The fifth commentary, and sixth post, on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, from DoT’s own Joe Hoover. A reply from Nick and Alex will follow.
Inventing the Future begins with a lament.
Where did the future go? For most of the twentieth century, the future held sway over our dreams. On the horizons of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and the liberating potential of technology.
The authors resent that they have been denied a future with more promise than the present. They mourn the absence of the object of their desire, the impossibility of its fulfilment, the lives to be lived in these lost leftist utopias. This seems to be a widely felt disappointment, if we are to judge by how often the complaint has been made of late. Disappointment leads to diffuse anger, directed at the status quo on the “Left”, its lack of vision. At the root of this discontent is anger at the world itself, for all of the ways it impedes us, frustrates our hopes and gives no comfort to our dreams – it is a world in need of re-making. I do not want to suggest that because the book’s narrative is motivated by such feeling that it can be reduced to an outburst against the vagaries of existence, the work is too focused and the problem it addresses too serious for such crude criticism. Yet, this fundamental emotional resentment colours the project in an important way.
The lament shapes the inquiry itself. We are wounded by the loss of our desire – a future flush with possibility – and we are angry at capitalism for stealing our future. Obviously the detail is more sophisticated than this curt summary, but a stark statement of the underlining logic reveals the essential narrative. The problem of contemporary Left politics is not the desire for a universal utopian future but rather that this future has been lost, which runs counter to important criticisms of progressive leftism (a point taken up by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman). Therefore, the authors’ task is to remind us why we desire the future, then to consider where to look for a new one and how to seek after it. Inventing the Future is a quest to find what was lost, so we can become whole in our desires. We may set out on such a quest with great optimism but we still carry a worrisome anger with us.
There are a great many barbarities in our world attributable, at least in part, to “capitalism” but it is not a villain stealing away with our ladylove (the difficulties of determining what capitalism is are taken up later). Our lost future is not the exceptional crime of some neoliberal conspiracy. Yes, I know the book does not say anything quite so crude. Nonetheless, the narrative structure is driven by a conflict that finds its resolution with the us (the protagonist) achieving wholeness in a future fulfilment of our desire. The authors make the caveat that contestation will not end in this postcapitalist future, but this future still holds out the promise that the conflicts of today will melt away. The world is always messy, unfinished, stubborn, cruel, confused, and, I posit, resistant to the kind of breaks with past ways of being that are suggested here (Sophie Lewis and David Bell look at the temporalities involved in greater detail). If we lament that, we risk resentment against the world itself, against human existence and against flesh and blood people who move slowly and impede our dreams. Love of the future sits dangerously close to hatred of the present – which is not to say we should have no love of the future, but rather that we ought to be wary of too much of it.
Aside from being a lament for the future, the text is also a prophecy. Reading Inventing the Future alongside “#Accelerate. Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics”, I see a similarity with The Book of Revelation. “#Accelerate” opens with a vision of coming cataclysm.
At the beginning of the second decade of the Twenty-First Century, global civilization faces a new breed of cataclysm. These coming apocalypses ridicule the norms and organisational structures of the politics which were forged in the birth of the nation-state, the rise of capitalism, and a Twentieth Century of unprecedented wars.
Most significant is the breakdown of the planetary climatic system. In time, this threatens the continued existence of the present global human population. Though this is the most critical of the threats which face humanity, a series of lesser but potentially equally destabilising problems exist alongside and intersect with it. Terminal resource depletion, especially in water and energy reserves, offers the prospect of mass starvation, collapsing economic paradigms, and new hot and cold wars. Continued financial crisis has led governments to embrace the paralyzing death spiral policies of austerity, privatisation of social welfare services, mass unemployment, and stagnating wages. Increasing automation in production processes including ‘intellectual labour’ is evidence of the secular crisis of capitalism, soon to render it incapable of maintaining current standards of living for even the former middle classes of the global north.
It is here that the appeal to, and of, the future is vital. The authors do not offer predictions based on historical inevitability; instead they inculcate faith in a future outside the flow of our current history. They desire a break in the timeline. Inventing the Future is an apocalypse, in the original sense of an unveiling, which shows us both the Left future that has been lost as well as the path to a new Left future – a path demanding faith and commitment. The book shares structural similarities to Revelations, as it is a letter to the fractured contemporary Left (John of Patmos was writing to the seven churches of Asia), calling for unity and recommitment to universalism, emancipation and futurism (John called the churches of Asia to affirm Christian virtue and resist Roman cultural influence), in order to overcome the present state of crisis and suffering. What is the revelation that Inventing the Future promises? It claims a more profound knowledge of the world (new technological changes), a more righteous identification of sin (folk politics), and a vision of the future (post-work and full automation) that will fulfil the great mission of human history (maximal synthetic freedom). I am not suggesting that the authors intend to echo The Book of Revelations, rather that they are partaking in an old narrative form of revelation as a means to redemption.
The apocalyptic character of Inventing the Future ennobles its opening lamentation by placing the desire for political change and a new future in world historical terms. We are not only trying to recover from lost political battles but we are tasked with overcoming a metaphysical malaise, in which we cannot imagine a future where our ideals and desire are realised. Further, the stakes of this quest could not be higher, on one side we have planetary destruction, social deprivation and endless social conflict, while on the other we seek limitless freedom, guiltless pleasure and universal co-existence. This sweeping vision of social change is as much underlying structure as explicit substance in the text. Yet, the prophetic structure renders political contest in exaggerated terms: neoliberalism is an all-encompassing ideology, capitalism is the pervasive social evil, political change depends upon building a universal counter hegemony, and successful Left politics will only come from a unified movement dedicated to realising the promise of modernity. The resolution sought is a revolutionary one (albeit one that sees itself in a heretical relationship to earlier revolutionary practice), in which the politics of today will be overcome in a new future. The revolutionary can sing along that ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine’ with gusto, which I think should give us pause – again, not to say that political transformation is objectionable but rather that it is inherently dangerous and the method by which we do the work of transformation is as important as horizon that we seek to reach.
Tilting at Folk Windmills
Every work of revelation must position itself against both an external and internal source of corruption. Neoliberal capitalism is the obvious external source, but Inventing the Future suggests a new internal source that must be opposed: Folk Politics. Knowing something of the history of this book, it is telling that it went from being a book about folk politics to a book subtitled “Folk Politics and the Left” and finally ends up leaving the phrase completely out of the title and marketing materials. Yet, the idea of folk politics is central to the argument of the book – and its weakest element (Steven Shaviro shares some of my concerns – actually, all the commentators do!).
The book begins with the premise that contemporary leftist movements have failed. It is not hard to find evidence of this today as militarism, austerity, and nationalism are as potent as ever. What is more troublesome is to figure out why leftist movements fail (it should be noted, of course, that the failure of the Left is more slogan than fact and leftist victories do happen). The answer that Nick and Alex provide is that there is a flawed common sense on the Left, which dominates political thought and action, rendering it fatally inadequate to the task of challenging neoliberalism as an ideology and capitalism as a social structure.
Folk politics names a constellation of ideas and intuitions within the contemporary left that informs the common-sense ways of organising, acting and thinking politics. It is a set of strategic assumptions that threatens to debilitate the left rendering it unable to scale up, create lasting change or expand beyond particular interests.
The danger of folk politics is not only that it is wrong about the nature of politics in the contemporary world and how to challenge capitalism, but also that it dominates leftist thinking today, leaving insufficient room for alternatives.
A divide is drawn between the folk political Left that deploys everyday notions of social life, that is focused on the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional, the natural, the transient, the unmediated and the particular, content to focus on, and even privilege, the local (This is from Nick and Alex’s varied descriptions). Counter to this, the book defends a Left politics oriented towards global change, focused on universal interests, comfortable with abstraction and working towards human emancipation and control.
Immediately, I am struck by the diffuse and contradictory definition of folk politics we are given (transient and traditional; particular and natural). Inventing the Future makes concessions to folk politics, by granting it some importance to a Left political movement that must start with the local, extending one hand in solidarity, but then with the other hand folk politics is struck down as the barrier to systemic change. Also, it’s claimed effects are contradictory – as it is in one moment a diffuse tendency, instantiated partially in numerous areas of Left politics, then in the next, it is a position that is definitively incapable of opposing capitalism and so dominate it disables an effective Left politics.
The critique of folk politics is also based on an unfair standard, as folk political thought and the variety of movements and groups presumed guilty of such thinking are charged with failing to build an effective resistance to neoliberalism. To make their point the authors appeal to the advances made in the labour movements of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but this is an unfair comparison. Contemporary movements are being criticised for failing to produce change on far too short a timeline, showing a lack of appreciation for how long it takes to build movements. Further, they construct a straw-man easily set alight by cherry-picking not only the more extreme position but also presenting those positions in a one-sided way, which is a real shame as a deeper good faith engagement with the serious and varied contemporary leftist groups would be productive. I came to the text particularly hoping that there would be insight into how local struggles and tactics might be scaled up – a position Nick and Alex defend, and which many in the “folk political” Left actually take on as well – but we get little practical advice for how abstraction and new cognitive maps and subversive universalism enable this work and plenty of indictment backed with limited evidence. Perhaps, there is scant advice on offer because there is such minimal engagement with what local struggles actually do beyond marching and occupying. This omission highlights a further point, which is that the critique of folk politics, especially its critique of horizontalism and direct democracy, reveals elements of an elitist and technocratic mindset. There are good reasons to doubt that strict horizontalism and exclusively direct democratic practice will bring about large scale social changes, but this justified scepticism gives way too quickly to a conspicuous silence on the question of democratic practice in politics and social life more broadly.
Their critique is further weakened by the fact that there is insufficient evidence provided that the position they describe is widely held or actually blocks political progress in the way they suggest. Can one find people saying “folk political” things? Surely, but this is hardly evidence of a powerful common sense that is impeding alternative projects. A very limited counter-example: I have been studying groups resisting displacement, foreclosure, and homelessness in the US for the past several years, in that work I have interviewed dozens of activists and followed the work of several organisations. Many of the people I have worked with were involved in the groups labeled “folk political” – Occupy, Take Back the Land, local food initiatives, community finance and banking, to name just a few. Literally every person I spoke with made the connection between their local struggle and capitalism as a global economic structure. Nearly all of them explicitly understood their activism as trying to mediate local harms caused by national and international processes. These groups have dedicated a great deal of time to thinking about how to build linkages between organisations across different local spaces, how to gain power in existing state institutions, how to challenge neoliberal ideology with democratic and egalitarian alternatives. Finally, surpassing the analysis in Inventing the Future, the question of how to create democratic social relationships is at the centre of much of this work – not in terms of endless forums to discuss every possible question but in practical terms of designing institutions that inculcate, nurture and spread democracy.
I am happy to embrace Nick and Alex’s term of disparagement as a signifier of a deep concern with people’s experiences today, as well as tomorrow, and proudly claim a folk politics that starts with a love of all the folks in this messy world, with their confusions, inspirations, sufferings and many dreams for a better life.
Narratives of revelation require antagonists and in Inventing the Future this role is played by neoliberal capitalism. While folk politics represents an internal struggle of the Left, the future will only be won by taking on the true villain of this story. Yet, something strange is going on with both neoliberalism and capitalism in this tale. It seems that capitalism must be opposed and overcome – a postcapitalist future is the goal after all. Yet, defeating capitalism also requires an alternative that builds upon capitalism, mimics it and then surpasses it (Shaviro and Hirst & Houseman have more to say about the subliminal accelerationism in the book). This same dynamic is at work with neoliberalism as well – it is the hegemonic ideology that must be defeated, but the way to victory leads down the same path: building a counter-hegemonic ideology. Given the centrality of these concepts to the overall argument, and the imputed importance of overcoming them if we want to win back the future, it would seem vital to know what “neoliberalism” and “capitalism” signify.
As one reads through Inventing the Future, however, it is difficult to pin down what neoliberalism or capitalism are, as any specification undermines the pervasiveness of the power they are said to have. Neoliberalism is a discrete ideological project launched by identifiable individuals seeking to challenge Keynesian orthodoxy, taking advantage of a moment of crisis – this seems clear enough, and the book offers a component retelling of that story, though one that is surprisingly enamoured with neoliberalism as an exemplar. Yet, neoliberalism is also much more as it becomes a hegemonic ideology that shapes all aspects of how we live.
Neoliberalism has thus become ‘the form of our existence – the way in which we are led to conduct ourselves, to relate to others and to ourselves’. It is, in other words, not just politicians, business leaders, the media elite and academics who have been enrolled into this vision of the world, but also workers, students, migrants – and everyone else. In other words, neoliberalism creates subjects.
Yet, neoliberalism is said to be compatible with cultural particularism, which is why folk politics is insufficient to challenge it. So, neoliberalism doesn’t create subjects who are only neoliberal. Perhaps it creates subjects that are essentially neoliberal at their core? But resistance to neoliberalism is a real phenomenon and one which the authors seek to encourage, so we are able to overcome our neoliberalism.
What then is neoliberalism actually doing to us? Is it our common sense? But folk politics was also our common sense, so at the very least we have many different common sense ideologies that can be contradictory, which means it is unclear how neoliberalism is the one that actually determines outcomes.
In the end, it seems that neoliberalism in this telling is a myth, a creation of the authors – myth-making in which many illustrious others also partake. Neoliberalism is a supposition of the counter-hegemonic project the authors want to pursue. If there is a pervasive ideology that structures how we all think and act, then there is an imperative for a counter-hegeomic ideology to re-structure how we all think and act. I have tried to phrase my objections here in a plain-spoken way, so some simplification is inevitable, but the central point is that there is a serious deficiency in Inventing the Future (and many other Left political texts), as the authors do not explain what a universal ideology actually is, how it works in the everyday practices of our lives, or how we gauge the depth of its effects on people’s actions. To know that neoliberal hegemony is ‘our form of existence’ we would need an analysis of the specific aspects of our lives it defines, an account of how it goes on to shape the entire existence of everyone, and some way of measuring of how fully a universal ideology succeeds in its work. The fact that this difficult empirical work is not even considered, to my mind, suggests that neoliberal ideological hegemony is a mythical villain, a narrative necessity.
Much of what has been said about neoliberalism could be said about capitalism, but I want to pursue a different line of critique here. Capitalism is another fuzzy concept. At times it is something specific – wage labour and the extraction of surplus value, along with the imperative of profit maximisation, as Nick told me in a recent discussion – but then it is also an all encompassing “thing” of some description, with agency and motivation, and with nearly limitless power.
Capitalism, as we have argued, is an expansive universal that weaves itself through multiple cultural fabrics, reworking them as it goes along. Anything less than a competing universal will end up being smothered by an all-embracing series of capitalist relations.
In these two lines capitalism is a “universal” thing, with the power to weave itself into the fabrics of our culture (whatever that means), while then being able to reweave that fabric in the image of its own desires. Yet, in the next sentence it is then an all-embracing series of “capitalist” relations, which implies it is kind of interaction rather than a kind of thing, but a way of interacting that influences all of our social exchanges. So, capitalism is both a thing and a characteristic of social relationships, it also has agency and motivation, and – judging by its desire to invade our cultural fabric – it is in some way separate from human culture. I do not want to belabour the point, but these kinds of obscurities can be found throughout the book and, like neoliberalism, it seems capitalism is more a character than a well-defined concept – for me it evokes images of some evil sea creature opposing our quest for a new future.
It is unfair, however, to suggest that neoliberal capitalism as villain is wholly an unspecified cipher, as one key claim is that neoliberalism and capitalism are universals – or universalising, if we are seeing them as kinds of relations rather than kinds of things. For Nick and Alex this is vital because it is the universality of neoliberal capitalism that cannot be overcome by folk political thinking, or any particularist approach, such as postmodernism. In fact, the modernist project of progressive universalism must be reclaimed and redeemed, for without that there is no overcoming neoliberal capitalism and no true political progress. While there are caveats made about universals not necessitating violent essentialism and modernity having room for non-Eurocentric progressivism, universals are indispensable (Again, things or relations? I don’t know) because they meet the bad universals (capitalism) on their own ground and dialectically transcend our contemporary moment of bad universals (thesis) and bad particulars (antithesis) with a subversive hyperstitional universal (synthesis).
Universals are subversive by undermining their own claims to finality and singularity – though how far and to what extent is not clear, especially once we leave the philosophical realm for the practical, where the goal is building counter hegemony (a point emphasised by Lewis & Bell and Hirst & Houseman). Can counter hegemony undermine its own authority and accept the existence of other hegemonies? (Joseph Kay has some similar concerns)
Universals are hyperstitional by being fictions that become reality – though whether hyperstition describes an impersonal process of social change or a strategy for ideological engineering is not clarified (such is the limit and advantage of using a little-known and contested concept as a centre-piece).
The problem here is that the argument is circular, as neoliberalism and capitalism are posited as universals – or universalising or universalisms – without sufficient explanation of what that entails or evidence to judge that claim, but the universal character of both neoliberalism and capitalism go on to provide the basis for judging the possible effectiveness of any future Left movement. Like Hype and Superstition, it sounds convincing but I find myself no nearer knowing how neoliberal capitalism does all the terrible things it does, nor how I might posit a utopian and progressive universal ideology that would stop doing all those terrible things – and, ideally, not do a bunch of new terrible things.
Lest it seem I am only critical of Inventing the Future, the authors should be commended for taking up the idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is the most promising aspect of the argument, as UBI has the potential to alter something specific in capitalist economic relations by eliminating the imperative of the worker to sell their labour in order to survive, and thus one of the fundamental causes of exploitation. A change in economic relations at this fundamental level could have transformative effects. One can also read the advocacy of a postwork world based on universal basic income and full automation as the authors’ attempt to apply their theoretical ideas of subversive universals, counter-hegemony and hyperstitional progressive utopias. While I think reading the text in this way is informative, it also highlights a number of concerns with their approach.
First, UBI’s value is instrumentalised, as the authors’ support for it stems largely from its potential to bring about a postwork world and they suggest UBI policies should be crafted to that end. While I agree that UBI has potential to serve their ends, it is also likely to have wider consequences, both good and bad, which it seems to me should be given more consideration. Concessions to diversity aside, the politics advocated in Inventing the Future are resolutely universalist and focused on maximising personal freedom, this focus at best marginalises other effects of UBI and other projects it might enable – aside from freeing up time and increasing independence from economic necessity, UBI would also alter our relationship to the public sphere and the nature of community interaction. Further, the scope of the change involved in adopting a UBI suggests that it also important to consider its potential pitfalls and limitations more carefully. I agree UBI has great promise, but I feel it is necessary to warn against its mobilisation to a single political end and caution against the assumption that it will result only in the positive changes outlined here – an admittedly meliorist rather than revolutionary kind of worry.
Second, UBI is advanced as a policy with wide appeal that could help serve the ideological shift towards a postwork counter-hegemony, but their support is partial as the authors also claim that this requires is a specific leftist account of UBI – a proper version for a new Left future. The logic of this involves forcing people to accept the authors account of UBI at some point in the political process – this is what ideological hegemony does, no? – and disregarding individuals and groups that are fellow-travellers in the work of advocating for UBI once such disagreement emerges. This suggests a politics that is strategically deceitful and engages in free-riding on the efforts of others. The authors may accept this as a necessity – and there are hints that the might – but if so, these are colours to pin to their mast, as they raise serious questions about what kind of leftist future they are conjuring.
Third, UBI is celebrated for the space it opens up for creativity and invention, but what of the loss of identity and community that is a consequence of removing work from peoples lives? This question is occluded by playing fast and loose with the meaning of work. It is importantly different to suggest an end to exploitative wage labour on the neoliberal model versus the end of labour itself, as machines take on ever more of the task of social (re)production. The former is rather easier to ascent to, while the later starts to raise questions about which productive tasks we actually would want to give over to automation (Lewis & Bell cover this in much greater detail). Hannah Arendt’s thought on labour, work and action seems so relevant here that its complete absence is surprising. In an attempt to channel some of her concerns, what is the meaning of freedom in a world less and less of our making? Work in Inventing the Future is only toil, but this is not all that comes from work, as it shapes us, calls us to contribute some of what we take from the social store, asks us to be useful to others, demands we are disciplined and provides the social basis for the selves that then seek after freedom. One does not have to romanticise work, especially work under condition hyper-exploitation, to worry that a world without any work might become a world rather too full of individualised desire, consumption, pleasure, and excess.
In each instance, my c
oncerns with Inventing the Future begin with its understanding of politics. This is why democracy, as political equality, rather than emancipation or freedom, is vital. Greater democratic control of technology, governing bodies and economic institutions is a prerequisite for the positive feedback loops that are described between automation, UBI, and the diminishment of the work ethic. Further, it would be a vital protection for those who do not admire the authors’ techno-dreams of self-creation and maximal synthetic freedom. Politics is presented as essentially about creating a hegemonic ideology, building or capturing the institutional resources to realise that ideology in practice, and gaining access to the material resources to make it all happen. Not only does this mimic what the authors see as neoliberal capitalism’s blueprint for success – which shows a worrying ambivalence to the profoundly anti-democratic element of that success – but it also shows insufficient regard for the character of the political process by which we reach our new future. The problem with this kind of utopian politics is that evidences little concern for the experience of the people to be shaped and emancipated by it – instead it expresses a love for the future that does not profess an equal love for the present, and especially for the people whose bodies and minds will carry the present into the future. This lament for the future seems a bad romance to me, and is a song to which I cannot add my voice.