reasoners and mechanists”  can only imagine quantitative change, “more,”as opposed to different: the qualitative shift that defines any revolutionary vocation worthy of the name. Shelley’s Prometheus embraces technics insofar as they serve this qualitative shift in human social relations and the relationship between human and non-human natures, as the poet explains in his Defense of Poetry:

We have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage. We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave. To what but a cultivation of the mechanical arts in a degree disproportioned to the presence of the creative faculty, which is the basis of all knowledge, is to be attributed the abuse of all invention for abridging and combining labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind? From what other cause has it arisen that the discoveries which should have lightened, have added a weight to the curse imposed on Adam? Poetry, and the principle of Self, of which money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the world.

As opposed to reading “poetry” or  “the creative faculty” as quixotically romantic or idealist — an interpretation that ironically rests on a literal understanding of these terms — we should take them as figures used by a poet in constructing a political economy. While the Shelley of the Defence is most often remembered for describing poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” this declaration must be viewed for what it is: the conclusion to an essay in which poetry includes the republican institutions of Rome among other social, political, and economic arrangements. In underlining how “the abuse of all invention” abridges and combines “labor, to the exasperation of the inequality of mankind,” Shelley emphasizes technology as a relationship embedded within other social and economic relations; and in this case, the poet traces the counterintuitive relations between labor saving machinery, wage labor, and immiseration under capitalism.

Shelley casts the sciences and mechanical arts as handmaidens to a system described in terms of absence: “the want of the poetical faculty.” Poetry, in this case, functions as metonym for that non-alienated version of human making, outside of and after capitalism, that Marx outlines most explicitly in his early work. While our accelerationists tout “emancipatory alienation” as the key to their neo- (or post-) Marxist politics, Marx arguably systematized Shelley’s alternative Prometheanism, using the tools of bourgeois political economy and quantification— another technics — against alienation and in the service of  qualitatively different social relations .

Nor should we equate this dialectical inversion with technological mastery of the non-human world insofar as that mastery enables human freedom and flourishing. Human beings cannot flourish at the expense of the planetary metabolism of which we are a part. As Shelley understood in the early nineteenth-century, “man having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.” Prometheus is a child of Earth and this version of Prometheanism assumes the continuities between the human and the natural, human social organization and extra-human natures, or what Jason Moore calls the “double internality,” which in the capitalist era, encompasses “capitalism’s internalization of planetary life” and the “biosphere’s internalization of capitalism.” Moore emphasizes how both green and futurist political economies share a Cartesian logic that clearly demarcates Nature—which we must conquer or to which we must return — from Culture, Society, or the Human; this “abstract social nature” was both prerequisite and product of early capitalism’s reorganization of the natural world.

Moore presents the appropriation of nature (transforming non-human natures into free or cheap natural inputs) as the indispensable basis for the exploitation that defines commodity production under capitalism. As Shelley recognized in 1819, any revolutionary break with the capitalist mode of production must entail a reorganization of human and extra-human natures, as the former is a subset of the latter, while both are components of a larger planetary metabolism now threatened with collapse in the era of the capitolocene. Rather than an Edenist return to some prelapsarian Nature, mending the “metabolic rift” would necessarily entail an alternative technological regime. Just as the proletariat must smash, rather than repurpose, the capitalist state form in order to reconfigure political power in a way that accords with revolutionary ends, which Marx recognized in the wake of the Paris Commune, modern capitalist technology also requires revolutionizing alongside human and extra-human relations. Capital’s techno-productive apparatus is, As Michael Lowy recognizes

in contradiction with the need to protect the environment and the health of the population. One must therefore ‘revolutionize’ it through a process of radical transformation. This may mean, for certain branches of production, to discontinue them altogether: for instance, nuclear plants, certain methods of industrial fishing (already responsible for the extermination of several species in the seas), the destructive logging of tropical forests, and so on — the list is very long! In any case the productive forces, and not only the relations of production, have to be deeply changed to begin with, by a revolution in the energy system, with the replacement of the present sources — essentially fossil fuels — responsible for the pollution and poisoning of the environment, by renewable ones: water, wind, and sun.

Lewis Mumford’s distinction between “monotechnics,” organized around profit, production, and power, and “polytechnics,” denoting a plural arrangement of technical arrangements that serve both human and non-human natures, is useful in this regard. An alternative Prometheanism requires that we dismantle our monotechnical order and build a polytechnical arrangement in its place. 

David Schwartzman elaborates one such possibility in his proposal for a full blown “solar communism”: a specifically Marxist response to the ecological catastrophe. Solar communism begins, for Schwartzman, with a new relationship to the ecosphere, no longer “transformed and degraded,” but mined for knowledge, that “will flow into the techno-sphere, driving its productive forces and internal transformation. For example, agricultural systems, a key component of the technosphere, will be transformed in multifold ways, with open field crops becoming polycultures, utilizing ecologic pest control and a big expansion of greenhouses, with potentially high productivity gains. Containment of the technosphere is a radical application of the precautionary principle, as well as a solution to the problem of future generational representation in today’s decisions, since it maximizes the preservation of the present ecosphere for the future.”

This Promethean project includes the construction of said solar socialism, encompassing a completely renewable energy economy, a sustainable agricultural system and the restoration of biodiversity eviscerated by specifically capitalist patterns of growth, all of which require novel forms of organization and planning.

Reconciliation, or overcoming alienation from our own productive powers and the natural world, is in the end indistinguishable from emancipation: “Man lives on nature — means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature.” Marx develops this strand of alternative Prometheanism as program and critique, beginning with his polemic against nineteenth-century accelerationism — a topic I will explore in my next post.

Lecturer at New York University

I study radical transatlantic literary culture of the 1790s and its afterlives in socialism, utopian fiction, and the gothic novel. My home base is in Brooklyn, where I grew up, although Brooklyn now hardly resembles Brooklyn then.