Srnicek and Williams: A Postcapitalist Future

What can, then, today be the function of so ambiguous an entity as Utopia, if not as a forecast of political and empirical possibilities?  Can this function also be sought and identified formally without adducting this or that local content? … Utopias are also very much wish-fulfillments, and hallucinatory visions in desperate times.
…….– Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future

We do live in desperate times, and few and far between have men or women seen more change for the worse than in our world today. What to do? Where to turn when leaders of nations have sold us out to the economic overlords of globalism? Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work offer us a glimpse of what they term the future of a post-neoliberal world: using ‘folk politics’, they offer a diagnosis of how and why we lost the capacity to build a better future.1 Against the bunker mentality and retrenchment of outworn micro-politics, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and failed Occupy movements across the world they believe we must envision a new post-capitalist future drawing from the “utopian potentials inherent in twenty-first-century technology” that cannot remain bound to a “parochial capitalist imagination; they must be liberated by an ambitious left alternative” (IF, KL 87-88).

But what is this alternative? After 2007 many believe Neoliberalism and the economics it spawned were collapsing, but not in 2016 we see that global capitalism is as strong as ever. In fact that it has instituted forms of austerity, and governance on a global scale unseen before in history. How does the Left believe it can offer any alternative to such imperialism? In fact in their first chapter they admit we are in bad straits, the world sinking fast under austerity and capitalist programs that divide and conquer everywhere, and leave nothing but despair and destitution in its wake all for the profiteers of a small .01% of the World population. An Oligarchy of financiers, stock-brokers, and entrepreneurs who hold the monetary funds on nations in their grips. As they admit “failure permeates this cycle of struggles, and as a result, many of the tactics on the contemporary left have taken on a ritualistic nature, laden with a heavy dose of fatalism” (IF, KL 103-105).

Most of the protest initiatives against the world system were ineffective at best in the early years of the 21st Century, nominally registering “discontent” without change. Most of these various movements were unable to “articulate anything substantial”. In fact as this history shows “they are often nothing more than empty slogans – as meaningful as calling for world peace. In more recent struggles, the very idea of making demands has been questioned” (IF, KL 122-123). The old protest movements of the Left no longer garner broadcast time in the media, instead for the most part these movements are blanked out of major news and affiliate sources which have long ago become a part of the neoliberal symbolic order of propaganda and control. And, though, outlaw press and outsider media outlets, as well as pirate and renegade sources on the internet offer alternative sources of news these have little impact on mainstream audiences serving at best the inner circles of already disgruntled and disillusioned Leftists. The vast machine of ICT’s (Information and Communications Technologies) that support the world-wide information nexus are controlled by the globalists who manufacture consent (Chomsky) according to their own reality scripts.

Overall Srnicek and Williams see the Leftist agenda in the past few years as one of futility and failure, saying that the “recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching failure, despite a multitude of small-scale successes and moments of large-scale mobilization” (IF, KL 168). They’ll simply ask: What has gone wrong? Why is the Left unable to mobilize and alternative vision beyond the despair and defeatism of current anti-capitalist struggles and Occupy failures world-wide? State repression? No, they say, “recent weakness of the left cannot simply be chalked up to increased state and capitalist repression,” instead the “key problem is a widespread and uncritical acceptance of what we call ‘folk-political’ thinking” (IF, KL 175-177).

Folk Politics: What exactly is it?

Folk politics names a constellation of ideas and intuitions within the contemporary left that informs the common-sense ways of organising, acting and thinking politics.
– Srnicek and Williams, Inventing the Future

Such a politics is first of all based on an out of date folk psychology which is based on “intuitive conceptions” of the world that are both historically constructed and often mistaken; and, second, it refers to ‘folk’ as the locus of the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural. (IF, KL 184-185) Ultimately it comes down to the simple fact that we are out of touch with how real power works in the world. Because of the failure of socialism worldwide we no longer have the intellectual resources to draw upon that we once did – or, so goes the current myth, so we fall back on common sense notions that are neither critical or based on tried and true methodologies and activist principles. Because of the collapse of power in trade-unions, and the base support of workers in old style New and Old Left activism the methods, prospects, and actions available to these earlier groups has shifted elsewhere. We face problems and issues these earlier protest movements did not. We need new tactics, new strategies, new forms of thought and praxis for this time, a way of orienting ourselves toward the future rather than the past.

Because of a deep suspicion of “abstraction and mediation” folk politics typically “remains reactive; ignores long-term strategic goals in favour of tactics;  prefers practices that are often inherently fleeting; chooses the familiarities of the past over the unknowns of the future and expresses itself as a predilection for the voluntarist and spontaneous over the institutional” (IF, KL 204-205). Which brings up the main issue with ‘folk politics’: the problem with folk politics is not that it starts from the local; all politics begins from the local. The problem is rather that folk-political thinking is content to remain at (and even privileges) that level – of the transient, the small-scale, the unmediated and the particular. (IF, KL 228-230).

They give a short history of how and why we entered this era of folk politics, but I’ll leave that for the reader to check out: it is worth it, they’ve done a good job of analyzing and parsing the basic motifs that led us to our present state of folk political defeat. What I want to concentrate on now is what they offer as a way out of defeat.

A New Common Sense: The Future of a Post-Work Society

To achieve such a new post-work society Srnicek and Williams tell us we need at minimum four basic demands that will need to be met first: 1) full automation; 2) the reduction of the working week; 3) the provision for a basic income for all citizens; and, 4) the diminishment of the work ethic.

First: full automation. The notion of leaning more and more on the reliance of advance techno-automation, of machinic systems, smart systems, to take over more and more of our work seems at first sight to be something many at the moment fear. Popular books like Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Robots Will Steal Your Job, But That’s OK by Frederico Pitiono, Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee all present current folk psychological fears and apprehension about the near future takeover of jobs by robotic automation and artificial intelligence, etc.. Using a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that the average worker is not keeping up with cutting-edge technologies, and so is losing the race against the machine.

Second: the reduction of the working week. I remember a good article by Jehu of The Real Movement, “Why Keynes predicted a 15 hour workweek, but Marx did not” in which Keynes during the early years of the Great Depression “initially argued this crisis made necessary both the reduction of hours of labor as well as existing “social customs and economic practices, affecting the distribution of wealth and of economic rewards and penalties”. In other words, Keynes thought the Great Depression established the immanent economic necessity for an end to a society founded on wage slavery.” He also mentions in another article the work of Michel Husson & Stephanie Treillet on the significance of labor hours reduction, Liberation Through Vacation. As Jehu will argue “Yes, reducing hours of labor can certainly forcibly reduce unemployment temporarily, but it is hardly in the same category as basic income.” Jehu will take them to task in their “focus on the impact labor hours reduction has on employment and make no mention of the role labor hours reduction has on the development of the productive forces.” For Jehu this strategy will have dire effects leading to the conclusion that “labor hours reduction is likely the only measure that can compel these private firms to employ their excess capital productively by introducing more advanced means for wringing surplus value out of the working class”. Jehu has many other posts on this topic but this gives a good basic understanding of the topic.

Third: the provision for a basic income for all citizens. Again Jehu offers a challenge to the Left in an article The Left will come to deeply regret its cowardice on basic income. Speaking of a 2011 article by Peter Frase, Stop Digging: The Case against Jobs, Jehu comes to the conclusion that Frase’s notion of “just giving people money whether they have a job or not” might have some definite repercussions: “How can the Left win a benefit like money for nothing when at present even those who have jobs are not paid enough to live on? The utopian character of the demand for basic income runs into the harsh political reality that a even a decent wage itself is widely considered an obstacle to economic growth.” In fact Jehu is fairly staunch in regard to the Left’s ineptness at this point, saying,

To be perfectly blunt about this: the Left cannot get the state to create 20 million jobs, it cannot get the state to require a decent wage for those who have jobs and it cannot get a decent basic income for those who don’t have jobs. It is marvelously incapable of doing anything whatsoever to affect political relations at this point.

For Jehu this notion of “basic income” is just a fancy marketing tool: “The demand for basic income is just a marketing tool to covertly force an end to the connection between individual labor and consumption; it is just an attempt to create communism without abolishing capital, money and labor. Under communism there is no connection between the labor contribution of an individual and her right to the means to life. All basic income does is try to implement this principle in the crudest possible fashion employing fascist state currency.” So ultimately this ploy leads not to the expected results, but rather it plays into the very hands of the capitalists who will co-opt it and as Jehu remarks ” fold all social spending into a basic income and then inflate its purchasing power away”.

Fourth: the diminishment of the work ethic. According to Marx, capital “diminishes labour time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition – question of life or death – for the necessary.” The argument Marx makes in the Grundrisse would suggest fictitious capital is not of secondary importance in analyzing capital, but that, essentially, all capital is fictitious, i.e., superfluous. (see Capitalization, Rupture and the future of capitalism) So why worry over a normative reroute of the old Weberian “work ethic“, and instead remember that work and labor should not be confused with “purposeful human activity”: Labor has nothing whatsoever to do with purposeful human activity. As Marx explained in the first chapter of Volume 1 of Capital, in labor theory, labor is solely concerned with the production of value, not material wealth. Purposeful human activity, concrete useful labor, by contrast, is the production of material wealth, of objects required to satisfy human needs. The production of value and the production of material wealth have no direct connection between them. (see Platypus Question No. 2: Is the distinction between “work” and “labor” politically relevant?) People may always be industrious and full of purposeful activity, but it is only in labor under capitalism that surplus value is extracted from slave wages. End labor.

Ultimately this plan of Srnicek and Williams is a programmatic Utopian intervention in political struggles:

The post-work imaginary generates a hyperstitional image of progress – one that aims to make the future an active historical force in the present. The struggles that such a project will face require that the left move past its folk-political horizon, rebuild its power and adopt an expansive strategy for change. It is to these issues that we now turn. (IF, KL 2511-2514)

We’ve discussed the notion of hyperstition before, the notion defined by Delphi Carstens under the Rim Dweller section of Maggie Robert’s site gives a nice history of the notion of Hyperstition which emerged out of that strange and uncanny entity CCRU. Carstens describes this most uncanny guest as a engine for the creation of abstract machines: “Functioning as magical sigils or engineering diagrams hyperstitions are ideas that, once ‘downloaded’ into the cultural mainframe, engender apocalyptic positive feedback cycles. Whether couched as religious mystery teaching, or as secular credo, hyperstitions act as catalysts, engendering further (and faster) change and subversion. Describing the effect of very real cultural anxieties about the future, hyperstitions refer to exponentially accelerating social transformations.” In her interview with Nick Land he further explicated the central notion of meme, egregore, etc., saying,

Hyperstition is a positive feedback circuit including culture as a component. It can be defined as the experimental (techno-)science of self-fulfilling prophecies. Superstitions are merely false beliefs, but hyperstitions – by their very existence as ideas – function causally to bring about their own reality. Capitalist economics is extremely sensitive to hyperstition, where confidence acts as an effective tonic, and inversely.

So that Srnicek and Williams seek to subsume this programmatic form of meme enactment and performative narrative as a tool for their emancipatory politics. In conclusion they offer a positive program oriented toward the future, saying that the most promising way forward lies in reclaiming modernity and attacking the neoliberal common sense that conditions everything from the most esoteric policy discussions to the most vivid emotional states. This counter-hegemonic project can only be achieved by imagining better worlds – and in moving beyond defensive struggles. (IF, KL 3447-3449) This is a future fraught with risk, openness, and contingency a realm they tell that is undoubtedly risky, but so is any project to build a better world. There are no guarantees that things will work out as expected: a post-work world may generate immanent dynamics towards the rapid dissolution of capitalism, or the forces of reaction may co-opt the liberated desires under a new system of control. Concerns about the risks of political action have led parts of the contemporary left into a situation where they desire novelty, but a novelty without risk. (IF, KL 3477-3481)

In their speculative future they envision a continuation of their earlier Accelerationist Manifesto, saying, in these “post-planetary speculations, we see the project of human emancipation transformed into an unceasing one that winds its way along two highly intertwined paths of development: technological and human” (IF, KL 3503). A future trajectory in which “technological development follows a recombinant path, bringing together existing ideas, technologies and technological components into new combinations” (IF, KL 3505). Along with this picture of liberated technological transformation is therefore the future of human beings. The pathway towards a postcapitalist society requires a shift away from the proletarianisation of humanity and towards a transformed and newly mutable subject. This subject cannot be determined in advance; it can only be elaborated in the unfolding of practical and conceptual ramifications. There is no ‘true’ essence to humanity that could be discovered beyond our enmeshments in technological, natural and social webs. (IF, KL 3537-3541)

To enter this brave new world Srnicek and Williams say we will need to “build a new kind of hegemony,” it would entail a “rethinking classic leftist demands in light of the most advanced technologies”; along with building upon the post-nation-state territory of ‘the stack’ – that global infrastructure that enables our digital world today. 26 A new type of production is already visible at the leading edges of contemporary technology. Additive manufacturing and the automation of work portend the possibility of production based on flexibility, decentralisation and post-scarcity for some goods. The rapid automation of logistics presents the utopian possibility of a globally interconnected system in which parts and goods can be shipped rapidly and efficiently without human labour. Cryptocurrencies and their block-chain technology could bring forth a new money of the commons, divorced from capitalist forms. (IF, KL 3578-3584)

The last word they offer is our need to expand our collective imagination beyond what capitalism allows. Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computer power, the left should mobilise dreams of decarbonising the economy, space travel, robot economies – all the traditional touchstones of science fiction – in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism. Neoliberalism, as secure as it may seem today, contains no guarantee of future survival. Like every social system we have ever known, it will not last forever. Our task now is to invent what happens next. (IF, KL 3600-3604)

Utopian wish and dream, maybe. As Fredric Jameson in his grand study of Utopian thought said of such dreams:

A collective wish-fulfillment, then – the Utopian Project – would have to bear the marks of this inner reality principle as well, by which alone it manages to represent its successful achievement.  Can we speak here, as Freud might have of  dreams, of a compromise between the wish and what contradicts it? That would certainly trivialize the process, and reduce the political content and import of Utopian fantasy to an easily deluded satisfaction. We need a nobler word than frustration to evoke the dimension of Utopian desire which remains unsatisfied, and which cannot be felt to have been fulfilled without falling into the world and becoming another degraded act of  consumption.2

Maybe the word we need to replace “frustration” is desire… The desire called Utopia must be concrete and ongoing, without being defeatist or incapacitating; it might therefore be better to  follow an aesthetic paradigm and to assert that not only the production of the unre­solvable contradiction is the fundamental process, but  that we must imagine some form of gratification inherent in this very confrontation with pessimism and the impossible. (AF, p. 84)

Maybe Jameson’s notion of following a new aesthetic paradigm is just what we need at the moment, maybe the inventive and creative talents of an Avant-garde of thinkers, artisans, artists, performers, poets, and other talented beings might awaken us to a new vision, not some romantic pie-in-the-sky dream but a real movement of change toward a future worthy of living in. And out of this maybe a political struggle may one day again arise to lift us from our lethargy and demand the end of labor as slave wages under capitalism and instead a life in which as Marx once hoped “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (see here).

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their new work of hyperstition offer just such a Utopian impulse, a meme to be implanted within the Left bringing hope for a future again, hope for a better life beyond this global farce we live in, a hope of life in balance with the world, technology, and time. Not that we will be free of conflict or contradictions, no – that is the reality of the Real around us, and of our own inconsistent lives. But rather to build a future that accepts the responsibility for these contradictions without imposing a mandate that would seek to control or abolish them, close them in some tyrannical totalistic system of norms or desires. Instead we need to remain open to risk, to life in its utter contingency and incompleteness, seeking to communicate once again with each other and the non-human world around us. Living toward the future which is open and unfinished…


 

  1. Nick Srnicek; Alex Williams. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Verso (2015). IF
  2. Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso (April 17, 2007) AF

 

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