I bought a lovely second hand hardback copy of Ralph Miliband’s Class Power & State Power (1983) a couple of weeks ago and have been dipping in and out of it for the past two or three days. It’s a fairly eclectic collection of some of Miliband’s essays, although organised into three thematic sections – ‘The Capitalist State’, ‘Marxism and the Problem of Power’ and ‘Britain’ (the second being the most wide ranging and the third feeling a little tacked on). The book contains a fair few of what it’s probably now fair to consider ‘classic Miliband’ pieces – his powerfully angry essay on ‘The Coup in Chile’ written shortly after the overthrow of Allende, his critique of ‘Lenin’s The State and Revolution‘ (not quite as devastating as I remembered it, but still pretty sharp on some key gaps, lacunae and instances of wishful thinking in Lenin’s – in my view highly over-rated – text) and excerpts from his halves of the famous New Left Review exchanges with Nicos Poulantzas (though these feel a bit odd reproduced as an ‘essay’ in itself).
Two essays I’ve never read before and which I found surprisingly fascinating were his critical review of Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity and Lineages of the Absolutist State (in ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’) in which Miliband takes Anderson to task for understating the autonomy of the Absolutist state from the aristocracy, and his essay ‘Political Forms and Historical Materialism’ in which Miliband attempts to account for the role of chance, accident and individual decision within the historical process and to integrate this with the focus on grander social and structural historical forces in Marxist historiography.
Re-reading Miliband directly (rather than about him) for the first time in several (probably 10 ) years, I’m struck by what a lucid and eminently readable writer he was. A writing style is, for me anyway, a kind of persona – a writer’s voice expresses itself in and carries with it a sort of character. Some are austere and unfriendly, some are buttoned up and excessively formal and others feel like they aren’t really very interested in being read by the likes of you and are doing their best to shake you off. Miliband’s writing however has a distinctly affable – almost conversational – quality to it. I want to say, in fact, that there’s something almost genteel about Miliband’s writing style in the best sense of that term – charming, relaxed and good-humoured if perhaps also slightly tweedy and old-school in its choices of diction and turns of phrase. But while he writes in what comes across as a fairly relaxed and genial manner it’s never sprawling or meandering. In fact Miliband’s key points are almost always expressed in an impressively sharp and clear way. Indeed most of the essays in this book are pretty short and to the point. How he managed to write with such precision and lucidity while also maintaining such a conversational tone, I don’t know – but what an impressive writer he was.
These qualities are much in evidence in what is for me the stand-out essay in the collection (and the reason I bought the book) – ‘State Power and Class Interests’. I really think that this is a very fine essay on the vexed question of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’ in Marxist state theory. In his characteristically lucid and accessible style, Miliband pin-points the key problems with both ‘class reductionist’ (Poulantzas and Therborn) and ‘state reductionist’ (Skocpol) accounts of state autonomy and sets out an admirably simple (though certainly not simplistic) model of ‘partnership’ between the state (or key figures within the state executive) and the capitalist class.
The problem with theorists such as Poulantzas is that they dissolve state power entirely into class power – for Poulantzas the state is fundamentally a condensate of all the contradictions between classes and class fractions. Its autonomy is thus a sort of epiphenomenal expression at the political level of conflicts and tensions between class forces. The state thus has no independent interests or sources of power of its own. As Miliband very elegantly points out however, this really won’t do. The main problem with such class reductionist perspectives is that they cannot account for ‘two powerful impulses to state action generated from within the state by the people who are in charge of the decision-making power… and [that] cannot be taken to be synonymous with the purposes of the dominant class’.
The first of these is that state actors can, clearly, be motivated by self-interest – this Miliband calls the ‘Machiavellian dimension of state action’. The ability to exercise decision-making power within the state is quite clearly very attractive in itself for some people (Miliband here cites as evidence the personality and behaviour of Lyndon B Johnson) – some people desire it and if they get it they wish to hold on to it. The actions and decisions of such people may have very little to do with the purposes of any class fraction – the Machiavellian actor here acts with a certain degree of autonomy (acts on his/her self-interest) and is certainly not simply some sort of conduit for capitalist class imperatives. Further, the upper echelons of the state are also sources of status, privilege, connections, high salaries and access to desirable positions outside the state and the state also provides, indeed, the terrain upon which the Machiavellian actor can manoeuvre to further his/her self interest. Thus the state (and the wider sphere of politics) constitutes a separate and, under normal circumstances, more or less free standing site of power in itself – one that must be, to some extent, independent of class forces.
The second impulse to state action is the idea of ‘the national interest’ – however overdetermined by ideological mystification and/or euphemism etc this concept might be , people in power are clearly motivated in good faith by this concept at least some of the time. They really are moved by what they conceive to be in ‘the national interest’. Their conception of ‘the national interest’ tends to coincide with the core interests of core sections of capital, though Miliband’s explanation of this seems to me to be a little weak. Miliband suggests that the connection here is embedded in the ‘belief’ among state actors that the national interest is bound up with the ‘well being of capitalist enterprise’ or the belief that ‘no conceivable alternative arrangement, least of all socialism, could possibly be more advantageous to the ‘national interest”. While this is true, it doesn’t quite get to the nub of the matter. Fred Block it seems to me is on stronger ground when he suggests (in what is quite a similar approach overall that stresses the independent agency of state managers) that the decisions of state actors tend to coincide with the interests of core sections of capital simply because the state is dependent on profits for its own revenue via taxation and thus has an interest in boosting (or at least not depressing) capital accumulation. Nevertheless Miliband’s approach here is similar enough. Indeed, as for Block, Miliband also suggests that it’s this ideology of the ‘national interest’ that enables state managers to rationalise capitalism – that is to go against the immediate interests of specific sections of capital (or even large swathes of it) with the intention of boosting accumulation overall and/or over the longer term. The key point here for Miliband (as for Block) is that state actors would not be able to act ‘in the long term interests of capitalism’ unless they acted on impulses that are not wholly reducible to class forces.
As against ‘state reductionists’, however, Miliband wants to insist that the state does not and cannot float entirely free of class forces. Skocpol’s model of ‘the state for itself’ tends to abstract from the ‘hard reality’ of the capitalist context in which it is situated – but as Miliband insists, no government can be indifferent to this context if it wishes to survive.
So, overall, as Miliband puts it, ‘an accurate and realistic ‘model’ of the relationship between the dominant class in advanced capitalist societies and the state is one of partnership between two different, separate forces, linked to each other by many threads, yet each having its own separate sphere of concerns’. There’s a complementarity here between Miliband’s model of the state and Harvey’s and Callinicos’s theorisation of imperialism in which the latter speak of a dialectical interplay between the ‘territorial’ and capitalist ‘logics of power’ – neither of which are reducible to the other, but which are also deeply interwoven in the complex of forces and imperatives that drives imperial expansion. Nevertheless I’m not sure that any other recent major theorist of the state (other than Block mentioned above) has given due consideration to the autonomy of state actors as a core constituent factor (indeed as the pivot) of the ‘relative autonomy of the state’.
I wrote this in March/April and it was originally going to be published in Salvage Journal alongside a pro-Lexit piece by Neil Davidson as a sort of debate. Unfortunately after a delay of a few months Neil decided not to finish his piece and so mine was pulled from the journal too. Soon after I wrote this article May called the General Election and a whole lot of game-changing stuff happened. Presumably this is why Neil didn’t in the end submit his piece. The following then is quite dated in some respects. In particular there’s a line or two in here about Corbyn’s and May’s prospects as I saw them in April that in retrospect were a little off the mark. There might still be some useful stuff in here – I don’t know.
There is no doubt that Brexit, closely followed in its wake by the election of Trump, delivered a heavy double blow to the hitherto prevailing liberal order. Though there had, of course, been prior indications (such as the election victory of Syriza in 2015 and Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2016) which established that former political certainties no longer held, Brexit and Trump came as powerful confirmation that something fundamental had changed – that political ‘business as usual’ in the form that it has taken for the past 30-40 years is over. The grief among the liberal commentariat is palpable.
But the trauma in process here isn’t just the shock and grief of defeat in itself – it’s also a symptom of a sudden sense of profound disorientation. Brexit, like Trump’s victory, defied all predictions. Literally overnight, as the referendum vote was counted, the liberal centre’s taken-for-granted assumptions about the fundamental solidity of the prevailing order fell apart, producing a sort of existential crisis on the part of a mainstream for whom the coordinates of political normality had been abruptly and vertiginously scrambled.
Though still working its way through shock and disbelief, the liberal mainstream has more or less settled on a general explanation for Brexit that pivots on a classically liberal elitist disdain for a supposedly ignorant mass of ‘left behind’, ‘provincial’ voters. What this prevailing analysis of the Brexit vote obfuscates, however, is the part in shaping this outcome played by the accumulated pathologies, inequalities and tensions generated by decades of neoliberal policy and sharpened by the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent regime of austerity. This is a crisis of the liberal order generated in no small measure – and in good dialectical fashion – by the functioning of that order itself.
Any decent explanation of the referendum must take into account the ways in which contingent political decisions and miscalculations (Cameron’s gamble in calling a referendum in order to shoot Ukip’s fox, Official Remain’s stupidity in seeming to present a united front of elites in a climate of ‘anti-Establishment’ feeling) interacted with deepening social, political and economic polarisations in Britain and across Europe. It would need to factor in Britain’s peculiar relationship with the process of European integration as an unenthusiastic latecomer to the union, its political and economic outlook significantly shaped by imperial legacies – most notably the highly internationalised strategic location of British capital and the way in which this has interacted with a geopolitical balancing act between ‘Atlanticism’ and ‘Europeanism’. It would need to trace the ways in which racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, long ingrained within political and media discourse, but suddenly amplified by the ‘migrant crisis’ was cynically articulated with the issue of EU membership during the referendum campaign.
This is by and large what the best radical left analysis of the referendum result has done. It is probably fair to say that the British left is agreed that Brexit condenses a series of long-building tensions and dysfunctions and is as such the overdetermined form in which these combined pressures – many of them deeply structural – have been brought to a head, throwing up an acute crisis for the British ruling class.
This is a serious crisis of hegemony that fuses two core components – a legitimation crisis at the level of political representation and a crisis at the level of political economy that has probably rendered the current configuration of British neoliberalism obsolete as a workable accumulation strategy. In relation to the latter, it is not simply that British capital will have to undergo the painful and potentially disastrous process of substantially unmeshing itself from regional neoliberal matrices of production trade and investment across Europe. It’s also that the Brexit vote (together with Trump’s win) delivered a verdict on the future viability of neoliberalism as we know it.
But while the radical left can largely agree on the broad dimensions and on the seriousness of the current crisis for the British ruling class, it remains deeply divided in relation to whether this crisis amounts to an exciting opportunity or a probable catastrophe for the working class and for the left itself.
The basic coordinates of this divided outlook were set during the referendum campaign itself. Unsurprisingly, those currents that campaigned for exit see in the referendum result and its aftermath reasons for optimism, while those currents that argued for Remain interpret the result as triumph for reactionary forces. Unsurprisingly, too, both sides in this dispute seem to feel that their arguments during the referendum campaign have been vindicated by demographic analysis of the referendum vote and subsequent political developments.
The Left Exit (Lexit) campaign — an alliance between the Socialist Workers Party and other small revolutionary groups — pivoted on the argument that the EU is fundamentally an instrument of class domination and one of the main vectors for the spreading and national embedding of neoliberalism and austerity across the continent and that withdrawal would represent a massive blow to the interests of dominant sections of British capital and to European elites. Withdrawal would also weaken the Cameron Government, perhaps precipitating its collapse, thus opening up opportunities for the British left – even propelling Corbyn to power.
Lexit proponents were quick to interpret the Leave victory as a ‘revolt against the rich and powerful’ that ‘hurled the Tory party, and the British and European establishments, into a profound crisis’ – crowing in particular about Cameron’s resignation as an indication of the serious, perhaps fatal, weakening of the Conservative Government and of a party about to plunge itself into civil war. The Lexit left also made much of the demographic analysis of the vote published in the Ashcroft poll that indicated that a majority of AB voters (those in the top tier of occupations) voted Remain while a majority of voters from the lowest categories (C2 and DE) voted Leave in order to insist that the referendum revolt represented a class revolt – a “rebellion by working-class people” against neoliberalism and austerity.
Arguments for a pro-Remain position tended to fall into two major categories – one of these distinctly more pro-EU than the other. The first largely emanated from groups and individuals affiliated with the Another Europe is Possible (AEiP) campaign and promoted an internationalist vision of a coordinated Europe-wide radical movement to transform EU structures from within. This current in my view tended to present an idealised and unconvincing vision of the EU as a basically neutral institutional terrain – or even as an essentially progressive structure – that neoliberalism has come recently to dominate on a merely contingent basis.
The other Left Remain sub-camp pivoted on a ‘lesser-evil’ position that stressed that while the Lexit analysis of the EU as a thoroughly neoliberal structure was essentially correct, it did not follow that withdrawal would strengthen progressive forces. On the contrary, the forces dominating Leave were hard right ones that had successfully cohered the campaign around immigration as the core, defining issue and, given this, the likely consequences of Brexit would be a decisive shift to the right in British politics – and indeed beyond, in that Brexit would put wind in the sails of right wing movements elsewhere too – and the further political mainstreaming of racism and xenophobic national chauvinism. As such it would be a disaster for workers — particularly immigrant workers — and the left.
It seems pretty clear now nearly a year after the referendum, in my view at least, that the key warnings of the ‘lesser evil’ left Remain camp have been largely vindicated. Despite Lexit’s protestations that Leave’s momentum was not propelled by anti-immigration sentiment, the aftermath of the referendum brought a spike in racist incidents and other hate crime – clearly bigots felt emboldened by the result and the subsequent political atmosphere. Meanwhile a grotesque parade of the European far right, feeling that their time had come at last, lined up to celebrate Leave’s victory. Soon after, Trump, claiming the mantle ‘Mr Brexit’ and clearly feeling the wind of international political fortune blowing his way sailed into the Whitehouse.
The party political fall-out from the referendum in Britain revealed the Lexit left’s predictions in relation to which UK political forces would benefit and which would lose out to be absurdly wrong. The crowing about Cameron’s resignation heralding a coming collapse of the Tory government looks embarrassing in retrospect. While it’s true that there was some bloodletting between Gove and Johnson, things never looked like spilling over into open civil war within the Tory party, much less precipitating the collapse of the Government.
In fact, the transfer of power from Cameron to May was conducted remarkably fluidly, facilitated by May’s ability as a Remainer during the referendum campaign now decisively committed to ‘hard Brexit’, to draw together the Remain and Leave factions within the Conservatives. While May is certainly a late convert to the Leave cause, there can be little doubt that she intends to conduct Brexit on the hard right’s terms – no ‘half-in, half-out’ balancing act for her as she has clearly signalled. Indeed May has made it plain that she intends Britain to leave the Single Market, Customs Union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – objectives that go far beyond the stated aims of official Leave during the referendum campaign. This is driven by the desire to throw nationalist red meat to hard-core Brexiteers in terms of the reassertion of ‘national sovereignty’ – but, more than anything else, it’s about signalling a clear intention to withdraw from the ambit of EU rules on ‘free of movement’ of EU citizens in order clamp down on immigration. The hard right trajectory of the Tory government under the May premiership, then, is abundantly clear. We are, as left Remainers warned, witnessing a decisive shift to the right in British politics.
While the Tories’ grip on power never looked seriously weakened by the referendum result, still less did the post-referendum shake-out look remotely likely to propel Corbyn any nearer to Downing Street. Few now but his most die-hard cheerleaders expect Corbyn, bunkered down and besieged within his own party, to do anything more than hang-on and endure for as long as he can the attempt by the PLP to wear him down – still less win the upcoming general election. It is, of course, true that the vicissitudes of political fortune seem particularly unpredictable at the moment and certainly May’s strategy is beset by inner tensions – not least that ‘hard Brexit’ seems to run substantially counter to the interests of much British capital. She also faces the problem of the intensification of secessionary pressures within the British union itself. ‘Hard Brexit’ does not entail plain sailing for the Tories. Yet, it looks close to certain that, within the UK, it will be the Tories alone who will shape the institutional and legal structural framework of the new post-Brexit Britain and that they will do this according to a hard right vision.
The Lexit Left were almost certainly correct that Brexit will entail serious crisis for British capital in an already spluttering economy weighed down by sluggish growth, low investment, low productivity, a large gap in the current account and hugely reliant on a bloated financial sector and debt-fuelled household consumption. True, things have stabilized after the initial post-referendum turbulence. But Britain, of course, has not as yet left the Single Market and will not do so for at least two years. Moreover, the consensus among analysts is, if not catastrophe, that serious recession will accompany withdrawal from the EU. Things look particularly shaky for the City which stands to lose its entrée as a stepping stone for investment and commercial banking in Europe. Things got much worse for it recently when Jean Claude Juncker confirmed that Brexit means that the City will lose its right to carry out euro-denominated clearing which the director of the London Stock Exchange warned would entail the loss of at least 100,000 jobs (with the knock-on effect of over 200,000 jobs lost beyond the City). Small wonder that many major banks are planning to move some London based jobs and operations to new hubs inside the EU.
For the wider economy much depends on whether May is able to conclude a deal with the EU in the next two years (the chances of which according to one analyst are 50/50) that would maintain access to European markets on good terms. Whatever the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ bluster, failure to arrange a trade deal by 2019 would be disastrous for manufacturing according to industry leaders. For their part, EU elites have repeatedly made it plain that May cannot expect a deal with the EU that would allow Britain to withdraw from the Single Market while somehow preserving the benefits of membership. Indeed, why would the EU allow this? Facing further centrifugal pressures within the union EU negotiators have a clear incentive to play hardball with Britain pour encourager les autres.
It’s unclear if the more sensible heads in the Tory party really believe that ‘Global Britain’ can make up for any lost European trade and investment with new trade deals with ‘Commonwealth’ countries and beyond. There is certainly more than a whiff of post-Imperial delusion about these initiatives. Hard-core Brexiteers seem genuinely to envisage post-Brexit Britain as a nimble free-trading ‘buccaneering galleon’ with a global reach, but to what extent the nods in this direction from May and Brexit Secretary, David Davies, are merely playing to the hard right gallery remains to be seen. Either way all of this gives us a taste of the quasi-imperial political discourse to come and either way these plans are unlikely to work given that the EU takes 44% of British exports and given many ‘Commonwealth’ countries simply don’t need Britain.
So the outlook for British capital looks bad indeed. This has been a source of jubilation for the Lexit Left. The trouble with this, though, is that they have never made it clear why this should benefit workers. Two facile assumptions seem to underpin their outlook. The first is that whatever undermines profits must necessarily strengthen labour. The second is that a serious crisis for capital in economic terms must automatically entail a serious weakening of ruling class leadership and domination at the political level.
In regard to the first assumption it is of course the case that the interests of labour and capital are antagonistic – but they are not counterposed in some simple zero-sum relationship. The structural power of capital after all pivots on the fact that under capitalism wage-labour is dependent on the social class that exploits it for jobs, investment, availability of consumer goods in the shops and so on. A recession for capital is also a recession for workers – more so, in fact, given that workers always bear the brunt of restructuring and readjustment for the recovery of profits. Of course any challenge to capitalist power must encounter economic turbulence and risk severe hardship for workers, but to cheer on economic crisis in the absence of a challenge to capital from workers’ struggle is irresponsible ultra-leftism.
This point brings us to the second facile assumption above. What this forgets is the relative autonomy of politics. In this regard the Tory leadership – as the favoured political representatives of capital – have shown themselves to be quite capable of adapting to adverse circumstances and committing unambiguously and opportunistically to withdrawal, thus putting themselves at the head of the social forces mobilised by Leave in order to instrumentalise Brexit in the interests of core capitalist class interests. Certainly, Brexit hasn’t provided any discernible boost to left forces either within or outside Parliament.
This hasn’t stopped the Lexit Left from seeking to conjure up an imaginary working class rebellion at the ballot box on the basis of a tenuous reading of referendum polling data. For one thing the polling data they draw on distributes voters into a class hierarchy measured in terms of occupational category – which, needless to say, is an approach that doesn’t operate on a Marxist understanding of class and which obfuscates the class position of, for example, key groups of public sector workers. For another, the ‘working class rebellion’ thesis seems to exclude the majority of Black and Ethnic Minority, and young voters (categories that voted heavily for Remain) from the ambit of the implied definition of working class.
In fact the Lexit campaign was characterized by a kind of fantasy politics throughout – an expression in microcosm of the wider fantasies of the Leninist sect outlook. The revolutionary strategy of the sect pivots on the notion that, as long as it cleaves to the right line, it can, by some mysterious process unknowable in advance, hope to be transformed from an isolated groupuscule into a mass party at the head of an insurgent movement challenging the state for power. Lexit pivoted on the similar idea that a handful of revolutionaries could catalyse some sort of magical-dialectical transformation of actually existing Brexit into its political opposite. The view throughout seems to have been that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Brexit conceals a hidden anti-capitalist essence that, through cunning Leninist manoeuvres, can be induced to reveal itself.
The fundamental mistake perhaps was to confuse the politics of the EU with the politics of the referendum. The basic error, that is, was to have assumed that because the EU is a thoroughly neoliberal structure that embeds the domination of leading sections of the bourgeoisie in Europe and that has spearheaded austerity across much of the continent, the referendum on withdrawal must ipso facto have been a referendum on neoliberalism, austerity and class power. Of course the effects of neoliberalism, class power and austerity shaped the context of this ballot and fed indirectly into the result – but the referendum for most voters was never directly or even to any substantial degree about these matters. The Brexit referendum was not the Greek Oxi referendum. The political terms of these two plebiscites were quite different and the political forces they mobilized were poles apart.
Indeed what the Lexit campaign ignored was the specific political character of the forces leading the Leave campaign and the way in which they had framed the terms of the referendum itself. The basic coordinates of the referendum were never in much doubt – from the start it was always, in effect, a debate structured as an internecine contest within and among the right over issues identified and framed in largely right-of-centre terms. Left groups were never likely to play anything other than a marginal role in this contest. They were certainly never likely to have much impact in terms of transforming the nature of Brexit. Leave was dominated, in particular, by hard right forces and reactionary ideas and arguments. These forces, moreover, were highly successful in shaping the meaning of the vote. The Leave side focused relentlessly on immigration, conducting one of the most racist and xenophobic electoral campaigns ever seen in Britain and in doing so they effectively transformed the referendum into a plebiscite on immigration. To vote Leave, then, was to vote for exit on these terms. However much the Lexit left insisted that there was some sort of hermetic seal between official Leave and Lexit, there was, in the end, no Lexit option on the ballot paper.
Lexit met with widespread derision among most quarters of the Left. Certainly Lexit hasn’t earned the SWP very much in the way of renewed popularity. Undeterred, however, and with arrogance typical of the organization, one of its first acts after the referendum was to call for unity among the Left… on its own terms. Left Remainers, that is, were invited to perform a 180 degree flip and discover a sudden enthusiasm for Lexit. But it’s surely the case that for any measure of unity on the radical Left, delusions in Lexit – and they are clearly delusions – have to be abandoned. For their part, left Remainers must resist any temptation to join in with any attempted rearguard action to scupper Brexit on the part of liberal forces making plaintiff noises about second referendums. Such a course of action could only be counter-productive and would look like the worst form of anti-democratic manoeuvring.
But perhaps the most necessary – and most realistically achievable – task for us now beyond doing what we can to defend migrants is simply to study the emerging political economy of post-Brexit Britain. We had little impact on the referendum itself and are likely to have little impact for the foreseeable future on the political, economic and social changes currently underway. If Brexit is catalyzing a shift in the fundamental coordinates of British capitalism and if the ruling class is seeking to instrumentalise Brexit to reorganize the terms of its hegemony we need to try to understand these dynamics and begin to trace the outlines of the emerging structural configurations with a view to adapting our strategic outlook as we seek to embark on the arduous process of building our forces under new conditions.
An interesting start has been made in this regard by William Davies who discerns a possible movement in Tory strategy toward a ‘protective state’ model. Such a strategy would represent a decisive step away from neoliberalism toward a more socially conservative and economic protectionist model in which state intervention is combined with an ethic of ‘faith, family and flag’ that would resonate with Red Tory and Blue Labour type communitarianism. Such a shift might entail, in Poulantzasian terms, a shift in the configuration of the power bloc in favour of industrial sections of capital at the expense of finance capital and a corresponding shift in the locus of the key sites of power within the state away from the Treasury and the Bank of England toward the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Building on Davies’ observations, Adam Tooze has suggested that the Tories hold a Plan B strategy in reserve should the ‘protective state’ model falter (and should perhaps Britain ‘crash out’ of the EU without a favourable trade deal in place) – this would be a ‘disaster capitalism’ scenario in which Britain sought to become a low tax, ultra-deregulated Singapore of northern Europe.
Whatever happens it is almost certain that the British economy as we currently know it is to undergo a fundamental transformation as Brexit unfolds. The prevailing political practices of the British radical left have, arguably, been absurdly dated for the past few decades. They are likely to become even more archaic over the coming years without a fundamental re-think of socialist strategy.
Here’s something I wrote for the work blog. It’s a bit derivative – but not much to say as yet that’s not already been said.
We have just, as the veteran broadcaster Jon Snow remarked on Friday, witnessed ‘one of the most remarkable election results in modern British history’ – and it is a result, moreover that has fundamentally shifted the basic coordinates of politics in Britain. Political ‘business as usual’ as we have known it for the past few decades is, quite simply, over.
Though the Tories won the greatest share of the vote and the most seats – and thus ‘won’ the election in the sense that they have been (only just…) returned to government – it is apparent to everyone that this election result was, for them, an utter catastrophe. The gamble on which May staked everything was to call a snap election in order to capitalise on an apparent post-referendum swing to the right in UK politics and thus solidify her leadership going into the Brexit negotiations with a large parliamentary majority. To say that May’s wager didn’t pay off would be an understatement – May miscalculated disastrously, leaving her authority severely and perhaps fatally weakened. Indeed the process that has seen her rapidly transformed from the ‘strong and stable’ darling of much of the media punditocracy to the pathetically diminished figure we see now scrabbling for a parliamentary alliance with the sectarian, homophobic reactionaries of the DUP in order to shore up her crumbling position has to be one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in post-war British political history.
May is now, as George Osborne remarked with brutal accuracy in a TV interview, a ‘dead woman walking’, deeply despised and increasingly isolated within her own party. However it’s probably unlikely that there’ll be a leadership challenge any time soon if only because most Tories fear triggering another general election which would almost certainly put Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.
That Labour should now be within striking distance of government power is surely the most remarkable dimension of the political earthquake we have just experienced. Just a few short weeks ago Labour was 20 points behind in the polls, and Corbyn’s personal ratings were recorded at a dismal minus 23 points (in comparison with May’s plus 28). The conventional wisdom across almost the entirety of the media and political class was that Labour was heading toward humiliating defeat and possible oblivion. Indeed, right up until the exit poll was released on Thursday night few even among Corbyn’s supporters really believed that the party could hope realistically for much more than survival as a major political force.
Given this, the party’s electoral performance was astonishing. Labour enjoyed its biggest surge in vote share since 1945, – up by almost 10% compared with 2015 to 40% of the total vote, winning nearly 13 million votes and increasing its number of seats by 30. This result is all the more incredible when you consider that over the past two years Corbyn has faced a relentless campaign of open hostility and sabotage from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and several attempts to oust him from the leadership. What is more he was subjected to a barrage of daily vilification from large swathes of the media over the same period – and not just from the traditionally Tory press. Most columnists for the generally Labour supporting Guardian, for example, have displayed little but contempt – or at best condescension – toward Corbyn and his supporters since he first won the leadership.
So how did Corbyn’s Labour do it?
Part of the explanation lies in the complete ineptitude of the Tory election campaign. There was of course, the debacle of the so called ‘dementia tax’, and the revelation, on the campaign trail, of May’s robotic awkwardness and inability to connect emotionally with ordinary people. Her failure to attend the BBC leaders’ debate – looking for all the world like someone scared of debating directly with her political opponents – might well have been a turning point in terms of her personal rating with the electorate. However, the atrocious Tory campaign cannot, in itself, explain Corbyn’s success. For that we need to look at the Corbyn team’s strategy and the way his campaign resonated with large numbers of people.
Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party rested from the start on the idea that the party’s fortunes could be revived by attracting lost voters and those who felt alienated by the prevailing political landscape. That is, he argued that the party should reject the Blairite machine-politics of ‘triangulation’ that focused on competition for a relatively small number of ‘centre-ground’ ‘floating voters’, and concentrate, instead on tapping a deep well of relatively disenfranchised voters including, crucially, the young (who tend not to turnout in large numbers during elections). This was to be done, in large part, by campaigning on distinctive left social democratic policies – putting clear red water between Labour and the other parties – and, just as importantly, by transforming the party into something like a party/social movement hybrid that sought to mobilise its members into a grassroots mass campaigning force. This leadership pitch was extraordinarily successful in catapulting Corbyn to the leadership and in galvanizing an active and mobilised base of support among the party membership to defend him from the various ‘coup’ attempts set in motion by the party’s right wing establishment. But while this had worked well within the party among a relatively small number of people, it was not clear that the same approach could be successful beyond the party itself among the electorate as a whole at the level of a general election.
Confounding all of his critics, Corbyn and his team proved beyond doubt on June 8th that this approach could indeed work at a national level. The turning point in Labour’s election campaign was clearly the release of the party’s manifesto – a bold document full of public spending, redistributionist and growth-centred social democratic policies that broke with the politics and economics of austerity. The manifesto seems to have resonated deeply with wide sections of the electorate sick of many years of cuts to public services, stagnating wages and rising inequality. The Corbyn team’s gamble was that a relatively left-wing manifesto (by recent standards) would tap hidden but deep reserves of support among swathes of voters for the sort of policies that previous Labour leaderships had abandoned in their efforts to ‘triangulate’ and chase the ‘centre ground’. It paid off.
The early leak of the manifesto – whether this was deliberate or not (there is some suggestion that a pro-Corbyn source ‘leaked’ it to ensure that the manifesto pledges couldn’t be watered down by the Labour right) – also ensured that Labour was able to shape the agenda for the election campaign. Labour refused to concentrate their fight on the terrain preferred by the Tories – the issue of Brexit – steering the debate toward issues of inequality, public spending, healthcare and education. Though Corbyn was taxed initially by pro-Remain forces within Labour for his apparent fudging on Brexit, this manoeuvre appears, in retrospect, to have allowed Corbyn to side-step and close down an issue that threated to divide the Labour camp. Indeed psephological analysis of the vote indicates that Labour managed to hold on to (usually older) Leave voters in sufficient numbers while cohering the lion’s share of votes from those who supported Remain.
The turning point in Labour’s fortunes – the release of the manifesto – coincided with the period when broadcast media election rules kicked in. As Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell has pointed out the more balanced broadcast coverage that this ensured enabled many people to see, for the first time, Corbyn for the ‘honest, decent, principled and indeed strong leader he was’. Seeing Corbyn speak directly and relatively unfiltered by media hostility and bias, people generally liked what they saw – especially in comparison with May’s wooden and uncharismatic performances. The Ashcroft poll indicates that it was indeed in this period in the final weeks before the ballot that Labour won people over in large numbers – 57% of those who voted Labour made their decision in the last month before the election.
The most striking thing about the voting figures, however, is the way in which young voters turned out for Labour – 67% of 18-24 year old voters (and well over half of 25-34 year olds) chose Labour. Various reports have suggested, moreover, that turnout amongst the youth vote surged to an impressive 72% – vindicating Corbyn’s decision to orient his campaign toward the young and those who do not normally choose to vote. This high turnout for Labour was almost certainly driven, to a significant extent, by the way in which the Corbyn campaign managed to mobilise active support among young people. It was for the most part, young people who joined the Momentum canvassing teams that flocked to Labour marginals and populated Momentum’s phone banking efforts. Further, it seems clear that a largely spontaneous pro-Corbyn campaign of video, meme and joke sharing (replete with its own tongue-in-cheek idiom – ‘Arm John McDonnell!’, ‘Corbyn is the absolute boy!’) emerged among the young on social media – Twitter especially – largely under the radar of established media commentators. Thus the youth turnout for Labour may well have been driven in significant part by an organic peer-to-peer social media effort that simply bypassed traditional forms of media that were largely hostile to Corbyn.
These factors cohered to produce what is surely one of the biggest political upsets in Britain in living memory. Corbyn has been transformed in a matter of days, from an utter outsider – largely derided in mainstream political discourse – to a Prime Minister in waiting. It’s worth pointing out, furthermore, that it is not just the Tories who look now like a spent and largely defeated force. Corbyn’s success was also a defeat for the Murdoch press and tabloid media who threw everything at Corbyn during the campaign with little apparent effect. The days when Labour politicians used to feel they had to bow and scrape before the right wing press are now over. It was also a humiliating defeat for the ‘centrist’ punditocracy that dominate the broadsheet and broadcast media in whose conventional wisdom – right up until the exit poll – Corbyn was leading the Labour party into oblivion. They look rather silly now. Most of all, perhaps, Corbyn’s electoral success was a devastating blow to his enemies within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, one thing is for sure – New Labour and the Blairite faction in the party are now truly dead and buried as a serious political force.
What all of these defeated groups shared in common were what we might call neoliberal assumptions – or assumptions characteristic of the neoliberal era in British politics. They simply took it for granted, that is, that you cannot succeed electorally on a left-wing manifesto, that voters are motivated more by fear and self-interest than they are by appeals to community and the public good, that they prefer ‘belt-tightening’ and privatisation to expanded investment in public services and above all that people have fully and irreversibly internalised the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to the ‘free market’-driven order. With Corbyn’s near victory confounding these assumptions, British social democracy has roared back into life after many years of dormancy and with it an ideological space has opened up, shifting the horizons of the possible, allowing us once again to envisage and work confidently toward a kinder, more equal and more humane social order.
Obviously, there’s some thinking to be done about the relationship between the Corbyn surge and Brexit. There’s a conundrum here for those of us that saw the Brexit vote as a reactionary turn in UK politics that cemented a new hegemony of the hard right (see post below). If that’s true, it was a very short-lived hegemonic moment. Clearly there’s an ‘anti-establishment effect’ thread running through all this that is probably rooted strongly in disenchantment with political ‘business as usual’ that the left might summarise in a nutshell as ‘neoliberalism’. This is a highly volatile sort of political ‘mood’ that can, if skilfully articulated, resonate equally well with both left and right wing framing narratives and which can thus swing left or right very rapidly. But there’s more to it than that isn’t there given the different demographic bases of the two votes – in particular it seems to be the young that swung it for Corbyn (overwhelmingly Remain in outlook). So while Corbyn held older Leave voters in sufficient numbers it was really the way in which he cohered broadly Remain – and certainly anti-‘hard Brexit’ forces that seems to have swung it.
This isn’t to say that Corbyn set out to cohere these forces explicitly – in fact part of Corbyn’s success came down to the way in which Labour successfully shut down questions about Brexit and focused their campaigning on other things. What I mean is that the social forces driving the Corbyn surge were substantially different in composition to those that powered the Leave victory.
Maybe there’s also something to be said in relation to the emerging irrelevance of the very terms of the hard right’s political domination (combined with the utterly cack-handed incompetence of the May campaign). The Corbyn campaign – against all the advice of the centre-ground punditocracy and most of the PLP – simply refused to fight on the Tories’ terms. They could have – and would have under any other leader – fought a ‘controls on immigration’, Blue Labour type campaign. But they didn’t. And so it turned out that all the fortresses and earthworks that the Tories had constructed to embed their domination on their chosen post-referendum battle terrain just turned out to be irrelevant, because Corbyn chose to fight on a totally different continent in a totally different type of war that galvanised and mobilised the young beyond the normal channels of parliamentary electoral politics.
It seems pretty clear now, nearly a year after the referendum, that the warnings of those on the left calling for a Remain vote on the grounds of supporting the ‘lesser evil’ have been pretty thoroughly vindicated. Theresa May is calling this snap election from a position of strength in order to consolidate the political basis on which she’ll drive for a hard Brexit. While May’s a late convert to the Leave cause, there can be little doubt that she intends to conduct Brexit on the hard right’s terms and has successfully (for now at least) cohered the Tory party on the basis of an anti-immigration, national chauvinist trajectory, thus outflanking Ukip while triangulating more moderate Tory forces and binding them to her Brexit agenda. Internationally, Brexit put wind in the sails of right wing forces across Europe and beyond – not least providing a clear boost to that grotesque and dangerous clown, Donald ‘Mr Brexit’ Trump.
It’s clear that the British ruling class – including most of its representatives in the Tory party – didn’t want Brexit and is deeply nervous about the prospect. It’s likely to bring severe economic turbulence. But capital’s strategists are profoundly flexible and, recognizing the irreversibility of the referendum result (and, really, the various calls for second referendums from some quarters are simply politically naïve), May’s approach is an opportunist attempt to instrumentalise Brexit in the interests of key sections of British capital. They intend to use hard Brexit as a bulldozer to smash down the existing configuration of British political and economic structures in order to reorganise the terms of ruling class hegemony on a new and more radically exploitative basis.
It’s true that this is a risky strategy and that May’s project is beset by inner tensions – not least that it intensifies centrifugal pressures within the British union – yet it looks almost certain that it will be the Tories who will shape the structural framework of the new post-Brexit Britain. Labour is not going to win the election. All but the most self-deceiving of Corbyn’s cheerleaders can see this. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do everything to support Labour’s election campaign – but we must do so in a clear-sighted way without lying to ourselves or to others about the probable outcome. This sort of truthfulness will be very difficult to master for many sections of the left whose political culture pivots on perpetual boosterism.
If Brexit is catalyzing a shift in the fundamental structural coordinates of British capitalism one of the most important jobs for the left over the coming months and years will be to analyse the emerging political economy of post-Brexit Britain. It is unlikely to resemble the configuration we have come to be familiar with over the last few decades. We are moving into a radically new and dangerous phase of capitalism in Britain – and indeed beyond because of course the referendum condensed politically in many ways accumulated pressures from wider global tensions and dysfunctions. The quasi-nuclear standoff between Kim Jong-un and Trump is one very frightening dimension of this. If we are to stand a chance in the future we have to situate ourselves in relation to the emerging contours of the developing conjuncture. Only then can we begin to elaborate a strategic approach appropriate for our times. The prevailing strategic outlooks on the radical left are already preposterously outdated – tiny 1917 re-enactment societies competing with forlorn post-war consensus nostalgics. Something new is needed.
Bit late to this exercise in self-indulgence but I thought I’d give this end of year book list thing a go if only to prove to myself that I got quite a bit of reading done over the past 12 months or so. Given that I’ve had what feels like a constantly increasing workload in my day-job I’m quite pleased at how much I’ve completed. I’ve managed to keep up routine of 1-2 hrs on workday evenings and at least one day a weekend. The list includes research-related reading and reading for pleasure and doesn’t include teaching related stuff (oh so many research methods and sociology text books).
Victor Figueroa Clark (2013) Salvador Allende: Revolutionary Democrat
One of Pluto’s ‘Revolutionary Lives’ series. An enjoyable, short political biography of an admirable figure. Allende’s steadfast decency and courage comes through very strongly. Though it’s not uncritical of Allende’s excessive faith in the commitment of his enemies to the Chilean constitution, Clark is sympathetic to the Popular Unity strategy and indeed the insurrectionary outlook of MIR is shown convincingly to have lacked any serious popular base.
Regis Debray (1971) Conversations with Allende
Transcripts of two interviews conducted with Allende shortly after his 1970 presidential election victory. Quite interesting on the specifics of the Chilean class structure and economy at the time. Allende and Debray often seem to be talking at cross-purposes and Debray is, by turns, incisively critical but also rather star-struck and often fails to push home his points.
Philip K Dick (1962) The Man in the High Castle
Read it because of all the hype surrounding the Amazon Prime dramatisation. I found the ending (I won’t spoil it) really unsatisfying.
Daniel W. Drezner (2015) Theories of International Politics and Zombies
Witty and pretty entertaining. Not quite long enough to outstay its welcome, but some of it is a little forced (as you might expect). The most interesting part for me was the introduction which includes a good survey of the recent explosion in zombie films/books etc and also I think correctly argues that the zombie genre derives much of its force from the fact that, alone among the panoply of horror monsters, zombies ‘possess a patina of plausibility that vampires, ghosts, witches, demons or wizards lack’. There’s something about the brute physicality of the zombie that’s uncannily familiar to us.
Alan Freeman (1982) The Benn Heresy
A sympathetic but critical account of the rise of ‘Bennism’ in the late 70s and very early 80s, written from an FI perspective.
Danny Gluckstein (1994) The Tragedy of Bukharin
Read this for the account of the Bukharin-Preobrazhensky debate on the economics of transition in particular. Didn’t think I was going to enjoy it, but I did.
Robin Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright (2014) Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy
An extended debate between Robin Hahnel, one of the key theorists of ‘Parecon’, and one of (in my view) the most lucid thinkers in relation to socialist strategy today Erik Olin Wright. Many of the ideas developed in more depth in Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias (see below) are set out here, although Wright has much more to say here about his very interesting metaphor of institutional ‘ecosystems’ and structural ‘hybrids’. For me Wright also wipes the floor with Hahnel’s Parecon proposals especially in terms of the latter’s insistence on the absolute abolition of markets (which is a form of economic coordination, as Wright points out, that long pre-dated capitalism and that is not necessarily bound up – as of course Karl Polanyi pointed out – with the social domination of market forces).
Owen Hatherley (2009) Militant Modernism
Read this to see if I could develop a vague interest in architecture, but it turns out that I couldn’t.
Jim Jepps (2016) Saving Blighty
As the recommendation on the cover from Francesca Martinez reads this is certainly ‘the best EU referendum time travel novel you will ever read’. Really enjoyed this and liked in particular the non-chronological and fractured narrative structure that cleverly accompanies the time-hopping subject matter.
Roger Luckhurst (2015) Zombies: a Cultural History
Probably the best book on zombies I’ve read – and I’ve read a few. It’s a bit too cultural studies for my liking in places, but it just about manages to stay on the right side of the Americanised academese threshold. Very interesting on the colonial roots of the zombie genre with particular relation to the US occupation of Haiti. The author also draws a compelling and what I think may be an original (I’ve not seen it before) connection between modern fascination with zombies and the cultural-psychological legacies of the Holocaust.
Ernest Mandel (1978) From Stalinism to Eurocommunism
The major thesis of Mandel’s survey of the the historical emergence and specific development of Eurocommunism in its major centres – Italy, Spain and to some extent France – is that it represents what Mandel terms (and which is the title of one of the initial chapters) ‘the bitter fruits of socialism in one country’. The argument boils down to the claim that while Eurocommunism provided a sort of discourse that allowed western CPs to distance themselves ideologically and organisationally from Moscow, it also represented at a more fundamental level, the political culmination of the Stalinist promulgation of various ‘national roads to socialism’ and concomitant capitulation to parliamentary reformism. While there’s clearly a compelling line of continuity to be traced from Stalin’s foreign policy to the ideas of Carrillo et al it just seems to me that Mandel underplays the extent to which the turn to Eurocommunism was determined by a much more complex series of political impetuses – not least among these the emerging necessity for rooted, mass parties to adapt their strategy to the political realities of late 20th century liberal capitalism in western Europe. Might it not have been the case that at least some of the figures and forces behind the Eurocommunist turn really did believe that parliamentary liberal democracy provided institutions and social norms worth preserving? Further, might it not have been the case that they really did not believe that Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy – much less Bolshevik insurrectionism – retained any serious political currency in the West? But Mandel cannot admit that there might have been good reasons for the turn, or even that the turn might have been made in good faith by anyone.
Marianna Mazzucato (2014) The Entrepreneurial State
(Cheating slightly here – because I didn’t read this until early January 2017. Still, close enough). Clearly very painstakingly researched and provides more than enough evidence to illustrate its central argument – that contrary to the common sense of neoliberalism it is the state that has driven all major technological and pharmaceutical innovations over recent decades since it alone has the capacity to finance high risk investments for which the rewards, if they materialise at all, will only pay off over the long term. However, I can tell you that it’s one of those books where you really only need to read the blurb. There are a couple of interesting case studies on how Apple and the ‘clean energy’ sector are totally reliant on state subsidy and state development of technology but most of the book is spent endlessly filling out the same few key points again and again. The book, as a whole, is highly repetitive.
Kevin Ovenden (2015) Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth
I have to confess that I find the self-appointed sage of the British left extraordinarily annoying – nevertheless he has a book writing style much less irritating than that of his social media persona. It’s very readable, but it’s very much a journalistic account of Syriza’s first few months in office. There’s little theory in here (though, to be fair, Ovenden is quite clear about this and doesn’t claim otherwise). The lessons Ovenden draws at the end of the book are less doctrinaire and more open than I had expected, but there’s still a tendency here I think to claim a series of strategic leftist truisms for the specific insights of a vaguely defined ‘revolutionary left’. Exactly the same observations might have been drawn, for example, by a left reformist or Eurocommunist.
Michel Raptis (1980) Socialism, Democracy and Self-Management: Political Essays by Michel Raptis
The infamous ‘Pablo’ on… well pretty much what it says on the tin. Raptis really liked self-management and autogestion. He wrote several essays about how much he really liked it.
Derek Robinson (1971) Goshawk Squadron
Read this on recommendation after finding out a little bit about the extraordinary and tragic lives and deaths of two British WW1 fighter pilots, James McCudden and Edward Mannock. The (anti)hero of the book – Woolley – is a sort of amalgamation of the two. He’s a pretty (though amusingly) unpleasant man – or at least seems to be so until you begin to understand that his abrasiveness is a way of dealing with the terrible weight of responsibility on his shoulders: trying to keep as many of the young men in his squadron alive under conditions where the average life expectancy of a new pilot was little more than a few days. Robinson says that he wrote the book to dispel the various myths of romantic, chivalrous combat among WW1 ‘cavalry of the clouds’. The reality of course was much more brutal and sordid than that and the book pulls no punches in its depiction of the terror and ugliness of World War One aerial dog fighting. The most effective pilots – like Woolley – took few unnecessary risks and concentrated simply on surviving from one engagement to another. They found that the best tactic was to sneak up behind their opponents and machine gun the pilot in his back before he realised he’d been intercepted. It really is a very good book.
Donald Sassoon (2010) One Hundred Years of Socialism
Again, a bit of a cheat as I read much of this in 2015. At 800 pages it’s a real beast and it took me a long time – and several long breaks – to get through it. It’s incredibly detailed, but even at 800 pages of course it is necessarily, overall, a whistle-stop tour of a century of history across the whole of Western Europe and there’s much that’s rather hurried. Additionally, there’s very little theory and it tends to be rather dry. Nevertheless one of the central critical points Sassoon makes (and brings out with historical illustrations over the course of the book) is that the socialist left has always been caught in a kind of double bind – an unbridgeable gap between, on the one hand, the immediate demands of the present and, on the other, the goal or ‘end state’ of socialism. The reformist and revolutionary poles of socialist thought (and Sassoon gives rather short shrift to the latter) represent, effectively, mirrored forms of political bad faith – the reformist pole constantly deferring the end-goal to which it (for much of the 20th century at least) paid lip service, while the revolutionary pole remains faithful to a utopian future that, while perpetually imminent, like Godot, never arrives. I think he puts his finger on something here.
Carmen Sirianni (1982) Workers Control and Socialist Democracy
A detailed historical and theoretical analysis of institutional forms of popular power that emerged during the revolutionary period in Russia. It studiously avoids romanticism and the breezy sort of revolutionary mythos characteristic of most sympathetic accounts of soviet type institutions. Sirianni brings out, in particular, the indifference, if not explicit hostility, toward workers’ control of production among leading Bolsheviks – Lenin included. The institutional separation between soviets and factory committees was something new to me – I had always assumed they were the same thing. I recommend the book highly.
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2013) Inventing the Future
I didn’t think I was going to like this left accelerationist text at all, but found it really engaging and useful. The key argument pivots on ‘full automation’, but for me the most powerful part of the book is an unabashed defence of the necessity of a sort of muscular normative universalism among the radical left. I wrote a full review of the book here.
Erik Olin Wright (2010) Envisioning Real Utopias
Wright’s not necessarily the most stylish of writers, but what is striking is how lucid he is and also how honest and careful. No false certainties. When he’s not sure about something he says it. Dare I say it, you can see the influence of analytic philosophy here – both in the dryness of style but also in the impatience with sweeping generalisations and the eye for glossed over gaps and silences in the material he refuses to take for granted. I found Wright’s careful analysis of what he calls the ‘symbiotic’ strategy associated with post-war social democracy and his associated concept of ‘positive class compromise’ very useful.
John Wyndham (1955) The Kraken Wakes
Very much enjoyed re-reading Wyndham’s ‘The Kraken Wakes’ after 25 years. Something about the post-war world it depicts of very middle class decent chaps who say things like ‘Now look here…’ and ‘I dare say…’ makes me oddly nostalgic for a semi-mythical past I didn’t know.
I’ve recently finished reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: PostCapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2013), to see what all the hype’s about. It’s very enjoyable, though not without a few frustrating weaknesses and gaps in the argument. In summary Srnicek and Williams advance an audacious argument, drawing on a Promethean ethic of ‘synthetic freedom’ and an understanding of humanity as a ‘transformative and constructible hypothesis’, for the formulation of an unabashedly universalist, progressivist strategic vision – one that pivots on the notion of ‘left moderity’ – for a ‘future-oriented left’. The key element in their argument is that any forward looking left can and must seize upon the opportunities opened up by what they claim is an objective trend toward far-reaching automation and the concomitant expansion of the ‘surplus population’ (surplus to the requirements of production that is) in advanced capitalist economies.
A (Rather Lengthy) Summary
The argument begins with an interesting critique of the predominant form of strategic thinking on the contemporary left – what the authors term ‘folk politics’. The basic coordinates of this thought, according to Srnicek and Williams, are shared among the major surviving clusters of leftist thought – from social democracy, through Trotskyism to ‘horizontalism’. Among other things ‘folk politics’ is rooted in an always-already defeated posture of reactivity and ‘resistance’ to the onslaught of a relentlessly dynamic antagonist – capitalism – that is always ceded the strategic advantage of initiative. The ‘folk political’ in its various forms falls back on the valorisation of the immediate, the particular, the unmediated, the ‘authentic’ and so on (most obviously in the case of ‘localism’, but also in horizontalist faith in quite impractical and ungeneralisable forms of ‘direct democracy’, face to face consensus decision making etc.) in doomed and ineffectual opposition to the universalising logic of capitalism and the complex structures and social relations it generates and manifests that can only be grasped at the level of theory, the abstract, ‘totality’. At it most ambitious ‘folk politics’ promotes ‘prefigurative’ spaces – such as Occupy assemblies – that manifest a sort of strategic bad faith. These utopian spaces are quite unsustainable, ephemeral and are often deliberately transient in duration and as such present little challenge to the established structures they purport to oppose. ‘Folk political’ forms are, more often than not, ritualistic rather than properly political in the sense of activities that are really oriented towards social transformation- activists, for example, go through the motions of organising for this or that umpteenth march, building for this or that umpteenth assembly etc. etc. without a clear idea of what they would do next were they to make a breakthrough. There’s an interesting anecdote in this regard about an anti-globalisation protest outside a summit where the protesters succeeded in breaking down a crowd control fence and then more or less simply stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to do next. The fence wasn’t supposed to come down. This was all rather embarrassing. This wasn’t in the script. This was a revelation of the essential truth of the ‘folk political’ moment – leftwing politics has been reduced to the status of theatre.
In opposition to this Srnicek and Williams suggest that the left should take a leaf from the neoliberal right’s playbook. In an interesting chapter the authors present a Gramscian analysis of the construction of neoliberal hegemony. They show how neoliberal intellectuals, finding themselves politically marginalised under conditions of post-war Keynesian hegemony, set out to play a long game- a war of position – operating on the basis of an integrated strategy that fused long term vision (thinking beyond the boundaries of the then politically possible) with short and medium term measures to reshape the ideological terrain in such a way that those boundaries were surpassed. The organisational hub of this network of dissident thinkers, the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS), provided the key forum in which this strategy combining the visionary with the pragmatic – long-term goals with immediate tactics – could be elaborated. Over decades, they constructed a ‘counter-hegemonic infrastructure’ of think tanks and other nodes of ideological dissemination rooted in university departments and among journalists, teachers and other ‘second hand dealers’ in ideas (Hayek’s term) in order to gradually transform the prevailing ideological terrain. A key tactic here Srnicek and Williams note (drawing on Stuart Hall of course) was to co-opt and transform core political terminology/concepts such as ‘modernity’ and ‘freedom’ in order to articulate and embed them within a neoliberal frame of reference. The gradual construction of this ideological infrastructure and the molecular transformation of political and economic ‘common sense’ provided neoliberals with powerful advantages when Keynesian political economy entered crisis in the 1970s – they had a compelling alternative vision, a well-rooted narrative and a highly organised infrastructural network already in place that allowed them to seize their chance to install neoliberalism as the new ideological common sense in remarkably rapid fashion.
Srnicek and Williams contend that the left – or at any rate a left that wants to win – has to act in a similar way. The MPS operated in a decidedly non-‘folk political’ manner and just like them, the left must develop a compelling vision of an alternative that is rooted in a serious analysis of the historical conjuncture and its probable trajectories and associated possible points of leverage for a left politics, together with a set of concrete demands that can intertwine with this analysis and an organisational infrastructure too to steer this process of counter-hegemonic contestation.
Many of Srnicek and William’s observations in relation to the construction of neoliberal hegemony and their call for a ‘Mont Pelerin Society of the left’ feel like commonplaces, but one of the things that’s distinctive and valuable about it, I think, is that it’s strongly rooted in and flows from their critique of ‘folk politics’. What’s most distinctive and arresting about their argument however is what they go on to sketch out in terms of the suggested parameters and core ideological-political substance of a left counter-hegemony that would be fit for purpose today.
The first step in the elaboration of an effective ideological orientation for the left, they argue in what for me is one of the strongest chapters of the book, must be to reclaim for leftist politics a future-oriented conception of ‘modernity’ and its component universalist normative commitments. Capitalism, they note, is ‘an aggressively expansive universal’ – the law of value is a dynamic process that tends to penetrate, colonise and transform all aspects of the social world at both an extensive level (drawing more and more of the world’s population into the global market and wage labour relationships) and at the intensive level too (the absorption of more and more of our experiences and ‘lifeworld’ into commodified relations). One of the most damaging effects of the postmodernist turn, they suggest, was that it proclaimed its radical anti-universalist ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ at the very moment when, under the impetus of the ascendancy of neoliberalism, capitalism entered into its most universalising phase. Against this, Srnicek and Williams argue, the left must pose its own counter-universal narrative and vision.
In particular the left must rediscover its commitment to ‘modernity’. As the authors usefully point out modernity is best understood as a ‘repertoire of conceptual innovations revolving around universal ideals such as progress, reason, freedom and democracy’ (p. 71). They note, too, that the idea of modernity – as against ‘pre-modern’ thought – ‘introduced a rupture between the present and the past’ and, with this break, ‘the future is projected as being potentially different from and better than the past’ (72). The notion of modernity, that is, encompassed the idea of the possibility both of progress and also of emancipatory change. Historically, then, this was the natural ground of the political left – indeed, and as Srnicek and Williams remark, what set it apart from the right (oriented toward the defence of traditional order) was the left’s ‘unambiguous embrace of the future’. They go on to argue that this situation was reversed in the era of neoliberalism and postmodernism in which the latter sought to break the link between modernity and progress on the one hand and emancipation on the other and in which neoliberalism successfully co-opted the rhetoric of ‘modernisation’. Today, the ‘folk political’ left seek only to conjure up dispersed, ephemeral and token forms of ‘resistance’ while the right proceed with grand projects of ‘social engineering’ declaring the free-market order to be the uncontested realisation of the inner logic and telos of history. Fukuyama was only ventriloquising the common sense of the emerging neoliberal order when he argued that liberal capitalism had become the inevitable destiny of all societies and the end point of human development.
So, for the authors, the urgent task for the left is to rediscover something of its previous confidence in its own distinctive grand narratives of progress and liberation and to contest the terrain of modernity. Of course, postmodern type thinkers tend to argue that modernity and its universalist ideals are inherently Eurocentric and responsible too for driving and imposing various forms of oppression and injustice such as racism and colonialism. Srnicek and Williams are clear however that while the idea of modernity and its component values took on a particular resonance in Europe historically they have also rooted themselves organically in numerous cultures beyond Europe. Indeed, the assertion that modernity’s core principles are somehow inherently European risks orientalising non-European cultures and seems to carry the implication that non-European cultures are ‘naturally’ devoid of reason, freedom and so on. Further, while ‘European modernity was inseparable from its “dark side”‘ (p. 76) – the slave trade, genocide and so on – the ideals it proclaimed also provided conceptual tools for struggle against these wrongs too. Abolitionists, anti-colonial movements, struggles for gender equality for example all drew on the normative resources of modernity to contest the terms in which they were instantiated. Indeed, as Srnicek and Williams point out, political struggles today are inevitably struggles within the space of modernity and as such the left must contest and shape this field rather than seek to abandon it.
According to Srnicek and Williams a left modernity must comprise three essential components: an image of historical progress, a universalist horizon and commitment to human emancipation. Commitment to the idea of progress does not necessarily mean a commitment to historical inevitability or a uni-linear model of development as in Kautskyian Marxist type teleology. Instead, Srnicek and Williams argue that progress should be understood as ‘hyperstitional’. That is, ‘as a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth’ (p. 75). Our vision of the future should operate as a kind of motivating force – a sort of performative statement about how the world ought to be, ‘catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence’ (p. 75). As such progress is a matter of political struggle to bring itself into being. As Srnicek and Williams put it:
Pathways of progress must be cut and paved, not merely travelled along in some pre-ordained fashion; they are a matter of political achievement rather than divine or earthly providence.
Nor should universalism be taken to be synonymous with homogeneity. Universalisms, as Srnicek and Williams argue, always contain an inner tension – an internal dynamic that means they are never complete. So for example the ideals of liberty and democracy are never finished projects. They have an immanent tendency to undo themselves – to demand to be taken further, more fully realised. They are always open to contestation and interpretation. Further, they may be instantiated in different ways and may take different forms in different contexts. The demand for a left modernity is not a demand for some future harmonious perfection or universal sameness. Modernity is a project of perpetual fission and permanent revolution.
The third element essential to the elaboration of a left modernity – commitment to human emancipation – should pivot on the expansion of what Srnicek and Williams term ‘synthetic freedom’. This term is used to describe an understanding of liberty as something constructed and (like other components of modernity) a process that is always in becoming rather than a given, static attribute or an accomplished state of being . As against ‘negative liberty’ – being left alone to get on with things – ‘synthetic freedom’ is about (perpetual) expansion of our capacity to do things – about having access to the resources that allow us to achieve certain effects, and as such is intertwined with and inseparable from power. It’s not just about making existing options viable – but increasing our options beyond what is currently possible. It expands as our technologies and knowledge expands and it’s also in large part a necessarily collective endeavour, reliant on the provision and development of collective resources rather than the property of unobstructed, unencumbered individuals.
Underlying the concept as, Srnicek and Williams remark, is an ‘image of humanity as a transformative and constructible hypothesis’. ‘There is no authentic human essence to realise’, they comment, ‘no harmonious unity to be returned to, no unalienated humanity obscured by false mediations’ (p. 82). We are what we transform ourselves into being – ‘we are open-ended projects to be constructed in the course of time.’ So there’s an ethic of flourishing at work here only it’s not so much about flourishing understood as the realisation of given capacities or the satisfaction of set, essential needs, but the claim that humans flourish best when they act to transform and revolutionise their mode of being. It’s about seeking to go beyond current barriers and limits, both technological and biological and would encompass, for Srnicek and Williams, experimentation with physical modification and augmentation, the further development of AI and cyborg technology and the colonisation of new planets. All of this ties in, of course, with their observation that the universalism of (left) modernity conceals an inner dynamic of permanent revolution that can never be final or complete. Perhaps its partly for this reason that Srnicek and Williams (wisely) choose not to use the term ‘positive liberty’ – a concept that for Isaiah Berlin of course tended to rest on perfectionist assumptions and which carried the seed of ‘totalitarianism.’
Having sketched the broadly philosophical orientation of a counter-hegemonic strategy for today’s left, Srnicek and Williams go on to elaborate a vision of the (near) future and a series of concrete political demands that could help to shift society in that direction. As they point out, our strategic vision and our tactical demands must resonate with existing tendencies and developments. We need to identify progressive and utopian potentials in existing political, economic, ideological and technological accomplishments and trends and seek to draw these out, accelerate them, more fully realise them and clear the way for further emancipatory changes.
Their main claim in this respect is that capitalism in on the verge of a serious ‘crisis of work’. They argue, much as Paul Mason does in Postcapitalism, that the tendency toward ‘secular stagnation’, ‘jobless recoveries’, growing unemployment and precarity in the labour market is being driven by increasing automation. Indeed automation is, they claim, set to expand exponentially – some 47-80% of current jobs, they remark, are fully automatable within the next 20 years. This development, of course, threatens to throw up a serious reproduction problem for capitalism. There are two dimensions to this problem. First, it seems to threaten an emerging crisis of underconsumption – with fewer people in work (in the absence of other large scale sources of income) supply is likely to constantly outstrip effective demand. Second, it threatens to create a very large ‘surplus population’ for whom unemployment no longer functions as an effective disciplinary mechanism. If there are virtually no jobs to be had for large swathes of the population then the ‘reserve army of labour’ is permanently disbanded and the imperative systemic function it performed ceases to operate.
Srnicek and Williams suggest that given these emerging problems capitalism may soon be forced to implement something like a Universal Basic Income (UBI) and indeed point to the growing traction of the idea of UBI among even mainstream politicians and economists.
These are developments that the left, they claim, should seize on and seek to amplify in order to push them in a radical direction. The left has an opportunity to shape the ideological terrain here since these material developments promise to shift the horizons of the possible (and necessary) in terms of common sense assumptions about work, wage-labour, free time and so on and lend themselves quite readily to a leftist ideological narrative and vision of the near future. They open up the possibility of a world without work.
As they note UBI breaks the link between wage labour and consumption and seems to depend for its operation on egalitarian distribution criteria strongly tied to human needs satisfaction or perhaps more specifically a conception of a basic threshold standard of living necessary for functioning well as a citizen. The automation of production, distribution, retail and so on frees up human lives (significantly or even entirely) from drudgery and workplace boredom and alienation. It expands the amount of leisure time available for citizens to develop their personal relationships, interests and capacities – to exercise their ‘synthetic freedom’. In other words, objective tendencies in capitalist development today seem to be taking us in the direction of the fulfilment of classic leftist demands. Indeed, as Srnicek and Williams point out, one of the oldest demands of the labour movement was reduction in the length of the working day to allow workers ample time for rest and, moreover, ‘for what we will’.
They’re clear however that progressive outcomes will not emerge spontaneously – automation and the expansion of unemployment might take particularly inegalitarian, exploitative and authoritarian forms. Further UBI is likely to be set at a minimum threshold level designed perhaps to subsidise low-paying firms and might indeed provide an excuse for the right to dismantle the welfare state if leftist forces and social movements don’t struggle vigorously to oppose this. So the left needs to intervene strategically in order to struggle to shape the various outcomes of the coming crisis of work for egalitarian and human ends.
To this end Srnicek and Williams identify four (mutually reinforcing) key strategic demands for leftist struggle in the coming period:
- Full automation
- Reduction of the working week
- Diminishment of the work ethic
The first three are fairly self-explanatory. They resonate with each other in that, for example, the expansion of automation allows for a rapid increase in productivity that allows the working day to be shortened and indeed they suggest the need for human labour to be entirely eliminated in great swathes of the economy, while the provision of UBI provides (ex-) workers with a replacement source of income. There’s also a sort of positive feedback loop at work here in that the withdrawal of human labour – accelerated by the reduction of the working week and the weakening of the link between work and income – provides further incentive for employers to automate.
One of the key benefits of UBI, Srnicek and Williams point out, is that it would ‘overturn the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital’ in that it gives ‘the proletariat a means of subsistence without dependency on a job’ and thus increases their power to choose what work they take on if any. It ‘therefore unbinds the coercive aspects of wage labour [and] partially decommodifies labour’ (p. 120). One of the effects of this is that it is likely to empower labour in relation to capital (at both an individual level in terms of the balance of power between employer and employee in particular jobs, but also at the collective level too) and would tend to force employers to increase wages and improve working conditions – especially in various forms of degrading, dangerous and otherwise unattractive work. Further, rising wages for the worst jobs would provide a further incentive to automate them entirely. It would also be much easier to organise and sustain strikes given that workers could fall back on UBI.
These demands, of course, would require a radical shift in terms of union activity. Srnicek and Williams envisage trade unions organising around the above demands to reduce working hours without loss of income, negotiate and promote job sharing arrangements and to be at the heart of an emerging (genuinely) voluntary form of work flexibility on the terms of workers themselves. In fact workers’ organisations would be one of the driving forces behind the gradual emergence of a ‘post-work society’ – seeking, in an interesting (if slightly doubtful – where would they get their subs?) reversal of their main role hitherto, to eliminate rather than defend jobs. In a rather neat quip the authors envisage the labour movement adopting the demand for ‘full unemployment’ as its major slogan.
One of the biggest obstacles to this project, the authors argue, both within and without the workers’ movement, would be ideological – the deeply culturally ingrained work ethic. This is where the fourth of their above demands comes in. It would involve struggle to loosen the grip of the pervasive idea that work is in itself somehow morally virtuous. Interestingly Srnicek and Williams locate this ethic in the quasi-religious idea that you must suffer before you deserve reward – you endure work in return for remuneration. In this respect, of course, a post-work oriented left would be able to tap into and articulate strongly rooted desires and grievances – most people hate their jobs after all. Most stress and anxiety is work (or income) related. For most people work is not a source of liberation or fulfilment – it enslaves them and in many cases is literally killing them.
The authors are not quite clear about the relationship between these four demands and the rest of the argument that follows in their book. However they seem to be intended as the core programmatic pillars of a wider counter-hegemonic strategy that they go on to sketch out. Much of the remainder of the book is spent examining ‘three possible sites of struggle – over the intellectual, cultural and technological mediums of neoliberal hegemony’ (p. 132). Such struggle would involve the elaboration of utopian narratives, pluralist economics and the ‘repurposing of technology’ in each of those sectors respectively. The last of these is by far the most imaginative and interesting. Drawing on historical experiments in democratic economic planning such as the Lucas Plan in Britain and Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile, the authors argue that a core part of the left’s counter-hegemonic approach must be to seek to exert popular control over 1). existing technologies in order to ‘repurpose’ them for human and egalitarian ends and 2). the design and implementation of new technologies, so that what they call ‘socio-technical infrastructures’ can gradually be aligned with leftist, radically democratic objectives and the expansion of collective ‘synthetic freedom’. The demand for full automation is to be understood in this context. It is not that the sphere of production should be given over to some sort of technocratic accelerated robo-capitalism while human citizens confine themselves to the sphere of leisure and consumption. Srnicek and Williams see the automation process under leftist hegemony as vector for the transformation of workers into the collective masters of production. A radical reduction in the working week and the partial de-commodification of labour via the UBI would provide a basis for the democratic leverage of power over how technologies are designed and implemented and over the purposes they serve.
The main agent(s) of this strategy would be a populist movement brought into being and cohered by what Srnicek and Williams call a ‘broad ecology of organisations’ operating ‘in a more or less coordinated way, to carry out the division of labour necessary for social change’ (p. 163). They criticise the ‘organisational fetishism’ of established left wing politics – whether the horizontalism of autonomists, or the democratic centralist party form of Leninists – arguing that only a pluralism of forces operating both within and outside the ambit of electoral politics and the state can coordinate the necessarily complex process of radical social change. There ‘is no vanguard party’, they note, only a variety of ‘mobile vanguard functions’. One of the major necessary tasks of such an organisational ecosystem would be to construct an ideological infrastructure – much like that built by the MPS – comprising various agencies and hubs of research, training and information dissemination.
This movement would be guided by a vision of a post-work world – the end-in-view toward which the four major demands outlined above are designed to propel society. Srnicek suggest that this post-work society of extensive automation + UBI would still be a society dominated by capital, but one in which the hegemonic grip of capitalist ideas and capitalist power would be substantially undermined. Srnicek and Williams propose that we should think about the shift from neoliberalism to a post-work society as a similar process to the historical shift from social democratic capitalism to neoliberal capitalism. It would be the establishment of a new hegemonic consensus within the parameters of capitalism. They suggest that post-work society should be regarded as a new point of equilibrium – it would provide conditions of relative coherence and stability across economic, political and social spheres. But it would also provide a platform from which to launch further struggles to take society into a truly post-capitalist world. In this sense the demands they propose are intended as ‘non-reformist reforms’ (they’re clearly drawing on Gorz here though they don’t reference him in relation to this concept). That is, though rooted in real tendencies and immediate imperatives, they strain at the limits of what capitalism can allow, shift the horizons of the possible and empower progressive forces to further radicalise their struggles. The authors emphasise, though, that the counter-hegemonic struggle they elaborate could only unfold over the long term – it’s a project that could be realised over ‘decades rather than years, cultural shifts rather than electoral cycles’ (p. 108). I have to say, however, that it’s not very clear whether they are talking here about the time it would take for the new post-work hegemony (within capitalism) to consolidate or whether they mean, here, the emergence of a fully post-capitalist order.
Clearly there’s lots of challenging, innovative and useful stuff here. It’s certainly one of the books that I most enjoyed reading in the last few months. One of the most admirable things about the book is that Srnicek and Williams are trying to come up with something new here – a fresh and coherent strategic perspective rooted in real developments in capitalism and in society more broadly, that breaks from the often rather painfully stale perspectives and practices of so much of the contemporary left. Though (too) much of their focus in the section on ‘folk politics’ centres on the perhaps rather too easy target of ‘horizontalist’ politics, much of what they say here does feel relevant to wider (and to my mind, more dominant) sections of the left. This is a left dominated, in its social democratic incarnations by ‘cargo-cult Keynesianism’ (a term coined I think by James Meadway) as if a return to pre-neoliberal economic policy could somehow magically summon up the structural conditions of post-war boom in which these policies could again achieve traction. In its major Marxist variants its dominated by what Srnicek and Williams characterise as ‘historical re-enactors’, caught in a sort of nostalgic-mythological longing for the conditions of Russia 1917. Both of these strands specialise in ritual and displacement activity. Both of them look backward to conditions very different to the ones that prevail today and expend a lot of energy in the effort to convince themselves that nothing fundamental has changed.
Srnicek and Williams are surely right to argue that the left needs to produce a coherent vision of the future rooted in real tendencies – a future-oriented narrative that connects with conditions as they are today and that plots the rough outlines of a path to take us from our present to this better future. What they manage to elaborate in this book is a compelling ‘real utopia’ in E O Wright’s sense of the term – a set of ‘utopian ideals grounded in the real potentials of humanity’, a ‘destination with accessible way stations along the way’ and a sketch of ‘institutions that can inform our practical tasks of navigating a world of imperfect conditions for social change (Wright, 2010: p. 6). What I particularly like is the way in which they manage to combine a long term vision of future objectives with immediate tactics while also allowing for a necessary open-endedness in terms of the journey from the short term to the long term ends in view. They manage to negotiate quite deftly between two pitfalls of strategic orientation – eschewing on the one hand the idea that there’s a set series of predictable steps from here to socialism following this or that strategic model (emphasising quite rightly that we can’t know much in advance and must construct the road as we walk it), while on the other hand also eschewing the tacit reliance on some sort of miraculous bolt from the blue implicit in so much radical thought where, for example, a revolutionary situation complete with advanced soviets and factory committees somehow emerges alchemically from the quotidian routine of paper selling, petition circulation and the organisation of regular branch meetings. Their emphasis on the elaboration of ‘non-reformist reforms’ as the necessary vector of social transformation is, I think, absolutely right.
I’m also rather taken with their unabashed muscular universalism and their insistence that the key principles of modernity – and indeed the concept of modernity itself – is indispensable for the left. I think it’s true that the left just is in the game of asserting the rightness and truth of certain norms for all humans universally. There’s little point in pretending otherwise, though as Srnicek and Williams rather deftly show, to be committed to normative universalism and the associated concepts of human emancipation and progress is not necessarily to impose a closed or homogenous model of life on everyone, nor is it necessarily to fall victim to the superstition of historical inevitability or unilinear development.
There’s something very attractive, too, about the Promethean ethic they elaborate centred on the notion of ‘synthetic freedom’. As a quasi-humanist of sorts naturally I’m not wholly sold on this, but I do think they make compelling points here. One of the things they get right, in my view, is their suspicion toward the very idea of an ‘unalienated’ condition of being. I’ve long been rather dubious in relation to many accounts of alienation – in fact perhaps toward the very concept itself. The problem is that the notion of alienation seems to rely for its critical force on the possibility of its opposite. Capitalism is condemned among other things for the alienation it engenders and while this is fine if we’re simply talking about degrees of alienation (i.e. neoliberal capitalism is particularly alienating and this is a bad thing), it often seems to be condemned for producing alienation in itself with the implication that it will be abolished under post-capitalist conditions. But what on earth would an unalienated state look like? When sketched out these visions often seem to me to describe self-evidently absurd and, in fact, definitely inhuman visions of ultimate harmony and perfection that no one in their right mind would want to experience. In fact, isn’t the nature of human being itself inherently a condition of alienation – of at least partial separation and distance from the Real – isn’t this separation in fact constitutive of sentience itself? The abolition of alienation in this account would mean the extinguishment of sentient being – death. If you want to exist in an unalienated state, well there’s plenty of time for that ahead of you in the graveyard.
I think they’re also right to have little truck with the romantic notion of the inherent ‘dignity of work’. They’re right, in my view, that this is claptrap. It’s a sort of hyper-moralised masochism that rests on religious myths of redemption through suffering. Humans like to be busy, we like to create and to act on and transform the world around us and the conditions of our existence – but this isn’t necessarily the same as ‘work’ as such.
Despite its strengths and the myriad things I like about it Inventing the Future has real weaknesses too in my view. One of the frustrating things about the book is that it’s often not clear – especially in relation to the elements of the long term (decades long) counter-hegemonic approach they set out in the last chapters – if they are talking of the transition to a post-work society or transition to post capitalism. It’s clear that they see the former as a step toward the later, but it’s not clear if a post work consensus is something to be achieved in the relatively near future or whether it’s that they are talking about in relation to the decades long gestation period.
Relatedly, as suggested above, it’s not precisely clear what the relationship is between the four key demands they set out and the later focus on the three terrains – intellectual, cultural and technological – of counter-hegemonic struggle. The four demands are clearly transitional demands, but the authors also say that the focus of the chapter in which they are outlined is to elaborate a vision of a desirable and achievable future (a real utopia) with the strategy for getting there outlined in later chapters. It’s a bit disorienting. Perhaps it’s just me but it’s hard to see how these chapters dovetail.
There’s also a strange wobble in their argument in relation to the current tendency toward rapid automation. After having argued that the near future is likely to bring the automation of a large proportion of work, they rather suddenly admit that the evidence in relation to world productivity growth suggests that in fact there might not be any radical trend toward automation at all. True they provide some counter-evidence here, but then make the rather odd claim that even if there is no tendency toward far-reaching automation this doesn’t matter, because their argument pivots on the normative claim that there ought to be full automation rather than a descriptive one. Their thesis rests, that is, on the claim that the left ought to position itself as the key agent of full automation. But this is a rather awkward argument. The drift of their argument up until this point (which is soon buried) is that the left should seek to take advantage of an objective tendency in capitalist development – to position itself for the coming crisis of work so that it is able to intervene to shift the political-ideological terrain decisively. Suddenly, though, it seems that there may not be any such objective tendency at all.
Further, there is something awkward about the logic of their counter-hegemonic strategy. This, of course, is presented as a way of leveraging power in such a way that from an initial position of relative weakness, the terrain is gradually shifted in your favour. The trouble is that many of the tactics they suggest for building up the power of the left and the class power of working people seem to depend on the prior possession of the very power that the tactics are designed to generate. So there’s a sort of circularity here. So for example, the demands to reduce the working week, radically extend automation and implement generous UBI are presented as ways to increase the class power of workers (by reducing the supply of labour and partially decommodifying it too) – but in order to struggle successfully for such demands on these terms surely demands substantial class strength in the first place. This circular reasoning, I think, runs through the entire book (indeed perhaps it’s a feature of counter-hegemonic strategies generally?)
A related difficulty is that it’s quite hard to see why (and how) capital would accept many of the measures Srnicek and Williams propose. True, a lot of their argument rests on the observation that class struggle is not always a zero-sum process (Wright is very interesting on this – See Wright, 2010: 337-65) and that in the context of the coming crisis of work capital and labour might share certain common interests in relation to the productivity enhancing gains of automation and the elimination of the problem of ‘surplus population’. Nevertheless they observe that capital would probably find inegalitarian and authoritarian ways of dealing with these developments if left to its own devices and that the left must struggle to impose the demands they propose on a more or less reluctant bourgeoisie. So, for example, they argue that the a post-work oriented left should struggle to convert increased productivity stemming from automation into the further reduction of work. Productivity gains should be channeled into increasing leisure time rather than boosting output. But this, of course, runs counter to the logic of capital. Remember that 1950s and 60s futurologists claimed that we’d now be working 2 or 3 day weeks because of vastly improved productivity. What happened to that? Why, in fact, are we generally working longer hours and suffering from more and more overwork? The answer is that capital has a systemically rooted preference to take the profitable option – giving people more time off doesn’t tend to boost profits, whereas increasing output does. Why would near future capitalists be any less profit oriented?
You also wonder how and why capital could be forced to grant a generous UBI rather than a subsistence level one tied perhaps to various forms of privatisation, marketisation and the dismantling of traditional forms of welfare provision. At one point Srnicek and Williams draw on Michal Kalecki’s well-known observation that capitalists tend to resist full employment policies because they know that in such conditions the threat of the sack loses its disciplinary character and the balance of power between capital and labour thus tilts in favour of the latter. Surely this suggests that capital would be very reluctant to accept the implementation of generous UBI. Even if technically it made economic sense in terms of maintaining healthy levels of demand and politically, from a social order angle it also made sense in terms of pacifying the ‘surplus population’ and binding them to market consumption, in terms of the balance of class forces it may well be seen as an unacceptable measure. There’s plenty of evidence, of course, that the capitalist class as a whole is often willing to accept lower rates of growth, even recession, as the price paid for the smashing of workers’ collective strength (the Greek bourgeoisie’s preference for austerity over the expansion of demand is a case in point).
Something running implicitly throughout the book, I think, is a tendency to exaggerate the importance of the ideological stakes in class struggle and a corresponding tendency to play down the more material elements. So, for example, the narrative in relation to the counter-hegemonic struggle waged by the MPS seems to suggest that the ascendancy of neoliberalism was almost wholly determined by superior ideological manoeuvres. So, too, the shift to a post-work consensus seems to be something that could be effected almost wholly through various discursive and agenda-setting battles at the level of ideology. But of course the neoliberal turn was as much a response to real pressures on profitability and the obsolescence from capital’s point of view of the post-war Keynesian model of growth as much as it represented a paradigm shifting victory in the battle of ideas. The problem with the analogy Srnicek and Williams draw between the shift from social democratic Keynesian hegemony to neoliberal hegemony on the one hand and their vision of a future shift from neoliberalism to a post-work hegemonic framework is that this shift to neoliberalism resonated strongly with capitalism’s material interests, whereas it’s not so clear that the post-work paradigm would. No matter how elegant and compelling a post-work narrative might be, the bottom line for capital (which after all possesses structural power in terms of its control over investment decisions) will be the question of what happens to profits.
For these reasons I find the idea that a post-work regime would function as a point of equilibrium – a stable way station on the road to post capitalism rather unconvincing. A political economy in which labour had been substantially decommodified and the collective power of (former) wage-earners boosted vis a vis the capitalist class – let alone one in which investment decisions were increasingly shaped by democratically determined criteria (thus further undermining the authority of capital) – is unlikely to be characterised by relative class harmony. It is likely to be a society in which capital was fighting tooth and nail to roll back the gains won by (ex-) working people in order to reimpose its domination.
Further, the question of the state is conspicuous by its absence in Srnicek and William’s argument. As the concentrated site of political power under capitalism it is really rather odd that the state is hardly mentioned in the book at all. It’s all the more surprising given that traditional socialist debates about strategy almost always pivot on this question. In fact I can’t help thinking that the two major (and interconnected) problems of socialist transition – state power and the structural power of capital to veto reforms that threaten to undercut its fundamental interests – are danced around and avoided in the book. You wonder whether this, indeed, is the major function of socialist thought in relation to’ counter-hegemonic strategy’. That is, it provides a way of talking around and avoiding these central dilemmas.
The other really striking absence in the book is the obvious question of what full automation would mean for capital given Marxist thought in relation to the labour theory of value and the Tendency for the Rate of Profit to Fall. Marxian economics, of course, seems to suggest that given labour is the source of value, a radically rising organic composition of capital (let alone full automation) is likely to lead to a calamitous fall in the rate of profit. It seems to suggest, therefore, that full automation under capitalism is a contradiction in terms. Srnicek and Williams certainly seem to be operating within the Marxist tradition of thought and for this reason it is really strange that their only nod toward this issue is a throwaway line on page 144 about the need for left wing economists to do more research on the likely effects of automation on the TRPF. This surely is a fundamental problem for their thesis.
Furthermore, for all their emphasis on the need for an orientation on the future there is something definitely retro and nostalgic about Imagining the Future and indeed the wider Accelerationist milieu. There’s a distinct fascination with the iconography of the Soviet space programme, Bogdanov’s Red Star and indeed there are unmissable overtones of 20th Century Socialist Realism to Accelerationist discourse – it seems to me to evoke images of heroic square jawed cosmonauts staring out into the middle distance. Indeed – maybe this is just me (and, a confession, I love retro Soviet iconography, cyborgs, AI, SF… ) – isn’t there something very male about all of this?
Finally, for all the attractions of Srnicek and Williams’ Promethean vision of humans seeking to go beyond technological and biological constraints there is, for me, something rather inhuman – or at least incomplete – about it too. Srnicek and William’s vision of human liberation is a vision of the heroic and grandiose – space travel, the colonisation of new planets, experimentation with cyborg technologies and biological modification. But there’s not much warmth here. Isn’t socialism about slowing down as much as anything – about providing people with the time and security just to be and to make the most of their valued relationships with others? Isn’t socialism just as much about having the time to talk and laugh and love – to really and fully experience and enjoy the mostly quotidian things that provide us with a sense of meaning, belonging and satisfaction – as it is about any grand, heroic quest to transgress this or that limit. There has to be a place for the latter of course, but Srnicek and Williams’ vision of the future is, for me, rather a cold one.
So Inventing the Future is not without its gaps and weaknesses. But I still think it’s a really valuable book that raises important issues and questions. The most valuable and admirable aspect of it, for me, is that Srnicek and Williams are trying to do something that’s both ambitious and necessary. They are trying to rethink socialist strategy for the 21st Century beyond the slogans, rituals and habits of thought of what they call ‘folk politics’. We need more of this.