For a right not to work

Issue: 152

Chris Newlove

A review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2015), £12.99

Inventing the Future is a welcome intervention into the growing debate about how we can move beyond capitalism. The authors are previously known for their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics” published in 2013. Many of the same themes in the Manifesto are expanded upon in the book. Inventing the Future starts with a critique of current anti-capitalist practice which the authors call “folk politics” and what we in this journal’s tradition would refer to as “autonomism”. The book traces the rise of “folk politics” through the Zapatistas, the anti-capitalist movement of the mid to late 1990s to more recent movements such as Occupy, Spain’s 15-M and the student occupations in Britain in 2010 to the present.

Growing from a rejection of a rightward moving social democracy, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the defeats of organised workers in the 1980s, folk politics became attractive to those who want to fight the system. But it ultimately reflects pessimism about winning the majority of people over to anti-capitalism. Srnicek and Williams skilfully outline some of the problems: the fetishisation of local actions, horizontalism and autonomous zones and the general emphasis on personal experience rather than systematic thinking. Instead they emphasise the importance of strategy and the building of a counter-hegemonic project. Part of this project will be the outlining of a “utopian vision” to move beyond capitalism. This is summarised in the authors’ four main demands: full automation; the reduction of the working week; universal basic income and the diminishment of the work ethic. As Owen Hatherley points out in the London Review of Books, the authors base their demands and vision of a future society on what they see as the potential within the current tendencies of capitalism. The authors largely avoid the celebratory technological determinism of, for example, Paul Mason’s recent book PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future or Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Commonwealth.

The demands themselves are seen as beginning to move away from a system driven by the profit motive. Full automation is about replacing as many jobs in the economy as possible with technology, in particular robots. The demand is seen as “accelerating” the existing tendency within capitalism for replacing labour power with technology. The authors point to research that suggests between 47 and 80 percent of today’s jobs could be automated (p112). Of course they also note that for some jobs, for example in the care industry, it would be undesirable or impossible to replace workers with machines. Automation could reduce the working week and add an extra day to the weekend. A basic income that workers could live on would mean they could choose to avoid low paid or arduous work. Jobs that are seen as menial or difficult would have to be paid more than others. This would increase the bargaining power of workers as they would no longer be compelled to work for capitalists in the same way as they are presently.

However, some of the tendencies the book mentions seem to reflect current anti-capitalist “common sense”. Srnicek and Williams see the working class as too weak to be the agent of social change. They largely assume ideas around widespread precarity to be true without much empirical evidence. And, as is the case with much anti-capitalist literature, the objective power of workers and the subjective factors of organisation and confidence are not delineated.

The book discusses the usefulness of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony but later adopts Ernesto Laclau’s version of it. This is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, Laclau’s work represents the wider Eurocommunist movement’s shift away from class struggle in the 1980s. When the authors discuss winning anti-capitalist hegemony their focus is on creating think tanks, making use of the mass media and reinvigorating leftist economics in academia. They use the example of how neoliberal economics went from being a marginalised set of ideas to having a dominant influence on governments as something the left should try to emulate. But this downplays the extent to which right wing economists like Milton Friedman had the resources to set up an international network of think tanks and greater access to the media as well as the differing audiences of the two projects. By contrast, Gramsci’s version of hegemony emphasises struggle at the time when workers’ practice and their old “common sense” ideas come into conflict. The conscious intervention of revolutionaries can help to generalise from the best experience of workers’ struggle. For example, the journal L’Ordine Nuovo (New Order) that Gramsci helped set up aimed to become the voice of the factory council movement during the “two red years” (1919-20) in Italy.

The second problem with adopting Laclau’s version of hegemony is the taking on of the idea of left populism. In the formation of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias and the team around him consciously sought to implement Laclau’s idea of building hegemony, replacing talk of the working class or capitalists with “the caste” versus “the people”. The limits to this ambiguous approach were seen when a section of Podemos voters switched to the right wing populist Ciudadanos (Citizens) party. Higher levels of class struggle were the source of the popularity of Syriza and Podemos rather than the adoption of left populism.

The latter parts of the book discuss organisation and strategy. The authors point out that many anti-capitalists today see lasting organisation as authoritarian or open to co-option. They point out that for effective long-term action to be built from movements, permanent organisation is necessary. Taking an agnostic approach to what such organisation will look like, they state that they want a “healthy and diverse ecosystem of organisations”. They point out that organisation has to be based on context. However, they go on to reject the idea of a Leninist or vanguard party without serious discussion. And they skirt over the crucial question of reform or revolution with statements like: “Greece and Spain are showing the potential that arises when social movements engage in a dual strategy both within and outside the party system. If a major transformation as the post work project is to occur, it will come on the back of a mass movement rather than simply decreed on high” (p164).

Inventing the Future is likely to become an increasingly influential work in anti-capitalist politics today. The People’s Assembly demonstration against austerity in April this year had a “No Jobs Bloc” inspired by the book. Its critique of “folk politics”/autonomism and its call for organisation and strategy deserve to get a wide resonance. However, the Syriza and Podemos model seems to be becoming increasingly discredited just as the demands in the book gain in popularity. As Hatherley notes “post-capitalism” seems vague compared with socialism, communism and anarchism despite the differing interpretations of these traditions. The way to a truely post-capitalist future remains through socialist revolution and an organisation based on this goal.

Chris Newlove is a member of Kingston Socialist Worker Student Society and is currently studying for an MA in Philosophy and Contemporary Critical Theory.