The Future

by cominsitu

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Inventing the Future

The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.

Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.

The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.

On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.

Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

The second post in our forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, from Steven Shaviro. Steven is the DeRoy Professor of English at Wayne State University. He blogs at The Pinocchio Theory.


The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-François Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.‟ By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” – as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx – is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left – one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

The new technologies – digital and otherwise – of the last several decades are currently straining against the “fetters” of the very system that initially produced them. Information streams are censored and crippled as a result of so-called “intellectual property” laws; companies like Apple and Google appropriate the profits resulting from research that was conducted at public expense. The automation and robotization of so many jobs leads, not to comfort and liberation from toil, but to precarity and dispossession.

Srnicek and Williams argue in their manifesto that we need to adapt these new technologies for emancipatory ends, rather than resisting and opposing them. They argue for a future-oriented left politics, “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” They suggest that we should seek, not to restrain, but rather to “unleash latent productive forces.” They even call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” We might say that Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism stands in relation to that of Nick Land much as early Soviet Constructivism stood in relation to Italian Futurism.

Srnicek and Williams’ important new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers a full-length expansion of the program that was first outlined in their manifesto. The most surprising thing about the book, however, is that the actual word “accelerationism” scarcely appears anywhere within it. As the authors explain in an endnote,

We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has risen around the concept, rather than from any abdication of its tenets as we understand them.

What this means, in practice, is that Srnicek and Williams’ ideas are removed from the incendiary context in which they were first proposed. Though the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference. Without the expressive urgency connoted both by the word “accelerationism,” and the hyperbole that is basic to the manifesto as a genre, Srnicek and Williams’ proposals seem – well, they seem downright moderate and reasonable.

The authors start the book by offering a (mostly) comradely critique of the left’s recent predilection for “horizontalist” modes of organization, for privileging local concerns over global ones, for avoiding any explicit list of demands, and for direct democracy and spontaneous direct action. All these have been prominent features of the Occupy movement and other recent protest actions. But Srnicek and Williams argue that these tactics “do not scale.” They may work well enough in particular instances, but they are not of much help when it comes to building a larger and longer-enduring oppositional movement, one that could actually work towards changing our basic conditions of life.

This line of argument seems irrefutable to me — although it will likely irritate large segments of the book’s potential audience, particularly those whose general orientation is anarchist rather than Marxist. It is not just a question of organisational work — something that, admittedly, I have never done much of, myself — but also of orientation and basic vision. Local and horizontal political tactics are incomplete in themselves; they need to be supplemented by more global, or universal, modes of action and concern.

Unfortunately, Srnicek and Williams do not do themselves any favours when they characterise localist and horizontal tactics as “folk politics.” Such an appellation is deeply condescending. It is derived by analogy from “folk psychology,” the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves. I entirely agree with the cognitivists that there is a lot going on in our minds that is not directly accessible to conscious awareness. But this need not entail that, as Paul Churchland notoriously put it, “our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory,” so that things like beliefs and desires don’t really even exist. The same holds for “folk politics” as for “folk psychology.” Pointing out the incompleteness of a mode of understanding is one thing; but dismissing it as entirely false and delusional is quite another. Srnicek and Williams convincingly argue that we need a more expansive, and more fully imaginative, form of both action and theorization; but they could well have pointed this out without the contempt and disparagement implied by the term “folk politics.”

In any case, after the opening chapters devoted to “the negative task of diagnosing the strategic limitations of the contemporary left,” Srnicek and Williams turn to the positive project of spelling out an alternative. This is where they do indeed make accelerationist proposals, while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years. They suggest, first of all, that the left needs to reclaim the mantle of modernism (the attitude) and modernity (the process) that it held for much of the twentieth century. This means, among other things, embracing and detourning new technologies, and finding a new sort of universalism that includes all the many local needs and forms of struggle, bringing them together without erasing their concrete particulars. (Here I wish that they had given consideration to something like Gilbert Simondon’s notions of transversality and transindividuality — for a discussion of which, in terms of left politics, see Jason Read’s new book The Politics of Transindividuality).

Beyond this, Srnicek and Williams analyze the ways that new technologies are transforming capitalism. They focus particularly on the ways that computerization and robotics are making more and more jobs redundant – without producing new sorts of jobs to replace them, as was the case in earlier waves of automation. We are standing on the verge of a “post-work world.” Given this situation, they suggest four basic demands around which the left can and should unite:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

It is not that these demands will solve all problems; obviously they fail to address racism, sexism, and many other pressing needs. I myself would want to add a fifth demand to the list: the right of migration, and abolition of borders. But even without this addition, I think that the demands listed by Srnicek and Williams do indeed make sense as a “minimal” program. For one thing, they would establish the material conditions – freedom from hunger, homelessness, and other forms of severe want – under which racism and sexism could be more forcefully addressed and opposed than is the case today. For another thing, although these demands are in themselves concrete and attainable – as the world today is wealthy enough, and technologically advanced enough, to realise them – their fulfilment would require massive economic, social, and political transformations: ones that would take us beyond the limits of capitalism as it actually exists today.

Even if the left is able to unite around this series of demands, actually attaining them will remain a difficult task. Srnicek and Williams sensibly note that

the power of the left – broadly construed – needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of’modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.

Along these lines, they offer a number of concrete proposals, most of them good. They remind us, especially, that we cannot hope for immediate results, but need to play a long game. This is not a matter of the old debate between “reform” and “revolution” – an alternative that is now outdated. Rather, it means that a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible.

To illustrate this, Srnicek and Williams follow Philip Mirowski in tracing the history of the “neoliberal thought collective,” as it moved from a fringe group just after World War II to the dominant ideological force in the world after 1980. I have mixed feelings about this example, however. The story of neoliberalism’s triumph does indeed demonstrate the virtues of patience, cunning, keeping an eye on the long term, and understanding that the “common sense” of the broader society needs to change if policies are to change. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” concerned with more than immediate results. But the long-term success of the neoliberals has a lot to do with their access to money and to organs of public opinion. The capitalist class may well have accepted the Keynesian compromise in the post-War period, but they were always amenable to a new formation that would only increase their wealth, power, and influence. Ideological hegemony is a form of class struggle by different means. A left counter-hegemonic project will never be able to command the sorts of resources that the neoliberals had, as the moved from the margins to the centre of policy-making.

The larger point here is that, as Fredric Jameson once put it,

It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself. There can never be satisfactory political solutions or systems; but there can be better economic ones, and Marxists and leftists need to concentrate on those.

This doesn’t mean that politics can be ignored; the task of making a better economic order will always require deep political engagement. And Srnicek and Williams’ economic analysis of the material conditions for a “post-work” economy is quite good. But it still remains that they – like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century – are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.

Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. As Srnicek and Williams put it at the very end of their book,

Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computing power, the left should mobilise dreams of decarbonising the economy, space travel, robot economies – all the traditional touchstones of science fiction – in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism.

Post-capitalism (or better, communism – to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages – just barely – to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.

Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

The third post, and second guest, in the Disorder’s forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Joseph Kay writes on climate change and libertarian communism with the collaborative blog Out of the Woods.


Having drafted the following comment on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ (henceforth S&W) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, it reads more critically than I expected. In mitigation, I should say that I’m on-board with many of the key themes of the book. I am wholly sympathetic to anti-work politics, generally in favour of automating away toil (with qualifications which will become apparent), and agree that the replacement of global capitalism requires scalability, comfort with complexity, long-term strategy, utopian imagination, and a plurality of organisational forms and infrastructure.

The critical tenor of what follows arises less from disagreement as such, than from my focus on what appear to be the ecological silences in the text. In particular, I focus on the implied conception of nature imported through S&W’s adoption of an avowedly modern rhetoric of progress and control, and on the unmentioned premises of both the project of full automation, and their more general contention that “we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path” (p.177). My argument is not to reject a high-tech, low-work future, but to outline some of the problems to be addressed in rendering such a ‘hyperstitional’ image ecological.

Modernity and the Ideology of Nature

Early on in Inventing the Future, S&W summarise their thesis:

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

Read in an ecological light, the conjunction of ‘think and control’ affords two readings. The first and obvious reading is that their argument is situated within what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature. Smith argued that the ideology of nature had two poles. The first, a modernising politico-theological argument which saw scientific progress as the means to conquer and subdue nature. Here, the imaginary is mechanical, and separation from – as dominion over – nature is understood as an emancipatory process.

The second pole was romanticism, which sought rather to tread lightly and revere nature as an arcadian wilderness. This emerged as a counter-movement to modernism. As Smith puts it, “the romanticization of nature was not even possible until nature had already been substantially subdued (…) One does not pet a rattlesnake until it has been de-fanged.” Here the imaginary is organic, and separation from nature is understood as the loss of an originary wholeness.

It is easy to read S&W’s ‘human scale folk politics’ as Smith’s ‘back-to-nature romanticism’, and to read S&W’s own position as a reassertion of modernist ideology against romantic backsliding. Their vocabulary of progress and modernity certainly draws its rhetorical force from this tradition. And when they lambast ‘folk politics’ for valorising “feeling over thinking” (p.11), insist that “as we acquire (…) scientific knowledge of the natural world (…) world, we gain greater powers to act” (p.81), and declare that there is “no organic wholeness to be achieved. Alienation is a mode of enablement” (p.82), they would appear firmly within this camp.

Yet through the lens of Smith, both of poles of the ideology of nature have problematic premises, and owe more to one another than either would like to admit: “hostile or friendly, nature was external; it was a world to be conquered or a place to go back to.” Both are premised on the contradictory dualism of an external nature (to be conquered or revered), and a universal nature including ‘human nature’ (with its ‘savage’ component to be civilised or reconnected with). Smith links this contradictory dualism to the historical development of capitalism, through colonialism and industrialisation, where nature, external and human, really appears as a frontier to be conquered and an input into the production process. This production process in turn reproduces the conditions of the ideology of nature. Hence the contradictory ideology of nature is the inverted reflection of capitalist modernity.

In Chapter 4 on Left Modernity, however; S&W are keen to differentiate their project from capitalist modernity and its colonialist ‘progress’. Hence a second reading is also possible. If environmentalists often throw the baby out with the bathwater, mistake instrumental goods (the local, hard work, ‘organic’ food) for intrinsic goods, and reify a pristine nature (anarcho-primitivism/anti-civilization being the reductio ad absurdum of this tendency), then modernists just as frequently fetishise technological fixes, disavow practical knowledges, and champion a hubristic image of modernising scientific progress at odds with the caveats and qualifications that permeate a typical scientific paper (one need only think of the Ecomodernist Manifesto here).

Where both modernist and romantic (/‘folk’) positions take nature as a given, Smith’s critique of the ideology of nature takes aim at its premises, capitalist social relations and the inverted image of nature they produce. In its place is the notion of the production of nature, which crucially “implies a historical future that is still to be determined.”Here we seem close to what S&W want to argue, but to make this reading work their conflation of knowledge and control needs to be teased apart. Put simply, knowledge does not imply control, and sometimes – for instance in certain classes of complex systems – provides a negative proof of such a possibility.

Climate change is a case in point of the fact that the production of nature does not imply control. The greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming are uncontroversially produced, and yet their consequences are neither intended nor wholly predictable, let alone controlled. The production of nature includes everything from the most megalomaniacal global geoengineering scheme to the most low-tech localist permaculture. In shifting away from the dualist framing (think: ecological ‘footprints’), it moves away from the either/or framings that characterise much environmental debate – and indeed S&W’s approach quoted at the start of this section – towards more productive questions of how we produce nature, including ourselves, without presuming an answer in advance.

This seems like a necessary move if we are, as S&W urge, to treat the universal not as a given content but “an empty placeholder that is impossible to fill definitively” (p.77). However, it may pull the argument in directions too ‘folk’ for S&W’s tastes. One gets the impression that they would be enthusiastic to learn of a self-replicating, carbon-scrubbing machine with the potential to geoengineer the climate – but disappointed to learn this machine is called a forest (and no doubt ‘folk’ partisans bristle at life described as machine!). When S&W embrace ‘emancipatory alienation’ they do so to reject the existence of any originary wholeness to which it is possible to return. But this remains a dualist frame which suggests that because no such pristine moment exists, nature must be separated from and controlled. This rhetorical move forecloses many more generative possibilities.

S&W mention in passing Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, but miss that Haraway’s cyborgs “are wary of holism, but needy for connection”. This is not an embrace of emancipatory alienation or simple technological augmentation of the human, but an explicitly anti-dualist ontological claim that there is neither an originary wholeness nor clear boundaries (and hence separation/alienation) between the human, the natural and the technological. Indeed, Haraway identifies both original wholeness and alienation as two moments of the same dualistic “Western epistemological imperatives” she is seeking to subvert. The figure of the cyborg calls into question the binary distinction between the mechanical and the organic.

While the romantic (and folk?) critique of modernity is that it is a loss of a primordial Arcadia, a separation to be undone, there is another critique of modernity. Particularly evident in the postcolonial critique of modernisation theory, it argues that ‘modernity’ is defined through the disavowal and rejection of the ‘traditional’. In Inventing the Future, ‘folk politics’ often seems to play this role of disavowed other, against which progress, modernity, and the future can be defined. Yet in the introduction, S&W also insist that “folk politics is necessary but insufficient” (p.12). Taking this caveat seriously points more to project of connection than alienation, where “on-the-ground knowledge must be linked up with more abstract knowledge” (p.174).

This connective theme evokes James C. Scott’s famous – and in S&W’s terms, folk – critique of ‘authoritarian high modernism’, whose failures he diagnosed as arising from privileging simplified abstractions to the exclusion of practical, local knowledge. Indeed in approvingly commenting on the Chilean Project Cybersyn, S&W use a key term of Scott’s, bricolage: improvising something new from the materials at hand (p.149). Yet the bricoleur does not control and conquer nature, occupying instead a more cooperative, connective and pragmatic relation to their surroundings. In the words of Muscogee scholar Daniel R Wildcat:

Today, the problem is that the measure of technological progress is often thought of as the extent to which humankind can control and mitigate the so-called forces of nature. I find it hard to imagine a more problematic and potentially dangerous idea. We must figure out a way to live with nature.

Wildcat gives the example of disastrous attempts by the US Army Corps of Engineers to control the Missouri and Kansas rivers to protect cities built on flood plains, which resulted in two ‘five hundred year floods’ and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in a three year period in the 1990s. While warning against the rejection of modern science and technology, Wildcat insists we “face the challenge of identifying technologies that have value beyond the exploitative narrow economic measures of profit.” Against the mentality of control, he advocates a cooperative approach that makes use of place-based knowledge to construct cities and infrastructure out of danger in the first place, rather than relying on expensive and ultimately counterproductive engineering projects.

It may be that S&W are simultaneously making the general argument about the nature of the universal (an empty placeholder whose content we must contest), and a specific argument for their favoured content (a project of emancipatory alienation and control of complexity). But if so, failing to make this clear means the latter position tends to foreclose the opening intended by the former. Excluding in advance positions such as Wildcat’s “indigenous realism” from contributing to the collective project of inventing the future would seem like a mistake, and one which brings into focus modernity’s tangled relationship to colonialism.

Modernity and Colonialism

S&W are at pains to distinguish their advocacy of progress, modernisation and the future from the colonial history this rhetorical palette evokes. Indeed, having recounted their caveats against teleology, unilinearity, and eurocentrism (Chapter 4), it seems like this choice of rhetorical frame has as much to do with announcing a break with continental philosophy’s received postmodern wisdom as a wholesale embrace of the European Enlightenment – which after all ‘invented’ scientific racism and engaged in ‘high-risk adventures’ of colonial appropriation alongside its more defensible achievements.[1] Such a reading is supported by their call in the conclusion to “reappraise which parts of the post-Enlightenment matrix can be saved and which must be discarded” (p.181), an approach morebricoleur than revanchiste.

However, the relationship between modernity and colonialism is not a purely historical question, but one that thoroughly permeates the automated technologies required for a post-work future. This is not to raise a primitivist objection that machines are inherently at odds with nature (such a dualistic frame having been already rejected), but to stress that the colonial imbrication with modernity cannot simply be disavowed; it has to be undone.

To take one example, rare earth minerals are essential components of modern electronics, and hence any automation project. Yet mining these minerals produces radioactive slurry tailings, and refining them produces toxic acid byproducts. The environmental justice movement has long highlighted the environmental racism whereby exposure to toxic waste is unevenly distributed along lines of race and class. Writing of Silicon Valley, ground zero of high tech industry, Nick Dyer-Witheford observes:

…on the one hand, palatial billionaire mansions, and on the other, 23 ‘Super-Fund’ abandoned toxic waste sites scheduled for special clean up operations, the most of any county in the US.

Within the global division of labour this takes a distinctly neocolonial form. The DRC is one of the world’s main producers of rare earth minerals, continuing the violent history of extractive processes that runs from Leopold’s genocide through the assassination of Patrice Lumumba to the present day – often forced and slave – labour in the coltan mines. At the other end of the tech lifecycle is Agbogbloshie. On the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital Accra, it hosts a vast e-waste dump, where pollutants including lead, mercury, arsenic and dioxins are present in high concentrations. Thousands of people live amongst the toxic waste.

While automation could in principle minimise human exposure to toxic substances within the labour process, it is currently premised on the existence of less-than-human – i.e. racialised – populations and neocolonial patterns of waste-disposal outside the immediate process of production. The problem of toxic waste is not mentioned inInventing the Future, yet without addressing head-on how this dependence could be undone, any project of full automation is complicit in and dependent upon the continuation of colonial, racialised social relations.[2]

Another example of the imbrication of modernity and coloniality is apparent in one of the proposed technological fixes to climate change, solar radiation management (SRM). This is not a technology advocated in the pages ofInventing the Future, however it is fully consistent with an approach which champions technologically-augmented human control of complexity while devalorising merely particularistic and local objections as an obstacle to progress. It therefore serves as a good illustration of what is at stake.

The principle behind SRM is simple. The warming aspect of climate change is proximally caused by outgoing longwave (infrared) radiation becoming trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere, raising the surface temperature. To counter this, it is proposed to use atmospheric aerosols (or orbital reflectors) to intercept a portion of the sun’s incoming shortwave radiation (‘insolation’), thus reducing the total energy input to the Earth system and offsetting the surface warming caused by greenhouse gases. This seems like a textbook case of technologically-augmented human control over complex systems.

However, the Earth’s atmosphere being the prototypical chaotic system – i.e. deterministic but with sensitive dependence on initial conditions – the localised consequences are not easily modelled (SRM alters the atmosphere’s temperature gradient, known as the lapse rate, which is critical to meteorology). Some models suggest that the main adverse consequence of SRM would be severe droughts in regions dependent on seasonal rains, principally sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.[3] S&W’s critique of the precautionary principle could easily be invoked by SRM advocates here:

…the precautionary principle contains an almost inherent lacuna: it ignores the risks of its own application. In seeking to err always on the side of caution, and hence of eliminating risk, it contains a blindness to the dangers of inaction and omission. While risks need to be reasonably hedged, a fuller appreciation of the travails of contingency implies that we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path. The precautionary principle is designed to close off the future and eliminate contingency, when in fact the contingency of high-risk adventures is precisely what leads to a more open future… (p.177)

What the SRM example highlights is that the ‘we’ taking the risks and the ‘they’ shouldering the consequences need not necessarily coincide. It’s easy to wax lyrical about high risk adventures when someone else picks up the tab. This ‘someone else’ is determined through the extant relations of power, hence typically racialised and usually (post)colonial. It is clear from S&W’s caveats that they are keen to dissociate their left modernity from such implications, but they also provide arguments which, in the absence of delimitation on their part, could readily be appropriated to such ends.

Conclusion

Srnicek and Williams adopt wholesale the rhetoric of modernisation, but attempt to distance themselves from its darker side through both a series of caveats and qualifications, and by attempting to redefine the content of modernity. The conjunction of knowledge and control in their summary of their approach affords two readings. The obvious one operates within the ideology of nature and allies itself to the historical project of human separation from and control of nature, while disavowing the local and particular as a conservative, precautionary brake on progress, longing for a mythic originary wholeness.

However, their ‘necessary but not sufficient’ framing of ‘folk politics’ affords another reading that eludes this binary framework. Read through the Smith’s notion of the production of nature, and Haraway’s figure of the cyborg, S&W can be read as advocating a bricolage that brings together various practical and abstract knowledges in a cooperative production of nature. Yet this reading does go against S&W’s advocacy of emancipatory alienation.

While keen to distance themselves from modernity’s colonial origins, the ongoing imbrication of the project of full automation with racialised and neocolonial relations produced in and through high-tech production is not addressed. The default position is therefore one of complicity. One possible way to address this without rejecting technology or automation per se would be to generalise the deployment of industrial ecology/closed-loop production methods, whereby waste outputs are engineered to become inputs to other processes.[4]

This approach would constitute a bricolage of applied scientific and place-based knowledges aiming at a cooperative connection with, rather than control of, the material-energetic flows of wider ecological webs: a production of nature that is neither a frontier to conquer nor an idyll to return to. We could even speculate that necessarily local anti-extractive struggles – relatively immune to capital flight – may catalyse the global development of closed-loop methods in much the same way that S&W hope that wage struggles will catalyse automation.

However it is addressed, the racialised, colonial premises of full automation cannot simply be disavowed, they have to be undone; if that is, the emancipatory potential of automation is to be universal. This argument could be seen as an extension of the book’s emphasis on the quietly constraining and enabling role of infrastructure, a point made throughout (especially p.133). This is particularly important given the potential for anti-work politics to bridge the red-green divide that allows jobs-and-growth trade unionists and environmentalists to be divided and ruled:

…reductions in the working week would lead to significant reductions in energy consumption and our overall carbon footprint. Increased free time would also mean a reduction in all the convenience goods bought to fit into our hectic work schedules. More broadly, using productivity improvements for less work, rather than more output, would mean that energy efficiency improvements would go towards reducing environmental impacts. A reduction in working hours is therefore an essential plank in any response to climate change. (p.116)

However, in the context of climate change, S&W make several arguments which seem too easily appropriated to support technofixes rather than the needed social-ecological transformation. Ecology is frequently invoked as metaphor – as in organisational ecology (p.162) – but an ecological perspective doesn’t appear as more than a fringe benefit to the program of full automation. Climate change demands a utopian politics against default dystopian despair. Inventing an anti-work ecological politics is surely necessary and desirable, and indeed:

Doing so requires us to salvage the legacy of modernity and reappraise which parts of the post-Enlightenment matrix can be saved and which must be discarded. (p.181)

I contend that what is to be discarded includes the ideology of nature, and modernity’s blindspot to its own ongoing racialised/colonial imbrications.


[1] Beate Jahn’s The Cultural Construction of International Relations: The Invention of the State of Nature (Palgrave, 2000) offers a persuasive account of the role of the colonial encounter in generating central categories of specifically modern political thought.

[2] See the recent episode of Novara FM discussing post-colonial ecologies for an extended discussion of this issue.

[3] See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, (pp. 256-290) for a critique of SRM, and David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (pp. 257-266) for a measured advocacy of temporary SRM as an emergency measure.

[4] These techniques already exist within capitalism, but deployment is constrained to those cases where minimising waste helps maximise profits. See the film Waste = Food on for examples of extant closed-loop production.

(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future

The fourth post in our (already pretty popular) forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, this time from Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell. Sophie is at the University of Manchester, writing up a PhD on surrogacy’s uneven ‘cyborg’ geography and thinking about its utopian potential. She has written about surrogates for JacobinThe New Inquiry, and The Occupied Times; currently, excerpts are included in the 2015 “Technotopia” symposium. She also writes with the Out of the Woods (anticapitalist ecology) collective. She has co-translated Bini Adamczak’s Communism For Kids and written things that appear in Mute, Open Democracy, the ‘Demanding the Future’ tumblr, and on Novara WireDavid M. Bell is a Research Associate on the ‘Imagine’ project in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. He is interested in the potentials and dangers of utopia(nism) within, against and beyond capital, the state and itself. He has written on the politics of musical improvisation, utopian fiction and participatory arts practice; and is currently working on two book projects: Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect, to be published by Routledge in 2016; and A Future History of Sheffield: Art Practice, Hope and the City, with Jessica Dubow and Richard Steadman-Jones.

1.

Inventing the Future provides a ‘plausible programme for ‘a world free of work’. It ‘shows us how we can organise’ to ‘realise a postcapitalist world’. So state its back-cover endorsements by Mark Fisher and Paul Mason. You should never judge a book by its blurb, but these claims are not to be sniffed at: here are two prominent thinkers of the UK left positioning this book as, if not a blueprint for utopia, a blueprint for utopianism – a roadmap that doesn’t quite cover the future but certainly takes us to its outskirts. The hyperbole continues away from Verso’s official promotional campaign too: Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani has publicly suggested that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet receive copies of the book’s chapters as bedtime reading pamphlets. We are not so sure. There is much of value in Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF); and it certainly opens up space for thinking about what might be and how we might get there. But there are serious questions about who this future is for, whose labour (re)produces it, and who it will continue to exclude.

Before the reader is let in on how we can invent the future, however, they need to be disabused of various notions that are holding it back. These are grouped together under the rubric of ‘folk politics’ – a supposed ‘constellation of ideas and intuitions within the contemporary left that informs the common-sense ways of organising, acting and thinking politics’ (p. 10). Its key features are the privileging of ‘local particularisms’; the spatially and temporally ‘immediate’ (and ‘unmediated’); ‘resistance’; and the ‘natural’. The attitude that Srnicek and Williams (hereafter S&W) take to this assemblage is remarkably similar to Marx and Engels’ position on utopian socialism: it was necessary in that it locally kept alive the possibility of alternative ways of living while large-scale political change was impossible, but once the material conditions for totalizing political change (supposedly) arrive, revolutionaries should embrace them and move beyond their quaintly uninspiring New Lanarks, exchange banks and workers’ associations. The time! is! (was!) now! (then!).

Against ‘folk politics’, S&W believe that a return to universalism is necessary for the invention of the future. Whilst acknowledging the colonial history (p. 76) of the universal and rejecting ‘Eurocentricism’ (pp. 77-78), they nonetheless argue that abandoning this structure of thought entails ‘licensing all sorts of oppressions as simply the inevitable consequence of plural cultural forms.’ (p. 77) This seems odd given that so many Indigenous and pre-colonial practices, identities, sexualities and cosmologies with liberatory potential have been destroyed in the name of universalism; and whilst these are acknowledged with the claim that there are non-European forms of ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ (p. 77), we are not convinced that these decidedly European terms are the most suitable labels for them. (What does ‘progress’ mean for cultures whose temporalities are nonlinear, for example?). We are more heartened, however, by the call for a universalism that is ‘pluri-versal’ and ‘does not entail homogeneity…does not necessarily involve converting diverse things into the same kind of thing’ (here, S&W refer to capitalism’s ability to sustain and draw power from diverse forms of social organization); and which ‘must recognise the agency of those outside Europe…in building truly planetary and universal futures.’ (p. 78)

This pluri-versalism sounds almost folk-political at times: S&W use it to argue for ‘[the] ‘self-determination of cultures in mutual horizontal engagement’ (p. 200). Yet there is also substantial engagement with François Jullien, who one might be forgiven for interpreting as saying that universalism is its own best antidote. If the relationship between uni- and pluri-versalism seems laced with abstraction and contradiction (as they did to us) then S&W’s highlighting of the ‘universal’ aspect of Universal Basic Income (one of their four ‘demands’, which we cover shortly) is perhaps illustrative. It is this non-negotiable characteristic, they argue, which would enable everyone to forge new lives for themselves and would, presumably, result in a proliferation of ways of living (p. 119). Perhaps, then, it is useful to differentiate between two universalisms: on the one hand universal representational cosmologies (which deny multiplicity); and on the other universal (infra)structures or tactics (which make multiplicity possible). The former, we believe, must be avoided; we endorse the latter.

Unfortunately, S&W display their ‘only after the revolution’ tendencies here, stating that ‘[p]luri-versalism…relies upon the elimination of capitalism and is dependent upon a counter-hegemonic postcapitalist project as its presupposed condition of existence’ (p.200). Bummer! Here, we argue, S&W conflate the two forms of universalism explicated in the previous paragraph to potentially damaging effects. The elimination of capitalism, to us, is all about prefigurative pluri-versalism, as frustrating and messy as this may be; and to illustrate this we want to point to the importance of Indigenous struggle (conspicuous by its absence in ItF).[1] Indigenous people have frequently been equated with the natural; whilst Indigenous politics is necessarily ‘local’ in focus (even if it is often all-too-aware of the global dimensions of power) and frequently entails resistance against enclosure. Do S&W see Indigeneity as a ‘folk political’ drag on the future? The consequences of their claims for Indigenous politics are – seemingly – that it should get on board with a ‘universal’ left-modernity in return for the promise that it be allowed to develop autonomous ways of living once capitalism is overthrown. The caveat that resistance ‘can be important in some circumstances’ (p.47) seems insufficient, particularly given that we are given no criteria by which to recognise such circumstances.

A number of S&W’s binary oppositions come together here in a particularly problematic manner. Resistance is opposed to action, leaving us mired in the local (instead of the global); and protecting the past (against the future). The linear temporality at play here would, of course, be challenged by many Indigenous cosmologies; and we suggest as that as a creative, productive act, resistance frequently opens up space for the future. This future, however, should not be positioned as being ‘different from and better than the past’ (p. 72) – but rather as what Jose Esteban Muñoz refers to as a queerly ‘ecstatic’ time in which various temporalities merge. (Indeed, is S&W’s ‘future’ of space travel and automation not itself strangely of the past?)[2] We suspect that works at the intersection of queerness and indigeneity may well be of value in theorizing this further; and at the level of praxis would point to the manner in which Zapatismo draws on Indigenous knowledges in seeking to forge alternative futures, or to the utopianisms of figures such as Sun Ra, Ursula Le Guin and Octavia Butler, which draw heavily on ‘local’, ‘folk’ and Indigenous knowledges in imagining futures. We are not, of course, calling for fetishization of Indigeneity as having all the answers (the ‘noble savage’). We also note that it is important to be mindful of Vanessa Watts’ critique of Euro-Western knowledge production for treating Indigenous histories as ‘as story and process – an abstracted tool of the West’; and call on non-Indigenous people interested in transformative politics (ourselves included) to engage more substantively with Indigenous thought on its own terms.

There is much more to say about ‘folk politics’ than there is space to do so here, and we think that Joseph Kay already provides an excellent critique of S&W’s conception of nature. But there is one specific manifestation of the disavowal of folk politics that we cannot allow to pass unchallenged: that ‘emotional and visceral elements’ in the contemporary left ‘replace and stymie (rather than complement and enhance) more abstract analysis.’ (p. 8) Social media is, we are told, partly to blame for this: ‘“[o]nline “politics”’ (scare quotes in original) apparently ‘tend[ing] towards the self-preservation of moral purity’ through which people ‘are more concerned to appear right than to think about the conditions of political change.’ There is talk of ‘vitriolic crusade[s]’ and the claim that ‘public demonstrations of empathy’ trump ‘more finely tuned analysis, resulting in hasty or misplaced action – or none at all.’ (p. 8) It is crypticism of this type, with publicly coded allusions to specific but unnamed events, which functions to suggest a false consensus about these events. Later on, S&W argue that disappointment is a ‘more productive’ affective mode than anger as it ‘indexes a yearning for a lost future’ (p. 141).

Our response to this is emotional and visceral, both angry and disappointed. It is, of course, possible for anger and moralising to cripple movement (though this may sometimes be for the best: not all movement is good movement). But by failing to set boundaries or give examples to demonstrate when affect’s ‘complementing and enhancing’ gives way to ‘replacing and stymying’ ‘abstract analysis’ (a binary opposition we do not accept), S&W leave the door open to those who see every expression of anger about abuse in leftist spaces as an unnecessary drag on the future. In a climate where opposition to safer spaces and accountability processes is worryingly common this is deeply damaging. Perhaps they do not mean to align themselves with these, but it is incredibly difficult to tell – their critique is so vague as to function as a ‘floating signifier’ that the reader can fill in with their own experience. So where one might associate ‘moralising’ with sneering critiques of people who eat fast food, another is thinking of how pesky feminists demand that we don’t tolerate abusers in our spaces until they have gone through accountability processes. Nor is it clear what they mean by ‘misplaced action’: trolling the commentariat on Twitter? Paint-bombing Cereal Killer Cafe? Excluding transphobes from our spaces?

Nor are the outrages Srnicek and Williams speak of simply daily. Of course there are twitter storms, but the oppressions they often highlight are many peoples’ everyday reality,  to which anger – rather than (or as well as) – disappointment is an entirely understandable response. This anger is often not concerned with the ‘self-preservation of moral purity’ but simple self-preservation; and we read ‘public demonstrations of empathy’, quite simply, as solidarity. Those in need of this solidarity are also desperately in need of a future that welcomes them, and have much to offer its creation: a point powerfully made by Sara Ahmed, who suggests that we stop seeing those who introduce ‘bad feelings’ as being ‘oriented to the past, as a kind of stubbornness that “stops” the subject from embracing the future’. Rather, she notes, we must accept that ‘to share what deviates from happiness is to open up possibility, to be alive to possibility’. As we will see shortly, Srnicek and Williams correctly identify work as one major contemporary source of unhappiness, but we must not privilege combating it over other sources.

2.

And so on to work. It is everywhere and it is our enemy. Waged work, housework, piecework, sex work, grunt work, and – in our view – the real and wearing work of facing life on the sharp end of classed, gendered and racialized embodiments. It can and should be reduced to quasi-absence from every human life. Would that this were a truth more universally acknowledged (the claim that work is character-forming and dignified is spouted not just by Conservative chancellors but by many on the left as well)! In other words, we agree with Srnicek and Williams wholeheartedly: it’s not Mondays you hate, it’s your job (p. 114).

A core contention of ItF is that the ideology of work could be effectively combatted by organising around four key demands: 1) full automation, 2) the reduction of the working week, 3) the provision of a Universal Basic Income, and 4) the diminishment of the work ethic. Through these, automation – which under capitalism means ‘the misery of not being exploited’ (Joan Robinson, quoted p. 87 and 92) – is transformed into the joy of not being exploited. This is exciting. We are enjoined (or reminded) to struggle for ‘post-work imaginaries’ and make them flesh. Four simple demands lever open the future such that we can start to think what we would do with increased free time; how we might reorganise our childcare, our ‘leisure’, our creativity. As work is reduced, we have increased time to ‘slow down and reflect, safely protected from the constant pressures of neoliberalism’ (p. 121). An insistence on struggling for these four demands together (p. 127) makes it harder for capitalism to incorporate particular elements of them into a new ideological and bio/necropolitical formation, although we should be alert to the fact that this remains a very real risk: we have, after all, seen our demands for liberation from drudgery and gendered oppression regurgitated as creative, flexible and feminized labour, allowing neoliberalism to present itself as what we wanted all along.

Whilst we welcome and endorse these four demands we need to attend to their situatedness, which substantially defines what they mean. We do not think them a sufficient mandate for instigating a refusal of work by all. Rather, they depend on – or at least perpetuate – the work of particular (gendered, racialized and classed) subjects across global, national and domestic divisions of labour. Globally, it is difficult to see how the technologies enabling automation can be produced – or even self-reproduced – without the continuation of what is currently some of the most dangerous, badly (if at all) paid and racialized work on the planet: the mining of raw materials, for which automation looks a long way off. And at the national level, it is hard to see how any demand for automation will be met given the ready, low-cost availability of prisoners’ labour-power, which is utilised, for example, to make circuit boards for IBM and Compaq. S&W do call for the abolition of ‘mass incarceration’ (p. 105), but this demand (or, better still, the demand for the abolition of prisons) must surely be as central as the four listed above.

Unless the call for the end of work is recentred, then, what is left is a call not for the overcoming of work but rather adisavowal of work. Or rather, the displacement of work onto the globally and nationally distributed racialized poor: prisoners, miners, slaves. To note this is to centre the politically indigestible point that most work on this planet is performed for the benefit of others – in order that they (whomsoever they may be) might work less, or work less dangerously. The many labour so that the few can live more fully, to paraphrase Kalindi Vora (and even if this is reversed it remains unacceptable). If the majority of work across the world today were to cease, then those who ItF is aimed at would see their smartphones, their families and their bodies fall apart.

The privilege of these ‘others’ to ‘work less’ is not distributed evenly either; and the displacement of work also operates on racialized, classed and gendered divisions of domestic and care labour. In a footnote referencing the work of Ruth Schwartz Cowan and Silvia Federici, S&W note that the introduction of household technologies ‘have tended to place greater demands on household maintenance, rather than allowing more free time’ (p. 219). This casts doubt on the utopianism of assigning (however non-committally) ‘highly personal and embarrassing care work’ to ‘impersonal robots’ (p.113-114). Whose work will the robots relieve, and what additional burdens will they create? Even if we could imagine a world where all ‘highly personal and embarrassing’ human touch – from the placenta and the pre-school child to the prostate and the penis – could be eliminated (in Burundi as well as in Britain), we do not think that any of S&W’s four demands are sufficient to achieve this, despite their claim that ‘[i]n a post-work society…care labour could be given greater value’ and that ‘the free time that accrues from full automation could also facilitate experimentation with alternative domestic arrangements’ (p. 113, emphasis added). Here we are reminded of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards (1888) and William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890), in which the dramatic reduction or eradication of the working week (and, in the former, increases in automation) allow society to be reproduced as a ‘utopia’. Yet, as Chris Ferns notes, they continue to be deeply patriarchal and heteronormative;whilst Dohra Ahmad has noted that they appear to be predicated on the continued existence of colonialism. Thingscould be different, but they are not, and this is not an accident.

Whether robots might be able to perform ‘highly personal and embarrassing’ care labour or not, S&W accept they are never going to do all care work. Here, a point that Nina Power raises in her thoughtful critique of S&W’s ‘#ACCELERATE: Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics’ remains relevant for ItF (even if S&W have largely shed the ‘accelerationist’ branding).[3] She notes that they have ‘bought into an image of labour that fails to capture the reality of both industrial and postindustrial service work, the latter of which might use machines no more complex than a mop or a coffee machine and which depends on highly embodied, deeply material, and emotional modes of exploitation.’ Such work continues to present a difficulty for the post-work imaginary offered in ItF given the vast amounts of labour – predominantly undertaken by women – that is performed such that economics cannot see it: unquantifiably, as with wiping a child’s runny nose; or part-unconsciously, as with contract gestation. S&W point to Project Cybersyn – the Allende government’s attempt to utilise cybernetic computing to instigate a decentralised socialist economy in Chile – as a model for a possible answer given increases in computing power since then. But you can’t manage what you can’t measure. What is to be done when labour is invisible, and cannot easily be made visible?

S&W are right to aver that the politics of post-work must be inherently scalable. They understand that the full automation and elimination of care work will not be possible, proposing instead that freeing up time from (implicitly, waged) work is the way to find out how to organise that socially reproductive work in anti-violent ways. In other words, the abolition of work, as traditionally understood, paves the way to rethink care and domestic work (p. 176). But of course, social reproduction has always been partially waged and professionalized, and Wages Against Housework can be seen as an archetypally accelerationist intervention, as suggested by Malcolm Harris. It may be that the authors of ItF don’t disagree, in which case it comes down to a question of priorities: what is centered and what is considered more incidental – to be worked out once we have more free time. Needless to say, experiments around caring strikes, motherhood strikes, sex worker strikes, and affective ‘work to rule’ are clearly far more scalable in the immediate-term, and more generative too, than the mass manufacture of robots who can tidy a room.

3.

We cannot help but feel, then, that there is a privileging of (ending) predominantly white, male work in ItF. Although S&W propose a ‘broad ecology of organisations’ to ‘invent’ this new world (p. 163), we are not convinced that the manner in which this is envisioned allows for that focus to be challenged sufficiently. Whilst S&W are correct to argue that fetishizing particular forms of organization in the here-and-now as providing answers for all time is a political dead-end, we are concerned by their call for a degree of hierarchy and closure (p. 163); or, at least, would like more clarification on what this means. We are, for example, all for spaces of ‘strategic essentialism’ that exclude, say, white people or cisgender men (#WeStandWithBaharMustafa). And we know the importance of organising away from the glare of the media, the electoral apparatus, and infiltrations by the state. (Indeed, such tactics are common in what S&W call ‘folk politics’.) Yet we cannot help but be suspicious of the vanguardist ‘Mont Pelerin of the Left’ they propose (p. 65-67) (beyond the most obvious objection: who funds it?). Whilst we accept that relentless horizontalism can be a hindrance to the future, we do not think the recent track record of ‘hierarchical and closed’ organizations on the left is anything to be inspired by, and are concerned that this may become a way to shut out those who are ‘angry’ from the task of inventing the future. Thus, we insist that there is a place for projects such asSalvage – which co-produces knowledge about (how to combat) abuse in activist communities in the UK – in the ‘broad ecology of organisations’ that must struggle for (rather than invent) the future. It might not aspire to anything so grand as reengineering the ideology that dominates in our society, but its power comes precisely from its mole-like undermining in/of the present. It is a piece of critical utopian infrastructure every bit as vital as those that S&W invoke.

Chapter 2 of ItF is entitled ‘Why are they winning?’, to which S&W’s answer – in short – is ‘because folk politics’. Well, maybe ‘they’ are winning. But isn’t this question a form of negging – ‘why aren’t you winning?’. It certainly seems this way given that S&W include no thought of self-criticism, or, as previously noted, self-situating. Whilst they acknowledge that the ‘we’ is important, they underestimate the manner in which this ‘we’ mutates; fails generatively and fails better; and composes and recomposes itself: processes that we think are politically valuable. The opposition between winning and losing is perhaps not so clear cut as they suggest, and as Kristin Ross’ recent work on the Paris Commune shows us, we should not be so quick to simply label projects ‘failures’. (Indeed, as Ross and others have noted, the Paris Commune pushed Marx to reconsider the rejection of the immediate, the direct and the prefigurative.) As people struggling to realise our own freedom we fall consistently into inconsistency and contradiction; and in this the phrase ‘ecology of organisations’ appears as a wishful ideal of ‘healthy’ homeostatic cooperation. But the organisational pluralisms on the world’s streets over the past couple of decades seem, to us, to be far more like actually existing ecology: mutating, techno-natural, unpretty, full of dissensus and containing multiple temporalities and mutations. As part of the hydra-headed struggle to live lives that are as free as possible from work’s death-grip, we also want to make, unmake and remake ourselves as we would like to be … which admittedly sounds – how to put it? – like a lot of hard work.

4.

Equating techno-sociality with modernity and the future – and resistance with the ‘folk’ – sits uneasily with us. In her response to #ACCELERATE, Nina Power expresses her opposition to the manifesto’s apparent ‘desire to fuse with machines, capitalism, and technology and somehow come out the other side (as what?).’ In fact, we do not detect such a desire in ItF: in its pages, humans and automatons remain separate, according to the familiar ordering that prevents the latter from causing ontological trouble (even where invectives against binarisms have become). Against this, we think Donna Haraway’s work on the inevitability of this ‘fusing’ (regardless of any ‘desire’ for it) has much to offer here; and complicates the dividing line between ‘machine’ and ‘organism’ which organises ItF’s politics of liberatory automation. This is not to say that we necessarily want to include toasters, diggers and doors in the political per se (although some indigenous cosmologies may suggest that we should, and should be taken seriously), but rather that we should pause when reallocating earthly toil to such technologies to acknowledge they have always already been ‘promiscuously’ mixed up with the human, as have a multitude of creepy-crawly things with nonhuman DNA. The machine is us. We became cyborg when we first cooked our food.

With this in mind, we propose dusting off a peace offering from Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto: ‘the acid tools of postmodernist theory and the constructive tools of ontological discourse about revolutionary subjects might be seen as ironic allies in dissolving Western selves in the interests of survival.’ Hybridizing marxist and postmodern projects in-and-against the human is a good way to arrive at the understanding that machines cannot straightforwardly save us (e.g. from work) if they’re already in us (similarly, there is ‘raw nature’ in us, too, subject to primitive accumulation in novel bio-economies). Therefore, if it is increasingly accepted that ‘nature’ is a term to be put in scare quotes, it is also time that ‘machine’ and ‘technology’ were treated similarly. The demand for ‘full automation’ needs to recognize that we ourselves can be part-automated and, indeed, already are. Think, for example, of neurological and psychological dependence on smartphones; or the fact that on a biological level we are affective data-producing workbots. Automation, then, is not quite so straightforward as S&W present it. As ever, the god from the machine (deus ex machina) disappoints.

This has consequences for what S&W call ‘synthetic freedom’ (p. 78-83): a decidedly Spinozist concept in which freedom is bound up with our capacity to act and constantly needs to be (collectively) remade. Taken seriously, the cyborg perspective means that the synthetically free neohuman cannot be imaged as a destination (however dynamic) to be reached by springboarding into postcapitalism. Rather, our reading suggests that the futurist (as opposed to ‘future’) ‘we’ (who S&W situate squarely in the future) mutates in non-linear fashion at different times and places throughout history. We agree with S&W’s assertion that the ‘classical revolutionary subject’ does not exist (p. 157) – indeed, we have doubts about his (no [sic] required!) ever having existed – but we would go further here: the classically defined, linearly evolving ‘human’ has also never existed. We have always been cyborgs with no clear place to go; and are (probably unendingly) stuck with the mess and trouble of making ourselves comrades – making ourselves, as S&W put it, a ‘people’.

5. 

It is common, in writing on utopia, to find the argument that utopias should not be read as blueprints for the future, but as heuristic devices which lever it open as a site of possibility. In this, they show us how we might organise our lives and estrange us from how we do organise our lives. The world could be otherwise, they posit; and so they encourage us to struggle for something better. Yet ItF does not show us utopia, S&W quite rightly pointing out that we do ‘not know what a sociotechnical body can do’, and stating that even the abolition of work will not provide us with an answer, once-and-for-all (p. 176). Besides, they note, the ‘best utopias are always riven by discord’ (p.177).

But ItF does give us a programme of utopianism, and it is our contention that the best utopianisms are also riven with discord. We hope, then, that this review is heard as sounding a dissonant note; and that this is heard to open space for further struggle. Attending to dissonance complicates things, of course: snappy, accessible demands that we can easily imagine a large number of people endorsing (the book’s four key demands, in other words) become that little bit less snappy, that little bit less accessible. If we are still a way off overcoming the work ethic, we are surely even further away from a world where the abolition of prisons could become a ‘counter-hegemonic’ – let alone hegemonic – position, for example; yet this is both ethically and pragmatically imperative for a world beyond work. It is not just that it is wrong to escape one form of work and then tackle the others, it is that it is impossible.

To the extent that ItF has prompted us to reflect on the programme it suggests, then, we can say that it is of enormous heuristically utopian value. It is always easy to find fault, but we were not being glib in describing ItF as a snappy, accessible book. Such works are of vital importance, and ItF asks extremely important questions and posits serious answers. We do not always agree with these answers, or think they need expanding – and on occasion angrily disagree with them –  but we hope that many more take up its challenge of thinking – and struggling for – a post-work utopia; not just in the future, but also in the present.


[1] We would like to thank Ibtisam Ahmed and Zoe Todd for raising our awareness of the issues we grapple with here. We also suspect that much of what we say here would also apply to peasant struggles; and indeed the struggles of all those who have not yet been subject to ‘real subsumption’. Following Glen Coulthard, we do not see primitive accumulation as being of the past (in this we differ from S&W, who talk about it solely in the past tense, p. 87); and think it is vital that those whose lives remain ‘outside’ capitalism in this sense be granted agency in pointing beyond capital rather than simply functioning as a ‘reserve army’ of labour that capital can use to discipline its workforce (Glen Coulthard, Red Skin, White Masks, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[2] On this note, the title of the book appears to be borrowed from a 1964 text by Nobel prize winner Dennis Gabor (Pelican Books), heralding the possibility of an automated post-work society.

[3]  There is one tip of the hat to accelerationism – on p. 181 S&W write that ‘we must build a world in which we can accelerate out of our stasis.’

Pyrrhic Victories: The Endgames of Accelerationist Efficacy

The fourth commentary, and fifth post, on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, delivered by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman. Aggie is a Lecturer in International Politics at City University London. She works on issues relating to violence and international theory/philosophy, including war and wargaming, US foreign policy, Derrida, Nietzsche, and post-foundational ethics/politics. Tom is a Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Manchester, focusing on capitalism, development, and ideology. He is variously interested in (in no particular order) the politics of epistemology, apocalypticism, Adorno, international development, and concepts of science.


In a climate of successive defeats, missed opportunities and the consolidation (and even exacerbation) of unequal and exploitative social relations, there are few acts more thankless than turning the weapons of iconoclasm against those already waging a struggle against insurmountable odds. Inventing the Future seeks to rescue the Left from what its authors term ‘folk politics’: a commitment to horizontal, local, consensual and prefigurative forms of political action, which the authors claim result ultimately in impotence and irrelevance, aimlessness and lack of focus. In condemning a host of the post-68 Left’s most dearly held praxiological and ethical commitments, Srnicek and Williams wilfully risk aggravating and alienating those they seek to influence.

There will be many readers who will find their prescriptions – the revival of universalism, the aspiration to hegemony, the mobilisation of state power – outdated, odious and even obscene. And for good reason: the attack on ‘folk politics’ doesn’t end after the critique that opens the book. Instead, the sheer audacity of the authors’ wager – essentially that our only hope of defeating the Godzilla of neoliberal capitalism is the creation of an equally powerful Mechagodzilla capable of supplanting the former’s hegemony with its own – performs an ongoing rejection of a parochialism and modesty they see as having corrupted Leftist activism and academia. Like all iconoclasm, such a move is necessarily scandalous in response to the perceived sanctity of that at which it takes aim.[1]

It is precisely this scandalous character of both the book and its precursor, the ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’ (MAP), which goes some way to accounting for the attention the authors have generated across the Left. The book’s stated goals are both vast in scope and highly controversial, yet its tone is one of consistent and calm self-assuredness. The magnitude of the risks associated with the project – the casualties of automation (both human and environmental), the tyrannies of engineering consent, the violences of assuming the task of constructing people’s very identities, to point to just a few – would suffice to make most recoil in dread. The authors’ composed confidence in the face of such potential horror makes reading and responding to the seductions of such book a complex and disorientating task.

At a time when much of the academic left is heavily preoccupied with attending to the demands of seemingly bottomless reflexivity, auto-critiquing to the point of obscurantism and immobilisation, there is something novel and refreshing about the insolence at work in Inventing the Future. In the book’s tone of affirmation and its insistence on the attainability of its remarkably ambitious goals – a post-work society, full automation, a universal basic income, all as conscious steps toward postcapitalism – the reader is invited to reimagine herself as the bearer of powers and capacities long since silenced by the structures and strictures of modern political and academic life. The promise of wider-scale change offered to activists beleaguered by social, legal, and material constraints, if only they renounce ineffectual strategies become habit, creates a renewed sense of possibility, a sense that the aporetic quagmires and impasses of strategic and ethical thought can and must be short-circuited. The promise made is no less than an escape from both the Left’s characteristic infighting and fragmentation and the stultifying straightjacket of life under neoliberalism.  In short, the authors’ tone is one of empowerment and even hope, conjuring and projecting the vitalism of a Deleuzean-Nietzschean inheritance (on which more below).

In keeping with this philosophical inheritance, however, this timely insolence makes possible, or is reflective of, a problematic form of licence. Given enduring conditions of colonialism, patriarchy, and a host of associated structural inequalities with which we in the West are complicit, it is difficult not to mistrust the (white, Western, male) authors’ deliberately provocative claim to strategic leadership of the entire Left.. Read in this way, Inventing the Future amounts to an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices. While the book pays lip service to the importance of respect for a diversity of tactics and socio-political multiplicity, it consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus. Indeed, such practices are precisely those indicted for getting in the way of the business of acquiring and wielding power. In its romanticisation of past forms of Leftist (not to mention Neoliberal) organising and the modernism of the Second International the book offers precious little in the way of safeguards against the potential tyrannies of hegemony, vanguardism and Leninism.

The Future is Reversing

This transition, from audacious promise to scandalous licence, is mirrored by a series of reversals or sleights of hand throughout the book which as isolated examples appear quite insignificant, but together form a constitutive pattern. The crux of the book’s critique of ‘folk politics’ is a repetition, to the point of mantra, of the necessity of coherent, long-term strategic thinking: ‘Political movements based around keeping a hospital open or preventing evictions are all admirable, but they are importantly different from movements trying to challenge neoliberal capitalism … Strategic reflection – on means and ends, enemies and allies – is necessary before approaching any political project’ (12). In contrast to the denunciation of ‘folk politics’, the building of neoliberal hegemony – especially the Mont Pelerin Society, whose praises are sung for an entire chapter – is held up as the model of political efficacy and clear-headed strategy that the Left sadly lacks. And yet, this impatience and demand for a clear route to postcapitalism gives way to a perplexing insistence that the transition to a post-work society ‘will require long-term and experimental praxis on multiple fronts. A hegemonic project therefore implies and responds to society as a complex emergent order, the result of diverse interacting practices’ (136). Having already derided the idea that horizontalism and prefigurative political action are valuable as experiments in the creation of different forms of political organisation and social interaction, primarily on the basis that these experiments have failed to bring about the immediate collapse of global capitalism, it is surprising to read the caution that we must settle in for the long haul, in which the transition to postcapitalism will be achieved through trial and error: ‘Some combinations of social practices will lead to instability, but others will tend towards more stable (if not literally static) outcomes’ (136).

The difference between the experimentalism of ‘folk politics’ and the trial and error of Srnicek and Williams boils down to a question of scale. The most biting elements of their critique of current radical practices, such as direct democracy, is that they are difficult to ‘scale up’ beyond local and parochial zones of action, and it is this limitation which prevents the contemporary left from presenting a real threat to capitalism. Surprisingly, then, Inventing the Future implicitly conjures a distinctly national politics, geared towards achieving parliamentary dominance in North/Western democratic states. Their legislative wish-list – investment in automation, the provision of basic income, shortening the working week and so on – remain tied to national politics in an era of ever-more global and mobile capital. To be sure, the threat of capital upping sticks and investing elsewhere at the mere mention of greater concessions to labour are overstated, but without a global compact in which common labour standards are adhered to around the world, the reality of a post-work regime in one country would either be capital flight or the out-sourcing of exploitation to poorer countries (in other words, further exacerbating the current global division of labour). Not for nothing are the authors forced to rely on a vague hope that the rest of the world will take care of itself: ‘We will mostly leave aside the immense (and immensely important) regions of the rest of the world. However, it is worth emphasising that the problems of automation and surplus populations are global in nature, and the grounds for post-work are flourishing around the world’ (130). The future Srnicek and Williams conjure looks suspiciously like the present: the West enjoys ever greater abundance and liberation from the excesses of exploitative labour, not through eliminating that labour, but rather through its geographical relocation. In this way, their failure to address the problem of increasing automation within capitalism – in that the recomposition of capital in favour of ‘constant’ (the means of production) over ‘variable’ capital (labour) entails a decline in the rate of profit – is all the more dangerous, in that it blinds us to forces that would motivate the intensification of capital’s exploitation of vulnerable labour around the world.

Encrypted in both reversals is a dialectic of idealism and pragmatism which structures the whole book. What is attractive about Srnicek and Williams’ programme is precisely its construction of a radically better world, free of drudgery and coerced labour, which is within reach. But in order to retain its plausibility, this utopia must be restricted. Just as they implore us to dare to think of a counter-hegemony that could supplant capitalism as a realistic goal, the authors are forced to restrict this project to making use of existing tools. Where the ideal is a movement equal to global capitalism in scale, the prescription is recalibrating national spending priorities; the pragmatic is rebranded revolutionary, hence the dubious doublethink ‘non-reformist reforms’ (108). This fatally tempered idealism functions to legitimise outcomes – such as a more exploitative global division of labour. Nowhere is this clearer than in the call for full automation, a utopian desire for humanity to produce abundance without any sacrifice of labour. This promise (by no means a new one) is pivotal to the overthrow of capitalism: post-scarcity, the imperative to return to waged work would dissolve, and the power relations between capital and labour would be obliterated.

The call for full automation, then, is explicitly the call for complete social transformation. But as the authors themselves recognise, this dream is unrealisable in practice, and even approaching the tipping-point, at which automation renders capitalism inoperable, could take decades (even with an effective acceleration of technological investment). The gap between the ideal of full automation and the limitations of its realisation yields something very specific: increasing but partial automation. Normatively, this is odious at best, as the progress implied by the goal of full automation lends an emancipatory sheen to any moves in that direction, however limited, and in spite of the violent, unsustainable and exploitative ‘externalities’ inherent in an only partial automation in which capitalism persists. Dangerous, unskilled, precarious and exploitative labour retains a role in the global economy, but now excused as a necessary remainder of a world sure to disappear. In short, the unrealisable ideal of full automation serves as a fantasy which counsels those most imperilled by automation to celebrate it as the precondition of their liberation. We find here the same short-circuit between promise and reality that underpins all theodicy, through which the violence and suffering of the present is justified – and even glorified – as a necessary stage in the progress of liberation. The homology with neoliberalism, which drowns out its victims with the promise of fulfilment in consumption, is clear.

“Step by step, and always for irrefutable reasons, the means are destroying the ends”

The degree to which (counter-)hegemonic projects necessarily reproduce the totalising, homogenising and exclusionary tendencies they purport to seek to transcend has been extensively examined in both scholarly and activist literatures. As Srnicek and Williams describe it, a ‘hegemonic project builds a ‘common sense’ that installs the particular worldview of one group as the universal horizon of an entire society’ (132). Presumably in order to emphasise the defensibility of this, they assert that ‘hegemony enables a group to lead and rule over a society primarily through consent (both active and passive)’, although it also ‘deploys coercive means, such as imprisonment, police violence and intimation, to neutralise those groups that cannot otherwise be led’ (132-3). With the best will in the world, it is difficult not to feel somewhat bewildered and apprehensive that a project claiming to promote human emancipation and freedom would argue for a form of political organisation which employs deceptive, repressive, and violent means in the service of its ends. For those subject and witness to such forces, the extent to which there is any daylight in these crucial areas between this proposed system and the current one surely becomes a pressing question. A characteristically hegemonic intolerance towards dissent is palpable throughout the very fabric of the book; in its consistent tone of certitude and assertiveness, and its almost non-existent engagement with highly influential critiques of hegemony itself (dismissed in a single footnote (n. 8, 225-6)). Nowhere is this impatience, and its contradictory effects, clearer than in the authors’ attack on ‘folk politics’.

The authors are clearly aware of the diversity in both character and tactics of the new and newest social movements the world over, and the huge variation in their respective goals and capacities to realise their widely divergent aims. Despite this variety, however, they choose to subsume this plethora of groups under the signifier ‘folk’ by means to which to develop a blanket challenge, enacting a hegemonic move at the level of language. Such a signifier serves to construct its various objects in such a manner as to homogenise and delegitimise them from the outset; to frame political actors or groups as ‘folk’ is not simply to offer a description but rather to render them provincial, backward, quaint or parochial. By dint of their subsumption under a common signifier, highly refined and reflexive political practices are rendered equivalent to hipster faux-authenticity and ecological mysticism. The reader is thereby invited to disregard, dismiss and even parody contemporary activism the world over in toto, while the accelerationist project claims for itself a unique and privileged position. To that degree, ‘folk politics’ functions in a disappointingly familiar fashion, mirroring a rhetorical strategy widely favoured throughout the neoliberal political landscape.

Srnicek and Williams’ staging of such a wholesale dismissal speaks, perhaps, of a conviction that present conditions have become so dire that it is worth taking the risk of a (re)turn to centralism, verticalism, and the deliberate construction of a counter-hegemonic programme, despite all of the potential (or necessarily accompanying) dangers this entails. But underlying the articulation of their radical difference from prevailing Leftist principles, regardless of the feathers of potential allies thereby ruffled, is an attempt to surreptitiously overturn a staple of the Left’s ethical makeup, post-’68, namely the affinity between means and ends. Inventing the Future capitalises on an apparently widespread impatience with prefiguration, horizontalism and affinity by offering a concept – ‘folk politics’ – that devalues such means-oriented practices by conflating them with the bleeding-heart, hand-wringing gestures of good conscience that can make contemporary radicalism indistinguishable from liberal sentimentality. By collapsing the former into the latter, the corrective of a pragmatic ‘whatever works’ approach – the ‘only criterion of a good tactic is whether it enables significant success or not’ (MAP) – is made to appear eminently reasonable, even though that entails aping the strategies of none other than the architects of neoliberalism.

This conflation of means-oriented praxis and ineffectual hand-wringing serves to dispense with the former without having to confront its rationale, namely that, as separated from the ends, the means serve only themselves. The tensions within the book attest to this slippage all too clearly, in that the authors consistently discuss the ends of their project as instrumental to the means of a counter-hegemonic political programme. Utopia, for example, is claimed to be of the highest importance, but then is reduced to a strategic ingredient in the pursuit of a post-work hegemony. Indeed, their concept of utopian fiction as ‘the embodiment of the hyperstitions of progress’ that form “an impossible but necessary object of desire’ (138) precisely rehearses the short-circuit between promise and reality discussed above. Likewise, Srnicek and Williams’ long discourse on the value of universalism celebrates this very gap: the failure of the universal to be for everyone is justified in advance by the infinite scope of progress it promises:

Universalism always undoes itself, possessing its own resources for an immanent critique that insists and expands upon its ideals. No particular social formation is sufficient to satisfy its conceptual and political demands. Equally, synthetic freedom compels us to reject contentment with the existing horizon of possibilities. To be satisfied with post-work would risk leaving intact the racial, gendered, colonial and ecological divisions that continue to structure our world. While such asymmetries of power would hopefully be unsettled by a post-work world, the efforts to eliminate them would undoubtedly need to continue (175-176).

As impossible and infinitely unrealisable, universals and utopias are divorced from their claim to inherent value, and instead acquire their virtue from their instrumental efficacy in the business of forging hegemonic blocs capable of acquiring transformative power, which itself is merely a means.

Desire, Deleuze, Nihilism

The circularity of means and ends finds its most significant expression in Inventing the Future during a discussion of desire. Srnicek and Williams paint an attractive, if familiarly Rawlsian, picture in which there are no prescriptions or limitations placed upon what people can or should desire, and that emancipation therefore consists in ‘increasing the capacity of humanity to act according to whatever its desires might become’ (83). This open-ended framing is tempered, however, in two ways. First, in line with the hegemonic position adopted, it is claimed that the left must ‘cultivate new desires’ (139), and that utopian thinking concerns the ‘education of desire’ (140). Such a process of desire-direction, while certainly useful in hegemony-construction, sits in tension with the authors’ insistence that their project is free from a telos, and, to the degree that it ultimately amounts to a project of subject- or identity-construction, appears fundamentally at odds with the freedom and diversity the authors aim to promote.

Second, and relatedly, the authors fail to interrogate sufficiently the political implications of the specific desires they suggest should be (strategically) encouraged; in their claim, for instance, that ‘the space between the present and the future becomes the space for hope and the desire for more’ (140), they do not explore the possibility that quantity-oriented impulses towards ‘more’ reperform a key component of neoliberal ideology. In other words, the very goals of the MAP and Inventing the Future risk, as all projects do, a reperformance of features of our subsumed existence within capital; arguably many of the stated goals – ‘maximal mastery’, hegemony of ideas and ideology, the desire for ‘more’, unleashing drives seeking ‘progress’ – do precious little to disrupt, and are entirely compatible with, neoliberal thought and subjecthood. Clearly, this not a constraint unique to Accelerationism; thinking from a space of subsumption is common to political theorising across the board. Equally, this is not to suggest that such immanence precludes the possibility of radical thought and praxis which substantively impacts on the socio-political world. However, the precondition for a praxis that navigates its own embeddedness in global capitalism, indeed a necessary condition for thought to be radical under these circumstances, is surely the robust and constant interrogation of what one might be rehearsing and thus potentially reinforcing. By conflating this imperative with inaction, Inventing the Future ends up severely lacking an explicit engagement with the implications of its attempt to use the tools of the Master to dismantle His house. This is perhaps not surprising given that the book’s core project would be undermined by such reflexivity, precisely insofar as dissensus is the death knell of hegemony. The authors’ choice of the political form of their future relies precisely on such awkward multiplicities and tensions remaining obscured, and thus the strategy ends up dictating the limits of its own appraisal.

It is widely accepted that there is a distinctly Deleuzean flavour to the Accelerationist project. To be sure, both the MAP and Inventing the Future emphasise a latent but readily ignitable capacity for creation, future-construction, and boundary-challenging which channels Deleuzo-Guattarian imperatives. Yet this inheritance is by no means unproblematic. To begin with, in its privileging of pragmatism and rationality, its romanticisation of the Enlightenment, its ends-oriented agenda, and its commitment to hegemony-construction, Accelerationism is fundamentally at odds with several key aspects of the Deleuzean project. Insofar as Deleuze’s ‘revolutionary-becoming’ entails ‘the process of becoming-minor, or widening the gap between oneself and the norm’, Inventing the Future‘s hegemonic future is in many crucial ways antithetical to this tradition.

But a fuller embrace of Deleuze’s position would stand the project in no better stead. In Nietzsche and Philosophy(N&P) Deleuze claims to have discovered Nietzsche’s great secret of the virtue of the life-affirming ‘yes’ of the exercise of the will as an antidote to the debilitating negativity of the ‘no’ of dialectics, and it is this ‘yes’ thatInventing the Future seeks to channel, in opposition to the perceived paralysing reflexivity of ‘folk politics’. The upshot of this discovery is a renunciation of the constraining, will-denying imperative towards auto-critique and an embrace of a Dionysian vitalism at every turn. At stake here is a claim to the innocence and salience of the exercise of will, a jettisoning of guilt and complicity through the exercise of creative destruction (N&P 21). The problem with this is that far from pointing to an actually-existing (post-)metaphysical condition which liberates us from the tyranny of the dialectic, Deleuze unwittingly confesses, rather, his desire for such a condition, indicating his own inability to withstand precisely the foundationless condition he identifies as being at the heart of this libratory insight. Insofar as he folds multiplicity back into oneness (N&P 22), becoming back into being (N&P 22-3, 177), and the negative back into the positive (N&P 187), Deleuze performs precisely the resolution-seeking move he spends the book arguing against, enacting a form of sublimation intended to arrest the maddening interplay of these relational concepts in favour of the illusory relief of the wholesale privileging of one.

Something similar happens in Inventing the Future. The tone of certitude, the unflinching confidence in the necessity of hegemony, and the presentation as uncontroversial of a host of claims and principles which are anything but, all indicate the desire for the short-circuit from the ethico-political aporia currently constraining the capacity of the Left to unify and grasp a singular future in concert. Instead, what the book actually offers is a series of inversions or sleights of hand in which cold, hard pragmatism is presented as utopian, parliamentary reforms presented as revolutionary, leisure presented as liberty, and hegemony presented as unity. Srnicek and Williams seek to fix – through the strength of their certainty alone – the circular movement of instrumentalism at the point where what appears most attainable can be misconstrued that which is most desirable. Inventing the Future thus only invents the possibility it seeks to elucidate, that our escape from the misery of capitalist drudgery is just One Big Push away.

Thus, what Accelerationism and Deleuze have in common above all is that their respective projects confess a ‘metaphysical need’ of the kind Nietzsche, not to mention Adorno and Derrida, identified as that which most requires challenging and resisting as a condition of radical thought and praxis. Deleuze’s frantic attempt to turn everything into joy, much like the Accelerationist effort to circumvent the immanent structural antagonisms of political association through the imposition of hegemony, operate in the service of the project’s respective architects, shielding them from impasse, constraint and compromise, under the protective cloak of vitalism, power, control, and mastery. Both projects, in other words, encode and serve their authors’ needs and desires – for security against nihilism in Deleuze’s case, and a way out of the frustrating impasses of current Leftist organising for the Accelerationists. The interests of the (at least potential) casualties of the latter project – those resistant to the hegemonic system imposed, those at the sharp end of automation, and those whose immediate struggles are denounced as diverting from the grand plan – are markedly absent from the discussion provided, becoming the ‘collateral damage’ of the hegemonic cause, to be re-educated and reequipped with more expedient desires.

The problematic consequences of this are demonstrated in Inventing the Future’s desire for a ‘new equilibrium of political, economic and social forces’ (108). Given the structural diversity and antagonisms (both productive and frustrating) which are immanent to the interactions of people and societies, it follows that pursuing a project of equilibrium in which opposing forces or interests are finally balanced or resolved is to already be some way down the road to a flattening and cancelling of the multiplicity of people, both between and within subjects. Worse still, or perhaps put differently, such an exercise is ultimately nihilistic.

Conventional (read: liberal) accounts of nihilism frame the latter as the absence of values, goals, or principles, a renunciation of political and ethical investedness and ultimately a descent into meaninglessness and despair. Understood in these terms, Inventing the Future would seem to be anti-nihilistic, generating hegemonic values and universal horizons by means of which society and people might orient themselves. More critical, especially post-Nietzschean, understandings of nihilism, however, offer a starkly different account. Christian morality was nihilistic for Nietzsche precisely insofar as it generated a hegemonic regime of value and morality; it was the obedience, conformity and uniformity it commanded that rendered people enslaved. Thus, far from consisting in the absence or rejection of value and meaning, it is rather the impulse towards resolution, equilibrium and universalism that entails nihilism because it precludes precisely the lines of flight, creative con/destructions, and risk takings which for both Deleuze and Nietzsche, are the only means by which nihilism might be staved off. Read in this way, Inventing the Future ultimately discloses a profound nihilism at its core, the severity of which is indexed by the extent of the value-securing project of mastery designed to defeat it. This nihilism inescapably returns to haunt the project, in the form of a creeping instrumentality that ensnares every end into a circular subservience to mere efficacy.


[1] It is worth noting that an earlier draft more wholeheartedly embraced the scandal of its project, but due to the overriding pragmatism we discuss below, the final draft has been thoroughly toned down in terms of its bombastic and incendiary exposition.

Myths of Invention

The fifth commentary, and sixth post, on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Futurefrom 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.

Orpheus plays his lament

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.

Blake’s Angel of Revelation

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.

Don Quixote

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.

Don’t Believe the Hyperstition 

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.

Planet Hyperstition

Planet Hyperstition

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 inInventing 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 ourcultural 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.

Capitalism?

Capitalism?

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.

It’s All Taking and No Giving

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.

Future Love by Sergey Pereskokov

Future Love by Sergey Pereskokov

In each instance, my concerns 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.

Reinventing the Future

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

A first possible future would be a neocolonial and racist post-work world. Here, post-work would be established in some of the advanced capitalist countries, but low-income countries would struggle to follow suit. The post-work countries would become a large attraction for migrants, and the influx of people would spark off xenophobia and harsh state responses. Borders would be tightened up, and the European, American, and Australian borders would be littered with even more bodies than they are today. Cheap labour would continue to be exploited in the low-income countries, while domestic prison labour would continue, as much for its punitive potential as for its economic efficacy. The end result would be an exacerbation of existing global inequalities, an expansion of xenophobia and racism, and increasing political and military destabilisation.

A second possible future would be an ecologically unsustainable vision of post-work. In this future, post-work would be established in some or many countries, but extensive automation would be achieved without a concern for long term sustainability. Extraction processes around the world intensify, and the pollution and environmental damage from them would continue to grow. The energy resources demanded by automation would be drawn from fossil fuel sources, and carbon emissions would rise above even current trends. Combined with this, consumption patterns would continue to expand at levels which transform any productivity gains into more and more output. The major result would be an accelerated climate catastrophe, leading towards mass climate-induced migration and xenophobia, significant political destabilisation, large losses of human life, the devastation of the biosphere and the extinction of many species of life forms.

A third future would be a misogynist one. In this post-work future, most wage labour would have disappeared and there would be an immense increase in overall leisure time. Yet there would be no simultaneous shift in unpaid reproductive labour.[1] Women would continue to bear the burden of these tasks, and investment would ignore the automation of household labour such as cooking and cleaning and laundry. Or alternatively, as has historically been the case, any household technologies would simply lead to higher standards of cleanliness, not less work (219n50). It would be a society where men were newly freed from wage labour, but where women continued to be constrained. A corresponding divide in politics would widen, with men freer than ever before to participate in public life, but with women still bound to the household.

By contrast to these depressing scenarios, we can imagine a fourth option: a leftist post-work future. This option would entail commitments to (at the very least) open borders, the abolition of spatial mechanisms of control (like prisons and ghettos), the reduction/socialisation of unwaged and waged work, the bolstering of the welfare state, and the provision of a global basic income. This would not yet be postcapitalist (e.g. commodities would still be bought within the market, private property would remain, and accumulative logics would still function), but it would be an immensely better world than the one we have now – both in terms of livelihoods and in terms of our political power.

Our book is an attempt to begin articulating a vision and a pathway to just such a post-work future. Though the responses to our book have covered many of the key themes and ideas, one crucial element is missing from the discussion and this omission leads to a fundamental misconception of the project. Every chapter in the book has been discussed within the symposium, except for Chapter 5, which is devoted to analysing the global crisis of surplus populations.[2] This is a surprising oversight, given that many of the concerns levelled at the book are addressed within this chapter. In particular, the racialised and gendered biases of work and the intrinsically intersectional systems of oppression are examined in some detail. We try to draw out the systemic connections between phenomena like the deadly functions of borders (101-2), the violent management of jobless neighbourhoods (102-3), the hyper-exploitation of prison labour (90, 103), the continuation of outright slavery (90), the rising density of informal slums (96-8), the proliferation of suicides and mental health issues (94), the attacks on higher education (99), and the devastating effects of a developing world becoming post-industrial (97-8). We raise the problem of automation and insist that developing countries and minority groups are the ones most at risk of being plunged even further into immiseration (97-8, 101-2, 104). As we argued in the book, “the maintenance of large portions of humanity within slums and informal, non-capitalist economies is likely to be consolidated by emerging technological trends” (98). The chapter is an attempt to explain the ongoing onslaught against the most marginalised, the ways in which increasing numbers of people are being tossed aside by capitalism, and the significant influence of gender, race, and colonialism in this expulsion.[3]

One of the fundamental arguments of the book is that some combination of the neocolonial, racist, unsustainable, and misogynist futures is the expected outcome of the current path of capitalist development (104). As we try to demonstrate in this chapter, these futures are the endpoint of a business-as-usual approach – and we warn throughout the book that things will only get worse if we don’t build up a significant movement to change course. We agree with the respondents that there is a possibility of a post-work world that is built on colonialism, on a doubling down of unwaged reproductive labour, or the total destruction of the biosphere. Indeed it seems sadly quite likely, particularly given Europe’s reaction to the Syrian crisis. And it is precisely this analysis which motivates the book’s claim that a leftist post-work world is both necessary and possible today. This is why the chapter on surplus populations appears immediately before the discussion of post-work – it establishes the conjunctural conditions within which the project becomes intelligible. The post-work future we envision is therefore not a free-floating project; it is one which responds to and is conditioned by the deepening devastations around the world. This is important: a post-work world must be seen as a response to existing and emerging neocolonial, racist, sexist and exploitative conditions. As such, any post-work project which continued or exacerbated those conditions would be anathema to our vision of a post-work future. Post-work has much to recommend itself on its own – and we spend sizeable chunks of the book elaborating on these reasons. But under today’s conditions it is taking on a new urgency – “these tendencies demand a response” (23), and this is why “a post-work world is an increasingly pressing option” (86) and why “the left [should] prepare for the coming crisis of work and surplus populations” (86). This means that “the political project for the twenty-first-century left must be to build an economy in which people are no longer dependent upon wage labour for survival” (105).

These, therefore, are the fundamental concerns which motivate our project of a post-work politics. That being said, we want to reiterate that the concerns voiced by Joseph, Sophie, and David are important. If post-work politics begins to gain traction, it will be essential to keep these issues at the forefront in order to prevent precisely the nightmare options we outlined at the start. Post-work cannot be premised upon the rich countries continuing to plunder and exploit the poorest countries, nor cis men dominating everyone else, nor whites dominating people of colour. These are the basic coordinates of any leftist post-work vision, and they are non-negotiable.

Post-Work is Hard Work

With this framework for the project set up, we can move on to some other related issues around post-work and surplus populations – beginning with some corrections, before moving on to some important limits of the book. Sophie and David write that we “talk about [primitive accumulation] solely in the past tense” and critique us for not seeing it as an ongoing process. But we agree, to quote the book, that primitive accumulation “is not just an origin story of capitalism, but also an ongoing process that involves the transformation of pre-capitalist subsistence economies into capitalist economies” (89). This is important to recognise because it is one of the three mechanisms we outline for the production of surplus populations. The significance of each mechanism changes throughout historical periods, but they all continue to operate. Today, the global North is under the sway of automation, while the global South remains dominated by primitive accumulation. One of our major arguments is that this is likely to shift: automation will become a key problem for the global South in the not so distant future.[4]

This leads us to another point, on the demand for full automation. As we explain in the book, automation is partially stalled at the moment because of an excess global supply of cheap labour. Workers in low-income countries, hyper-exploited prison labour, and unwaged reproductive labour are all cheaper for capitalists than investing in new machines (112). The only way this work will be automated is if workers gain new power over their lives. In other words, full automation is only possible when there is no cheap labour to exploit. Therefore, the demand for full automation (a deliberately provocative formulation)[5] is simultaneously a demand to end this situation – to end heightened exploitation, raise global wages, and give new power to the workers most affected (105, 112). The demand would make no sense if this aspect wasn’t included. So when Aggie and Tom suggest that full automation is a demand which doesn’t take into account those at the “sharp end of automation”, we must disagree. It is precisely because we are attuned to these issues that full automation becomes a political demand and not simply an economically necessary outcome. (Equally, making it a political demand is intended to raise questions like “how is automation being introduced, and who is being harmed by it?”)

As for care labour and the work involved in the reproduction of the species, we write:

The free time that accrues from full automation could also facilitate experimentation with alternative domestic arrangements. There is a long history of utopian experiments that can be drawn upon to rethink how our societies organise domestic, reproductive and care labour. All of this, it must be stressed, would still require a political movement to achieve; a post-work world may facilitate change, but it cannot guarantee it. (113, emphasis added)

We therefore agree with Sophie and David’s doubt “that any of S&W’s four demands are sufficient to achieve” the end of patriarchal and heteronormative relations in work. Our four demands are not sufficient, and this means that a movement for post-work must simultaneously be feminist.

Now we turn to two important limits of the book. The first of these are ecological concerns, particularly as emphasised in Joseph’s sensitive and incisive response. We think his point about the production of nature is an important corrective, and we fully admit that issues of climate change and ecological sustainability are not dealt with in anywhere near enough depth in the text.[6] A proper answer to Joseph’s queries about ecological sustainability will deserve a book-length response in itself. Nevertheless, we have tried to make it clear in the book that any vision of the future must be ecologically sustainable and not premised upon an accumulative and extractive economy that decimates our planet (hence the call, throughout the book, for a decarbonised economy). Whether extensive automation is compatible with ecological sustainability will depend on issues such as the replacement of fossil fuels, the expansion of renewable energy, the substitution of dwindling resources, the revision of wasteful manufacturing processes, and the elimination of exploitative labour practices. In other words, any answer will have to draw upon an extensive array of both technical and political knowledges. However, we think post-work has much to offer in the way of a green politics – and may even be the only way to overcome the division between a labour politics premised on growth and jobs, and a green politics premised on reigning in capitalist growth. Post-work undercuts the primary reason for needing growth and jobs – namely the attachment of income to work – thereby enabling new connections to be made between the movements. Less work is also an easy way to save an immense amount of energy consumption, with estimates of a 20% reduction in energy consumption if the US moved to a European work week (221n76). Lastly, the basic premise of a post-work society is to use productivity enhancements to lessen work rather than to expand production. The latter is of course a difficult task in a capitalist system, but that’s why it must be the focus of political struggle.

The second issue to raise is about the Western-centric nature of our prescriptive proposals. As we argued earlier, our analysis of the present conjuncture attempts to be resolutely global, and the picture of the coming crisis of work is equally global. Yet we are situated as white, male Westerners, and our knowledge is primarily of conditions in the spaces within which we live and breathe. This is why we try to explicitly limit our strategic analysis to the Western world (130). Aggie and Tom interpret this to mean that we don’t care about what happens to the non-Western world: “the authors [are] forced to rely on a vague hope that the rest of the world will take care of itself”. Yet our intention was instead to circumscribe the limits of our analysis and highlight our own situatedness. The alternative, it seems to us, would have been a hubristic claim that we know best how the rest of the world can and should build a post-work society – that two white men should lead the way. This would hardly be fitting in with our claim that we must “rely upon a global set of voices articulating and negotiating in practice what a common and plural future might be.” (83) That our strategic analysis is focused on the Western world is undoubtedly a limit of the book, but we believe it is a necessary limit. There is scope to breakdown this limit in the future, and we hope others will as well, by developing accounts of power and possibility in the context of other societies.

What the Folk?

We now turn to what appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the most contentious idea in our book: that of folk politics.[7] Let us be clear about something up front though: our critique of what we call folk politics is born neither out of a belief in the intrinsic desirability of alternative tactics and strategies, nor out of malice towards them. Rather, our critique is born out of the experiences of struggles in the past few decades. It has been over 20 years since the Zapatistas stormed onto the world stage, yet we have seen precious little evidence that any recent movements have posed a threat to the dominance of neoliberalism (let alone capitalism). Our own experiences in these movements, and particularly the brief moment of hope that emerged around Occupy, are why we started writing the book in the first place. We wanted them to succeed, and we were disappointed when they didn’t. Our critique of folk politics stems from asking the question: what went wrong? We don’t think our answers are particularly novel: they’ve been voiced in numerous forms by participants and external critics for some time now, and the book draws heavily upon this existing literature. Our novelty is in tracing these problems back to a preference for immediacy – i.e. the kernel of contemporary ‘folk politics’. (In fact, perhaps a better name for ‘folk politics’ might be ‘the politics of immediacy’.) It is this valorisation of immediacy which we see played out in various ways across the left, both in the explicit statement of political theorists and in the implicit consequences of various practices.

This leads us to an aspect of the concept which has yet to receive any attention: namely, its historically constructed character.[8] While this issue is not foregrounded in the book (it is only raised in one paragraph), our position is that folk politics changes over time. Certain ideas and values come to dominate and take on an intuitive place within the activist imagination. In the 1960s, in much of the Western world, folk politics would have meant building the revolutionary party. In the future, folk politics will again change. We may see, for instance, a folk political common sense come to rest upon social media clicktivism. We must therefore distinguish between two senses of folk politics. One is a historically constructed political common sense. The other is a contemporary manifestation of that common sense oriented around a politics of immediacy. Given its historical nature, it would be fair to say that our own project is one of constructing a new folk politics. It is only today that folk politics – “a collective and historically constructed political common sense that has become out of joint with the actual mechanisms of power” (10, emphasis added) – has come to overlap with another meaning of folk: as the locus of the small-scale and authentic grounded upon a valorisation of immediacy.

Ultimately, our desires lie in transforming the world, not in getting the self-satisfaction of being proven right. If events were to show that our critique was wrong, we would be delighted to admit our error. For us, therefore, the essential components of the book are the second half: the analysis of global surplus populations and the vision of the future. The four demands we set out to begin organising around for a post-work world should be taken as starting points for discussion, not dogmatic assertions.[9] A little humility is in order here, as we can make no claim to any certainty about our critiques and prescriptions for how these things should be achieved. The social world is complex and the assertive absoluteness with which many left thinkers put forth their ideas is belied by the repeated failures to change or even understand the world.

We must now, however, raise another omission in the responses, which is the three qualifications we place on our critique of folk politics. This absence is important because without these qualifications, the critique of folk politics steps outside its purview.

The first qualification is that folk politics is an implicit tendency, not an explicit position. This leads to a key point to insist upon: folk politics is not equivalent to horizontalism, anarchism, prefigurative politics, or localism. There is an assumption running throughout the responses that folk politics is equivalent to these movements, but this assumption misreads our point. We constructed this concept because we find much of value in these movements, and we didn’t want to simply denounce them in toto. Instead, the concept is designed to pick out a particular subset of characteristics from them. It is designed to describe a common element behind a variety of movements which have so far been incapable of transforming the world or stopping neoliberalism. But again – folk politics is not coterminous with horizontalism, anarchism, prefigurative politics, or localism. To the extent that particular practices embody our understanding of folk politics (as a politics of spatial, temporal, and conceptual immediacy), we argue that they are limited. But where they do not embody these features (for example, in the way that anarcho-syndicalism is focused on creating scalable political structures), we do not view them as being folk political in nature.

Let us give a simple example to reinforce our point. The Black Panthers operated a variety of community initiatives centred around health, education, and food. Some might think this to be an archetype of folk political thinking – community? local? But it’s anything but – simply because the Black Panthers saw these efforts as part of a much grander strategic vision. In a wonderful phrase, they described these programs as ‘survival pending revolution’. Here is an effort to create new means of social reproduction – not as a space withdrawn from the rest of society, nor as a prefigurative paradise – but instead as a means within a larger struggle to overthrow racism, capitalism, and imperialism. This is not folk politics; it is premised upon a global analysis and seeks to scale its efforts in order to contend with vast structures of oppression.[10] And this is why “we hasten to add, [folk politics is] not intrinsically flawed.” (29) Tactics are only folk political relative to strategic orientation and historical conditions. (29)

The next qualification that we place on the critique is also important for understanding how the term is being used. Our intention for the term has always been for it to be provocative, but never derogatory. This is clear in the second qualification: we do not reject folk politics. As we write in the book, “Folk politics is a necessary component of any successful political project, but it can only be a starting point” (12). Our critique is that it is insufficient, not that it is wrong. This is why we praise these movements throughout the book: “The Occupy movements achieved real victories in creating solidarity, giving a voice to disenchanted and marginalised people, and raising public awareness” (36). Later on, we note that “operating under principles of direct democracy can be conducive to certain objectives, such as giving people a voice, creating a powerful sense of collective agency and enabling different perspectives to be articulated. It can foster the creation of a populist identity and empower people to start to see themselves as a collective” (164). This is clearly very far from the “wholesale dismissal” of folk politics that Aggie and Tom accuse us of. And this is fundamentally different from setting up some old-fashioned binary between ‘folk’ and ‘modernity’; instead the relationship we are trying to gesture towards is much more complex.

The third qualification is perhaps the most important one for understanding the limits of our critique: folk politics is only a problem for projects which are attempting to overcome global issues like capitalism and climate change. Combine this with our earlier caveats and you get the claim that: a politics of immediacy is necessary but insufficient to transform global capitalism. If we had to sum up our position on folk politics in one line, that would be it. And if that seems pretty modest, well, it’s meant to be. Overlooking these three qualifications means that the responses mistake us for critiquing things we aren’t critiquing. Sophie and David express surprise that our pluri-versalism sounds folk political; Aggie and Tom dismiss our support for aspects of horizontalism and anarchism as paying “lip service”; Joseph suggests we would be against reforestation as a partial solution to climate change because it’s natural. All of these issues can be resolved by reference to the qualifications which we place upon the critique of folk politics.

Scandalous

We must now raise one unfortunate issue, which is the consistent misreading within Aggie and Tom’s response. According to them, our ideas are “outdated, odious and even obscene”. The work is “scandalous” and “would suffice to make most recoil in dread”. The project would lead to a “potential horror”. Ultimately, the book is “an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices.” And that’s just the introduction. Despite the promise of horrors within, we worry readers will be disappointed when the book doesn’t live up to these lofty expectations.[11] Needless to say, we think the authors have misunderstood the project. As such, a proper response is called for in the hope that it will prevent future readers from making the same mistakes.

A number of earlier clarifications have already attempted to correct some of the mistakes made in their piece: the project is aimed at overcoming, not exacerbating, the crisis of surplus populations (and all its modes of expression); folk politics is not rejected, but instead supplemented; far from dismissing folk politics, the book is littered with praise for its various achievements; and limiting our focus to the Western world is a matter of recognising our situatedness, while acknowledging the absolute necessity for a global politics.

To turn to the first of the assertions within their piece, the issue of technocratic vanguardism, we must disagree. Our approach to the question of political organisation is based on the rejection of such a perspective, and is grounded in the notion of an ‘ecology of organisations’ and a particular understanding of hegemonic politics. Here is a concise summary of how we envision a movement comprised of an ecology of organisations:

[T]he overarching architecture of such an ecology is a relatively decentralised and networked form – but, unlike in the standard horizontalist vision, this ecology should also include hierarchical and closed groups as elements of the broader network. There is ultimately no privileged organisational form. Not all organisations need to aim for participation, openness and horizontality as their regulative ideals. The divisions between spontaneous uprisings and organisational longevity, short-term desires and long-term strategy, have split what should be a broadly consistent project for building a post-work world. Organisational diversity should be combined with broad populist unity. (163)

Note that there is no place for “techno-fetishist vanguardism” here, though we do admit that “hierarchical” and “clandestine” organisations can have a role. But the need for secrecy and the inevitability of informal hierarchies have been roundly recognised by anarchists for a long time (indeed, we draw upon their insights in the book), so we don’t think Aggie and Tom would necessarily disagree with this aspect. Instead, it is the issue of vanguardism that seems to be the source of the problems – and it is a delicate one since, as their response demonstrates, it is prone to misunderstandings.

We think they are perhaps most concerned with the potential for hierarchical and secretive groups to force the mantle of leadership upon themselves. We admit that we find this unlikely in our current era, where political promiscuity rules the day and an organisation that begins to centralise and distance itself from its members is doomed to collapse. But to spell out our own position: we argue for a horizontal architecture to any movement, which entails that no one group or organisation should seek to dominate the movement.

What we instead call for is ‘mobile vanguard-functions’ (163), with a reference pointing to the work of Rodrigo Nunes. In a quote distinguishing this notion from more traditional ideas, he writes:

The vanguard-function differs from the teleological understanding of the vanguard whose sway over the Marxist tradition helped engender vanguardism. It is objective to the extent that, once the change it introduces has propagated, it can be identified as the cause behind a growing number of effects. Yet it is not objective in the sense of a transitive determination, which would be made necessary by historical laws, between an objectively defined position (class, class fraction) and a subjective political breakthrough (consciousness, event). The vanguard-function is akin to what Deleuze and Guattari call the ‘cutting edge of deterritorialisation’ in an assemblage or situation; opening a new direction that, after it has communicated to others, can become something to follow, divert, resist etc. (Organisation of the Organisationless, 38-9).

Given a more concrete formulation, this entails that:

Leadership occurs as an event in those situations in which some initiatives manage to momentarily focus and structure collective action around a goal, a place or a kind of action. They may take several forms, at different scales and in different layers, from more to less ‘spontaneous’. This could be a crowd at a protest suddenly following a handful of people in a change of direction, a small group’s decision to camp attracting thousands of others, a newly created website attracting a lot of traffic and corporate media attention, and so forth. The most important characteristic of distributed leadership is precisely that these can, in principle, come from anywhere: not just anyone (a boost, no doubt, to activists’ egalitarian sensibilities) but literally anywhere (ibid. 35).

We recommend reading his book, which is a superb analysis of how leadership functioned in Occupy and similar movements. Vanguardism, according to him, doesn’t disappear – it just gets distributed and made mobile. What does this mean in practice? Let us take a simplified example of an ongoing and complex situation: the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Here we saw the initial emergence of a vanguard through social media, as the hashtag starts up in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder. After Michael Brown was shot down by a cop, the residents of Ferguson became a vanguard in the streets, pushing back against the violence of the state and leading the movement to a new plateau of intensity. Social media continued to amplify this and a national (and eventually international) movement was born. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s brutal murder, Baltimore’s residents became the new vanguard: the struggle was expanding, led by the people in the streets. Today, however, the movement appears to be at risk of co-option by a group of “politically respectable” leaders. It is unclear, at the moment, whether and where this leadership will take the movement, or whether other leaders will emerge in the streets and elsewhere.

This is vanguardism, but certainly not the type that Aggie and Tom fear. We would even suggest it’s a rather humble idea, attuned to the realities of on-the-ground activism as well as the larger issues of strategic planning.[12] It seems to us, this is how leadership always works in contemporary social movements. Our point is to make this explicit and to try and shift the debate around leadership to a more sophisticated level. Anarchists have much to add here since they have been discussing these issues for some time now. Our contribution is to suggest this needs to be thought at the level of an entire ecology of organisations, not just within organisations. This would encourage asking questions like, “how do we get leadership in social movements for expansion and scaling, without installing permanent and unaccountable leaders?”

But if not a central vanguard or leader imposing unity on a movement, then what gives it any consistency? The argument we make in the book is that it is ‘the future’. Or rather, the common adherence to a desirable vision of a different world.[13] This is not a vision which could be forced upon anyone. Rather, it “involves a continual negotiation of differences and particularisms, seeking to establish a common language and programme in spite of any centrifugal forces.” (160) Thus, when Aggie and Tom write that the book “consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus”; that “dissensus is the death knell of hegemony”; and that “pursuing a project of equilibrium in which opposing forces or interests are finally balanced or resolved is to already be some way down the road to a flattening and cancelling of the multiplicity of people”, this is at odds with what we write. They mistake hegemony for an enforced unity that it is not. Building a counterhegemony means undertaking the difficult labour of building and maintaining a common, collective project within and between differences. Crucial here is understanding what we mean by hegemony. Hegemony, as we set out the term in Chapter 7, is not to be identified as a system of domination. Reading it as such is a common error, but one which does a disservice to the subtlety of the concept and the history of its development since Gramsci. Instead, hegemony needs to be understood as a complex, emergent mode of power, dependent on the ability of groups within society to influence others in much more diffuse ways. This form of influence can take different forms, from rational debate to affective attraction, from educational practices to cultural codes, and from media framing to economic and infrastructural choice architectures. Hegemony, on this understanding, emerges out of the interactions and practices of a diverse array of different groups, agents, and organisations within society. It does not flatten difference, but emerges from the interplay of differences.

Another key dimension to the hegemonic perspective on politics is the idea that no large-scale political project can proceed by dint of appealing only to those who are already consciously persuaded of its merits. Against such a perspective, Aggie and Tom claim that changing desires is opposed to freedom. But surely changing the desires, beliefs and behaviours of racists, sexists, fascists and capitalists is an absolutely essential political goal? Indeed, one can only fully understand the successes of movements to the extent that they are able to achieve broad-scaled transformations in the public ‘common sense’, and in changing what people desire. The general public unacceptability of openly homophobic statements within the UK, for example, has only been made possible by a long-term hegemonic project to change the way people think. Partly this has operated through explicit means, but it has also proceeded through a variety of other modes of action, from specific legal provisions to the framing of issues in the mass media, all of which was made possible by decades of campaigning. Taken together these methods create a different environment in which subjects are generated and formed.

It might also be helpful here to consider what the alternative to this would look like. The alternative to a hegemonic framework is one which sees people as essentially inert, unchanging and unchangeable, that would identify the creation of small enclaves of like-minded people as the only practicable goal, a kind of separatism. Such a position would lead to a reliance on spontaneous revolt, and would not only be likely to fail, but would also tend towards a rather unnuanced acceptance of essentialist social forms and categories. We have good reason to believe that any left politics worthy of the name would want to reject such a position. Indeed, the successes of anti-racism, feminism, and queer politics are related to their (at least implicit) embracing of hegemonic projects to change the conditions within which people form their beliefs, opinions, and desires. Such a process of transformation can rarely be understood as simply a matter of imposition. Instead, hegemonic politics works to re-orient existing tendencies, desires, opinions, and beliefs, working with existing affordances and transforming them in turn. It is in this sense that hegemonic politics involves ‘leadership’ – not in the sense of individual leaders, but in the sense of changing the conditions which determine the trajectory of societies, by transforming the means by which subjectivities and desires are articulated and formed. This is politics, pure and simple.

A final word is called for on the suggestion of a Mont Pelerin of the left. This is, to be sure, intended to be somewhat scandalous (though we note that both Philip Mirowski and Owen Jones have recently echoed such a call). But the rise of neoliberalism is also arguably the greatest example of an ideological shift in the twenty-first century. This is why we find it of interest in terms of understanding how shifts within power operate on a global scale. A number of responses believe that we are arguing for a vanguardist Mont Pelerin of the left. From what has been said here, hopefully it is clear that this is resolutely not the case. That is why we specify that “the call for a Mont Pelerin of the left should therefore not be taken as an argument to simply copy its mode of operation” (67). Instead, we find three elements of it potentially useful for the left: its emphasis on a “long-term vision”, its intention and capacity to build “methods of global expansion”, and “the pragmatic flexibility and the counter-hegemonic strategy that united an ecology of organisations with a diversity of interests” (67). We find no value in the elitist and vanguardist aspects of MPS. As we argue in the book: “in a world of complexity, no one has a privileged view of the totality” (165). The challenge for a Mont Pelerin of the left is therefore to elaborate a way to instantiate these ideas – of vision, expansion, and flexible ideology – into novel forms that avoid the elitist vanguardism of the original MPS and which respond to the different situation of the left (e.g. a lack of similar resources).

Building Futures

Finally, we will close with a few quick comments to try and clarify some other important points raised in the responses. Sophie and David critique our emphasis on disappointment as a productive affect, and what they see as our rejection of the power of anger. We want to be clear that we absolutely see a role for anger in leftist politics. When Joe laments that we do “not profess an equal love for the present” and warns that “love of the future sits dangerously close to hatred of the present”, we plead guilty. We find the present state of the world intolerable. Our own political stances are mobilised by anger about atrocities small and large that we see every day: anger at friends being beaten by police truncheons, anger at the epithets thrown at the homeless, anger at watching yet another black life snuffed out by the state, anger at the online and offline viciousness visited upon sexual minorities, anger at the mental health issues we see so many friends struggle with, anger at the casual fascism of crossing a border legally, and anger at the outright brutalities forced upon those who cross illegally. Anger has always been and always will be an important resource for those marginalised by society. The anger about abusers and the vitriol tossed at sexists, transphobes, and racists is entirely warranted. And Sophie and David are right when they say we don’t outline the parameters of this argument clearly enough. So to be clear: anger has always had and will continue to have an important affective role in leftist politics. We believe we have to do a lot more work to sort out precisely what we think about social media, along with the ethics and politics that might accompany it. As a society, we are still learning how to use these new tools and develop informal codes of behaviour. But it is clear that social media has been of immense benefit to marginalised communities in finding respect, support, strength, and a voice. We in no way want to dismiss this.

We would also add one smaller clarification to their piece. Sophie and David write “S&W display their ‘only after the revolution’ tendencies here, stating that ‘[p]luri-versalism…relies upon the elimination of capitalism and is dependent upon a counter-hegemonic postcapitalist project as its presupposed condition of existence’”. This is not our argument however, but that of Walter Mignolo (The Darker Side of Modernity, 275). He – we think rightly – recognises that in a world of capital, any vision of many worlds will only be many worlds under capitalism. Any effort to build a pluri-versalist order must therefore simultaneously be one which is anti-capitalist. Not a stagist argument about the priority of Marxism over decolonialism, but rather a simple point that pluri-versalism is incompatible with capitalism.

A few quick minor corrections: Joe writes that we do not define neoliberalism and that, in fact, he is suspicious it exists at all (a suspicion shared by many conservative commentators). However, we spend pages 52-3 outlining different definitions of neoliberalism, before setting out our preferred take. As for those who doubt its existence, we would highly recommend following up on the references on the topic cited in our book. Despite the casual way in which the term is used by some, it does in fact pinpoint an important shift within capitalism. Joe goes on to ask how neoliberalism functions as our ‘form of existence’. In answer to this we would also point to the literature we cite in the text, in particular works such as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval’s The New Way of the World and Jennifer Silva’sComing up Short. Joe also notes that we do not provide a general theory of capitalism. This is true, though anyone interested in our broad influences here could do worse than beginning with Capital, Volume 1.

There are a number of issues we have not touched upon, but this is already a lengthy response and we trust that our readers can come to their own conclusions on these matters. To conclude, we’ll turn to a discussion of the future – in particular, the relationship between the future in general and our particular vision of a post-work future. Throughout the chapter on left modernity, we consciously and consistently reference visions of the future in the plural: “Various modernities are possible, and new visions of the future are essential for the left” (74). Elsewhere, we say that “visions of the future are therefore indispensable for elaborating a movement against capitalism” (74-5). A little later, we write that a left modernity “would be one that offered enticing and expansive visions of a better future” (83). While we use the plural in this chapter, we later set out post-work as one option: “We have outlined one possible project, in the form of a post-work politics” (175). The second half of the book is a case for this particular vision – we “argue for the desirability of a future without work” (85) – and our confident tone comes from believing in it. But we recognise that this is not the only possible vision and thus we insist upon “the necessity of [non-European and other] voices in building truly planetary and universal futures” (78). We also situate ourselves in a broader debate and believe that “any meaningful vision of the future will set out proposals and goals, and this [book] is a contribution to that potential discussion” (107). We have, in some instances, given more rhetorical strength to the case for our post-work vision, but this should be tempered with our continual recognition that “any particular image of modernity must be open to co-creation, and further transformation and alteration” (78). In the end, the project set out in the book is an invitation. Post-work demands “do not presume to know in advance who will be called into action by them” (161). We hope that those who are persuaded by the call for a post-work politics will build upon the project, filling in the gaps we have missed, extending the project to new areas, and seeking to build connections across struggles. No one alone can invent the future.


[1] Helen Hester has been one of the few to examine in depth the implications of automation for reproductive labour – both its limits and its possibilities. In a talk entitled Obstinate Gender, she points out the limits of many discussions of post-work: “Forms of work that are mainly (and problematically) associated with cis men are explicitly treated as labour that must be resisted, refused, and (through automation) transcended. The response to forms of work that have conventionally (and, again, problematically) been gendered as ‘feminine’, meanwhile, involves not denunciation but valorisation. In this sense, post-work societies are also pre-work societies, because they herald new forms of social organization in which reproductive labour proliferates.  “Masculinized” labour is escaped, whilst “feminized” labour multiplies – all in a fashion that (supposedly) marks the end of work.”

[2] For those counting at home, ‘surplus population’ shows up just as many times as ‘technology’ in the body of the text.

[3] For a brilliant complementary piece to this chapter, see Bue Rübner Hansen’s work here: https://viewpointmag.com/2015/10/31/surplus-population-social-reproduction-and-the-problem-of-class-formation/

[4] China, for example, is expected to soon have the most industrial robots in action – more than the US or Europe (97). Equally, the sorts of technological innovations that are occurring right now are likely to disproportionately affect developing economies (98).

[5] Indeed, we note in the book that there are important ethical limits to what work might be automated, particularly with regards to reproductive and care labour. (113-4) Our own position in the book is to lay out the landscape of possible options; but we explicitly recognise we are not in the position to determine what should be done in this area. We leave it to those who are affected by pregnancy and the demands of care labour to determine for themselves (though in our own discussions with care workers, they have often seemed more open to automation than the general public). Nick is currently writing a book with Helen Hester on these topics as well, entitled After Work: What’s Left and Who Cares?

[6] We discussed this amongst ourselves for nearly a year, and considered putting in a chapter on this issue, but eventually decided that it just didn’t fit into this book. We consider the ecological question to be a key one though, and it has been central to Nick’s PhD thesis and in his work for an environmental advocacy group.

[7] As Steven notes, and as we write in the book, our use of the term comes from philosophy of mind, where ‘folk psychology’ names an intuitive set of ideas about how the world works. Steven is correct when he notes that some philosophers use the term in a derogatory way – as something to be eliminated. But he neglects to mention that these eliminativist philosophers are few. Many other philosophers hold up folk politics as the basis of knowledge, and in fact argue that science and intuition have a complex and mediated relationship. Ray Brassier, for instance, has shifted entirely away from the rejection of folk psychology, and we follow him in this. Folk psychology cannot and should not be rejected – and the same holds for folk politics.

[8] This historically constructed character is why we used the term ‘folk’ in the ‘folk psychology’ sense – as an intuitive relation to the world which is socially constructed and historically mutable.

[9] We would also like to reiterate that while nearly all the focus today is on UBI as a magic bullet to all our problems, this is fundamentally misguided. UBI is a contestable object, and we should be mobilising around it, but we should not put all of our resources and hopes into it. Post-work is a much larger demand that just this one issue.

[10] Arran James has incisively noticed the relevance of this example as well:http://syntheticzero.net/2015/10/28/sociotechnical-survivalism/

[11] Perhaps doubly so with Joe’s argument that we have done nothing less than rewrite the Book of Revelations.

[12] Nunes has also recently written some important thoughts on what strategy means in a complex world, which nicely complement the ideas proposed in the book: http://www.weareplanc.org/bamn/beneath-the-control-board-the-breach/

[13] And here, we would take up Sophie and David’s point that a linear time doesn’t fit in with every cosmology – so let’s say a different world, rather than a better future.

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