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Inventing the Future

The key lesson of Nick Srnicek and Alex WilliamsInventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, 2015) is summed up in an epigram from Jodi Dean: “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens.” (26) This new book encouragse us to think big, to organize around ideas that scale. As such its useful corrective to those flavors of political thought and action that want to privilege the local and the ethical.

“The ambition here is to take the future back from capitalism.” (127) Which would be all well and good if there still was a future. The encounter that never arrives in Srnicek and Williams (hereafter S+W) is with, say, the work of John Bellamy Foster or Jason Moore, which would seriously question whether one can still think of a social or political future without thinking about the Anthropocene. The accumulated molecular waste products of modernity now cycle through the whole earth system, undermining its relative stability. The gritty facticity of the world rather puts a damper on dreaming of accelerating through the rough on into the smooth.

It does indeed appear, as S+W say, that the commodity form has colonized the future. Here in the over-developed world, we can have a shiny new tech, but always bound by obsolete social relations. Organized labor has had its power diminished to the point where cannot even demand social democratic alternatives.

There is a ritualistic aspect of today’s politics. Make your signs for the the obligatory demo. Resistance becomes a cultural form. S+W call this a folk politics. This is a sort of political commonsense, what Raymond Williams might call a structure of feeling. But, argue S+W, it is out of step with what’s needed today.

Folk politics privileges immediacy as authentic. It rejects the problem of hegemony. Sometimes, as in the later writing of the Invisible Committee, for a simplistic friend/enemy model of politics. In my view, hegemony is rather about a politics of the non-friend and the non-enemy. Its about forming partial and temporary alliances, where goals or opponents might overlap.

Folk politics is not particularly interested in such questions, nor in those of how to structure or mediate complex ensembles of political forces. It makes a fetish of direct action. It privileges feeling over thinking, and the everyday experience over institutional forms. Besides the Invisible Committee, another example of this might be Occupy, although where S+W stress what they have in common, one might also point to differences, for example between the consensus model of direct democracy in Occupy versus the direct action of affinity groups in the Invisible Committee.

Folk politics begins and ends with what is local. For S+W the question is what could be built out of this. How can a people’s movement get from folk politics to a broader, deeper political form? Actual power these days is a matter of complex systems, not amenable to the affective styles of folk politics. But one might also raise here the problem that a more abstract kind of political project, uniting different peoples over the long haul, might not be possible on the basis of a rationalistic language alone. It too may need affect and even belief. Can we have the common goods without the common gods?

Folk politics reacts against the common gods of the socialist and communist past, which it often sees as spectacle, a mere extrusion of commodity and state power. “The voluntaristic image that sees mediations, institutions and abstractions as opposed to freedom simply confuses the absence of artifice with the full expression of freedom.” (81) Here I think the pro- and post-situationist continuum has rather misread the situationist legacy, seeing only the heroic project of the total negation of spectacle. There’s other resources in that movement, from Asger Jorn’s alternate theories of value to Michele Bernstein’s novel take on play as strategy, to Constant’s accelerationist masterpiece, New Babylon.

Folk politics it has not replaced even the social-democratic imaginary with anything that can move and sustain a popular politics. Nor can it deal with the complex systems of economics, international politics or – most important of all – climate change. Or so S+W charge. Mind you, I am not entirely convinced they have a better appreciation of the last of these either.

“Folk politics appears as an attempt to make global capitalism small enough to be thinkable.” (15) The thing about complex systems is that they can’t be experienced directly. As Toscano and Kinkle might say, we lack a of cognitive map and have lost the capacity to locate ourselves in history. The separation of the individual, as an individual, from the totality, in the form of spectacle, leads to a personalized thought devoid of a politics with more than local grievances, gestures of resistance or ethical feelings. Mind you, it might be interesting here to put S+W together with Hiroki Azuma, who wonders how the general will or political unconscious might reveal itself via the database of social media – a tantalizing and frightening prospect.

S+W agree with the common narratives in which the 70s are a watershed moment. The old party machines of social democracy start to break. New social movements arise that the old political machines have a hard time assimilating, whether its civil rights, environmentalists or situationists. The idea gets about that political power as inherently a bad thing. It’s an idea that points left but also right, to libertarian free-market anti-statism as well.

I’m not terribly satisfied by the narrative that attributes much of the decline of the social-democratic compact to the “emergence of neoliberal thought” (20) As in Wendy Brown, there’s a tendency to treat the domain of the political as both autonomous and even determinate. I would rather see it as reactive, and trace the significant changes to those in the forces of production (and reproduction). The rise of the extensive vector of communication combined with the intensive vector of computation opened up whole new ways of bypassing the bottlenecks of popular power and of valuing and mobilizing everything on the planet as a resource.

In my view, the vector enabled a third wave of commodification. After the commodification of land and labor comes the commodification of information, and with it all aspects of social life, from production to reproduction. Hence the breakdown of organized labor is not at the hands of “ideas of intersectional oppressions.” (21) On the contrary, all forms of oppression and exploitation are thrown into contact with each other as commodification extends to a space of information in which everything is progressively drawn under the sign of exchange value.

It’s a new kind of totality that forces antagonistic movements onto the defensive, and back into local bases. There were two stages to an attepted response. One was the World Social Forum movement, the theoretical companion to which was Hardt and Negri’s rather optimistic assessment of the constitutive powers of the multitude. The second was Occupy, which happened in the rather more straightened era following the War on Terror and the collapse of the rather ornate information-centric accumulation that goes by the name of ‘Wall Street.’

S+W: “In a world where the most serious problems we face seem intractably complex, folk politics presents an alluring way to prefigure egalitarian futures in the present.” (22) Well, at least that was something. Folk politics such as Occupy rejects the “long march through the institutions” in favor of horizontalism. It wants to reject all forms of domination, but fails to construct persistent political structures. Here it joins hands with a critique of representation, to which it will counter-pose  pre-figurative action.

It is not entirely true that Occupy Wall St made a fetish of direct democracy. But it can be said that the movement did collapse from exhaustion and boredom, as the Invisible Committee also charge. The potentially counter-hegemonic slogan of “we are the 99%” faltered. Mind you, it wasn’t the local politics that failed here, it was precisely the intermediate institutional ones that failed to build on Occupy as a base. I would want to give rather more credit to the heroic efforts of Occupy activists here.

S+W neglect the moment of Occupy Sandy, which built a form of mutual aid that no longer needed Zuccotti Park as a base, but still it is the case that these movements could not scale. Even in Egypt or Tunisia or Argentina, folk politics met certain limits. Perhaps these were more like survival tactics than pre-figurative politics. S+W: “A politics that finds its best expression in the breakdown of social and economic order is not an alternative…” (39)

While it seems ethically appealing to stress the local, one has to wonder how efficient it could ever be. It might take very big infrastructures to really minimize carbon output, as S+W suggest. But one might have expected them to think from this point of view more consistently. As Moore points out, the growth engines of the over-developed world rely on cheap inputs of raw materials and food, coming from parts of the world where ‘nature’ takes care of reproducing these resources, or used to. Perhaps these conditions of possibility for social democracy in the west no longer exist.

Moore also points out how ‘cheap nature’ was a condition of possibility for the neoliberal turn, to which one might add the role of the vector in creating cheap information about those resources and the possibility of deploying them. Thus one could think ‘neoliberalism’ more as an opportunistic ideological formation that took advantage of certain changing conditions in the forces of production, which drove an intra-ruling class struggle. It is the sign of the victory of those whose business is making information over those whose business was the making of things.

There’s a good summary in S+W on how neoliberalism came together institutionally to become an hegemonic ideology. It was always a political project. It is different from classical liberalism in assigning a role to the state. They understand that markets are not naturally self-regulating. The state has to construct the boundary of the natural market. (Or as I put it, the state has to manage the referents in an economy of signifiers and signifeds).  The state also defends property rights (and I would add, creates new forms of private property out of information) The state maintains price stability (meaning it keeps money expensive, tilting the playing field toward that part of the vectoral class that is in finance). The state also kills its opponents and jails its ‘problem’ populations.

S+W are interested in modeling how neoliberalism worked in order to reverse engineer it for a counter-hegemonic strategy for a new social democracy. Like Philip Mirowski, they pay attention to the way the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) worked as a closed intellectual network. Its goal was to change common sense, and produce a neoliberal utopia. In Gramscian terms, it was a long-run “war of position.” (55) Its focus was changing elite opinion. “Capitalists did not initially see neoliberalism as being in their interests.” (55) Actually, that is because it isn’t. In my view it was not until the rise of the vectoral class that neoliberalism made sense as an ideology in place of Keynsian demand-management.

Mont Pelerin started a flexible and plural approach to ideology-construction, able to negotiate with non-friends and non-enemies. The main goal was a view of the state whose legitimacy came no longer from law but from economic management. It was a “long term redefinition of the possible.” (59) Both academics and journalists played complementary roles. “The inculcation of neoliberalism involved a full-spectrum project of constructing a hegemonic worldview.

A new common sense was built that came to co-opt and eventually dominate the terminology of ‘modernity’ and ‘freedom.’” (63) Hereafter it will be markets that are free, not people. What began as a project of changing elite opinion eventually sunk fairly deep roots and became a structure of feeling. In Pasolini’s terms, it was about the generalization to all classes of a petit-bourgeois worldview – not so much neoliberal as what he would call neo-fascist.

Against all this, S+W want to take back the future. After Lyotard and Azuma, not to mention what we now know of the Anthropocene, one has to wonder if there’s much of one to take back. I attempted a left-futurist narrative in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), but by Gamer Theory (2007) it seemed to me that the proliferation of the vector had reached a point of planetary enclosure. The planet itself has become abstract, at least in terms of how it can be perceived and understood within the games of commodified information.

There’s sometimes a slippage between the materiality of this abstraction, which is the product of a particular global infrastructure, and the idea of a universalism. Certainly, neoliberal ideology presents itself as the universal discourse of this abstract space. S+W think it is time that universalism was obliged to struggle against another. It is time to revive a left-universalism, they argue, because “giving up on the category leaves us with nothing but a series of diverse particulars.” (76)

Their understanding of universals has some sophistication. Perhaps channeling Laclau they perceive a universal as an empty place impossible to definitively fill, but for which different universals contest. The current victor is what I would characterize as a kind of neo-fascism, or fascism privatized. There are only individuals who can exist only by exterminating each other’s life chances, and sometimes even their lives.

What makes it appealing is its cooptation of a series of counter-culture motifs about ‘freedom.’ One can be free from the state, the family, the community, from obligation of any kind. Its a negative freedom, in which everyone, as Hito Steyerl would say, is a free-lancer. Against that, S+W advance the counter-universal of a synthetic freedom. Such negative freedoms mean nothing if one is also ‘free’ of the material means of enacting them.

Expanding synthetic freedom depends on science and technology. Or rather, I think we can see the sciences as answering in part to agendas set by the bleeding edge of commodification and military strategy, but which nevertheless opening up a possibility space in which other applications might be possible. Science includes an inhuman apparatus that reveals the nonhuman to that merely human it that demarcates, and reveals more than can be known in all philosophies.

All the same, I think this kind of line now needs some qualification: “The full development of synthetic freedom therefore requires a reconfiguration of the material world in accordance with the drive to expand our capacities for action. It demands experimentation with collective and technological augmentation… the overall aim must… be picked out as an unrelenting project to unbind the necessities of this world and transform them into materials for the further construction of freedom.” (82) There’s a sort of blithe modernity in such statements that I find rather out of date. Hence I think one can only give a qualified assent to the demands on which S+W want to hoist the new international: the end of wage-labor, full automation and a universal basic income.

As S+W are well aware, there’s a sense in which work is already over. This is an era of jobless recoveries, precarity and ‘surplus’ population. To misquote Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited. In The Spectacle of Disintegration I gave examples from Brazil and Nigeria of populations whose life chances take place entirely outside of organized labor.

The vectoral infrastructure enables the ruling class to hold the messy business of actually making things at arm’s length, and force whole geographic territories to compete with each other for the honor of having its labor and nature exploited and appropriated. Even in places like China, there may now be instances of “premature deindustrialization” (97), where the jobs leave for Vietnam. Surplus population becomes a disciplinary tool with which to break labor, or to force it into accepting racially divided labor markets that can be pitted against each other.

What results is sometimes something quite different to the organized politics of the labor movement. Rather, it’s the disintegrating spectacle of riots, criminality, mass migrations. The other side of which is what David Harvey called accumulation by dispossession, the privatizing of the commons, whether of land, social reproduction or information.

If there was a kind of work that expanded, its for what I called the hacker class, whose job it is to work over the information commons to find new information that can be commodified in the new private property regimes of so-called ‘intellectual property.’ But even some of those jobs can now be automated. In any case, the hacker class finds itself atomized into competing individual units, what Steyerl calls a new kind of shock worker. “Workers who move symbols on a screen are as at risk as those moving good around a warehouse.” (111)

While part of what was labor becomes the hacker, quite another part is simply criminalized and incarcerated. A so-called surplus population is treated as the enemy within. And I would add: contra Foucault, this is not a Panoptic kind of power, based on enclosure, classification and the internalization of surveillance. It’s the reverse. It is extensive, database-driven and based on the externalization of control.

This is a situation in which a counter-hegemonic strategy has very weak levers of power. But still perhaps one could advance some non-reformist reforms, as S+W call them. These proposals do not break out of capitalism, but might at least break out of neoliberalism, and improve the bargaining power of popular forces.

Perhaps there could be a post-work consensus, based on full automation, reducing the working week, and universal basic income. For a start: “the tendencies towards automation and the replacement of human labor should be enthusiastically accelerated…” (109) Here I would caution that the technologies on offer mostly weaken the potential power of human collectivity. The struggle of the hacker class for a free and open information infrastructure were either lost or coopted or blunted.

What if the full automation of labor was raised as a political demand rather than an economic one? Combined with a universal basic income, that could be the basis of a post-work future. Perhaps start with the demand for a three-day weekend. A basic income would have to supplement the welfare state rather than replace it, as it does in certain right wing visions. And it would have to be enough to live on. It would have to make work optional and voluntary, rather than merely allow employers to lower wages.

In this fashion, labor could be at least partially decommodified. It would also be a way of recognizing what is currently the unpaid labor of reproduction, affective labor and so on. It would make synthetic freedom a basic right, and break with the ideology of suffering and reward. It would “combat the centrality of work” (126) In place of a work ethic, perhaps we could think about what Pat Kane calls a play ethic.

Could a post-work society and a post-carbon one be reimagined together, from the ground up? It’s a bold idea, in need of more though, especially on the post-carbon side. The dream of abolishing labor might always have been tied to what Moore calls cheap nature. In any case, the great virtue of this book is to change the range of things that can be legitimately discussed.

Late in the book S+W do get around to thinking about the materiality of infrastructure, and how as Pasolini noted long ago the languages we ‘speak’ are not infrastructural rather than superstructural.  “Technology and technological infrastructures…  pose both significant hurdles for overcoming the capitalist mode of production…” (136) Here we have to wonder, with Benjamin Bratton, whether this existing infrastructure can be used to build a qualitatively different one, or whether it is like Sartre’s practico-inert, enforcing in its very form a kind of serial and passive relation to it.

Well, there’s nothing for it but to try. Its time to experiment with the affordances of tech, as Paul B Preciado suggests. Its time to remember that there were once other futures, as in Bogdanov, Constant and Kim Stanley Robinson. “The future has been canceled.” (138) If one takes seriously the results coming out of earth sciences, some futures really are canceled for good. But given that we are now in a death match between the commodity form and its planetary support, still other futures are desperately needed.

“Utopian thought recognizes the future as radically open.” (139) But, actually, the future is not a tabula rasa to be colonized at will. That version of modernism is indeed dead. Nor do I think utopia as the “education of desire” can really be revived. (140) S+W are attracted to very speculative versions of the utopian. The practical utopias of the cyberpunk left of the 90s are ignored in favor of more ‘visionary’ modes. But I think its time to reject this way of reading utopia that descends from Ernst Bloch. Utopias are radically pragmatic. Only a Charles Fourier would ask who is to take out the trash. Its time for a utopian realism. 

But I do agree that it was a bad idea to shut radical thought off from the techniques of the sciences and the quantifiable social sciences. We could really do with some sophisticated mathematical modeling both of existing natural-social processes as well as possible alternative ones. But these must now encompass the totality of social-natural metabolic processes and their rifts.

S+W: “our current infrastructure tends to shape our societies into individualistic, carbon-based, competitive forms, regardless of what individuals or collectives may want.” (145) The potential of science and technology is actually constrained rather than advanced by a commodity economy – and here our authors revive an argument made in the thirties by the original accelerationist JD Bernal and the ‘social relations of science’ movement.

But as Bernal became all too aware, state direction of tech development might create some breathing room from tech as a business, but the state has overwhelmingly steered tech towards military ends. I was happy to see S+W refer to the worker-based Lucas Plan which directly addressed the question of redirecting engineering and labor together to design and manufacturing for social ends. This radical engineering tradition, with its roots in the social relations of science movement, could really do with a revival.

But I think that in the Anthropocene this will be a rather more sober exercise. The Spinozist delirium of “we know not what a socio-technical body can do” – belongs now to the past. (152) It is going to take some more thought to knit together perspectives that take seriously the real infrastructural transformations in the forces of production and the more strictly superstructural view of politics that descends from Althusser to Laclau and Mouffe. Politics turns out to be not so ‘relatively autonomous’ after all. A rather more vulgar Marxism may now be timely.

It is encouraging to see S+W take steps in that direction. But there’s more to be done. I think they correctly identify one site of both thought and experiment, which is to try to think beyond folk politics to a renewal of a kind of populism of the left. What might distinguish the latter is a will to take up a broad counter-hegemonic struggle no longer restricted to the superstructural space of the political and the ideological.

As Timothy Mitchell shows in Carbon Democracy, (and as S+W acknowledge) there are no longer easily identifiable choke points in the infrastructure of production at which labor can gain leverage. We are rather more in a world captured by Tiziana Terranova’s image of an information feedback loop, with multiple sites of cooption and contestation, many of a very weak kind.

S+W rightly warn of the dangers of the messianic as solution to all our problems: “The event (as revolutionary rupture) becomes an expression of the desire for novelty without responsibility. The messianic event promises to shatter our stagnant world and bring us to a new stage of history, conveniently voided of the difficult work that is politics.” (177) The magic thinking of the ‘event’ has to be put aside.

What I find less congenial is the Promethean mania for the overcoming of limits, as if it were a foregone conclusion that all limits are illusory. S+W: “But the ultimate trajectory of universal emancipation is towards overcoming physical, biological, political and economic constraints. This ambition to undo constraints is one that, taken to its limits, leads inexorably towards grand and speculative frontiers.” (178) This seems to me not to accord with the realities of modern science, but rather to be a residue of religious thinking, a kind of will-to-Godhead. Its really just another version of the messianic impulse that S+W rightly see as belonging to the past.

I find that S+W do grasp the significance of treating commodification as a fetter on genuine development of new science and technology. This was the tension I identified in A Hacker Manifesto as a new kind of class tension. It isn’t just labor that is reified in the form of the commodity, the hack is also reified in the form of intellectual property. We are encouraged to think that ‘innovation’ arises only in the brains of the Steve Jobs of the world, as if there weren’t thousands of engineers and designers and others of the hacker class who invent the form, and many more workers who actually make the thing.

As in Karatani, there’s a suggestion here to hold the ruling class to account for their failure to realize the full potential for human development, because they have made human capacity a means and not an ends. Inventing the Future does valuable work in lifting our gaze from our navels towards the horizon, even if I don’t think that horizon is as open as they think it is. Rather than accelerate the existing social-technical machine, we may have to extrapolate from what we know of all forms of organization, including biological ones, to find forms that might hold together in the ensuing era of radical instability.

 

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

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