Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
Photo: Chun-Han Chiang
This article is taken from the current issue of Red Pepper, produced in partnership with The World Transformed – get a subscription now.
Joseph: Your recent book with Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, definitely stirred up a lot of left circles. Were you surprised by the reaction, or did you realise it would cause a bit of an uproar? Did you lose friends over it?
Nick: There have been some tense moments with some people. I think partly that’s our own fault. The book was originally planned to be a very antagonistic critique of the ways the left had been doing politics for 20 years or so. But as we went along we realised that wasn’t what we wanted to do, so we tried to moderate as much as possible. But I think there is still some of that antagonism there, and I think it’s annoyed some people. I can understand why, but on the other hand I also think it’s generated a number of good discussions, and has caused people to rethink their assumptions about how we organise, how we act and what we’re aiming for. We don’t necessarily have all the answers. We tried to present some, but we wanted to disrupt what we thought was the common sense of the left – particularly within the UK, but also in the US and western Europe more generally.
Joseph: I’ve definitely seen that disruption, in both a positive and negative way. I feel a lot more people now understand the importance of building a counter-hegemony in a very strategic, deliberate, long-term way. What I take from the book is that we need to both build up a set of post-work, counter-hegemonic ideas, using a similar methodology as the early neoliberals in the Mont Pelerin Society, while at the same time putting forward something that is programmatic, and trying to get a left government into power. A cultural as well as a political project. Is that what you suggest as a general framework for going forwards?
Nick: Yes, I think the left has, in part, got into a very reactive politics lately. It’s constantly a politics of reacting to and fighting against things, such as privatisations and closures, rather than thinking more long-term about how we expand the welfare state, for instance, or transform it towards something more post-work. It’s not just a local issue, even if it gets embodied at local levels. You’ve had a lot of single issue campaigns doing fantastic work but never quite able to broaden out and connect the dots.
Let me point out one problem I noticed and am still grappling with myself. Under traditional revolutionary thinking you had strategy being formulated and dictated by the vanguard party. This unitary party could then delegate different aspects of the project to different groups. How do we think up and distribute strategy when we don’t have that vanguard party, and don’t want one? How do we do strategy in a much more decentralised manner? I’m not entirely sure. That’s a difficult aspect that we haven’t answered yet.
Joseph: The three points of programme you outline are the universal basic income, increased automation of labour, and the shortening of the working week. Why these three things and how do they interlink?
Nick: Automation is, in many ways, a necessary outcome – a necessary tendency – of capitalism. Capitalism is constantly revolutionising the means of production, constantly introducing new forms of automation to increase productivity. But left to its own devices it will continue to leave out sectors where labour is cheap, or just not profitable enough to automate. So the demand for full automation is very political. It says we should think about automating some socially reproductive work which is currently abysmal. We should think about automating some of the worst jobs in society that are paid extremely poorly. Capitalism, on its own, is not going to do that. But by demanding full automation we can reduce the amount of work that society has to do.
Then the question becomes how do you delegate and distribute the remaining work, wages and income, because we’re still within a capitalist system as far as that goes. That’s what the reduced working week and the universal basic income respond to. They are a way to distribute the work more equitably, so everybody is working less, as opposed to the situation right now, with highly paid professionals working 60 or 70 hours a week while other people struggle to get by on only 15 hours because they can’t find enough work. We have massive inequality of work, and reducing the working week is one way to solve that and get everybody working less. The basic income is, then, the way in which people can survive without having to rely upon work.
The interesting thing about all these proposals is not only that they are good in themselves, but they increase the power of workers and of the average person. I think if we want to talk about reforms of capitalism in a way which isn’t just reformism, we have to be thinking about reforms that give power to the working class in various ways. Combining all these sorts of policies doesn’t give you social democracy, and you don’t get neoliberalism – you get something new, which is a sort of post-work hegemony. All these parts interlink together into a coherent and consistent system.
Joseph: This is what most excited me about the book: the new dynamic it creates – a transfer of power rather than just a transfer of wealth, which are very different things. Which of these policies do you think are most likely to be seen in a programme any time soon in this country? And also, how do you think this framework fits in with Corbynism?
Nick: It will be quite difficult to get these ideas into a programme soon, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Really, what is going on in a post-work world is not a complete elimination of work. Instead, it gives you the security and freedom to be able to choose exactly what you want to be able to work on. I think that needs to be the primary narrative.
People want economic security. They don’t just want handouts though. This is part of the difficulty – how do you present basic income as not just being a handout? It has to go along with some sort of assistance to let people start a business, be an entrepreneur, build up your own projects in your local community, so that its’s not just seen as a payoff so you can be lazy.
I like to remind people that the labour movement was originally created to reduce the working week, not to get good jobs and long-term pensions. It was to go from an 80-hour to a 40-hour work week, to get people two days for a weekend and that sort of thing. So this has a long history that we need to revive.
In each place it’s going to be different. There will be different circumstances and you have to think about how you knit together different constituencies, different social groupings. Our argument in the book is to say it’s a populist project, and populism for us is effectively drawing a dividing line in society between us and them – naming who us and them are, and patching together all of these different social groupings into a coherent narrative. I think populism is the best sort of theoretical description of what’s going on recently.
I think that’s entirely possible. There’s a vast group of people who are extremely frustrated with the way things are right now, and can be brought into Corbyn’s project, or a broad-left project. It’s a matter of figuring out how exactly to attach those groups to it.
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going