A No-Nonsense Agenda for the Left

by Hans Rollman

8 February 2016

The authors of Inventing the Future ask: why think local, when there’s a world to win?
cover art

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

Nick Srnicek, Alex Williams

(Verso)
US: Nov 2015

Progressive activists on the Left have a problem, say Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Their strategies are outdated, their movements have been outmanoeuvred, and despite all the social media fanfare “the recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching failure.”

Their manifesto, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers an ambitious, thoughtfully creative and meticulously researched blueprint for a new strategy toward building a mass global movement to counter the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism.

Key to this is that the Left needs to stop concentrating on local struggles, they say, and look ahead to building a broad global movement. In recent years, the opposite has often been the case: facing the defeat of broad-based movements like communism, trade unionism, Keynesianism and social democracy, the Left has retreated into a spiral of inward-looking localism. This is what they describe as “folk politics”. Folk politics:

...typically remains reactive (responding to actions initiated by corporations and governments, rather than initiating actions); ignores long-term strategic goals in favour of tactics (mobilising around single-issue politics or emphasising process); prefers practices that are often inherently fleeting (such as occupations and temporary autonomous zones); chooses the familiarities of the past over the unknowns of the future (for example, the repeated dreams of a return to ‘good’ Keynesian capitalism); and expresses itself as a predilection for the voluntarist and spontaneous over the institutional… folk politics privileges the local as the site of authenticity (as in the 100-miles diet or local currencies); habitually chooses the small over the large (as in the veneration of small-scale communities or local businesses); favours projects that are un-scalable beyond a small community (for instance, general assemblies and direct democracy); and often rejects the project of hegemony, valuing withdrawal or exit rather than building a broad counter-hegemony… there is a preference for the everyday over the structural, valorising personal experience over systematic thinking; for feeling over thinking, emphasising individual suffering… for the particular over the universal… and for the ethnical over the political.

All this has achieved little but failure and cynicism, say the authors. What the Left needs instead is to stop being afraid of pursuing hegemonic politics, and instead of seeking small-scale, immediate improvement at the local level, focus on long-term goals that will win them the world. Their book offers a systematic and compelling program for doing just that.

Occupying the Left

The book opens with a barely restrained attack on the failures of mass movements like Occupy, the ‘movement of the squares’ in the Middle East and Europe, and other recent protest moments of the Left. Srnicek and Williams are scornful of ‘horizontalist’ and ‘prefigurative’ movements: protest movements that seek to reject hierarchical organizing structures and purport to ‘live the society’ they aspire towards, often by refusing to adopt the organizational and decision-making structures (voting, democratic representation, hierarchical institutions, etc.) of the society against which they are protesting. Such methods, say the authors, work fine for small groups, but are impossible to scale up and apply on a broader, large-scale or global level, revealing why movements like Occupy are inevitably doomed if they don’t take the next step toward adopting more permanent and structured organizational forms to challenge those of the existing neoliberal capitalist state.

Srnicek and Williams represent a growing critique of horizontalist mass movements that’s been gathering steam on the anti-capitalist Left. It’s never really disappeared—these debates have existed since the time of Marx, and doubtless earlier—but are now becoming more strident as critics like Srnicek and Williams are able to point to what they consider the consistent and repeated failure of these mass movements to go anywhere, and as they come to identify and articulate more clearly the weak points of unstructured, localized organizing models. Even the Left’s success stories only seem to succeed when all else has failed, which is hardly realistic as an organizing model, they say. “A politics that finds its best expression in the breakdown of social and economic order is not an alternative, so much as a knee-jerk survival instinct.”

Why the Left Is Losing

The basic question Srnicek and Williams pose is: why is the Left losing? How did neoliberal capitalism take charge, especially given the fact that until only a few decades ago there was a strong consensus across much of the world in favour of Keynesian social democracy and a strong welfare state?

They offer a simple and persuasively argued answer: the Right realized it had to think long-term, it had to set its sights on global hegemony instead of small-scale local victories, and it had to offer a grand universalizing narrative. They depict the rise of neoliberalism as something close to a coordinated conspiracy, seemingly fragmented on the ground (part of its success lay in the way neoliberal supporters and arguments seemed to suddenly pop up everywhere) but coordinated by a global intelligentsia through such mechanisms as the Mont Pellerin Society and later other institutions (World Bank, IMF) ,which the early cadre of neoliberalists infiltrated and coopted.

Key to this process was the proliferation of think-tanks, a political manoeuvre mastered early on by the neoliberal Right. Encouraging academics and journalists to produce research and policy papers that pushed neoliberal perspectives, the idea was that although they might be brushed off as irrelevant and marginal at first, eventually there would be such a critical mass –—the basic arguments and ideas would be heard everywhere—that their ideas would inevitably impact global elites as well as mass culture.

Srnicek and Williams offer a compelling argument that this is, in fact, what happened. To make things worse, the Left has become fragmented along a variety of fault lines. A distrust of universalism and grand narratives has arisen in recent decades (spurred on by disillusionment with communism and democratic capitalism alike) and lingers along the Left, many of whose thinkers accept uncritically the notion that communism failed, that democracy and progress narratives are inextricably associated with western colonialism, and that identity politics and decolonization mean that a universalizing political agenda is an unattainable goal.

Not the case, argue the authors. In fact, they say, neoliberalism’s great secret of success is precisely that it’s the opposite of what it claims to be: it’s a politically engineered universalizing grand narrative grounded in active government intervention in society and the economy. And a devastatingly successful one, if measured only in terms of its ability to achieve and retain global hegemony.

Yet, as has now become clearly apparent, it’s also the source of tremendous inequality and misery. But if the need for an alternative is clear, say the authors, the most viable way to challenge neoliberalism is to do so on its own terms: by offering an alternative universal grand narrative. It’s in this respect that efforts to promote localism—small-scale production, localized democracy, regional barter economies—are misguided, they say, at worst doomed to failure and at best to be contained as an exception to the global norm. The only way to dislodge neoliberalism is to adopt as global and sweeping an agenda as neoliberalism’s proponents did almost a century ago when they first began hammering out their political and economic project.

But how is that to be done?

Winning the Future

For Srnicek and Williams, it’s essential for a revitalized Left to adopt clear programmatic demands. No good is the wishy-washy feel-good-ness of vague calls to live differently, or the bizarre suggestion that the refusal to make political demands is somehow a radical act. If the Left is to compete with neoliberalism’s hegemony, it needs a list of demands that are clearly political, that are flexible enough to adapt to different local or national contexts, and that are utopian in nature, which is to say they are demands which can always be improved upon.

Most importantly, while no single set of demands or agenda will offer a wholesale roadmap to utopia, the demands must be such that their implementation will help to dislodge the existing neoliberal mindset which currently poses such a barrier to experimenting with different social or economic relations. Much as neoliberalism managed to put Keynesian social democracy on the defensive and steal its political momentum, the Left needs an agenda of demands that will now do the same to neoliberal capitalism. 

They offer a specific four-point ‘anti-work’ political agenda as a suggested starting point: full automation; reduction of the working week; a Universal Basic Income (UBI); and diminishment of the work ethic.

Full automation reveals the authors’ credentials as what has come to be known as ‘left-accelerationists’: instead of those leftists who resist technological innovations and automation of the working world, they encourage the intensification of that process. They argue that the Left should embrace scientific experimentation and technological improvements: automating necessary and unfulfilling jobs (industrial production, service work, menial tasks) means that individual humans can turn their attention to more fulfilling things. So long as capitalists have an incentive to try to force human beings to clean sewers or flip burgers for the smallest amount of money possible, progressives (i.e., labour unions) are faced with the questionable agenda of expending massive amounts of energy and effort trying to add a few dollars to the paycheques of such workers.

Instead, say the authors, let’s encourage and develop incentives to automate all of this work, and thereby free humans to do more fulfilling and enjoyable things. It sounds utopian, but the fact is that rapid developments in technology—particularly self-learning robots and algorithmic processes—show it’s entirely possible to live in a more-or-less fully automated world. Of course, workers have dreamt of such a world for centuries, while history has shown that technological innovation tends to be used to increase production instead of liberate the workforce. The key, the authors suggest, is ensuring that full automation is combined with their agenda’s other demands.

The second of these demands is reduction of the working week. This, too, has been a goal of progressive movements for many decades, achieving significant headway in the 20th century with the widespread reduction of the working week to 35 hours and the more-or-less acceptance of a weekend without work obligations. The problem is that momentum to improve on these gains has stopped, and those gains themselves are now being eroded.

The Left must urgently pick up the struggle for a reduced work week (with no reduction in pay), say the authors. This will relieve many of the psychological, social, and health pressures that neoliberalism’s culture of overwork has produced, as well as piggyback nicely on the other demands: previous reductions in the work week have been made possible in many ways by automation, for instance. Unions can help by promoting demands that reduce working time (with no loss of pay: job-sharing, for instance) instead of pursuing an old-fashioned agenda of protecting or fighting for more status quo jobs.

Thirdly, the Left must also resume the struggle for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). This is a proposal that’s been explored quite seriously in many jurisdictions during the 20th century, but never been meaningfully put into practice. As a goal, it’s even proven divisive to progressive movements. But it, too, is vital to overturning the hegemony of neoliberal thinking, say the authors. The notion is that everyone would receive a minimal income from the state, which would enable them to survive comfortably even without working.

It would therefore bring into realization the claim of conservative economists that work is voluntary: under such conditions, it actually would be, and people could pursue the work they truly desired and do it at a pace they could handle. It would also help to ensure that the nature of work would more accurately reflect its value, not its profitability, since employers would be required to pay workers added incentives for less desirable work, while more desirable work could be paid less (people would want to do it because they enjoyed it, and would no longer face the dilemma of making financial ends meet).

Such an income must also adhere to certain conditions, say the authors: it must be universal (so as to avoid any divisions based on class, race, gender, citizenship status, etc); it must not be means-tested (so as to help avoid the stigma that’s developed around ‘welfare’, and also to ensure true universality); it must be adequate to meaningfully free people from the requirement to work; and it must be in addition to, not in replacement of (as some conservatives propose), a strong existing welfare state.

The notion of a Universal Basic Income is often scoffed at by those immersed in neoliberal thinking, but several economists have demonstrated solid proposals for how it could easily be financed by restructuring of existing state spending coupled with a more progressive taxation system (the authors provide references to some of this work). Opponents argue that it might result in no one working at all, but the small-scale experiments that have been undertaken in some jurisdictions suggest the opposite: it actually increases economic production slightly, instead of reducing it.

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