The Poverty of Left Accelerationism: A review of Srnicek and Williams, “Inventing the Future”

Reading Jehu’s critique I kept thinking of Kurt Vonnegut’s satire Player Piano on this very theme of a fully automated society where everyone is provided a UBI while the machines do all the work… Published back in 1952, it depicts a dystopia of automation, describing the deterioration it can cause to quality of life. The story takes place in a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized, eliminating the need for human laborers. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class—the engineers and managers who keep society running—and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society have been replaced by machines.

As Vonnegut said, the theme is simple: “How to love people who have no use.” A critique of the whole capitalist society based on voluntarism and utilitarianism is the central motif. The point being that what happens in a society when the notion of voluntarism (God’s Will, Blind Faith, Ineffability) and utilitarianism (Work Ethic) vanish? Player Piano’s society was created by indifference, both of the populace and the technology that replaced it. As such, it is the sense of purposelessness of those living in a capitalistic society that has outgrown a need for them which must be rectified.

In other words once we get rid of labor, once we have “free time”, a basic survival quota, etc.. What do people do? What becomes their purpose? If the vast masses have no goal what happens? If they have all this free time on their hands what will they do with it? One need only look back into the writings of the Marquise de Sade rather than Rousseau to realize where this is heading… boredom, entrenchment, alcohol, drugs, black markets, madness… And, even if you tried to organize people to become more creative, more inventive… for what? And, who will maintain infrastructure: not everything even in an automated society in transition can be automated… what of those real material aspects of society that cannot be automated? And profit? If it is machines doing all the basic work, and humans have only a base income… where is the excess needed to support the profits of the capitalists, then? Nada… isn’t coming… this is a devolving system based on a notion of equilibrium and social justice, but a profit driven system is based on disequilibrium and competition. So what gives?

Vonnegut spent most of his adult life battling against such Utopian nonsense… Mankind’s blind faith in technology (and its usually disastrous effect on society) as well as the dehumanization of the poor or oppressed have since become common themes throughout Vonnegut’s work. Throughout his life, Vonnegut continued to believe the novel’s themes were of relevance to society, writing for example in 1983 that the novel was becoming “more timely with each passing day”. Even in his novel the non-workers rebelled, seeking to reconnect to their old jobs, positions, etc. -even after reeducation they sought to oust their master’s machines… and, of course it ended badly, as it always does for the workers, for the poor and outcast, the expulsed and excluded.

Obvious Non-Solutions that will rock it badly in parodic farce:

1. Luddite banning of machines and automation.
2. Welfare payments leading to massive expenditures (i.e., medical, food, resource, etc.)
3. Education – What would you educate for? Work no longer viable, what is the goal of education? A quick study of American Utopian Communes of the last two hundred years based on education shows this leading to nullity, going nowhere; as in Greek Hellenic society education breeds divisiveness and dispositional conflict rather than solutions. One imagines wars over various schools of academic squalor… yes, I’m being facetious!
4. Innovation – With the end of human labor and know-how will the notion of technological progress become mute? Society left in stasis like the ancient Egyptians building monuments to its machine gods?

Some are already providing warnings on the “devastating consequences” for those who perform routine tasks arising from robots, 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, and similar technologies. In their view, “there are more American men on disability insurance than doing production work in manufacturing. And the trends are all in the wrong direction, particularly for the less skilled, as the capacity of capital embodying artificial intelligence to replace white-collar as well as blue-collar work will increase rapidly in the years ahead.” Lawrence Summers in his 2014 report has also said that “[T]here are many reasons to think the software revolution will be even more profound than the agricultural revolution. This time around, change will come faster and affect a much larger share of the economy. […] [T]here are more sectors losing jobs than creating jobs. And the general-purpose aspect of software technology means that even the industries and jobs that it creates are not forever. […] If current trends continue, it could well be that a generation from now a quarter of middle-aged men will be out of work at any given moment.”

With all that time on their hands, and having less gumption than their intellectual betters, what would the precariot do with their supposed free time: sit in the bars, turn to drugs, become sexaholics, turn to new and strange forms of entertainment… not everyone will want to join in the academic treadmill of educating their brains, so what do all these non-readers and people who don’t want free time and boredom to do? Take a good guess…

But beyond that is the top .01% who are running the show, enslaving the planet in a self-replicating income nightmare for the vast majority who will be left to their own devices… or, if not, will be cajoled into participating in government run reeducation systems to become productive members of what, exactly? I guess I’m leery of this brave new world of automation which seems more about the Neoliberal agenda to reduce world population and to enslave the rest of the vast population in some new enclosure… to what end?

When I begin thinking like this I return to J.G. Ballard’s last three novels which dealt with time, with too much time on people’s hands and what they would do with it under various circumstances … and it lead to new forms of a psychopathically insane society of sociopaths, a world built out of nightmare visions of play – a Disneyland of murder, mayhem, and chaos; new paths toward jouissance rather than pleasure: a sadomasochistic society of voyeurs and pain artists, a world of infinite cruelty and blood lust built on the notions of ennui and freedom. In a world without work or goals, a purposeless world where the only thing left to do is feed one’s brain or body one imagines what Richard Tristman remarked about freedom and sex, “All sexuality entails some degree of theater.” Sex contains an element of the abstract and transpersonal, which only sadomasochism forthrightly acknowledges. Tristman continued: “All sexual relations involve relations of dominance. The desire for equality in women is probably an attenuated expression of the desire to dominate.”

Daydreaming or introspection is unneeded in a world where realization immediately follows desire. The libertines are like Roman emperors in wealth and power, two things, as Sade observes, which give absolute sexual control over others. Like Blake, Sade exalts Romantic imagination, the source of wish and therefore fulfillment: “The imagination’s fire must set the furnace of the senses alight.” Free imagination is able “to forge, to weave, to create new fantasies.” Juliette declares, “The imagination is the only cradle where pleasures are born.” Without it, “all that remains is the physical act, dull, gross, and brutish.” (de Sade, Juliette: 341)

In a non-utilitarian society beyond voluntarist notions of God of the Abyss will humans enter into infinite games of sociopathy, creativity, or brutishness? Will the earth become an Artaudian “theatre of cruelty” and self-abasement, or a realm of festivity and inane games of sex and drugs and rock n’ roll? Are will our masters invent new forms of command and control once they realize things didn’t quite turn out for the best (i.e., the best of all possible worlds for the rich, that is.)?

Nietzsche once stated this about decadence:

The concept of decadence.— Waste, decay, elimination need not be condemned: they are necessary consequences of life, of the growth of life. The phenomenon of decadence is as necessary as any increase and advance of life: one is in no position to abolish it. Reason demands, on the contrary, that we do justice to it. It is a disgrace for all socialist systematizers that they suppose there could be circumstances— social combinations— in which vice, disease, prostitution, distress would no longer grow.— But that means condemning life.— A society is not free to remain young. And even at the height of its strength it has to form refuse and waste materials. The more energetically and boldly it advances, the richer it will be in failures and deformities, the closer to decline.-— Age is not abolished by means of institutions. Neither is disease. Nor vice. (Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One has to ask the obvious: In a society where work has been eliminated where is the strength, where the waste? As Nietzsche said above with the elimination of all our supposed social ills at the hands of automation and a non-utilitarian non-work ethic; in a society where leisure and play, education and learning; a world where poverty is eliminated, health-care provided, financial burdens alleviated… would it not entail the utter condemnation and elimination of our lives as well? And, ultimately, in such a world who truly benefits from automation: the vast majority of the oppressed, or the .01% at the top? As automation takes over more and more jobs eliminating workers, will the very forces demanding this innovative enthronement of machines not also discover reasons for eliminating the useless population that no longer serves a purpose, a telos within their hellish paradise?

Can one really imagine 6 Billion people down at the beaches, or wandering the parks, or sitting in classrooms, or glued to the enuui of the latest Reality TV show, MMO, GO Mobile Live, or a thousand and one trivial pursuits of the leisure set? Or, would we rather have a society of total and unabashed socipaths out on the hunt for mischief, joining gangs, wandering the streets in search of new excitement… a sadomasochistic society in a complete ‘theatre of cruelty’? A society resembling something closer to a William Burroughs or J.G. Ballard novel than to some Alice and Wonderland fairy tale escapade for grown ups, a realm of nightmares and thanatropic excess where humans enact the darkest aspects of sex and death as routinely as they now enjoy a day at the Salon.

Or, more to the point, would the Neoliberal vision of total time control create a society based on a totalized machinic intelligence, a world of advanced AGI’s (artificial intelligences) that would be connected through neural implants and interfaces to humans directly through nanotech surgery, etc., a system that would essentially make humans into organic servomechanisms in an ongoing enslavement that eliminates both pleasure and pain and all human personality in a system of total psychopathic indifference and impersonalism? A world of inhuman humans to serve in whatever capacity more as organic robots and cattle to the higher powers of the elite and their minions? A dark dystopian society…

While the Left dreams of social emancipation and justice the Neoliberal vision is far darker and more to the point: the total enslavement of human desire to the machinic world-view.

The Real Movement

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have written a book, Inventing the Future, proposing the complete automation of production and a reduction of hours of labor. The proposal is fascinating and stands head and shoulders above the gruel typically on offer on the Left.  Nevertheless it is poorly argued and in serious need of additional theoretical development.

The meat of the book can be found in chapter 6, where the authors discuss the Holy Grail of Left Politics, non-reformist reforms — reforms that, of themselves, have revolutionary implications, that force society to go beyond existing capitalist relations. To this end they propose four demands they believe are necessary, “to start building a platform for a post-work society.”

These demands are:

1. Full automation of production
2. The reduction of the working week
3. The provision of a basic income
4. The diminishment of the work ethic

I will spend…

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