(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?

1. 

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

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Work and the Politics of Refusal

A World Beyond Work

At the heart of recent discussions on work lies an enduring tension. We can sense that modern work isn’t working anymore, but we don’t know how to let go of it. The disintegration and degradation of wage labor through technological “progress,” increasing commodification and devaluation of reproductive work, steadily rising unemployment and precarious employment, and sustained attacks on the last bastion of permanent employment (the public sector) together with our desperate attempts to resurrect a corporatist corpse that won’t return, all point to the fact that modern employment “exists less and less to provide a living, let alone a life.” Marxist outliers (Andre Gorz, Ivan Illich, Antonio Negri, Zerowork) have been announcing a crisis of work for some time now, remarking how automation both reduces necessary labor time and degrades work without, however, releasing us from the obligation to earn money for a living. Today work persists in a zombie state despite the disintegration of working class culture and organizations and a continuous process of proletarianization. These conversations have returned in full force in recent years with the publication of Kathi Weeks’ groundbreaking The Problem with Work: Marxism, Feminism, Antiwork Politics and Postwork Imaginaries and a sustained interest in these matters in the Jacobin and even mainstream media.

In these debates, however, there remains an unreconciled tension between the obligation (of any self-respecting socialist) to celebrate work as a source of collective power and personal pride and the more futuristic desire to overcome work and even our self-understanding as workers for a more multivalent understanding of life. This is effectively the tension between Marx and his son-in-law Lafargue, between laborists and anarchists, between a politics of equality and one of autonomy. Of course, there can never be a satisfying answer to this problem because the dichotomy itself is a sectarian caricature. Much more interesting would be to stick with this tension as a provocation for a politics whose form and direction has yet to be decided.

How do we, at once, celebrate the types of cooperation, organization, and identities born out of wage labor and recognize that these are inadequate and insufficient modern inventions that have run their course? How can we advance the cause of wage laborers and fight for people to one day stop functioning as workers? An impossible (and scandalous) proposition such as this is the “refusal of work,” the Italian autonomist theory/practice, which claims that workers are able to produce and sustain value independent of capitalist relations of production and centralized power.

Continue reading