Myths of Invention

The fifth commentary, and sixth post, on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Futurefrom DoT’s own Joe Hoover. A reply from Nick and Alex will follow.

Inventing the Future begins with a lament.

Where did the future go? For most of the twentieth century, the future held sway over our dreams. On the horizons of the political left a vast assortment of emancipatory visions gathered, often springing from the conjunction of popular political power and the liberating potential of technology.

The authors resent that they have been denied a future with more promise than the present. They mourn the absence of the object of their desire, the impossibility of its fulfilment, the lives to be lived in these lost leftist utopias. This seems to be a widely felt disappointment, if we are to judge by how often the complaint has been made of late. Disappointment leads to diffuse anger, directed at the status quo on the “Left”, its lack of vision. At the root of this discontent is anger at the world itself, for all of the ways it impedes us, frustrates our hopes and gives no comfort to our dreams – it is a world in need of re-making. I do not want to suggest that because the book’s narrative is motivated by such feeling that it can be reduced to an outburst against the vagaries of existence, the work is too focused and the problem it addresses too serious for such crude criticism. Yet, this fundamental emotional resentment colours the project in an important way.

Orpheus plays his lament

The lament shapes the inquiry itself. We are wounded by the loss of our desire – a future flush with possibility – and we are angry at capitalism for stealing our future. Obviously the detail is more sophisticated than this curt summary, but a stark statement of the underlining logic reveals the essential narrative. The problem of contemporary Left politics is not the desire for a universal utopian future but rather that this future has been lost, which runs counter to important criticisms of progressive leftism (a point taken up by Aggie Hirst and Tom Houseman). Therefore, the authors’  task is to remind us why we desire the future, then to consider where to look for a new one and how to seek after it. Inventing the Future is a quest to find what was lost, so we can become whole in our desires. We may set out on such a quest with great optimism but we still carry a worrisome anger with us.

There are a great many barbarities in our world attributable, at least in part, to “capitalism” but it is not a villain stealing away with our ladylove (the difficulties of determining what capitalism is are taken up later). Our lost future is not the exceptional crime of some neoliberal conspiracy. Yes, I know the book does not say anything quite so crude. Nonetheless, the narrative structure is driven by a conflict that finds its resolution with the us (the protagonist) achieving wholeness in a future fulfilment of our desire. The authors make the caveat that contestation will not end in this postcapitalist future, but this future still holds out the promise that the conflicts of today will melt away. The world is always messy, unfinished, stubborn, cruel, confused, and, I posit, resistant to the kind of  breaks with past ways of being that are suggested here (Sophie Lewis and David Bell look at the temporalities involved in greater detail). If we lament that, we risk resentment against the world itself, against human existence and against flesh and blood people who move slowly and impede our dreams. Love of the future sits dangerously close to hatred of the present – which is not to say we should have no love of the future, but rather that we ought to be wary of too much of it.
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The Corbyn After-Effect

Corbyn LOL

Win he did. And how. Although the petty vindictiveness of the #LabourPurge was real, it wasn’t enough to materially affect the result, and has arguably strengthened Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate. Even as dodgy expulsions and dodgier retentions sour the taste, nobody can claim that the Labour elite were too lax in their efforts to hobble him. For those who have felt blackmailed and maligned by New Labour and its outriders this past decade or two, the moment of joyful disbelief is to be relished. A social democrat as leader of the Labour Party! What a notion. Negative solidarity is giving way to a new structure of feeling, not just resisting but asserting positively the horizon of a more egalitarian, less parochial politics. It was fitting that Corbyn’s ascent took place on the same day as the major London march in defence of refugees, and that he moved amongst us.

The euphoria won’t last, is indeed already muted, tempting us to get our disappointment in early. Continue reading

Capitalism: A History of Violence

Alexander Anievas and TDOT resident Kerem Nişancıoğlu introduce their new book How The West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism.

‘For the last two decades, challenges to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism have been casually dismissed by a status quo swimming in hubris. From Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation that ‘there is no alternative’ to Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history’, the study and critique of capitalism has been relegated to margins of public discourse. More recently, Mark Hunter argued that any attack on capitalism is ‘an attack on human nature’, thereby reaffirming the now centuries-old conceit that capitalism is as ‘natural and organic’ as living and breathing.

However, as stock markets came crashing down in 2008, the force of history reasserted itself in a series of revolutions, square occupations, anti-austerity protests, strikes, riots, and anti-state movements taking place from London to Ferguson, Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Rojava, Santiago and beyond. Such movements have torn at the certainties of ‘capitalist realism’ and started sporadically – if inconsistently – challenging such long-held ‘common sense’ truisms and the power structures that bolster them.


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Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work

Once a French neologism, precarity is now a household name describing in equal measure the fate of low-wage, part-time holders of bullshit jobs, seasonal and migrant workers, creative entrepreneurs of the self, “graduates with no future,” foreclosed homeowners, debtors and increasingly even segments of the salaried bourgeoisie. At its most basic, a term for the economic uncertainty and existential angst associated with the dissolution of fixed employment, precarity also suggests the disintegration of stable societal bonds, occupational identities, social protections and a sense of entitlement and belonging characteristic of the old proletariat. In short, then, precarity is the experiential dimension of the crisis of the society of work dating back to the 70s and 80s.

Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Mural 1923

Increasingly advanced production methods, introduced since the 70s to tame shop-floor insubordination as well as reap the untapped potentials of global competition, have caused a decline in growth rates, which no amount of privatization, financialization and austerity measures has been able to make up for since. Andrew Kliman and others have argued that it is this real crisis in capitalist productivity that lies at the heart of the current slump, and not simply unrestrained financial gluttony, as the more short-termist analysis offer. As capitalist production develops, machines replace people and the rate of profitability, which is given by the human labor theory of value, drops, causing sluggish investment and slow growth. This is essentially Marx’s theory of economy crisis, aka the tendency of the profit rate to fall, but also a story we should know by now from Autonomist accounts about the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (Hardt and Negri) or from profit extraction to rent-becoming-profit (Christian Marazzi), and from David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession.

If we shift the scale of our focus from capital to labor, though, we see that the crisis of capitalist productivity is, in fact, a crisis of work or a crisis of a society built around work as the only legitimate point of access for income, status and citizenship rights. Again, Marx is instructive here: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Socially necessary labor is reduced to a minimum (through things like automation, outsourcing, and financialization) at the same time that human participation in paid work continues to remain our only measure and source of wealth. Work doesn’t disappear as a result. It becomes fragmented, devalued, and wasteful, ceasing to provide a social identity or a collective language of experience.


Precarity is a word for our time. It describes the slow disintegration of the historic bond between capitalism, democracy and the welfare state. But it also entails a rallying cry to reverse this situation. Continue reading

The Pay Strike And Its Discontents

Breaking Bad Pay Teachers More Money

The ballots are out, the wheels are in motion. Union members have until Thursday 10 October to vote on strike action over the latest derisory pay offer of 1% (if you haven’t received a ballot, go here). The justness of the cause seems clear enough. Since 2009, every pay award has been several percentage points below inflation, leading to a consistent real terms drop in pay. And some of those paltry increases were only attained after negotiations. Yet, despite the protests from above (and excepting a brief dip in student numbers), British higher education is in fine financial health. The overall wage bill is decreasing at the same time that surpluses are growing. And for “growing” read “more than doubling”, from £488 million in 2007/8 to £1.1 billion in 2011/2012. Managers are reaping their rewards accordingly, and a significant portion of Vice-Chancellors are seeing their pay go up by 10-20%. At Sussex, for example, Michael Farthing is now paid £280,000 (including pensions contributions), as compared to £178,000 in 2007 (that’ll be a 57% increase then).

And yet there is a foreboding. Fear is a factor, nondescript anxiety another. Perhaps an awkward sense that any level of action is somehow at odds with the academic code.

Articulated objections come in two stripes. First, the we-haven’t-got-it-so-bad defence. Beyond the usual ‘all in it together’ austerity ideology, there are pay increments (which most permanent academic staff get automatically). Real wages aren’t declining so hard if you move up a pay step each year. This is on its own a pretty restricted ambition, since it amounts to a kind of career “progression” that leaves you standing still. It is also, for all the talk of solidarity with lower-paid workers, a selfish analysis.

In the last 5 years, the pay for new lecturers and tutors has dropped 13% in real terms. Following the USS pension saga, they (we) have each had tens of thousands of pounds taken from them over the course of their careers, while staff that retained their old rights are paying more every month into a scheme that was, let us recall, nowhere near crisis. There are fewer scholarships and research grants than before, and an increase in teaching-heavy posts. Consumer-driven logics are set to make that worse. On the horizon, just over there, is a US-style expansion based on precarity, a prestige elite, and debt bubbles. Some at the top are already breaking from the national pay spine, inaugurating a two-tier system. Consider this trend alongside the state of university finances. What is it to look at this and say things aren’t so bad? I put it to you that such a position is detached, complacent, and irresponsible.

Second, there is the strikes-change-nothing complaint. This has better justification. Local actions over the last years have not reversed policies. Pensions were stripped down anyway. And there is something peculiar, isn’t there, about the idea of day-long walkouts and picket lines in a sector so based on relatively scattered student-teacher interactions. There is no machinery to fall silent, no buzzing shop floors to stand empty. Just a day of saved wages for management and probably a whole stack of reorganised lectures, academics not really being the types to withhold knowledge (or, rather, unwilling to see knowledge as labour). There is a sense that the old tactics are dead, and should be left in their graves.

On the one hand, this is an argument for more radical action. If employers can handle strike days, we need more. Or, alternatively, forms of action that do not fetishise the picket line. Something that will make VCs pay attention, like a marking boycott or withholding final grades. In a customer-orientated culture this is the pressure point, especially if action begins to alter the results of the National Student Survey, that Big Other of the academic scene (what do students really want?). The complaint goes up that the national union lacks the imagination to instigate these actions, and that we should therefore turn to more vibrant kinds of opposition. But new forms of resistance nevertheless confront established modes of punishment. When full pay is withheld day on day, when even partial performance leads to the forfeit of full wages, how quickly will we really buckle? We know something has to break the pattern, but we’re not sure we’re capable of it, or that the sacrifice is worth it. In other words, we find ourselves a little too close to text-book academic bitching: something more fundamental needs doing, but we’re not likely to be the ones to do it.

On the other hand, the fear and the paralysis can be found closer to home. Complaints about the union form do not produce their alternative ex nihilo. There are possible replacements, but no actually-existing ones. Nor does the appetite for creating one seem to exist. And for good reason. The paradoxical character of academic subjectivity is both to consider ourselves in a position of real epistemic and social privilege and to be so despondent about our influence on things as to merely absorb the changes thrust upon us (working conditions, impact agendas, research restrictions). The legal protections of strike action have no parallel, truncated as they are. Creative alternatives have raised energy, and served as political classrooms in their own right, but they haven’t actually stymied ‘reforms’ (whether on fees, outsourcing or investment portfolios). And, strange as it may sound, universities are probably happier taking draconian action against their workers than their students. A faculty occupation, if we could even imagine such a thing, would not end well.

None of that is to say that we (there’s that intangible collective again) should walk zombie-like to the picket. Fersure, let the rejuvenation of academic democracy proceed apace. In the meantime, we have to ask ourselves seriously what the consequence is of another pliant year. There are murmurings that a failure to win this ballot will endanger collective bargaining itself. If we cannot muster the resolve to deliver a strong yes on action short of a strike, and a strong yes on strike – if we cannot even deliver a serious turnout – that’s probably as much as we deserve.

The Student Movement in Quebec: Of Small Victories and Big Disappointments

A guest post by Philippe Fournier, following up on his analysis of the Quebec student movement in May last year. Philippe is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Canada Research Chair in Globalisation, Citizenship and Democracy (Chaire MDC) at Université du Québec à Montréal’s Sociology Department, and works primarily on Michel Foucault in global politics.

A Quebec student march route

A Quebec student march route

Quebec’s protracted student crisis, which laid heavy on voters’ minds, has been fixed, at least for now. In early September, the Parti Québécois (PQ) was ushered in as a minority government. The PQ campaigned on a tuition freeze, higher taxes for society’s upper echelons and a fairly ambitious environmental agenda. These aspirations notwithstanding, popular discontent with the Liberal’s handling of the student crisis, widespread accusations of corruption (see the ongoing Commission Charbonneau) and a collective displeasure with Premier Jean Charest’s smug ways, all contributed to the previous government’s demise. All things considered, the Liberals did very well, taking 31% of the vote. The PQ took a mere 32%, hardly a glowing endorsement from the general public. Most analysts believe that it was also a clear message to the incoming rulers that Quebecers had no interest in one of the more fundamental objectives of the PQ’s platform, that is sovereignty.

There are several dimensions and consequences to the PQ’s election, most of which provide an example of things-that-are or of things-that-will-be in western countries facing economic woe.

Students and Protests

The majority of students see the electoral results as a victory and feel vindicated for their continued efforts. A minority of students, many of whom are affiliated or sympathetic to the now recently defunct CLASSE (now the ASSÉ), which was set up especially for the strike, are less enthused and sense that this is only a reprieve in the long and arduous fight for free education.

The PQ has called for a summit on higher education, which will take place sometime in February and is meant to involve a wide-ranging consultation between state officials, student representatives, chancellors and business leaders. The likely outcome will be an indexation of tuition fees to the cost of living and new innovative means to cut costs in University management. Opposition parties are already accusing the PQ of having bowed down to the vociferous demands of ‘the street’ and have warned that this blank cheque would have consequences on the allocation of funds to other social programs. The ASSÉ is predictably sceptical of such proceedings and is not yet sure whether it will participate. After being told by the government that they had to cut a further 120 million before the negotiations even started, University chancellors are ticked off.

Insofar as the student crisis was widely heralded as a social movement and not just a sectorial claim, it is important to assess its overall effect on Quebec’s current political landscape. Continue reading