Inventing the future

a review of ‘Inventing the future: Postcapitalism and a world without work’ by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams

Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams book ‘Inventing The Future’ envisions a radical utopia where machines and automation liberate humanity from the labour of work and capitalist structure. They attempt to galvanize left-wing or socialist ideals with futurist techno libertarian prowess which pictures a compelling trajectory for left wing thinkers. Srnicek and Williams announce that the current mobilisation of left wing politics is not working, and the tactics of the past are no longer affective. What is required is a radical left movement that embraces modernity and technological advancement to bring about a post work society. The book tackles the hegemony of neoliberal ideology and diagnosis the failure of the left to a lack of vision and expansion. Srnicek and Williams describe how technological advancement can produce a post-work society that could be the basis for a new vision for left politics.

‘A post work world will not emerge out of the benevolence of capitalists, the inevitable tendencies of the economy or the nessecity of crisis. The power of the left needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option’

The book is structured like a blueprint for a new world, and builds upon the technological positivism in ‘the accelarationist manifesto‘.  They begin with a harsh but accurate critique of the failure of the left in social movements in a post industrial society. They  categorize activist movements of the last decade under the term ‘Folk politics’. ‘Folk politics’ refers to the tendency of left wing politics to organize localized forms of resistance.  Examples of this range from the disperse network of camps in Occupy and Take the square to the trend of localized food markets and locally sourced produce, all resist globalised capitalism by focusing on the immediate community, geographically or socially, to create alternatives to capitalism. Srnicek and Williams are keen to highlight that these examples of self-organisation are valiant, brave and based upon a humanitarian need to create working alternatives however they are often short lived and too scaled down to create substantial impact. Occupy London eventually disbanded due to an oversubscription of people (both homeless and protestors) and had no means on increasing the infrastructure to grow wider. Transition towns, although last longer than more direct movements like Occupy, even indicate in the use of the word ‘transit’ that the organisation is temporary and not permanent. Srnicek & Williams are bold to simply categorise these different forms of resistance under the term ‘Folk Politics’. It allows them to frame their argument to suggest that left wing politics is in crisis as it is unable to emancipate visions of the future that expand small scale actions and interventions.

So why do left-wing political movements manifest into local attitudes, temporary autonomous zones, brief interventions and generally retreat into nostalgic tendencies towards the familiar and authentic? Part of the reason is the dominance of neo-liberalism in western society and our understanding of modernity.Neo-liberalism and its incorporation into the free-market has been particularly disabling for left wing ideology, as liberal values have become co-opted by the demands of the market.This is all too visible in the battle for state institutions such as libraries, education and healthcare, where the values of the market are put before the requirements of the institution. What Srnicek and Williams emphasize is the long term perspective that the fore fathers of neo-liberalism had, something that was written up in the 1930s didn’t come to fruition till the 1970s, even then it needed leaders like Thatcher and Reagan to embed its values on society. Another challenge for the left social movements today is the the collapse of ‘modernity’ and the fight for what the future look like. The expanding flexibility of neo-liberal ideology and technological advancements have rendered the future and our collective ability to imagine other possible futures extremely difficult. ‘As someone says Its easier to imagine the end of the world than imagine the end of capitalism’ Our futures have become fossilized in in a perpetually updating present. Locked within modernity is a bold sense of progress which has been unreachable for the left as terms like growth and expansion have become common terms used if modern politics. It would appear the left has become alienated from modernity. Having a sense of modernity brings with it progress as it demands prospective engagement with the future, and the current techno-capitalist hyper world we we live in leaves little room for left to grasp modern concepts.

“A left modernity will in other words, require building a post capitalist and post-work platform upon which multiple ways of living could emerge and flourish”

The later part of the book set out to remedy some of symptoms of the left wing politics with some radical, utopian visions of a techno-socialist society. These are listed on the front cover as “Demand Full Automation, Demand Universal basic Income, Demand the Future”. The strategy that Srnicek and Williams propose to reclaim modernity and imagine a post work society by fully automating the economy, reducing the working week and implementing a basic universal income and changing the cultural understanding of work. For example the quote – If automation isn’t destroying jobs, your doing it wrong! – Aaron peters. If you believe the figures they are astonishing – in 1970 there were 1000 robots in the industry sector, today it uses over 1.6 million robots. Over 140 million cognitive jobs will be eliminated  and apparently between 47 and 80% of todays jobs are capable of being automated. However its important to remain realistic, human labour will continue for moral and ethically purposes, for example in healthcare patients still want to be treated by a human specialist, not a robot. And it is fair to say that humans are still better than computers at creative3 work, affective labour and tactical knowledge. Srnicek and Williams make clear that full automation is a Utopian demand that hopefully will reduce labour as much as possible, not not eradicate it totally.They argue that we are trapped within the invention of work , even after the global financial crash of 2008 the popular attitude to repair the systematic collapse was “getting people back to work”.

“The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all” (Joan Robinson)

From both political sides the common theme is that creating new jobs and preventing unemployment is the solution to economic deficit caused by financial institutions over borrowing and over spending. However, the financial crash of 2008 occurred within a terrain of increased global population, a surplus of production and an digitalization of labour markets that can be blamed for the mass unemployment. Mass youth unemployment, job dissatisfactions and increasingly outsourced labour markets create the appropriate context for Srnicek & Williams to propose a post-work world as a viable formation of left modernity.Points of leverage are areas of weakness to resist , historically labour movements of the left have seized factories and taken strikes.However this points of conflict become increasingly disperse in a networked economy, for example an Uber driver can be ‘retired’ based on his customer rating automatically without anyone knowing except the driver when he receives the notification.Admittedly Srnieck and Williams are aware of how dream like this radical future they propose actually is, but even the act of picturing it and planning it is a productive contribution to in forming a resistance that has more impact than any folk politics actions.The task of the left today is to engage with the politics of scale and expansion, but at what cost?