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Review: Srnicek and Williams’ “Inventing the Future”

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
  • UBI
  • 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.

A Critique

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.

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Carmen Sirianni on socialist honesty

I’m reading Carmen Sirianni’s Workers Control and Socialist Democracy (1982, Verso). It’s 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. I recommend it highly. These comments in the introduction, I think, are absolutely right and indeed indicate an attitude indispensable for any honest, rather than self-deceiving, socialist thought:

The history of socialism has been the history of the problem of democracy. Marx himself developed the foundations of socialist thought through a critique of the democratic heritage of the French revolution. The result was a redefinition and a radicalisation of both form and content. Marx’s critique and the struggles of the working classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries rendered liberal democracy profoundly problematic. And yet early Marxian socialism never really rid itself of the problem. Nor have we today. From the original critiques of the anarchists to those of… Weber and Michels, this was evident. With the Russian revolution and its aftermath, it became inescapable. The future of socialism remains the problem of democracy

…. responsible theorists and activists must admit this openly – we still do not know under what conditions genuine socialist democracy can flourish. We really do not yet know whether it is truly possible, especially in its more radical forms. Marx’s conception of a ‘free association of producers’ can serve as an impetus for analysis, but hardly as its touchstone. What are the specific institutional contours that might make possible the rational use of collective resources (including advanced technology) in a way that is consistent with active participation in collective decisions, a high degree of individual freedom, and relatively equal work and life opportunities? Platitudes about transformed human beings with completely new values and unbridled technical capacities, about complete decentralisation and the liberatory warmth and simplicity of face-to-face democracy, about the explosive potential that will accompany the end of capitalism or the state, will not bring us one step closer in theory or practice to a society in which real human beings can democratically and collectively control a material and social world that is inevitably recalcitrant, existentially threatening, and extremely complex. Only if we openly recognize that as yet we have no complete solutions to the problem of socialist democracy – and no easy solutions exist – can we proceed with the task of developing a historically grounded and empirically relevant theory of it.

 

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On Romanticising Violence

Much of the left has an emotional attachment to a myth of romantic insurrection. It’s by no means alone in this. Liberalism has its own mythical narratives of glorified violence too and of course all state regimes are founded on acts of violence – whether these are celebrated in sanitised mythical form (Bastille Day, Independence Day…) or sublimated and disavowed. I’m no pacifist. I’m as violent as the next person, as are you. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Sometimes it is better than the alternatives. Sometimes it’s necessary. But if it is, it’s a tragic necessity (and it must have limits). Don’t romanticise it. The ‘rage of the people’ looks like those pictures of bloodied young conscript soldiers in Istanbul cowering from the blows of the crowd. It’s boys being lynched. It’s sordid, cruel, nasty, demeaning. Look it in the face. Grow up.

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The Left After Leave

Edited version of the post below now up at Jacobin.

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Jacobin: Why Jeremy Corbyn Scares the Right

I converted a version of the notes I posted below into an article for Jacobin. It is available here.

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Some notes on Corbyn

Unfinished notes on the Corbyn phenomenon. Not sure if I can finish this (or what it’s for), but thought I’d publish now on my blog.

All the evidence indicates that left-winger Jeremy Corbyn is on course to win the Labour leadership contest. The conventional wisdom on the political centre-left – both within the party itself and among the majority of Labour-leaning media pundits – is that a victory for Corbyn would represent an utter disaster for the party. The general thrust of their argument is that Corbyn supporters are unserious, unwilling to think responsibly about the necessary compromises of power and are engaging in a form of narcissistic, self-indulgent ‘purity leftism’ that, if Corbyn is successful in his leadership bid, is likely to condemn Labour to years of opposition in a tragic re-run of the party’s post-1983 wilderness years.

None of this feels particularly convincing, however. For one thing, for all the warnings and finger-wagging in relation to the unrealistic, irresponsible, utopian dreaming of Corbynism what Corbyn actually proposes in terms of policy seem eminently sensible and in fact rather modest. His proposals amount, effectively, to a return to something like the form of Keynesian social democracy that was absolutely mainstream – widely shared political and economic common sense – before the onslaught of neoliberalism. It’s hardly a utopian or ‘hard left’ set of proposals and, in fact, all of this simply demonstrates how far to the right received opinion among the liberal-left has shifted over the past 30 to 40 years that they are (mis)represented as such. For another thing, their protestations that their opposition to Corbyn pivots on a hard-nosed, pragmatic assessment of what it takes to be ‘electable’ – that their priority is to defeat the Tories and get Labour back in power (in fact this ‘pragmatic’ sort of argument is underpinned by a sort of moralizing or emotional blackmail – Corbynites are scolded for their ‘beautiful soul’ idealism when in fact they should be focused on Labour winning power for the sake of the poor and those bearing the brunt of austerity which depends on electing a ‘moderate’ leader for the party etc. etc.) – just don’t ring true. If their position really did rest purely on electoral concerns you would think that they might be slightly less hostile and dismissive in relation to the candidate who is currently drawing thousands to political meetings around the country and slightly less confident in relation to the electoral prospects of the other three candidates who, let’s say, haven’t yet demonstrated any talent for electrifying the political landscape in quite the same way.

It’s notable that much of the political right seems to have grasped what’s happening in relation to Corbyn’s leadership campaign with much greater clarity and far-sightedness than most of the centre-left punditocracy. Few serious figures on the right see Corbyn as a gift to the Conservatives in the next election. Indeed Tory big-hitter, Ken Clarke recently warned his party that Corbyn’s ‘brand of left populism would be hard to campaign against’ and was clear, moreover, that Corbyn could win the next general election. One of the key lines of argument that you see cropping up with regularity among centre-right commentators is that Corbyn’s momentum could herald a fundamental transformation of the political terrain. Writing in the Guardian for example, Tory-supporting journalist Matthew D’Ancona, suggests that ‘the sort of Conservatives who think intelligently and strategically’ (‘and there are more of them than you think’ he points out) worry that the way Corbyn seems to have ‘stormed through the crash barriers of contemporary politics’ suggests that the conventional rules of politics are shifting. The ‘centre-ground’ of British politics, in other words, appears to be moving to the left and, further, a Corbyn leadership election victory threatens to drag it even further in that direction. This, indeed, is the fear articulated by the ultra-neoliberal Telegraph journalist Allister Heath for whom, a Corbyn victory ‘would be a disaster for the pro-capitalist cause’ because it would transform the basic coordinates of mainstream political debate, ‘shifting the centre-ground of British politics back towards a more interventionist position’ in which (to Heath’s horror) it would become ‘acceptable again to call for nationalising vast swathes of industry’ for example.

Much of the political right, then, certainly take Corbyn very seriously and indeed seem to operate on the basis of a much more sophisticated understanding of what the remarkable momentum his campaign has generated seems to signify. It is an understanding that is sensitive to the dynamic nature of political ‘common sense’ – it can shift and change – and to the way in which the basic coordinates of this ‘common sense’ are currently, in the context of years of austerity and popular disillusionment with ‘Westminster politics’ as usual, particularly volatile and in flux. In comparison, much of the centre-left seems trapped in a sort of Fukuyama-Blair moment that looks increasingly absurd. Perhaps the superior grasp of the political stakes on the part of the right is rooted in necessity. The fundamental raison d’etre of this political tradition, after all, is to defend existing social inequalities of wealth and power and this requires sensitive political antennae able to detect the emergence of potential serious challenges to these inequalities. The basic rationale of the centre-left, we might say, is to translate the politics of social justice into terms and forms broadly acceptable to the right and established authority – which is to say that the politics of the centre-left boils down to the perpetual postponement of egalitarian social change in a strategy of permanent placation in which the over-riding imperative is to demonstrate one’s ‘moderation’ and ‘responsibility’ to those in whose hands social and economic power is concentrated. Since Blairism represented the apotheosis of this sort of world-view it must be very traumatic to have to admit that the world has moved on and to have to break from its certainties and perhaps this at least partially explains some of the extraordinary vitriol directed at Corbyn.

Although it has taken nearly all observers by surprise, the Corbyn surge has not simply materialised out of thin air of course. It is important to see it in the context of wider developments internationally. One could say that Corbynism is the specific expression in Britain/England of a wider phenomenon across Europe: a shift in the political balance of forces toward the left and the rapid rise of radical anti-austerity parties and movements – most notably Podemos in Spain and of course Syriza in Greece – and it’s from this wider process that the Corbyn campaign has derived its startling momentum.

This shift has been driven in great part by the intersection of two major factors – the impact of austerity on working people and the long-term crisis of social democracy. These two factors have converged in that social democratic parties have almost uniformly failed to present any sort of coherent opposition to austerity and in many cases, of course, have administered it as parties of government, accelerating a longer-term process of ‘hollowing out’ in terms of party membership and voter turnout as social democratic parties have gradually transformed themselves into vehicles for neoliberal politics. It’s worth noting in this regard that despite a slight rally under Miliband, the Labour’s Party’s membership and share of the vote has declined precipitously since 1997 – and indeed it was the failure of Labour’s core vote to turnout at the last general election which explains the gap between what the opinion polls suggested Labour’s support would be and its actual vote. This erosion of the traditional base of support for the established social democratic parties has created a volatile situation in which electoral formations challenging those established parties from the left can very rapidly pick up support.

But of course this process is not unfolding in a uniform or generic way across the continent. The radical mood sweeping much of Europe crystallises within nationally specific social conditions and finds concrete expression in nationally specific political and organisational forms. In Spain the need for an alternative was given political expression by a new party, Podemos, which emerged from the 2011 ‘movement of the squares’ while in Greece anti-austerity forces cohered around a pre-existing coalition of radical left organisations, Syriza, (later to transform itself into a unitary party). In Britain something quite distinct appears to be emerging. Whereas Podemos and Syriza, for all their differences, emerged to challenge established social democratic parties (the PSOE and PASOK respectively) from without, the British challenge is manifesting within the structures of the traditional party of social democracy (or at least in close relation to these structures inasmuch as Corbyn’s leadership bid has galvanized forces of support that go beyond the Labour Party). Further the specific British form of this challenge has emerged rather late in the day after a series of what, in retrospect, now seem to have been false starts – remember the ‘Green surge’ of a few months ago – as if this new radical mood was searching in a sort of trial and error process for an appropriate vehicle before finally settling (for now at least) on the movement currently coalescing around Corbyn.

To some extent it’s rather misleading to talk of the Corbyn surge as the form in which the radical mood across Europe has crystallised in Britain – perhaps it’s more precise to say that the movement around Corbyn is the specific form in which this wider political-ideological shift has become concretised in England and Wales, because, of course, the first serious mass political movement against austerity in the British Isles coalesced around the extraordinary ‘Yes’ campaign for Scottish independence. Indeed in some ways we could regard the Corbyn campaign as a sort of contagion from Scotland – a radical and confident anti-austerity movement first incubated north of the border, travelling south, transmitted by means of inspirational example, to take root in a different form elsewhere in the UK.

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Some thoughts on Syriza and the question of power

Trying some more to get through writing block.

This article – ‘The End of TINA‘ – by Peter Bratsis in Jacobin is well worth reading. It provides strong reasons to support Syriza and a pretty powerful critique of Syriza’s (ultra) left critics. Neverthless, I don’t (or don’t think I) agree with the underpinning idea that Syriza ‘is not as radical as we would want’ and that supporting it is a necessary sort of trimming of our political sails under current conditions.

In his fantastic book, Socialist Reasoning, the late Andrew Collier argues (drawing on the radically anti-utopian elements of Marx’s thought) that the purpose of socialists should not be conceived as the ‘establishment of socialism’ – that is a utopian mode of thinking that focuses on the inadequacy of existing society when measured against a transcendent and external standard. Rather the purpose should be to implement practical measures designed to improve conditions, concretely in the here and now, for the oppressed. Thus the primary focus of a “workers’ government” should be on the provision of jobs, decent housing and so on not the ‘realisation of socialism’ or the establishment of ‘another world’. In this sense Eduard Bernstein was right that ‘the goal is nothing [and it is literally nothing – a vision is nothing], the movement is everything’ – it is just that (what Bernstein didn’t see) any major and determined attempt to achieve these short-term improvements will tend to run up against the logic of capitalism and must push beyond it.

For me it’s precisely the ‘modesty’ of Syriza’s demands – the fact that they correspond to immediate needs of Greeks (an end to austerity, provision of free electricity, subsidised food and rents) – that makes Syriza’s programme radical in a real sense. I’ve no time for (abstract, hand-waving, never spelt out) demands (on whom?) for SOCIALISM NOW! It’s clear that the determined and consistent implementation of these ‘common sense’ policies (which are eminently sensible, modest demands for basic human dignity) will bring the reform process into progressively sharper conflict with the economic order in a way that the most abstractly ‘radical’ of programmes never could – because these latter programmes are mostly hot air – castles in the sky – with no significant political purchase.

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