Back to the Future: Rebranding Social Democracy

Back to the Future: Rebranding Social Democracy

There are two ways to read Inventing the Future. One is a fairly innocent critique of the “post-68 left”, and an outline of how to build a desirable post-capitalist future through a flawed Gramscian framework. The other is a critique of working class self-activity, and a call for a benevolent class of technocrats who can gradually reform capitalism for the masses.

Written by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and released in 2015, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work made big waves in “left wing circles”. Self styled as a 'manifesto for the end of capitalism' on the surface the book envisions a post-scarcity society, where wage labour is a thing of the past and the liberation of humanity is made viable by technological advances. Its contents can be roughly divided into two parts – a critique of the existing left, and a proposal for the creation of a “new left” able to face the challenges of the 21st century. Its political genesis can be traced back to a mixture of Gramscian academic discourse and the accelarationist current which – as Srnicek and Williams wrote in their 2013 Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics – “seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.”1

Upon release the book was praised by prominent leftist personalities, including Paul Mason, Mark Fisher and Owen Jones. The authors were featured on the Novara Media podcasts, gave talks at universities and more recently spoke at a number of Labour Party events. In 2016 Srnicek went on to release another book, Platform Capitalism, a look at modern capitalist firms such as Google and Facebook, while Williams has a forthcoming book in the works on hegemony and the left. More importantly however, both got swept up in the movement around Jeremy Corbyn, and seem to have joined the ranks of the Labour left in the process. And although we are late to the party with the following review, it is the political trajectory of the authors of the book, revealed over the past three years, which illuminates the problems at the core of Inventing the Future.


"No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself." Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, K. Marx

“ general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution.” On Free Trade, K. Marx

The basic premise of accelerationist thinking is already contained within the writings of Marx, specifically in the segments cited above and the Fragment on Machines from The Grundrisse. Since the productive forces of capitalist society will come into conflict with the existing relations of capitalist production, the accelerationists propagate the development of productive forces and technological innovation to the point where these break capitalist logic. To “accelerate the process”, as Deleuze and Guattari put it. However unlike the accelerationist turned reactionary Nick Land for whom “capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity”, Srnicek and Williams believe that “capitalism cannot be identified as the agent of true acceleration”, and that is where the left comes in.2

The authors of the Accelerate Manifesto have made a conscious decision to not refer to accelerationism directly in Inventing the Future, likely to ensure a wider audience and because, as they say, the term accelerationism suffers from a “miasma of competing understandings”. However certain themes, from the desirability of progress and technological advancement to the emancipatory potential of augmenting the human body and so on, are carried over. Chapters Five and Six are the best examples of this – in that they try to envision what a post-work society could look like. But even at their most utopian, Srnicek and Williams never seem to really come to grips with the abolition of value, the state and money. It is implied that post-capitalism may mean communism, but it is never stated. The term post-capitalism is of course reminiscent of the title of Paul Mason’s book released the same year as Inventing the Future. The central thesis of Mason’s book, was that we are

“at the start of a transition period to post-capitalism; a transition in which post-capitalism coexists with capitalism as a parallel system of production; a transition which could take centuries. However, because of a number of existential threats, such as climate change, demographic change in global population and sovereign debt, humanity does not have the time to let this transition run its course. Therefore, although post-capitalism is happening anyway, we need to mobilise the state to speed up the transition.”" href="#footnote3_rr76buo">3

As will soon become clear, the similarities do not end there – some of the criticism of Postcapitalism – A Guide to our Future can also be applied to Inventing the Future. And as we said back in 2016, “it is significant that Paul Mason [and now Srnicek and Williams] does not call his new society communism but the more vague ‘post-capitalism’ since it coexists with capitalism in a process of symbiotic change. Whereas Marx clearly understood that communist society required revolution, in other words, a complete break with capitalist production relations, before it could be implemented.”4

The Problem with the Left

Rather than to a defined political tendency, Inventing the Future speaks to the broad church of “the left”. It provides a “critique of today’s left”, and sees the need for a “counter-hegemonic movement” which can “rebuild the left”. But who is “the left”? Where are the lines drawn? This is something that the authors never really define. If accelerationism suffers from a “miasma of competing understandings”, then “the left” is an even more ambiguous term. Inventing the Future posits an abstract left (anti-capitalism), against an abstract right (capitalism). Both political options are then divided into two categories – both the left and the right have a folk political current, and a universalist current. The authors go on to critique the folk political left and argue for a universalist left instead. But the left is of course not easily demarcated and does not strive towards a common goal as the authors assume. There are a number of other problematic assumptions that the authors make right off the bat. The first is that social democracy is "impossible", “outdated”, a thing of the past. The second is the definition of folk politics itself.

Lack of a serious critique of social democracy, and the role that it may still play in the capitalism of today, leaves “the left” open to being drawn back into its clutches once it appears in a seemingly new or unexpected form. The Corbyn phenomenon provided exactly such an opportunity, to the point where even some supposed anarchists have now joined the Labour Party ranks.5 Inventing the Future was written just before the rise of Corbyn, but in 2015 social democracy was already a visible force strong enough so that it could once again lead masses of people into electoral and reformist dead ends (e.g. Syriza, Podemos). While a section of the left does indeed embrace a form of folk politics that Srnicek and Williams go on to criticise, the social democratic illusions of the left never went away. For anyone aware of the state of working class politics in Britain this should be obvious – the myth of 45, the trade unionist, Trotskyist and Stalinist hopes for the return of a "real" social democratic party, whether that be the Labour Party, or failed projects like TUSC or Respect, are many. Great swathes of the British left have always aligned with social democracy rather than any “horizontalist” alternatives. The Labour Party currently has over half a million members, and as Srnicek admitted during the general election of 2017: “In the end, Labour has presented a vision of a better world and the massive rallies attest to the power such a vision can mobilise […] we need to build on the momentum achieved in the campaign.”6 And so it seems the accelerationists have been outpaced by old-school social democrats!

Chapter Two is a critique of folk politics on the left, and makes the case that only a universal “leftist project” can challenge the universal nature of capitalism. Direct action, local community resistance, voluntarism, ethical or individualist politics – this is what according to the authors defines the folk left. They trace it to the post-68 disillusion with political parties and trade unions, a response to the collapse of Keynesianism in the 1970s. The disintegration of the Eastern Bloc then sealed the deal, opening the way for movements and organisations such as:

“Occupy, Spain’s 15M, student occupations, left communist insurrectionists like Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee, most forms of horizontalism, the Zapatistas, and contemporary anarchist-tinged politics, as well as a variety of other trends like political localism, the slow-food movement, and ethical consumerism, among many others.”7

Apart from confusing left communism with the communisateurs of Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee, the authors group together a very broad and disparate spectrum of contradictory tendencies – basically anything and everything which engages in prefigurative politics or direct action and could be in one way or another lumped under the broad church of “the left”. Whatever the limitations of, say, anarcho-communism, it represents a legitimate revolutionary current with an orientation towards the working class, as opposed to something like the fair trade movement or the Green Party. For the authors though it is all about form and not content.

Despite being a very broad category, the critique of folk politics is not off the mark. Direct action and local community resistance is, as the authors say, insufficient on its own. As the communist left has always argued, spontaneous class struggle alone will not end capitalism. Strikes, occupations and protests can build confidence, provide experience, and win concessions from employers and landlords. But the working class needs its own organs to centralise its struggles across a vast territory, a function played in the past by workers’ councils and assemblies. And it also needs an international and internationalist party to provide a long term political vision and consciously guide the struggle in a communist direction. Without such a global organisation every rebellion will be condemned to burn itself out inside the system. The authors recognise the insufficiency of defensive struggle, but the solution they come up with instead is a “Mont Pelerin of the left”.

Srnicek and Williams present recent history as a kind of battle of ideas, where capitalist crisis, the falling rate of profit, imperialist war, etc. are for the most part absent from the equation. It is a story of how neo-liberalism becomes a world-dominating ideology, “hegemonic”, because it had an eye to the future and operated in a universalist rather than folk political manner. After the Second World War, leading neo-liberals of the time – Austrian economists, UK liberals, the Chicago School, German ordoliberals – found a home in the Mont Pelerin Society, an international association of liberals. Through this Society, neo-liberal ideas were “filtered down through think tanks, universities and policy documents.”8 By first changing elite opinion the Society sought to, with time, also change public opinion. With the collapse of Keynesianism due to the crisis of the 1970s (end of Bretton Woods, stagflation) the IMF and the World Bank embraced the new ideas floating around the universities and think tanks. Neo-liberalism then became the common sense approach to economics. Neo-liberals gained access to state policy (Thatcher became the British Prime Minister, Volcker the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Reagan the president of the US). It redefined popular discourse, as modernisation came to mean the slashing of welfare, while freedom became independence from the state. For Srnicek and Williams this is an “instructive case study.” They believe it is up to the left now to reclaim the terminology of modernity and freedom from the neo-liberal right, so that it can be used again for popular mobilisation. Since the working class movements of the past failed, they allege we have to learn from what worked: neo-liberalism. They end the chapter by calling for a Mont Pelerin of the left – an idea not at odds with their Accelerate Manifesto, where already they suggested that

“beyond the ‘people power’ of bodies in the street, we require funding, whether from governments, institutions, think tanks, unions, or individual benefactors. We consider the location and conduction of such funding flows essential to begin reconstructing an ecology of effective accelerationist left organizations.”9

While the Accelerate Manifesto calls Marx “the paradigmatic accelerationist thinker”, it is important to remember that for Srnicek and Williams the working class is no longer the revolutionary subject. With their call for a Mont Pelerin of the left – the agent of change becomes the technocrats and the petty-bourgeoisie who can successfully, step by step, influence state policy and provide the slogans for movements of the global surplus population. The orientation towards the Labour Party, new media, and leftist think tanks, is only a logical continuation of this line of thinking.

Demand the Future?

“Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, co-authors of Inventing the Future (2015) argue that rapid automation should be an explicit project to move to a lower work, higher productivity economy, and argue for a basic income and reduced working time” - Alternative Models of Ownership, report to members of the Labour Party shadow cabinet (2017)

The central thesis of chapters four onward is what a leftist project that is universal and able to present an attractive vision of the future might look like. All the while the authors remind us that a folk politic, pre-occupied with defending localities, is not capable of doing this. But what is it that they actually propose?

Behind all the accelerationist and futurist rhetoric lies what amounts to a number of fairly mundane transitional demands: universal basic income (UBI)10, automation and the reduction of the working week. Automation is marching onward regardless (whether it is reducing the number of jobs or producing killer drones), while basic income pilots have already been initiated in multiple countries, from Namibia to Finland. All of this without the need for any accelerationist left to “demand” it. What that left can now do, according to the authors, is to accelerate these processes and influence the way they are implemented. For them these are non-reformist reforms which “will not break us out of capitalism, but they do promise to break us out of neoliberalism, and to establish an equilibrium of political, economic and social forces.”11 In terms of tactics, Srnicek and Williams’ vision is allegedly a long term one. The rise of neo-liberalism took 40 years or more. Likewise the British left will need to over time build its own hegemony. This has to include politicians, business experts, new media, and academics – with Corbyn, McDonnell, Piketty, Stiglitz, media outlets like Novara or The Canary, Paul Mason and Owen Jones, and indeed the authors themselves, first steps towards this have been made. That is not to say that in their vision there is no place for the “grass-roots”.

On the question of organisation, the authors propose a revamped popular front, simply arguing that different organisations are needed for different things, and that it’s no good fetishising one particular form of organisation over another. However this is a situation which arises spontaneously in any social movement – to take the example of Occupy, it was not just horizontalist affinity groups that were involved, but also all manner of political parties, media groups, trade unions, etc. There was no healthy ecosystem as the authors would have liked to see, but it wasn’t because of lack of will, rather because all these organisations correspond to different aims and material interests. Forms of organisation are not neutral, just like the state is not neutral. This is something which the capitalist left seems to struggle to get to grips with. Affinity groups, trade unions, institutional parties and the state cannot all be just repurposed to achieve any goal desired (in this a case a post-work future). This becomes even clearer in the examples of this “ecology of organisations” provided by the authors – Venezuela and Podemos. If the so-called Venezuelan communes (which at best function as a form of participatory budgeting, at worst as the local enforcers of the PSUV government), or the crowdfunding platforms of Podemos (designed to raise funds for its electoral campaigns), are the best examples of a healthy “counter-hegemonic ecosystem” then the future looks pretty bleak indeed.

In its lack of a materialist understanding of organisation and the state, the authors, in the tradition of Gramsci, find themselves squarely on the side of idealism. It is no surprise then that Inventing the Future puts the cart before the horse: it wants to get rid of wage labour by creating a new populist metanarrative and infiltrating left wing parties – without the working class ever taking power, and without the abolition of capitalist social relations.

Rebranding Social Democracy

Inventing the Future has already made an impact on the Labour left. In 2015 Srnicek and Williams were sending copies of the book to the new Labour shadow cabinet in the hopes that it would help the Labour Party address “the most pressing issues of the 21st Century”.12 By 2016 the book was popular enough in Labour circles that Srnicek was invited by John McDonnell to give a talk on “Technology and the future world of work” during a series of public events on “New Economics” convened by the Labour Party.13 In 2017 Inventing the Future got a mention in a report commissioned by John McDonnell and Rebecca Long-Bailey.14 That same year Srnicek also gave a talk at the Labour conference fringe event, The World Transformed. This convergence is not incidental.

There are two ways to read Inventing the Future. One is a fairly innocent critique of the “post-68 left”, and an outline of how to build a desirable post-capitalist future through a flawed Gramscian framework.15 The other is a critique of working class self-activity, and a call for a benevolent class of technocrats who can gradually reform capitalism for the masses. The book is written in a way that makes it seem like the two interpretations are not mutually exclusive, which might be part of the reason behind its appeal (name dropped in the New Statesman and the Guardian, three years after release it still easily available in high street bookshops). This mixture of Gramscian terminology and accelerationist imagery does have some appeal among the university educated left, and combined with the willingness of figures such as McDonnell to engage with economic ideas deemed “cutting-edge” or “radical” by the mainstream press, it does give Corbyn’s shadow cabinet a facade of modernity – whether anyone in the upper echelons of the party actually take it seriously or not, it helps to counter the propaganda of the Conservative right that a Labour government “would take the country back to the 1970s”.

So is post-capitalism just a programme for post-neoliberal capitalist restoration? If the political trajectory of Srnicek, Williams, Mason, and the Corbynist Labour manifesto is anything to go by, then yes. The aim here is to get rid of neo-liberalism first and reconstitute capitalism on a “healthier” basis. The final dismantling of the class system is simply relegated to a distant future. Folk politics may be “insufficient”, but think tanks and leftist advisors to bourgeois states are no solution either. The perspectives of the communist left remain with the working class, and not “the left” (of capital).

February 2018