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Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

By Nick Srnicek

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For much of the twentieth century, the future held sway over our dreams. The popular imagination of the left envisaged societies vastly superior to anything we dream of today.

Yet, for all the glossy sheen of our technological era, the glimmers of a better future are trampled and forgotten under the pressures of an increasingly precarious and demanding world.

The ongoing fallout from the economic crisis has led governments to embrace the paralysing death-spiral of austerity.

At a planetary level, things appear even more ominous. We feel incapable of evading or controlling social and environmental forces.

Neoliberalism has held sway for decades, and social democracy exists largely as an object of nostalgia. As crises gather force and speed, politics withers and retreats. In this paralysis of the political imaginary, the future has been cancelled.

Neoliberalism has failed, social democracy is impossible, and only an alternative vision can bring about universal prosperity and emancipation. Articulating and achieving this better world is the fundamental task of the left today.

Today it appears that the greatest amount of effort is needed to achieve the smallest degree of change. Despite the desires of millions for a better world, the effects of these movements prove minimal.

Perhaps most depressing, even when movements have some successes, they are in the context of overwhelming losses. Residents across the UK, for example, have successfully mobilised in particular cases to stop the closure of local hospitals. Yet these real successes are overwhelmed by larger plans to gut and privatise the National Health Service.

Similarly, recent anti-fracking movements have been able to stop test drilling in various localities – but governments nevertheless continue to search for shale gas resources and provide support for companies to do so.

What can we conclude from all of this? The recent cycle of struggles has to be identified as one of overarching failure, despite a multitude of small-scale successes and moments of large-scale mobilisation.

What has gone wrong?

As our political, economic, social and technological world changes, tactics and strategies which were previously capable of transforming collective power into emancipatory gains have now become drained of their effectiveness.

Petitions, occupations, strikes, vanguard parties, affinity groups, trade unions: all arose out of particular historical conditions. The fact that certain ways of organising and acting were once useful does not guarantee their continued relevance.

Our world has moved on, becoming more complex, abstract, nonlinear and global than ever before.

Political movements based around keeping a hospital open or preventing evictions are all admirable, but they are importantly different from movements trying to challenge neoliberal capitalism. *

Given the nature of global capitalism, any postcapitalist project will require an ambitious, abstract, mediated, complex and global approach * .

The project of this book is to begin outlining an alternative – a way for the left to navigate from the local to the global, and synthesise the particular with the universal.

It must combine an updated way of thinking politics with an upgraded means of doing politics.

Increasingly, multipolar global politics, economic instability, and anthropogenic climate change outpace the narratives we use to structure and make sense of our lives and which characteristically operates on scales of space and time that go far beyond any individual’s unaided perception.

While we might have an idea of what an economy consists of, it can only be observed symptomatically through key statistical indexes. Despite everything that has been written about capitalism, we still struggle to understand its dynamics and its mechanisms. *

We lack a mental picture of how individual and collective human action can be situated within the unimaginable vastness of the global economy.

For the left at least, an analysis premised on the industrial working class was a powerful way to interpret the totality of social and economic relations in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Today, the old models often falter in the face of new problems; we lose the capacity to understand our position in history and in the world at large. We feel adrift in a world we do not understand.

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

***

While the left has traditionally been associated with ideals of equality we believe that freedom is an equally essential principle of left modernity.

Capitalism has repeatedly asserted its superiority by upholding an idea of negative freedom.

In practice, it translates into a modicum of political freedom from the state and the economic freedoms to sell our labour power and to choose between shiny new consumer goods.

Under negative freedom, the rich and the poor are considered equally free, despite the obvious differences in their capacities to act.

Against this limited concept of freedom, we argue for a much more substantial version.

One of the biggest indictments of capitalism is that it enables the freedom to act for only a vanishingly small few.

A primary aim of a postcapitalist world would therefore be to maximise synthetic freedom, to enable the flourishing of all of humanity and the expansion of our collective horizons.

Achieving this involves * the provision of the basic necessities of life, the expansion of social resources, and the development of technological capacities. Taken together, these form a synthetic freedom that is a collective historical achievement rather than the result of simply leaving people be.

In the first place, synthetic freedom entails the maximal provision of the basic resources needed for a meaningful life: things like income, time, health and education. Without these resources, most people are left formally but not really free.

Free time is the basic condition for self-determination and the development of our capacities. Equally, synthetic freedom demands the provision of a basic income to all in order for them to be fully free. Time and money therefore represent key components of freedom in any substantive sense.

We have seen that, without a conception of the future, the left becomes bound to a defence of tradition, and to protecting bunkers of resistance.

To truly enable the liberation of futures in the plural, the current global order premised on waged labour and capitalist accumulation will need to be transcended first.

A left modernity will, in other words, require building a postcapitalist and post-work platform upon which multiple ways of living could emerge and flourish.

We have so far argued that the contemporary left tends towards a folk politics that is incapable of turning the tide against global capitalism. In its place, the left needs to reclaim the contested legacy of modernity and advance visions for a new future.

Just as the Mont Pelerin Society foreshadowed the crisis of Keynesianism and prepared a full-spectrum set of responses, so too should the left prepare for the coming crisis of work and surplus populations.

While the effects of the 2008 crisis continue to reverberate throughout the world, it is too late to take advantage of that moment; all around us we can see that capital has recovered and consolidated itself in a renewed and sharpened form. The left must instead prepare for the next opportunity. *

The history of capitalism is the history of the world’s population being transformed into proletarian existence through the advancing dispossession of the peasantry.

Unemployment as we understand it today was an invention of capitalism.

‘The misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.’

This is the crisis of work that capitalism faces in the coming years and decades: a lack of formal or decent jobs for the growing numbers of the proletarian population.

The very social basis of capitalism as an economic system – the relationship between the proletariat and employers, with waged work mediating between them – is crumbling.

*** *

Very little of the global labour force is employed in formal wage labour, and this number has only decreased in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

The relatively low unemployment levels of the UK after the 2008 crisis are largely a result of more self-employed people living off poverty wages. It is estimated that nearly 5 per cent of the working population is presently on zero-hours contracts. *

Unemployment is associated with a fifth of all global suicides.

With the world economy creating jobs so slowly that the number of jobs will remain significantly below pre-crisis levels for at least a decade. Unemployment and the threat of it are becoming the norms for the labour force.

While unemployment measures give us some sense of the size of the surplus population problem, it is precarity, jobless recoveries and mass urban marginality that truly express the squeeze on the global labour market.

Capital requires a particular type of surplus population: cheap, docile and pliable.118 Without these characteristics, this excess of humanity becomes a problem for capital.

Not content to lie down and accept its disposability, it makes itself heard through riots, mass migration, criminality, and all sorts of actions that disrupt the existing order.

The tight monetary policy of the early 1980s was therefore precisely an effort to undermine the power of the working class, increase unemployment to a level acceptable for capital, and end the dream of full employment.

Increasingly, the welfare state is becoming little more than an institution designed to deploy the surplus against the working class.

The management of surplus populations does not just revolve around the production of disciplined workers and pliable jobseekers. Increasingly, domination and punitive measures are becoming the norm in dealing with the excess to capital.

Today we see the militarisation of America’s border with Mexico and the rise of Fortress Europe in response to mistaken fears about jobs being taken by foreigners.

Lethal barriers to migration are one of the primary mechanisms used today to segregate and manage global surplus populations. *

Mass incarceration is a system of social control aimed primarily at surplus populations rather than at crime. For example, increases in manufacturing unemployment are associated globally with increases in police employment.

Those who are unwilling to be forced into slums seek better opportunities elsewhere, only to be locked up or left for dead on the Mediterranean.

Mass incarceration has therefore become a means to manage and control this surplus that has been excluded from the labour market and left in poverty.

Under capitalism, jobs have been pivotal to our social lives and sense of who we are, as well as being the sole source of income for most people. What the next two decades portend is a future in which the global economy is increasingly unable to produce enough jobs yet where we remain dependent upon jobs for our living.

In the face of these tensions, the political project for the twenty-first-century left must be to build an economy in which people are no longer dependent upon wage labour for survival.

The future remains open, and which direction the crisis of work takes is precisely the political struggle before us.

Any meaningful vision of the future will set out proposals and goals, and this chapter is a contribution to that potential discussion.

***

The proposals in this chapter will not break us out of capitalism, but they do promise to break us out of neoliberalism, and to establish a new equilibrium of political, economic and social forces.

This chapter charts a way forward: 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.

Our first demand is for a fully automated economy. With automation, machines can increasingly produce all necessary goods and services, while also releasing humanity from the effort of producing them.

Automation and the replacement of human labour should be enthusiastically accelerated and targeted as a political project of the left.

The emerging wave of automation will drastically change the composition of the labour market, and potentially lead to a significant reduction in demand for workers.

Out of the US companies that could benefit from incorporating industrial robots, less than 10 per cent have done so. This reiterates the importance of making full automation a political demand, rather than assuming it will come about from economic necessity.

Between 47 and 80 per cent of today’s jobs are capable of being automated. We should take these numbers as a standard against which to measure our success. *

Labour will not be immediately or entirely eliminated, but instead progressively reduced. Full automation is a utopian demand that aims to reduce necessary labour as much as possible.

A second major demand for building a post-work platform involves a return to classic ideas about reducing the length of the working week with no cut in pay.

The near century-long push for shorter working hours ended abruptly during the Great Depression, when business opinion and government policy decided to use make-work programmes in response to unemployment.

Many of us are now tied to work all the time, with emails, phone calls, texts and job anxieties impinging upon us constantly.

On top of this, a vast amount of work is unpaid. A shorter working week would bring a general reduction in the stress, anxiety and mental health problems fostered by neoliberalism.

One of the most important reasons for reducing work time is that it is a demand that both consolidates and generates class power.

The goal of reducing the working week should be an immediate and prominent demand of the twenty-first-century left.

There is already a high level of public desire for the reduction of the working week, with public opinion polls showing a majority of the population support the idea.

Free time will be of little value if people continue struggling to make ends meet. This is why an essential demand in a post-work society is for a universal basic income (UBI), giving every citizen a liveable amount of money without any means-testing.

The idea has global scope, having been promoted forcefully by groups in Brazil, South Africa, Italy and Germany, and by an international network involving over twenty countries, in the wake of the 2008 crisis and the austerity regimes put in place after it.

Depending on how UBI is presented, it is capable of generating support from across the political spectrum * .

The first point to emphasise is that the demand for UBI is a demand for a political transformation, not just an economic one. The real significance of UBI lies in the way it overturns the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital.

The second related feature of UBI is that it transforms precarity and unemployment from a state of insecurity to a state of voluntary flexibility.

Third, a basic income would necessitate a rethinking of the values attributed to different types of work. The result would be that hazardous, boring and unattractive work would have to be better paid, while more rewarding, invigorating and attractive work would be less well paid. In other words, the nature of work would become a measure of its value, not merely its profitability.

Finally, a basic income is a fundamentally feminist proposal. Its disregard for the gendered division of labour overcomes some of the biases of the traditional welfare state predicated upon a male breadwinner.

The financial independence that comes with a basic income is also crucial to developing the synthetic freedom of women.

While a universal basic income may appear economically reformist, its political implications are therefore significant.

For all of these reasons, the classic social democratic demand for full employment should be replaced with the future-orientated demand for full unemployment.

The most difficult hurdles for UBI – and for a post-work society – are not economic, but political and cultural: political, because the forces that will mobilise against it are immense; and cultural, because work is so deeply ingrained into our very identity.

Nneoliberalism has established a set of incentives that compel us to act and identify ourselves as competitive subjects.

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. This is matched by a parallel cultural effort demonising those without jobs.

With work tied so tightly into our identities, overcoming the work ethic will require us overcoming ourselves. This position must be rejected as a holdover from a now-transcended stage of human history. Work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified.

Actions to make precarity and joblessness an increasingly visible political problem would go some way to generating the support for a post-work society.

In the end, our choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both.

Achieving this will require the realisation of four minimal demands: 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.

The ambition here is to take back the future from capitalism and build ourselves the twenty-first-century world we want.

***

It is to provide the time and money that are central to any meaningful conception of freedom.

The struggles that such a project will face require that the left move past its folk-political horizon, rebuild its power and adopt an expansive strategy for change.

An array of powerful forces is invested in the continuation of the status quo, and the left has been devastated over the past few decades.

To achieve a meaningful post-work society therefore requires changing the present political conditions. his requires the left to face squarely up to the dismal situation before it: trade unions lying in ruin, political parties rendered into neoliberal puppets, and a waning intellectual and cultural hegemony. *

And beyond this lies the fact that our inner lives, our social world and our built environment are organised around work and its continuation. Fundamentally, it is a matter of transforming society from the ground up.

We must prepare for the long term if we wish to alter the terrain of politics substantially. It will neither emerge all at once nor in the wake of some revolutionary moment. The classic Leninist strategy of building dual power with a revolutionary party and overthrowing the state is obsolete. The electoral reformist approach is equally a failure.

And as the latest cycle of struggles has shown, the folk-political approach of prioritising various forms of immediacy has failed to transform society.

A counter-hegemonic strategy entails a project to overturn the dominant neoliberal common sense and rejuvenate the collective imagination.

Fundamentally, it is an attempt to install a new common sense – one organised around the crisis of work and its effects on the proletariat, seeking to alter the balance of power in preparation for when a crisis upsets the legitimacy of society and aimed at overthrowing capitalist universalism.

A sequence of neoliberal administrations throughout the world, in conjunction with a network of think tanks and a largely right-leaning media, have been able to transform the range of possible options to exclude even the most moderate of socialist measures.

Hegemony, or rule by the engineering of consent, is as much a material force as it is a social one. It is something embedded in human minds, social and political organisations, individual technologies and the built environment that constitutes our world.

The left must therefore develop a sociotechnical hegemony: to navigate the present technical, economic, social, political and productive hegemony towards a new point of equilibrium beyond the imposition of wage labour.

Today’s world remains firmly confined within the parameters of capitalist realism.

The future has been cancelled. We are more prone to believing that ecological collapse is imminent, increased militarisation inevitable, and rising inequality unstoppable.

Browbeaten by decades of failure, the left has consistently retreated from its traditionally grand ambitions. The goals of an ambitious left, which once aimed at the total transformation of society, have been reduced down to minor tinkering at the edges of society. *

The ways we organise our work lives, families and communities are given a fresh appearance when viewed from the perspective of a post-work world.

Why do we devote one-third of our lives in submission to someone else? Why do we insist that domestic work (performed primarily by women) go unpaid?

If the left is to counter the common sense of neoliberalism (‘there’s not enough money’, ‘everyone must work’, ‘government is inefficient’), utopian thinking will be essential. We need to think big.

It is the educational apparatus that indoctrinates new generations in the dominant values of a particular society, reproducing its ideology through the decades. Transforming the educational system of intellectuals is therefore a key task in building a new hegemony.

If the broad cultural and academic ideas of how to run economies are to change, at a minimum it will require more pluralism in the education of students.

Since 2000, numerous universities have seen students vocally demand pluralism in their economics education.

Post-Crash Economic Society and Rethinking Economics that are making concerted efforts to change the curriculum. Equally, organisations like the New Economics Foundation are leading the way in creating models of the economy that can inform leftist political goals, as well as fostering public literacy in economic matters.

Hegemony is embedded not only in the ideas of a society, but also in the built environment and technologies that surround us.

Current infrastructure tends to shape our societies into individualistic, carbon-based, competitive forms, regardless of what individuals or collectives may want.

No aspect of our lives remains untouched by technology, and indeed, many would argue that humanity is intrinsically technological.

Under capitalism, technology’s potential is drastically constrained – reduced to a mere vehicle for generating profit and controlling workers.

The Lucas Plan demonstrates a clear example of how repurposing the productive forces of society might be used to transform the technological direction of society. It was an attempt to reorganise technological development away from marginal weapon improvements and towards socially useful goods. It is an ideal model of how technical knowledge, political awareness and collective power can be combined to achieve a radical repurposing of the material world.

A new world will have to be built, not on the ruins of the old, but on the most advanced elements of the present.

One goal of any future-orientated left could be in determining how specific technologies can be repurposed and mobilised towards a postcapitalist project. Without a simultaneous shift in the hegemonic ideas of society, new technologies will continue to be developed along capitalist lines, and old technologies will remain beholden to capitalist values.

A counter-hegemonic strategy would include efforts to transform the common sense of society, revive a utopian social imagination, rethink the possibilities of economics, and eventually repurpose technological and economic infrastructures.

The power of the global working class is today severely compromised, and a return to past strength seems unlikely. The fragmentation of the working class means that the task today must be to knit together a new collective ‘we’.

A broad spectrum of society needs to be brought together as an active and transformative force. A populist movement also needs to act in and through a series of organisations, as well as aiming to achieve the overturning of neoliberal common sense and create a new one in its place. It must seek to build hegemonic forms of power, in all their diverse forms, both inside and outside the state.

***

On a purely quantitative level, the left is not noticeably ‘weaker’ than the right, the reverse seems to be true. The problem lies in the next step: how that force is organised and deployed.

There are a variety of essential tasks to be carried out in a successful political movement. No single type of organisation is sufficient for performing all of these roles and bringing about large-scale political change.

It requires mobilisation under a common vision of an alternative world, rather than loose and pragmatic alliances. And it entails developing an array of broadly compatible organisations.

Inevitably, an ecosystem of organisations is forged in specific circumstances, with different decisions being made in the face of different political contexts.

That said, a broad social movement would be essential to any anti-work politics, affording a wide range of different organisational and tactical compositions.

If a major social transformation such as the post-work project is to occur, it will come on the back of a mass movement rather than simply decreed from on high.

If a counter-hegemonic project is to be successful, it will require an injection of radical ideas into the mainstream, and not just the building of increasingly fragmented audiences outside it.

Alongside the media, intellectual organisations are indispensable components of any political ecology.

We believe many unions will be better served by refocusing towards a post-work society and the liberating aspects of a reduced working week, job sharing and a basic income. *

Moreover, shifting in a post-work direction overcomes some of the key impasses between ecological movements and organised labour.

Changing the aims of unions and organising community-wide will help to turn unions away from classic – and now failing – social democratic goals, and will be essential to any successful renewal of the labour movement.

Political parties will have a role in any ecology of organisations – particularly if the traditional social democratic parties continue to collapse and enable a new generation of parties to emerge.

Ensuring a post-work society for all will require more than just individual workplaces; it demands success at the level of the state as well.

The avoidance of the state – common to so many folk-political approaches – is a mistake. * Mass movements and parties should be seen as tools of the same populist movement, each capable of achieving different things. Simply to reject parliamentary politics is to ignore the real advances these policies can make.

It should be clear how far away we now are from the folk-political fetishism of localism, horizontalism and direct democracy. An ecology of organisations does not deny that such organisational forms may have a role, but it rejects the idea that they are sufficient.

What we are calling for, therefore, is a functional complementarity between organisations, rather than the fetishising of specific organisations or organisational forms.

Even with a healthy organisational ecology and a mass unified movement, change is impossible without opportunities to leverage the movement’s power. The significance of such points of leverage can hardly be overestimated.

Political tactics are a dynamic field of forces, and experimentation is essential in working around new state and corporate impediments to change.

Any future left must be as technically fluent as it is politically fluent. In the end, what is required is an analysis of the automation trends that are restructuring production and circulation, and a strategic understanding of where new points of leverage might develop.

It is one of the myopias of many on the left to only see workers’ power coming from disrupting production, when in fact contesting the existing order has taken numerous forms outside the workplace.

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. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of ‘modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.

This will necessarily be a populist project that mobilises a broad swathe of society.

Where, then, do we stand?

We have argued that the most promising way forward lies in reclaiming modernity and attacking the neoliberal common sense that conditions everything from the most esoteric policy discussions to the most vivid emotional states.

We have outlined one possible project, in the form of a post-work politics that frees us to create our own lives and communities.

Triumph in the political battles to achieve it will require organising a broadly populist left, building the organisational ecosystem necessary for a full-spectrum politics on multiple fronts, and leveraging key points of power wherever possible.

Against the austerity of conservative forces, and the austere life promised by anti-modernists, the demand for a post-work world revels in the liberation of desire, abundance and freedom. *

Building the future means accepting the risk of unintended consequences and imperfect solutions.

To unleash technological advancement, we must move beyond capitalism and liberate creativity from its current strictures.

The argument of this book has been that the left can neither remain in the present nor return to the past. To construct a new and better future, we must begin taking the necessary steps to build a new kind of hegemony.

Rather than seeking temporary and local relief in the various bunkers of folk politics, we must today move beyond these limits.

Neoliberalism, as secure as it may seem today, contains no guarantee of future survival.

Our task now is to invent what happens next.