Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work
Verso Books, London and New York, 2015. 245pp., £12.99 pb
Reviewed by Joseph P Moore
Joseph P Moore has a PhD in History from Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey where he studied with E P Thompson and is a long-time leftist activist most recently involved with the Occupy Movement. He lives in rural Vermont.
Srnicek and Williams in their book, Inventing the Future (which expands on their 2013 “Accelerationist Manifesto”) do us a great service in putting back onto the radical Left’s agenda – an agenda largely focused today on defensive battles and timid reforms – the struggle against wage-slavery and for its abolition and of coerced and onerous labor in general. This follows the thinking of Marx. Building on the French utopian thinker Saint-Simon, Marx put forward the notion that the replacement of human labor by machines under capitalism might open the way for the future “realm of freedom” where all human beings, not just a fortunate few, would have the leisure time to explore their own interests and to achieve their full potentialities. Marx believed communism could only be achieved on the basis of a high level of material abundance that muted the human conflicts which existed under conditions of scarcity. While Srnicek and Williams in their exuberance may well be overstating the post-work and postcapitalist possibilities to be found in the new technological wave of automation, robotics, 3-D printing, Big Data, the Internet of Things and the like, they are right that the radical Left does need to get ahead of the curve with the changes taking place in the contemporary economy. If capitalistic profit-making remains in charge, post-work will necessarily mean mass unemployment and poverty for the 99%, and we will experience even more harshly the “realm of necessity” with little hope of ever reaching the “realm of freedom.”
Srnicek and Williams are persuasive that the current economic transformation is not like previous ones in which many jobs disappeared but new jobs at least fitfully emerged in their place. Instead, precarity and unemployment are becoming the norm. Cognitive work and jobs that involve “affective” labor such as those in day care centers, hospitals and nursing homes may endure in this brave new world. At least we can hope that robots cannot so easily replace human kindnesses and empathetic touches and smiles (although no doubt this is being worked on somewhere). But, as we have already seen, many low-paying service jobs – the fall-back when many fewer decent-paying, semi-skilled blue collar jobs are to be had – are being eliminated with the self-checkouts at grocery and DIY stores, EZPasses at expressway toll booths and other such labor-saving innovations – that is to say, labor-saving for the bosses. Along with self-driving cars, self-driving semi trucks are being developed to haul cargo long-distance. In an ideal world, why should anybody have to do those tiring, mindless, boring and shitty jobs? If machines can do them instead, fine and dandy – as long as people have some other source of income. On a global scale, ongoing primitive accumulation keeps driving people off the land in Third World countries but not absorbing them as much into manufacturing work as was once the case with capitalism in the lands of its origins. Thus, everywhere there is a large and growing surplus population.
Rather than trying to stem the seemingly inexorable loss of jobs, what Srnicek and Williams call for is the acceleration of technology to bring about full automation – overcoming obstacles where capitalists still prefer to hire labor because it is cheaper – and, going along with a dramatically-reduced working week (for which the labor movement once fought), a guaranteed liveable basic income for everybody. This is not something all that new and outlandish. As Srnicek and Williams point out, Nixon and Carter advocated that sort of thing way back in the 1970s, and the same kind of reform is being discussed again right now in more mainstream quarters. A referendum for it was held recently in Switzerland (where unfortunately it failed to pass). While the enactment of a guaranteed income would not amount to socialism, much less communism, it would be a radical reform that would mean that selling one’s labor-power was voluntary rather than coerced and would give workers a stronger foundation on which to stand while fighting the system for greater transformations. No more having to keep working and biting one’s tongue for fear of being fired as a troublemaker or activist. No more not being able to follow one’s personal dream and instead having to spend 30 or 40 years slaving in meaningless employment to get by and save a little bit for retirement after first paying off a huge student debt. The world would be a much better place.
Also useful if somewhat simplistic and overdrawn is Srnicek’s and Williams’s detailed critique of what they call “folk politics” which they believe has dominated what’s left of the Left in recent decades and, in their view, has impeded more effective and longer-lasting radical changes. What they mean by “folk politics” is localism, relying on face-to-face democracy and consensus decision-making processes, and building prefigurative models. Srnicek and Williams were both involved with the Occupy Wall Street Movement and much of the impetus behind their critique of “folk politics” comes out of the failure of that movement to go much farther than it did. Srnicek’s and Williams’s critique is nothing if not broad-reaching – stretching from the Zapatistas and the factory-takeovers and “horizontalism” that came out of the Argentinian economic crisis to the elite-based slow food and localvore movements. While Srnicek and Williams agree that such things do have something of value, they are not “scalable” and thus not up to taking on the Big Bad Beast of neoliberal capitalism. Pressing problems such as worsening climate change and growing surplus populations, although having concrete local expressions and impacts, are not local at their roots. They are complex, global and systemic problems. Thus other methodologies will be needed for combating them and being able to mount a movement to bring about a postcapitalist kind of future.
To take on these challenges and rebuild a radical Left with real traction and staying power, Srnicek and Williams draw on the thinking of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Moufee in proposing a long-term populist and counter-hegemonic strategy. Modernity and progress are not to be rejected, as has often been the case with recent localist “folk politics” and in the anti-metanarrative philosophical thinking of postmodernism. Instead, the meanings of modernity and progress are to be contested in a Gramscian war of position against neoliberalism in favor of an emancipatory universality that is also capable of accommodating differences. Drawing upon my old MSU college roommate Philip Mirowski’s work, Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown (Verso 2013), Srnicek and Williams want us to take a page out of the book of how neoliberal ideology became so hegemonic – replacing Keynesianism as the conventional economic wisdom through a slow but steady build-up of think tanks, publications, etc. As components of a radical counter-hegemonic post-work/postcapitalist movement, they invite us to reawaken the futuristic utopian impulse once upheld by the Left but taken over by neoliberalism, to contest the stranglehold of neoclassical economics over the academy by rejuvenating leftist economics, and to repurpose and mobilize technologies for postcapitalist purposes. A counter-hegemonic political strategy relies on the methods of persuasion. Surprisingly, given their interest in cutting-edge technologies, Srnicek and Williams have nothing to say about the role that alternative media, live-streaming, social networking, etc. might have in helping to accomplish that and which have shown some effectiveness in the recent popular movements such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.
Images of Stakhanovite Heroes of Labor and of brawny workmen and Rosie the Riveters depicted in U.S. New Deal murals, posters, and photographs loomed large in the 20th century Leftist imaginary. Srnicek and Williams don’t venture to say whether they think that this kind of imagery may once have been appropriate for the historically-necessary build-up of the forces of production. But they are very clear that the Left’s continuing glorification of work and work’s close association with personal identity in contemporary society are major roadblocks to the next stage of history during the 21st century and thus we must now rid ourselves of them completely. Here they build from the classic essay, The Right to be Lazy, by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue and from various recent anarchist and autonomist Marxist anti-work tracts. Although not referenced here by Srnicek and Williams, alongside the heroic labor strikes and battles for unionization celebrated in books such as Labor’s Untold Story and Strike!, there is also an inspirational historical legacy of resistance to wage labor through sabotage, flight, etc. This ties in with the historical and ongoing popular struggles against the enclosure of the commons whose existence has enabled people to resist being forced into wage labor. Surprisingly, Srnicek and Williams have little to say about those defensive battles, perhaps because their often rural and agrarian character does not fit so well with Srnicek’s and Williams’s high tech urban-oriented political program and imaginary.
Moreover, several other glaring blindspots stand out with the program laid out in Inventing the Future envisioning a postcapitalist society and for us to do organizing around. For Marx – as is also the case with some recent neo-Marxist thinkers such as Antonio Negri who have tried to explore the liberatory potentials immanent in the postindustrial economy – innovations in technology and communications are important not only because material scarcity is overcome and humans are freed from imposed labor. They are also important because new and broader forms of cooperation and community, along with an appropriate subject for a postcapitalist society, are brought into being. Srnicek and Williams urge the Left to re-embrace its traditional support for modernity and the metahistorical notion of progress in the quest for universal emancipation. However, the (John) Lennonist vision of the world as one – the proletarian internationalism of Marxism and the solidarity of the global justice movement – seems largely missing. They also have to admit that they are basically flubbing around when it comes to a subject or agent for their program, although they hope that its broadly populist rather than explicitly socialist character will enable different kinds of people to plug in in different kinds of ways much as people did with Occupy.
Above all, nature and the environment figure hardly at all in Inventing the Future, and the approach of the authors is totally, unabashedly anthropocentric. Yes, there are some passing references to climate change, the need for a post-carbon economy, and other ecological concerns. Nevertheless, the book’s exclusive focus is on what would constitute a better and more fulfilling society for us homo sapiens. What about the tens of thousands of other plant and animal species facing harm and possible extinction because of encroaching urbanization and accelerating global warming? There’s no sense whatsoever in Srnicek and Williams that what we should also be thinking about and planning for is what’s good for the other species with which we share the planet and how we as the species capable of rational thinking might want to act as responsible environmental stewards. In terms of what’s good for us as humans, there is also nothing in Srnicek and Williams about how to overcome the general alienation of people from nature and the longstanding historical division, made much worse under capitalism, of city and countryside. This division was of great concern to Marx and Engels but apparently not to our current thinkers. While it is not necessary to embrace a vision of some kind of rural agrovillage ecotopia – urban alternatives exist – the relations of humans and nature need to be part and parcel of any radical leftist agenda or program.
Here what might be worth investigating again is Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism which way back in 1970 offered a vision of a postcapitalist nonhierarchical society living in balance with nature based on automation, cybernetics and other “appropriate technology.” Srnicek and Williams say that they have some affinity with Bookchin on technology but, not surprisingly, reject his small-scale communitarian social vision, and they would no doubt decry his proposed organizing methodologies of affinity groups and direct action as ineffectual “folk politics.” (Perhaps these methodologies would in fact be better regarded as tactical choices than as hard-and-fast matters of political principle.) Moreover, in his later work Bookchin became much more interested in the political and ethical concept of citizenship than in the possible technological bases for ecological and egalitarian ways of living and stopped calling himself an “eco-anarchist.” However, the early Bookchin might be a source of insights to build an “accelerationist” platform that does not leave nature and the environment out of the picture.
When formulating a transitional program, an important set of experiences to look at would be those of the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. There a broad counter-hegemonic project was combined with a system of dual power in which neighborhood and workplace communes were gradually supposed to replace the instruments of central state authority. Srnicek and Williams only mention Venezuela briefly and they say nothing else about any worthwhile projects for societal transformation outside of Western Europe and the U.S. except for the short-lived, ahead-of-its-time Cybersyn Project in Allende’s Chile, which tried with a single primitive mainframe and a few fax machines to do economic coordination. The Soviet Union tried using computers for centralized economic planning on a country-wide level. Those efforts should be examined for their successes and failures and how they could be made more democratic. Now, of course, the power of computers is vastly stronger and is linked in vast networks. China would seem to be the main place where the automation in Srnicek and Williams’s vision is being implemented. China is moving ahead right now with a government-backed effort to install a large numbers of factory robots – although it seems robots introduced to wait on restaurant tables are not working out so well. What the Chinese leaders, who removed the Mao-era social guarantees during their own spate of neoliberal “reforms” and marketization, now expect to do with all the replaced human workers is unclear.
In the future society they envisage, Srnicek and Williams hope to avoid the bane of endless meetings. Having attended countless meetings myself over the years, this is certainly appealing; other visions of the future such as Michael Albert’s Participatory Economics and the older Bookchin’s Libertarian Muncipalism would seem to involve more rather than fewer meetings. Presumably, Srnicek and Williams believe that many of the issues that used to come up would turn into non-questions in a post-scarcity world or they would be resolved on a technical non-political basis. This was Marx’s hope behind the famous “withering away of state.” As Engels said, “The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things and the direction of processes of production.” Still, there will be a need for some kinds of decision making and coordinating bodies, and Srnicek and Williams are silent concerning what form or forms they might take in a post-work postcapitalist world. The possibilities, for instance, of using the Internet for directly democratic discussion and decision making –- digital or e-democracy – ought to be considered, but Srnicek and Williams do not.
Yet, with all of that being said by way of criticism, Srnicek and Williams have truly helped by throwing down the proverbial gauntlet at a time when thinking beyond the immediate struggles has become very rare. It is incumbent now on others to respond with revolutionary visions and programs of their own.
13 November 2016