Altermodernity and Modes of Knowledge


Modernity: Capitalist and Socialist

When we speak of a multi-scaled, meshworked subject such as the Marxist proletariat or the post-Autonomist’s “multitude”, we instantly confront ourselves with a host of problems. The first of these is the distribution of these agents across a global geography: how can we conceive of a way to bind struggles and movements together in some sort of cohesive structure, to relate the actions of one to another, and make the differences between them move in a fluid manner towards what appears to be a common cause? Just as what we call the “working class” is imbedded in globalized flows that replicate patterns of uneven development across the face of the earth, the perception of difference between labor potentially develops into an antagonism that gives rise quite often to the most brutal of racist impulses. Capitalist exploitation, dispersed into global networks, has done more to erect boundaries between revolutionary agents than bring them together.

When confronted with such a scenario, what blossoms is not a revolutionary consciousness, but a parochial consciousness that seeks refuge in the structures of a largely mythical past. The family, the neighborhood association, the church and the club are stripped of any potential revolutionary function and become insular artifacts, things to be defended against the barbarians at the gates. It is a testament to capital’s powers of mystification that the subjugated turn against the subjugated, and not against the system that ensnares them in relations beyond their control. Instead of situating the regional in relationship to the global, wherein the global emerges through the relationships between different regional zones, the regional and the global become antagonists, arranged in a bitter dialectical opposition where the latter performs a corrosive effect on the latter.

And yet the great project of the multitude, as Hardt and Negri write, begins with the recognition that “We cannot move back to any previous social form, nor move forward in isolation.” To contest globalized neoliberalism can only take place “on its own level of generality and by pushing the processes that it offers past their present limitations… Globalization must be met with a counter-globalization, Empire with a counter-Empire.”[1] This is precisely the challenge picked up by Srnicek and Williams in their treatment of “folk politics”, which all too often threatens to slip into blanket-identification of the regional and the local with ‘backwardness’. This is the primary danger in what Srnicek and Williams calls for, and what Hardt and Negri hint towards: the rekindling of the fires of the great program of modernity, erected as the universal that can engender and push forward revolutionary momentum.


Modernity, and its late-stage corollary, modernism, are associated with creativity and creation, particularly in regards to arts, architecture, and design practice. From Le Corbusier’s vertical cityscapes to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, from the Constructivist’s blending of artistic forms to Kandinsky’s geometry, from The Rite of Spring to Aurelia, new forms – be it in urban design, the planning of homes, sculpture, painting, music or literature – are promised to embody the sensations of a new life. Modernity and modernism are always affairs of the future, and understand that this future emerges from material practice, and in the breakdown of boundaries between different creative disciplines. Modernity is thus not only the movement towards the future, but the experience of this momentum itself. Hence the controversy that has consistently followed in the wake of modernist design, craft, and sound – it is a shock, a break or schiz with what came before.

At the same time, however, this future entails the shattering of the past, and the ferocious sweeping-away of old universals to make room for the new. As evidenced in particular by Le Corbusier’s planning schemes, modernity has a tendency to treat time and space as a blank slate, as if older forms had never existed; history, it seems, truly begins with the modern. This admittedly seductive perspective obscures that this creation has its necessary double in the destructive processes that clear the way and set in motion the conditions of this creation. This double-process is the kernel of modernity, and the key to understanding its universal modality: development. It also illustrates the way in which capitalism epitomizes the spirit of modernity; as Joseph Schumpeter famously depicted, capitalism is a machine of creative destruction, ceaselessly breaking down the old with onslaughts of new innovations, technologies, and techniques.[2] It is not hard to understand why, then, that modernization theory (the ideological prism through which the West’ colonialism from the 1910s to the 1970s was framed) at once made itself a historical necessity by bringing forth the creation of new societies, while so very often resorting to incredible destruction to do so.

While capitalism ebbs and flows through cycles of creative destruction (ranging from its reproduction via the destruction of older formers to its requirement of imperialist expansion), we can perhaps find no better example of this than in Marx’s own writings. In his treatment of the Communist Manifesto, Marshall Berman draws our attention to what appears to be critical contradictions playing out within it. As Marx describes, capitalism sets off a growth towards a world market that subsumes all markets exterior to it, effectively destroying all that it touches: traditions, identities, religions, localisms, etc. But then, as Berman puts it beautifully, “Marx’s prose suddenly becomes luminous, incandescent; brilliant images succeed and blend into one another; we are hurled along with a reckless momentum, a breathless intensity.”[3] Stability gives way to a surreal flux – the reader finds his or herself immersed in a depiction of modernity’s most ecstatic affect: the sensation of experiencing ‘all that is solid melting into air.’

The proletariat (or the multitude) is the figure that is supposed to reverse this state of affairs and halt capitalism’s violent expansionism – but Marx throws a curve ball, beckoning us to recognize that “The bourgeoisie had played a most revolutionary role in history.” This role, he states, includes the “subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to agriculture and industry, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of ground…” In short, the bourgeoisie emerges as the agent of modernity itself. The proletariat is then the agent of the future, yet this future is the ‘completion’ of modernity’s processes. Communism, from this perspective, stands atop the great projects carried out by the ruling classes.


Thus contrary to popular conception, there is a thread running through Marx’s oeuvre that depicts capitalism as a progressive (albeit Janus-faced) force. The reason is twofold: capitalism carries out an unbinding of the past (that is, it is the instigator of modernity and the herald of what comes after modernity) through its ability to dissolve the feudal relations of old. At the same time, capitalism is capable of generating incredible material wealth. For Marx, these progressive tendencies contain within them their anti-progressive inversion. As much as feudal relations are dissolved, capitalism retains exploitation in its structure through the division of labor, with the function of the trade of labor power for wages mystifying its feudal origins. Likewise, for as much as capitalism produces material wealth, the workers who produce this wealth through their labor are shut off from it precisely due to this asymmetry in the wage relation.

While material wealth is often interpreted as being the commodities produced by labor, and the value extracted by the bourgeoisie from this process, it can be read as having yet another function. The gifts of the bourgeoisie listed in the Manifesto constitute much of this material wealth, having been produced by capitalism, for capitalism, by the hands of the proletariat. The production of the commodity matters very little when compared to the massive advancements in technology and science after the end of the feudal period, as Marx makes clear in the Grundrisse: “The development of science alone – i.e. the most solid form of wealth, both its product and producer – was sufficient to dissolve [traditional and/or feudal] communities.”[4] Far from trinkets circulating on the market, what matters here is material wealth understood as an equivalency to the modernist universal.

What begins as an analysis of the contradictions inherent in capitalism becomes, in turn, a contradiction lurking at the heart of Marxist theory, in that his critique of capitalist modernity doubles back and replicates the worst aspects of modernity’s processes. Taking this universality at face value, he looks outside capitalism and sees that all pre-capitalist and non-capitalist social formations become grist for the capitalism mill – not due necessarily due to capitalism’s expansion, but due to historical necessity. Only through capitalism can communism emerge, and only through the compounding of the very exploitation that he sought out to critique can liberation from it be found. The ancillary apparatuses of capitalism – colonialism and imperialism, namely – too become swept up in this forward rush, playing the role of a necessary evil that integrates the local into the global and subsumes the regional proto-bourgeoisie into its circuitry. This is illustrated nowhere more poignantly than his comments on British colonialism in India:

Sickening as it must be to human feeling to witness, we must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive as they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool to superstition, enslaving it beneath the traditional rules depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.[5]


“England,” he continues, “has to fulfill a double mission in India, one destructive and the other regenerating – the annihilation of the old Asiatic Society, and the laying of the material foundations of western society in Asia.”[6] What confronts the reader of Marx is the notion that instead of overturning the relations of the West, its methodologies and its expansion, its extractionism and its organization of the universal, communism acts as the placeholder of what lay beyond its limits, limits that it will inevitably brush up against as its crises come to bear down upon it. If modernity is an ideology of developing, the overturning of capitalism’s relation is precisely what is being developed towards. These crudely developed determinisms point to a wider, more sweeping contradiction in Marx: the combination of a celebration of capitalism as an inhuman force sweeping through history, and the ultimately humanist project that this force is supposed to deliver. This thread of Marxism is not so far, perhaps, from Saint-Simon’s odes to industrialization as the intrinsic motor for a socialist world.

This understanding of modernity stems from a conflation of two aspects whose unity was wholly unnecessary: an empirically critical analysis and diagnosis of the evolution of capitalism through historical time (which should itself be the foundation of praxis point out and away from capitalist modernization), and a strange self-identification with capitalism’s laws of motion. It seems clear that the former can exist without the latter; is the launching pad for the cultivation of praxis not the development of an understanding or theory of capitalism as it exists at that given moment? And yet this teleological reading of capitalist development has gone on to reverberate through history, often with disastrous effect. The back-and-forth motion of the Soviet Union’s attempts to organize socialism, swerving from large-scale nationalization to state capitalism to Stalinism to market socialism and back again, hinges entirely on the entanglement of these two factors.


Between the years of 1918 to 1921, Soviet Russia was governed by policies referred to as ‘war communism’, with the measures this entailed justified on the grounds that the Bolshevik-controlled territories and Red Army needed to be stocked with food and weapons in order to win the Russian Civil War. Enforced by the Supreme Economic Council, all industries were subjected to nationalization and central management, foreign trade fell under the purview of the state, strikes were outlawed, agriculture was requisitioned (except for the barest minimum necessary for the survival of the peasantry), and rationing of food and commodities were instituted. Even as the populations returned to a state of rebellion against the Soviet leadership, many of the Bolsheviks conceived of war communism as something beyond the immediate needs of winning the conflict – it became, in itself, the model of the communist future arriving in the immediate present. As Nikolai Bukharin described, “We conceived War Communism as the universal, so to say ‘normal’ form of the economic policy of the victorious proletariat and not as being related to the war, that is, conforming to a definite state of the civil war.”[7]

Such a view stands in starch contrast with the strand of Marx’s modernism traced in the preceding pages. Indeed, while assisting in assuring the Bolshevik supremacy, war communism abjectly failed as an organizing principle for future society. The output of both industry and agriculture failed and the ruble collapsed; the effects of the food rationing were compounded by the effects of war and drought, resulting in a famine the claimed millions. Despite the bans imposed on labor union, worker’s strikes spread and peasant rebellions formed in the face of martial law, a crisis that came to its head with the infamous Kronstadt rebellion in 1921. As Lenin would put it, an ideological retreat was necessary to ensure the survival of the Soviet revolution. In order to carry this out, the Bolshevik leadership turned to the writers of a social democratic Marxist by the name of Rudolf Hilferding.

Hilferding was an Austrian economist with ties to the Vienna Circle as well as Germany’s Social Democratic Policy; as a member of the Austrian-Marxist group, his theories considered ways to chart a path between the Soviet model of war communism, with its centralization and curbing of right, and social democracy, which posited a reformed capitalism that would lead to its ultimate overturning overturning. He was also the key theorists behind the idea of “organized capitalism”: as capitalism expanded across the world in its imperialist phase it began to produce, as Marx had anticipated, a world market. But whereas Marx had argued that the emergence of a world market would be marked by increased turbulence and crisis (a reading that has certainly become true in the era of ‘globalization’ proper), Hilferding observed that foreign markets not only became subjected to export of goods and commodities, but capital itself as well. Finance capital had risen to play an essential role in the emergent international system, its investments being required wherever industry began to form itself.

The proliferation of finance capital, in turn, increased the role that planning played in the market, with both the firm and the state pushing back against the dominance of laissez-faire approaches to economic activity. Hilferding thus anticipates capitalism in its Fordist mode, which was emerging around the time he was penning his theories (and which would reach its height after the Great Depression and the Second World War). Just as Fordism ushered in a liberal corporatism that curtailed the excesses of the capitalist system by instituting balance of power between labor and capital, and between capital and the state, Hilferding argued that the role of the state in coordinating investments constituted a “socialization” of capitalism. Where the managers of Fordism saw the introduction of a benevolent form of capitalist modernity, Hilferding’s early observations projected that this system would be a stepping stone to a socialist society. “The socializing function of finance capital,” he wrote, “facilitates enormously the task of overcoming capitalism. Once finance capital has brought the most important branches of production under its control, it is enough for society, through its conscious executive organ – the state configured by the working class – to seize finance capital in order to gain immediate control of these branches of production.”[8] Hilferding’s astute analysis of the conditions of his time and place, and their movement towards a revolutionary praxis, is easily retrofitted to Marx’s understanding of development: the stage of finance capital becomes determinant, and supplants the inevitable crisis that Marxism anticipated.

It is on this synthesis that Lenin, in 1921, instituted the New Economic Policy (NEP). Under the NEP, the structures of war communism were cast aside for a return to market relations. With industry destroyed and agriculture devastated, Soviet Russia lacked the abundant material wealth that Marxist theory held up as the forerunner to socialism. Even prior to the institution of war communism, Russia lacked the heavy industry of the developed, modernized world, and had remained a largely agrarian feudal society. A return to capitalism, Lenin wagered, would carry out the work of dissolving the feudal relations while also industrializing the nation through the expansion of the agricultural sector. Kick-starting a capitalist evolutionary process would generate a sweeping proletariatization, pushing forward the agent of history. To quote Lenin: “…industrial production will grow, and the proletariat will grow too. The capitalist will gain from our policy and will create an industrial proletariat.” He continues:

You will have capitalists beside you, including foreign capitalists, concessionaries and leaseholders. The will squeeze profits amounting to hundreds per cent; they will enrich themselves, operating alongside of you. Let them. Meanwhile, you will learn from them the business of running the economy, and only when you do that will you be able to build up a communist republic.[9]

The NEP was conceived of as a policy that would last several decades, and articulated a vision of an active state intervening in the market to spur it along on its inevitable growth – a sort of managerial development that blended the Bolshevik revolutionary object with Hilferding’s wider analysis of organized capitalism. After Lenin’ death in 1924, the NEP continued with support from Bukharin. “We will reach socialism only through market relations,” he said[10] – but this would only last for a handful of years more. After a series of political maneuvers that had the debate between those who supported the NEP (centered around Bukharin) and those whose advocated a return to the structures of war communism (centered around Trotsky), Stalin managed to take control of the Soviet Union and repeal Lenin’s strategic retreat to capitalism. While he had sided with Bukharin in the debates, he quickly resumed the trajectory of war communism, abolishing the ‘market relations’ and replacing them with a series of five-year plans.


While breaking with capitalist conceptions of development, Stalin’s centralized command economy persisted in uncritically importing essential aspects of modernity’s universal. Development through industrialization persisted, with the gradual growth promoted by the NEP finding its compliment in rapid expansion carried out by the state. Whereas most developmental theories maintain that industry arises naturally from peasant societies, Stalin waged a war against the agrarian classes by dispatching troops to rural areas to requisition grain and suppress dissent. The small farms that had been essential to the NEP were liquidated, replaced by large-scale factory farming that disrupted the organic ecosystems of crops. Even the techniques of the-then highest stage of capitalist modernity were brought into the Stalinist context: Taylorist methods regulating the body of the worker, and Fordist systems that regulated the pace and output of production, and society at large.[11] In many respects, the system that Stalin put into play structured the Soviet Union as a macrocosmic capitalist firm, blown up to the size of a country. Hardt and Negri describe this state of affairs as the “mirage of liberation translated into the language of capitalist development”, the “awkward absorption and transfiguration of capitalist modernity into the rhetoric of socialism.”[12]

The framework for Stalin’s authoritarian modernist schemas can be found in the writings of the NEP’s staunchest opposition, E.A. Preobrazhensky, who was himself expelled in one of the purges and executed in 1937. Preobrazhensky’s work had advocated, in contrast to market relations, what he called “primitive socialist accumulation”. As Marx had described, capitalism was contingent on a previous stage of primitive accumulation whereby the modes of production and raw materials necessary for them became enclosed and privatized, itself the source of the proletariat. For Preobrazhensky, the Soviet state needed to become the agent of this process, a process that would entail “the systematic exploitation of the peasantry to pay for a faster tempo of industrialization.”[13] It is perhaps one of the great ironies of Soviet history that Stalin’s formulations played exactly the role of primitive accumulation, not in the sense that Preobrazhensky perceived, but for capitalism itself. By the time that Gorbachev attempted to roll by the archaic Stalinist structures with a return to NEP-style policies, the Soviet Union splintered and collapsed, with the industrialization developed through the five year plans transitioning quickly into the circuity of the global economy. The same phenomena can be witnessed in China: after Stalinism with Chinese characteristics quickly modernized the countries under the direction of Mao, the bid of his successors to introduce their own variation on the NEP[14] allowed the county to quickly build itself into one of the most powerful neoliberal nations in the world. In both cases, the mirage of liberation faded, and revealed what always lurked at the core of these state socialist experiments: the kernel of capitalist modernity.



Other Modernities

But what of the other modernity, the one that seeks not to encase itself within developmental protocols and always strives for another way out? It is perhaps unfair to Marx to have lifted this burden upon him, and seemingly ti have accused him of perpetuating the cycles of capitalism through re-tooling the system into unrecognizable forms. It is difficult to disentangle Marx and the experiments carried out by the Soviets; it is a necessary task, but at other points, it is an impossible. one Likewise, it would be foolish to write off the entirety of the Soviet experiment. What we’re faced with a shifting terrain within modernity, one that swings towards the idealism that capitalism perpetuates, and the other moving outside and beyond it.

Indeed, there are numerous points in Marx’s theoretical constructs that clash with his celebration of the modernist universal. The positions that were staked out in the Manifesto would soon undergo major revisions in the wake of the events of the Paris Commune, when militants and radicals seized a portion of the city under the banner of a universal republic that sought to overturn the dominant of capital, the church, and the state. Whereas as the Manifesto held that the centralization of economic and industrial power in a state was necessary for the advent of socialism, bearing witness to the self-organization of workers and the transformation of everyday life in a set of universals entailed a partial abandoning of this position. In a preface added to a later edition of the essay, Marx wrote that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”[15] Instead of being ripped along in the wake of capitalist development, socialism could emerge from carrying out a radical break with this trajectory.

The events of the Paris Commune caused Marx to also turn away from his crude formulations of primitive accumulation and the Asiatic modes of production. Instead of universalized economic laws, he argued, it was historical and material conditions, not universalized economic laws. Rereading development in this sense, Marx reverses entirely his previous positions and poses that ‘archaic’, ‘primitive’ and peasant societies could grow into socialism without the intermediary phase of capitalism. An emphasis on this attitude can be found in his interest in the Russian Populist Revolutionary Movement in the late 1870s, which as Kristin Ross suggests he read through “the filter of the Parisian insurrection.”[16] For the Populists, the collective laboring of the agrarian peasantry on communal land formed a proto-socialism that would serve as the springboard for an altermodernist – that is, modernity with a revised universal – mode of development. Ross writes:

Marx looks to Russia and sees rural, non-capitalist societies, based not on kinship but on locality, enmeshed within the capitalist world… In the form of the Russian peasant commune he sees the traces of the primary communism he had observed in the Paris Commune… the Paris Communards’ relentless reduction of the cost, scale, and power of any central, bureaucratic, authority allow him to see the enemy of the Russian communes was not some form of stagist, historical inevitability, but the state itself: ‘What threatens the life of the Russian Commune is neither a historical inevitability nor a theory; it is state oppression, and exploitation by capitalism intruders whom the state has made powerful at the peasant’s expense.[17]


At the same time, many Marxists in Russia subscribed to the modernization theory aspects of Marx’s earlier output and viewed the Populist movement as reactionaries to be eliminated in order for capitalism to pursue its organic evolution. In a letter to Vera Zasulich, a young Russian woman and friend of the anarchist (and Parisian communard sympathizer) Peter Kropotkin, Marx responds to this dispute that “we must descend from pure theory to Russian reality… [we should] not be frightened of the word ‘archaic’.”[18] Elsewhere, he argues against the dangers of confusing “my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe” with a “historical-philosophical theory of general development, imposed by fate on all peoples, whatever the historical circumstances in which they are placed.”[19] Lenin was clearly influenced by this line of analysis, praising the ‘pre-modern’ forms of social organization amongst the peasantry, while simultaneously calling for the modernization of these forms in order to develop them to a stage in which they can ‘properly’ contest capitalism. It is within this contradiction that we find the source of both war communism and the NEP.

If Lenin ultimately defers the altermodernist tendency within Marxism, it is perhaps Alexander Bogdanov that resurrects it. As we have already seen, Bogdanov’s work is clearly indicative of modernity, with its embrace of a sort of socialist futurism that veered further to the left than Lenin’s own modernism. Proletkult, his factory-school system for generating an organic and self-organized proletarian culture, constitutes a sharp break not only with cultural traditionalism, but with the Bolshevik leadership’s developmentalism. When cast in this light, it becomes easier to understand Lenin’s dismissal of Bogdanov, and his attempts to snuff out his influence throughout the Soviet education system and the labor movement. It is by no mistake that a near wholesale eradication of Bogdanovite theory had been completed by the time the NEP was being launched.[20]

Aligning with this futurology is Bogdanov’s immense interest in technical knowledge, and the utilization of the organization of knowledge practices to lift the figure of the worker up to that of the engineer and the scientist. Already at this level we can perceive a disentanglement from the mainstream of modernist thought, which as we’ve seen regarded the worker as a historical agent who must ultimately must undergo a self-sacrifice in the face of capitalism. By invoking technical knowledge in this way, and by situating it not in the context of an orthodox methodology but in the relations of materiality and forces, Bogdanov is ushering revolutionary praxis towards an altermodernist position. It’s not hard to imagine that late Marx’s insistent focus on material conditions of history presages Bogdanov’s Machist-derived scientific materialism. And like Marx, who is quick to mind both capitalism’s technical prometheanism and altermodernist alternatives, Bogdanov situates what he calls practical knowledge, or what we might today allude to as ‘folk knowledge’, in relationship to this technical knowledge. In contrast to the modernist universal he does not juxtapose the two, or see the necessary replacement of folk knowledge by technical knowledge, but puts the two together as a common system. Both are essential to the development of not only a proletarian science, but to the unfolding of knowledgeable practice in the depths of materiality. Foreshadowing Hardt and Negri’s ongoing discourse of the social dimensions of the common, he draws on the example of Marx himself to illustrate this point:

Marx utilized a huge amount of material that was gathered before him by both learned and practical people. He applied perfected methods of treatment, which were also partly created and partly prepared by the efforts of innumerable investigators. And he unified and tied together all the ideas that express the direction of the entire development of contemporary society. In a word, we have a conscious and systematic verification of the ideas of all existent collective experience, consciously and systematically organized according to collectively elaborated methods.[21]

This might stand at odds with the accelerationist embrace of promethean techno-science, as well as the wider neo-rationalist turn towards Enlightenment methodology, with its positioning of technical knowledge over that of folk knowledge. It is clear that the key problem of Enlightenment methodology is its universalization of method, which it uses to obscure the relations in the production of its knowledge. If we were to dig deep enough, it would become abundantly clear that it is the networking together of folk knowledge (which was one of the aims of Bogdanov’s tektology) that formed a sort of primitive accumulation for the production of technical knowledge.


A case in point: as Europe spread itself around the world during the 16th and 17th centuries, the field of botany sprung up from the interactions between the colonialists and the indigenous of America, Asia, and Africa. The Europeans were introduced to new plants of all kind, and were provided with the knowledge of them these communities had developed. This exchange of folk knowledge was acknowledged in the early botany books of the era, which took this knowledge and translated it into systems of classifications and identification. At the same time, the systems of classification and development drew on two distinctive sources: the Enlightenment emphasis on rational order and logical progression on one side, and the belief in the ability to discern a universal plan designed by none other than God himself.[22] A scientific articulation of Nature transformed itself in the study of the universal, and as botany as a field progressed the continued reliance on indigenous knowledge and social relations faded from the picture. As Anna Tsing recounts, “As European power grew around the world… European botantists came increasingly to imagine themselves as communing directly with the plants – and the universality of science – without the mediation of non-European knowledge. The very collaborations that made this science possible were covered up, and the plants were asked to speak for themselves as elements of Nature.”[23]


A Bogdanovite approach, by contrast, would have looked to both ends of this unfolding relationship, and pay particular attention to the means through which folk knowledge was produce. He challenges the superiority of the Western model of universalization itself: “There can be no absolute and eternal philosophical truth.”[24] Far from  relativism, he calls us to acknowledge that the things we hold to be philosophical ‘truths’ are nothing more than feedback systems, relating conditions to conditions, forces to forces, from folk to technical to back again. Knowledge and science, then, tend towards the same condition of labor that capitalism so tries to obscure and mystify: that of collaboration. Following this, we can articulate a central tenet of altermodernity: the primacy of mutual co-operation, reflexivity, and co-development over the modernist drive to displace.

Accelerationists design theorist Benedict Singleton draw upon the Greek concept of metis, that is, knowledge with an element of cunning craftsmanship, to describe the ability for technical knowledge to provide fix-its to the common problems currently facing us.[25] This interpretation stands in uneasy relation another deployment of the term by James C. Scott, who emphasizes an understanding of metis as “the kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by long practice at similar rarely identical tasks, which requires constant adaptation to changing circumstances.”[26] For the accelerationists and for Scott, metis is best understand as a bricolage, “a recombination… of existing elements…”[27] Metis is connected the already-existing material relations and technics and techniques already in play, while also pivoting on the translation of technique from one field to the next – not entirely unlike Bogdanov’s tektological concept of substitution.

Instead of prioritizing metis in terms of promethean technical knowledge, Scott articulates the concept as the motor for the development of folk knowledge. In case of the indigenous people and their plant knowledge that allowed for the proliferation of European technical knowledge, it was metis – as a long engagement with of the native populations with their surroundings, as encounter, observation, and cultivation – that allowed this knowledge to be produced in the first place. It is somewhere between knowledge-as-absolute (science) and the direct meditation between the human and nature (technics and techniques). Scott is quick to tell us that metis is not “merely the now-superseded precursor to scientific knowledge” but a “mode of reasoning most appropriate to complex material and social tasks where the uncertainties are so daunting that we must trust our (experienced) intuition and feel our way.”[28] Metis can then absolutely be deployed in the sense that Srnicek and Williams are advocating, assuming that the proper degree of socio-technical literacy be developed – and it also applies to the folk knowledge that stand at the origin of this socio-technical literacy. Furthermore, it suggests the displacement of orthodox methodology and the flattening of distinction of superiority and inferiority that have been erected between them.

Scott goes further and finds in the necessity of metis the flaw inherent to centralized planning and top-down development schemes. Coming close to Hayek’s arguments, he argues that central planning is bound to failure because it lacks the proximity to the material conditions necessary to carry out its plans; metis, for him, stands in contrast to these political forms of social organization. Furthermore, this elimination of metis is “inscribed in the activities of both the state and large-scale bureaucratic capitalism.”[29] The instrumental rationality of high industrial capitalism in exemplary in this regards: through the Taylorist techniques of bodily regulation and the Fordist mode of production (which as we’ve seen crossed from Early Fordist capitalism to its state socialist counterpart in the Soviet Union) carried out an intentional deskilling of the worker. Under the watchful eyes of a management armed with stop watches and flow charts, the worker’s knowledge of the intricacy of tools and craft was replaced highly technical, streamlined protocols imbued with a dual goal: ensuring the smoothness of mass production and eliminating the autonomous aspects of the worker’s agency from the equation.

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Yet we have to insist once again that this dialectic of two forms of metis – technical and folk knowledge – can become problematic. On one hand, there is a tendency in Scott’s work to articulate his metis strictly in the context of the late modernist era, primarily in the era spanning Early to Late Fordism. One must ask how, for better or worse, his understanding of metis can be deployed across the scales of the current world order. This isn’t to retreat back to the privilege of technical knowledge, but to restate the Bogdanovite probing of the relationship between technical and practical knowledge forms. If we were to follow Scott’s analysis to its logical conclusions, we would find ourselves tending dangerously close to a regressive anti-modernist position – a modality of resistance that threatens to slip into the defense of an impossible and largely mythical past. For example, Kevin Carson, following anarchist theorist Colin Ward, invokes the possibility of an ‘informal economy’ built up from household and neighborhood production, community tool sheds, and localized workshops.[30] While these things are just, desirable, and ultimately necessary, it’s worth responding to Carson’s defense of them with a detournement of Jodi Dean’s infamous provocation: “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you share tools.” While not commonly associated with anti-modernity, it’s hard to see to what extent these localized bricolages could do, in isolation, to contest the velocity of global neoliberal and the effects of Anthropocenic climate change.

An interesting thing to do might be to look at points where technical and folk metis have encountered one another with productive results, and especially where this encounter has displaced modernist universalism. An excellent case study can be found during the Green Revolution, the famous attempt to provide humanitarian aid to the Third World based on the principles of the cyborg sciences (molecular biology, in particular).[31] Like many aspects of liberal internationalism (it was launched, notably, by the Rockefeller Foundation), the Green Revolution was bound up in contradictions, unable to separate itself from legitimate and forward-thinking humanitarian goals that crossed across national, ethnic, and spatial divides (introducing sciences and technologies capable of increasing food production) and the Cold War ambition of containing communism. As such, the Green Revolution model followed the path of market development: in India, the traditional means of subsistence farming were replaced by industrial monocropping, requiring the farmers to purchase in larger and larger quantities of seeds, technologies and chemicals. Dealers were few and far between, leading the farmers to make the necessary purchases on credit with inflated interest rates.[32]


Besides ensnaring the farmers in a spiraling debt trap, the change from subsistence to industrial farming had other detrimental effects. As the research of Indian biophysicist A.V. Balasubramanian (the founder of the Indian Center for Indian Knowledge Systems) illustrated, the subsistence farming methods developed from metic knowledge pools that had been built up over long periods of time, with the farms dispersed across the countryside in a way that was harmonized with the conditions of the ecosystems.[33] Over-exploitation of the natural resources was avoided, but this would change with the introduction of the Green Revolution: the industrial monocropping techniques required extensive deforestation, which in turn disrupted the balance of the indigenous ecosystems and led to soil erosion. The rapid turnover of the industrial system led to rapid soil depletion, while the elimination of polycropping techniques and the usage of heavy chemicals and pesticides led to displacement of many native plant and animal species.

When the Green Revolution reached Bali in the late 1960s, the Indonesia government partnered with the Swiss company CIBA to develop a program called Massive Guidance, a large-scale system to promote the usage of IR8 (the variety of high-yield rice central to the Green Revolution project) and accompanying technologies amongst the agrarian peasantry. Massive Guidance was initially formulated along market mechanisms, but when these failed to raise food productivity, the government carried out the implementation of the program by outlawing the planting of indigenous species and mandating the usage of IR8 – effectively stripping the native farmers of their traditional autonomy.[34] And yet the ecosystem pushed back on these changes: insects began to ravage the crops. By the mid-1970s, scientists cultivated a new strain of high-yield rice called IR-36, but its deployment too was met with disaster.


The indigenous agricultural society of Bali is governed by a system of water temples, with farming rice intricately bound to rites carried out by priests at these temples. At first blush, the rites are carried in a linear fashion corresponding to each progressive stage in the cultivation of rice – yet a closer look reveals that these rites are dictated by a complex system of multiple and interlocking cyclical calendars. When these rites take place, they are not isolated to a single temple, but instead take place through a network of multiple temples distributed throughout the farmlands and along the water passages that feed into these lands. It was through this system that farmers knew when to plant and to cultivate, and it is the rites themselves that formed the core indigenous Balinese agricultural society.[35] Under the Green Revolution, it was precisely this organization that was stripped of its social power.

In 1987, anthropologist Stephen Lansing and systems ecologist James Kremer carried out a study of the water temple system, its management of the water passages, and the calendar from the perspective of complex systems. What their models revealed was the system not only helped optimize water usage and coordinate actions across a large ecological landscape, but assisted in pest control as well. The rites themselves aided in ensuring adequate crop rotation. They are, in other words, a highly complex expression of metis, as Lansing makes clear: “The real productive significance of the ritual system is not in the imposition of fixed cropping patterns but in the ability to synchronize the productive activities of large numbers of farmers. The water temples are a social system that manages production, not a ritual clockwork. For these reasons, the ecological model suggests that removing the temples from the control of production ultimately threatens the entire productive system.”[36]

In 1988, Lansing and Kremer reported their findings to the Asian Development Bank, who subsequently noted that the “substitution of ‘high technology and bureaucratic’ solution in the event proved counter-productive” and was the reason for crop decline across the 1980s.[37] Furthermore, they recommended a partnership with the leadership of the water temples in organizing development programs, and returned the “informal control of the cropping patterns” to the system. What we have, in this case, is the superiority of metis over those who gaze towards the conditions on the ground is abstracted by distance, both spatially and temporally. As such, it stands as a refutation of many of the central assumptions of modernity, chief amongst them the mastery of nature through universalized technoscience, and the ability of bureaucratic institutions (be they the market, the state, or the NGO) to conduct more efficiently than the ‘backwards’ underclasses.

We cannot, however, relegate the case of the water temples and the Green Revolution to the defense of an anti-modernist position. This is not to say, of course, that the disastrous intervention by Western and Indonesian scientists and planners was warranted. Instead, what we can gleam from this situation is the specter of altermodernity, found in the bringing together of both technical knowledge and metis: how was it that we learned of the complexity of the water temple’s role in the domestic ecosystem, if not from then cutting-edge ecological modeling systems (not to mention the knowledge of ecological systems theory itself!). Far from supporting the edifies of modernity, these technics and techniques called for a renewed emphasis on the emergence of knowledge from the material relations and its application. The bridging together of state and civil society actors with the indigenous in a common plan that repositioned the native people as stewards of their territories too reveals the basic framework of an altermodernist praxis. In their own description of an altermodernist praxis, Hardt and Negri write that “it would have to put rationality at the service of life”, which in turn requires the application of “technique at the service of ecological needs, where by ecological needs we mean not simply the preservation of nature but the development and reproduction of ‘social relations’… between human and nonhuman”.[38] The collision of metis and technical knowledge in Bali gives but a small preview into ways this can be done.

                In moving towards an altermodernist future, navigation and negotiation will play a fundamental role. As evidenced by the need to mediate relations between scales, the demands of different localities, and different modes of knowledge, a navigational politics will also entail the ability to negotiate between these variables that each in their own ways persist within and against nature. This brings us to relevancy of an impure cyborg politics, as articulated by Donna Haraway and others, to contemporary leftism. All too often discourses like the ones rehearsed above open up a political terrain that is out of step with the conditions of the present. These anti-modernist political forms, of which we’ve already alluded to briefly, span the left and the right and sometimes witness their merger under a shared banner of nationalism.[39] In other cases, as the Out of the Woods collective is to point out, these discourses often fall short of challenging the basic relations of capitalism. While top-down planning like that of the Green Revolution re-arranges traditional relations in order to integrate them into the world market, activist-intellectuals like Vandana Shiva and the movements they are aligned with counter these developments by calling on returns to local circuits of production and distribution.[40] Transnational neoliberal capitalism, for them, is to be challenged by return to a small-scale network of exchange between regional producers and consumers.

In reality, these positions are two sides of a singular coin. It is the immense scale of the system, combined with its technical prowess that fills the whole of the horizon. Exchange-base localism does not break with this universal; it simply brings it down to a more immediate scale. Out of the Woods poses, alternatively, a “cyborg ecology” that forms a bricolage between technical and practical knowledge – or, in other, words, precisely is what is being advocated here. “…cyborg ecology is not an inherent preference for the ‘high’ tech. From the cyborg point of view, the assemblage peasant-ox-plough is no more or less a techno-natural mesh than the assemblage AI-drone-GMO.”[41] One can imagine all sorts of things that taking place both in between and beyond these elements; going broad, alter-modernist bricolages short-circuit the relations between infrastructures, institutions, and protocols. Navigation and negotiation can never be a one-off event, but something continually unfolding.

[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Empire Harvard University Press, 2000 pgs. 206-207

[2] For an in-depth look at capitalism as creative destruction, see Joseph Schumpeter Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy Transaction Publishers, 1942. For a brief overview, see W. Michael Cox and Richard Alm “Creative Destruction”, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics See also my own Revolts of Future Past: Cycles of Struggle, Technology, and Neolibralism

[3] Marshall Berman All That is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity  Penguin Books, 1988, pg. 91

[4] Karl Marx Grundrisse, Notebook V, Chapter 10,

[5] Karl Marx “British Rule in India” 1853

[6] Karl Marx “The Future Results of British Rule in India” 1853

[7]Nikolai Bukharin The Path to Socialism in Russia Omicron Books, 1967, pg. 178

[8] Rudolf Hilferding Finance Capital: A Study of the Latest Phase of Capitalist Development Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981 (reprint edition), pgs. 367-368

[9] V.I Lenin “The New Economic Policy and the Tasks of the Political Education Departments: Report To The Second All-Russia Congress Of Political Education Departments October 17, 1921” 1921

[10] Quoted in Alan Ball Russia’s Last Capitalists: The Nepmen, 1921-1929 University of California Press, 1987, pg. 45

[11]See, for example, Stephen Link “Soviet Fordism in Practice: Building and Operating the Soviet River Rouge, 1927-1945”

[12] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Commonwealth Harvard University Press, 2009, pg. 91

[13] Quoted in Richard Barbrook Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village, Pluto Press, 2007, pg. 122

[14] For the influence of the NEP on Chinese market reforms, see CF Lai “Special Economic Zones: The Chinese Road to Socialism?” University of Kent Urban and Regional Studies Unit, 1985

[15] Karl Marx “The Paris Commune” 1871,

[16] Kristin Ross Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune Verso, 2015, pg. 82

[17] Ibid, pgs. 82-83

[18] Quoted in Ibid, pg. 83

[19] Quoted in Hardt and Negri Commonwealth pg. 88

[20] While Lenin hoped to write Bogdanov out of socialist history, Stalin appears to have attempted to recuperate aspects of Bogdanov’s proletkult as a means to bolstering his cult of personality. See Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Cultural Front: Power and Culture in Revolutionary Russia, Cornell University Press, 1992

[21] Quoted in McKenzie Wark Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene Verso, 2015

[22]Anna Tsing Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection Princeton University Press, 2005, pgs. 90-93

[23] Ibid, pg. 91

[24] Quoted in Wark Molecular Red pg. 29

[25] See Benedict Singleton “(Notes Towards) Speculative Design” Shifter Magazine September, 2015,

[26] James C. Scott Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed Yale University Press, 1999, pgs. 177-178

[27] Ibid, pg. 324

[28] Ibid, pg. 327

[29] Ibid, pg. 335

[30] Kevin Carson Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low Overhead Manifesto BookSurge, 2010

[31] On 20th century molecular biology as a ‘cyborg science’, see Evelyn Fox Keller Refiguring Life: Metaphors of Twentieth-Century Biology Columbia University Press, 1995; and Lily Kay Who Wrote the Book of Life? A History of the Genetic Code Stanford University Press, 2000. For 21st century molecular biology as a cyborg science, see Eugene Thacker The Global Genome: Biotechnology, Politics, and Culture MIT Press, 2006; and Donna Haraway Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse: Feminism and Technoscience Routledge, 1997

[32] For an overview of the Green Revolution and its impact, see Kathryn Sebby “The Green Revolution of the 1960s and its Impact on Small Farmers in India” University of Nebraska, 2010, pg. 15

[33] Ibid

[34] Alexis Rieffel “The Bimas Program for Self-Sufficiency in Rice Production” USAID paper, October, 1969,

[35] For a detailed examination of the water temple system, see J. Stephen Lansing Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali Princeton University Press, 1991 pgs. 50-110

[36] Ibid, pg. 123

[37] Ibid, pg. 124

[38] Hardt and Negri Commonwealth, pg. 125

[39] Relevant here is Vandana Shiva’s rather uncritical flirtations with right-wing nationalist elements. See, for example, Michael Barker “Questioning Vandana Shiva” Swans Commentary August 27th, 2012

[40] See Out of the Woods “Contemporary agriculture: climate, capital, and cyborg ecology” Libcom, July 17th, 2015

[41] Ibid

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9 Responses to Altermodernity and Modes of Knowledge

  1. dmf says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.

  2. suibne says:

    you never get embarrassed over coming up with new packaging of the same old shit? You must rely on the memory challenged or endless stream of jr high grads coming through the cultural of inevitable resentment. Really, these sites are sooooooooooo boring. Two sentences in i quit….same whiney sht over and over and over……

  3. suibne says:

    sorry…anytime i see, hear, read the four letters marx i fart and leave, unless Bros. comes immediately after them.

    • edmundberger says:

      It’s ok, everytime I get a whiff of silly paleoconservative trolling I have to suppress the urge to lose my lunch

      • suibne says:

        it’s bulimia. stop trying to fit into those cute little short shorts ed…..besides, you are too old tor them…..if i were you i would go with the one strap farmers overalls. Goes with that bulbous ……whatever that is…..on your forehead. by the way…..your president is a traitor.

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