Towards a Decelerationist Manifesto

Hadi Bastani

 

I would like to use the opportunity that the Covid-19 pandemic, and its disrupting effects on the capitalist market economy, has imposed upon us to provide a fresh criticism of capitalism. The broad argument here is that the capitalist market economy can be understood in terms of a "complex system"; one which continuously shapes our imagination, expectations, and performances, while domesticating our resistances. Complex economic-social-political systems can be viewed as emergent results of human activities.  But, the reality is, once fully operational they take up a life of their own. The relationship between our actions and the system's overall tendencies is always determined within feedback loops, such that any and all of our everyday performances/decisions/choices shape the overall system and its tendencies, while constantly being shaped by it. As such, to alter a system's teleology (end game), one must be simultaneously aware of its general tendencies, and of her/his own role to their flows. I would simply like to point out that we can stop the capitalist market economy's destructive expansionism by first suspending our belief in it, and then by finding individual hacks that equip us to further a healthy life on its margin. The idea is to move towards a radical-affective sense of sociality, one which is competent, cool, and able to systematically deal with consequences of another crash of the current global economy. The hope is that the dissolution of the system into numerous localised and resilient parts as such will eventually prevent, or at least curb the effects of, a larger scale collapse, which is looming due to the system’s extreme “drive” towards radical exploitation of organic matter and human labours in favour of exponential capital “growth”.

 

The System

 

If there was any doubt in anybody’s mind about deep-rooted institutionalised incompetence in neo-liberal capitalist hubs of the “modern” world, above all the United States and United Kingdom, Covid-19 pandemic should have evaporated it. The number one economy of “our time” has been failing to provide enough masks even for its healthcare workers, why? Because this giant beast basically doesn’t really produce anything anymore, except meaningless cash – pieces of papers or digital data. Because it has been hollowed out of critical skills and thinking; a society literally “amused” to death.  This creature has been devouring itself and destroying organic matter on the planet, while infesting our imaginations and our means of communication – world as we know it. The case study of the United States is significant, not because it offers a ready-made target for offloading one’s naïve sense of discontent or rage, but because it is still the utopian vision of the future for many who are still in the “dreaming” phase, in “developing” and “developed” nation-states alike.

 

Institutionalised incompetence under “the system’s” rule seems to have a complex yet direct relationship to both imperialist governance and religious ideology. We are certainly witnessing a sophisticated form of marriage between the two in the United States, to a lesser extent but along similar lines in the UK, and in a different form and to a much smaller extent in my country of birth Iran, under the Islamic Republic government and its ideology-exportation tendencies. While in Iran practicing and voicing disbelief in Islamic governance will not be tolerated, in the other two societies it is practicing or voicing dissent from neoliberal capitalist religion that meets with systemic resistance. Depending on one’s position in relation to economic-political power, the intensity of such a resistance varies of course. In other words, the closer the heretic is to “the system”, the more intense they must expect to fall due to the heresy of alignment with anti-capitalist nature, regardless of their adherence to or sympathy with ideologies of the Left or Right. But we need to evaluate, however, for ourselves, what would it mean to fall from self-destruction and cannibalism, also if we possess enough critical skills that enable “us” to deal with the consequences of such a fall. The focus here is on a system that has historically evolved in tandem with technological-social-political-economic-biological developments in human societies. (Hyphenation in the previous sentence seeks to emphasise the deep interrelation between the domains. These constitute an entangled cybernetic web, which would render any attempt to translating it into a linear stream of cause and effect between separated domains in historical terms, a game of chicken or egg.  This should not, however, mislead us to believe that thinking in terms of causality when it comes to our individual choices is fundamentally “wrong”, it certainly is not. But it does mean that tracking the origin of a highly complex system to a particular “point” in “time” is absurd, particularly when we do not yet know what does time mean or how can a point – as a locality abstracted from the rest of the system – be exactly identified within such a system.)

 

In its contemporary form the manifestations of “the system” can be tracked within the movements of capitalist market economy and the neoliberal religion – the highest authorities of our “time”. I think Covid-19 pandemic has so far established that this complex entity, which I have termed “the system”, has given rise to increasingly corrupt societies that are rendered inherently incapable to deal with serious problems. You might say this is over exaggeration, and that you can come up with many examples of examples of competent and caring individuals positioned in different institutions. But it doesn’t matter because what we often also recall is how such individuals are restrained within systemic requirements: a set of guidelines, check-boxes, and mechanistic ethical measurements, which, under the system’s rule, have been inciting mediocracy, uncritical thinking, and machinic labourism in favour of an ever-expanding, therefore inevitably unsustainable and occasionally crashing, capitalist flows. In the current crisis, we have been for instance witnessing how some of the richest and most “developed” societies, particularly the US and the UK: the main capitalist hubs of the modern world, fail to perform their first and foremost commitment to their citizens, i.e. to keep them safe.

 

Substitution

 

To find a solution or a substitution, however, one needs to recognise the existence of the system. This still proves to be utterly difficult, as the system has profoundly convinced the majority that it either doesn’t exist, that submission to its authority is the only way to “prosperity” and “happiness”, or that getting along with it is the only way forward anyway. At its current form, such a hegemony is beyond the exercise of power by a particular “class” as Gramsci had famously argued. It is systemic. That is why it is important to view capitalist market economy as a complex system and not a mere result of hegemony by a particular group of people on other groups. The hegemony of a certain group or class over others, should rather be viewed as a symptom of the system’s operation in a global scale, and not as its direct cause – remember the chicken or egg argument made two paragraphs earlier. The top human-agents of the system – beneficiaries of the capitalist market economy – have been convincing “us” with such eloquent use of language and by appealing to the divine authority of numbers, that many humans have been “lifted up” from absolute poverty and given a “voice” thanks to the system’s operation. Let us pause for a moment here. What is this thing that has “lifted” us “up”? Is it for instance the kind of hard-earned skills we need to have in order to deal with serious problems? Let’s get it straight. This thing that has allegedly “lifted” many people “up” from the underworld of absolute poverty is cash (in its broadest sense). But, how has this cash been flowing in our time, in what direction? We are told that this thing that involves pieces of paper or digital data has given us “agency” and “voice”. Though, what is the nature of this agency, how does this “voice” function? Let us pause here for a moment, too.

 

This “agency” can be understood as a form of ticket, which grants one entry to more affluent clubs of the system’s sedated labours. Where does one go when one is lifted up from absolute poverty? Yes, for instance, one becomes a charity receiver, a McDonald or Amazon employee. One then has a “decision” to make, to remain as a charity receiver for the rest of their life or to work for a while for instance in Amazon, and in exceptional circumstances, if they have got a sufficiently conditioned imagination and “drive”, then they will upgrade to a more affluent club, of for instance restaurant hosts or office employees, and so fucking on. As one upgrades further, one only gets deeper and deeper integrated into the system. With any upgrade one becomes more affluent and, as such, more loyal to the system. With higher levels of loyalty one gets an easier access to more efficient sedatives: better TV sets, better alcohol, better drugs, and more up-to-date game consoles. This is largely the story of the working class. With even higher levels of loyalty, one is then encouraged to find more sophisticated means of sedation such as healthy diets, gym subscriptions, and so on, in order to keep up with the pressure of the task of generating more capital. Once fully conditioned, one finds ever more complex (aka more “responsible”) means of conducting a “happier”, “healthier”, and more “productive” life-style. Such a conduct would be an agent’s way of acknowledging and celebrating their well-deserved acquisition of loyalty, and to reaffirm their allegiance to the system. This is largely the story of the middle class. (It would be also interesting to think why the system rewards these two groups, working class and middle class, differently; with different types of sedatives. But this asks for a discussion of its own.)

 

Of course easier access to technology can also mean better access to “information” and “knowledge” in certain communities, which, in turn, may increase the possibility for the emergence of local or even transnational affinity networks of resistance. But, let’s think brutally honest and figure out how much such technologies are actually used for gaining critical skills that would sustain us through crises. Isn’t it simply true that many societies have increasingly become helpless, hopeless, and dependent upon digital technologies and the generosity of billionaires? The mention of billionaires here is not intended to demonise anyone here. It is only an observation to provoke some thought, first about how skills have become increasingly abstracted from our “physical reality” – let’s define it as the reality of a pre-digital life – or our embodied evolutionary past; second about how skills have become increasingly narrowed down in the direction of a “drive” towards exploring creative ways of generating more and more cash; and how such meaningless pieces of papers and digital data have then been increasingly disproportionately placed in the hands of a few.

 

Through digital devices that one thinks one “owns”, and through support of their now upgraded, much more inflated, and more hungry logos, an ordinary citizen then proceeds to raise their “voice” and gets involved with the humdrum of world-wide web cannibalism. Convinced that it matters for the betterment of life, one starts “debating” random people to demand rights and to convince others that their way of thinking is the root of all problems. In the meanwhile cash flow continues in the direction that it does. The system only grows more teeth every time we make our “voices” heard in this way. (Be patient, read until the end if you have come this far.) The technology we think we “own” transforms our passionate voice into heartless and cold data, which is then get archived, organised, analysed, and mobilised as new strategies to colonise fresh territories: domains for capital expansion. Thus the system comes up with new products and technologies to sell us more, to tangle us deeper into its web, and to extend its dominance over human societies and organic matter on the planet. The system, as such, rejoices in our demanding voice as it rejoices in any other opportunity for “growth” that allows it to penetrate the material world to ever darker depths.

 

What we have been witnessing in many parts of the world is that the system, which has brought about the exponential “growth” of the “modern” age, has been marginalising “radical-affective” sociality – i.e. a sociality that is completely indifferent towards any short-term expectation of capital growth in any shape or form – substituting its ideal with a “drive” for an increasingly unhealthy competition towards capital growth. It is in this context, then, that individuals’ ability to respond is central. The true difficulty in arresting the flows of systemic madness is the disturbing understanding that systemic corruption has simply nothing and everything to do with all of our actions; with each and every of our individual choices, behaviours, and decisions. To change the system is, therefore, crucial to bear the crushing responsibility of performing radical change, and to ultimately re-form our sense of radical-affective sociality. For that to happen, our newly formed and therefore still bipolar/schizophrenic knowledge of materiality, sociality, and productivity, has to radically shift – any other change will be sucked back and integrated into the system.

 

At this stage, any meaningful attempt to stop the system’s operation or to reconfigure it meets with deadly resistance, which leads to individuals’ isolation from the increasingly machinised remains of the society (elimination from the system), which then leads to their depressive neutralisation. In this way the system debugs and lives on. To avoid becoming a victim one should keep their cool, be patient, and finds various individual hacks that would equip one with a higher level of resilience towards systemic integration. In so doing, one will also become more immune towards systemic crash, the likes “we” experienced in 2008 and 2020, at least at an individual level. In the meanwhile one must only discuss such matters with their trusted entourage, encouraging change through their own practice (as opposed to words), while avoiding to provoke others. This I would call decelerationism.

 

Decelerationsim is not “resistance” against the machine. It is not regressing into a neo-hippie lifestyle. It involves various methods of proactive short-circuiting; hacks against the system’s machinic persistence. It consists of four stages:

 

  • Slowing down and reflection;

  • Not-doing and struggle;

  • Practical steps towards preparation;

  • Doing differently and exit.

 

It is only within this context, if one is to “exit”, that one’s technological/financial resources, intelligence, and residual sense of radical-affective must be mobilised. This entails moving towards a much more localised and, yes, much more simple and autonomous form of sociality. This text, however, consciously avoids prescriptions in terms of how these steps should be performed. There are practical examples around, for those who have a sympathy for similar ideas.

 

Democracy

 

The system has inevitably colonised the political domain as well. Emerged primarily from the “West” – at least as much as it is historically detectable in relation to the radical paradigm shifts that swept the “globe” following the industrial revolution in Europe – the system has gradually given rise to a sedated, loyal, and easily dispensable globalist plutocratic class. Plutocrats have unsurprisingly (re-)structured democracy gradually and practically according to their needs, without bothering about theoretical discussions or extreme constitutional changes. Millionaires, billionaires, and the more recent club of trillionaires have increasingly, and unsurprisingly, become the main supporters (and controllers) of democracy. As such, democracy has increasingly receded from the working class’ reach. In parallel, mainstream media, celebrities, and web influencers provide the public with important instructions about how they are required to think, to feel, and to function. Shaping people’s practice and imagination, an indirect yet effective coordination among the members of the above-mentioned clans has ultimately modelled political behaviour of the societies. Recent failures of the socialist candidates, who have been unable to keep up with the pace of change instilled in public imagination, is a symptom of the newer conditioning mechanisms under the system’s rule. Left candidates have been failing to offer an image that appeals to the newly-conditioned imagination/vision of the working class, which in its current form has little in common with the working class that existed 20 years ago. (For one thing, the image of all-knowing grumpy old father must be dumped for sure.)

 

It must be clear that the aggressive expansion of globalisation under neoliberal capitalist market economy has effectively rendered democracy unable to deal with the damage of limitless “growth” (global cannibalism). We are witnessing this in relation to the US government’s (lack of competent) response to Covid-19 pandemic. To decelerate the system in larger scale would, therefore, inevitably involve arresting the democratic process as well. On the practical level, this could for instance mean stopping to vote or to vote only for radical change. Though, the decelerationist movement must think in terms of a much smaller scale and much more localised changes. The movement has to be fully technologically-energised yet extremely calm and under-the-radar – an escape forward. It cannot risk depending on the “elite” of any kind – politicians, lawyers, scientists, economists, or academics. Not that nobody from such backgrounds cannot be trusted, the difficulty is that such a movement will be gradually sucked back into the system or marginalised and neutralised if publicised or depended on an explicitly public strategy. Coordination should take place under the radar and as part of individual and small group activities, away from an “emotional” reactionary ethos. In the current circumstances, proponents of gradual change – often those who are subscribed to higher-level capitalist clubs – give a decelerationist sympathiser two important lessons. One, that we still haven’t developed a capacity for change. And two, that such a capacity is continuously receding further away into a dystopian distance. The questions is are we left with enough residual competence in order to pragmatically move in the direction of inclusive-intelligent and sustainable coexistence or that the game is already over. Grappling with this question we most certainly need to be radical optimists, while  accepting that no easy solution exists beyond our individual as well as collective actions; actions that must avoid at all cost to fall back into the kind of enthusiasm for capital growth (in the broadest sense of the term) that is instilled in us by the system.