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When 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.