speed.

The public relations disasters of this week — Sean Spicer’s holocaust-denying bumblespeak, Pepsi’s obtuse attempt to co-opt social movements into its advertising, and United Airlines’ brutal attack on a paying passenger who got “reassigned” — are all examples of the unifying concept of ‘speed’.

Speed is the manifest product of the capitalist mode of production. Speed means efficiency, translocality, decentralization and dispersion as well as dislocation and concentration.[1] The tendency towards efficiency would be best characterized by Marx on the competitive investment by capitalist firms of their surplus into their privately-owned means of production.[2] Capitalist production accumulates speed; speed is part of the process of capitalist accumulation.

Here, we see speed broken free, fleeting untethered from the constraints of the capitalist mode of production, before they are reined in by the hand of reaction. These events became issues as they were scandalized by social media, seeding out organic dissent through channels opened up by instant communication technology. The powerful were forced to the table to make their public apologies: not that saying “I’m sorry” means Sean Spicer has done his homework and not that withdrawing their ads and apologizing means anything more than regretting plummeting stock values. This is the reality of capitalist production reacting against the norms of its production. Even Trump hopped on the Twitter hate train in poo-pooing United Airlines.

This is the difference between the material reality and the Law of Capital; the Law operates to protect the existing mode of production by the protection of its mode of ownership; the material reality has outgrown the mode of private ownership and seeks to go beyond it, to escape it and occasionally to strike at it. Communication is one of the central technological innovations of capitalism: today it serves to socialize labour on hitherto unknowable scales, in a web spanning across the globe. The internet transects, concentrates and collects. This also serves the purpose of mobilizing dissent. The speed of successful social movements today is such that their rapidness of assembly can elude even the ostensibly panoptic repressive state apparatus.

Here Capital has introduced the material basis of a social force that exceeds its control. Perhaps Habermas would arrive here at this juncture to suggest that the internet has the potential to unite and manifest an ideal (critical) space for communicative, intersubjective reason. If that is true, then the law of private ownership would operate in the digital sphere to disaggregate these collective possible communal spaces, truncating them and carving up borders. In these cases, attempts to cover up gaffes and violence were as blundering as their original events.

As communication is also not a directly material force, but a force with a sociocultural and psychic reality, it is able to temporarily escape the material reality of capitalist production. Communication is thus primarily not material production itself, but a means of intervention in material production, interspaced within matter itself. Communication is a product and an organ in the (re)production of capital. These means its direct effect can be a speeding up or a slowing down – in fact, there is a dialectical relation between the two. First, a slowing down of production and the subsequent intensification of a particular event inside of it. An intensification is also a speeding up, but along a tangential trajectory. A “line of flight,” if you will.

There is an ideal politics and it states that all of the machinery of production be turned against the edifice of private ownership and used instead in the interest of the collective well-being of humanity. Communication has been given a material reality in production under Capital by its processes of technological development. Accumulation in speed of communication under Capital has transcended this material reality and created the possible principle of a universal ideal (critical) communicative space for intersubjective reason.

This can be hindered or harnessed but it cannot be kept under control.


[1] The philosopher of ‘speed’ would be one Paul Virilio. I have neither read Paul Virilio, nor much by way of secondary sources making reference to him; hence I am not qualified to assert with any confidence the extent to which our understandings of the concept might agree or disagree.

[2] For example, in Wage Labour and Capital (1847) as well as in Capital (1867) Ch. 15: Machinery and Large-Scale Industry.