Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Failure

For my commentary on the recent book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (hereafter S&W), Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF), I have decided to build upon the discussion hosted by the blog The Disorder of Things (hereafter TDoT) in which seven writers shared their responses to the book in five essays.[1] Representing a diversity of critical disciplines and viewpoints, from climate change and libertarian communism to “cyborg” geography to international politics, these commentators drew on their own knowledge and experience to identify a number of criticisms of the book, which were then rejoined by its authors in a subsequent post. Taken as a whole, the exercise has cast helpful light on what by all accounts is an often forceful and persuasive text about the writers’ vision of a transformation of the global political Left.

Speaking as a typically liberal British graduate, the need for such a transformation in this country has, in my (limited) memory, never seemed more imminent: the overall majority Conservative victory in 2015’s General Election sent the Labour Party into disarray, and combined with its near-total eradication in Scotland (the Scottish National Party won an unprecedented 56 out of 59 Scottish seats, overturning a typically Labour stronghold overnight) constituted a defeat that may take decades to recover from. Recently, public infighting amongst senior Shadow Cabinet members has become an increasingly regular fixture of the newspapers and the evening news. At times, the idea of any kind of new radical strategy being employed on a national level seems distant at best.

Undoubtedly, this is the kind of crisis of the Left Srnicek and Williams begin their latest manifesto, Inventing the Future, from. “The recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching failure”, they claim.[2] Speaking more directly of struggles from Occupy to the Arab Spring uprisings, which have often been conveyed by liberal commentators as successes, at least initially, they go on to suggest that “[t]he recent weakness of the left cannot simply be chalked up to increased state and capitalist repression: an honest reckoning must also accept that problems lie within the left.” (p9) The most central (at least, the most quotable) method of complaint Srnicek and Williams express is to reinterpret the horizontalist, localised attitude towards enacting social progress from the left as a pervasive, short-sighted form of political common sense, which the authors brand as “folk politics”. An important qualification here is that the authors do not reject the entirety of this folk politics out of hand, but in terms of an ambitious, large-scale political project it is a perspective best reserved for a “starting point” only, ready to be jettisoned at the point which the project gains sufficient traction (p12).

Folk politics envisage a resistance of the global capitalist megastructure in terms of small, local, “horizontalist”[3] groups, often with a disdain for leadership or higher forms of collectivisation. For S&W, this is the wrong approach for the left to take if its biggest demands are to be met.[4] In fact, the dismal nature of vast swathes of the global Left can be explained by examining their trends towards privileging “the transient, the small-scale, the unmediated and the particular” as “sufficient rather than simply necessary moments”[5] An early chapter of ItF lists a plethora of consequences of making this mistake; making an attempt at an “honest reckoning” of the left’s recent political failures. One familiar case study cited once again is the Occupy movement, which took place in several cities throughout the world simultaneously in 2011. The protest camps set up in Occupy Wall Street, for example, were conceived of and functioned as insulated, autonomous, temporary spaces; this meant that they were inherently unable to implement a sustained period of change. Moreover, the occupants themselves were not, despite appearances, a unified group; instead they were made up of a plethora of differing political ideologists (“reformist liberals, anti-capitalists, insurrectionist anarchists, anti-state communists…”). Resultantly therefore their common goals were few, and their general goals diverse. Moreover, Occupy’s adoption (“fetishisation”) of direct (face-to-face) democracy, in the form of the general assembly, quickly became more laborious than liberating, owing to the multitude of micro-decisions considered necessary, wasting precious time and leaving the protesters in stasis (pp29-37).

The left’s shift towards localism is seen by S&W as a “defensive gesture”, a retreat from the battlefield of global commerce and political hegemony, and of rationalising and humanising challenging ideas (pp3, 40). “The problem with localism”, they write,

is that, in attempting to reduce large-scale systemic problems to the more manageable sphere of the local community, it effectively denies the systematically interconnected nature of today’s world. Problems such as global exploitation, planetary climate change, rising surplus populations, and the repeated crises of capitalism are abstract in appearance, complex in structure, and non-localised. […] Fundamentally, these are systemic abstract problems, requiring systemic and abstract responses. (p40)

Localist solutions, whether nostalgic[6] or resistant,[7] are clearly inadequate measures to combat these problems, as both rely on distorting the image of past victories in the vain hopes of recreating them in the present. Instead, S&W suggest that it is possible to learn from the recent and current neoliberalist successes whilst still self-identifying as being in opposition to them. This begins by recognising that

[n]eoliberalism was never a given, never a necessary endpoint of capitalist accumulation. Rather, it was a political project from the beginning, and a massively successful one in the end. It succeeded by skilfully constructing an ideology and the infrastructure to support it, and by operating in a non-folk-political manner. (p52)

In this way, neoliberalism “functioned as an expansive universal ideology” (ibid.), i.e. a hegemony.[8] A brief historical tour, beginning with Hayek’s establishment of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS)[9] in the 1940s and finishing with its total ubiquity in New Labour and the Clinton administration in the mid 1990s, examines the scale of neoliberalism’s unlikely achievement. Neoliberalism did not succeed through protest or head-on collision, rather though parasitical infiltration, taking its time over decades rather than announcing itself as an abrupt change. It simultaneously “builds on the very real desires of the population”, and reduces the desire to resist the worldview it creates by making it appear natural, appealing and a “common sense” approach, despite in reality being anything but.[10]

The Future

Neoliberalism has repurposed the idea of “modernity” for its own ends;[11] but now is the time, say S&W, for the left to reclaim it, by devising a “future-oriented politics capable of challenging capitalism at the largest scales.” Change will not come about as a result of wishful thinking, or by turning our backs on the future altogether. The left must approach the concept of the future as a contestable, hyperstitional field.[12] Likewise the concept of freedom ought to be revised as mutable and synthetic rather than fixed and natural. “Whereas negative freedom is concerned with assuring the formal right to avoid interference, ‘synthetic freedom’ recognises that a formal right without a material capacity is meaningless.”[13] Rather than an emancipatory action, freedom cannot be considered as separate from power.[14] The power to act independently allows us to achieve what is beyond our current capabilities, and is the basic requirement for postcapitalism:

One of the biggest indictments of capitalism is that it enables the freedom to act for only a vanishingly small few. A primary aim of a postcapitalist world would therefore be to maximise synthetic freedom, or in other words, to enable the flourishing of all humanity and the expansion of our collective horizons. Achieving this involves at least three different elements: the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources, and the development of technological capacities. Taken together, these form a synthetic freedom that is constructed rather than natural. (p80)

Freedom, in the form of free time, ought to be the basis of any emancipatory movement, particularly a postcapitalist one; not the negative freedoms for further employment or greater consumer choice. It is necessary therefore to “reject the centrality of work” in ordinary people’s lives.[15] Likewise, humanity itself must be freed from the cultural and social definitions of the humanist mould, as “[i]t is only through undergoing the process of revision and construction that humanity can come to know itself. This means revising the human both theoretically and practically, engaging in new modes of being and new forms of sociality as practical ramifications of making ‘the human’ explicit.” (pp82-83)

Such proposals for a re-imagining of our future are routinely dismissed as “utopian”, a word often brandished as a synonym for “unreasonable” or “wishful thinking”, but the authors of ItF take on the meaning of this word much more optimistically, announcing their project as openly and necessarily utopian.[16] With the flavour of Ballardian science fiction, they conceive of utopian thought as “[generating] a viewpoint from which the present becomes open to critique” (p139), and subsequently provides the instruments of change. It is this flavour that overspills into the latter chapters of the book, influencing their wider views of the role of politics and their proposed reformist demands.

Demand!

S&W set out their “demands” clearly and articulately over the second half of the book (indeed, also on the cover). Here they are in outline:

– The first is for “full automation”, i.e. to incorporate existing and new technologies into the workplace as seamlessly as possible. A fully automated economy “would aim to liberate humanity from the drudgery of work while simultaneously producing increasing amounts of wealth”, and therefore the tendency towards automation is one that should be “enthusiastically accelerated and targeted as a political project of the left.” As the demand for skilled labour is set to reduce drastically in the years ahead, whether we like it or not, it is better to embrace and prepare for this change than to try to resist it (pp109-114). Furthermore, as the most significant new technologies, from the Internet to the iPhone, have been the result chiefly of governmental funding and not, as popular myth may suggest, solely the efforts of Silicon Valley mavericks and entrepreneurs, the transition towards full automation must be conceived of as  a political and not merely an economic project.[17]

– A reduction of the working week. This is endorsed not only as “reducing the working week constitutes a key response to rising automation”, but it also benefits the environment, and enables a consolidation of class power; all things for which work is more often a problem than a solution (p116). It also gives body to the reasons for which we work in the first place.

– The demand for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). A weekly income, which would be a sufficient amount of money for a citizen to live on, given to everyone, would finally separate people from the economic necessity of work, and therefore “[transform] the political relationship between labour and capital.” Precarity, the condition of part-time, flexible hours or zero-hours work would also be transformed, into “voluntary flexibility”. “[T]here are a vast number of reasons to support a UBI”, say the authors: “reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy.” (p118-122)

– A diminishment of the work ethic. The authors see their biggest obstacles as “not economic, but political and cultural: political, because the forces that will mobilise against it are immense; and cultural, because work is so deeply ingrained into our very identity.” Therefore part of their project would involve a seismic shift around the ideology of work, even a secularisation, as the origins of the work ethic are entangled with religious beliefs, institutions and practices.[18]

But of course it’s not as simple as replacing workers in the current economy, or producing funds for UBI out of thin air, which is why, S&W argue, these demands are better taken multilaterally and simultaneously, as part of an “integrated programme”. They even provide an interesting example whereby the implementation of both demands enhances one another in a positive-feedback loop:

Low-paid work is often crass and disempowering, and under a programme of UBI it is unlikely that many would want to undertake it. The result would be that hazardous, boring and unattractive work would have to be better paid, while more rewarding, invigorating and attractive work would be less well paid. In other words, the nature of work would become a measure of its value, not its profitability. The outcome of this revelation would also mean that, as wages for the worst jobs rose, there would be new incentives to automate them. UBI therefore forms a positive-feedback loop with the demand for full automation. (pp121-2)

Only when these proposals are fought for can the left stand a chance at replacing the current hegemony with a counter-hegemony of its own. It should be based on these goals in particular, say the writers, because they are based on “the real desires of people” and “grounded in real tendencies in the world today, giving them a viability that revolutionary dreams lack” (pp126, 108). Instead of taking the approach of deciding what is necessary, it is better to begin from a position of achieving what is possible. S&W decide that we ought to learn from the ideological successes of the twentieth century and aim to create a “Mont Pelerin of the left” (pp65-7). A new common sense is to be constructed and for this, both emerging online as well as traditional forms of media are necessary, as they influence to a large degree the boundaries of what is considered “realistic” in the public purview.[19] A “sociotechnical hegemony” will enable the drawing together of the disparate and fragmented left under the heading of a “new collective ‘we’” (pp136, 158). This “we” will constitute a decentralised “ecology of organisations”: a combined vast pool of resources and talent from across multiple fields and both open and closed groups (p163). That such an ecology would be a populist movement is taken to be self-evident, the authors defining that term positively as “a kind of political logic by which a collection of different identities are knitted together against a common opponent and in search of a new world” (p159).

Contesting the future

The essayists at TDoT find much to admire and recommend in ItF, but whether singularly or collectively, they each express serious doubts about the book in its entirety. Perhaps unexpectedly, the biggest issue here is over the term “folk politics” and its application within the book’s first half. Interpreted as a cynical, condescending attack on the very same liberal-minded footsoldiers S&W wish to employ for their own project by most of the critics, Steven Shaviro makes an additional comment on the term’s synonymity with that of “folk psychology”, “the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves.” Joe Hoover finds that, instead of a practical guide on the upscaling of localised tactics, readers “get little practical advice for how abstraction and new cognitive maps and subversive universalism enable this work and [instead] plenty of indictment backed with limited evidence. Perhaps, there is scant advice on offer because there is such minimal engagement with what local struggles actually do beyond marching and occupying.” There is also, he says, insufficient evidence of “a powerful common sense that is impeding alternative projects”, despite what the authors propose. Redefining the authors’ universalism as a “pluri-versalism”, Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell find that S&W’s proposals are not easy to disentangle from the folk politics rubric; using the example of Indigenous struggle, Lewis and Bell highlight the term’s inherent complications:

Indigenous people have frequently been equated with the natural; whilst Indigenous politics is necessarily ‘local’ in focus (even if it is often all-too-aware of the global dimensions of power) and frequently entails resistance against enclosure. Do S&W see Indigeneity as a ‘folk political’ drag on the future? The consequences of their claims for Indigenous politics are – seemingly – that it should get on board with a ‘universal’ left-modernity in return for the promise that it be allowed to develop autonomous ways of living once capitalism is overthrown. (Lewis & Bell)

This last comment leads into the next most frequent criticism: the particularly Eurocentric, colonial (white, male) topography of S&W’s plan. It would be nearly impossible, say Lewis and Bell, to implement a programme of full automation without the continuing, in fact intensifying of racialised labour, in the form of mining for raw materials (such as precious metals used in electronic components) and low-cost prison labour. Such an oversight constitutes for Lewis and Bell “a privileging of (ending) predominantly white, male work”, but not a global response to rising surplus populations or a solid foundation for full automation. In Joseph Kay’s comment the author tackles the consistency of ItF’s “postcapitalist ecology” more directly. Reading the book alongside Neil Smith’s “ideology of nature”,[20] the opposing poles of folk politics and S&W’s own radical proposals can be read in tandem with Smith’s dialectic of “back-to-nature romanticism” versus a “politico-theological modernism”. In his own work, Smith retraces the origins of this opposition back to the colonialism of emerging European capitalism, repositioning “nature” as an occidental conception: codifiable and conquerable, the “inverted reflection of capitalist modernity” (Kay). Kay’s own examples of the disposal of toxic waste (again linked to the mining of rare earth minerals) and SRM (solar radiation management) as a proposed solution to climate change (although not in ItF)[21] call into question the ethical considerations along racial faultlines not addressed sufficiently in the book. While S&W clearly attempt to reposition their demands as incompatible with the horror stories of racialised labour, they do not go far enough, at least in the respects mentioned by their critics.

Of the responses to ItF posted at TDoT, the most critical (and one of the most interesting) is Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman’s “Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy”. Its authors waste no time in expanding their critique of S&W’s Eurocentricity into a fully-fleshed Neoliberal apologeticism:

Given enduring conditions of colonialism, patriarchy, and a host of associated structural inequalities with which we in the West are complicit, it is difficult not to mistrust the (white, Western, male) authors’ deliberately provocative claim to strategic leadership of the entire Left.. Read in this way, Inventing the Future amounts to an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices. While the book plays lip service to the importance of a respect for a diversity of tactics and socio-political multiplcity, it consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus. Indeed, such practices are precisely those indicated for getting in the way of the business of acquiring and wielding power. In its romanticisation of past forms of Leftist (not to mention Neoliberal) organising and the modernism of the Second International the book offers precious little in the way of safeguards against the potential tyrannies of hegemony, vanguardism and Leninism. (Hirst & Houseman)

Predictably, therefore, S&W’s goals “do precious little to disrupt, and are entirely compatible with, neoliberal thought and subjecthood.” Furthermore their insistence on focusing on the implementation of their demands on a national level, “geared towards achieving parliamentary dominance in North/Western democratic states”, belie a lack of forethought of the global consequences, particularly in regards to the outsourcing of dangerous and poorly-paid (and unpaid) labour to the struggling developing world.[22] S&W’s privileging of hegemony over horizontalist discourse even extends to their “folk politics” terminology, codifying all localist social movements and hypocritically subtly denying their protesters ability to challenge their viewpoint in advance.[23] Taking all of these observations of ItF into account, Hirst and Houseman conclude: “it is difficult not to feel somewhat bewildered and apprehensive that a project claiming to promote human emancipation and freedom would argue for a form of political organisation which employs deceptive, repressive, and violent means in the service of its ends.”

This is an atypical reaction to the book, yet elucidates a latent agreement, which in hindsight can be detected in the articles of all the other DoT critics. The exercise as a whole illustrates the strengths of outsider knowledge and expertise advocated by S&W’s programme; it is unsurprising therefore, on reading ItF, that the authors would agree to subject their work to this method of observation. Yet it is also clear that, despite rigorous research beforehand, there are a number of amendments that can and should be made to future editions. Two authors in particular suggested by the commentators are valuable starting places. Donna Haraway’s work on cybernetic ideology is advocated separately by both Kay and Lewis and Bell as a useful resource when grappling with the complexity of the human/machine binary, which does not, in truth, really exist and is much of a colonial-capitalist invention as “nature”. The latter authors pick out an especially valuable quote from Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” which they argue can be applied to ItF: “the acid tools of postmodernist theory and the constructive tools of ontological discourse about revolutionary subjects might be seen as ironic allies in dissolving Western selves in the interests of survival.”[24] Instead, Haraway’s own line of disseminating the ontology of man over machine, a distinction which “organises ItF’s politics of liberatory automation”, is preferable. Instead of fabricating further topographies, it is better to acknowledge a change in perception. “We have always been cyborgs with no clear place to go; and are (probably unendingly) stuck with the mess and trouble of making ourselves comrades – making ourselves, as S&W put it, a ‘people’” (Lewis & Bell).

A synthetic subjectivity for a synthetic freedom is not to be reached as a “destination”, as Lewis and Bell put it (in other words, in a time marked “the future”); rather the cyborg perspective emerges atemporally, perpendicular to history. A further comment on S&W’s synthetic freedom is provided by Hannah Arendt, annexed by Hoover. His paraphrase: “what is the meaning of freedom in a world less and less of our making?” In a fully implemented programme of “full” automation, what is it that is to be automated, or rather, what isn’t? This raises a final point, namely that in ItF’s overzealousness (fetishisation) of machinic efficiency key questions on human and societal value in a work without work are all too quickly sidelined.

Personal reflections

S&W themselves posted a detailed response to the criticisms made by the TDoT commentators.[25] As this blog post is already lengthy I won’t really go into unnecessary details here, but instead will conclude by offering some light on my own perspective of ItF. Being all too familiar with S&W’s previous manifesto, “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” (2013, hereafter MAP), and the authors’ roles in establishing the critical term “accelerationism” in its current usage,[26] I was interested to see the impact of that previous work on this. But an early footnote in the book discourages further comparison with their earlier thought, or that word in any rate:

This work builds upon and expands our earlier proposals set out in the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’. We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has arisen around the concept, rather than from any abdication from its tenets as we understand them. (p189, en 1.55)

I largely agree with Steven Shaviro, who has for a while now been a significant critic against the concept of accelerationism as a political programme,[27] when he notes that, “[t]hough the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference.” The only sense overthrowing this term seems to make is to simplify the rhetoric for newcomers, this being the authors’ first book for a major publisher (Verso). Yet that term, for all its faults, suggested a slightly more coherent and integrated argument, making connotations towards further interesting texts by a group which potentially includes the likes of Deleuze and Guattari, Nick Land and Reza Negarestani, to name a few. Although S&W try to inject the word into later strands of the book (“tendencies towards automation and the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated”, “we must build a world in which we can accelerate out of our stasis.” (pp109, 181, emphasis added)), it feels as though it has already been defanged and disregarded. Similarly references to previous arguments made in MAP are hardly any more advanced than they initially appeared in that text.[28] The authors “do indeed make accelerationist proposals,” Shaviro observes, but significantly they do so “while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years.” Maybe if S&W weren’t so afraid of the Pandora’s Box they helped to pry open a few years ago ItF could have been even more radical with its proposals; instead its feels like a concession to critics (Shaviro included) who reduced accelarationism to a one-dimensional, petrolheaded, infantile, phallocentric solution to already  volatile political issues.[29]

It is true that ItF only functions as a manifesto by codifying with the labels “folk politics”, “neoliberalism”, “human”, “machine”, and so on. But it’s also true that there is enough flexibility within these terms for an ecology of organisations to come to agreement over specific issues involving human rights, environmental concerns, and so on. ItF is structured in such a way that, as many critics have expressed, it is difficult to be entirely opposed to (after all, who would be opposed to a reduction in the working week with no loss in pay?). S&W have been so accommodating to revision and intellectual sparring that their prescriptions appear more moderate and less revolutionary than the book’s dramatic cover implies. It is a book of good ideas, but better intentions. This means that the authors sometimes stray into territory they probably don’t know enough about to comment on, but in any case by doing so they facilitate the debate you feel is more important to them anyway.

S&W quite rightly address the claims that their work has a too dominant “Western male” feel, and somehow manage to win back footing by acknowledging their situation as a limitation:

[O]ur knowledge is primarily of conditions in the spaces within which we live and breathe. […] [O]ur intention was instead to circumscribe the limits of our analysis and highlight our own situatedness. The alternative, it seems to us, would have been a hubristic claim that we know best how the rest of the world can and should build a post-work society – that two white men should lead the way. (Srnicek & Williams, “Reinventing the Future”)

This statement might illustrate a sensible decision made by the authors, but it can’t plug the holes made by the TDoT critics concerning the racialised, gendered and environmental implications of some of the book’s proposals. Neither can statements like “a post-work world must be seen as a response to existing and emerging neocolonial, racist, sexist and exploitative conditions” – not by themselves, at least. Not that I’m saying that the authors need to go back to the drawing board – they are certainly on the right track. But a reconsolidation of the four demands might be in order. S&W state that “[w]hile each of these proposals can be taken as an individual goal in itself, their real power is expressed when they are advanced as an integrated programme”, in other words, their counter-hegemony. And it is here, above all other points where I must most strongly disagree: these goals can only be achieved as part of an integrated programme. The four central demands are like leaky buckets that must be stacked together if they are to hold water. Taken individually, not one of them is capable of successful implementation in the current socioeconomic climate without exacerbating the problems the others are (potentially) capable of solving. The other critics have already illustrated this clearly, whether stressing the undesirable environmental turmoil and increase in exploitative labour required to kickstart full automation (Kay, Lewis and Bell), or the financial resources needed to instigate a unilateral UBI programme (Shaviro).

If, however, these four targets (in revised form, with necessary additional sub-targets addressing specific social, financial and ecological issues) were indeed presented in a coherent, flexible manner, as S&W ideally envisage, there is a lot of evidence provided in the book that suggests that over a medium-long time period (20 to 50 years, perhaps) there may easily be enough public support for a populist political project to see these desirable goals mounting a successful challenge to the current projected sequence of events.[30] What climate change has taught us is that intervention can indeed sustain a reversal against the deeply embedded odds, but only provided that we act now, quickly, decisively. Likewise ItF illustrates some of the shortest routes towards postcapitalism: the sooner their simplicity and desirability reach a level of mainstream promotion, the easier a broad restructuring of labour, money and technology able to defend against the “global crises” first identified by S&W in MAP[31] will seem to a general audience. And if to propose that a challenge to the “common sense” espoused by the corporate media is indeed their objective, they lack only the publicity this media manages.

Endnotes

[1] The essays are as follows: Shaviro, S. “Accelerationism Without Accelerationism”, Kay, J. “Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future”, Lewis, S. & Bell, D.M. “(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It”: A Response to Inventing the Future”, Hirst, A. & Houseman, T. “Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy”, Hoover, J. “Myths of Invention”. (2015) Published online at The Disorder of Things [http://thedisorderofthings.com/tag/inventing-the-future/].

[2] Srnicek, N. and Williams, A. (2015) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, London/New York, Verso, p7. [All subsequent citations refer to this text unless otherwise stated.]

[3] “Horizontalism rejects the project of hegemony as intrinsically domineering, putting forth an affinity-based politics in its stead. Rather than advocating an appeal to or takeover of the vertical power of the state, horizontalism argues for freely associating individuals to come together, create their own autonomous communities and govern their own lives.” p26.

[4] Although, for small, localised issues, for example campaigning to keep a hospital open, folk political strategies such as street protests and petitions are perfectly adequate methods of public engagement. S&W do not call for an outright rejection of folk politics, they merely identify its inadequacies when addressing non-local, multi-faceted political issues; folk politics cannot be the only, or even the default way of inciting change. p12.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “For centre-left political parties, nostalgia for a lost past is the best that can be hoped for. The most radical content to be found here consists of dreams of social democracy and the so-called ‘golden age’ of capitalism. Yet the very conditions which once made social democracy possible no longer exist. The capitalist ‘golden age’ was predicated on the production paradigm of the orderly factory environment, where (white, male) workers received security and a basic standard of living in return for a lifetime of stultifying boredom and social repression. Such a system depended on an international hierarchy of racism and sexism; and a rigid family hierarchy of female subjugation. Moreover, social democracy relied on a particular balance of forces between classes (and a willingness for compromise between them), and even this was only possible in the wake of the unprecedented destruction caused by the Great Depression and World War II, and in the face of external threats from communism and fascism. For all the nostalgia many may feel, this regime is both undesirable and impossible to recover. But the more pertinent point is that even if we could go back to social democracy, we should not. We can do better, and the social democratic adherence to jobs and growth means it will always err on the side of capitalism and at the expense of the people.” pp46-7.

[7] “While nostalgia for a lost past is clearly not an adequate response, neither is today’s widespread glorification of resistance. Resistance always means resistance against another active force. In other words, it is a reactive and defensive gesture, rather than an active movement. We do not resist a new world into being, we resist in the name of an old world. The contemporary emphasis on resistance therefore belies a defensive stance towards the encroachments of expansionary capitalism. Trade unions, for instance, position themselves as resisting neoliberalism with demands to ‘save our health system’ or ‘stop austerity’; but these demands simply reveal a conservative disposition at the heart of the movement.” p47.

[8] Neoiberalism itself “differs from classical liberalism in ascribing a significant role to the state. A major task of neoliberalism has therefore been to take control of the state and repurpose it. […] [N]eoliberals understand that markets are not ‘natural’. [They] must be consciously constructed […] Under neoliberalism, the state therefore takes on a significant role in creating ‘natural’ markets.” p53.

[9] A “neoliberalist thought collective”, which (successfully) tried to introduce an anti-Keynesian counter-hegemony into Western governments. pp54-56.

[10] Although able to recognise the magnitude of neoliberalism’s success, the writers are far from enthusiastic about the negative effects of its pervasiveness: “It is […] not just politicians, business leaders, the media elite and academics who have been enrolled into this [neoliberalist] vision of the world, but also workers, students, migrants – and everyone else. In other words, neoliberalism creates subjects. Paradigmatically, we are constructed as competitive subjects – a role that encompasses and surpasses industrial capitalism’s productive subject. The imperatives of neoliberalism drive these subjects to constant self-improvement in every aspect of their lives. Perpetual education, the omnipresent requirement to be employable, and the constant need for self-reinvention are all of a piece with this neoliberal subjectivity. The competitive subject, moreover, straddles the line between the public and the private. One’s personal life is as bound to competition as one’s work life. Under these conditions, it’s no surprise that anxiety proliferates in contemporary societies. Indeed, an entire battery of psychopathologies has been exacerbated under neoliberalism: stress, anxiety, depression and attention deficit disorders are increasingly common psychological responses to the world around us. Crucially, the construction of everyday neoliberalism has also been a primary source of political passivity. Even if you do not buy into the ideology, its effects nevertheless force you into increasingly precarious situations and increasingly entrepreneurial inclinations. We need money to survive, so we market ourselves, do multiple jobs, stress and worry about how to pay rent, pinch pennies at the grocery store, and turn socialising into networking. Given these effects, political mobilisation becomes a dream that is perpetually postponed, driven away by the anxieties and pressures of everyday life.” pp63-67.

[11] We all know today that ‘modernisation’ translates into job cuts, the slashing of welfare and the privatisation of government services. To modernise, today, simply means to neoliberalise.” p63.

[12] The authors definition of a hyperstition is “a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth. Hyperstitions operate by catalysing dispersed sentiment into a historical force that brings the future into existence. They have the temporal form of ‘will have been’. Such hyperstitions of progress form orienting narratives with which to navigate forward, rather than being an established or necessary property of the world.” pp70-75.

[13] “Under a democracy, for example, we are all formally free to run for political leadership. But without the financial and social resources to run a campaign, this is a meaningless freedom. Equally, we are all formally free not to take a job, but most of us are nevertheless practically forced into accepting whatever is on offer. In either case, various options may be theoretically available, but for all practical purposes are off the table.” p79.

[14] “As Marx and Engels wrote, ‘it is possible to achieve real liberation only in the real world and by real means’. Understood in this way, freedom and power become intertwined. If power is the basic capacity to produce intended effects in someone or something else, then an increase in the ability to carry out our desires is simultaneously an increase in our freedom. The more capacity we have to act, the freer we are.” Ibid.

[15] S&W posit themselves in a continuum of post-work thinkers from across a spectrum of political idealists: “Marxists, Keynesians, feminists, black nationalists and anarchists”. p86.

[16] “Utopias are the embodiment of hyperstitions of progress. They demand that the future be realised, they form an impossible but necessary object of desire, and they give us a language of hope and aspiration for a better world.” p138.

[17] “The fact of the matter is that capitalist markets tend towards short-term views and low-risk investments. […] It is governments that make investments in high-risk developments that are likely to fail – but for that reason are also likely to lead to major changes. […] The challenge is to develop institutional mechanisms that will enable popular control over the direction of technological creation.” pp146-7.

[18] “[F]or our societies, remuneration requires work and suffering. […] This thinking has an obvious theological basis – where suffering is thought to be not only meaningful, but in fact the very condition of meaning. […] But we should reject this logic today and recognise that we have moved beyond the need to ground meaning in suffering. Work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified.” pp123-6.

[19] Here the writers utilise the concept of the Overton Window, “the bandwidth of ideas and options that can be ‘realistically’ discussed by politicians, public intellectuals and news media, and thus be accepted by the public.” p134. Also they observe: “[T]he left has typically focused on creating media spaces outside the mainstream, rather than trying to co-opt existing institutions and leaking more radical ideas into the mainstream”, a trend which they would like to overturn. p165.

[20] See Smith, N. (2008) Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space, Athens, University of Georgia Press.

[21] “The principle behind SRM is simple. The warming aspect of climate change is proximally caused by outgoing longwave (infrared) radiation becoming trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the surface temperature. To counter this, it is proposed to use atmospheric aerosols (or orbital reflectors) to intercept a portion of the sun’s incoming shortwave radiation (‘insolation’), thus reducing the total energy input to the Earth system and offsetting the surface warming caused by greenhouse gases. This seems like a textbook case of technologically-augmented human control over complex systems.
“However, the Earth’s atmosphere being the prototypical chaotic system – i.e. deterministic but with sensitive dependence on initial conditions – the localised consequences are not easily modelled (SRM alters the atmosphere’s temperature gradient, known as the lapse rate, which is critical to meteorology). Some models suggest that the main adverse consequence of SRM would be severe droughts in regions dependent on seasonal rains, principally sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.” Kay.

[22] “The future Srnicek and Williams conjure looks suspiciously like the present: the West enjoys ever greater abundance and liberation from the excesses of exploitative labour, not through eliminating that labour, but rather through its geographical relocation.” Hirst & Houseman.

[23] “The authors are clearly aware of the diversity in both character and tactics of the new and newest social movements the world over, and the huge variation in their respective goals and capacities to realise their widely divergent aims. Despite this variety, however, they choose to subsume this plethora of groups under the signifier ‘folk’ by means to which to develop a blanket challenge, enacting a hegemonic move at the level of language. Such a signifier serves to construct its various objects in such a manner as to homogenise and delegitimise them from the outset; to frame political actors or groups as ‘folk’ is not simply to offer a description but rather to render them provincial, backward, quaint or parochial. By dint of their subsumption under a common signifier, highly refined and reflexive political practices are rendered equivalent to hipster faux-authenticity and ecological mysticism. The reader is thereby invited to disregard, dismiss and even parody contemporary activism the world over in toto, while the accelerationist project claims for itself a unique and privileged position.” Hirst & Houseman.

[24] Haraway, D. (2000) “A Cyborg Manifesto”, London, Routledge, p297. Available at: https://libcom.org/cyborg-manifesto. PDF available at: http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/theory/Haraway-CyborgManifesto-1.pdf.

[25] Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2015) “Reinventing the Future”, published online at The Disorder of Things [http://thedisorderofthings.com/2015/11/11/reinventing-the-future/].

[26] See Carswell, J. (2015) “Red Adam: Accelerationist Subjctivisation and Borges’s “The Circular Ruins”//Part 1: Accelerationism and the Ideology Without Subject”, orbistertius, available at https://orbistertiusnet.wordpress.com/2015/12/14/red-adam-accelerationist-subjectivisation-and-borgess-the-circular-ruinspart-1-accelerationism-and-the-ideology-without-subject/.

[27] See, for example, Shaviro, S. (2013) “”Accelerationism: An Introduction”, Lecture by Steven Shaviro @Grand Valley State University”. Video published online by Jason Adams at youtube.com [https://youtu.be/gi6I0K2PJrw].

[28] For example, Negarestani’s idea of “a humanism that is not defined in advance […] without a pre-established endpoint” is merely referenced by S&W (p82), not really grappled with or integrated well into the outline of their project. This is the kind of confusing avoidance that could have been eliminated if the authors were seen to be more comfortable with their previous output.

[29] One of the best anti-accelerationist texts is Benjamin Noys’ Malign Velocities: Accelerationism and Capitalism (2014, Winchester/Washington, Zero Books). Yet this book is also an example of mistreating its central subject as something else from what its advocators use it for. Noys (who earlier coined the term “accelerationism” in The Persistence of the Negative) argues at the end of Malign Velocities for “a restoration of the sense of friction that interrupts and disrupts the fundamental accelerationist fantasy of smooth integration.” (p103)  However he has failed to take into account the internal conflicts within accelerationist thought as to the nature and extent of Deleuzoguattarian deterritorialization, for example between the views of S&W and Land set out in MAP.

[30] S&W themselves make use of and praise the populist form of the Kickstarter-funded Podemos party in the book: “Podemos, […] has aimed to build mechanisms for popular governance while also seeking a way into established institutions. It is a multi-pronged approach to social change and offers greater potential for real transformation than either option on its own.” p169.

[31] These crises are as follows: “the breakdown of the planetary climactic system […]; [t]erminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves, [which offer] the prospect of mass starvation, collapsing economic paradigms, and new hot and cold wars […]; [c]ontinued financial crisis [which] has led governments to embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatisation of social welfare services, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages.” Williams, A. & Srnicek, N. (2013) “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, first published online by Critical Legal Thinking at http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/, 1.2. [Also available in PDF format at https://accelerationism.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/williams-and-srnicek.pdf].

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4 thoughts on “Review: Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

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