Argument with Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.
After a lifetime of reading hundreds of books criticizing the status quo from the standpoint of environmental problems, social justice, equal rights, and similar progressive perspectives, I continually find myself confounded by a troubling question: why is it that when so many good people know so many smart and wise things, the world just keeps getting worse? Whether it is authors with insights like Wendell Berry, Jerry Mander, Bill McKibben, and Frances Moore Lappe, or protest actions like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and fossil fuel divestiture, or trends like organic food, local food, and even local currencies, great insights and tons of work and energy are put forth by great people, but the world keeps getting worse, not better. Income inequality is worse. Mass incarceration is worse. Catastrophic climate collapse looms, and carbon levels are getting worse. What is going on when so many people care, many of them take action, and yet the march of the system continues unabated and all the problems just keep getting worse?
Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams provides the answer. The world is getting worse because the left is too narrow, parochial, and limited in its demands. If we are to invent a new future, they say, we must invigorate demands and class struggle to achieve a post-capitalist society. Their critique of leftist political action of the past is cogent and insightful, but if we accept their direction in how to shape the post-capitalist future, we are likely to miss this unique opportunity to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a system altogether different.
The authors’ thesis in the beginning of the book amounts to a critique not only of strategy and tactics, but of the actual thought process that progressives use to frame their view of the world. Srnicek and Williams see that the old slogan “think globally, act locally,” has destroyed the progressive left’s intellectual and political power. For example, the problem is not the invasion of extractive mining and oil production in a beautiful place like Equador, nor is it the anti-labor policies of tory governments in the UK. The problem is not that the minimum wage is too low, or that there are too many people in prison. No, the problem is the system that creates all those problems. While local projects like Keystone pipeline, off-shore drilling, massive dams, or local developments should be challenged, even a stream of wins by what Naomi Klein calls “Blockadia” will not change the system. It simply pushes the capitalist forces fighting for those projects to other locations until circumstances become more amenable, and then they return to do the project originally envisioned.
The problem the authors accurately identify is this: you cannot challenge and overturn a global scale system responsible for changing the climate of every place on the globe with even the most successful local action. “Folk politics,” which is local in its arena and horizontal in its structure, cannot win against a globalized hierarchical system like neoliberal capitalism. Some people may protest that statement, but indigenous cultures have been losing that exact same battle for centuries now—all across north and south America, throughout Africa, in remote villages in Europe, and elsewhere. Successes, such as they are, are measured in isolated battles; for progressives and social justice advocates, it has been one very long war, and year after year, the war is being lost.
Part of the challenge is that these folk politics are a very natural, intuitive response to the problem as we see it. Here is how Srnicek and Williams describe it:
“Against the abstraction and inhumanity of capitalism, folk politics aims to bring politics down to the ‘human scale’ by emphasizing temporal, spatial and conceptual immediacy. At its heart, folk politics is the guiding intuition that immediacy is always better and often more authentic, with the corollary being a deep suspicion of abstraction and mediation. In terms of temporal immediacy, contemporary 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 (mobilizing around single-issue politics or emphasizing process); prefers practices that are inherently fleeting (such as occupations and temporary autonomous zones); chooses the familiarities of the past over the unknowns of the future (for instance, the repeated dreams of a return to ‘good’ Keynesian capitalism); and expresses itself as a predilection for the voluntarist and spontaneous over the institutional (as in the romanticisation of rioting and insurrection).”[i]
Most progressives with reasonable self-awareness will admit these preferences and tendencies. Yet, with that paragraph, the authors capture the essence of one answer to my question. Why is the world getting worse? Because resistance has remained local and parochial, and that has made it utterly ineffective. Worse, this has happened because of the progressive opposition’s own decisions—we have gutted our own power by focusing on local folk politics and refusing the burdens of theoretical framework and comprehensive ideology. In a very real sense, progressives have not lost the war, they have given it away!
As the left prepares to tackle the challenges of the future, these lessons should go with us. Small may be beautiful, but it’s not very effective at transforming global capitalism. Although the authors sound a clarion bell on this point, they fail to see how their own prescription for the future is just as problematic. Leaving behind folk politics is crucial, but if the strategy is to immerse the left in a capitalist left-right dualism, the outcome will be no different than if folk politics remained the dominant leftist paradigm. Capitalism would simply endure. Let me explain.
The second half of Inventing the Future argues for a leftist political approach to the economy, the kind of strategy that would be required, and steps to take toward that specific outcome. The outcome is based on “the realization of four minimal demands”:
- Full automation
- The reduction of the working week
- The provision of basic income
- The diminishment of the work ethic
In other words, their vision of postcapitalism is a post-work world for everyone—that is, a world in which work is no longer required to make a living and earn your subsistence.
Two things should be said about this program and vision. First, the authors present a comprehensive model for leading political change whose goal is a bigger achievement than this protest or that blockade. The model they follow, strangely enough, is the multi-decade rise and development of neoliberal ideology. The neoliberal project started in the 1930s with ideas and inspiration from Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek of the Austrian School of Economics, and was taken up at the University of Chicago by Milton Friedman and others in the 1950s. In the 1960s, these intellectual forces began think tanks, published papers and articles, and changed the whole notion of “common sense.” After all, nearly everyone agrees that:
- Markets are good, or at least a fact of life
- Free trade creates growth
- Minimum wage stifles employment
- Inflation should be 2 percent
- Everyone should have a job
Even if you don’t personally agree with one or more of these, the ubiquitous nature of these ideas constitutes a “common sense.” We call it “reality,” but we only think of this as reality because of a concerted effort to make it so. It is a neoliberal common sense.
If neoliberalism needed a multi-decade program to become the dominant hegemonic ideology of our day, the same will be required for a post-capitalist ideology to come to the fore as well. Specifically, people are needed to:
- Develop the ideas and promulgate them until they become the “common sense” of the era.
- Do the political work, the religious work, and the organizing work.
- Develop institutions that support the ideology, or sometimes infiltrate those institutions that will do it.
The vision is big, bold, theoretical, and comprehensive. It would never settle for any specific, parochial, or local interest. It would push beyond local food, beyond a project blockade, and beyond a protest action. The target is systemic change which will affect everyone.
Second, although this vision is bold and comprehensive, it is inadequate. The size and scope are sound from the standpoint of systemic change to the post-capitalist economy. But capitalism is more than just an economic system—it is an ideology, an idea framework for understanding the world. If one accepts that notion, then why should we think it adequate to create a vision for change that is completely immersed in the capitalist ideological framework? An argument based on a left-right political economic alignment is doomed to find itself immersed in the same battles lost in the past. Here are some examples of how the authors frame this discussion:
- “Labour organizations have traditionally been significant forces of social transformation, but today find themselves on the back foot. At the same time, deeply entrenched habits and inflexible—if not outright corrupt—union leaderships have made the revitalisation of these organisations an uphill battle. Yet they remain indispensable to the transformation of capitalism, and any effort to imagine a new union structure must learn lessons from both the failure of older models and the changing economic conditions facing them today.”[ii]
- “A strategy may indicate the broad direction to take, but it still leaves open the question of what forces exist to carry it out. Any strategy requires an active social force, mobilized into a collective formation, acting upon the world. But while putting counter-hegemonic strategy into practice will require the use of power, the left has been both overwhelmed by and systematically rendered averse to the use of power.”[iii]
- “A post-work world will not emerge out of the benevolence of capitalists, the inevitable tendencies of the economy or the necessity of crisis… The power of the left—broadly construed—needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option.”[iv]
All of these quotations harken to the rhetoric of leftist politics and proletariat revolt, thereby revealing that the perspective is ensconced in the traditional, capitalist left-right duality. Recognizing in some ways that these may not fit the current circumstances, the authors still ask a question from within that same paradigm: “Who, then, can be the transformative subject today?” and then they answer: “Despite the growing size of the surplus population and common immiseration of the proletariat, we must accept that no answer readily presents itself.”[v]
The fact of that answer should indicate that we need a new way of thinking. Because of the left-right framework, a transformative subject is needed, and there is none. The left-right ideology assumes an exploited class will be the catalyst, or even the driving force of change. It assumes they will disrupt the system. The problem, however, is that the change is happening all around us anyway—even without this transformative subject. Technology is rapidly moving toward full automation because it is in the interests of business to do so. Universal basic income is gaining attention in wider and wider circles beyond the Marxist theorists—not because they are winning, but because capitalists are going to need such an income to further expand their markets. The system is gradually completely disrupting itself. Disruption will not be driven by transformative subjects, nor will it be unique. Disruptions will be ubiquitous. The so-called post-work world is developing right under our feet along all these dimensions, but there is no transformative subject driving it. These are not the “inevitable tendencies of the economy,” but rather the driven self-interest of the capitalists themselves that are creating it and forcing society toward a post-capitalist world.
For this reason, the left-right framework will distort the common view of reality. The folk politics of the left, rather than being a failed strategy, is a signifier of the decline of this whole way of thinking, just as climate change is a signifier that the free market fundamentalist view of capitalism is also in decline. Neither can sustain themselves. Rather than a resurgent left, the grand theoretical framework needed now should heed the call to thought, theory, ideological scope, and transformed consciousness. We need to perceive differently what is normal, real, and true. We need a new common sense—not an old one dusted off and perked up for a new go. Struggles against capitalism have failed ever since the beginning of capitalism, and there is no reason to believe that a new struggle will work any better.
A new paradigm shift might come from realizations that challenge us in today’s truly collective problems—catastrophic climate change, overpopulation, dwindling water resources. No one is getting out alone. It would surprise left-right thinkers to realize that big business has been planning for the impact of climate change since the late 1990s, at least. It would surprise left-right thinkers to know that across the business world, investors are trying to figure out solutions to water problems. The left-right framework assumes motivations on the capitalist right that are often not true, and therefore opportunities for solutions are lost.
If we truly believe there is a post-capitalist world coming, what’s needed is not a leftist politics way of thinking, but a third way that encompasses a completely new framework for understanding not only our economics, but also our politics. The assertion of either side of a dualistic framework necessarily draws out and creates the opposite side of the framework. If the reformers stay in a leftist position, they will require the presence and sustenance of an oppositional right. They will remain locked in a struggle for scarce resources and rare power.
Srnicek and Williams’ book moves the post-capitalist conversation forward, but it needs to keep moving. Their criticisms of the left are essential, and the vision of strategy and structure provide an open space for intellectual and political imagination. The next step in this ongoing conversation is to change the content of the argument. We must go beyond the staid limits of left-right capitalism and into a new worldview completely separate from that paradigm. We will know we are there when the old paradigm no longer makes any sense.
[i] Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. Inventing the Future.
[ii] Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. Inventing the Future. (p. 166)
[iii] Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. Inventing the Future. (p. 155)
[iv] Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. Inventing the Future. (p. 174)
[v] Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. Inventing the Future. (p. 158)