Workless Utopias and the Return of the Future

A review of “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work” by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Verso Books, 2015).

I am sat writing this article in a café in London, a city of some 8 million people and the biggest urban conurbation in the Europe Union. Ranked the largest financial center in the world according to The Global Financial Centres Index, it is the political seat of the world’s fifth largest economy and fifth largest metropolitan GDP area. Unemployment is at its lowest level since 2008, and the proportion of workless households is at a 20 year low. The city exerts a magnetic force well beyond the U.K.’s borders. More than 35 percent of the population are foreign born, and it is the most visited city in Europe, ahead of tourist hotspots such as Paris and Rome.

Given this context, you might imagine London to be a hotbed of dynamism and innovation, a place of excitement and constant cultural and technological revolution, a place where the future is first built and then lived. And you would be wrong.

While the economy may have recovered from the crash of 2008, Britain has experienced the slowest recovery since the Victorian era, with living standards only just having returned to their pre-crisis levels. Londoners may be in work but increasingly that work does not pay – according to the New Policy Institute, 1.2 million Londoners are working poor – an increase of 70 percent in just 10 years. Investment is low, growth anemic and technical innovation is largely confined to the development of new financial instruments. Vast amounts of low-skilled work could be easily automated away but since it is cheaper to pay workers poverty wages (and as the political class has no clear idea of what it would do with those thrown out of work) the enormous potentialities for automation are unexploited. As Paul Mason argues, the entrepreneurial class have become “neo-luddites”:

“Faced with the possibility of creating gene-sequencing labs, they instead start coffee shops, nail bars and contract cleaning firms: the banking system, the planning system and late neoliberal culture reward above all the creator of low-value, long-hours jobs.”

At the level of culture, things are just as bad. The cultural theorist Mark Fisher argues persuasively that with the abolition of the comparatively benign conditions of artistic production of the social democratic era, the advanced industrialised societies have become culturally stagnant: the birth of new cultural forms has been arrested, engagement in artistic production is increasingly the preserve of the already affluent, and the lost futures of the social democratic era haunt the dystopian present.

The financial crisis of 2008 appeared to herald the end of neoliberalism, yet the doctrine has staggered on in zombie form, continuing to delimit economic and political choice. And in spite of 20 years of unprecedented popular activism, opponents of neoliberalism remain largely on the defensive. From the alter-globalization protests of the 1990s to the anti-war movement, from the World Social Forum to Occupy, victories have been partial, temporary and localized. Occasional successes are achieved yet the global direction of travel is the same: increasing inequality, the casualisation and disaggregation of the labor force, and the progressive destruction of the biosphere.

It is the dual yet intertwined crises of lost futures and the poverty of left strategy that concern Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (S&W) in their new book, “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.” S&W locate the failure of the left’s response to neoliberalism over more than 30 years in the left’s attachment to what they describe as “folk politics” — a set of dubious tactical and strategic assumptions that undergird radical activism:

“Against the abstraction and inhumanity of capitalism, folk politics aims to bring politics down to the ‘human scale’ by emphasizing temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy. At its heart, folk politics is the guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation.”

Resulting from this strategic orientation is the left’s fetishisation of direct action, localism, and horizontalism (though S&W do not claim that such approaches are never appropriate) most famously articulated via John Holloway’s pernicious notion of “changing the world without taking power.”

From this perspective, the strategies of the contemporary left are often not pathways to a better future but rather retrograde reactions to our inability to cognitively map the complexities of post-Fordist capitalism. Folk politics in their view also constitutes a retreat from Gramsci’s project of counterhegemony. Instead of engaging in the difficult task of identifying and constructing a broad coalition of interests across diverse populations, much of the left seems more than happy to remain ghettoized, preferring noisy demonstrations of ideological purity to efforts to persuade potential constituencies to shift their ideological allegiances.

A Workless Utopia    

Since the great depression of the 1920s, the radical left’s vision of an alternative future has been animated by work-based utopias – the achievement of full employment, and the democratization of the workplace. S&W remind us that prior to the depression the left had primarily related to work in terms of efforts to achieve its diminution.

Pursuing this earlier thread of socialist thinking (that is consonant with the diminishment of the importance of work to the individual’s self-conception in post-Fordist capitalism) S&W propose not full employment but full automation and the establishment of a universal basic income. Importantly, they propose entirely delinking remuneration from sacrifice (‘suffering’ in their view) in favor of UBI. They suggest that the power of the work ethic derives from the theological view that conceives of suffering as constitutive of meaning. In a world where the necessity of onerous work could be sharply reduced, S&W propose that we move on from the outmoded and quasi-religious work ethic that plays such a critical role in maintaining neoliberal hegemony. S&W advance four key goals in support of their project – full automation, reduction of the working week, establishment of a UBI, and an ideological assault on the work ethic. The four demands have an elegantly self-reinforcing strategic character:

“The demand for full automation amplifies the possibility of reducing the working week and heightens the need for a universal basic income. A reduction in the working week helps produce a sustainable economy and leverage class power. And a universal basic income amplifies the potential to reduce the working week and expand class power. It would also accelerate the project of full automation: as worker power rose and as the labour market tightened, the marginal cost of labor would increase as companies turned towards machinery in order to expand. These goals resonate with each other, magnifying their combined power.”

There is not room here to do full justice to S&W’s book (amongst much else it includes an excellent overview of the development of the neoliberal project and a detailed analysis of why the achievement of full employment is now a chimerical goal) but I can hardly think of a more important book published in recent years. In September, Michael Albert, co-creator of the alternative economic model known as Participatory Economics, asked a number of other activists and authors, including myself, to write a response to an article he wrote entitled “Why Do We Lose?”

In that article, Mike attempted to answer the question that S&W also set themselves. Agreeing with much of Mike’s diagnoses as to the causes of the lefts’ seemingly terminal defensiveness and at a loss as to what I could add, I never wrote a response to the piece. If Mike were to ask me for a response today I still wouldn’t write anything. What I would do instead is suggest he pick up a copy of “Inventing the Future.”

Alex Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project and a graduate student in the War Studies department of King’s College London. He has written for Z Magazine and Open Democracy amongst other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @alexdoherty7.

1 comment

  1. David Dobereiner November 26, 2015 9:56 pm 

    But as Paul Mason remarks, contemporary capitalism is neo-luddite. What power can force it to adopt full automation? Only the state it would seem. This would be fine if the state represented the people but in most cases they don’t. Capitalism since Reagan/Thatcher has successfully stifled democracy, almost everywhere except in a few countries of South America. I hope S and W have an answer to this. I will read their book though. Sounds excellent.

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