October 2017        

Inventing the future

J. D. Thompson

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams offers a penetrating and timely critique of the failures of the Western left and puts forward an intriguing hypothesis for creating a society where the drudgery of work has been virtually abolished.
     The basic premise of Srnicek and Williams is that, with more technology—particularly “open source” technology—the “boring” and “demeaning” work performed by wage-earners under capitalism can be abolished and more time can be freed for human enrichment.¹
     And while this position is something of a novelty among the so-called left, it isn’t really all that new. Srnicek and Williams’s utopian “demand” for “full automation” is reminiscent of the Italian futurist movement of the early twentieth century, which rested on an idealistic understanding of technology, as if technology were a power in and of itself, divorced from the relations of production from which it emerged.
     This naïve view follows suit with a long tradition of bourgeois positivist miscalculations that laud technology as it holds independent metaphysical properties that deterministically lead to improvements in human conditions, regardless of the system in which it is situated.
     But if the twentieth century has established any single historical “fact” it must be that the liberal positivists—from those who cheered the development of the internal combustion engine (and the subsequent mechanisation of warfare) to the development of the nuclear bomb (which, it was thought by physicists working on the Manhattan Project, would bring an end to all warfare)—grossly miscalculated the role of technology in bourgeois society.
     Technology comes into existence and functions as a tool of the dominant class; this understanding is a basic feature of Marxist thought. But, in spite of Srnicek and Williams’s auspicious criticisms of neo-liberalism, their prescription for “post-capitalist” reform is essentially the same as the neo-liberal remedy for, say, poverty and conditions in Africa: get the people more gadgets, more spending money, then bring them into the political fold, and the rest will more or less work itself out.
      But will access to technological education and the devices themselves be free and universal? And who’s to regulate how all this free technology will be managed? Will the military not take advantage of it on behalf of their capitalist masters?
     These are just some of the problems with the thesis of Inventing the Future (not to mention the issue of resource sustainability: after all, imagine how much energy and raw material would be required to automate all work).
      To achieve their vision of a “post-work” society the authors argue that the left must begin by “building power.” However, Srnircek and Williams offer very little on how to “build power,” and go so far as to misrepresent how power has been built historically: “Every successful movement has been the result, not of a single organisational type, but of a broad ecology of organizations.” This statement is particularly problematic, in that the authors provide no metrics for defining “successful movements.” After all, nowhere in the world has any movement achieved the authors’ stated “demands” so far. So what is meant by “successful”?
     Moreover, contrary to the authors’ claim, most revolutionary movements that achieved their goal of obtaining power often began as very small, tightly knit and exceedingly disciplined groups operating within very specific organisational frameworks. The authors merely pay lip service to strategy while evading the heart of the issue almost entirely, making their calls for building power trite and cliché-ridden.²
     Those determined to resist human degradation and war should be concentrating not on abolishing “work” but on confronting an exploitative system by empowering workers’ democracy. To achieve this, we don’t (necessarily) need more technology; rather, we need to begin with democratic control over existing technologies—which will continue to be an elusive goal without correcting the idealist, reactive (rather than proactive) nature of the left after its historic ideological shift away from Marx’s emphasis on scientific analysis (i.e. scientific socialism).
     A failure to utilise the methods of scientific critique will continue to lead the left into the traps of utopian idealism, like those put forward in Inventing the Future—a utopianism that ends in defeat and demoralisation, because of its advocates’ failure to grasp the history and basic functions of material reality, from which the rudiments of all effective strategies must be derived.

1. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2016), p. 1.
2. Inventing the Future, p. 163.

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