Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.


A world without work: an interview with Nick Srnicek, co-author of Inventing the Future

The World Transformed organiser Joseph Todd speaks to Nick Srnicek about his recent book making the case for a post-work society

October 16, 2016
7 min read

NickPhoto: 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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite