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Against the Masters of Speed: Reflections on a Frenetic Standstill

By Niklas Plaetzer.

            “The original task of a genuine revolution […] is never merely to ‘change the world,’ but also – and above all – to ‘change time.’” – Giorgio Agamben, Infancy and History

Postpolitical Speed at the End of History

We are the people of liquid modernity. Over the last decades, the processes of globalization have transformed a world of places into a world of flows. Financial capitalism has given birth to a strange non-place, digitized, and under high pressure – exciting, uprooting, and incomprehensible. Marx’s old phrase that “all that is solid melts into air” has lost nothing of its relevance in these postmodern days of digital and financial revolutions. But as the concept of territorial rule seems to be fading away like old lines of chalk, a new figure of power is emerging. Jürgen Habermas eloquently captures this change in his essay The Postnational Constellation where he argues that “the new relevance of ‘flow volumes’ also signals how the locus of control has shifted from space to time: as ‘masters of speed’ come to replace ‘rulers of territory,’ the nation-state appears to steadily lose its power.” This is the power of speed: a networked type of rule, one that disposes of clearly identifiable rulers and thereby boils away any notion of an autonomous political sphere. The political and the economic converge in a market-state mega-machine, modeling its own rhythms on the accelerating flows of algorithmic finance.

Since roughly the 1970s, an unprecedented acceleration of market speed has challenged the structuring of political and economic spheres based on the relative slowness of calendrical progression. The dual transition to digital technology and the post-Fordist move to finance-driven market economies has fundamentally altered the temporal horizon of political action: the automation of trading was followed by an automation of politics. With daily trading volume on foreign exchange markets exceeding $5 trillion, the majority of which is decided upon within milliseconds, the timing of politics has also been more and more characterized by a permanent crisis management for which parliamentary debates, public deliberation and the negotiation of dissent appear most of all as temporal obstacles. The German sociologist, Hartmut Rosa in Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity rightly emphasizes that in difference to the high-speed of economic transactions, the timing of politics remains by definition “largely acceleration-resistant.” Rosa thus justifiably speaks of a “temporal crisis of the political.”

This essay seeks to reflect on the dual character of this crisis. On one hand, we are dealing with the invasion of an economic accelerationism into political life. Impromptu crisis summits have been at the nucleus of decision-making since 2008 and function as an explicit hinge that ensures a synchronization of politics with the speed of market processes. By abandoning the slowness of democracy in the wake of such adaptation, the room for political action is gradually shrinking. But the second aspect of today’s temporal crisis of the political cuts even deeper. It seems as if our very sense of future possibilities is conditioned by the hectic dismemberment of the political dimension. In the words of Rosa:

the two diagnoses of the time that appear so contradictory, social acceleration and societal rigidity, are only at first glance contrary to one another. In the memorable metaphor of a ‘frenetic standstill’ (rasender Stillstand), which we owe to an inspired translation of Paul Virilio’s inertie polaire, they are synthesized into a posthistoire diagnosis in which the rush of historical events only provides scant cover for (and ultimately, in effect, produces) a standstill in the development of ideas and deep social structures.

We are thus not only dealing with a post-democratic acceleration of politics towards the temporal efficiency of finance, but also, perhaps more significantly, with a speed-induced ideological numbness at the alleged end of history.

While the political timing of nation-state democracy used to function alongside labor-based capitalism, the high-speed of financial capital requires an acceleration of politics to such an extent that democratic action becomes existentially threatened. At the same time, any project of a kind of temporal resistance is indeed always at risk of falling into what Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of the #Accelerate Manifesto, stingingly refer to as “a folk politics of localism.” Against both political nostalgia for the by-gone days of the local, still a widespread attitude on the left and right alike, as well as an accelerationism of the left, critical thought today must affirm a sense of political slowness – without, however, reducing itself to a sterile romanticism for a past of national democracy that never really was. If the “masters of speed” have acquired primacy over the “rulers of territory,” we have to rethink the political with respect to speed where previously territory dominated our ideas. What is then needed are new forms of temporal contestation against a turbocapitalism to which, allegedly, there is no alternative. “Politics is a strong, slow boring of hard boards,” Max Weber famously stated in Politics as a Vocation. Today, this once rather tame statement has acquired the ring of resistance.

The Rise and Fall of Political Time

Since the beginning of political thought in ancient Greece, the separation between polis and oikos has included a temporal element. Aristotle explicitly argues that with respect to political affairs, “if one person is slow and the other swift, neither is the one better qualified nor the other worse on that account, though in the gymnastics races a difference in these particulars would gain the prize; but a pretension to the offices of the state should be founded on a superiority in those qualifications which are useful to it.” Speed as a positively valued quality was banned from a properly political space. Distinction through swiftness belonged to the mon-archia of household affairs and, perhaps, gymnastic races. The polis, however, had nothing to do with racing. In Hannah Arendt’s terms, the Greek city state conceived of itself as “a space for freedom,” whose subjects depended on others who “saw them, judged them, remembered them. The life of a free man needed the presence of others.” Political speed must then always appear as the less-than-swift timing of the longue durée that is needed for the deliberations of the multitude.

Such deliberation is cancelled out before our eyes, as we have seen most dramatically in the numerous “financial emergencies,” which have effectively transferred legislative functions from parliaments to non-elected crisis committees. One can think of the passing of the emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 in the United States, which was elaborated in a small and secretive committee led by Secretary of the Treasury Paulson, before it was shoved through both chambers of Congress in two days. Similarly, the recent and painfully recurrent Eurozone crisis summits dealing with ever-new “rescue plans” for Greece are another expression of political proceedings that merely chase after the unattainable immediacy of high-speed capital. Today’s permanent financial state of exception can thus be regarded as symptomatic for an underlying tendency to push politics up to the accelerated speed of the market: politico-financial acceleration as the erasure of the political.

More fatefully, the invasion of financial and digital instantaneity into political affairs has strangled our sense of imagination on a deeper level. Fukuyama’s idea that we live at the “end of history” seems to be connected to our incapacity to even conceive of political slowness anymore. “The experience of history in the sense of the ‘collective singular’ and the interpretation of politics as a democratic project of shaping society are only possible when social change remains within a definite ‘speed window’,” as Hartmut Rosa puts it.

In this context, it is worthwhile to recall the temporal conditions which brought about the (re-)birth of the political arena in early modernity. In medieval days, as Marc Bloch has shown, people “though mindful of the passage of the seasons and the annual cycle of the liturgy, did not think ordinarily in terms of the numbers of the years, still less in figures precisely computed on a uniform basis.” In this pre-modern conception of time, the history of a biblical past and the present were collapsed into one plain, conceived of as the end-time. Walter Benjamin, in his influential piece On the Concept of History, took up this idea of “messianic time,” aptly speaking of its “immobilization of events” (“messianische Stillstellung des Geschehens”). The absence of secular, calendrical time corresponded to the absence of a political horizon of possibility in the feudal order. The rise of modern politics must then have entailed a transformation of the collective sense of time. J.G.A. Pocock speaks of the genesis of “secular time,” enabled by a return to ancient thought in Renaissance Florence. For the civic humanist of the period “to be fully human, he must master the politics of time.” The Soviet theorist Evgeny Pashukanis suggests a similar point with respect to the temporal origins of modern politics. For Pashukanis, the entire edifice of the bourgeois state and the modern rule of law depended on the emergence of a temporal “element of equivalence” between different human activities, which was to be found in abstract labor. But, as Pashukanis points out, “industrial capitalism” and the “terms of incarceration in prison” are not the only results of this bourgeois revolution in time: the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen” is equally a product of this new, modern temporality.

Against Habermas, one would then have to say that the masterhood of speed has been with us all along. For the longest time, it has coexisted with the rule over territory and even made its modern expression as sovereign statehood possible. But could it be that with the transition from industrial capitalism, based on labor time, to an accelerated speed of financial capital and digital technology, Pashukanis’ “element of equivalence” has lost its grip on our minds? The new, post-modern temporality of ever-accelerated digit-rates could then in a way mirror the standstill of the feudal era, in so far as we no longer master the politics of time: turbocapitalism as a new dark age? Following Marc Bloch’s remarks on medieval temporality, one might say that people today, though mindful of the passing of crisis summits and the cycle of elections, do not ordinarily think within a political horizon of future possibilities. Just as if all notions of collective progression through calendrical time have been liquidated in the flows of digital finance, the fatigue of today’s permanent crisis is also a symptom of a closing of our imagination.

Imagining a Temporal Resistance

If our societies have relinquished the masterhood of speed, what is needed are forms of temporal resistance against the speed of financial markets and its intrusion into political time. It is true that such a mode of contestation should neither fall prey to a right-wing localist conservatism nor a romantic primitivism on the left. An interruptive and yet progressive politics of time could be pursued from at least two angles: from above, through legal measures specifically aimed at the deceleration of market transactions, laying the groundwork for a temporal reassertion of the political, as well as from below, via more radical practices of temporal disruption. The first strategy could include the introduction of a Tobin tax on financial transactions or temporal restrictions on the sale of certain titles. While such proposals might appear very limited, it is enough to look at the panic-fueled way in which financial analysts make use of the word ‘deceleration’ to understand the idea’s radical potential. Nevertheless, such reformist proposals would only represent a small step into a room wide enough for political breathing. Already in 1960, Sheldon Wolin clairvoyantly remarked that “starkly put, political time is out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture,” as “political time […] requires an element of leisure.” It is this specifically political leisure that needs to be fervently defended.

But ultimately, any state-based measures must go hand in hand with new social movements that put political speed on their agenda. Acts of civil disobedience, such as blocking physical spaces with relevance for the circulation of capital could be imagined as part of their strategic repertoire. Jacques Rancière is acutely aware of the disruptive quality of democracy, which never simply mirrors economic power structures in the shape of a “superstructure,” as traditional Marxists would argue, but rather interrupts the flow of economic power into the political space. Actual politics, for Rancière, thus makes up a “specific break with the logic of the arkhê.” Ranciere further compliments his claim allegorically: “’Move along! There’s nothing to see here!’ The police is that which says that here, on this street, there’s nothing to see and so nothing to do but the space of circulation. Politics, by contrast, consists in transforming this space of ‘moving along’, of circulation, into a space for the appearance of a subject.” For this reason, to the extent to which power has become a matter of speed, resistance must equally be framed along temporal lines. It then seems rather consequential to advocate a shift from social movements to social arrests, as Mehmet Döşemeci has proposed.

In the end, we return to Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase that although Marx might have seen revolutions as the “locomotive of world history,” they are, instead, “an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.” If the political is not asserted in its temporal dimension, the train of economic necessity will only lead to its gradual disappearance in the repetitive hectic of a frozen presence. With the rise of financial markets and digitization, a transformation has occurred which has already moved towards the synchronization of polis and oikos at a post-political speed. The instantaneous time of financial capital has consequently had devastating effects on the functioning of democracy and our sense of political possibility. Drawing from the work of Hartmut Rosa, we are led to conceptualize forms of temporal resistance, which make the re-emergence of a “window of speed” (Geschwindigkeits fenster) for democratic politics their explicit objective. If the political is to survive against the domination of the instantaneous time of finance and digital transmission, critical thinking must come to appreciate its inherent slowness. Only a politics of time, directed against today’s “masters of speed,” will be capable of carving out a time of politics, which is a necessary condition for any project of democracy.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Niklas Plaetzer is a graduate student in political theory at the the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). His work has previously appeared in the Journal of International Affairs and the Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 3rd, 2015.