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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.
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.
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.
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.
Edited version of the post below now up at Jacobin.