In early Marx, the 1844 manuscripts, there is an outline of four types of alienation. The first is a wage labourer’s alienation from the object of his labours thanks to industrial capitalism, the second is alienation from the activity of production, since the labour the worker undertakes is forced upon him as his only means of survival and does not spring from his own creativity, the third form of alienation is, thanks to the involuntary relations of production described in the first two forms of alienation, the alienation from one’s life purpose. The fourth form is the alienation from others as the relations of production in capitalism pit the capitalist against the worker.
In Capital, Marx refines the philosophical concept of alienation with economic analysis and his concepts of surplus value and the labour theory of value, which cause the inherent contradictions within capitalism and lead to the alienation both of the worker to the capitalist, due to competing objectives, and the alienation of the means of production, which instead of freeing humans from work, are used in the production of commodities of maximum exchange-value, and end up enslaving the worker. In light of 150 years of capitalism, the rise of the information age, cybernetics, globalisation and new forms of wage labour inconceivable in Marx’s time, his concept of alienation merits re-visiting. Capitalism has entrenched itself more than ever and shows no signs of suffering from its contradictions, many forms of technical labour today could also be considered alienating due to increasing complexity, global interconnectivity and the demand for increasing worker specialisation, however many of these jobs are essential for the functioning of a globalised world and calls for alienation-free work often translate in the left to the idealisation of small-scale artisanal work. Artisanal work is inconceivable today as a scalable alternative to alienating techno-industrial work today. One may also question the Hegelian concept of human alienation as obsolete in today’s world. If a return to feudal territorialities is undesirable, and we take full account of the life improvements of rapid techno-scientific progress, we need to re-visit alienation as an inescapable part of modern life, without however, accepting the injustices and inequality inherent in capitalism. New philosophical and economic concepts are necessary to grapple with the complex abstractions of today’s world by starting with the premise that we live in times never before encountered, and our best hope is a future-oriented engagement with the present, rather than shoe-horning it into 19th century concepts and economic theories.
To counter alienation on the level of political economic theory, we need to look at various forms of labour today, the factory worker is still present, but many other forms of labour blur the clear lines set out by Marx. Today there are many socially indispensible jobs that could be considered alienating, think of public transport or sewage operators, while this type of worker understands the social utility of their job, few would consider full-time toil as bus driver to be their ideal of a life’s goal which expresses their creative nature. Or a further example is work on complex systems, such as indispensible engineering or information systems design, implementation and maintenance. This kind of work relies on the coordinated work of many different specialised workers, who yes could be considered alienated from the objects of their labour simply because those objects are immaterial knowledge artefacts or because these are incomplete objects of a much larger whole. A future-oriented proposal would propose increasing automation with the goal of eliminating repetitive work altogether, and a universal basic income as the right of humanity. The case of automation, this involves yet more abstract, alienating work.
A more radical standpoint asks if alienation is not inherent in reason already? Or even in cognition itself? Cognitive studies have shown what philosophy has long feared, we navigate the world through means of representations, which mediate reality, alienating us from it, but these representations are the only way our limited brains can navigate of the world around us. Marx, while correctly diagnosing problems with capitalism’s labour relations, uses a Hegelian term which is problematic today largely due to advances in our understanding of human cognitive functioning from the fields of biology, physics and cognitive science. Alienation is an enabling condition of rational agency. As Brassier writes, “ Concrete immediacy is constituted through abstract form. In this regard, alienation can be understood as the constitutive fissure of self-estrangement through which sensation is conditioned by conception. Understood this way, alienation is constitutive of rational agency and hence the condition of freedom.”
Seen this way, the concept of alienation needs to be removed from the economic register, and more appropriate terms to describe exploitation should be used that do not run the risk of conflating this exploitation with the alienation inherent in human cognition. Disempowerment or disenfranchisement are perhaps better concepts for describing those marginalised by the exploitative nature of capitalism. Not to mention the vague use of the term alienation for anything that is wrong with capitalism. Without a careful examination of what this human nature is that labour under a capitalist system alienates from this tends to lead to nostalgic calls for more immediatism, for folk politics of small communities and an idealisation of agrarian modes of life and the privileging of the artisanal as the ideal form of labour. We must avoid confusing collectivity with community. As Brassier notes in “Wandering Abstraction”, a truly global collectivity would necessarily need to be instituted through impersonal structures and institutions, and these may be considered alienating, but the cause is down to our limited cognitive capacities, rather than inherent issues with such structures.
Abductive inference, or abduction, was first expounded by Charles Sanders Peirce as a form of creative guessing or hypothetical inference which uses a multimodal and synthetic form of reasoning to dynamically expand its capacities. While abductive inference is divided into different types, all are non-monotonic, dynamic, and non-formal. They also involve construction and manipulation, the deployment of complex heuristic strategies, and non-explanatory forms of hypothesis generation. Abductive reasoning is an essential part of the logic of discovery, epistemic encounters with anomalies and dynamic systems, creative experimentation, and action and understanding in situations where both material resources and epistemic cues are limited or should be kept to a minimum. –Reza Negarestani
In formal logic, abduction, or inference by best guess is considered a type of fallacy. This is true, given that the generation of an explanatory hypothesis to observed phenomena by the positing of an explanatory cause has no logical basis. I see water seeping out from under the bathroom door and posit the explanation that it is probably because the bath faucet was left running. While this is the most plausible explanation, I have not verified it empirically (by opening the door) and there are many other possible explanations, such as the seeping water being caused by an unfortunate toilet malfunction.
Kuhn laid to rest the idea that scientific discovery is incremental and logically sequential, instead scientific revolutions cause paradigm shifts in fields of knowledge, and the generation of new scientific knowledge and the positing of new hypothesises has come to be seen as a creative, irrational (or logically inconsistent) process, not amenable to prediction and lacking in logical consistency. Charles Pierce, who coined the term, refused to conflate logical inconsistency in scientific discovery with irrationality, instead he saw abduction as the inferential, creative process of generating a new explanatory hypothesis as the basis for the methodology of scientific discovery. As with the bathroom water example, humans predominantly use this form of reasoning, and this practice of discovery or diagnostics is standard practice in scientific or technical fields. The real discovery of Peirce here was for philosophy, namely epistemology and philosophy of mind. The search for foundational axioms from which to deduce other conclusions led Descartes to doubt even his own existence, and formal logic’s incapacity to account for the generation of hypothesises which can then be evaluated as true or not, Pierce brushed away these formal problems as being useless in describing actual processes of scientific discovery since the scientific hypotheses present in scientific theories cannot be constructed simply by generalising data from observations. In fact, at the basis of a scientific revolution is the generation of new hypotheses which, when proven by observational data to be correct, bring about the explosion of new scientific theories.
What is interesting with abduction is its widespread use today in cognitive science, computation and artificial intelligence. It is a creative form of knowledge discovery by doing. Abduction is at the basis of the most sophisticated heuristically-learning computational algorithms used everyday by Google, and in AI applications.
Why is abductive inference a useful tool? Why is it interesting for accelerationism? Once the myth of the given is abandoned, once the present is no longer tied to foundationalist axioms and the is future seen as a space of speculation and construction, when time is no longer something we subject to passively but collectively decide to do something with the time we have, then navigational, abductive rationality becomes the methodology of construction. Abduction is the tight coupling between thinking and doing, speculation and action, guessing and knowing. Abduction’s epistemology is oriented towards the future and the unknown, providing a powerful tool already essential to scientific discovery.
Jailbreak is a focused instantiation of prometheanism, which directly aims at escape from the two main traps we find ourselves in: death and gravity. Benedict Singleton is the author of this concept, which he draws out from the work of Nikolai Fedorov in the late 19th century and his own research on métis, trap-building, or craftiness and cunning artifice. I will first outline Singleton’s work on cunning artifice in design and then his application of métis not only to trap-building but also to escaping from traps.
Starting from the ancient Greek term métis, Singleton describes how Plato warns against it without actually describing the reasons for doing so. All the way until the present day, terms such as ‘fabrication’, ‘cunning’, ‘artifice’, ‘craftiness’ ‘design’ both denote the clever ways in which we use roundabout techniques of manipulating animals and materials to our will through the use of the very animal’s behaviour or material properties against it, such as the construction of traps, and to describe evil, shifty behaviour to be shunned: ‘being crafty’, ‘having designs on someone’. Moving to the 19th century and the advent of the industrial revolution and the designing of industrial machines and factories, there was justified outrage at the factory conditions, which treated humans as objects. Worker’s behaviour in a factory, in needing to modify behaviours to meet the stringent requirements of large dangerous machines, was seen as being brought under the auspices of industrial design. Surprisingly, at this point in history, there was a nostalgic view of the craftiness of the original design professions such as the blacksmith or the hunter, which in the pre-industrial world had been viewed as well with suspicion. Philosophers and free men of the classical world left such craftiness to the slaves and workers, and refused to lower themselves to investigating the logic of means that was the primary area of operation of these skills. In the present day, manual factory labour is seen as wholesome, honest work, while the present injunction on design is to avoid any type of human behavioural design. This blind spot fails to recognise that the design of services or public space inevitably leads to some forms of behavioural design, nor to see that psychiatrists, law-makers and public policy creators are directly involved in behavioural design when making normative decisions on what they consider to be desirable human behaviour.
This privileging of ends and the neglect of means has its roots in classical philosophy. Present day critical theory, by describing a current state of affairs and then prescribing the way things should be, continues this stance by neglecting to investigate the means by which things as they are can be changed for the better. Singleton’s call for speculative design is an extension to Marx’s famous call, which marked the birth of critical theory – “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” – by calling for a focus on the means used to change the world, by the use of cunning intelligence, or trap-building. Singleton describes humans as the first artificial intelligence, that is, creatures capable of cunning artifice. While of course other species are also sly and cunning, it is interesting to note how these creatures are typically associated with ‘bad’ human behaviours: the cunning fox, the predator, the parasite. As with these creatures, our survival is not due to our impressive strength or other physical characteristics, but precisely due to our cunning intelligence.
In addition to trap building, we also find ourselves caught within certain traps. Fedorov considers gravity and morality to be these traps, and considers the escape from both these constraints as the paramount objective of human endeavours. These are entirely contingent traps and there is no transcendental reason for us to be trapped by them. If the call of Marx and the German Idealists for the use of reason for self-transformation, to eliminate suffering and the self-determination of humanity, this cannot stop at our present finitude or planetary limitations, we must strive towards futures beyond what is presently conceived in the space of possibility. This call may sound crazily over-ambitious today, but our history is one of breaking out of traps considered insurmountable at the time, which opened up new spaces of possibility entirely inconceivable until then. Must our objectives be limited to the reproduction of the same, to mere species reproduction, or should we not continue the line of cunning thinkers and doers who have brought us to where we are today? Must we limit our ambitions and romanticise our finitude? To do so is to disown our very history of artifice and cunning artifice. This jailbreak project does not mean giving up on this world, it is not escapism but a ‘project of total insubordination towards existing conditions; a generalised escapology.’
A pragmatic, operationalized conception of contingency is called for in any project that takes the future as constructible hypothesis and chooses action through navigational, abductive reasoning. The risk inherent in a contingent future needs to be factored in at every step. The balance to be struck is a fine one, on the one hand avoiding a form of ‘contingency mysticism’ by positing an ultimate ontology with no distinction between various notions or modalities of risk, as critiqued by Reza Negarestani, on the other avoiding the hubristic treatment of contingency as a static variable as would only be possible if we operated in some deterministic Laplacean dream. The outcome of setting the first, exaggerated conception of contingency would be to give up on any Promethean project, since all action, or even inaction, is ultimately at the whims of the blind goddess of chance. The reality is that we have continued to reduce drastically the contingent element through our cunning inventions and even more so with the widespread use of the scientific method and the growing body of recorded knowledge. Outcomes have become more and more predictable in modern civilisation. Not forgetting what William Gibson notes, the future is here, it’s just unevenly distributed, and many areas of the world still operate under much higher conditions of uncertainty. Here we could almost dare to posit a universal value, regardless of where one lives or what one’s notion of self-determination is, being able to live in conditions where one can be safe from existential threats, and not have uncertainty about life’s primary necessities, are foundational conditions to the thriving of human life (see NEW RATIONALISM).
However, most visible in western civilisations is the other extreme, a hubristic devaluing of contingency to fluctuations within a predictable normal distribution horizon of possibilities. The most obvious issue with this is conception of contingency is to see it as a fixed window of possibility, and by extension maintain an ahistorical view of a fixed present. This is a symptom of contemporary times since the advent of postmodernism. Frederic Jameson’s excellent work in dissecting and defining postmodernism provides some of the best cultural diagnosis of the present, with a lack of historicity being one of the principal elements of postmodernism. Gilles Chatelet also provides a scathing condemnation of the biopolitical compression and homogeneity of a statistics and market research-driven society, which has attempted to naturalise free market economy and its myths obtained from neoclassical economics models of the rational consumer or the presumed perfect state of equilibrium of the market. True to Marx, with the neoliberal economic base, the superstructure elements such as politics, psychology and education reflected this ahistorical conception of market equilibrium and perfect competition with the production of the average man: atomised, isolated, free to operate with a bounded bell curve of ‘normal’ behaviour and competitive interaction with others on the free market.
A operational concept of contingency needs to be taken into account in any project of rational self-mastery, and this serves not just for conceptual clarity but also drives a robust, dynamic practice of species and planetary risk management, which would inform actions. CS Pierce again is useful, with his concept of tychism, which holds that indeterminism is a real, but not a sole factor in the universe. Pierce’s tychism, formulated in time a the world was conceived of in terms of fixed natural laws and Newtonian physics, prior to the advent of quantum physics, this was a remarkable insight. Pierce used Darwin’s exposition of evolution as an example, evolution as operating by chance, with the failure of bad results still leading to a world operating by natural laws which work most of the time. Today in theoretical physics there is serious discussion of the possibility of the big bang having been the result of random quantum fluctuations. Today, in the world of means, from the experiences of the everyday to the disciplines of engineering, design and risk management, such a Pierciean conception of contingency is established common sense. This fact, rather than being a celebration of the homely wisdoms of common sense, should serve to highlight instead the inhuman nature of rational enquiry; it often goes against all notions of common sense, such as Pierce’s concept of tychism did when it was formulated. (see INHUMANISM) Couple tychism to abductive reasoning and we have the basis of non-monotonic, navigational rationality with a proven efficacy.
Another important aspect of Pierce’s tychism is the spatially and temporally variable nature of contingency. In human timeframes, this is to always consider the historical variances of contingency. What can be said of the laws of nature, that they are not immutable and always subject to a certain level of indeterminacy, can be said for the human as well. As well-known disclaimers in financial disclosure statements of investment instruments go, “past performance may not be indicative of future results”.
Speaking of finance here is where the signature accelerationist reorientation manoeuvre is undertaken. Having previously decried the systemic issues with contemporary capitalism, we now go straight into the beating heart of this economic system to search for some of the most advanced tools for operating under conditions of contingency and risk: the financial markets. Today’s markets, where transactions travel the globe in timeframes in the order of milliseconds, computer-driven high-frequency trading happens at blistering speeds, and where derivative financial instruments bet on the price movement of underlying stocks and commodities, has not surprisingly been where the development of some of the most sophisticated techniques for managing the risks associated with uncertainty have taken place. These methods are not infallible, as familiar market crashes can attest to, however there is no other place today that operates in such an extreme environment of almost pure contingency, such as in derivatives trading markets. Thus the call is to intimately understand the operation of financial markets, extracting and reorienting useful tools, gaining thorough understanding of how this system works since it is the dominating force for the exertion of political power today.
Although we now have advanced tools for conceptualising contingency for risk mitigation, one could always raise the spectre of outside context events that show us once again who is really in charge, that the basis for our unbounded ambitions grows ever more fragile due to the inherent instability of complex systems. Our globalised world is just such a complex system, but once again we are at the question of desirable futures: design for greater resilience of the current habitat, and eventually design for habitat redundancy with space exploration, or hope to avoid catastrophic system failure by inaction and hope for a gradual decline? Both paths carry risks regardless, however in an inherently fluid universe, holding to a position of inaction based on the myth of fixity and equilibrium may prove the more risky.