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.

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Inventing the Future

The opening post in our latest forum, on Nick and Alex Williams’ new book, Inventing the Future. Commentaries will follow over the week, and Nick and Alex will respond soon thereafter with a rejoinder to points raised. All will eventually be available under this tag url.

Inventing the Future Cover - square

Today kicks off a symposium on our new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. On a surface level, it is a book analysing post-work, the global crisis of surplus populations, and the challenges of rebuilding the contemporary left. Yet it is also a book designed to intervene in the current political conjuncture. It is written to produce discussions, rather than close them down; to spark debate, rather than dictate; and hopefully to persuade people of the utility of its prescriptions. As such, this blog event is the perfect avenue to inaugurate what we hope will be a series of productive engagements. Rather than simply summarising the book here, it is perhaps more useful if we briefly outline some of the debates we sought to contribute to.

The first such debate is the question concerning the dismal state of the left. While some find elements of hope in the contemporary left, for most it has been a series of marginal successes at best, and outright defeats at worst. In the book we attempt to offer a new explanation for why this is the case. Without rejecting the contributing factors of objective changes in the organisation of capitalism, and subjective changes in the self-understanding of class, we try to add a third explanation based upon a widespread common sense amongst the left. It is what we call ‘folk politics’: an intuitive set of beliefs that leads those on the left to instinctually turn towards immediacy as the solution to political problems. It finds greater and lesser expression in a series of recent movements, and while sometimes explicitly valorised, more often than not it goes on unconsciously in practices and habits. Our argument is that this folk political common sense tends to lead movements to organise and do politics in a way which constrains the possibility of escaping a global capitalism. This does not mean that folk politics should be rejected or dismissed; rather we simply try to point to its wide circulation and strategic insufficiency.

On a second level, the book seeks to generate discussion about what the future should look like. Too often, the activist and academic left only offers visions of the future in negative terms: the end of wage-labour, the end of racism, the end of sexism, the end of colonialism. These are all agreeable, of course, but ultimately remain empty signifiers. If we want a better world, we need to have some idea of where we are going. This doesn’t mean taking the opposite tack, and outlining a detailed plan for a future society (as with Parecon and New Socialism, for example). Rather it means setting out a series of broad proposals for what should be desired, what can be achieved, and how to get there. We have no illusions about the errors, biases, and limitations that our own proposals will include. We are, indeed, keenly aware of the limits of a small book written for a general audience. But the point of setting out a vision of the future and a series of demands is to lay our cards on the table for others to take up, critique, or reject. It is too easy to adopt a comfortable critical stance against the world.

Finally, discussions about the problems of the left and visions of the future must come together in debates over how to rebuild the power of the left and bring about a new future. To this end, our argument is for a counter-hegemonic strategy across an ecology of organisations, intervening in newly discovered and constructed points of leverage. While we try to give some concrete content to these broad proposals, we have also intentionally pitched these ideas at a level which allows them to be taken up in different forms across different countries and under different conditions. It is our hope that people who are convinced by our analysis and proposals will then take up these broad ideas and translate them into their own specific circumstances. We offer the book as a possibility – one among many – of what the future could look like.

-Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Post-Capitalism Will Be Post-Industrial

[Text of a short talk presented at Socialism and Deindustrialisation event put on by Spring. See Michael Roberts’ write-up of his talk here.]

“In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production.”

-Karl Marx

I want to argue today that only deindustrialisation can lead us beyond capitalism, or in other words, that post-capitalism will necessarily be post-industrial. [1] This means that rather than bemoan the loss of manufacturing jobs, or struggle to lure them back, deindustrialisation should instead be applauded as an important and irreversible achievement. Historically speaking, it is akin to the move away from agriculture-based economies. Just as the mechanisation of agriculture freed people from reliance on working the land, the deindustrialisation process has the potential to free people from the drudgery of most productive work. Yet an immediate consequence of claiming that deindustrialisation is necessary for post-capitalism means we must reimagine what the transition between economies might be like.

The traditional story of moving beyond capitalism is fairly straightforward. To be sure, this story has been complicated and critiqued throughout the 20th century, yet its general framework still underpins a number of assumptions about how to transcend capitalism. In broad strokes, the story begins with a shift away from agriculture-based economy which had been built around a large peasantry. In its place emerges rapid industrialisation – exemplified by the textile, steel, and eventually automobile industries in the 19th and 20th centuries. The social effects of this industrialisation were particularly important for understanding how post-capitalism was supposed to come about. Industrialisation involved a move from rural populations to increasing urban populations, along with a transformation of the peasantry into the proletariat, involving primitive accumulation and the dispossession of common land. The result of this was a new urban working class who had only their labour power to sell. But this transition also led to the development of a strong working class. Factories meant that workers were increasingly centralised in the workplace – they worked together, creating social connections and community. Moreover, the tendencies of capitalism were supposed to increasingly homogenise the working class. The result of all this was that the working class came to share the same material interests – things like better working conditions, higher wages, and shorter working weeks. In other words, with industrialisation there was the material basis for a strong working class identity. (It’s worth noting here, that despite this material basis, the industrial working class was always a minority of the working population. Even at the height of manufacturing in the most industrialised countries, employment in manufacturing only involved about 40% of the population.[2]) On the basis of their political strength though, the working class was supposed to become the vanguard of the population, leading us away from capitalism and towards something better. With the growing power of the working class, and the socialisation of production, it was thought that workers could simply take over the means of production and run them democratically and for the greater good.

Of course, this didn’t happen, and the best example we have of this proposal was the miserable Soviet experience. What occurred in that experiment was a glorification of productivity at the expense of freedom. Just as in capitalist societies, work was the ultimate imperative, and it was no surprise to see Taylorism, Fordism, and other productivity-enhancing techniques being forced upon the workers of the USSR. In the capitalist countries, by contrast, the industrial sectors declined and the basis for a strong working class has been systematically attacked. Yet if we look at developing countries, the traditional story finds little traction as well. Even developing countries are increasingly deindustrialised. This can be seen in two broad facts: first, newly industrialising economies are not industrialising to the same degree as past economies (measured in terms of manufacturing employment as percentage of population). Rather than 30-40% employment, the numbers are closer to 15-20%. Secondly, these economies are also reaching the point of deindustrialisation at a quicker pace. Measured in terms of per capita income levels, these economies reach their peak industrialisation at a much earlier point than previous countries did.[3] This is the so-called problem of “premature deindustrialisation”. The conclusion to draw from the experience of the 20th century is that the promise of the traditional narrative – the industrial working class leading a revolution to democratic control over the means of production – has not been fulfilled and seems to now be obsolete. We no longer live in an industrial world, and classic images of the transition to socialism need to be updated.


So what is the alternative? Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Cognitive Assemblages


What follows is the text of my presentation for a roundtable discussion on the use of assemblage thinking for International Relations at ISA in early April.

In this short presentation I want to try and demonstrate some of the qualities assemblage thinking brings with it, and I’ll attempt to do so by showing how it can develop the notion of epistemic communities. First, and most importantly, what I will call ‘cognitive assemblages’ builds on epistemic communities by emphasising the material means to produce, record, and distribute knowledge. I’ll focus on this aspect and try to show what this means for understanding knowledge production in world politics. From there, since this is a roundtable, I’ll try and raise some open questions that I think assemblage thinking highlights about the nature of agency. Third and finally, I want to raise another open question about how to develop assemblage theory and ask whether it remains parasitic on other discourses.

Throughout this, I’ll follow recent work on the concept and take ‘epistemic communities’ to mean more than simply a group of scientists.[1] Instead the term invokes any group that seeks to construct and transmit knowledge, and to influence politics (though not necessarily policy) via their expertise in knowledge. The value of this move is that it recognises the necessity of constructing knowledge in all areas of international politics – this process of producing knowledge isn’t limited solely to highly technical areas, but is instead utterly ubiquitous.

1 / Materiality

Constructivism has, of course, emphasised this more general process as well, highlighting the ways in which identities, norms, interests, and knowledge are a matter of psychological ideas and social forces. In Emanuel Adler’s exemplary words, knowledge for IR “means not only information that people carry in their heads, but also, and primarily, the intersubjective background or context of expectations, dispositions, and language that gives meaning to material reality”.[2] Knowledge here is both mental, inside the head, and social, distributed via communication. The problem with this formulation of what knowledge is, is that decades of research in science and technology studies, and in cognitive science, have shown this to be an impartial view of the nature of knowledge. Instead, knowledge is comprised of a heterogeneous set of materials, only a small portion of which are in fact identifiably ‘social’ or ‘in our heads’. It’s precisely this heterogeneity – and more specifically, the materiality of knowledge – that assemblage thinking focuses our attention on.

Knowledge is inseparable from measuring instruments, from data collection tools, from computer models and physical models, from archives, from databases and from all the material means we use to communicate research findings. In a rather persuasive article, Bruno Latour argues that what separates pre-scientific minds from scientific minds isn’t anything to do with a change inside of our heads.[3] There was no sudden advance in brainpower that made 17th century humans more scientific than 15th century humans, and as philosophy of science has shown, there’s no clear scientific method that we simply started to follow. Instead, Latour argues the shift was in the production and circulation of various new technologies which enabled our rather limited cognitive abilities to become more regimented and to see at a glance a much wider array of facts and theories. The printing press is the most obvious example here, but also the production of rationalised geometrical perspectives and new means of circulating knowledge – all of this contributed to the processes of standardisation, comparison, and categorisation that are essential to the scientific project. Therefore, what changed between the pre-scientific to the scientific was the materiality of knowledge, not our minds. And it’s assemblage thinking which focuses our attention on this aspect, emphasising that any social formation is always a collection of material and immaterial elements.

In this sense, questions about the divide between the material and the ideational can be recognised as false problems. The ideational is always material, and the constructivist is also a materialist.

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Navigating Neoliberalism: Political Aesthetics in an Age of Crisis

For those who are interested, here’s a copy of the talk I gave last weekend on the technological sublime, machine perception, and cybernetic economies. Held in the beautiful Treignac area at The Matter of Contradiction: Ungrounding the Object event, it was a lot of fun and filled with some fascinating discussions. Many thanks to the Treignac Projet for inviting me and organizing the event. Check out more of their work here.

Materialism and World Politics conference

Materialism and World Politics

20-22 October, 2012
LSE, London, UK

Registration is now open here for anyone who wants to attend.

Scheduled Speakers:

Keynote: The ontology of global politics
William Connolly (Johns Hopkins University)

Opening Panel: What does materialism mean for world politics today?
John Protevi (Louisiana State University)
More TBC

Closing Panel: Agency and structure in a complex world
Colin Wight (University of Sydney)
Erika Cudworth (University of East London)
Stephen Hobden (University of East London)
Diana Coole (Birkbeck, University of London)

ANT/STS Workshop keynote:
Andrew Barry (University of Oxford)

ANT/STS Workshop roundtable:
Iver Neumann (LSE)
Mats Fridlund (University of Gothenburg)
Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, University of London)
More TBC


The annual conference for volume 41 of Millennium: Journal of International Studies will take place on 20-22 October, 2012 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This includes 2 days of panels and keynotes on the weekend, and a special Monday workshop on actor-network theory (ANT), science and technology studies (STS), and alternative methodologies. Space for the latter is limited though, so let Millennium know of your interest in attending it as soon as possible.

The theme of this year’s conference is on the topic of materialism in world politics. In contrast to the dominant discourses of neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism, the materialist position asks critical questions about rational actors, agency in a physical world, the role of affect in decision-making, the biopolitical shaping of bodies, the perils and promises of material technology, the resurgence of historical materialism, and the looming environmental catastrophe. A large number of critical writers in International Relations have been discussing these topics for some time, yet the common materialist basis to them has gone unacknowledged. The purpose of this conference will be to solidify this important shift and to push its critical edges further. Against the disembodied understanding of International Relations put forth by mainstream theories, this conference will recognize the significance of material factors for world politics.

The Irruption of the Event

As the inevitable Greek exit from the eurozone seemingly approaches, it’s worth comparing current statements about Greece to how the financial press and regulators considered Lehman Brothers the week before its collapse set the global markets into panic mode. (See below for a selection of illuminating comments from officials about Lehman Brothers pre-collapse and about Greece pre-exit.) Reading these misplaced predictions, one thing becomes clear: the contemporary financial system is far too complex and opaque for anyone to determine the precise consequences of a Greek exit. Add into that the unpredictable nature of crisis politics (e.g. today sees rumors of Greek governing coalitions flying all over the place), and one has a system that quickly surpasses our capacities for forecasting. In this regard it’s interesting to read reports about the current Greek exit fears versus the reports in February when it also looked like Greece might leave (prior to the second of ECB’s long-term refinancing operations (LTROs) that managed to calm markets for a short while). In the earlier reports many commentators considered that French and German banks had largely separated themselves from Greek exposure, while the initial LTRO had purportedly given the financial system the flexibility it needed to survive any temporary disruption. Intriguingly, today’s fears about Greece, after the failure of the LTROs to significantly improve the situation and combined with fears over Spain’s banking system, are much more apocalyptic than in February.

The unfortunate truth is that while a Greek exit will be devastating to the Greek people (of this everyone is confident), it is still a better option than the continued austerity regime. Even the most optimistic IMF estimates of Greece’s economy under the austerity regime only see them returning to 120% debt-to-GDP ratio by 2020 – i.e. the same level that so worries commentators about Italy today. What is being asked of Greece is a state of permanent austerity and permanent social chaos. 

Milos Bicanski/Getty Images

September 9, 2008 –

Unlike Bear Stearns, which effectively collapsed when customers fled for the exits and the firm could not finance itself, Lehman Brothers has more sources of long-term financing and like other broker-dealers, access to emergency financing from the Federal Reserve. Mr. Fuld said that the existence of that lending facility should take any question of Lehman facing a liquidity crisis “off the table.

September 12, 2008 –

While the crisis at Bear stunned the markets, other financial institutions have had six months to prepare for the possible failure of Lehman. In the Bear crisis, the risks were extreme in part because they were unknown and unmanaged. The New York Fed has conducted extensive stress tests in order to attempt to evaluate the impact of a Lehman failure on markets such as the CDS market and it believes the systemic risk is quantifiable and lower than the risk that was posed by the imminent collapse of Bear back in March. Regulators have also evaluated the risk mitigation strategies put in place by other banks and the authorities believe them to be robust. That suggests the risk that a Lehman collapse could trigger a domino effect of failures at other financial institutions ought not to be great.

September 14, 2008 –

Mr Paulson believes that the systemic risks associated with the potential failure of Lehman have been reduced because the market has had time to prepare for its possible demise, and a new Fed funding facility would assist an orderly unwinding of its positions.

February 15, 2012 –

All the while, the chatter in euro policy circles, as I wrote on Monday, is that the Greek rot will not infect the rest of the euro area. A default could be managed. Even the odd French bank has managed to dispose of much of its exposure. We’ve had months to prepare. And, so the Lehman moment comes full circle. Three and a half years ago we were told exactly the same by Hank Paulson and co re Lehmans: The system, we were told, was strong enough. Finns, Dutch and some Germans increasingly think the same about a Greek default.