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


Inventing the Future

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, reviewed by Daniel Whittall

December 1, 2015
5 min read

inventtfWhen the latest global economic crisis unfolded the Euro-American left was poorly positioned to respond. Trade unions had been crushed by years of sustained ideological, physical and legal assault and were a shadow of their former selves, both numerically and in terms of their confidence in articulating alternatives. Political parties of the left had long since succumbed to the neoliberal embrace. Extra-parliamentary political movements – anti-war, alter-globalisation – communicated internationally but organised and campaigned in specific sites and cities, often resisting the impulse to develop strategic, long-term visions of a world beyond capitalism.

In Inventing the Future Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams argue that this contemporary left is beset by a preoccupation with what they term ‘folk politics’. In the face of the seemingly insurmountable complexities of the global economy and geopolitics, folk politics privileges gains that can be won in the immediate, seeking to ‘bring politics down to the human scale’, favouring ‘the local as the site of authenticity’, and conceptually prioritising the everyday over the structural, the particular over the universal. Consequently folk political movements often struggle to forge political projects that can either endure for the long term or else be scaled up to alter the social and economic circumstances of large groups or regions.

Not that these folk political movements are without successes and strengths. Srnicek and Williams are clear that groups that have most embraced folk politics – the Occupy movement, the Zapatistas, Spain’s 15M and all manner of other horizontalist movements, student occupations and anti-austerity protest marches – have played an important role in shifting opinions. They have even won some small victories in resisting particular neoliberal policies, though rarely on the big, structural matters. As a consequence, Srnicek and Williams argue that ‘folk politics is a necessary component of any successful political project, but it can only be a starting point’. If the goal is a transition beyond capitalism, something more is required.

In place of folk politics, Srnicek and Williams argue for the need to develop a counter-hegemonic politics that articulates grand visions befitting a modern left. Contemporary capitalism creates an ever-increasing surplus population at the same time as technological developments undercut its own ability to maintain profitability. Instead of resisting the reality of a future in which automation vastly reduces the number of jobs and the necessity of work, Srnicek and Williams call for a different strategy. The left should work towards the transition to a post-work world by arguing for a universal basic income payable to all at a rate that allows for a comfortable standard of living alongside the full automation of society and the economy that would free individuals and collectives to re-order their lives away from work and towards more socially useful ends.

Their vision is a persuasive one, and Inventing the Future is a well-written work that is at once polemical and visionary. The category of folk politics is particularly powerful, although their critique of folk political groupings often doesn’t acknowledge that many of those they criticise themselves developed the very ideas central to Srnicek and Williams’ own conceived counter-hegemonic project. Nevertheless, they ably explain the failure of these same movements to build a post-capitalist world, and are surely correct in their call for the long-term rebuilding of the left, its ideas and institutional ecology.

There remains a debate over the precise value of the full automation for which Srnicek and Williams call. They argue that ‘the tendencies towards automation and the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated and targeted as a political project of the left’. Automation is at the heart of their anti-work politics, linked with calls for higher wages and lower working hours in an effort to reformulate the question of a politics of and against work. Yet a liberatory politics committed to expanding the utopian horizons of humanity may, in certain instances, be best served by less, rather than more, technological engagement. The question of the future role of automation, then, is not necessarily one best served by calls for its ‘full’ deployment.

An anti-work politics may well be anathema to some, but cybernetic capitalism is likely to deploy machinery and information in such a way as to render the debate mute, disposing of jobs on an ever-increasing scale across the world. The left, Srnicek and Williams remind us, has historically grounded itself on universal emancipation. If we are to recover our ability to achieve this long-term project then we need to articulate persuasive yet radical visions of the future grounded not on platitudes or nostalgia, but on a vision of how society ought to be transformed. Left to define the future on its own terms, capital will use cybernetic developments to ensure social exclusion at an unprecedented scale. In the face of such a challenge, a reconstructed left capable of articulating our own visions, building our own futures, will be a necessity.

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.

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#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

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