Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams

Upon advice from Nikos S., I read Inventing the Future, Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by two British academics in their late 30’s, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. It is a very important book for anyone who needs a reason to sensibly hope that values of tolerance, reason and empathy will rise again once the episode of hate we are undergoing is over.1

In this essay, I will briefly summarize the book and address some of its shortcomings, then turn to why it’s important for you to read it. The second part of the essay assesses how the book can be useful to address the current political situation in Europe and why is might not go far enough.

Don’t read this paragraph, buy the book

Inventing the Future makes a very simple argument. People in any society think and act within the frame of thought forced upon them by a hegemony. The hegemony represents the bounds of what people can comprehend, what they can think and what they consider to be good, bad and normal.2 The current hegemony, the authors write, is neoliberalism. It forces upon us the idea that humans are rational beings who can contract with one another freely, that growth and work are inherently good and that the market economy is the natural and best way of organizing relationships between humans.

The neoliberal hegemony gained control over Europe only in the 1980’s, when the social democratic hegemony, which emphasized the role of the state in caring for the economy as well as for the private lives of its citizens, lost its appeal. The core ideas of social democracy required a high rate of economic growth to function. Key components of the social democratic hegemony, such as full employment, lifelong careers and integration through shared institutions (be it unions, the media or the school system), crumbled in the 1970’s as digitization, long-term unemployment and automation took over. As social democracy failed, governments hastily switched to neoliberalism.

The reason governments switched to neoliberalism, the authors argue, is because neoliberal pioneers had laid out the groundwork for this change forty years earlier. When social democracy failed, a comprehensive toolbox was available, ready for governments to use. In chapter 3, the authors describe in broad terms how Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig Von Mieses, among others, created think tanks to spread neoliberal ideas as soon as 1947. They encouraged academics and journalists to espouse neoliberal ideas and slowly infuse them among their students and readers. This, the authors say, is how you effectively build a hegemony.

The obvious conclusion from such an analysis is that one fights a hegemony only with another hegemony. Fighting neoliberalism with small-scale demonstrations, eating organic products or taking your bike to work will not work. As the authors write in the epigraph of chapter 2, “Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”. Chapters 1 and 2 are probably the most interesting, as they criticize localism, horizontalism and other small-scale activisms for their lack of effectiveness. They convincingly argue that “folk politics”, a type of political action focused on immediate results and small scale, while not useless in itself, will never beat neoliberalism in any meaningful way.

In what the authors see as their most important chapter,3 they describe how neoliberalism is not working, before turning to what a vision of the future beyond neoliberalism could be like (chapter 6). They argue that full automation, combined with universal basic income, would succeed in dramatically changing the foundations of our societies and allow for the emancipation of men and women from the oppression of work, patriarchy and racism. What makes their vision convincing is that it claims to be both a utopia and a realistic set of propositions (they write that we could start by a 3-day week-end, for instance). This is what a hegemony is all about: changing the way we look at things and the way we reason about them, before going into the intricacies of policy.

The book ends with two chapters on how the post-work movement could be built and how it could become the new hegemony. It involves more than folk politics, the authors write, and would require setting up think-tanks, co-opting political parties and unions and thinking more about what the post-work society would be so that its core principles become the new political common sense.

Don’t let these shortcomings deter you

The book is not great. It’s not a page-turner, it uses jargon (“hyperstition” - whatever that means - seems to be an important concept for its authors) and the notes section is badly done (some notes are just references to news articles while others are half-a-page-long developments on a core idea).

More importantly, the authors cling to their Marxist framework throughout the book, which might repel some people who are not used to these terms (me, for instance). Karl Marx is mentioned twice as much as the next person (Margareth Thatcher) and the concepts of “class” and “surplus population” appear in almost every chapter. It is all the more problematic as none of these Marxist concepts is necessary for their argumentation.

That rich people want others to be poor and numerous is not a Marxist discovery. In 18th-century Sweden, for instance, nobles used mercantilist concepts to encourage the growth of the number of paupers. They knew that more poor people would mean lower wages and a more disciplined workforce.4 One could as well use liberal concepts to show the inanity of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism assumes that human beings can make use all available information to make rational decisions. If the information is not adequate (because it is not understood properly, for instance) or if a person cannot think ahead for more than a few days (because he works two jobs, has no social security and debts payments eating up most of his income, for instance), the whole neoliberal framework crumbles.

Another problem, which, this time, impacts their argument, is that the authors never address population ageing. The hypothesis that the rise of conservatism and neoliberalism may be due, at least in part, to the increase in the number of old people relative to the general population would have needed to be addressed, if only to be discarded. One could convincingly argue that as we age, we tend to become more conservative. Instead, the authors ignore the issue, to a point where it becomes laughable. Page 92, for instance, they attribute the increase of the non-employed population to the failure of neoliberalism, forgetting that older people tend to work less.5

The authors write that workers need to be perpetually employable because of neoliberalism (page 99). While the term “employable” clearly comes from neoliberal jargon, the reason many in the population see work and life as a long competition has also to do with a lack of confidence in the institutions that are supposed to be our safety net. People under 40 take it for granted that they will not have a decent retirement, for instance. Of course, neoliberal policies are to blame for the mess our retirement systems are in. But they cannot be held responsible for the dependency ratio, which shows that for 100 persons of working age today in Europe, there are 30 persons too young or too old to work.6 The figure doubled since the 1960’s and will increase in the future.7

Seeing neoliberalism as the root of all evil is the largest shortcoming of the book because it gives neoliberalism credit where none is due. The proximate cause for the lack of solidarity and the high level of individualism of many in the population might be neoliberalism, but one of the root causes is population ageing.

Why this book is important

During the 2016 American presidential campaign, many saw the election as a choice between Trump and more of the policies that made Trump’s ascent irresistible. They were right. More neoliberalism is bound to make life more miserable for the vast majority of voters, who will naturally choose the candidate who promises to end it. You might feel desperate at the idea that whatever your choices, the Trumps of your country will win.

Inventing the Future is great because it explains why you might feel this way. In less than 200 pages, it convincingly shows how values ebb and flows within our societies and what are the levers that can influence which ideas become political common sense. It provides a simple message that could become the basis for a new hegemony: full automation and universal basic income for a post-work society.

Importantly, the book makes clear that these ideas must be presented as a package, part of a vision for a world where work ceases to be a burden. Otherwise, they risk being adopted in part and fail to have any meaningful impact on our lives. Automation, for instance, is readily implemented when it allows for an increase in profit, with little regard for the benefits it brings to human beings. Similarly, a basic income, in itself, could be a subsidy for businesses (because they could reduce wages). Only a utopian vision for a post-work society can bring meaningful change.

The book is throughout a reference to the Communist Manifesto. Like the Manifesto, Inventing the Future was written by two young male intellectuals. Marx and Engels were 30 and 28, respectively, when they wrote the Manifesto. Srnicek and Williams were just a few years older when they wrote Inventing the Future. Like the Manifesto, Inventing the Future starts by explaining the historical context that led to the situation the authors want to change, before turning to the possible remedies. Like the Manifesto, it is short and does not aim at providing all answers, but rather to give a common platform to people who want to change things. The Manifesto said “Workers of the World, Unite!” while Inventing the Future says “Demand Full Automation, Demand Universal Basic Income, Demand the Future”.

As the authors undoubtedly knew, the Manifesto was written at the beginning of a social movement that failed dramatically. In 1848, when the Manifesto was published, revolutions erupted everywhere in Europe and were everywhere violently crushed by reactionary forces. Inventing the Future comes after the failed Occupy Wall Street movement (which prompted the authors to write the book). Although it had little impact at the time, the Manifesto slowly spread until it became required reading for any socialist. In the end, it can be credited for giving a common foundation to the socialist movements everywhere in the world. Inventing the Future is important because it could play the same role decades from now.

That Inventing the Future knows the same fate as the Manifesto depends largely on the justness of its diagnosis. I believe that there is a risk that Srnicek and Williams are coming too late and that they are not actually targeting the right hegemony.

Addressing the failure of environmentalism

In Inventing the Future, Srnicek and Williams go to great length to explain how the neoliberal hegemony became dominant. They never explain why a competing set of value - environmentalism - did not become hegemonic instead of neoliberalism.

Environmentalism has a long history, which begins with modernity itself several centuries ago.8 However, it started to carry political weight in the 1970’s, as the first environmentalist movements gained traction. Environmentalism followed the path described by Srnicek and Williams to become a hegemony. It combined elements of “folk politics” and direct actions, with groups such as Greenpeace (founded in 1970) and Earth First (founded in 1979). It had think-tanks and intellectuals who thought hard about policies and the philosophy of environmentalism. It had political parties that came to power and ruled (in coalitions) in some countries, the largest of which were France and, above all, Germany.

Half a century after environmentalism started to enter the public sphere as a political issue, one can only conclude that it failed. What’s a ban on plastic bags when the Earth has warmed by over a degree Celsius? What good are regulations on the amount of CO2 a car can emit if the goal is still to put as many cars on the road as possible? It could be said that environmentalism suffered from internal divisions, but that would miss the concept of hegemony. “Folk political” environment activists such as Dave Foreman, the founder of Earth First, knew that they would not single-handedly save the planet. Instead, they saw their radical actions as a means to stretch the bounds of what entered the public discourse so that moderates could harden their stance while remaining moderates.9 Neoliberals acted in much the same way, some making outrageous claims (such as Milton Friedman’s insistence that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits”10) so that others would look moderate.

The reason environmentalism failed is that it let itself be melted away in the dominant hegemony. As environmental movements made progress in the public discourse, establishing the protection of nature as common sense, its core ideas were adapted to fit the neoliberal framework.11

Protection of the environment was turned into an issue that could be solved using market mechanisms. Neoliberal thinkers, consciously or not, framed the goals of environmentalism in neoliberal terms. Consumer choice, for instance, was hailed as a solution. If consumers cared about the environment, they would buy products that protected the environment. The value (“utility” in neoliberal parlance) they put in protecting the earth could be calculated from the premium they paid when buying environment-friendly goods. Such an approach is compatible with the neoliberal emphasis on nominal freedom because people who do not care about the environment can still buy goods that do not respect it. If enough consumers do care: Earth saved! If not, earth is destroyed because humans used their free will to decide so.

Such thinking is flawed in so many ways that discussing them here would be too long. It is, however, a short version of the rationale behind the idea of carbon offsetting, organic farming (as an environment issue - as opposed to a taste issue), subsidies for renewable energy etc. In a neoliberal setting, protecting the environment is a personal choice and politicians must nudge people into becoming more eco-conscious. The outcome of such a policy is minimal change in pollution levels and a heightened sense of guilt from people who are told that they can reduce pollution even if they can’t in any meaningful way.

Instead of fighting such reasoning, many environmentalists espoused it as a victory. The behavior of the Greens in the governments of Gerhard Schröder in Germany from 1998 to 2005 is a case in point. While pushing for nominally environment-friendly legislation, they contributed to the deepening of neoliberal policies that, on balance, probably did more harm than good.12

Basic environmentalist ideas, such as the fact that the protection of the environment is a good thing, have made their way into the platform of all political parties and have become political common sense. That the groups that come to power now (chiefly Trump, but he is not alone) do not adhere to this political common sense is one of the signs pointing to the rise of a new hegemony.

Enter the neofeudal hegemony?

Starting at about the same time as the environmentalists, a new kind of reactionary ideology emerged. The reaction to the Enlightenment is as old as the Enlightenment itself, but, as with environmentalism, new developments occurred in the early 1980’s. In many countries, groups promoting xenophobic, racist, socially conservative and protectionist values gained momentum and popular support.

Like environmentalists and neoliberals, their development took many forms. Intellectuals, first and foremost Samuel Huntington, provided a respectable foundation for their values.13 Political parties built popular support and “folk political” groups (neonazis, in this case) pushed the boundaries of radicalism to stretch the limits of acceptable public discourse. Unlike neoliberals and environmentalists, this movement did not make use of much think-tanks and did not have deep contacts with journalists.

Instead, they used an opposite tactic. They insisted on anti-intellectualism as one of their core values, denigrating intellectual effort. More widely, they opposed the institutions of social democracy (public schools, hospitals, universities, the media). As trust in these institutions plunged (because neoliberal policies cut their funding and, therefore, their ability to carry out their mission), the claims of nationalist and xenophobic groups became much more in line with the reality experienced by large parts of the population. All the while, Huntingtonian ideas penetrated students and academics, providing an intellectual foundation for these movements. I am in no way implying that a conspiracy linked Le Pen and Huntington. Rather, their efforts complemented themselves, maybe unconsciously so.

The large following racist and xenophobic groups have gathered and their high degree of activity ensured that their claims entered political common sense even when they did not directly take power. The response of European states to the men and women who ask for asylum is a good example of this phenomenon. In the 1980’s, people fleeing oppression (Soviet dissidents) or war (Vietnamese refugees, for instance) were greeted as heroes. Still in the 1990’s, inhabitants of Southern Italy took pride in welcoming men and women fleeing Iraq.14 Starting in the 2000’s and continuing in the 2010’s, it became normal to mock, turn back and denigrate people fleeing wars.15 The shift from solidarity and openness towards hate is the result of years of hammering of xenophobic and racist remarks in the media and elsewhere.

Parallel to this shift in moral values, neoliberal policies achieved to undermine the rule of law. In their quest to manage all human interactions around market principles, neoliberals created markets for norms and rules. It is quite common, for instance, that a contract stipulates which court or arbitration committee will have jurisdiction over the matter in case of a dispute. Such behavior create competition between jurisdictions, thereby ensuring that the jurisdictions that cater best to the interests of the party that have most leverage in writing the contract prevails. In other words, competition in the market for jurisdictions destroys the independence of lawmakers and judges and the concept of a fair justice. As the legal framework for social interactions collapses, humans turn to personal relationships to organize. Stronger persons or organizations offer protection to weaker ones in exchange for loyalty. This is the essence of feudalism.16

It might be that the new, feudal organization of the economy fits perfectly with the reactionary set of moral values xenophobes and racists pushed in the past three decades. There is no commonly accepted name for this set of ideas: I believe that neofeudalism could be a good successor to neoliberalism.

Inventing the Future mentions the rise of racism and xenophobia, but it does not consider it the main enemy. The book is built upon the assumption that neoliberalism will not be toppled. This is false. As the failure of environmentalism showed, the biggest risk of a prospective hegemony is to be gobbled up by a competing one and to appear as having been adopted, even if its goals are not attained. While post-work is not compatible with the neoliberalism of the 2000’s, it could fit well in a neofeudal hegemony. Srnicek and Williams mention this risk in passing, but I believe that addressing it is of utmost importance if one is to propose a road map for the next fifty years to people who believe in the emancipation of humans. In this sense, post-work does not go far enough. We need to adapt the post-work platform in a way that makes it totally incompatible with neofeudalism.

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Notes

1. I wrote briefly about the current political meltdown in Confronting Authoritarianism and The Road to Authoritarianism and about the moral one in Waiting for a New Humanism.

2. Nothing new under the sun here - the concept of cultural hegemony was created by Antonio Gramsci in the 1920’s.

3. They write as much in the afterword of the second edition.

4. In Swedish Population Thought in the Eighteenth Century

5. In An Ageing World 2015, a publication by the United States Census Bureau, we can see that, while employment rates among the elderly are rising, they are still less than half those of the younger population. As long as the number of people over 65 who do not work increases more than the number of people over 65 who do work, all things being equal, the total number of people employed in the population will decrease.

6. Data from the World Bank which, despite all its problems, has the right orders of magnitude.

7. Of course, such thinking, which considers work to be central to life, is borne of the neoliberal and social democratic hegemonies. My point is not that a post-work future is not possible because there are too many dependents, but that some of the behavior that the authors attribute to neoliberalism are actually due to population ageing.

8. Conservationism, environmentalism, ecologism and other -isms can be defined in many different ways. I am using ‘environmentalism’ here as a shortcut to describe a set of values that prioritize the preservation of a livable habitat for human beings over other pursuits.

9. In the first chapter of Defending the Earth, a book of discussions between Dave Foreman and Murray Bookchin published in 1989.

10. The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits by Milton Friedman, 1970.

11. It was clear to some. In Defending the Earth, cited above, Murray Bookchin clear-sightedly says that environmentalism will become a ‘safety valve of the established order’ if it does not become revolutionary.

12. Analyzing the outcome of the Rot-Grün coalition would take too long. Suffice to remark that it adhered to ideals of more production and more consumption of the social democratic and liberal hegemonies.

13. The clash of civilizations is a revival of a theory first popularized by Adolph Hitler, whereby ‘civilizations’ (Hitler used ‘races’), to which people belong by virtue of birth, are engaged in an eternal fight. The detailed theory is as stupid as it sounds. You can read the original article by Huntington if you need to check for yourself that its intellectual value is nil.

14. A 1998 issue of the Fortress Europe Circular Letter, a round-up of news clippings, mentions ‘extraordinary support’ from Italians in welcoming Kurds from Iraq.

15. If you think that it has to do with any refugee crisis, think again. The number of people fleeing wars to Europe in the 2010’s is lower, relative to the population and wealth of EU countries, to the number of people fleeing wars to the EU in the 1990’s.

16. I tried to sum up in a paragraph the extraordinary book by Alain Supiot, La Gouvernance par les Nombres (English translation to be published in September 2017), where he explains how the legal tradition arrived to neoliberalism and how it brought about a new form of feudalism. He is not, by far, the only one talking about vassalage. Bruce Schneir, a security consultant and popular writer, says that the relationship between an online service and its users is one of vassality. Read his 2012 piece: When it comes to security, we’re back to feudalism.


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