Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work
16 min read

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work

In Customs in Common E.P. Thompson interprets the 18th century as an age of transition.The old world of feudal paternalism was beginning to polarize to the extremes of the mob and the ruling elite, whilst within this matrix a middle class began develop who would go on to challenge the logic of the established order of the 18th century with an altogether different logic, the logic of the market.  Thus in his essay "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century"  he describes the emergent conflict over the grain trade between the proponents of the market economy and the proponents of the moral economy. For Thompson whilst within modern economics the triumph of the market economy has appeared inevitable and necessary, it was in reality a conflict of cultures which didn't necessarily tend towards the triumph of the market. Yet once the moral economy had been defeated the working poor had to adjust to the emergence of a new world and thus develop new methods of politics to confront such a reality which culminated in the emergence of working class institutions, trade unions and workers parties.

In a certain sense a similar narrative can be discerned in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams's diagnosis of our contemporary political predicament. Today they argue we are in an age of transition, with regards not only to the transition between the Fordist and post-Fordist world but also with regards the relationship between technology and the economy, whereby differing logics are competing for control of the global economy left politics is today caught in this period of transition and thus has to become adequate to its new opponents if it is to avoid fighting ghosts and turning political action into ritual.

They begin with a critique of  what they term the "folk politics" of the left, and cover familiar ground, horizontalism is critiqued, the weaknesses of localism exposed, the reliance upon age old methods of occupation, rally, protest and direct action declared as nostalgic and perhaps most importantly the feel good and affective aim of most activism (the requirement to do something, anything! aslong as its action) is compared unfavouably with the strategic and measured politics of modernity. Yet their focus in the end is on the problem of transition and the way in which the transition from the Fordist welfare state to the age of neoliberalism and digital technology has on the one hand pulled from under the feet of the left the effectivity of their methods and on the other established new rules of the game to which the left has to adapt. For Srnicek and Williams the worst element of this folk politics, its regression into a fetishization of action, presence, doing something and enjoyment is a direct reaction to the increasing failure of the politics of the left which, seeing no hope in traditional organisational politics, reduces itself to instantaneous and localized forms of resistance.

Yet Srnicek and Williams in response to this don't simply establish an opposition between knowledge and ignorance, oppression and freedom in which it is the lefts inability to comprehend or understand how they are dominated which stymies their ability to resist. Rather as they note contemporary capitalism is subjected to a million individual mutinies, yet insofar as they are individual they place an emphasis on the affective, the bodily and the emotional forms of politics  which in the end prove capable of leading towards individualized forms of protest, a tendency towards moralism or as Franco Berardi points out the reactive turn of individuals against themselves. These are in the end they argue "survival mechanisms" through which individuals repond to the pressures of contemporary capitalism when what is required are more developed means to oppose it. This isn't then a return to the theory of ideology but an important tactical distinction between local and immediate forms of power, and their operation within an overall system of domination.

What Srnicek and Williams then describe is a familiar but nevertheless enigmatic political problem, that resistance to the contemporary order is on going all of the time but more often than not takes a limited form and fails to challenge the contemporary order as such. For Srnicek and Williams this is expressed more than anything by the co-optation of anti-capitalist struggles into reformist movements seeking merely better and more ethical capitalists, fairer rules to the game or local fixes to global problems, from saving a local hospital to increasing local government spending. Here they argue whilst  such acts display an antagonistic relationship with immediate forms of exploitation they leave untouched the more fundamental and systemic aspects of exploitation which are harder to pin down. Such a narrative is prefaced by E.P. Thompsons analysis of the class politics of the 18th century. For Thompson the 18th century was a period in which labour became increasingly assertive and unruly and began to break the old relations of bondage which had held it in the power of a Master, the heirarchical guild system etc. whilst the gentry began to move away from the direct daily management of the poor to their courts and manor houses. Yet nevertheless Thompson argued that a certain "cultural hegemony" was maintained in the face of a growing disorder which took the form of a respect for the basic institutions of government and the state and a deference to the higher order. He finds such an example in Defoe's

Justice: Come in Edmund I have talk'd with your master

Edmund: Not my Master, and't please your worship, I hop I am my own master

Justice: Well your Employer Mr E - , the clothier; will the word Employer do?

Edmund: Yes, yes, and't please your Worship, anything but Master

And goes on to assert the following,

The deference which he refuses to his employer overflows in the calculated obsequiousness to "your Worship" . He wishes to struggle free from the immediate, daily, humiliations of dependency. But the larger outlines of power, station in life, political authority, appear to be as inevitable and irreversible as the earth and the sky.

Parallels can certainly be drawn today. As Srnicek and Williams point out growing unemployment has led to increasing problems of both labour and social discipline. More and more individuals are thrown out of the system to be housed in the slums, banlieues and sink estates to form a reserve army of labour who are increasingly subjected to the direct supervision of the police and the military often with whom they are in direct conflict without bringing themselves into conflict with the system as such. In this way we find that once again the exclusion of populations can coincide with a resistance against local forms of power without bringing organised pressure to bear on the system as such, and in certain circumstances directly appealing to its goodwill to resolve their immediate grievances. Here we find in operation Thompsons "cultural hegemony" as the way in which in giving up its direct contact with individuals the system nevertheless remains legitimate as such. In the end then as Thompson notes the problem of resistance has to take into account the problem of resistance to such cultural hegemony itself which has to understand not only local and immediate struggles over power, but also the operation of overall systems of domination. For Thompson this was undertaken by the development of working class consciousness in the early 19th century, yet how are we to think of such an agent today?

For Srnicek and Williams the first step in overcoming the contemporary form of folk politics is to reclaim the future, which means for them to reclaim the space of modernity. The turn within folk politics towards horizontalism and localism is, they argue, a fetishism for immediacy for they rely no longer upon a concept of politics as process but believe only in immediate responses to concrete problems, in immanent decision making or changing what is possible around you. What is needed they argue is a notion of politics as construction capable of developing local struggles into a more general antagonism, and thus opposing the contemporary capitalist system with a fundamentally different form of organisation. To Srnicek and Williams this must imply a return to modernity.

For the last few decades we have increasingly taken modernity to be process which happened to us, which we were subjected to and which, as it goes, processes of rationalization, commodification and normalization led to the total domination of man. In its most extreme form this discourse sees modernity as culminating in the gas-chambers and the Totalitarian states of the 20th century, in other forms however it sees in modernity the domination of the commodity society, the development of "one-dimensional man", the subordination of man to technology and so forth. Post-Modernity which is to say the victory of horizonalism and particularity over transcendence and universalism appears as a liberation from this infernal trajectory which it is argues leads only to domination.

Srnicek and Williams however turn to another tradition which takes modernity not as a singular narrative which was imposed upon us but as a contested field which contains within it a series competing tendencies. This of course recalls Foucault's return to the concept of modernity in which he argued that the process of Enlightenment could take two forms, either the discovery of limits to what we can know, do or hope or the act of limit crossing which can unearth new potentialities. The first of these tends towards the perfection of reason and the end of history, the second tends towards a proliferation of creativity which defines any constituted order and which enables the becoming-other of humanity. It is this power then to contest and create a future, to create an other space, that Srnicek and Williams recall when they talk of a contemporary return to modernity which made political struggle not subordinate to the reign of reason but rather central to the constitution of society in the name of democracy.

A Post-Work Society

Fundamental then to the argument of "Inventing the Future" is the belief that what is required more than anything today is another idea of social organisation capable of imagining a different form of social organisation outside of the confines of capital. For Srnicek and Williams this is to occur through the positing of a post-work society as a different logic which competes on the same ground as capitalism but offers radically different solutions. The post-work society has four major pillars:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic

For Srnicek and Williams contemporary capitalism is currently at an impasse for whilst it has moved beyond its Fordist dependence upon full employment, full time permanent employees, the nuclear family and the welfare state it nevertheless continues to rely upon the individuals ethic of hard work. This ethic is increasingly demanded in an environment of high unemployment,  mechanization of labour, job insecurity, and flexible and non-permanent work arrangements which has increasingly exposed it to a series of contradictions.

What is forgotten today is the ways in which the Fordist organisation of society was fundamental to the reproduction of this work ethic, thus the nuclear family operated as a means to inculcate certain approaches to work which would then be re-enforced in the disciplinary school systems, the solidarity between labourers, and the collective organisation of labour and their negotiation with capital could provide labour with a certain interest in productivity whilst the loyalty towards companies in which individuals had jobs for life ensured an acceptance of labour discipline and hard work. Such a work ethic wasn't of course resisted uncritically, and was of course the object of a whole series of struggles, from the slacking off of workers on the production line to demands for autogestion and workers self-management. Yet at times of heightened struggle it was possible to see labour argue from the opposing perspective. Thus during the British Miners Strike of the 1980s the reaction of the miners to the initial threats of the Conservative government to close the mines was to accept the higher productivity targets and the new labour conditions and when the pits were finally earmarked for closure their response was to oppose the hard working miners who had been willing to sacrifice to keep the collieries open, with the mismanagement of the directors of the mines and the government who had ensured they remained unprofitable.

Today the ultimate hope of business and government is that the sacrifice of labour can be maintained outside of this costly apparatus which was required to produce it. Yet in reality this has led to is far more coercive attempts to reap productivity out of labour. Thus as workers increasingly find, technology serves as a means to rigidly monitor and enforce labour discipline in a system in which only targets and measurements matter. The unemployed on the other hand are increasingly exposed to regimes of sanctions in order to coerce them into being active job seekers, whilst the inhabitants of the slums, projects, estates and banlieus that surround major urban centres are increasingly living under the constant surveillance of armed police whose aim is merely prevent the outbreak of mass disorder.

Within this scenario in which the ideal of hard work remains hegemonic the changes advocated by Srnicek and Williams seem unable to offer a different mode of social organisation. Thus contemporary automization of labour hasn't served to liberate labour from the demands of capital but has complimented the continued domination of labour. Thus within many contemporary production processes automization occurs where there are immediate benefits in terms of cost and productivity, but a cheap and large supply of easily disciplinable labour ensures that many of the menial tasks of what David Graeber calls "bullshit jobs" continue to be filled by human labour. In the same way the struggles to limit the working week have been able to coincide with the continuing domination of labour by capital. Thus in France where the 35-hour working week was passed by the centre-left government the main aims were to produce a reduction in unemployment and an increase in leisure time. Yet what in fact happened was that rather than take on more workers to replace the lost working hours, employers merely increased the per hour production quotas to intensify the required labour. Equally as is shown by many European welfare states today a concept like a basic income is in no way inherently anti-capitalist. Rather the functioning of many welfare systems and particularly many in-work welfare systems in the last decades has slowly allowed for the burden of wages to be passed from big business to the state, who increasingly subsidises a series of low paid low quality jobs, and through systems such as workfare provides free tax payer subsidised labour often with inbuilt disciplinary mechanisms subjecting labour to the whims of capital even further.

Key then to effect a systemic change is a focus on Srnicek and Williams final demand, a diminishment in the work ethic. What all of the above have in common is a dependence on the ideal of work and yet if you take this necessity away these forms of organising labour quickly fall apart. If you begin from the perspective of producing the cheapest means for capital to operate then certainly it will be necessary to force labour into meaningless jobs top squeeze out every element of productivity possible, but if you begin from the wish to minimize the amount of necessary labour worked then new solutions are required. Rather than rely on labour for menial tasks, automization becomes tasked with eliminating as far as possible the need for human input, the reduction in the working week becomes tasked not just in a reduction in work but in its absolute minimization, whilst the minimum basic income becomes tasked not with supporting those who fall out of work but enabling an existence for all outside of work.

The movement is here simple. If the nature of contemporary capitalism relies on the contradiction between the simultaneous destruction of Fordism and the attempt to maintain its domination of labour without the social costs of doing so then what we should do today isn't to resolve this contradiction by placing work back within a totalising system of meaning byincreasing the power of labour and ensuring a return to full employment, the security of the welfare state and labour rights, but rather take this contemporary contradiction to its logical conclusion. To complete the historical destruction of Fordism through a refusal to fetishise its remannts, the individualised jobs, the work ethic and the life time of labour by challenging the need for work as such.

Towards Left Populism

To achieve this Srnicek and Williams argue that what is required is to revolutionise the perspective of those who are currently thrown outside of the system. For if at the moment they are engaged within a constant competition to move into the inside of global capitalism their exclusion equally for the basis for collective wish to undermine the system as it stands. Srnicek and Williams here give the examples of the masses of unemployed increasingly confined to slums, estates and projects. Whilst they remain attached to the Fordist ideal they exist in a permanent state of competition and are subjected a permanent need to make themselves available to and amenable to the marketplace Yet once they realise that the system is stacked against them and that they are unable en masse to attain the future promised to them, then the very reason for this permanent state of competition is lost, and the appeal of another form of social organsation is implanted. Similarly, Unions currently continue to fight for labour security but they may soon realise that they have to work with those excluded from the labour market to realise security outside of work, that is to say to move from attempting to resolve the contradiction between capital and labour to destroying this relationship as such. For Srnicek and Williams then what the Left needs to focus upon is the mass mobilisation of those groups currently excluded from the benefits of global capitalism to turn their exclusion into the positive basis on which capitalism can be excluded from a future society.

To build such a mass movement they turn to Ernesto Laclau's theorization of left populism as a way through which the interests of various groups can be mobilized coherently together within an anti-capitalist narrative. They wish to found under the concept of the People a coalition of groups who realise a collective identity in anti-capitalist terms, against a collective enemy, with a coherence and power capable of overcoming the hegemony of contemporary capitalism. It might however at this juncture be worth noting the difference between the work and the post-work society. The work society functions on the basis of a fundamental compulsion that all must work in order to finance their life styles, and that all must work to grow and develop the societies they live in. Its enemy is therefore the refusal to work and the refusal to productively contribute both to the society one forms a part of and to ones own life. The post-work society on the other hand isn't based on any such compulsion but is rather the negation of any such compulsion. Rather than demanding that individuals perform certain tasks or fulfil certain functions it doesn't provide individuals with a particular place or function but provides them with the power to be functionless and to play no role, to do nothing in the form of a right to be lazy and the polar opposite of the right to work. Thus whilst the work-society functions on the basis of a fundamental conditionality which enables ones entrance into its remit the post work society functions on the basis of a fundamental unconditionality in which existence is decoupled from work and guaranteed in and of itself, not in the form of a reserve army of labour but in the form of freedom. Here freedom isn't merely the freedom to be this or that but also the freedom not to be these things. Freedom is here in a certain sense a freedom from debt, because if the work-society has been premised upon the prior debt of individuals to the society of which they form a part and which it is the purpose of their existence to repay, the post-work society takes the form of a release from any such debt, and rather the provision of a certain amount of wealth without the requirement to take on a reciprocal responsibility.

Yet who in this case is the enemy capable of functioning as the basis for a politicized people? Today for large swathes of the populist left the enemy is the 1%. Yet far from functioning as the enemy of a society beyond the work ethic and the creditor-debtor relationship it is an enmity which appears stuck within traditional confines. For it is an emnity which is in the end saturated with the ideology of work. It is the 1% who profit from our work, it is they who undertake unproductive labour and then financially speculate on the productive economy, it is they who are bailed out on the basis of the collective wealth of the people, a collective wealth derived from sweat nd toil. It could of course also be argued that the critique of the 1% is based not only on an ethic of work but also an ethic of welfare which is equally capable of being mobilized in a post-work society. This critique is then begins from the fact that it is the 1% who accrue excess wealth which could be used for collective purposes, that they refuse to contribute to society in the form of taxation which leads to welfare retrenchment and that their ability to move wealth and business around the world has led to a race to the bottom in terms of welfare spending and labour rights which has entrenched social precarity and the necessity of labour. That is to say that in the end the highly individualist and unequal approach to wealth opposes the possibility of a collective and social approach to wealth which might form the basis of a post-work society.

Yet if we are to take the conception of a post-work society seriously such a critique still appears strongly within the horizon of the work-society. It argues that wealth is the collective outcome of the labour of millions of people and that rather than being appropriated by a few individuals it should be appropriated for the social good to reduce the necessity of work. Yet far from moving beyond work such a conception still makes it central to the organisation of society, it is still through labour that wealth will be produced in order to be distributed and such a society will certainly remain within the morality of work and debt and may be able then to think of the minimization of work, but not its abolition.

The post-work society as outlined by Srnicek and Williams on the other hand doesn't see labour as the source of wealth but technology (as Marx foresaw in his Fragment on Machines). The aim here isn't to redistribute the proceeds of human labour but to collectively appropriate the power of labour and use it to replace the pointless labour which today functions instead of or as an assistant to machines. Withint he confines of the post-work society then the aim isn't to perfect the relationship between labour and capital to form the basis of a community beyond class struggle but rather to liberate humanity from the neccessities of economic life allowing them to live freely outside of economic necessity.

Within the post-work society then the problem isn't the construction of something like a unifying political identity but the problem of a practice of politics which doesn't require such an identity. For if traditional notions of a post-capitalist society have relied upon the collective identity of a 'we' which stands against capital and enforced a collective sense of solidarity, the post-capitalist society as described by Srnicek and Williams proposes a form of collective action (in the form of the appropriation of the means of production) which precisely doesn't lead to a collective identity to which all individuals return, but rather forms the basis on which individuals can freely flourish.

Certainly today such a problem of identity forms the backbone of Agamben's theorization of community based on the "whatever singularity" as a community based neither on any condition of belonging (being French, being communist) nor an absence of such conditions but rather a community of belonging itself without conditions (neither of work nor contribution), whilst similarly Ranciere's denunciation of the politics of the people in favour of the politics of dissensus refuses the construction of politics on the basis of a common collective identity, but rather on the refusal of all such identities. Yet hidden here is in many ways Marx's much older definition of the proletariat as that class of "radical chains" who denied any part in civil society are done no particular wrong but a general wrong and who thus claim no historical right but a general right in the name of humanity, It is to think this idea of humanity today, not as a particular identity but as a generic right that is fundamental to the notion of a post-work society, and it is the construction of a politics on this basis that requires building to realise the abolition of work.

Yet if we can't rely upon identarian-populism to construct such a society then the task that Srnicek and Williams don't think is the need to think new forms of solidarity and political organisation which precisely can't rely upon the morality of debt and work but have to oppose to it an altogether different logic such that maybe one day we will look back at the logic of work inherent to post-Fordist capitalism in the same way as the industrialists of the 19th century looked back upon the moral economy of the 18th, with a sense of looking back to a completely alien world.