Social acceleration theory, coined by German sociologist Hartmut Rosa in his essay “Capitalism as a Spiral of Dynamisation,” offers a possible explanation for an inherent flaw in capitalism. “Even if [capitalism] runs smoothly,” she argued, “it leads to a limitless game of escalation that throws even the winners into misery for it commits all their energies to that single telos—the struggle to maintain competitiveness.” The implications of capitalism in its accelerated contemporary state are felt throughout late-modern society in the ‘misery’ felt in all sectors of society as the complications of an unhealthy system.
Sometimes I get this compulsory feeling that something needs to be done. It’s as if I wake up from a nightmare and need to frantically look for the light switch to recapture my own agency. Part of it is probably my anxiety, but another part is perhaps this accelerated feeling that the world is always moving beyond me, and that I need to do something fast.
Sometimes this feeling manifests itself in an internal voice that yells, “take to the streets, demand the world!” At the same time, “taking to the streets” is seen as a naïve and immature political action that falls below the refined repertoire of acceptable political actions studied by well-educated Government majors. Part of this feeling is some juvenile desire for revolution, but another part is what Rosa calls the contradictions between the autonomy promised by capitalism and the material realities of an exhausted and docile society.
It feels as if speed itself is not fairly distributed.
Social acceleration explains an effect of late-stage modernity where it becomes hard to picture one’s self as part of a history of agitators, endowed with a set of timeless values, always already born with an Earth-shattering spirit capable of matching the languor of any fastened structure.
Social acceleration works in this double-oppression where, when it comes to productivity, we must always be on-call—willing and able to produce at the chime of a phone. Yet organizing must be structured methodically and with the timid anticipation that someday, the right time will somehow arrive, even though it never seems to do so.
As a religion major, it is easy to see a similarity between the day that all the contradictions of capitalistic turmoil and uneven development will seemingly eventually collapse. This fuels the messianic promise that one day the meek will inherit the Earth. The world seems to be structured so that such a day is always arriving, never to be fulfilled lest everything fall apart.
Conversely, taking a page from Mark Fisher, we may contemplate why it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.
This is not to say that it’s impossible to imagine what it means for capitalism to fail; I have been made a witness to its failures every day I see my parents on the brink of collapse after completing unrelenting and undervalued labor. Rather, Fisher highlights how the socioeconomic structure of late-stage capitalism runs on the fumes of a system with a momentum that pushes its corpse far beyond its expiration date.
In this sense, we are left unwilling and ill-prepared for when it all falls apart.
Society under late-stage capitalism, with its insatiable drive for competition, has left us moving past the ideals and lifestyles of our parents—something Rosa labels as intragenerational change, or social change occurring in one’s own lifetime. The product of this detachment from the web of values and ideals, from the trajectories of our earliest models of authority, is a universal feeling of social acceleration and its implications for what it feels to be “late-modern.”
Social acceleration is as much about the feeling of being-in-modernity as it is the material signs of technological advancement. This is why in her essay, Rosa talks about notions of the good life and how societies construct ideals of how one should achieve a “fulfilling existence”.
This is where I posit my claim that the migrant experience—the feeling of leaving home and actively building a new one and the need to create new systems of ideals that must survive for generations to come: getting a good education, finding good work, providing for one’s family—is the same struggle that the modern subject feels in the daze of everyday life in late-stage capitalism.
This is where I will turn for my next few articles, where I hope to consolidate the experience of the migrant laborer and a wider feeling of social acceleration, connected by the social processes of meaning-making that signal one possible solution for the daze of social acceleration and late-capitalist society.