The case for radical modernity

The left should embrace technological innovation and new class alliances as part of a strategy for 21st-century socialism, writes Jeremy Gilbert

January 12, 2016
14 min read

Illustration: Andrzej Krauze

If we look back at points in history where the left has achieved real political success, we can see that socialists have always had to identify the problems that capitalism is creating at any given moment, and respond to them by using new technologies, new forms of government and new types of self-organisation in order to achieve their objectives.

The period of the socialist left’s greatest success – the mid-20th century – was also when it most wholeheartedly embraced what were then the cutting-edge sciences of manufacturing, communication and management. The nationalised industries and universal public services of the post-war welfare states made heavy use of organisational techniques developed by Ford and other pioneers of industry. Lenin had already declared, years earlier, that ‘Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.’

Gramsci went even further, suggesting in the 1930s that the experience of automated assembly-line factory work might be good for workers, both freeing their minds from any necessary engagement with their work, enabling to them think about other matters (revolution, for example), while also inculcating in them the habits of efficiency and sober self-discipline that effective revolutionaries would require. As shocking as this sounds to contemporary ears, we could make a very good case that it was precisely the generation of workers schooled in the factory discipline of the 1930s and 1940s who ultimately won the most significant wave of social reforms in history: those that made possible the New Deal in the US and the post-war welfare states of western Europe. This all goes to illustrate the fact that socialism has only been able to find the energy and the tools with which to develop a successful political programme when it has understood itself as a modernising project, working with the grain of technological and organisational progress even while it works to dismantle the class relations of capitalism.

Recently we have seen a rash of publications in the UK calling for some kind of left modernisation. The think tank and lobby group Compass published a pamphlet by me and Mark Fisher, Reclaim Modernity, in 2013. The pamphlet argues that the embrace of conservative communitarianism by some sections of the Labour Party has been a mistake, and advocated the democratisation of public services. Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism has recently garnered considerable attention for his claim that capitalism is in the process of mutating into some more democratic and egalitarian form of ‘post-capitalism’, as networked technologies facilitate the development of new economies of free information, collaborative creation and non-hierarchical organisation. Another Compass pamphlet, by Neal Lawson and Indra Adnan, explicitly evokes the analysis of ‘New Times’ made by Marxism Today magazine in the 1980s, while identifying the emergent culture of networks as a major radical resource. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ recent book Inventing the Future calls on the radical left to abandon any attachment to localism or primitivism and to embrace the dream of a future in which the automation of both manufacturing and many mundane intellectual tasks renders all but the most minimal quantities of human work unnecessary.

Cybernetic revolution

Of course (and ironically), there’s nothing new about these sets of claims. Radical thinkers have been calling for new technologies to be put to progressive ends at least since the 19th century, and have been discussing the politics of networks at least since the 1950s. Nonetheless, it’s striking that across these different contemporary interventions, a common set of themes emerge, which focus on the need to explore the radical potential inherent in the technologies and new organisational techniques that define our time.

That potential is obvious to anyone who recognises the centrality of social media to Jeremy Corbyn’s successful campaign to become Labour leader or Barack Obama’s election as US president. It should hardly need spelling out why a technology that enables millions of people to communicate with each other at minimal cost should have the potential to facilitate new forms of democratic social and political organisation. It was obvious, in fact, to Salvador Allende’s pioneering democratic socialist government in Chile at the end of the 1960s, when it developed one of the earliest known distributed computer networks – Cybersyn – to facilitate experiments in democratic economic planning (this is the subject of a brilliant recent book by Eden Medina). It’s surely no coincidence that Chile became the target for the CIA-backed coup in 1973, which created the opportunity for the first full neoliberal economic programme to be imposed upon an unwilling nation.

Wild promises and creative potential

Of course, there are good reasons why claims for the progressive potential of technology are often met with scepticism. Many of us can remember the wild promises that were made for the democratic impact of the internet in the 1990s, when Californian proselytisers assured us that by now we would be living in a world of perfectly free communication and so of perfectly working democracy. Many of us are also conscious that the everyday reality of the networked world is one of daily exploitation: from the Chinese factories producing iPhones and MacBooks to the call centres of Mumbai and Newcastle. Edward Snowden’s revelations about mass state surveillance over the internet have only added to the growing sense shared by many that our entire lives are now monitored and administered by Facebook and Google.

But it would be wrong to see such developments as proof that these technologies lack all progressive potential. In fact, they are only proof that such potential cannot be unlocked as long as these technologies are only put at the service of capital accumulation and the exploitation of workers. From this point of view, it’s precisely the gap between the widely‑shared intuition that these technologies are powerful forces of potential liberation and the lived reality of them invading our lives, taking over our attention and giving us relatively little in return that ought to become the basis for a powerful popular critique of contemporary capitalism.

In fact, some theorists would go further, suggesting that the communicative and creative potential that such technologies make possible is precisely what capital needs us to have in order for it successfully to exploit us, but also exactly what we need to resist that exploitation. For example, a huge amount of value is produced online today merely by individuals sharing information about themselves and reacting to information shared by others: it’s by mining this data and selling it to advertisers that Facebook makes its millions. On the other hand, this just goes to show the real potential of these technologies for communication, social organisation and data gathering. Going even further, we might mirror Gramsci’s observations about the radical potential of Ford’s factory workers: today, the contemporary radical may require precisely the skills in complex management of data flows, careful profile-management and network-agility that living in a world of social media and ubiquitous computing equips us for.

Potent collectivities and neoliberal hegemony

Paul Mason understands this way of being as constituting the ‘networked individual’, characterised by multiple connections and weak ties to any specific tradition or community. I look at this slightly differently, however. It is certainly true that networked people today understand themselves primarily as ‘individuals’ who must weaken their ties to places, people and institutions while staying mobile and maintaining a high profile in order to compete in the labour market. I don’t think that’s an effect of the technology, however, but rather a consequence of it being deployed under conditions of neoliberal hegemony.

In a culture ruled by neoliberalism and labour-market insecurity, the norms of competitive individualism are presented across key social institutions – from TV to schools – as being normal and healthy. Under such circumstances, all other things being equal, people will start to think of themselves in those terms, overlooking the collaborative potential of their networked relations, focusing only on competitive elements of their experience (competing for the most ‘likes’ and followers, etc) rather than exploring their potential to facilitate collaboration.

Socialism has only been able to develop a successful political programme when it has understood itself as a modernising project, working with the grain of technological and organisational progress

Under these circumstances, the challenge for 21st-century socialism is not simply to harness the power of ‘network individuals’. Rather, our aim should be to enable networked people to stop thinking of themselves merely as ‘individuals’ at all. Instead of seeming themselves as being necessarily in competition with each other, the left must find ways to enable networked citizens to realise their potential for collective creativity.

The task is to find new ways of empowering people to co‑ordinate with others, often outside of the traditional contexts of the workplace or the immediate neighbourhood, in order to assemble what I call ‘potent collectivities’: groups on various scales that are capable of making some shared decisions and acting on them in ways that change something. I argue in my book Common Ground that this is the basic objective of all democratic politics: to enable ‘potent collectivities’ to come into existence, whether in workplaces or communities or in any other context. There’s no question that digital platforms are in some senses the most sophisticated tools for enabling potent collectives that have ever been developed.

Confronting capitalist power

Of course, there’s no getting away from the fact that the major global internet platforms are all currently controlled by a handful of huge corporations. More than that, I think it’s fair to say that if any group is truly globally ‘hegemonic’ in the world today, affecting the everyday lives of millions while helping to shape political agendas and cultural norms, it’s the ‘Big Tech’ companies of Silicon Valley, in alliance with the financial institutions that fund them and profit from them.

This is why the creation of democratic, mutually-owned alternative platforms (imagine a free, fully-functioning social network), strategically breaking up the power monopoly that that alliance has established, really ought to be a key demand of socialists; and why ultimately any 21st-century socialism must have as one of its key global objectives the transformation of Apple and other global tech monopolies into democratic workers co-operatives. At the same time, any such programme would seek to deploy a range off strategies that all work with the grain of the technological times in positive and egalitarian ways: democratising knowledge, sharing expertise, opening up institutions and empowering workers.

Such a programme would place a strong emphasis on introducing democratic governance into all public services. Indeed this is a classic historic demand of the ‘new lefts’, from Raymond Williams (see his book The Long Revolution) to Hilary Wainwright (see her Reclaim the State). In particular, any radical programme for the 21st century would have to bring forward plans to democratise knowledge and learning fundamentally, by converting all schools into democratic community schools, along the lines proposed by reformers calling for ‘citizen schools’ and ‘common schools’.

The principles of network logic, self-organisation and distributed decision-making could inform policy agendas across a range of different domains. For example, they might inspire government to implement a massive programme of distributed renewable energy generation, through the reinstatement and extension of the feed-in tariffs programme, which was scrapped by the last government, and through investment in localised energy production. Something like a Ministry for Mutuality could be set up explicitly to encourage the launch of co-operatives and mutuals and the transition of existing private firms to mutual status wherever possible.

At the same time the Ministry of Labour proposed by Corbyn could seek to explore all possible uses of new technology to facilitate organisation of workers and encourage union membership across the workforce, especially in sectors in which unionisation is currently low. This must include exploring the possibilities of new forms of organisation, including online unions for precarious workers in industries where they rarely congregate physically. In the UK the proposed constitutional convention should include suggestions for participatory budgeting and participatory democracy in local government, and experimentation with nationwide deliberative mechanisms using web technology.

For many people today there is no more pressing issue than the lack of affordable housing. But do we really need more social housing on the old models, or more private housing, encouraging individuals to become small-time property speculators rather than collaborating with their neighbours and communities to solve a shared problem? Surely we need to give people without capital the chance to run their own communities and their own built environments together. Online technologies and developments such as generative architecture could facilitate the processes whereby housing co-ops design their living spaces together while making collective decisions across their lifespans.

We all know how dominated the media is by defenders of class privilege. The development of an independent media sector, including social media platforms, would have to be an absolute priority for any serious progressive government. This might enable a radical government finally to do the sort of thing that everybody assumes the Daily Mail wouldn’t stand for, such as bringing forward plans for a universal basic income. This would both massively simplify the benefits system and begin to prepare people for the automated post-work future dreamt of by radicals since the days of William Morris.

Given the current hostility towards benefits claimants and the welfare system generally, this might be a tricky one to sell. So instead of simply planning to impose it on a reluctant populace, a potential radical government should propose a nationwide process of extensive deliberation to discuss this and other possible futures for welfare and incomes policies in a democratic and informed fashion. This form of democratic deliberation would be absolutely in the spirit of 21st-century socialism.

21st-century strategy

It’s all very well having a potential radical programme. But it isn’t the same thing as having an effective political strategy. So what might actually be distinctive about a strategy for 21st-century socialism? The basic class strategy of socialism in the 20th century was to unite the industrial working class with sympathetic members of the professional classes, isolating the traditionally conservative commercial middle classes and forming an effective bloc with which to obstruct the power of capital. However, this strategy was always based on a false assumption, inherited from Marx and his 19th century contemporaries, that the conservative, residual petit-bourgeoisie would disappear soon enough, swallowed up by the big bourgeoisie or the proletariat. But this isn’t what happened. Instead, the commercial middle classes – who rely for their incomes and status on commercial activity that does not necessarily escalate into full-scale capital accumulation – have grown in size and importance.

Arguably, this changing entrepreneurial class is the most creative and dynamic one today – at least in the domains of technology and organisational innovation. It is also very far removed now from its socially conservative antecedents, its members largely seeing themselves as modern, liberal, tolerant and worldly – which is why, for example, the Conservative Party cannot easily rely on their support any more. At the same time, this new entrepreneurial class experiences the reality of precarity on a regular basis, often enjoying uncertain incomes and rewards for large investments of effort and creative ingenuity.

Should it not be possible, therefore, to imagine new class alliances that would bring together workers, professionals and the entrepreneurial class into a coalition mobilised in support of a 21st-century ideal of democratic, distributed decision-making in the public sector, government and business? Would it not be easy enough to combine these goals with their natural concomitants: the traditional socialist aims of social equality, strengthened labour organisation and greater democracy?

This, I suggest, could be the basis for a new socialist strategy: an active alliance between workers and those creative entrepreneurs who realise that their interests and those of the big financial institutions are far from being aligned. If we could achieve that, breaking the historic hold of big capital on the imaginations of the entrepreneurial classes, overcoming the left’s traditional antipathy to commercial and technological innovation, then many of the suggestions put forward here might become real possibilities.

Jeremy Gilbert is professor of cultural and political theory at the University of East London and editor of New Formations


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