by Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams (Verso 2015)
This is a book I’ve been waiting for. Like all books it doesn’t do everything, but it does two related things brilliantly well. Firstly it puts in its box what Nick and Alex call ‘folk politics’ (a style of politics that fails to offer a systemic analysis). Secondly, it doesn’t just say we must get ready for the future, and bend it to our politics (a long-time Compass message), but that we should embrace it and accelerate it. It’s the sheer exhilaration and brazen confidence of the book that swept me up and along.
I was ready for this book. Compass has been on a journey (what’s the point of a Compass if you’re not going somewhere?), from worrying too much about saving Labour (still an important task), to thinking about how we align our values with modernity. In The Bridge, Reclaim Modernity, New Times and The Open Tribe, we have been exploring a new politics of the 21st century against the backdrop of the creation of a networked society. Increasingly, we see social democracy in the rear view mirror – a diminishing range of hills fading from view. In Downfall we stripped away the pretence of a political formation that has lost everything (especially its agency) that once made it strong and seen the growth of forces making it even weaker. The challenges for social democrats are too great, it seems, for them to face. Labour will go on failing until there is a realistic understanding of the scale of these challenges and opportunities.
This is where Inventing the Future burst its way in with its triple whammy cover demands for FULL AUTOMATION, BASIC CITIZENS INCOME, AND THE FUTURE: demands that quicken the pulse not just because they are radical, but because they are coherent, systemic and chime with the direction of travel of our cultural and technological age.
The book is really three arguments: we must actively embrace the future, have a sense of universalism, and therefore must observe the limits of ‘folk politics’. This is where the book starts. They quote someone called Jodi Dean saying “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”. There, in one short sentence, we have it; the retreat to the local, the pre-figurative, the emphasis on resilience, the rejection of the universal and the systemic – all an enormous blind alley for the left if that is all you do. I’ve always particularly hated the term ‘resilience’; it’s just another word for giving up, hunkering down and learning how to take the blows of a system that treats us as sub-human. In the face of a monolithic opponent (neo-liberalism) that wins because it denies the possibility of any other way of reproducing society, we retreat and pretend we can survive, even thrive, from the politics of the local and the particular. We can’t. Eventually, we need a universal and systemic response to neo-liberalism.
We were always told that ‘all politics is local’ – but is it any more? When in the palm of your hand you can connect with anyone on the planet about anything, when issues, problems and solutions are all eventually global? And even if all politics is local, what happens when it stays local? Again, just think of Goldman Sachs’ response to such a situation. The authors say folk politics is simply “partial, temporary and insufficient”. The local and the particular matter, but only if they allow the national, global and universal to come into being. It is the connection between the two that matters, with the universal eventually being the goal.
The second part of the book examines the rise of the new right. This has been done before of course, but not in the context of a left alternative. The book shows how the new right purposefully built a universal alternative to the social market politics of the middle decades of the last century. Hayek talks about “a programme which has the chance of gaining general support” and therefore the task must be “essentially a long run effort”. They took themselves seriously in their project. The Mont Pelerin Society met for ten days for its inaugural meeting. Can you image people now giving anything more than a day? Ideas, strategy and the relationship that make them happen, take time. When will we take ourselves as seriously?
The embrace of universal alternatives is especially necessary given “neo-liberalism’s inherently expansionary nature, only an alternative expansionary and inclusive universal of some kind will be able to combat and supersede capitalism on a global scale”. The authors argue that this must be founded on a substantial conception of freedom by making use of the most advanced technologies.
Third, the book develops an understanding of a new modernity – and critically the replacement of jobs by machines – creating what the authors call ‘surplus population’. Study after study predicts huge net job losses, not because of any single technology, but because of the merger of several: the internet, wifi, advanced algorithms, big data, AI, robots, 3d printing and the internet of things. You can believe the authors and all the reports or not. Yes the boy cries wolf, but the wolf finally comes. Do you feel like we are shifting from an essentially mechanical culture to a digital, connected and networked culture? I do.
This is where Nick and Alex sparkle. Because they demand that we embrace this future, rather than another rearguard action to regulate the protection of dull, dreary meaningless jobs, demanding that the “replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated as a political project of the left”. If 50-80 per cent of current jobs are capable of being automated, why fight it? Instead we should accelerate the technology, through the state where it can effectively act, to replace bullshit jobs with better lives. As Marianna Mazzucato has argued, it is public investment in technology that causes the big leaps forward, not private innovation. Decarbonising the economy, fully automating work, expanding cheap renewable energy – these are the policy positions in which we invent not just a future, but the social blocs that want such a future to happen. Indeed, digitized information and advanced ways to use it are now so complex that it’s not hard to imagine systems of planning that could outstrip the market in terms of the effective allocation of resources.
This all fits with the Compass view of the good society, one that is more than hamsters on the wheel – even living wage hamsters! Instead of dull jobs until we are 75, we should have lives full of creativity and innovation and time to think, read, play, care, love and sometimes do nothing except daydream about even better ways of being human. Now, of course we have to live, have shelter, warmth and food. This is where a Basic Citizens Income (CBI) comes in – the unconditional payment to all of enough to live on. Compass will soon publish details of ways in which CBI could be feasibly introduced now, but a payment at a level high enough to live well enough, in a world with far fewer jobs, can only come from taxing the productivity gains of the new technology.
For what work is left, the bargaining power of labour increases. We can take it if we want, if it is paid well enough. If we work less, we will consume less, finding pleasures in more meaningful pursuits than shopping. The limit of our technological horizons should be more than the next iPhone; and so we help save not just ourselves but the planet. Work will not be lost over night, but by gradually reducing the weekly working week, starting maybe at 30 hours, and introducing a reasonable CBI, at say £75 per week, increasing it over time would be incredibly popular policies for the left. What is not to like?
The politics of this is to “build up support and a common language for a new world, seeking to alter the balance of power in preparation for when a crisis upsets the legitimacy of society. Unlike forms of folk politics, such a strategy is expansive, long term, comfortable with abstraction and complexity, and aimed at overthrowing capitalist universalism”. In my vernacular it is the Jetsons not the Flintstones to which we should aspire.
The book ends looking at how to ‘build power’. Asking, who are the active agents of the post-work project? If there is no universal (working) class a new ‘we’ must be stitched together. It will be red and green, feminist and anti-racist, mobilising against barriers to immigration, using a common vision of an alternative world and key policy demands like CBI to get us there – taking us beyond the point where “mass outrage meets mass impotence”. It will join the insecure middle class to the precariate. Here, Compass is trying to grapple with the idea of 45 Degree Politics: the point at which the horizontal and the vertical meet, recognizing the need for spontaneity and organisation.
This all begs a big question. The left, in the form of Labour does well when it owns the future: 1945, 1964 and even elements of 1997. But can Labour own the next future? Given this analysis we must have our doubts. The very name of the party is a clue. A party that is founded on the dignity of labour is going to struggle to find a voice in an age where work becomes residualised. Indeed, the crisis of social democracy the world over is in part down to the shift from a world based on production to a world based on consumption. Another revolution is taking us beyond post-Fordism to the networked society. What is a party called Labour to do when the left project is to repurpose technology to eradicate jobs, not fetishise them?
The purpose of neo-liberalism is to cancel the future, where tomorrow looks exactly like today only with more stuff and more debt. To hell with that! Our lives are too short and too precious to exist in this Matrix. Please read the book, tell others to read it and let’s invent our future.
Neal Lawson: firstname.lastname@example.org