Book review, commentary, and narrative summary of Inventing the Future
Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Published by Verso in 2016
“Work, no matter how degrading or low-paid or inconvenient, is deemed an ultimate good. This is the mantra of both mainstream political parties and most trade unions, associated with rhetoric about getting people back into work, the importance of working families, and cutting welfare so that ‘it always pays to work’”
“Against ideas of resistance, withdrawal, exit or purity, the task of the left today is to engage the politics of scale and expansion, along with all the risks such a project entails. Doing so requires us to salvage the legacy of modernity and reappraise which parts of the post-Enlightenment matrix can be saved and which must be discarded; for it is only a new form of universal action that will be capable of supplanting neoliberal capitalism.”
Chapter I: On Political Common Sense- Introducing Folk Politics
The text introduces the scenario facing the world given the recent failures of the parliamentary left as well as the predilection to encourage what is defined as ‘folk politics’ – promoting local small scale enterprises though unable to scale up or generalize hence incapable of transforming capitalism.
Important points which characterize it are are 1. An evocation of folk psychology which argue that our intuitive conceptions of the world are both historically constructed and often mistaken. Secondly, it refers to ‘folk’ as the locus of the small-scale, the authentic, the traditional and the natural. Both of these dimensions are implied in the idea of folk politics.” 2. Finally, in terms of conceptual immediacy, there is a preference for the everyday over the structural, valorizing personal experience over systematic thinking; for feeling over thinking, emphasizing individual suffering, or the sensations of enthusiasm and anger experienced during political actions; for the particular over the universal, seeing the latter as intrinsically totalitarian; and for the ethical over the political – as in ethical consumerism, or moralizing critiques of greedy bankers.
The authors qualify their critique however by adding that ‘Folk politics is a necessary component of any successful political project, but it can only be a starting point.’ They also concede that ‘folk politics is a more immediate response to the empty spectacle of contemporary party politics.’
Folk politic’s critique of the everyday does not face up to the challenge such a position erects for itself. How does one place their experience within ‘complex systems’ like the economy, international politics, and climate change? Their answer that the economy for example can never be experienced tactily but only via mediations such as statistics, indexes, inflation etc. The economy is obviously connected to property laws and biological needs. In this sense it is very much visceral. In relegating itself to localisms folk politics whose injunction is to reduce complexity down to a human scale, calling for a return to authenticity, to immediacy, to a world that is ‘transparent’, ‘human-scaled’, ‘tangible’, ‘slow’, ‘harmonious’, ‘simple’, and ‘everyday’ it rejects the complexity and integratedness of the contemporary world, and thereby rejects the possibility of a truly post-capitalist world.
Folk politics is contextualized. Its emergence is situated in the vacuum created by the collapse of the postwar social democratic complex, particularly in Europe and America. They take note of the movements in 1968 and the decision of the French Communist party to not support the students and unionists, as well as the bureaucratic failure of state communist parties. Subsequently, the seeming satisfaction of Keynesian corporate with the prevalent state of affairs, as well as the transformation of working class parties into middle class ones. This dimmed any possibility of a revolutionary horizon.
The form of resistances which characterized this period (post May 68) can be described as anti-systemic movements. The book chronicles the right’s drive to restore capital accumulation and profitability by physically intimidating the left and using legislation to undermine unions, breaking up the solidarity of unions via introducing shifts, disaggregating supply chains and re-engineering public opinion. This led to the defeat of the working class in the developed world. A sense of enraged injustice emerged in popular consciousness – ‘negative solidarity’. The left was marginalized.
The 90’s saw the breaking down of the working class as the privileged political subject and the emergence of new ideas of interacting power structures, and hence the notion of intersectional oppressions. The feminist movement, anti-discriminatory laws all gained ground. Their success however pales in comparison to the earlier vision of radical transformation of society which the 70’s harbored. As the authors have put it “On its own, however, this kind of politics is unable to give rise to long-lasting forces that might supersede, rather than merely resist, global capitalism.”
Chapter II: Why aren’t we winning? A critique of today’s left
The second chapter begins by continuing to characterize folk politics as horizontalist. Tendencies which inhere in such a position are 1. A rejection of all forms of domination 2. An adherence to direct democracy and/or consensus decision-making. 3. A commitment to prefigurative politics 4. To this I might add a characteristically anti-globalization stance and an emphasis on direct action. These drives draw on traditions in council communism, anarchism, and autonomism. “At the heart of these movements lie a rejection of the state and other formal institutions, and a privileging of society as the space from which radical change will emerge.”
Unlike the old left, the tendency depicted as horizontalism operates as an umbrella term for sheltering women, minorities, differently abled, and racial minorities from domination. It is important to note however that the radical left has learnt from and adopted these measures. And in seeking to bypass institutional and political domination however, often – subtle forms of hierarchy remain. Such may be a limit of folk politics, which also fails at constructing persistent political structures which may abide.
Coupled with this is a critique of representation, seeking to privilege immediacy over mediation, which seems like a corollary of the rejection of institutions. This is a tendency that is critical of representative politics and the history of corrupt trade unions eroding liberal democracies and which sees them leading towards a hierarchized elite.
A persistent grievance of women and people of colour is that they have little to gain in waiting for the conditions of revolution to reveal themselves while their immediate concerns are ignored by yet another white leader. Their strategy here appears to be projecting a prefigurative politics which seek to project a future being sought by a group to society. The forms this take may range from cinema, literature to political demands.
In Hyderabad for instance Rohit Vemula, was a student of HCU who committed suicide in the face of caste discrimination. His suicide note offers a criticism of what he sees as the human condition – ‘The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.’ This sense and notion that would surely find consonance in a breadth of literature regarding the subjugation of people and the subsumption of the labours of man. Yet, as a noted journalist Pothik Ghosh puts it, it is also a call and invocation of a people to come. I would argue that this too is an example of prefiguration.
In terms of their (folk politics) strategy of mobilization however folk politics, in its populist form have met with comparatively greater success. The Occupation of public squares, from Wall Street to UGC, Anti-CAA protest in metropolises in India, and the struggle against National Education in Hong Kong, have all witnessed this tactic of garner recognition and foster dialogue between the state and a movement, occasionally leading to successes. I would like to interject here stating that the occupation of public squares is not really a tactical innovation.
While generalized across geographies these movements were often characterized by an absence of clear demands, which compromised their unity. The authors point to how in core capitalist countries often governed by a two party democracy the spectrum of debate becomes minimized. Occupy and movements like it provided a platform to express unheard anger and suppressed demands which may not otherwise reach the light of day.
This reliance of direct democracy however and its subsistence in small communities means that it cannot be scaled up at a national, regional or global level, and is hence not a useful strategy for a modern leftish movement. It is also, at the same time subject to the backward thinking which often characterizes ‘intimate communities’ – homophobia, casteism, racism and pernicious gossip.
Horizontalism in practice has often led to paralyzed decision making structures. It has also not provided a defense against state repression. Sub-groups within Occupy made decisions, often acting on their own whereas independent organizations helped with Occupy UGC. Rarely if ever was a decision made by a general assembly.
Not dissimilar to this, in Egypt, football supporters and religious organizations were central to mounting a defense of Arab Spring against the state and reactionaries. As were the support of organized workers in shutting down the country which was a decisive blow to the Mubarak regime.
The direct action propagated by these groups such as the black activist led- Take Back The Land address the surface wounds of capitalism without changing the underlying structures and leaving its problems intact.
There are advantages of such forms of organization however, in Argentina after the recession in 1998 and the loss of a quarter of its GDP by 2002, mass protests erupted leading to the collapse of its government and the defaulting of its debts. People were forced to find new ways to provide for themselves with the formation of cooperatives and neighborhood assemblies. It is to be stated that even at its height the cooperatives controlled less that 0.1% of the economy via participating in worker controlled factories. As the economy started to improve, participation in neighborhood assemblies and alternative economies declined. As the authors put it “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.”
Another variant of enterprise directed along these lines is the slow food movement which embraces the localized consumption and production of food often using advanced agricultural techniques such as permaculture. It is also unlikely that local farming practices will ever be able to replicate and supply all the nutritional wants of a populace, particularly as economies advance and turn less agrarian.
Local economies are hence stressed and this is true even in the case with monetary investments. The ‘Move Your Money’ movement for example advocates transferring money to smaller banks in the belief that these may lead to local investments serving indigenous communities and creating credit unions. Some success can be seen in this in cases such as the Grameen bank and farmer’s credit cooperative. These smaller banks however handle their investments just like the larger ones. In other words “In any situation where a small bank or credit union has more deposits than it is able to profitably reinvest within its locality, it will inevitably seek investments within the broader financial system.” Possible exceptions to this are German and Swiss banks which are owned collectively, and pool risks. In the former country 70 percent of the banking sector consists of community owned banks.
Beyond this - “political capture, the need to seek profitable investments beyond those available in the local area, and simply the high returns of more risky investments, are all factors leading local banks to participate in the broader financial system. Even mutual ownership is no guarantee of financial probity, as demonstrated by the recent travails of the UK’s Co-operative Bank, which almost collapsed entirely following an ill-conceived takeover of a building society in 2009.”
The most painful of the strategies advocated by horizontalism however are the abandonment of any effort at a counter hegemonic project.
A point where I wholeheartedly concur with the authors is that “We do not resist a new world into being; we resist in the name of an old world.” This in my eyes in its ultimate horizon only masks a national protectionism in the private sector that is ignorant of how its own creation in the first place. The blanket of social democracy which enabled the rise of a Nehruvian middle class in India for example, as well as the modest strides made in agriculture in the years following independence were facilitated by the cover of protective tariffs. At what point however does this protectionism hinder the expansion of industry and the economy rather than protect it is a question we have to reckon with.
The alternative which spring from horizontalism is a separation from the capitalist economy which is occasionally mistaken for a social logic which is antagonistic to capitalism. This is an illusion. Marinadela, a small town in Spain depicted as a ‘communist utopia’ for example is fully dependent on the wider capitalist markets to sell their commodities and subsidies from the European Union for the upkeep of their agriculture.
At face value we can all act only locally to effect structures beyond our reach, the problem with folk politics however is that it remains local without any medium or long term program to transform capitalism.
Chapter III: Why Are They Winning? A making of Neoliberal Hegemony
The third chapter begins with reviewing how Neoliberalism wasn’t always the dominant ideology it is today and in which ways it may differ from classical liberalism. While both the ideologies endorse free markets, Neoliberalism utilizes the state to a far greater extent. This arose from the appreciation that markets are not natural, but constructed via subsidies, special interest zones, and external tariffs and facilitated by targeted loans. The state also sustains these markets by defending property rights, enforcing contracts, anti-trust laws repress social dissent and maintain price stability. In India and elsewhere (US post-2008) we also see a greater degree of interference of governments in central banks.
It then traces the disparate origins of neoliberalism, - in the cities of Vienna, London, and Chicago in the 1930s and 40s. Its marginality changed with the Walter Lippmann Colloquium which is the place where the change in the term liberalism to neoliberalism was considered by 26 economists who were seeking to protect liberal of rising collectivism. This was abruptly halted due to the Second World War, but found new impetus with the foundation of the Mount Perlin Society in 1947, with Hayek and a Swiss Businessman being instrumental to it. The Mount Perlin Society was from the start explicitly committed to changing political common sense by filtering down their program via think tanks and policy documents.
“From its origins, the MPS (too) eschewed folk politics by working with a global horizon, by working abstractly (outside the parameters of existing possibilities) and by formulating a clear strategic conception of the terrain to be occupied – namely, elite opinion – in order to change political common sense.” Hayek’s strategy amidst Keynesian dominance at least in the Western world was long term and he may have curtailed the production of books and other documents initially so as to setup a system of think tanks. His views did eventually win out over the others in the MPS. Eventually a number of proponents found themselves in governmental positions.
Following hyperinflation in the Weimar republic which was already struggling in the midst of postwar reconstruction, ordoliberal thought established itself in Allied bases in West Berlin and they cut price and wage controls as well as income and capital taxes. This compelled the Soviet Union to blockade Berlin inaugurating the cold war. In the rest of the world Keynesian tendencies were ascendant often backed by an unclear line regulating when an intervention was legitimate or not.
A notable think tank which propagated critiques of Keynesian thought setup by the MPS was the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. It was to promulgate neoliberal views. Another was the Institute of Economic Affairs in the UK which educated and socialized numerous members of the Thatcher administration. It naturalized the policies of attacking trade unions and fostering monetary stability. There are other notable examples in the US. The Atlas Economic foundation has setup over 400 neoliberal think tanks in over 80 countries. The think tank emerges as the form institutionalized by neoliberalism to disseminate its views.
High unemployment and inflation in the 1970s (oil shocks, general commodity price rises, wage increases and the expansion of credit) were understood to be the result of the welfare state whose rigidities in wages spurred inflation. A Keynesian approach dictated that when unemployment was rising, the government could stimulate the economy by investing in it, creating employment etc. and when inflation was rising ‘to take money out of the economy’ presumably by printing money to devalue commodities. (This was not the only possible interpretation, authorities could have regulated credit creation), however these measures were insufficient at addressing both of these issues simultaneously, what is known as stagflation. Those who were unsure as to what to do at such a point found a possible solution in neoliberalism which had consolidated its hegemony by this point. The collapse of the Soviet Union further ushered it in promoted by the structural adjustment plans of the IMF.
What the left can learn from neoliberalism is that their intellectuals very early on rejected folk political solidarities to conjecture abstractly on possibilities. They thought through long, medium and short term possibilities which often seemed superficially at odds with each other only to reinforce themselves behind our back. They had a long term vision.
The call for a Mount Pelerin of the left is a call to build anew a counter hegemony, perhaps a task already ongoing in study circles, and university groups, and chronicled by the likes of Negt and Kluge’s work on the public sphere and experience.
Chapter IV: Left Modernity
This chapter sets the stakes of why it is necessary to contest modernity. The struggle over modernity has always been struggles over what the future should look like. “The much-lamented capacity of capitalism to incorporate resistance more often than not simply reveals that particularisms are, in themselves, incapable of competing against a universalism.”
If this term (unversalism) is ceded to the right it comes to mean “simply some dread combination of privatization, heightened exploitation, rising inequality and inept managerialism.” To quote “…notions of the future tend to revolve around ideas of ecological apocalypse, the dismantling of the welfare state, or corporate-led dystopia, rather than anything bearing the mark of utopia or universal emancipation. For many, therefore, modernity is simply a cultural expression of capitalism. From this accepted wisdom, the necessary conclusion follows: only the cancellation of modernity can bring about the end of capitalism. The result has been an anti-modern tendency within numerous social movements from the 1970s onward.”
“In mistaking modernity with the institutions of capitalism we abjure the alternative forms it may take”. The author’s characterize a left modernity as committed to an image of historical progress, a universalist horizon and a commitment to emancipation. The struggles for land rights, healthcare, wages, and education rely upon the concepts which made up modernity - freedom, secularism, democracy. Modernity is the struggle over the future, whose future, what it may look like, what it may be for, and is linked with concepts of enlightenment, betterment, advances etc. Throughout this, the authors state that what set the left apart from the right is the unambiguous embrace of the future.
These terms are also co-opted and mobilized by the right however, especially since the advent of neoliberalism - with the likes of Margaret Thatcher commanding them to great effect.
In academia and publishing in American universities at least, the ‘postmodern moment has torn apart the link between emancipation, the future, progress, and modernity. The rhetoric of folk political thought, along with the romanticism for the past characterizing the right - has ceded the concept of modernity to the present neoliberal hegemony. The craft of offering a vision of the future, a tradition harbored and cultivated by the left needs to be refashioned. And it is here that we may perhaps draw on earlier works in this effort, those of Ernst Bloch for instance.
There have been certain resistances to these conceptions of progress however, the critique of teleological thought long brandished against Hegel and Marxism for example. In both the narratives, towards a liberal conception towards capitalist democracy, and in the drive to communism in Marxian thought, philosophical critics have pointed to a belief in preconceived destinations. The history of the 20th century has demonstrated that predetermined courses are rarely and with difficulty, if ever - followed. Quoting, it was “this series of historical experiences fuelled an internal critique of European modernity by way of psychoanalysis, critical theory and post-structuralism.”
For those unfamiliar with past battle mounted from these positions, this quote may offer a brief sketch. “The association between capitalism and modernization remains, while properly progressive notions of the future have wilted under postmodern critique and been quashed beneath the social wreckage of neoliberalism.”“On this account, post-modernity is a cultural condition of disillusionment with the kinds of grandiose narratives represented by capitalist, liberal and communist accounts of progress.”
The authors assert however that history does appear to have a grand narrative. The post-modern critique of them (grand narratives) has primarily been directed at the ones offered by the left. The renewed fascination with religion for example is another which critiques of grand narratives tend to ignore.
This critique of grand narratives has tended to obscure any progressive vision of the future, a fact that the American theorist Fredrick Jameson attests to in his work. We are reminded that visions of the future are indispensable for any movement against capitalism.
Progress however is re-understood as a pathway to be cleared, a struggle whose end result is guaranteed by no earthly or divine necessity. The authors use the term hyperstition to characterize it - i.e., a fiction which aims at transforming itself into a truth, or should I say reality?
We have to confront the fact that the left needs to re-think the project of universalism if it is to compete against global capitalism, or else it risks being smothered.
To invoke such an idea of universalism is however to invoke a number of critiques (post-colonialism, subaltern studies etc.), and as the authors put it, the worst aspects of the history of modernity. I would argue however that what is referred to is principally the pre-history of imperialism which began in Europe in the form of colonization of other parts. And this too, I would defend as enabling progressive strides in societies which may have otherwise have been relegated to feudal or worse modes of production. Perhaps it is useful to deploy the term Imperialism in its Leninist sense here (in which case it may still be relevant) as opposed to colonialism and its later iterations.
Another issue which the politics of emancipator universalism has to confront is the argument for cultural relativism. To quote - “all the problems of cultural relativism reappear if there are no criteria to discern which global knowledges, politics and practices support a politics of emancipation.” The authors state that the problems of cultural relativism take place in the absence of a concept of a universal, a notion I would agree with - however as to its conceptualization as an empty placeholder, I believe this is a vague description which is devoid of conceptual rigor and hence doesn’t lend itself to theoretical use. The authors do cede however the concept of universalism or should I say universality is incomplete, another notion which perhaps may be developed in some more detail in the works of Ernst Bloch and Slavoj Zizek.
They also arrive at a conception of synthetic freedom which is to be wrested away from the right ie. freedoms existing not merely the formal existence of rights which enshrine freedoms but also the material conditions necessary for sustaining it, and that this is ought to be one of the primary aims of a post-capitalist world. The construction of synthetic freedom would entail the provisions for ‘income, time, health, and education’.
As apposed to any neo-spiritualism or western-Budhism “Emancipation is… not about detaching from the world and liberating a free soul, but instead a matter of constructing and cultivating the right attachments.”
The aim of the promethean spirit which is advocated is an ‘unbinding of the necessities of this world and to transform them into materials for the further construction of freedom.’ Freedom is here understood to be a synthetic enterprise and not a natural gift.
The task of a left modernity will be to create a post capitalist and post work platform upon which multiple ways of living could emerge and flourish.
Chapter V: The Future isn’t Working
In assessing the causes of unemployment in capitalist economies, the authors place primacy in the social, political and legal structure to explain why sections of certain groups, women, students, etc face a disproportionate degree of it. This is as opposed to technological change (the perennial fear of certain ludic tendencies) and primitive accumulation.
The chapter focuses on the present precarity of workers even in highly developed economies such as the UK and the US. 5% of contractual employees in the UK for example are on 0 hour contracts. 34% of the employees in the US live off pay cheque to pay cheque and 35% of the UK workforce would not be able to live off their savings for more than a month. These forces lead to an increase in depression, anxiety and suicide rates - measures that economic indexes rarely take account of. A fifth of all suicides globally are related to unemployment and this has only increased since the recent financial crises.
This is coupled with the phenomena of jobless recoveries which when an economy gets back on track but with job creation still stagnating. Were automation to increase, capital could use periods of crises as a means to permanently erase such jobs. This is a phenomena increases long term unemployment and underemployment.
Geographically these phenomena have led to the creation of an urban margins often living in ghettoes. These segregated communities are often tightly knit along racial or religious lines and are often systematically marginalized.
In terms of the governing consensus as to what to do with labour power, during the postwar period the conservative and the labour movement decided that full employment was a desirable outcome. In terms of the emerging consensus among the early neoliberals it was thought to be sufficient for education to merely adapt the worker to the new and constantly changing economy. The emerging strength of the working class after postwar reconstructions were completed proved to be a problem for capitalism, and stagflation in the 70’s served as an opportunity to reverse the impetus given to full employment.
Contemporarily, the ILO deems that emerging jobs are high-skilled, non-routine and cognitive. Commentators such as Aaron Bastani refer to a weaponizing of the surplus population and the mobilization of ‘workfare’. In the meantime, the authors note that -“The unemployed have to fulfill an increasingly long list of conditions in order to gain even minimal benefits: attending training, constantly applying for jobs, listening to advice, and even working for free.”
In harsher conditions, workers often risk grave circumstances to undertake journeys to other countries to find new forms of employment. When industrialization swept agriculture in Europe, a mass of unemployed left for the new world. Along with the borders, which many lose their lives trying to cross - radicalized coding is often the apprehension of the indigenous when encountering the migrant.
Another way for states to manage surplus populations have been through mass incarcerations with the population presently in prisons increasing both in absolute and relative terms.
Systems of incarceration however extend far beyond prisons, including laws, courts, policies, habits and rules - not to mention that Althusserian critique against the family, school and church.
Some studies show a correlation between a drop in industrial employment and a rise in the numbers of the police force. “George S. Rigakos and Aysegul Ergul, ‘Policing the Industrial Reserve Army: An International Study’, Crime, Law and Social Change 56: 4 (2011)” -“As the reserve army grows, so too does the state’s punitive apparatus.”
This cocktail of incarceration and racial profiling is perhaps best explicated in America where it has almost been recognized as a measure deployed to nullify the surplus population, to prevent them from becoming a reserve army in the Leninist sense.
The authors foresee a time to come where the economy is unable to produce enough jobs (let alone good ones) though we would still be dependent on them for our living.
They conclude this chapter with a set of strategies which the later ones will elaborate on as to how these predicaments may be met. Job sharing and the reduction of the working week, being in my eyes, prime among them and in consonance with essential demands of past labour movements.
Chapter VI: Post-Work Imaginaries
To begin with we are informed about the futility of the predominant strategy of not making demands which the radical left today exposes. Their argument being that to demand something of an authority is to legitimize it. There may be a logic which is operational here however a social movement cannot be built around the absence of demands.
The principle demands put forth here are “building a post-work society on the basis of fully automating the economy, reducing the working week, implementing a universal basic income, and achieving a cultural shift in the understanding of work.”
A tangible effect of automation particularly within the manufacturing sector is the decline of employment here in developed economies. Employment in such economies is taking place primarily within the service sector. This is a tendency already present within capitalism which the left may exploit.
In terms of the kinds of jobs which are to be automated, these range from the manual to the skilled. Movers in warehouses to paralegals searching for case precedents can now be replaced by machines. Despite this leap in automation however, productivity has not seen a parallel bound. One possible reason for this is the low rise in wages which delimits the demands of the workers.
Automation itself however as a potential is not exhausted, even if in advanced capitalist economies such as the United States, less than 10% of the companies who could benefit from incorporating industrial robots having done so. On these grounds the authors argue for full automation as a political demand, rather than expecting it to come about through some notion of economic necessity. It is envisioned as a utopian demand that seeks to reduce necessary labour as much as possible.
Labour theorists have argued for a while that the shortening of the working week should be the chief goal of the labour movement. The demand for the two day weekend for example arose spontaneously from workers wishes. Working weeks ranged around 60 hours during the early 1900s to just below 35 hours during the Great Depression. This trend no longer seems to be the case. Paul Lafarge once argued for a three hour working day. A contemporary example of such a tendency is seen in Timothy Ferris’s 4 hour Workweek. Earlier, more canonical examples include Keynes, who is his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, looks to a 15 hour working week.
Apart from its benefits to the position of labour, a shortening of the working week would also reduce our carbon footprint, essential to counter climate change. Automation sets the stage for all of these and also facilitates the re-distribution of work. It is argued that trade unions could bargain for accepting automation in return for a shorter working week.
The resulting free time that this would result in is meaningful only if the people concerned have the means to enjoy it. To facilitate this the idea of a Universal Basic Income has been proposed and almost came to be effected in the US in the 1970’s. A number of small scale experiments have been conducted and it has consistently enjoyed the support of a number of economists. It petered away with the advent of neoliberal hegemony. It is noted that the implementation of such a measure must be a supplement to the welfare state rather than a replacement to it.
The political freedom afforded by a wage is a reality attested to by the civil rights movement. It also provides workers the means of subsistence without a job, hence taking neoclassical economics on its word and making work truly voluntary.
Strategically the strength of such a demand is that it serves the common interest of diverse groups such as the unemployed, underemployed, students, and disabled.’ Essentially, this would also enable workers to reject jobs which were underpaid, in harsh conditions, demeaning etc. From a managerial perspective, as wages for the worst jobs rise (presuming they were below UBI – there would be greater incentives to automate them).
It is posited that UBI is fundamentally a feminist demand as it will allow women to leave dysfunctional relationship. They also state that it is a better demand than ‘wages for housework’ as UBI would break out of the wage relation rather than reinforce it. To quote - “it extends the space in which to experiment with how we organize communities and families. It is a redistribution mechanism that transforms production relations.”
The reasons given for the failure of the implementation of UBI in the US are 1) It challenged the accepted notions of the work ethic among the poor and unemployed. “Rather than seeing unemployment as the result of a deficient individual work ethic, the UBI proposal recognized it as a structural problem. Yet the language that framed the proposal maintained strict divisions between those who were working and those who were on welfare” though the proposal tried to efface such a distinction. The lack of class identification between the working poor and unemployed – the surplus population – meant there was no social basis for a meaningful movement in favor of a basic income.
The argument placed calls for a laying aside of the protestant ethic calling for a devotion to waged work, acknowledging its roots in theological understandings which see suffering as a condition of meaning. The casting away of the sentiment which claims that one must endure through work before they can receive wages.
The prescription is a counter-hegemonic approach to work, overturning ideas about its necessity and desirability. The media is already changing its stance from viewing UBI as a possible solution, to a necessary solution to technological unemployment. In other words - “Capitalism demands that people work in order to make a living, yet it is increasingly unable to generate enough jobs.” For a vast majority, work offers little fulfillment other than as a means to pay the bills.
In the end, our choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both. The former position finds its expression in the folk-political tendency to place value upon work, concrete labour and craftwork. Yet the latter is the only true postcapitalist position. Work must be refused and reduced, building our synthetic freedom in the process. Towards its realization of four minimal demands are put forth:
1. Full automation
2. The reduction of the working week
3. The provision of a basic income
4. The diminishment of the work ethic
“This is not a simple, marginal reform, but an entirely new hegemonic formation to compete against the neoliberal and social democratic options.”
“A reduction in the working week helps produce a sustainable economy and leverage class power. And a universal basic income amplifies the potential to reduce the working week and expand class power.”
The post-work imaginary generates a hyperstitional image of progress – one that aims to make the future an active historical force in the present.
Chapter VII: A New Common Sense
The authors, drawing on experiments in the recent past advocate for the creation of a counter hegemony (much like Negt and Kluge, in their work on the bourgeois and proletarian public sphere) however they reject the Leninist model of dual power ie. creating a revolutionary party to overthrow the state. Instead they cite examples such as Occupy Wallstreet as a movement which could mobilize diverse groups and transform the discourse around inequality. This was pitched against the neoliberal consensus which is founded on an alliance between economic liberals and social conservatives.
To be kept in mind, hegemony also exercises violence via state mechanisms – a fact that subaltern theorists would do well to recall. It can also be used by counter hegemonic projects.
Neoliberal hegemony has entrenched itself not always through public consensus or state power but through an entrenched network of think tanks and a right leaning media. The Republican Party has often taken advantage of this by not addressing leftist demands but by shifting the range of opinions further to the right. The book admittedly presents a weak notion of what ideological hegemony for the left may mean.
The importance of infrastructure is highlighted, as this is a force which will outlast most fast moving commodities. Our economies presently run by mining and supplying fossil fuels. Even if a counter hegemonic movement were to wrest power away from the neoliberal consensus, nothing much would change without transforming production and distribution mechanisms. The flipside is that once alternative mechanisms are in place – the vector of this social force would ride over a plethora of existing customs, lasting beyond their creation to constitute the possibility of de-carbonizing the economy.
A brief review of past dreams of the future follow, focusing on the space race and fantasies of living on other planets, perhaps more gripping today with Space X planning commercial space travel. Coupled with this is an account of the prevalent modesty of the left, its retreat from grand ambitions of transforming society. Without a vision of what it has to offer, a narrative or utopia – the impetus to its actions will be sorely lacking. ‘We therefore argue that the left must release the utopian impulse from its neoliberal shackles in order to expand the space of the possible, mobilize a critical perspective on the present moment and cultivate new desires.’
The essential aspect to remember about Utopia is that the future is radically open, and that another world is possible in the first place. It may be useful to juxtapose this to the present radical left as advertised by Fox News – The Invisible Committee who derives their utopian slogans from armed criminals.
In elaborating such an image of the future it presents the possibility of submitting the present to critique. ‘Utopia presents an index for a lost future’. It is an ‘education of desire’, - ‘In cracking open the present and providing an image of a better future, the space between the present and the future becomes the space for hope and the desire for more.’
The book asserts that ‘the natural habitat of the left has always been the future’ and claims that it must reclaim this. While agreeable, one is left guessing as to how we are to interpret the past in such a situation. In such terrain in any case, again - it is impossible not to mention the work of Ernst Bloch.
Along with this we get the usual plea to transform the education system, to teach leftist economics (labour theory of value, transformation problem, etc.) This demand has found renewed traction among the student community since the turn of the millennium. An input of pluralism into the education system may be essential to this.
Questions that have been raised in this regard and have yet to be answered are – 1) what role, for instance, could non-state cryptocurrencies have? 2) How does one measure value if not by abstract or concrete labour? 3) How can ecological concerns be fully accounted for in a postcapitalist economic framework? 4) What mechanism can replace the market and overcome the socialist calculation problem? To accomplish some of this the Left may need to overcome its aversion to mathematics and formal modeling.
To accomplish its goals, organizations are already mobilizing in these directions – notable examples cited include the New Economic Foundation, and the Workers Educational Association which provide resources to upgrade public adult literacy. Such institutions help in linking abstract and theoretical insights with on ground realities which. This is important to creating any utopian narrative.
A call is placed to repurpose (and not merely seize) technology. Prime here is to shift production away from high-tech military weapon systems to provide affordable housing, running water, heating, electricity and medical technologies. A great example of this is Cybersyn , a proto cybernetic economic management system connecting all factories in Allende’s Chile. Years later during a blockade, truck drivers utilized the early underpinnings to transport resources to the factories which required them. This was made possible by Cybersyn, “the network offered a communications infrastructure to link the revolution from above, led by Allende, to the revolution from below, led by Chilean workers and members of grassroots organizations” One can readily imagine how essential logistics is to the dream of a coordinated and automated economy. These technologies would be essential to avoid the disastrous struggle of the Soviet economy in its attempts at keeping up with the western world.
This also counters horizontalist and localist demands to ‘eat local’ as certain climatic conditions can facilitate particular produce and the energy requirements and hence carbon footprint required in growing them elsewhere, in greenhouses for example, would out-budget the price of transporting them from locations where they are easily made.
The potential of technological uses prevalent today are themselves unexplored and we look to the future with enthusiasm. If however the exploitation of workers is a necessary function of a machine it will have no place in post-capitalist society. The same may be said for nuclear warheads.
“If technology designed to reduce skilled labour permits domination by a managerial class, it also opens up spaces for job-sharing and the reduction of work. If technology that reduces production costs reduces the percentage of people employed, it also reduces the need for people to work. If a technology that centralizes decision-making over infrastructures facilitates private control, it also provides a nodal point for collective decision-making.”
This chapter posits the counter hegemonic strategy as the antithesis of folk politics. It leaves aside the sensationalism of the street protest to change the common sense of society. This is essential if technology is to be repurposed.
Chapter VIII: Building Power
This chapter argues that, in order to install a new hegemonic order, at least three things will be required: 1) A mass populist movement, 2) A healthy ecosystem of organizations and 3) An analysis of points of leverage. The authors add that this is not an exhaustive prescription but an account of the limits of historical precedents. And, that re-building the power of the left is the most difficult, yet essential task today.
The situation is not ideal. The industrial working class has fractured over the past few decades, and presently their only form of consolidation seems to be an advocacy of protectionist leaders and the closing of economies. Austerity has become the norm.
A part of the problem undoubtedly lies in the classic Leninist model of a revolutionary party, as this form of organization overlooks asymmetries in its class composition, between the waged male worker in the public sphere, and the unwaged female worker domestically for instance, not to mention others.
Furthermore, if automation is a step in the future to a post-capitalist society - then we would have to accept that the industrial working class is no longer the revolutionary subject, but was perhaps, at a certain point - a stage in the construction of a class consciousness to come. The challenge is spelled out for us ‘“The breakdown of lines between employed and unemployed, formal and informal coincides with the decline in a coherent transformative agent.”
The question today is “How, then, to compose a people in light of the fragmentation of the proletariat?” There is a debate here between Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek on this subject, beginning with Zizek’s response to Laclaus’s book - On Populist Reason, which is responded to by Laclau in a paper titled ‘Why Constructing a People Is the Main Task of Radical Politics”.
On what basis is this unity to be forged is not easily addressed. Minimal demands shared lead to minimal alliances. Cohesion based on physical proximity dissipates when the protest camp is disbanded, much like what happened to Occupy Wallstreet in the US, and the Anti-CAA protests in India. The Arab Spring does demonstrate an instance when an opposition to tyrannical rulers resulted in a generalization of a movement.
To do this, we need to confront populist reason. Laclau identifies, that often what binds these movements isn’t any specific political content, but a logic of connecting arising out of a frustration of basic demands such as an increase in minimum wages, affordable housing, healthcare provisions etc. I do note however that in India at least these groups often coalesce at the neighborhood level without a unified set of demands. Councilors in Kolkata for example are assigned to municipalities though the hesitancy in approaching them often negates the use of their position.
Demands are identified to be the key medium through which discrete groups may be incorporated. If however the only kind of unity that binds discrete groups is a demand, it would take very little for a state to pacify one group and isolate it from the others. Caste reservations in India, the demand for separate electorate advocated by the Ambedhkarite movement, may be cited as examples within constitutional frameworks and parliamentary democracy. The strategy of uniting behind a demand may however serve to achieve certain immediate goals on the ground.
“Once we move beyond a certain point, what were requests within institutions became claims addressed to institutions, and at some stage they became claims against the institutional order. When this process has overflown the institutional apparatuses beyond a certain limit, we start having the people of populism.” - Ernesto Laclau’s characterization.
The people of a populist movement, unlike traditional class movements, are held together by a nominal unity. An enemy is named so as to represent a set of demands which may appeal to a wide range of people. “Occupy, for example, named the 1 per cent, Podemos named ‘the caste’, and Syriza named the Troika.” “The division that Occupy posited between the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent, for instance, is an antagonism that mobilized people despite its lack of empirical accuracy. The naming of the people and their opposition is a political act, not a scientific statement.”
The book states that for the ‘people of populism’ to emerge however, another significant step is needed. A single demands or struggle is required to stand for the rest. In such cases a particular group no longer seeks recognition from society, but rather - comes to speak universally for society. To do this it must be able to represent diverse interests. Unlike tradition working class groups, populism cannot rest on shared common interests. The struggle which stands in for the rest is constantly animated by a tension with those other struggles.
Populism hence involves a permanent negotiation of differences which seek to create a common language. This is what chiefly distinguishes it from folk politics which permits for the differences to express themselves without instating a universalizing function.
“Such demands do not presume to know in advance who will be called into action by them, but they allow people to see their own particular interests within them while nevertheless maintaining their differences from each other.”
“The demands of an anti-work politics have different meanings for a university student, a single mother, an industrial worker, and those outside the labour force; but in spite of these differences, each of them can find their own interests represented in the call for a post-work society.”
Such a movement, to be effective would need to operate in a series of organizations aiming to overturn neoliberal common sense, both inside and outside the state.
The recent past has shown that in terms of sheer numbers, the left is not noticeably weaker than the right. Their ability to act in organized and effective ways however is markedly diminished. A populist project would certainly entail a division of labour and it is up to us to find how best we can incorporate different people. This is perhaps the best point that can be made against an organizational fetishism.
A neo-Lukacian perspective may say that such a politics does not reify any one organizational form. It does however articulate clear demands and strategies. In this ambit, there is perhaps something we may learn from vitalist philosophy arising out of France, in terms of how organizational becomings are thought and articulated. The philosophy of difference as conceived by Gilles Deleuze for example.
‘The internet has enabled everyone to have a voice, but not everyone has an audience.’ The mainstream media is still instrumental in determining this. This is the space for wresting away hegemony. ‘If a counter hegemonic project is to be successful it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream and not just building increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.
An important question raised is what may be done with unions, the infrastructure of earlier forms of labour organizations. Given that they tend to be situated around the factory and other places of work, it would be possible to involve them in facilitating affordable housing, among other issues outside of the workplace. A number of them have been involved in these measures for a few decades now - today however, this needs to be made the explicit goal of union organizing.
This would entail a transition of the priorities of unions away from the Fordist fascination with permanent jobs, wages and job preservations. The viability of these classic demands is to be questioned in the face of rising automation, unemployment and expanding precarity.
These situations reinforce the potency of the demands for job sharing, a reduced working week, and basic income. The West Coast Longshoremen in the US have successfully accepted automation for example, in return for higher wages and fewer job cuts. They also however occupy a key point of leverage in the economy.
Automation also holds a potential point of alliance between the left and environmentalists. Increased productivity could be used to enable greater free time rather than more jobs and output. These goals are required to turn unions around from the failing goals of social democracy and to revive the labour movement.
Unlike Alain Badiou, these authors believe political parties will still play a (leading) role in a post-work ecology as will the state. It is to be mentioned however that Nina Power has already gone ahead and proclaimed UBI to be treated as a global demand, a point that the left will agree with on principle. Following Badiou and a number who in the past were identified as an ultra-radical left, there is an emerging assessment of the party form and the limits of its role. In its re-envisioning it is depicted to be a form of populist self organization that institutionalizes differences rather than asserts identity. How it is to relate to the state however remains an open question. PODEMOS for instance has enjoyed considerable success in Spain in the recent past even within parliamentary means.
Issues such as minimum wage laws, immigrations, child support and abortion rights are still primarily mediated by the state and it would be foolhardy for folk political approaches to ignore this.
Furthermore, the state may yet play an active role on the ground itself. In Venezuela for instance, the state supported the creation of neighborhood communes as a way to embed socialism in everyday life and practice.
The role of the masses may too be reassessed in this age where transfers of money via cellular devices allowed a party like PODEMOS to be set up via crowd funding at a budget of 150,000 euros in 2014. In Brazil Partido dos Trabalhadores presents an example of a party which does not foreclose its constituency, being open to groups ranging from liberation theologists to peasant movements.
These experiences demonstrate that mass mobilization is still necessary to convert the state into a meaningful instrument of the people and to overcome the blunt division between the power of populist movements and the power of the state. ‘Parties still hold power and the struggle over their future should not be abandoned to reactionary forces.’
The book, to these ends, calls for a ‘functional complimentarity between organizations.’
Points of Leverage: In the economy workers situated in certain positions can offer significant leveraging capabilities, for unions, populist movements and parties. Dockworkers, truckers, those working in delivery services and transportation can effectively shut down large sections of the economy, as can coal miners as they have done so in the past and continue today. With the predominance of just-in-time production a similar phenomena may be experienced in the sector. Automation and state repression may have tempered the effectiveness of these measures and labour power will have to learn to organize in new ways.
The prime tactic of the labour movement is withdrawing the supply of labour power and the reduction of working hours is designed to do just this. Strikes however are also opportunities for management to bring in new hardware or hire scab workers. To counteract this the 20th century saw a new form of strike emerge with sit-down strikes and factory takeovers threatening to demonstrate that the management was superfluous.
Automation clearly threatens the power of labour over leverage points, but as some disappear new ones emerge. As Paul Enzig pointed out in 1957 – a fully automated factory could be easily held up by a small number of workers. There would be a transition to technical work such as overseeing machines and supply chains, etc. What is required is an analysis of automation trends and a comprehension of where new points of leverage will develop. Self driving cars for example will inundate a large number of employees in the transportation sector. London already has self driving trains.
In the face of rising unemployment, or in conditions where there is no workplace to disrupt – disruption can take other forms such as blockades of streets as seen in Argentina, leading to the overthrow of a government, and blockading freeways as in Missouri upon the police killing of Michael Brown. There are other measure as well along similar lines such as rent strikes and debt strikes.
Lessons may be learned from the analysis of power structures and networks but these have to be enmeshed within the material conditions of struggle.
The making of a post-work world as envisioned in this text is built on a conception of populist movements. These are an alliance of different organizations working in tandem to identify new points of leverage (and utilize earlier ones) in anticipating how capital and the state will react to them. It is also built on class struggle but is not reducible to it.
The triumph of this struggle depends on the strategies depicted. However a post-work world will not be the end of history. There are yet other forms of asymmetries in power. As recalled – ‘we still do not know what a sociotechnical body can do’. A post-work platform does remain a necessary yet insufficient step. And, as with any platform – those who create it cannot predict how it will be used.
What forms of life a post-work world engenders is hence an open question. Having liberated humanity from the drudge of necessity it may facilitate communal and ethical participation, or perhaps we may retreat into our individual media conclaves. The change in the work ethic required by a post-work world however we hope, will foster creative and communal living and allow us to move away from the selfish kind of life engendered under capitalism. It will allow us to live in a world where we are driven by our own necessities rather than the brute conditions of the economy. This, we believe is our contribution to the politics of modernity.
The criticism that capitalism drives technological innovation, essential to automation in the first place must be met with the fact that advanced technologies such as “railways, the internet, computing, supersonic flight, space travel, satellites, pharmaceuticals, voice-recognition software, nanotechnology, touch-screens and clean energy have all been nurtured and guided by states, not corporations.” In other words, they were driven by collective, not private investment. Technologies which may in fact save us and are the need of the hour such as alternative fuels and solar powered cars are blocked by capitalists forming powerful lobbies. The defense of intellectual property rights in the pharmaceutical industry is another example where the protection of private property is costing lives. Megaprojects such as dams and spacetravel would be impossible without state backing. The decarbonisation of the economy, the automation of mundane labour and the extension of our health and life are all megaprojects that we could collaborate in.
The fear that we would arrive at some state of mindless consumption ignores our potential for novelty and is grounded in a mind that has been shaped by capitalist subjectivity. A point which I personally endorse and put my weight behind is “the ‘extension and differentiation of needs as a whole’ is to be lauded over any folk-political dream of returning to a ‘primitive natural state of these needs”. This is a notion which art and philosophy would do well to learn from.
“The postcapitalist subject would therefore not reveal an authentic self that had been obscured by capitalist social relations, but would instead unveil the space to create new modes of being.”
“Our task is to invent what happens next”.