A No-Nonsense Agenda for the Left
The authors of Inventing the Future ask: why think local, when there’s a world to win?
The Left Needs to Embrace Risk
Their final demand is one that also touches on all the other demands and is in some degree required to make them possible: diminishing the work ethic. The neoliberal agenda of convincing people that work is good, and that people should accept the need to do work they dislike for little pay is predicated ultimately on a moralizing project that tries to convince us that work is what gives our lives meaning: those who work hard and long hours (often doing things they dislike) are good people, and those who don’t work as hard are bad people. The notion even has religious roots, grounded in the notion that we must suffer in order to achieve a reward (for capitalists, the reward is money in this life; for religious folk, the reward comes in the afterlife).
A daunting agenda -- or is it? As they observe, most of these demands have been seriously explored and fought for already, and so in many ways it’s simply a recasting of existing demands as a coherent, renewed agenda. However, it would require a real rethinking of existing agendas among some of the Left’s strongest institutions; namely labour unions. Instead of playing up the importance of work and waging class war, the authors say, “a twenty-first-century left must seek to combat the centrality of work to contemporary life. In the end, our choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both.”
How to bring about such an agenda? A key point of struggle in doing so, they say, lies in wresting control of ‘common sense’ from the Right. Neoliberalism’s great success lay in convincing broad swathes of the public about the ‘common sense’ nature of its fundamental premises. This is what Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci famously referred to as ‘hegemony’; “the engineering of consent according to the dictates of one particular group. A hegemonic project builds a ‘common sense’ that installs the particular worldview of one group as the universal horizon of an entire society. By this means, hegemony enables a group to lead and rule over a society primarily through consent (both active and passive) rather than coercion.”
The task for the Left, then, is to develop a ‘counter-hegemonic project’, based on this anti-work political agenda, to dislodge neoliberalism as the prevailing ‘common sense’. Developing a strategy toward this end occupies the final couple of chapters, although the ideas are only broadly sketched out.
Building a Counter-hegemonic Project
First of all, imagination needs to come back in fashion. As the authors note, we live in a dramatically unimaginative era. This is a recent phenomenon: the bulk of the 20th century was dominated by science fiction and utopian imaginings, with grand hopes for space travel and planetary exploration. This scale of imagining needs to be renewed, they argue. Utopian dreams were not a waste of time: it was science fiction that first imagined, and ultimately led to the invention, of many of the technologies we enjoy today, inventions which hold the best potential for building a better world and getting us out of our current crises. We will never develop meaningful alternatives to the present crises, nor a better future world, unless we open ourselves up to the project of dreaming and imagining again, and treat that creative work seriously instead of considering it a diversion or waste of time. “Utopias are the hyperstitions of progress,” they write (a hyperstition is “a kind of fiction, but one that aims to transform itself into a truth”).
Another important strategy lies in improving the education system. Our current education system has become dangerously shallow, they warn, and fails to teach students the plurality of possibilities and ideas that exist. It teaches them neoliberal capitalism as though there is no other way, instead of emphasising the immense range of possibilities that exist for ways of ordering our society or economy. This is a recent phenomenon as well, they note: until recent years even students of economics were taught a plurality of economic theories, whereas today that is rarely the case. Limiting the range of ideas and possibilities students are exposed to limits their creative potential for bringing those different ideas and possible futures into existence; or envisioning new ones.
A third important strategy toward inventing a better future, the authors say, lies in ‘repurposing technology’. This involves both encouraging the invention and adoption of new technologies, as well as asserting a greater public and democratic control over those technologies and their uses. In contrast to those leftists who resist technological growth and intensification, Srnicek and Williams argue these things are vital to creating the sort of better future they envision.
However, rather than leaving the development and implementation of new technologies to private, for-profit interests, they say it is vital that this project be undertaken in a democratic fashion and with a public interest in mind. They flag the falsity of the corporate argument that the private sector is more efficient at developing and spreading technologies: the majority of significant technological developments of the 20th century were either directed or funded by governments, not corporations. It's publicly funded and/or directed projects that have given us the most advanced and useful technologies, they note, from the Internet to the iPhone.
This, the authors hope, might offer the beginnings of a strategy. But how should activists organize to carry it out? To this they urge a focus on three organizing approaches. The first is growing a populist leftist movement. Populist movements have the capacity to build across the many dangerous points of division that exist in the Left: the working class is no longer a distinct, discernible force, labour movements have been decimated, and identities of all sorts -- ethnic, racial, class, gender, etc. -- have become so complex and fragmented that none of them present themselves as candidates for broad-based movements to challenge neoliberal hegemony.
However, populist movements that target a common enemy have the potential for combining interests: “Populism is… a type of political logic by which a collection of different identities are knitted together against a common opponent and in search of a new world,” the authors say. The basis of unity is not a class, racialized or other form of identity; instead unity is achieved by “naming the fracture in society and the opposition against which they set themselves.” For example, the Occupy movement coalesced as an opposition to “the 1 per cent”; the Podemos movement in Spain targeted “the caste”; in Greece the Syriza movement took aim at “the Troika”. If the labels sound vague, that’s the point: “the naming of the people and their opposition is a political act, not a scientific statement.”
Based on this notion, which the authors expand on at some length, they propose the building of a populist movement based on an anti-work political agenda. Anti-work politics could appeal to a range of existing movements, they say: environmentalism, feminism, anti-racism, and more.
Secondly, they flag the importance of “organisational ecology”. In other words, acceptance of the need for a broad range of organizations sharing a similar agenda to coordinate loosely together. They “do not seek to promote any single organisational form as the ideal means of embodying transformational vectors. Every successful movement has been the result, not of a single organisational type, but of a broad ecology of organisations… An ecology of organisations means a pluralism of forces, able to positively feedback on their comparative strengths. It requires mobilisation under a common vision of an alternative world, rather than loose and pragmatic alliances.”
Anyone who is familiar with the incessant in-fighting among and between progressive activist groups, and their interminable turf wars and struggles over organisational styles and tactics, will understand the need for a more easy-going acceptance of a plurality of groups with different organisational forms and political goals. Such groups include think-tanks, media organisations, labour and student unions, and even political parties (the state and electoral politics should not become the exclusive focus of the movement, but it is equally dangerous and short-sighted to reject them as sites of struggle, warn the authors).
Finally, the Left needs to be more attentive to “points of leverage”, they say. These are the weak points of the existing hegemonic system, and they change with time. Historically, for example, important industries like automobile manufacturing or dockyard work were vital to the US economy, and unions were able to gain considerable strength by organizing in those areas. But they no longer comprise the economic leverage points they once did, and labour’s efforts to hold those areas despite their diminishing importance has undermined labour’s overall strength.
Today, points of leverage include computer programming, IT and telecommunications work. Technical and electronic sabotage, not factory strikes, are how to flex movement muscles today. Other tactics include large-scale freeway and transportation blockades, a tactic honed well by contemporary movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. In short, leftists need to be more attuned with the present-day vulnerabilities of the systems of power they wish to target; not fixated on historical victories and weaknesses that have been superceeded by modern technology.
Closing In for the Win
Two final points are raised in this ambitious program. First, say the authors, the Left needs to be more willing to embrace risk. Fear of unknown outcomes has led the Left “into a situation where they desire novelty, but a novelty without risk.” For example, the Occupy movement was widely embraced while it offered an upbeat and even carnivalesque atmosphere; but organizers balked at the next step of turning it into a truly revolutionary struggle. Whenever radical demands are made -- in organizations, institutions, or politics and society -- an all-too-common way of deflecting them is by saying “we need to do more research”. Activists are too often hesitant to take the responsibility for undertaking truly transformative action for change.
The authors warn, however, that the precautionary principle, in politics, automatically privileges the status quo. The precautionary principle closes off the future, they warn, whereas “the contingency of high-risk adventures is precisely what leads to a more open future.”
What’s the whole point? What sort of an ultimate goal is this ambitious agenda supposed to achieve? “The synthetic construction of freedom”, is their answer. The term ‘synthetic freedom’ they use to describe an approach to freedom which recognises “that a formal right without a material capacity is worthless.” In other words, the right of anyone to run in an election is worthless if it’s beyond the financial capacity of the average person to actually run.
Achieving synthetic freedom involves three components, they say: “the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources, and the development of technological capacities.” This, they argue, “is the means by which human powers are to be developed”, and by which new desires, communities, ways of living, new forms of thought, political and sexual experimentation, can be brought into existence. In short, their goal is to open up the current stale version of global reality to a far greater and more creative plurality of political and social possibilities.
Srnicek and Williams offer an admirable and ambitious program, and it’s a far cry from that which has characterized a lot of Left activism in recent years. It’s refreshing in its scale and ambit, in its ardent defense of technological potential, and in its refusal to reject hierarchical organizing structures and institutions.
Yet it differs significantly from traditional Marxist theory by celebrating the gains made through ‘identity politics’, valuing the anti-oppression struggles of marginalized identities and the importance of centring feminism, gender and sexuality struggles, as well as anti-racist and disability rights movements, in the struggle against hegemonic neoliberalism and for a better world. The authors systematically identify and analyze key characteristics of this struggle: from the ‘folk politics’ they believe is holding back the Left, to the ‘synthetic freedom’ they flag as its goal. But they offer a balanced perspective: recognizing the importance of spontaneous grassroots protest without romanticising it, and reflecting a new generation of anti-capitalist thinking which takes an anti-oppressive, equity-based organizing framework as a basic premise. This truly is a 21st century manifesto, and it’s about time.
The need to reinvigorate the role of utopian and imaginative thinking in society has become a touchstone of anti-work politics (the work of Kathi Weeks comes to mind here) and Srnicek and Williams offer a profoundly thoughtful, meticulously analyzed contribution to this body of work. Most importantly, they offer a glimmer of hope that the future is something that might still be invented by us, not imposed from above.