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.