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 Anglosphere, Part One: What’s in a Name?

What do you get when you intersect indices that rank top two dozen nations of the world by political freedoms, GDP per capita, productivity, literacy, and patent applications in late 2000s? The answer is you get some kind of an “Anglosphere” – usually the quartet of Australia, Canada, the UK, and the U.S., but also, depending on the underlying measures and thresholds, New Zealand, Ireland, Singapore and so on.

Using data from the World Development Indicators, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and International Labour Organisation, among others sources, I’ve played this game in my research methods classes quite a bit. No methods textbook endorses such mindless empiricism, but students, from what I can tell, tend to appreciate the loose structure of the exercise. This is because the objective – familiarizing students with comparison, measurement, scaling, and so on – almost always shifts onto the “why?” questions, at which point everyone (ok, not everyone) tries to come up with his/her social scientific narrative on what makes this or that grouping “interesting,” “different,” or “special.”

Joel Kotkin, one of America’s premier demographers, and his nine collaborators have shown me how this game can be played at an infinitely more sophisticated level. Their argument – developed primarily in a collection of the Legatum Institute papers entitled “The New World Order”, but also in two shorter pieces penned by Kotkin and Shashi Parulekar at and in City Journal – is that globalized economy by and large operates in and through three large “tribal groupings” or “spheres”: the Indosphere, the Sinosphere, and the Anglosphere [1]. As the authors note, their narrative can claim a formidable intellectual pedigree: “we have followed the great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun’s notion that ethnic and cultural ties are more important than geographic patterns or levels of economic development.”

Kotkin et al offer no shortage of interesting and novel observations and analytical points, but one of the project’s key punchlines is in the title of the Anglosphere section in the New World Order: “We are not dead yet.” The project’s foil, in other words, is the current wave of American declinism:

The era of unipolar domination by the United States and its key allies — which dates from the fall of the Soviet Union — has come to an end. Yet despite this, the core Anglosphere remains by far the largest cohesive economic bloc in the world. Overall it accounts for more than 18 trillion dollars, one quarter of the world’s GDP, far more than any other cohesive global grouping.

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