Reinventing the Future

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

A first possible future would be a neocolonial and racist post-work world. Here, post-work would be established in some of the advanced capitalist countries, but low-income countries would struggle to follow suit. The post-work countries would become a large attraction for migrants, and the influx of people would spark off xenophobia and harsh state responses. Borders would be tightened up, and the European, American, and Australian borders would be littered with even more bodies than they are today. Cheap labour would continue to be exploited in the low-income countries, while domestic prison labour would continue, as much for its punitive potential as for its economic efficacy. The end result would be an exacerbation of existing global inequalities, an expansion of xenophobia and racism, and increasing political and military destabilisation.

A second possible future would be an ecologically unsustainable vision of post-work. In this future, post-work would be established in some or many countries, but extensive automation would be achieved without a concern for long term sustainability. Extraction processes around the world intensify, and the pollution and environmental damage from them would continue to grow. The energy resources demanded by automation would be drawn from fossil fuel sources, and carbon emissions would rise above even current trends. Combined with this, consumption patterns would continue to expand at levels which transform any productivity gains into more and more output. The major result would be an accelerated climate catastrophe, leading towards mass climate-induced migration and xenophobia, significant political destabilisation, large losses of human life, the devastation of the biosphere and the extinction of many species of life forms.

A third future would be a misogynist one. In this post-work future, most wage labour would have disappeared and there would be an immense increase in overall leisure time. Yet there would be no simultaneous shift in unpaid reproductive labour.[1] Women would continue to bear the burden of these tasks, and investment would ignore the automation of household labour such as cooking and cleaning and laundry. Or alternatively, as has historically been the case, any household technologies would simply lead to higher standards of cleanliness, not less work (219n50). It would be a society where men were newly freed from wage labour, but where women continued to be constrained. A corresponding divide in politics would widen, with men freer than ever before to participate in public life, but with women still bound to the household.

In contrast to these depressing scenarios, we can imagine a fourth option: a leftist post-work future. This option would entail commitments to (at the very least) open borders, the abolition of spatial mechanisms of control (like prisons and ghettos), the reduction/socialisation of unwaged and waged work, the bolstering of the welfare state, and the provision of a global basic income. This would not yet be postcapitalist (e.g. commodities would still be bought within the market, private property would remain, and accumulative logics would still function), but it would be an immensely better world than the one we have now – both in terms of livelihoods and in terms of our political power.

Our book is an attempt to begin articulating a vision and a pathway to just such a post-work future. Though the responses to our book have covered many of the key themes and ideas, one crucial element is missing from the discussion and this omission leads to a fundamental misconception of the project. Every chapter in the book has been discussed within the symposium, except for Chapter 5, which is devoted to analysing the global crisis of surplus populations.[2] This is a surprising oversight, given that many of the concerns levelled at the book are addressed within this chapter. In particular, the racialised and gendered biases of work and the intrinsically intersectional systems of oppression are examined in some detail. We try to draw out the systemic connections between phenomena like the deadly functions of borders (101-2), the violent management of jobless neighbourhoods (102-3), the hyper-exploitation of prison labour (90, 103), the continuation of outright slavery (90), the rising density of informal slums (96-8), the proliferation of suicides and mental health issues (94), the attacks on higher education (99), and the devastating effects of a developing world becoming post-industrial (97-8). We raise the problem of automation and insist that developing countries and minority groups are the ones most at risk of being plunged even further into immiseration (97-8, 101-2, 104). As we argued in the book, “the maintenance of large portions of humanity within slums and informal, non-capitalist economies is likely to be consolidated by emerging technological trends” (98). The chapter is an attempt to explain the ongoing onslaught against the most marginalised, the ways in which increasing numbers of people are being tossed aside by capitalism, and the significant influence of gender, race, and colonialism in this expulsion.[3]

One of the fundamental arguments of the book is that some combination of the neocolonial, racist, unsustainable, and misogynist futures is the expected outcome of the current path of capitalist development (104). As we try to demonstrate in this chapter, these futures are the endpoint of a business-as-usual approach – and we warn throughout the book that things will only get worse if we don’t build up a significant movement to change course. We agree with the respondents that there is a possibility of a post-work world that is built on colonialism, on a doubling down of unwaged reproductive labour, or the total destruction of the biosphere. Indeed it seems sadly quite likely, particularly given Europe’s reaction to the Syrian crisis. And it is precisely this analysis which motivates the book’s claim that a leftist post-work world is both necessary and possible today. This is why the chapter on surplus populations appears immediately before the discussion of post-work – it establishes the conjunctural conditions within which the project becomes intelligible. The post-work future we envision is therefore not a free-floating project; it is one which responds to and is conditioned by the deepening devastations around the world. This is important: a post-work world must be seen as a response to existing and emerging neocolonial, racist, sexist and exploitative conditions. As such, any post-work project which continued or exacerbated those conditions would be anathema to our vision of a post-work future. Post-work has much to recommend itself on its own – and we spend sizeable chunks of the book elaborating on these reasons. But under today’s conditions it is taking on a new urgency – “these tendencies demand a response” (23), and this is why “a post-work world is an increasingly pressing option” (86) and why “the left [should] prepare for the coming crisis of work and surplus populations” (86). This means that “the political project for the twenty-first-century left must be to build an economy in which people are no longer dependent upon wage labour for survival” (105).

These, therefore, are the fundamental concerns which motivate our project of a post-work politics. That being said, we want to reiterate that the concerns voiced by Joseph, Sophie, and David are important. If post-work politics begins to gain traction, it will be essential to keep these issues at the forefront in order to prevent precisely the nightmare options we outlined at the start. Post-work cannot be premised upon the rich countries continuing to plunder and exploit the poorest countries, nor cis men dominating everyone else, nor whites dominating people of colour. These are the basic coordinates of any leftist post-work vision, and they are non-negotiable.

Post-Work is Hard Work

With this framework for the project set up, we can move on to some other related issues around post-work and surplus populations – beginning with some corrections, before moving on to some important limits of the book. Sophie and David write that we “talk about [primitive accumulation] solely in the past tense” and critique us for not seeing it as an ongoing process. But we agree, to quote the book, that primitive accumulation “is not just an origin story of capitalism, but also an ongoing process that involves the transformation of pre-capitalist subsistence economies into capitalist economies” (89). This is important to recognise because it is one of the three mechanisms we outline for the production of surplus populations. The significance of each mechanism changes throughout historical periods, but they all continue to operate. Today, the global North is under the sway of automation, while the global South remains dominated by primitive accumulation. One of our major arguments is that this is likely to shift: automation will become a key problem for the global South in the not so distant future.[4]

This leads us to another point, on the demand for full automation. As we explain in the book, automation is partially stalled at the moment because of an excess global supply of cheap labour. Workers in low-income countries, hyper-exploited prison labour, and unwaged reproductive labour are all cheaper for capitalists than investing in new machines (112). The only way this work will be automated is if workers gain new power over their lives. In other words, full automation is only possible when there is no cheap labour to exploit. Therefore, the demand for full automation (a deliberately provocative formulation)[5] is simultaneously a demand to end this situation – to end heightened exploitation, raise global wages, and give new power to the workers most affected (105, 112). The demand would make no sense if this aspect wasn’t included. So when Aggie and Tom suggest that full automation is a demand which doesn’t take into account those at the “sharp end of automation”, we must disagree. It is precisely because we are attuned to these issues that full automation becomes a political demand and not simply an economically necessary outcome. (Equally, making it a political demand is intended to raise questions like “how is automation being introduced, and who is being harmed by it?”)

As for care labour and the work involved in the reproduction of the species, we write:

The free time that accrues from full automation could also facilitate experimentation with alternative domestic arrangements. There is a long history of utopian experiments that can be drawn upon to rethink how our societies organise domestic, reproductive and care labour. All of this, it must be stressed, would still require a political movement to achieve; a post-work world may facilitate change, but it cannot guarantee it. (113, emphasis added)

We therefore agree with Sophie and David’s doubt “that any of S&W’s four demands are sufficient to achieve” the end of patriarchal and heteronormative relations in work. Our four demands are not sufficient, and this means that a movement for post-work must simultaneously be feminist.

Now we turn to two important limits of the book. The first of these are ecological concerns, particularly as emphasised in Joseph’s sensitive and incisive response. We think his point about the production of nature is an important corrective, and we fully admit that issues of climate change and ecological sustainability are not dealt with in anywhere near enough depth in the text.[6] A proper answer to Joseph’s queries about ecological sustainability will deserve a book-length response in itself. Nevertheless, we have tried to make it clear in the book that any vision of the future must be ecologically sustainable and not premised upon an accumulative and extractive economy that decimates our planet (hence the call, throughout the book, for a decarbonised economy). Whether extensive automation is compatible with ecological sustainability will depend on issues such as the replacement of fossil fuels, the expansion of renewable energy, the substitution of dwindling resources, the revision of wasteful manufacturing processes, and the elimination of exploitative labour practices. In other words, any answer will have to draw upon an extensive array of both technical and political knowledges. However, we think post-work has much to offer in the way of a green politics – and may even be the only way to overcome the division between a labour politics premised on growth and jobs, and a green politics premised on reigning in capitalist growth. Post-work undercuts the primary reason for needing growth and jobs – namely the attachment of income to work – thereby enabling new connections to be made between the movements. Less work is also an easy way to save an immense amount of energy consumption, with estimates of a 20% reduction in energy consumption if the US moved to a European work week (221n76). Lastly, the basic premise of a post-work society is to use productivity enhancements to lessen work rather than to expand production. The latter is of course a difficult task in a capitalist system, but that’s why it must be the focus of political struggle.

The second issue to raise is about the Western-centric nature of our prescriptive proposals. As we argued earlier, our analysis of the present conjuncture attempts to be resolutely global, and the picture of the coming crisis of work is equally global. Yet we are situated as white, male Westerners, and our knowledge is primarily of conditions in the spaces within which we live and breathe. This is why we try to explicitly limit our strategic analysis to the Western world (130). Aggie and Tom interpret this to mean that we don’t care about what happens to the non-Western world: “the authors [are] forced to rely on a vague hope that the rest of the world will take care of itself”. Yet our intention was instead to circumscribe the limits of our analysis and highlight our own situatedness. The alternative, it seems to us, would have been a hubristic claim that we know best how the rest of the world can and should build a post-work society – that two white men should lead the way. This would hardly be fitting in with our claim that we must “rely upon a global set of voices articulating and negotiating in practice what a common and plural future might be.” (83) That our strategic analysis is focused on the Western world is undoubtedly a limit of the book, but we believe it is a necessary limit. There is scope to breakdown this limit in the future, and we hope others will as well, by developing accounts of power and possibility in the context of other societies.

What the Folk?

We now turn to what appears, perhaps unsurprisingly, as the most contentious idea in our book: that of folk politics.[7] Let us be clear about something up front though: our critique of what we call folk politics is born neither out of a belief in the intrinsic desirability of alternative tactics and strategies, nor out of malice towards them. Rather, our critique is born out of the experiences of struggles in the past few decades. It has been over 20 years since the Zapatistas stormed onto the world stage, yet we have seen precious little evidence that any recent movements have posed a threat to the dominance of neoliberalism (let alone capitalism). Our own experiences in these movements, and particularly the brief moment of hope that emerged around Occupy, are why we started writing the book in the first place. We wanted them to succeed, and we were disappointed when they didn’t. Our critique of folk politics stems from asking the question: what went wrong? We don’t think our answers are particularly novel: they’ve been voiced in numerous forms by participants and external critics for some time now, and the book draws heavily upon this existing literature. Our novelty is in tracing these problems back to a preference for immediacy – i.e. the kernel of contemporary ‘folk politics’. (In fact, perhaps a better name for ‘folk politics’ might be ‘the politics of immediacy’.) It is this valorisation of immediacy which we see played out in various ways across the left, both in the explicit statement of political theorists and in the implicit consequences of various practices.

This leads us to an aspect of the concept which has yet to receive any attention: namely, its historically constructed character.[8] While this issue is not foregrounded in the book (it is only raised in one paragraph), our position is that folk politics changes over time. Certain ideas and values come to dominate and take on an intuitive place within the activist imagination. In the 1960s, in much of the Western world, folk politics would have meant building the revolutionary party. In the future, folk politics will again change. We may see, for instance, a folk political common sense come to rest upon social media clicktivism. We must therefore distinguish between two senses of folk politics. One is a historically constructed political common sense. The other is a contemporary manifestation of that common sense oriented around a politics of immediacy. Given its historical nature, it would be fair to say that our own project is one of constructing a new folk politics. It is only today that folk politics – “a collective and historically constructed political common sense that has become out of joint with the actual mechanisms of power” (10, emphasis added) – has come to overlap with another meaning of folk: as the locus of the small-scale and authentic grounded upon a valorisation of immediacy.

Ultimately, our desires lie in transforming the world, not in getting the self-satisfaction of being proven right. If events were to show that our critique was wrong, we would be delighted to admit our error. For us, therefore, the essential components of the book are the second half: the analysis of global surplus populations and the vision of the future. The four demands we set out to begin organising around for a post-work world should be taken as starting points for discussion, not dogmatic assertions.[9] A little humility is in order here, as we can make no claim to any certainty about our critiques and prescriptions for how these things should be achieved. The social world is complex and the assertive absoluteness with which many left thinkers put forth their ideas is belied by the repeated failures to change or even understand the world.

We must now, however, raise another omission in the responses, which is the three qualifications we place on our critique of folk politics. This absence is important because without these qualifications, the critique of folk politics steps outside its purview.

The first qualification is that folk politics is an implicit tendency, not an explicit position. This leads to a key point to insist upon: folk politics is not equivalent to horizontalism, anarchism, prefigurative politics, or localism. There is an assumption running throughout the responses that folk politics is equivalent to these movements, but this assumption misreads our point. We constructed this concept because we find much of value in these movements, and we didn’t want to simply denounce them in toto. Instead, the concept is designed to pick out a particular subset of characteristics from them. It is designed to describe a common element behind a variety of movements which have so far been incapable of transforming the world or stopping neoliberalism. But again – folk politics is not coterminous with horizontalism, anarchism, prefigurative politics, or localism. To the extent that particular practices embody our understanding of folk politics (as a politics of spatial, temporal, and conceptual immediacy), we argue that they are limited. But where they do not embody these features (for example, in the way that anarcho-syndicalism is focused on creating scalable political structures), we do not view them as being folk political in nature.

Let us give a simple example to reinforce our point. The Black Panthers operated a variety of community initiatives centred around health, education, and food. Some might think this to be an archetype of folk political thinking – community? local? But it’s anything but – simply because the Black Panthers saw these efforts as part of a much grander strategic vision. In a wonderful phrase, they described these programs as ‘survival pending revolution’. Here is an effort to create new means of social reproduction – not as a space withdrawn from the rest of society, nor as a prefigurative paradise – but instead as a means within a larger struggle to overthrow racism, capitalism, and imperialism. This is not folk politics; it is premised upon a global analysis and seeks to scale its efforts in order to contend with vast structures of oppression.[10] And this is why “we hasten to add, [folk politics is] not intrinsically flawed.” (29) Tactics are only folk political relative to strategic orientation and historical conditions. (29)

The next qualification that we place on the critique is also important for understanding how the term is being used. Our intention for the term has always been for it to be provocative, but never derogatory. This is clear in the second qualification: we do not reject folk politics. As we write in the book, “Folk politics is a necessary component of any successful political project, but it can only be a starting point” (12). Our critique is that it is insufficient, not that it is wrong. This is why we praise these movements throughout the book: “The Occupy movements achieved real victories in creating solidarity, giving a voice to disenchanted and marginalised people, and raising public awareness” (36). Later on, we note that “operating under principles of direct democracy can be conducive to certain objectives, such as giving people a voice, creating a powerful sense of collective agency and enabling different perspectives to be articulated. It can foster the creation of a populist identity and empower people to start to see themselves as a collective” (164). This is clearly very far from the “wholesale dismissal” of folk politics that Aggie and Tom accuse us of. And this is fundamentally different from setting up some old-fashioned binary between ‘folk’ and ‘modernity’; instead the relationship we are trying to gesture towards is much more complex.

The third qualification is perhaps the most important one for understanding the limits of our critique: folk politics is only a problem for projects which are attempting to overcome global issues like capitalism and climate change. Combine this with our earlier caveats and you get the claim that: a politics of immediacy is necessary but insufficient to transform global capitalism. If we had to sum up our position on folk politics in one line, that would be it. And if that seems pretty modest, well, it’s meant to be. Overlooking these three qualifications means that the responses mistake us for critiquing things we aren’t critiquing. Sophie and David express surprise that our pluri-versalism sounds folk political; Aggie and Tom dismiss our support for aspects of horizontalism and anarchism as paying “lip service”; Joseph suggests we would be against reforestation as a partial solution to climate change because it’s natural. All of these issues can be resolved by reference to the qualifications which we place upon the critique of folk politics.


We must now raise one unfortunate issue, which is the consistent misreading within Aggie and Tom’s response. According to them, our ideas are “outdated, odious and even obscene”. The work is “scandalous” and “would suffice to make most recoil in dread”. The project would lead to a “potential horror”. Ultimately, the book is “an unrepentant revival of techno-fetishist vanguardism, complete with a preference for hierarchical, clandestine strategising inspired by neoliberal institutions and practices.” And that’s just the introduction. Despite the promise of horrors within, we worry readers will be disappointed when the book doesn’t live up to these lofty expectations.[11] Needless to say, we think the authors have misunderstood the project. As such, a proper response is called for in the hope that it will prevent future readers from making the same mistakes.

A number of earlier clarifications have already attempted to correct some of the mistakes made in their piece: the project is aimed at overcoming, not exacerbating, the crisis of surplus populations (and all its modes of expression); folk politics is not rejected, but instead supplemented; far from dismissing folk politics, the book is littered with praise for its various achievements; and limiting our focus to the Western world is a matter of recognising our situatedness, while acknowledging the absolute necessity for a global politics.

To turn to the first of the assertions within their piece, the issue of technocratic vanguardism, we must disagree. Our approach to the question of political organisation is based on the rejection of such a perspective, and is grounded in the notion of an ‘ecology of organisations’ and a particular understanding of hegemonic politics. Here is a concise summary of how we envision a movement comprised of an ecology of organisations:

[T]he overarching architecture of such an ecology is a relatively decentralised and networked form – but, unlike in the standard horizontalist vision, this ecology should also include hierarchical and closed groups as elements of the broader network. There is ultimately no privileged organisational form. Not all organisations need to aim for participation, openness and horizontality as their regulative ideals. The divisions between spontaneous uprisings and organisational longevity, short-term desires and long-term strategy, have split what should be a broadly consistent project for building a post-work world. Organisational diversity should be combined with broad populist unity. (163)

Note that there is no place for “techno-fetishist vanguardism” here, though we do admit that “hierarchical” and “clandestine” organisations can have a role. But the need for secrecy and the inevitability of informal hierarchies have been roundly recognised by anarchists for a long time (indeed, we draw upon their insights in the book), so we don’t think Aggie and Tom would necessarily disagree with this aspect. Instead, it is the issue of vanguardism that seems to be the source of the problems – and it is a delicate one since, as their response demonstrates, it is prone to misunderstandings.

We think they are perhaps most concerned with the potential for hierarchical and secretive groups to force the mantle of leadership upon themselves. We admit that we find this unlikely in our current era, where political promiscuity rules the day and an organisation that begins to centralise and distance itself from its members is doomed to collapse. But to spell out our own position: we argue for a horizontal architecture to any movement, which entails that no one group or organisation should seek to dominate the movement.

What we instead call for is ‘mobile vanguard-functions’ (163), with a reference pointing to the work of Rodrigo Nunes. In a quote distinguishing this notion from more traditional ideas, he writes:

The vanguard-function differs from the teleological understanding of the vanguard whose sway over the Marxist tradition helped engender vanguardism. It is objective to the extent that, once the change it introduces has propagated, it can be identified as the cause behind a growing number of effects. Yet it is not objective in the sense of a transitive determination, which would be made necessary by historical laws, between an objectively defined position (class, class fraction) and a subjective political breakthrough (consciousness, event). The vanguard-function is akin to what Deleuze and Guattari call the ‘cutting edge of deterritorialisation’ in an assemblage or situation; opening a new direction that, after it has communicated to others, can become something to follow, divert, resist etc. (Organisation of the Organisationless, 38-9).

Given a more concrete formulation, this entails that:

Leadership occurs as an event in those situations in which some initiatives manage to momentarily focus and structure collective action around a goal, a place or a kind of action. They may take several forms, at different scales and in different layers, from more to less ‘spontaneous’. This could be a crowd at a protest suddenly following a handful of people in a change of direction, a small group’s decision to camp attracting thousands of others, a newly created website attracting a lot of traffic and corporate media attention, and so forth. The most important characteristic of distributed leadership is precisely that these can, in principle, come from anywhere: not just anyone (a boost, no doubt, to activists’ egalitarian sensibilities) but literally anywhere (ibid. 35).

We recommend reading his book, which is a superb analysis of how leadership functioned in Occupy and similar movements. Vanguardism, according to him, doesn’t disappear – it just gets distributed and made mobile. What does this mean in practice? Let us take a simplified example of an ongoing and complex situation: the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Here we saw the initial emergence of a vanguard through social media, as the hashtag starts up in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder. After Michael Brown was shot down by a cop, the residents of Ferguson became a vanguard in the streets, pushing back against the violence of the state and leading the movement to a new plateau of intensity. Social media continued to amplify this and a national (and eventually international) movement was born. In the wake of Freddie Gray’s brutal murder, Baltimore’s residents became the new vanguard: the struggle was expanding, led by the people in the streets. Today, however, the movement appears to be at risk of co-option by a group of “politically respectable” leaders. It is unclear, at the moment, whether and where this leadership will take the movement, or whether other leaders will emerge in the streets and elsewhere.

This is vanguardism, but certainly not the type that Aggie and Tom fear. We would even suggest it’s a rather humble idea, attuned to the realities of on-the-ground activism as well as the larger issues of strategic planning.[12] It seems to us, this is how leadership always works in contemporary social movements. Our point is to make this explicit and to try and shift the debate around leadership to a more sophisticated level. Anarchists have much to add here since they have been discussing these issues for some time now. Our contribution is to suggest this needs to be thought at the level of an entire ecology of organisations, not just within organisations. This would encourage asking questions like, “how do we get leadership in social movements for expansion and scaling, without installing permanent and unaccountable leaders?”

But if not a central vanguard or leader imposing unity on a movement, then what gives it any consistency? The argument we make in the book is that it is ‘the future’. Or rather, the common adherence to a desirable vision of a different world.[13] This is not a vision which could be forced upon anyone. Rather, it “involves a continual negotiation of differences and particularisms, seeking to establish a common language and programme in spite of any centrifugal forces.” (160) Thus, when Aggie and Tom write that the book “consistently privileges hegemonic coherence over practices which would preserve a space for variety and dissensus”; that “dissensus is the death knell of hegemony”; and that “pursuing a project of equilibrium in which opposing forces or interests are finally balanced or resolved is to already be some way down the road to a flattening and cancelling of the multiplicity of people”, this is at odds with what we write. They mistake hegemony for an enforced unity that it is not. Building a counterhegemony means undertaking the difficult labour of building and maintaining a common, collective project within and between differences. Crucial here is understanding what we mean by hegemony. Hegemony, as we set out the term in Chapter 7, is not to be identified as a system of domination. Reading it as such is a common error, but one which does a disservice to the subtlety of the concept and the history of its development since Gramsci. Instead, hegemony needs to be understood as a complex, emergent mode of power, dependent on the ability of groups within society to influence others in much more diffuse ways. This form of influence can take different forms, from rational debate to affective attraction, from educational practices to cultural codes, and from media framing to economic and infrastructural choice architectures. Hegemony, on this understanding, emerges out of the interactions and practices of a diverse array of different groups, agents, and organisations within society. It does not flatten difference, but emerges from the interplay of differences.

Another key dimension to the hegemonic perspective on politics is the idea that no large-scale political project can proceed by dint of appealing only to those who are already consciously persuaded of its merits. Against such a perspective, Aggie and Tom claim that changing desires is opposed to freedom. But surely changing the desires, beliefs and behaviours of racists, sexists, fascists and capitalists is an absolutely essential political goal? Indeed, one can only fully understand the successes of movements to the extent that they are able to achieve broad-scaled transformations in the public ‘common sense’, and in changing what people desire. The general public unacceptability of openly homophobic statements within the UK, for example, has only been made possible by a long-term hegemonic project to change the way people think. Partly this has operated through explicit means, but it has also proceeded through a variety of other modes of action, from specific legal provisions to the framing of issues in the mass media, all of which was made possible by decades of campaigning. Taken together these methods create a different environment in which subjects are generated and formed.

It might also be helpful here to consider what the alternative to this would look like. The alternative to a hegemonic framework is one which sees people as essentially inert, unchanging and unchangeable, that would identify the creation of small enclaves of like-minded people as the only practicable goal, a kind of separatism. Such a position would lead to a reliance on spontaneous revolt, and would not only be likely to fail, but would also tend towards a rather unnuanced acceptance of essentialist social forms and categories. We have good reason to believe that any left politics worthy of the name would want to reject such a position. Indeed, the successes of anti-racism, feminism, and queer politics are related to their (at least implicit) embracing of hegemonic projects to change the conditions within which people form their beliefs, opinions, and desires. Such a process of transformation can rarely be understood as simply a matter of imposition. Instead, hegemonic politics works to re-orient existing tendencies, desires, opinions, and beliefs, working with existing affordances and transforming them in turn. It is in this sense that hegemonic politics involves ‘leadership’ – not in the sense of individual leaders, but in the sense of changing the conditions which determine the trajectory of societies, by transforming the means by which subjectivities and desires are articulated and formed. This is politics, pure and simple.

A final word is called for on the suggestion of a Mont Pelerin of the left. This is, to be sure, intended to be somewhat scandalous (though we note that both Philip Mirowski and Owen Jones have recently echoed such a call). But the rise of neoliberalism is also arguably the greatest example of an ideological shift in the twenty-first century. This is why we find it of interest in terms of understanding how shifts within power operate on a global scale. A number of responses believe that we are arguing for a vanguardist Mont Pelerin of the left. From what has been said here, hopefully it is clear that this is resolutely not the case. That is why we specify that “the call for a Mont Pelerin of the left should therefore not be taken as an argument to simply copy its mode of operation” (67). Instead, we find three elements of it potentially useful for the left: its emphasis on a “long-term vision”, its intention and capacity to build “methods of global expansion”, and “the pragmatic flexibility and the counter-hegemonic strategy that united an ecology of organisations with a diversity of interests” (67). We find no value in the elitist and vanguardist aspects of MPS. As we argue in the book: “in a world of complexity, no one has a privileged view of the totality” (165). The challenge for a Mont Pelerin of the left is therefore to elaborate a way to instantiate these ideas – of vision, expansion, and flexible ideology – into novel forms that avoid the elitist vanguardism of the original MPS and which respond to the different situation of the left (e.g. a lack of similar resources).

Building Futures

Finally, we will close with a few quick comments to try and clarify some other important points raised in the responses. Sophie and David critique our emphasis on disappointment as a productive affect, and what they see as our rejection of the power of anger. We want to be clear that we absolutely see a role for anger in leftist politics. When Joe laments that we do “not profess an equal love for the present” and warns that “love of the future sits dangerously close to hatred of the present”, we plead guilty. We find the present state of the world intolerable. Our own political stances are mobilised by anger about atrocities small and large that we see every day: anger at friends being beaten by police truncheons, anger at the epithets thrown at the homeless, anger at watching yet another black life snuffed out by the state, anger at the online and offline viciousness visited upon sexual minorities, anger at the mental health issues we see so many friends struggle with, anger at the casual fascism of crossing a border legally, and anger at the outright brutalities forced upon those who cross illegally. Anger has always been and always will be an important resource for those marginalised by society. The anger about abusers and the vitriol tossed at sexists, transphobes, and racists is entirely warranted. And Sophie and David are right when they say we don’t outline the parameters of this argument clearly enough. So to be clear: anger has always had and will continue to have an important affective role in leftist politics. We believe we have to do a lot more work to sort out precisely what we think about social media, along with the ethics and politics that might accompany it. As a society, we are still learning how to use these new tools and develop informal codes of behaviour. But it is clear that social media has been of immense benefit to marginalised communities in finding respect, support, strength, and a voice. We in no way want to dismiss this.

We would also add one smaller clarification to their piece. Sophie and David write “S&W display their ‘only after the revolution’ tendencies here, stating that ‘[p]luri-versalism…relies upon the elimination of capitalism and is dependent upon a counter-hegemonic postcapitalist project as its presupposed condition of existence’”. This is not our argument however, but that of Walter Mignolo (The Darker Side of Modernity, 275). He – we think rightly – recognises that in a world of capital, any vision of many worlds will only be many worlds under capitalism. Any effort to build a pluri-versalist order must therefore simultaneously be one which is anti-capitalist. Not a stagist argument about the priority of Marxism over decolonialism, but rather a simple point that pluri-versalism is incompatible with capitalism.

A few quick minor corrections: Joe writes that we do not define neoliberalism and that, in fact, he is suspicious it exists at all (a suspicion shared by many conservative commentators). However, we spend pages 52-3 outlining different definitions of neoliberalism, before setting out our preferred take. As for those who doubt its existence, we would highly recommend following up on the references on the topic cited in our book. Despite the casual way in which the term is used by some, it does in fact pinpoint an important shift within capitalism. Joe goes on to ask how neoliberalism functions as our ‘form of existence’. In answer to this we would also point to the literature we cite in the text, in particular works such as Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval’s The New Way of the World and Jennifer Silva’s Coming up Short. Joe also notes that we do not provide a general theory of capitalism. This is true, though anyone interested in our broad influences here could do worse than beginning with Capital, Volume 1.

There are a number of issues we have not touched upon, but this is already a lengthy response and we trust that our readers can come to their own conclusions on these matters. To conclude, we’ll turn to a discussion of the future – in particular, the relationship between the future in general and our particular vision of a post-work future. Throughout the chapter on left modernity, we consciously and consistently reference visions of the future in the plural: “Various modernities are possible, and new visions of the future are essential for the left” (74). Elsewhere, we say that “visions of the future are therefore indispensable for elaborating a movement against capitalism” (74-5). A little later, we write that a left modernity “would be one that offered enticing and expansive visions of a better future” (83). While we use the plural in this chapter, we later set out post-work as one option: “We have outlined one possible project, in the form of a post-work politics” (175). The second half of the book is a case for this particular vision – we “argue for the desirability of a future without work” (85) – and our confident tone comes from believing in it. But we recognise that this is not the only possible vision and thus we insist upon “the necessity of [non-European and other] voices in building truly planetary and universal futures” (78). We also situate ourselves in a broader debate and believe that “any meaningful vision of the future will set out proposals and goals, and this [book] is a contribution to that potential discussion” (107). We have, in some instances, given more rhetorical strength to the case for our post-work vision, but this should be tempered with our continual recognition that “any particular image of modernity must be open to co-creation, and further transformation and alteration” (78). In the end, the project set out in the book is an invitation. Post-work demands “do not presume to know in advance who will be called into action by them” (161). We hope that those who are persuaded by the call for a post-work politics will build upon the project, filling in the gaps we have missed, extending the project to new areas, and seeking to build connections across struggles. No one alone can invent the future.

[1] Helen Hester has been one of the few to examine in depth the implications of automation for reproductive labour – both its limits and its possibilities. In a talk entitled Obstinate Gender, she points out the limits of many discussions of post-work: “Forms of work that are mainly (and problematically) associated with cis men are explicitly treated as labour that must be resisted, refused, and (through automation) transcended. The response to forms of work that have conventionally (and, again, problematically) been gendered as ‘feminine’, meanwhile, involves not denunciation but valorisation. In this sense, post-work societies are also pre-work societies, because they herald new forms of social organization in which reproductive labour proliferates.  “Masculinized” labour is escaped, whilst “feminized” labour multiplies – all in a fashion that (supposedly) marks the end of work.”

[2] For those counting at home, ‘surplus population’ shows up just as many times as ‘technology’ in the body of the text.

[3] For a brilliant complementary piece to this chapter, see Bue Rübner Hansen’s work here:

[4] China, for example, is expected to soon have the most industrial robots in action – more than the US or Europe (97). Equally, the sorts of technological innovations that are occurring right now are likely to disproportionately affect developing economies (98).

[5] Indeed, we note in the book that there are important ethical limits to what work might be automated, particularly with regards to reproductive and care labour. (113-4) Our own position in the book is to lay out the landscape of possible options; but we explicitly recognise we are not in the position to determine what should be done in this area. We leave it to those who are affected by pregnancy and the demands of care labour to determine for themselves (though in our own discussions with care workers, they have often seemed more open to automation than the general public). Nick is currently writing a book with Helen Hester on these topics as well, entitled After Work: What’s Left and Who Cares?

[6] We discussed this amongst ourselves for nearly a year, and considered putting in a chapter on this issue, but eventually decided that it just didn’t fit into this book. We consider the ecological question to be a key one though, and it has been central to Nick’s PhD thesis and in his work for an environmental advocacy group.

[7] As Steven notes, and as we write in the book, our use of the term comes from philosophy of mind, where ‘folk psychology’ names an intuitive set of ideas about how the world works. Steven is correct when he notes that some philosophers use the term in a derogatory way – as something to be eliminated. But he neglects to mention that these eliminativist philosophers are few. Many other philosophers hold up folk politics as the basis of knowledge, and in fact argue that science and intuition have a complex and mediated relationship. Ray Brassier, for instance, has shifted entirely away from the rejection of folk psychology, and we follow him in this. Folk psychology cannot and should not be rejected – and the same holds for folk politics.

[8] This historically constructed character is why we used the term ‘folk’ in the ‘folk psychology’ sense – as an intuitive relation to the world which is socially constructed and historically mutable.

[9] We would also like to reiterate that while nearly all the focus today is on UBI as a magic bullet to all our problems, this is fundamentally misguided. UBI is a contestable object, and we should be mobilising around it, but we should not put all of our resources and hopes into it. Post-work is a much larger demand that just this one issue.

[10] Arran James has incisively noticed the relevance of this example as well:

[11] Perhaps doubly so with Joe’s argument that we have done nothing less than rewrite the Book of Revelation.

[12] Nunes has also recently written some important thoughts on what strategy means in a complex world, which nicely complement the ideas proposed in the book:

[13] And here, we would take up Sophie and David’s point that a linear time doesn’t fit in with every cosmology – so let’s say a different world, rather than a better future.


7 thoughts on “Reinventing the Future

  1. Pingback: Technology and Capitalist Path Dependency | synthetic zero

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