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A No-Nonsense Agenda for the Left

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 Their strategies are outdated, their movements have been outmanoeuvred, and despite all the social media fanfare “the recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching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.

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).

Srnicek and Williams say it’s time to do away with all that nonsense: there is no value or goodness in working long hours, or in doing work we don’t want to do. We must stop glorifying and valuing such work and the people who do it, they say. There are far better and more creative things for humans to apply their intelligence and ingenuity to than the jobs that occupy most of our waking hours. Only by dismantling the moralistic façade of work as a reflection of people’s intrinsic worth will we be able to develop sensible policies that help humans achieve their fuller potential (and not just profits for capitalists).

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 superseded 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.