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Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams – Inventing the Future

  • In 2013, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams released “#Accelerate: A Manifesto for Accelerationist Politics”. This short, incisive document sought to jumpstart a leftist vision of the future after the failures of the 2008 post-crash response of #Occupy. At once both a critical rejoinder to the predominant tactics of the contemporary left, and a demand for broader strategic planning, “#Accelerate” provided a bold new frame of reference for leftist organization. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work expands and develops the ideas introduced in “#Accelerate”, while clarifying the authors’ commitment to a revitalized left based upon concrete demands and sound strategic planning. Drawing upon Gramsci and Laclau’s formulations of hegemony, they examine the process by which social movements become actualized. Provocatively, they develop an example through the most successful revolution of our time: neoliberalism.

    Eschewing the specific content of the neoliberal doctrine, Srnicek and Williams unearth the practice of neoliberal strategy, and present how it came to form a dominant hegemony in the historical order. The neoliberal consensus was largely set in motion by the Mont Pelerin Society. This central, but transnational organization helped to maintain cohesion amongst a broad coalition of burgeoning neoliberal strands, incorporating diversity while strategically linking agreement in spaces of influence. At the time of its development, neoliberalism was not widely accepted, as the Keynesian mode of liberalism was the dominant consensus. Recognizing that its radical agenda would not be adopted immediately, the Mont Pelerin Society proposed a long-term strategy, organizing new institutions (such as “think tanks”) and colonizing existing educational and governmental institutions, diffusing their ideas throughout the discourse, but especially targeting the lines of power. In addition, they coupled a universal ideological view with specific policy interventions and a vision of the good-life under the neoliberal perspective. When the stagflation crisis hit in the 1970s the Keynesian consensus had no immediate response, but the neoliberals had developed an infrastructure and “common sense” across the elite spectrum, stepping in with its storehouse of policy innovations and alternative world-view.

    Srnicek and Williams agree that a resurgent left should not be modeled directly upon the Mont Pelerin Society, but there are important lessons to be learned from the strategy, many of which are verboten to current forms of leftist organization. The left, having weathered the rise of neoliberalism, plus the failure and totalitarianism of the Soviet era has reacted by dichotomizing forms of organization which are authoritarian and those which are egalitarian. An exclusive focus on horizontalism, immediacy, and localism circumscribe the incorporation of verticality, long-term planning, and global scope of a significant movement. Furthermore, the undesirable consequences of planning under actually existing socialism, have resulted in a resistance to articulating specific demands or exploring their ramifications, leaving the vision of a leftist future without content. Srnicek and Williams attempt to break this dichotomous view of power, arguing for the necessity of forms of organization which have been discarded, alongside the application of those that are currently pursued.

    Following this, they seek to reclaim what they call the “empty signifier of modernism”, or an orientation towards the future which has been maligned in the face of repeated defeats. While “progress” has come to signify precaritization and privatization, they argue that modernity need not be the actually existing condition indexed to the present, but a possibility which can be constructed. Accompanying this turn is a recognition of the value of modernist ideals of universalism, reason, and freedom. This necessitates a decoupling of the historical instantiation of these ideals under colonial, patriarchal, and other dominating practices as they were developed in the West, and a recognition of the broader fabric of these ideals across a cosmopolitan spectrum. For example, a global universalism would recognize the capacities towards abstraction and generalization are not just products of the West, but find their realization across human culture, as was the case in Asian and African cultures. Furthermore, the postmodern rejection of universalism, which is in reaction to negative aspects of the Eurocentric framework, is itself a Western artifact. Unlike the simplistic given universal of colonialism, the constructible universal which Srnicek and Williams offer is one similar to that posed by Laboria Cuboniks: it is concerned with the transits between the local and the global, knitting particulars with the underlying dynamics that unite differences. It therefore requires a further resuscitation of the power of reason (as a universal form of navigation, available to all) and the orientation of a “freedom to” (as opposed to the liberal “freedom from”). The call to reclaim modernism, is then a call to arm the left with the powerful epistemic tools of a synthetic theoretical platform, capable of moving beyond the intellectual myopias of postmodernism.

    These tools are necessary as we are embedded in a world of increasing complexity and abstraction. Retreating to organic farms, or local communes is not sufficient to compete with the power of global finance, the military industrial complex, or the vast technosocial infrastructure which underlines our everyday lives. Alternatives which cannot scale to meet this complexity are constantly at risk of being recuperated by the very systems they attempt to marginalize themselves from. Srnicek and Williams argue that building platforms which can utilize the technical infrastructure and the systematic tendencies of the current world we live in is crucial for the success of a new leftist project. The rise of increased automation, and the resulting increase in precaritization is one such tendency which they diagnose as inescapable in the near future. Rather than see this as a defeat however, they regard this as an opportunity for an organized left to seize the narrative. Here the demands for “full automation” and Universal Basic Income (UBI) recognize both the struggles and promise of the future. UBI formalizes a demand for a basic social reform which could treat the conditions of increased automation, while the two combined free people from the tediousness of wage slavery. Finally, the release from work opens up a platform for further political action and systematic transformation.

    Inventing the Future provides a much needed correction to the tendencies of a left which has for too long retreated from the promises of modernity, while only obsessing over its failures. With this book, Srnicek and Williams offer the beginnings of a new, systematic means of recapturing the future.

    – would like to thank Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams for providing their recommended readings along with some notes on several choices. List and commentary on these choices courtesy Srnicek and Williams.

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Medina’s Cybernetic Revolutionaries is a landmark work in the study of politics and technology, exploring the innovative Cybersyn system which brought socialist cybernetic management to Allende’s Chile. Influential on our understanding of the potential for the repurposing of existing technologies towards radically liberatory ends.

Mirkowski and Plehwe’s path-breaking work of intellectual, political, and economic history establishes the pivotal role of the Mont Pelerin Society in the development of the global hegemony of Neoliberalism. Of particular importance in setting out how precisely neoliberalism was able to shift from a marginalised set of fringe ideas to the predominant position in the global political economy, and as such a book with much to teach the left about the operations of contemporary power.

Nunes’ Organisation of the Organisationless is a penetrating report from the front lines of movement activism, calling into question many of the commonplace conceptual binaries that have taken hold. A crucial part of our thinking on the future of organisation is rooted in this text.

Weeks’ The Problem with Work is an essential contribution to anti-work politics. Uniquely for post-work political thinking, it engages with issues surrounding reproductive labour, care labour, and domestic labour – and sets post-work in line with an entire history of feminist struggles. She demonstrates conclusively that post-work is and must be a feminist project if it is to be meaningful, and in the process develops a series of sophisticated insights into the work ethic, wages against housework, and what it means to be human.