Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
This is the reading for our discussion on March 25th. Visit us on meetup.com
Given the level of our technological development and infrastructure we now have in place, the future, which the left has always imagined, seems more possible than ever. But it hasn’t come. Is it just that the world we live in is no longer suited to the outdated ideas of the Left? Or is it that, the left has always imagined it but never actually set out a course of action, most certainly in the democratic context, at the very least. What happened to the Left’s capacity for imagining new political realities? Where and how have our politics failed us? Moreover, towards the other side, is there something particularly pernicious about today’s capitalism—neoliberalism? Though once a fringe ideology, how did it come to being the dominant mode of thinking for the last three or four decades? Srnicek and Williams offer a diagnosis of this stagnancy of the Left, but taking it a step further than Jameson of last week, through this diagnosis and an atypical analysis of neoliberalism (as opposed to a mere critique), they offer a much more rigorous outline, a long necessary shock treatment for the left.
It would be a mistake and unproductive to simply say that the left fails today because of the increased collaboration of the state with capitalism and an increased inclination towards the use of austerity. Yes, the effect of this is an increased saturation of neoliberal ideals, even to the point of infiltrating the common sense of both the political left and right. But a more immediate point is that the left’s political repertoire of recent, is limited to what Srnicek and Williams call, “folk politics”. Folk politics, a response of the left to (failures of) state communism and the collapse of social democratic parties, favors the local and the immediate (p.12). It wants to bring down politics to the people, the human scale, and it does this by focusing its attention to the temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy (p.12). Key to this orientation towards the present for Srnicek and Williams, is that it outright rejects hegemony and in so doing, it withdraws or exits left, as opposed to building a counter-hegemony. We might look at folk politics a bit more closely before moving on.
Folk politics emphasizes direct action by the participants themselves; it values the everyday over the structural, personal experience over systematic thinking, feeling over thinking (p.13). Folk politics is Occupy, student occupations, the Invisible Committee, the Zapatistas, the slow-food movement, ethical consumerism and many more. Folk politics rejects the deliberate process of constructing a universal politics. This is the general malaise to which movements of today take shape—a passion for change, a readiness for change, a profound feeling of wanting change. But the preposition is missing, a “change to”…what? As the authors write, folk politics do not name an explicit position, but an implicit tendency. The position seems to begin and end with discontent. Furthermore, it starts from the presumed authenticity of the local, which all politics does, but it is content to stay there. Indeed, it may win out in some local struggles but we are fooling ourselves if we think we are truly turning neoliberalism into something else. Neoliberalism needs to be countered rather differently and a look at how neoliberalism became so successful would offer insight into inventing such a counter.
Though they claim that their history of neoliberalism, as such a successful ideology, is not written for the sake of being a model that the left can imitate, it is clear that they reserve a certain admiration for its historical development at least in the manner it was conceived and the many decades which its adherents committed to it in order to construct, refine it and insert it into the mainstream at just the right time. That said, neoliberalism, like folk politics of today, had no immediate or real program from the onset. It has its roots in the years after the First World War, but it did not take shape until just after the second, when the Mont Pelerin Society was formed around like-minded individuals. It was set on challenging the political common sense at the time and developing a liberal utopia (p.39).
As we have discussed in a previous meeting, its main proponent, Hayek, had developed a very suspicious attitude toward Keynesian economics, which he believed could very well return us to fascism. Hayek believed that there were no alternatives available and for him the MPS was a way for creating a space where “the best minds could formulate a program, which has a chance of gaining general support (ibid). From its beginning, it is clear that neoliberalism shared many similarities of folk politics, but the crucial distinction is that it worked from the perspective of a global horizon, beyond the parameters of existing possibilities and it tried to conceive of a strategy for expanding its terrain (which was mainly to be elite public opinion) (p.40). This approach was clearly long-term, deliberate and was built around a distinct social network. What is more phenomenal about this political order, is that it remained a fringe ideology for decades. But during that time its adherents were extraordinarily active and committed, emphasizing the use of a variety of venues to influence, in particular, elites and construct a new common sense (p.41). These venues included conferences, academic research groups, popular writing for non-academic audiences, excessive writing in op-ed pieces (a notable tactic of Milton Friedman) and the construction of think tanks. At this point, came the economic issues of the 1970s; the oil shock, commodity price increasing, wage increases, the expansion of credit. Whether or not this crisis was caused by the dominance of Keynesian economics is irrelevant in the scheme of history, for a new alternative had to be proposed, and it could have been anything. But, neoliberalism was so well placed by this stage. Srnicek and Williams point out that in contrast to the neoliberal/capitalist narratives, neoliberalism was in no way the inevitable outcome of these economic issues of the time, but was, at its simplest, the most well-developed political construction (p.43). It was, in effect after several decades, the most ready and whole program out there.
Neoliberalism was created through long-term vision, through imagining beyond the conceivable possibilities. It considered what could become possible later, after the proper preparations and actions were made. It was undoubtedly a counter-hegemonic project which was meant to overturn consensus, the general common sense. Its tactics were consistent, it was to lay out and spread an ideological infrastructure that could “insinuate itself into every political issue and every fibre of political common sense” (p.46).
Given the left’s preoccupation with folk politics, the current hegemony of neoliberalism and the lessons we can learn from its construction, Srnicek and Williams argue that the contemporary left needs to reclaim the project of modernity, build a populist and (counter) hegemonic force and mobilize towards a post-work future (p.47). Treading back to the term “capitalism” as opposed to the more refined “neoliberalism”, it is clear that capitalism is a universalism and thus any particularisms of withdrawal, resistance, or localism with never succeed against it. Instead the construction of a future-oriented politics that can challenge capitalism at the largest of scales is in order. “Modernity” has been representative of such an orientation. It too has served as a “narrative for popular mobilization and a philosophical framework for understanding the arc of history” (.p48). More than this, the conceptual ideals of modernity remain central to human endeavors regardless of where we might be on a political spectrum, these include universal ideals of: progress, reason and freedom. It is in effect, the space in which all political struggles take place today and therefore contesting this term would be of particular importance for the left.
In the fourth chapter of the book the authors examine three factors that would help elaborate such a (new) left modernity, these being: an image of historical progress, a universalist horizon and a commitment to emancipation. Beginning with the first, the left was always future-oriented, the right quite the opposite (the change only happened with neoliberalism, think Thatcher). From the 70s onwards there became a singular destination of the future, a one-size fits all model, a European modernity. Undoubtedly it was this single-handed vision that gave rise to postmodernists who grew suspicious of these grand narratives. In this sense postmodernism could be considered a cultural condition, not so much as a disillusionment with grand narratives, but a disenchantment (p.50). Unfortunately, the seduction of the postmodern discontent, has withered away the potential for new possible futures to open up. One way to get out of this quandary is to reimagine the notion of progress. Progress, write Srnicek and Williams, has no singular path, it is uneven. It comes from many different realizations in a multitude of places. It is hyperstitional. It is a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself as an eventual truth (ibid). Neoliberalism, nor modernity itself is a necessary outcome, it is sought out and must be elaborated upon. Such a vision of the future and of modernity is necessary against capitalism.
The second idea needed for the elaboration of a new modernity comes by first admitting capitalism as a universal—the idea of it, its values and goals hold up across all cultures (p.51). As such, localized and particular forms of politics and culture will always fail up against it. Rescinding the universalism of capitalism is not an option. By now it is obvious a great deal of Srnicek and William’s work is deeply informed by Western Marxism (Gramsci in particular), though their capacity for leaving out all of the necessary trappings is refreshing. Universalisms, the current hegemonic power must not be fought with folk-politics, but another universalism. A counter-hegemony must be constructed and this is done through the kind of work and politics early neoliberal adherents were so good at. A universal makes an unconditional rule, that everything must be placed under its rule, but it too is never complete and it is not homogenous. Being incomplete it is open to contestation. Lacking homogeneity, a universal is an integration of difference. In this sense a universalism is not so much as a body, a monolithic structure out there. Instead we might imagine it as a placeholder, where hegemonic particulars come to occupy (p.52).
The third and most novel aspect of modernity that the left must elaborate upon is the notion of “synthetic freedom”. Always associated with the ideals of equality, the left has too found itself defending a notion of freedom (e.g. The US, the “free world” against the totalitarian enemy, the Reds, the USSR, or today “Islamofascism”). What is the image of freedom today under capitalism? It is a negative freedom, the “freedom of individuals from arbitrary interference by other individuals, collectives and institutions” (p.53). In practice, this amounts to political freedom from the state and the economic (un)freedom to sell our labor power so that we can buy the latest phone or consume the latest gastronomical creation. Given these conditions, the rich and poor are considered equally free, a point again and again emphasized in Libertarians and conservative circles, despite the fact that these two groups have entirely different capacities to act given systemic conditions unalterable by the will of one individual. The example given is that in a democracy we are all free to run for a political position, but without the right combination of financial and social resources for such a campaign, all efforts would be effectively futile. Such a concept of freedom thus limits us considerably in our new modernity, so Srnicek and Williams push for the notion of synthetic freedom. If negative freedom is a concern for assuring our formal right to avoid any kind of interference or hindrances, synthetic freedom recognizes that that formal right without a material means or capacity is completely meaningless (ibid). We might insert a meaning of power to the mix. “If power is the basic capacity to produce intended effects in someone or something, then an increase in our ability to carry out our desires is simultaneously an increase in our freedom” (ibid). The more we are capable of acting the freer we are. A postcapitalist world would allow for an unhindered flourishing of all humans and the expansion of our collective horizons. Three elements are needed to achieve this and together they constitute this synthetic freedom, a freedom that has been constructed through historical achievement rather than one that is natural and a product of just letting people be as they are.
These three elements are: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources and the development of technological capacities. Synthetic freedom insists on the provision of basic resources needed for a full and meaningful life (i.e. income, time, health and education). The classic social democratic goals resolve this but beyond a mere construction of such a social democratic infrastructure for public goods however there are two further aspects essential to our existence—time and money. Time is essential for us to develop our capacities and the basic condition of self-determination. Therefore, the concept of synthetic freedom demands that a basic income is provided to all. Such a provision makes it possible to live under the conditions of capitalism. But we must take this a step further and seek to expand our capacities beyond what is currently possible, what is even imaginable. It is not enough to simply be open to people’s current desires, but to open itself to experimentation with the largest set of desires and options on the table. Indeed, through a greater command of the technical and scientific knowledge of our natural and built worlds, we gain greater powers to act (p.54). Thus, synthetic freedom requires experimentation with collective and technological augmentation (including and not limited to: cyborg augmentations, artificial life, synthetic biology).
All anti-intellectualism and skepticism of the right (and left) to technological and scientific exploration are of the most detrimentally regressive type, particularly to a commitment and whole expansion of freedom. Again, we return to the theme here of deliberate, well thought-out and contested political construction. The authors write, “[f]reedom is a synthetic enterprise, not a natural gift” (p.55). Synthetic freedom then is a massive collective project, and it is unapologetically open-ended. Sadie Plant, expands this further
It’s always been problematic to talk about the liberation of women because that presupposes that we know what women are. If both women and men have been organized into the forms we currently take, then we don’t want to liberate what we are now, if you see what I mean…It’s not a question of liberation so much as a question of evolution—or engineering. There’s a gradual re-engineering of what it can be to be a woman and we don’t yet know what it is. We have to find out”. (as quoted on page 55).
The progression that Srnicek and Williams are setting out leads us to a platform of post-work, where both waged labor and capitalist accumulation need to be transcended. Chapter 5 sets out a description of the crisis of work, contrasting it to leisure, which is not to be understood as simply idleness, since it require massive amounts of energy (p.56). In a post-work world, people would no longer be bound to their jobs (and their precariousness in the neoliberal order), but free to create their own lives. After a discussion of the historical spaces of labor market segregation (in regards to race, gender and the rural-city divide), the authors show that there is a growing number of people who are situated outside the formal waged work who are making do with minimal welfare benefits, informal subsistence work or simply working by illegal means (p.64). Given this instability and slippage of stability that the hegemonic order is grounded in, it will likely deploy various forms of coercion and violence against those who resist it (p.64). The ideal championed by social democrats has always been that of full employment, but the global economy will find it increasingly difficult to produce enough jobs given the expectations of automation in the next few decades, yet the constant demand and dependence of individuals for that employment given the necessity to participate in capitalism. Given the failures of left folk politics, the necessity to counter the universalism of capitalism with another universalism, the demand to take hold of the future through a concept of modernity and the call to reconsider freedom not as a natural given but a constructed reality, Srnicek and Williams offer a counter to full-employment—full unemployment. In chapter 6 they try to imagine what a post-work society would look like and what it would mean in practice.
To ground us a bit, harkening back to the methods of early neoliberals, the struggle for a post-work society would take on the widest range of sites and contests, including: “creating hegemonic ideas about the obsolescence of drudgery, shifting goals of trade unions from resisting automation to job-sharing and reduced working weeks, government subsidies for automation investment, and raising the cost of labour for capital” (p.68). Though loose and intentionally open, chapter 6 is meant to be a contribution toward the discussion. But resting rather obviously on the left, the authors emphasize a particular point. Returning to their earlier discussion about the symptomatic behaviors of the radical left today and its refusal to make demands since this would imply that it is giving into the existing order of things, their diagnosis is that this continued rejection is due to theoretical confusion, not practical progress (p.69). Indeed, this is not politics at all.
In short, revolutionary demands seem naïve, yet reformists demands seem futile. Srnicek and Williams then make their demand for “non-reformist reforms”. This implies 3 things: (1) that it is given a utopian edge straining at the limits of what capitalism is capable of conceding; (2) that it is grounded in real world tendencies which give them a viability that revolutionary dreams lack; (3) that these demands shift the current political equilibrium and construct a platform for further development. Point being, Srnicek and Williams are insisting on an open-ended escape from the present (ibid). Understandably, the momentum of these proposals is to break out of neoliberalism, though not necessarily capitalism (just yet). They are meant to build a consensus. Adding more specifically to the demands raised in the previous chapter, the ones discussed here are: a fully automated economy, the reducing of the working week, and implementation of universal basic income and achieving a cultural shift in the understanding of work (p.70). Some concluding remarks might be said about each of these.
In all functions of the economy be that they may production, distribution, management or retail, there are large-scale tendencies to automation. Added to that the general work conditions in North America and Western Europe are characterized by low-skilled, low-wage manual labor or service jobs, which means huge swathes of workers are poised to be out of jobs. Many economists point out that productivity has not increased to the degree we might have expected from automation, but there are likely a number of reasons this has been the case (as explained on page 72). Low wages repress investment in productivity-enhancing technologies. This is to say that there is simply no incentive to invest in advanced expensive machines, when you can higher cheap irregular workers to do the same job. A second issue, comes from the experience of technology across time, from conception of the science, to implementation. There seems to be a digital lag of technologies from their creation to an actual investment in them in industry of anywhere between 5 and 15 years. A third reason for the lack of serious automation crucial to Srnicek and Williams, is that our entire discussion of automation in general is skewed and dependent on economic necessity, but because of its potential, it should be a political demand. The fact that between 47 and 80 percent of the jobs existing today have the potential for automation should be taken as a political project and a call against work (as we know it) (p.72). In sum automation is a utopian demand that aims at reducing labor deemed necessary by the hegemony of capitalism. It is rather significant to point out how far Srnicek and Williams are willing to go here. For example, what of care-work, work associated with personal one-on-one relationships, such as the care of children? Of course, these spaces, particularly work of the household are spaces that capitalism has had very few incentives to invest in, but what if certain forms of this non-accounted for labor can be eliminated? Srnicek and Williams see every reason for experimentation in these and similar spaces of our lives.
A secondary demand for a post-work society is a reduction in work hours. Interestingly, there have been numerous movements towards reduced working hours over the last century, notably nearly realized ones during the depression. Today, there is a great deal of undocumented and therefore undocked hours that we pour into our jobs, such that the work-life distinction has essentially dissipated. Added the environmental benefits in the decrease of the work week, Srnicek and Williams emphasize their preference for a 3-day weekend (p.75). With a reduction of labor through automation, and the ensuing reduction of the labor supply through a shortening of the number of hours poured into a work week, a considerable amount of free time opens up. This increase in free time does not equate to a reduction in economic output or an increase in unemployment (a euphemism for under-waged) (p.76). But this free time will be meaningless if people still struggle to make ends meet. Therefore a third essential demand for a post-work society is universal basic income.
Like shorter workweeks, UBI has been tried in the past. Srnicek and Williams identify three factors that must be articulated if UBI is to be considered truly meaningful: it must be universal, it must be provided to everyone unconditionally and it must supplement the welfare state (not replace it). The demand for UBI is part and parcel for the kind of political transformation, not simply economic transformation, Srnicek and Williams are insisting upon. UBI situates itself as a point of common interests to a variety of groups in society. It transforms the precariousness of work allowing us to step outside of the constant state of insecurity in today’s age of austerity, to a state of voluntary flexibility (p.77). More than anything else, it allows us to rethink the values we have long attributed to different types of work, such that the nature of work becomes a measure of value not merely its profitability. UBI in accompaniment with automation is a feminist proposal, for it offers a radical level of experimentation with the family structure (p.78). It is a redistribution mechanism that transforms the production relations. It is an economic mechanism that changes the entire politics of work as we have come to know it.
The obstacles to UBI are seemingly insurmountable its implementation would require us to do nothing less than change our beliefs about work, our commitment to our work ethic. This ethic tells us that no matter how demeaning work is, it is ultimately good because it is, well, work. This ethic has demonized those without jobs and our blind belief in this ethic, our incapacity to imagine any kind of meaningful life outside of the scope of work, demonstrates how saturated our lives and modes of thinking are with these ideals. Remuneration requires work and with it, suffering. Srnicek and Williams insist that we take cues from neoliberalism, and not simply refuse to participate in this suffering imposed on us, but begin a calculated and collective effort towards building a different kind of future through a hyperstitional image of progress. Through their discussion of full automation, the reduction of the working week, the provision of UBI and the diminishment of a work ethic, they have advanced an integrated program for us.