Inventing The Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
Verso Books, 2015
Inventing the Future has been around long enough for the blogs to have passed their verdicts. This self-proclaimed manifesto from Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams has been called “the most important book of 2015”  , “techno-fetishist vanguardism” , and everything in between.
The authors’ crime – or service, depending on which side you fall – was to argue that the “Left” in its current form cannot bring about lasting change. It will take more than protests, localism or direct democracy to challenge the neoliberal hegemony. Behind these widespread forms of dissent is a misguided notion that the immediate, the transparent and the small-scale are good, and conventional political structures bad. So, urging the left to recognise the limits of these “folk politics”, Srnicek and Williams offer something solid to rally behind: state-sponsored automation to ease out wage labour, and the introduction of a universal basic income (UBI).
What the authors have done, in effect, is to present two very old solutions to a very contemporary problem. Machines that do our work for us are a staple of science fiction. The basic income appears as far back as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516); it came close to being realised in 1960s and 1970s America, and has reappeared in various forms in India, the Netherlands, and Canada. The modern left is by contrast more sclerotic than it has ever been. There is no need to recount the familiar story here: the neutered trade unions, the hollowed social democratic parties, the traditional working class dissolved in a global “precariat.” Srnicek and Williams do run us through it, but in order to make the point that “folk politics” are a product of this simpler time, when the opponent was fairly easy to see; it was the factory owner, it was the totalitarian state. Folk politics do not work as well in the globalised world, where hegemony straddles continents and flits through fibre-optic cables, while a changing climate works intricate and unpredictable damage. Our dismay at modern complexity, and the apparently hollow gestures of party politics, lead to a craving for transparency, and folk politics seem like just what we’re after. But only by making a serious bid for power, and using power to do away with the drudgery of wage labour, can the left actually dismantle neoliberalism. The prize is an open (or “hyperstitional”) future, in which individuals are freed up to determine their own futures day to day, and no longer bearers of purely theoretical rights.
The comments sections of these blogs are littered with “Finally!” moments; politicos who have watched the rise of the Occupy movement, organic food fads and protests with “no demands”, and wondered when someone else was going to question how effective these things are. In the long run, at least. Srnicek and Williams should be given the credit for going against the common wisdom with their critique of folk politics. A great deal of keyboard power has been expended fighting – in pretty abstract ways – their ideas of automation and the UBI, but the authors have succeeded in pushing the left’s conversation on to policies. But two questions remain then: how viable are these ideas? If not, are there problems with the conceptual ground on which they have been built? Answering them is the purpose of this review.
So let’s give Srnicek and Williams the benefit of the doubt as to whether true self-determination for humanity is a worthwhile goal. Let’s also allow them, for the moment, that automation and the universal basic income are ways to achieve that goal.
When the authors use the term neoliberalism, they describe an entire economic system. “The unprecedented interventions by central banks into financial markets are symptomatic not of the neoliberal state’s collapse, but of its central function: to create and sustain markets at all costs.” (p. 53.) Neoliberalism for Srnicek and Williams is an ostensibly free market, backed up by a government willing to fight off any incursions by non-market forces. Despite the subtitle it is not “postcapitalism” but “post-work” that is used most often in this book to describe what could replace neoliberalism: the combination of automation and UBI. Perhaps this is more than a coincidence; the authors outline automation and UBI largely from the point of view of individuals only. Conflating postcapitalism with post-work suggests you conflate individuals’ experience with a complete social model. Machines here are a way to delegate labour, so people can spend their lives doing more fulfilling things like studying or socialising. Even when the broader implications for automation are explored, it is not through the economic lens, but something like the environmental: automation would lead to a fall in the consumer goods that today cushion busy workers, saving waste. The UBI brings “reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy.” And who would sniff at those? But it remains unclear how the UBI fits into a complete postcapitalist economy.
Perhaps the problem behind all this is that Srnicek and Williams do not actually know what a postcapitalist economy would look like. “The reduction of labour demand through automation, and the reduction of labour supply through the shortening of the working week…the combined outcome of these measures would be the liberation of a significant amount of free time without a reduction in economic output or a significant increase in unemployment.” (p. 118.) “Low-waged work is often crass and disempowering, and under a programme of UBI it is unlikely that many would want to undertake it. The result would be that hazardous, boring and unattractive work would have to be better paid, while more rewarding, invigorating and attractive work would be less well paid.” (p. 121.)
There are a number of issues with these claims. Today, technology – phone apps for instance – analyses its own performance in order to improve. “Deep learning” and AlphaGO are the latest examples. So the authors miss the fact that information is integral to modern machinery. Paul Mason has shown that the flow of information is so hard to control that you cannot really put a “price” on it. Only the labour theory of value then can grasp the effect of replacing workers with info-machinery: the cost of production collapses. It is impossible to say with any certainty then that automation would have no significant effect on economic output or unemployment. Srnicek and Williams miss this because they do not engage with theories of value, and they do not engage with theories of value because they do not offer an overarching picture of a postcapitalist economy.
If the cost of production hits rock bottom, so will the labour value of products, unless labour costs are pushed back up again with the creation of new markets. In other words, without enormous and unending growth automated economies come to centre on the only remaining scarce resources: materials and energy. A culture of paid work would likely be unsustainable in an automated economy. Where then would the money come to hike wages in menial jobs? And automation erodes the money base available for wages. Ultimately it becomes impossible to pay everyone a basic income.
Why do Srnicek and Williams only tell half the story? The prize in a post-work society is endless self-determination for everyone. But Srnicek and Williams conflate self-determination for each individual with the ability of society as a whole to accommodate that. Since endless self-determination implies an automated economy and UBI, they do not think it necessary to demonstrate that one would follow the other.
The second problem with this “postcapitalism” is more complicated. It relates to how Srnicek and Williams understand the power of machines. Let’s look again at folk politics. It is one thing to claim that folk politics are ineffective by themselves. If Srnicek and Williams are right, that history and party politics have given people an appetite for simplicity, then they have shown the roots of folk politics. But they have not shown why its practitioners would put their faith in something else. Even if folk politics have failed to bring lasting change, how do the authors intend to persuade people that this is true – or that it even matters? Otherwise why would people choose to heed Srnicek and Williams’s arguments? When the authors assume that picking apart folk politics is enough to weaken its seductive power and make room for new strategies, they betray an insensitivity to how our desires are socially and historically constructed. The experiences of history and party politics have given rise to a desire for simplicity. The authors seem to imagine that this desire hides a deeper, more timeless longing for freedom of self-determination. They therefore urge people to try new ways to realise their “deeper” desire. This implicit analogy of depth serves only to bracket off the social and cultural character of our dreams. The suggestion is, if only we recognised our more timeless dream of self-determination, we would see that folk politics cannot take us there. Yet the problem seems to be rather that proponents of folk politics see the straightforward or the immediate as indispensable to self-determination. Folk politics is what happens when the desire for simplicity conditions the desire for self-determination. One doesn’t disguise the other.
But what if the desire for simplicity did disguise the desire for self-determination? Even then Srnicek and Williams would be mistaken. They assume that technology is just a better way to realise the desire for self-determination. They view technology instrumentally, and as Simon Cooper puts it: “the instrumental understanding of technology is based on the idea that it operates as a mere tool according to the subjective wishes of its users…This theory ignores the transformative role technology plays in reshaping and reconstituting subjectivity, embodiment and the social realm.” In other words, there can be no timeless, unshakeable desire for self-determination, because technology will shape all our desires.
Imagine that automation has spread, and an individual wants to use their newfound free time to make new friends. Imagine too that social media – that is, machinery with internet connectivity – is free and widely available; it’s now far more efficient than going to bars when it comes to tracking down like-minded people. Machinery then could shape a desire for friendship into a desire for online friendship. Thus machinery would have encouraged this individual to live their relationships through social media. Would it have behaved purely instrumentally? Would it have helped the individual to realise their desire for better connections between people? Or will it have distorted that wish beyond recognition, repressing the embodied and immediate aspect of interaction, even though that was the appeal of friendship all along?
What all this suggests is that Inventing the Future suffers from some real conceptual problems. Too much is implied and not enough explained. A clearer picture is needed of the nature and impact of technology, and of the role of the UBI in any transition out of neoliberalism. The lesson of Paul Mason and Simon Cooper is that there’s nothing wrong with these ideas, but they need careful explanation. And however well you deconstruct folk politics, it will take more than that to get beyond them.
Jonny Elling  is studying English and German at Worcester College, Oxford. He is also a contributor to Litro, Don’t Do It and The Oxymoron.