(Why We Can’t) Let the Machines Do It: A Response to Inventing the Future

The fourth post in our (already pretty popular) forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, this time from Sophie Lewis and David M. Bell. Sophie is at the University of Manchester, writing up a PhD on surrogacy’s uneven ‘cyborg’ geography and thinking about its utopian potential. She has written about surrogates for JacobinThe New Inquiry, and The Occupied Times; currently, excerpts are included in the 2015 “Technotopia” symposium. She also writes with the Out of the Woods (anticapitalist ecology) collective. She has co-translated Bini Adamczak’s Communism For Kids and written things that appear in Mute, Open Democracy, the ‘Demanding the Future’ tumblr, and on Novara WireDavid M. Bell is a Research Associate on the ‘Imagine’ project in the Department of Geography, University of Sheffield. He is interested in the potentials and dangers of utopia(nism) within, against and beyond capital, the state and itself. He has written on the politics of musical improvisation, utopian fiction and participatory arts practice; and is currently working on two book projects: Rethinking Utopia: Place, Power, Affect, to be published by Routledge in 2016; and A Future History of Sheffield: Art Practice, Hope and the City, with Jessica Dubow and Richard Steadman-Jones.

To The Future! But Whose?

To The Future! But Whose?


Inventing the Future provides a ‘plausible programme for ‘a world free of work’. It ‘shows us how we can organise’ to ‘realise a postcapitalist world’. So state its back-cover endorsements by Mark Fisher and Paul Mason. You should never judge a book by its blurb, but these claims are not to be sniffed at: here are two prominent thinkers of the UK left positioning this book as, if not a blueprint for utopia, a blueprint for utopianism – a roadmap that doesn’t quite cover the future but certainly takes us to its outskirts. The hyperbole continues away from Verso’s official promotional campaign too: Novara Media founder Aaron Bastani has publicly suggested that Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet receive copies of the book’s chapters as bedtime reading pamphlets. We are not so sure. There is much of value in Inventing the Future (hereafter ItF); and it certainly opens up space for thinking about what might be and how we might get there. But there are serious questions about who this future is for, whose labour (re)produces it, and who it will continue to exclude.

Before the reader is let in on how we can invent the future, however, they need to be disabused of various notions that are holding it back. These are grouped together under the rubric of ‘folk politics’ – a supposed ‘constellation of ideas and intuitions within the contemporary left that informs the common-sense ways of organising, acting and thinking politics’ (p. 10). Its key features are the privileging of ‘local particularisms’; the spatially and temporally ‘immediate’ (and ‘unmediated’); ‘resistance’; and the ‘natural’. The attitude that Srnicek and Williams (hereafter S&W) take to this assemblage is remarkably similar to Marx and Engels’ position on utopian socialism: it was necessary in that it locally kept alive the possibility of alternative ways of living while large-scale political change was impossible, but once the material conditions for totalizing political change (supposedly) arrive, revolutionaries should embrace them and move beyond their quaintly uninspiring New Lanarks, exchange banks and workers’ associations. The time! is! (was!) now! (then!).

Against ‘folk politics’, S&W believe that a return to universalism is necessary for the invention of the future. Whilst acknowledging the colonial history (p. 76) of the universal and rejecting ‘Eurocentricism’ (pp. 77-78), they nonetheless argue that abandoning this structure of thought entails ‘licensing all sorts of oppressions as simply the inevitable consequence of plural cultural forms.’ (p. 77) This seems odd given that so many Indigenous and pre-colonial practices, identities, sexualities and cosmologies with liberatory potential have been destroyed in the name of universalism; and whilst these are acknowledged with the claim that there are non-European forms of ‘reason’, ‘science’, ‘progress’ and ‘freedom’ (p. 77), we are not convinced that these decidedly European terms are the most suitable labels for them. (What does ‘progress’ mean for cultures whose temporalities are nonlinear, for example?). We are more heartened, however, by the call for a universalism that is ‘pluri-versal’ and ‘does not entail homogeneity…does not necessarily involve converting diverse things into the same kind of thing’ (here, S&W refer to capitalism’s ability to sustain and draw power from diverse forms of social organization); and which ‘must recognise the agency of those outside Europe…in building truly planetary and universal futures.’ (p. 78) Continue reading

Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

The third post, and second guest, in the Disorder’s forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Joseph Kay writes on climate change and libertarian communism with the collaborative blog Out of the Woods.

Having drafted the following comment on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ (henceforth S&W) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, it reads more critically than I expected. In mitigation, I should say that I’m on-board with many of the key themes of the book. I am wholly sympathetic to anti-work politics, generally in favour of automating away toil (with qualifications which will become apparent), and agree that the replacement of global capitalism requires scalability, comfort with complexity, long-term strategy, utopian imagination, and a plurality of organisational forms and infrastructure.

The critical tenor of what follows arises less from disagreement as such, than from my focus on what appear to be the ecological silences in the text. In particular, I focus on the implied conception of nature imported through S&W’s adoption of an avowedly modern rhetoric of progress and control, and on the unmentioned premises of both the project of full automation, and their more general contention that “we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path” (p.177). My argument is not to reject a high-tech, low-work future, but to outline some of the problems to be addressed in rendering such a ‘hyperstitional’ image ecological.

Modernity and the Ideology of Nature

Early on in Inventing the Future, S&W summarise their thesis:

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

Read in an ecological light, the conjunction of ‘think and control’ affords two readings. The first and obvious reading is that their argument is situated within what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature. Smith argued that the ideology of nature had two poles. The first, a modernising politico-theological argument which saw scientific progress as the means to conquer and subdue nature. Here, the imaginary is mechanical, and separation from – as dominion over – nature is understood as an emancipatory process.

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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

The Corbyn Effect

Moderate Militant-Free Labour Conservative Poster

In the last days, the Labour mainstream has not so much fallen as fully leapt into a fit of apoplexy. The cause an opinion poll – by no means solid, by no means a guarantee of future stock value – placing Jeremy Corbyn as the likely winner of the party’s leadership contest. Labour MPs, some now publicly flagellating themselves, nominated Corbyn for a ‘balanced debate’, but apparently couldn’t countenance that it might actually lead anyone to, you know, debate. Corbyn’s moment of popularity is thus sketched as, among other things, “the emotional spasm…an apocalyptic tendency”. John McTernan – a prime mover in the utter implosion of Labour in Scotland – was invited to hold forth on national TV as an oracle nevertheless, where he showed off his great talent in persuasion by calling Labour supporters “morons”. John Rentoul, that other great passé hack, thought recognising the left-wing appeal of the SNP as a factor in Labour’s defeat was like believing in space lizard conspiracy theories.

There was an equal portion of patronising bullshit to go with the name-calling. “Do some research” before you dare to a preference, chided Anne Perkins. Don’t be a “petulant child”, admonished Chuka Umunna. Sunny Hundal came at logic with customary cack-handedness, transforming the clear articulation of principles into a pathology. These are some of the same people who bemoan the detachment of politicians from real people, the decline in party membership, and so on, only to rise up as vengeful furies when a candidate dares to stir energies. All down to an unsavoury populism, natch. This, says Helen Lewis, is ‘purity leftism’, nothing like the necessary compromises of opposition, where you have to be bold enough to endorse 2% defence spending (something “the public” indeed likes, although hardly top of their polled priorities). Blair, of course, can only relate in the terms of triangulation, regurgitating the 1990s whilst pretending to the terrain of the future.

It doesn’t matter that Corbyn’s record is one of democratic socialism (remember that?). It doesn’t matter that there are trends in his favour. It doesn’t matter that his economic policies are comparatively bold and redistributive. It doesn’t even matter that many of Corbyn’s policies are popular. One line of Blair’s intervention was widely cited: “I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform”. Few completed the quote: “…even if it was the route to victory“. This is not political argument, nor even Machiavellian electoral planning, but the tantrum-jitters of the self-appointed aristocracy. Having passed out lectures on loyalty and collective responsibility on Monday during the second reading of the Welfare Bill, the dauphins were by Thursday pre-declaring a coup should Corbyn win and practically spitting on their own activists besides. They saw no contradiction. Labour’s experts advocate not political communication but political manipulation, impersonating the enemy to take their place in our collective consciousness.

And so it will go on if any of the appeasement candidates win. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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Solidarity and Resilience: A Forum

Between 19-21 September 2014, resident blogger Wanda and King’s College partner-in-crime, Nicholas Michelsen, organised a workshop with the theme of Solidarity & Resilience at King’s College, London. Before the special issue hits the stands, we have gathered for our readership a small forum of contributions to sample some of the hot topics discussed over that weekend. The organisers would also like to use this opportunity to thank all those who participated in the event. It was really a tremendous gathering that shattered many old ideas and made possible new ones!

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 13.34.02

As most good things happen, the “Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity” workshop was born over post-conference drinks. A few of us were musing over the proliferation of the term resilience at the 2013 EISA in Warsaw, when someone chimed in the concept’s obvious rival, solidarity. Had we forgotten about this term? Perhaps even declared it dead? The level of excitement grew and we just knew we had to organize an event about this strange pair. Exactly one year later, we met again at King’s College in London, with much appreciated support from the Open University and Westminster University, to unpack the hidden genealogies of these two concepts and muse over their possible associations/combinations.

We hosted panels approaching the matter from the perspective of political theory, conflict studies, governmentality and social movements. In almost every case, resilience appeared to be more malleable (sometimes infinitely malleable perhaps to its detriment and our suspiciousness), befitting contemporary challenges, and just plain… resilient. Solidarity, on the other hand, required complex theorizing, lacked a practical anchoring, was at times entirely absent from some panels, and made a strong comeback only on the closing roundtable thanks to the benevolence of some Marxists speakers.

Certainly, we would not want to do something as simplistic and rash as to declare a winner. Practices of solidarity would certainly benefit from a dose of resilience, and investments in resilience would certainly be a lot richer if they drew upon the latent democratic culture and transformative impetus of solidarity. But it was hard at the end of the two-day event to not feel like we had found ourselves on the threshold between two worlds. There is a great force pushing against the spirit of Enlightenment thinking, with its “enthusiasm for revolution” and its half technocratic, half romantic belief in human-led progress and perfectibility. That force is variously known as complex systems analysis, new materialism, flat ontology or the Anthropocene, all of which describe a connectivity-volatility-fragility nexus for which resilience emerges as the proper mode of action.

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