Book Review: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work”

I have for some time been looking forward to reading Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Not just because I know both well enough to expect insightful commentary from them, but also because their recent political writing has been an important component in the trend to re-evaluate leftist strategies (back) towards consciously future-oriented, optimistic, technology-friendly and generally ‘modernist’ approach. In these respects, this book did not disappoint. The work consists essentially of two parts. The first few chapters are devoted to a critique of existing strategies and ways of thinking as identified by Srnicek and Williams, approaches they deem to be harmful to the prospects of the left and in need of overcoming. The second part is concerned with developing an alternative proposal for the (radical) left’s political orientation, buttressed by more empirical discussions of political economy and technological change. Although in that sense the book is multi-layered and ambitious in scope, it is throughout an easy read: Srnicek and Williams have found, I think, the right tone for popular political writing that seeks to deal with abstract problems without relying on tedious jargon. If at times it seems a little dry, a bit lacking in the spark one expects of a directly political tract, it makes up for it in combining a light touch of vocabulary with analytical seriousness.

So let me describe them in that order. The first section consists mainly of the authors’ critique of what they call “folk politics”. By this they mean the tendencies among the left to the rejection of power, scale, and universality: a retreat into localism, prefiguration, refusal to seek power, escapism, and so forth. For Srnicek and Williams, the core of this folk politics is immediacy, the desire for the small over the large, full participation over representation, horizontalism and localism over potentials for scaling, and other expressions of what they see as a lack of will to develop a larger strategic vision. Although the authors are careful not to claim that these things are all inherently bad, which would surely be overegging the pudding, they do argue that the left has been held in thrall by such ways of thinking as a ‘common sense’ to its detriment for too long. It should take a considerable part of the blame for why the left isn’t winning, as the first chapter’s title indicates.

The purpose of Inventing the Future is to counter this common sense of the left, this folk politics, with the opposite vision: a striving for hegemony, rather than a rejection of power; a recognition of representation, rather than a consensus politics; a concern with the large scale and the longer term, rather than immediacy of time and place, and a willingness to think about the technology and work of the future in terms of its potentials for positive transformation, rather than something that should be warded off with defensive battles. The authors believe this can be done, that common sense is made and can be changed. Their primary inspiration here is the story of the making of neoliberalism as a common sense of the elite, in particularly as told by Philip Mirowski and Jamie Peck: a work of many intellectuals and organisations in the margins over the course of decades, consciously adapting their strategy to circumstances so as to maximize their intellectual influence and to shift the Overton window in their favor. While Srnicek and Williams wisely refrain from suggesting a ‘Mont Pèlerin Society of the left’ in terms of replicating its type of organisation – after all, the MPS worked precisely because of its nature as a project for and by elites, which we cannot and should not replicate – they do suggest we should learn from it a certain combination of long-term vision with sound strategic thinking. 

On the whole, I by and large agree with Srnicek and Williams in terms of their critique, but then I already did so before I began reading the book. Let me therefore make a few critical notes, keeping in mind my general approval for the argument. In recent times, it has been something of a fashion among radical left political writers to blame the left’s weaknesses on localism, horizontalism, separatism, Greens, nostalgics, primitivists, conspiracy thinkers and others with insufficient appreciation of the promises of modernity.* The problem is that in their haste to denounce such trends (however justified they may be at times), too many such critics spend too little time on demonstrating 1) that these groups are actually all bad and 2) that they have actually meaningfully affected the organisation or effect of the (radical) left as a whole.

An exercise in ‘hippie-punching’ is all too easy if one doesn’t bother to demonstrate its relevance to our current predicament, or even to show that the people so critiqued actually exist and are influential, rather than being straw figures erected for the occasion. Srnicek and Williams fare better in this regard, giving a more balanced verdict on the ‘folk politics’ that, as they acknowledge, can be beneficial in specific local contexts and for specific movement purposes, but which they – I think rightly – reject as a substitute for a different and more general strategy. (Praiseworthy is also their habit of actually citing works and individuals who actually represent the tendencies they criticize, something often sorely lacking in left political polemics.)

Somewhat surprising is perhaps the absence of another major aspect of left folk politics in much of the Western world, namely nostalgia. Although the authors are generally disinclined to dwell on the experiences of ‘real existing socialism’ and have little positive to say about it, they do point to the historical peculiarities of the postwar social-democratic settlement and to the unlikelihood of its return. Since much of the European left’s rhetorical style is focused on nostalgic evocation of the (alleged) halcyon days of powerful unions, welfare systems beyond reproach, and low inequality, at least insofar as the political parties of the European left are concerned, it would perhaps have made sense to include a critique of this folk politics in the book more explicitly. A slightly more serious problem is that despite their generally more balanced approach to the critique of folk politics, they still do not provide a great deal of evidence to persuade a skeptical reader that it really is to blame for the left’s weakness. After all, there is a correlation versus causation issue here: just because certain tendencies towards anti-hegemonic politics, localism, a refusal to make demands, and a politics of the small and immediate have taken hold in a time of left weakness does not mean they have caused that weakness. Srnicek and Williams and similar polemicists of the ‘modernist left’ may well be right. But the alternative hypotheses, that they are either caused by that weakness, or that they exist at all times and are irrelevant to the larger picture, do need serious consideration.

That said, I think Srnicek and Williams are undeniably right to reject a politics that refuses to take power, since this is simply to cede power to others. They are also right that it has been a serious failing of many on the left to lack the will to think about scale, complexity, and their strategic implications, especially in light of transformations in technology and global political economy. To place this back on the agenda as the purpose of left organising and left vision is a just cause, regardless of how much the ‘folk politics’ they identify has contributed to its frequent absence. This brings me to the second part of the book: their vision for an alternative approach.

In my view, the second part of the book is probably the stronger one, and it is certainly one of the best current expressions of the ‘modernist’ vision of radical politics. In particular the discussion of contemporary technology under capitalism, and the possibilities for recuperating it to liberate us from work, is one of the best popularly accessible discussions of that problem I have encountered. This is indeed at the heart of the book’s argument, as indicated by its subtitle, Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. For Srnicek and Williams, the aim is uniting the left around a long-term vision of overcoming capitalist work and the social relations that revolve around it, and doing this by reappropriating technology to liberate us from the burden of work. In fact, to my mind this is the heart of Marxism itself: the critique of technology under capitalism (and all previous societies). The ‘productive forces’ having the potential to liberate us all from a great deal of the predicament to earn our living by the sweat of our brow, they are implemented in class society in order to liberate only the few, and leave the many in chains of compulsion. Srnicek and Williams’ approach once more puts technology and the potentials (and pitfalls) of reappropriating it central to the problem of how the left can devise a postcapitalist society and deserves for this great plaudits.

This leaves us with the question of strategy. Concretely, the comrades propose a few of what they call ‘non-reformist reforms’ (an awkward borrowing from André Gorz, to whom I suspect they owe a good deal of inspiration). These revolve around a universal basic income, and a working class struggle for reduction in working hours. The latter is a generally accepted idea of the Marxist left and indeed well beyond it, and is, as the authors point out, primarily a concern of labor union organisation and strategy. Even so, it is certainly important to place it back on the agenda. Srnicek and Williams in this context also briefly introduce the subject of ‘surplus population’, a dynamic of capitalism recently made into a central explanatory vehicle by the left communist Endnotes collective: an ever-growing group of people marginal or outside formal wage labor and increasingly confined to a vast ‘planet of slums’, to use Mike Davis’ terms. Contrary to some of the left communist writers on surplus populations, however, Srnicek and Williams do not see this as a reason to jettison all existing ideas about left organisation, although they do express the need for pluralist experimentation with organisational forms.

The former is currently more contentious. The universal basic income has both strong proponents and opponents in the radical left. Many in between are wary of what seems to be a radical change whose effects are difficult to foresee and which is supported not just by sections of the left, but historically (and presently) by various right-wing or libertarian figures as well. Srnicek and Williams fortunately show that they are aware of the ways the proposal could be used as a Trojan horse of the right, making it explicit that they would reject any UBI proposal that acts solely as a substitute for the welfare state as it exists. Nonetheless, I suspect the subject needs a more extensive elaboration than they can give on this occasion, and perhaps a collection of left discussions on the political economy of a basic income are in order. The general direction of the demands is in any case clear enough: towards freeing us from the curse of having to work for a living, with the emphasis on ‘having to’.

In larger strategic terms, the authors propose a ‘populist politics’, which seeks in their words to form cross-class alliances seeking ‘hegemony’ on the basis of the post-work agenda. They are certainly right that in principle such an agenda could unite and channel the interests and aims of a great number of varied classes and sub-groups within them, and that it moreover has the advantage of not being exclusive in nature in the way that old-fashioned ideas about the idealized working class agent were. On the other hand, the idea of a popular front is also nothing new, and does not have any more an obvious track record of success than more narrow forms of party organisation or ‘social movementism’. The real question in any case is the how: how to build such a coalition, and how to acquire tactics that can exercise real influence on the course of events.

One cannot expect Srnicek and Williams to have all the answers ready here, and they don’t. What they do, besides calling for a “populist project” involving a “counter-hegemonic” “full-spectrum approach”, is point to the need to think more systematically on a large scale on where the techno-social frame of 21st century global capitalism might have weaknesses that allow for disruption and even recuperation. This also means rethinking how one might go about organizing with an aim to capture such “points of leverage”. But like the book as a whole, these are more suggestions for urgent thinking that needs to be done than ready answers, and they are the more plausible for that.

* Examples of such works are Leigh Phillips’ Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts, James Livingston’s Against Thrift, some of the contributions to the Accelerationist Reader, and in a more subtle way, works like Nick Dyer-Witheford’s Cyber-Marx. From the right, similar arguments have been made, e.g. Pascal Bruckner’s The Fanaticism of the Apocalypse.

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