Comments on Inventing the Future

A cat rides a vacuum cleaner robot

Some members of Out of the Woods have written responses to a new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams.

Our contributions are part of a forum on the book for The Disorder of Things. Srnicek and Williams introduce the book here, and are interviewed by Aaron Bastani - who’s called Inventing the Future “the most important book of 2015” - on Novara FM, which gives a good overview of its themes:

Our responses are more critical. This is partly because of the word limit - rather than listing all the things we agreed with, we focussed on areas which seemed problematic or under-developed.

We should make clear: there is much in the book to agree with. This includes taking a leftist anti-work politics seriously; expanding the focus of said anti-work politics beyond the much-discussed Universal Basic Income (all too easily co-opted by any capitalist attempt to build a post-neoliberal consensus); and making a case for both complementary organisational pluralism, and the necessity of longer-term strategy to link today’s activity to the construction of a postcapitalist world. A wide-range of thinkers are engaged with - at least in passing - and endnote references allow readers to follow these up without breaking up the flow of the text.

We suspect that Bastani will not be the last to bestow Inventing the Future with praise. It is a highly accessible and provocative book. All the more reason, we think, to engage critically.

Joseph’s response focuses on the implicit conception of nature which underlies the book’s politics of technologically-augmented control. This appears to be a version of what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature - reasserting an earlier modernism against a romantic naturalism (or what Srnicek and Williams call ‘folk politics’). However, there are hints of a more interesting and critical account, where the goal is a productive connection between practical local and abstract scientific knowledges.

On this note, reading Inventing the Future via the type of cyborg-feminist thought it sometimes references but does not seem to take particularly seriously (Sadie Plant; Donna Haraway etc.) blurs the clear distinctions between humans, nature, and technology, but in so doing makes room for a more pluralistic project of inventing the future. One that doesn’t, for example, exclude indigenous thought in advance. Joseph’s piece then looks at the ongoing - not only historical - connections between modernity and colonialism, through the toxic waste byproducts of high tech industry, and one of the proposed technological ‘fixes’ for climate change.

Joseph wrote:
However it is addressed, the racialised, colonial premises of full automation cannot simply be disavowed, they have to be undone; if that is, the emancipatory potential of automation is to be universal. (...) This is particularly important given the potential for anti-work politics to bridge the red-green divide that allows jobs-and-growth trade unionists and environmentalists to be divided and ruled. (....)

However, in the context of climate change, Srnicek and Williams make several arguments which seem too easily appropriated to support technofixes rather than the needed social-ecological transformation. Ecology is frequently invoked as metaphor - as in organisational ecology - but an ecological perspective doesn’t appear as more than a fringe benefit to the program of full automation.

Sophie and Dave’s response makes a number of critical points. They note how Srnicek and Williams’ key concept of ‘folk politics’ relies on some questionable binaries such as past/future and resistance/action. They suggest that a universal cosmology/account of progress is problematic and closes off multiplicity, whereas universal tactics or infrastructure - such as a Universal Basic Income, could be useful in making multiplicity possible (e.g. freeing people from wage labour to pursue many different things).

Sophie and Dave also highlight how the book’s critique of left moralism doesn’t give examples or set limits, so that while one reader “might associate ‘moralising’ with sneering critiques of people who eat fast food, another is thinking of how pesky feminists demand that we don’t tolerate abusers in our spaces.” They also suggest the work Srnicek and Williams seek to abolish is implicitly white male work - with caring labour, prison labour, and the extraction of rare earth minerals either given little consideration or overlooked altogether. They too point to the figure of the cyborg as a way to think through the messiness and complications these criticisms raise.

Sophie & Dave wrote:
It is common, in writing on utopia, to find the argument that utopias should not be read as blueprints for the future, but as heuristic devices which lever it open as a site of possibility. In this, they show us how we might organise our lives and estrange us from how we do organise our lives. (....)

It is always easy to find fault, but we were not being glib in describing Inventing the Future as a snappy, accessible book. Such works are of vital importance, and Inventing the Future asks extremely important questions and posits serious answers. We do not always agree with these answers, or think they need expanding - and on occasion angrily disagree with them - but we hope that many more take up its challenge of thinking - and struggling for - a post-work utopia; not just in the future, but also in the present.

Since these posts have appeared, there’s been a number of comments - both supportive and critical. We’ll wait until Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have responded, then might write a follow-up post and/or showcase others' responses.