The political left has long been oriented toward the future. This is clear in its revolutionary ethos: the utopia of the revolutionary is, after all, always just around the corner. But in orienting itself toward the future, the left has not always been actively futurist in its outlook. Many leftists are uncomfortable with technology and science, viewing them as insidious and malign capitalistic projects. As a result, their utopian dreams often end up looking to a mythic historical Golden Age for inspiration.
This is why Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s recent book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work caught my eye. It is resolutely leftist in its political grounding, but also thoroughly futurist in outlook. Srnicek and Williams argue that their fellow travelers should not fear technology; rather, they should embrace it. In particular, they argue that the labour movement should embrace automation and technological unemployment. They are emancipatory forces, freeing us from the drudgery and degradation of work.
In this post, I want to explore and critically analyse two of the ideas in Srnicek and Williams’s book. First, I want to address a claim they make about the current crisis of work and the growth of surplus populations in capitalist societies. Second, I want to look at four demands that they think ought to organise and motivate those interested in bringing about the end of work. I do so in the spirit of constructive critical engagement. Although I share the authors’ interests in the postwork society, I do not share all aspects of their anti-capitalist outlook. Part of my desire here is to understand their perspective, and see how much of it accords with my own (underdeveloped and unsystematic) political views.
1. The Growth of Surplus Populations
I’ll start by examining an important concept in Marxism, that of the surplus population. As hinted, Srnicek and Williams have a way of looking at the world that I find difficult to get behind. They, like many Marxists, have a tendency to describe capitalism as an all-powerful, quasi-agential, and essentially malicious force that acts in the world; whereas I tend to view it as a relatively vague property, that can be ascribed to certain sets of human relations, and has good and bad elements. Furthermore, in identifying capitalism as this unique and powerful force, they have a tendency to subscribe to certain foundational myths about how capitalism came into being and how things were before it did. Consider the following passage from their book:
While work is common to every society, under capitalism it takes on historically unique qualities. In pre-capitalist societies, work was necessary, but people had shared access to land, subsistence farming and the necessary means of survival. Peasants were poor but self-sufficient, and survival was not dependent on working for someone else. Capitalism changed all this.
(Srnicek and Williams, 87)
This strikes me as being an ahistorical fiction. Part of the problem is that the authors don’t clearly delineate what they mean by a capitalist or pre-capitalist society, but I assume they mean to draw a line between the hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies that dominated the world before the industrial revolution of the 1700s. If so, then I think they are being generous to the merits of agrarian societies. Ian Morris’s recent book Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels does a good job laying out the evidence we have regarding life in pre-capitalist societies (the broader thesis of Morris’s book is more uncertain, but it certainly fits within the historical materialist mode of analysis preferred by Marxists). It suggests that peasants in pre-capitalist societies were far from the egalitarian, self-sufficient freemen that Srnicek and Williams seem to suggest.
Despite my problems with the way in which Srnicek and Williams frame some of their argument, I think there is something important in what they have to say about the relationship between capitalism and unemployment:
…unemployment as we understand it today was an invention of capitalism. Having been torn away from their means of subsistence, for the first time in history a new ‘surplus population’ emerges that is unable to find wages work.
(Srnicek and Williams, 87)
What they point to in this passage is an interesting consequence of the capitalist mode of production. Capitalism is hugely impressive in its productive capacities. No one would deny this. If we compare the diversity of goods and services available to the average person today with what was available to even the richest of people 200 years ago, there is little doubt about the productive marvel of capitalism. But in this productivity, capitalism has a tendency to create and sustain surplus populations. That is: groups of people that are either permanently or occasionally unnecessary for that productivity.
Understanding this tendency to create surplus populations is crucial to understanding what Srnicek and Williams call the current ‘crisis’ of work, and the need to imagine a postwork world. There are three reasons for this:
1. The surplus population is on the rise: Fewer and fewer people (percentage-wise) are needed to keep the wheels of capitalism turning. At one point, Srnicek and Williams cite studies suggesting that the global number of unemployed outweighs the number of employed. This is tricky to estimate, but even if it is not true, there is evidence suggesting that surplus populations are on this rise. There has been an increase in the ‘natural’ rate of unemployment in developed economies, from around 1 to 2 percent in the 1950s and 60s, to about 5.5 percent today (in the US - higher again in Europe); there has been a decline in the labour force participation rate; a drop in the number of jobs being created worldwide; a significant rise in income inequality; a rise in the number of precarious forms of employment; and a series of innovations in the casualisation of labour (e.g. zero hour contracts). Each of these trends points toward an increasing surplus population.
2. Technology is, at least partly, responsible for this rise: This is something I have looked at ad nauseum on the blog before, but suffice to say Srnicek and Williams endorse the view that, at a minimum, technology is displacing many middle-skill jobs and leading to a significant polarisation in the labour market. The result is a few ‘superstars’ that benefit from the productive gains of technology, and a larger underclass of low-skill labour that find themselves in more precarious forms of work. Also, there is evidence of rapid de-industrialisation in some developing nations (such as China). In other words, these countries are seeing large numbers of manufacturing jobs disappear very soon after embracing full industrialisation. This also hints at the role of technology in the creation of surplus populations.
3. Surplus populations have important social repercussions: This point is obvious. If you have a large number of people not engaged with the machinery of capitalism, and if the entire economy and culture is organised around that machinery, you have a potential recipe for disaster. The surplus population becomes increasingly disenfranchised and ends up being ‘managed’ in often inhumane ways. Srnicek and Williams point to the rise of slums, mass incarceration, and immigration controls as just some examples of this.
These three things — the rise of the surplus population; the role of technology in their creation; and the important social repercussions they can have — should give us some pause for thought. In particular, it should encourage us to rethink our attitude toward work and the work ethic.
2. Four Demands for the Post-Work Future
The work ethic is woven into the fabric of contemporary culture. Most of us grow up with the view that work is both virtuous and necessary. Paid employment is dignifying: it motivates us, allows us to provide for our families, and to generate a sense of self and pride. Indeed, this fondness for the work ethic is something that even the labour movement seems to have imbibed. For them, the problem is not so much the existence of work, but rather the conditions of employment. “Good jobs for all” is their rallying cry.
But how sustainable is this fondness for the work ethic? If Srnicek and Williams’s claims about the rise of surplus populations are accurate, then the answer would seem to be ‘not very’. If technological advances mean that fewer people are needed for high rates of economic productivity, then we need to start imagining a post-work world. This could be desirable for a number of reasons. Although there may be people who are deeply engaged and satisfied by what they do, there is reason to believe that they are in the minority. A Gallup poll in 2013, cited by Srnicek and Williams, found that only 13% of people worldwide were actually ‘engaged’ by what they did. Consequently, the authors think that creating a post-work world should be a major project for the political left, and that this project should be organised around four key demands:
Demand 1: Full Automation - We should not fear technology; we should embrace it. Improvements in automating technologies can free people from the drudgery and indignity of work. Furthermore, technological displacement is already happening (to at least some extent). This demand simply encourages us to push it as far as possible. That said, Srnicek and Williams accept that there may be limitations to how far we can go. Some of these might be technical, some economic. But one of the chief ones is likely to be the moral value we attach to work via the work ethic. This is something we should aim to dissolve.
Demand 2: Shorten the Working Week - This used to be one of the central aims of the labour movement, before it dropped out in the mid-20th century. Srnicek and Williams lament this, noting how the work-life balance has eroded over time. Nowadays, with 24/7 markets and communications technologies, we are constantly at the beck-and-call of work. To resist this, the demand for a shorter working week needs to resurface. Srnicek and Williams favour a demand for a three-day weekend. They do so for four reasons: (1) it will allow for increased leisure time; (2) it is necessary in an era of increasing automation; (3) it will benefit the environment (reductions in energy consumptions etc.) and (4) it can enhance the bargaining power of the working class. The last of these is defended on the grounds that a coordinated withdrawal of labour supply strengthens the bargaining position of the workers vis-a-vis the capitalists (this is the standard rationale behind strikes).
Demand 3: Universal Basic Income - This will be familiar to readers of this blog. The UBI is an income grant that is given to all citizens/persons within a particular political state irrespective of their willingness/ability to work. The UBI is a popular welfare reform strategy among both left and right. But one thing Srnicek and Williams insist upon in their demand is a uniquely leftist version of the proposal. To them, conservative arguments for the UBI are all about maintaining consumer demand in an era of increasing inequality and automation. This is not truly revolutionary in nature. They believe the case for the UBI should be grounded in an attempt to overthrow the political regime of capitalism, strengthen the hand of labour, rethink the value of work and challenge the gendered division of labour. To this end, they insist upon a UBI that is sufficient to live on, truly universal and supplementary to other forms of welfare.
Demand 4: Devalue the Work Ethic - The final demand brings us back to what I said about the work ethic at the start of this section. Srnicek and Williams think we are far too much in thrall to the ennobling power of work. Work has become the primary avenue for self-realisation. This needs to change. As they put it, ‘work, and the suffering that accompanies it, should not be glorified’ (2015, 125). This necessitates a change in our culture and willingness to articulate a vision for a postwork world.
These four demands work together as an integrated whole. While they could be taken individually, Srnicek and Williams think it would be best if they were pursued side-by-side.
3. Concluding Thoughts
As I said at the outset, there is much here with which I sympathise. I too think it is important to take seriously the implications of technology for the economy and society. And I think the concept of surplus populations is a useful framing device for thinking about these concerns. I also agree with most of their proposed demands. That said, I have two quick concerns.
First, I am concerned that their four demands are not as coherent and consistent as they seem to think. In particular, I worry about the consistency of the demand for full automation with strengthening the hand of the labour movement. If it is true (or highly likely) that automating technologies can take over most forms of productive labour, then surely this weakens the bargaining power of the labour movement? The reason why strikes strengthen bargaining power is because you need workers to perform certain roles. When train drivers go on strike in London, everyone notices and starts to complain. They need the human workers to run the train system. This mounts pressure on employers to reach some settlement with the workers (provided the public doesn’t also turn against the workers). In a world of ‘full’ automation, I fail to see how this will continue to be the case. It seems to me like the demand for full automation must go hand in hand with recognition of the depleting power of the labour movement as a whole. This might be a naive and obvious point, but I don’t see it discussed anywhere in Srnicek and Williams’s book.
Second, as with many political tracts of this sort, I find Srnicek and Williams are better at rallying the troops and presenting a political platform for change than they are at mapping out the shape and form of the post-work society. In other words, they are good at describing the journey we ought to take, but not the destination we should reach. To them, demanding a postwork society is part of the emancipatory project of the left. I can see this being true, and I have written about the relationship between work and freedom in the past. But emancipation to do what exactly? We get some hints in their final chapter. The result will not be an ‘end of history’, they say. Society will continue to evolve, but it will be a society in which people are free to conduct more experiments in living:
The synthetic construction of freedom is the means by which human powers are to be developed. This freedom finds many different modes of expression, including economic and political ones, experiments with sexuality and reproductive structures, and the creation of new desires, expanded aesthetic capabilities, new forms of thought and reasoning, and ultimately entirely new modes of being human. The expansion of desires, of needs, of lifestyles, of communities, of ways of being, of capacities — are all invoked by the project of universal emancipation. This is a project of opening up the future…
(Srnicek and Williams, 180-81 - references omitted)
While some of this sounds interesting — and echoes the desires of the transhumanist movement — it still seems maddeningly vague to me. I think those who are truly interested in imagining a postwork world would be well-advised to think more systematically about what it takes to live a full and meaningful life, and to assess whether that will be possible when people lack the economic motivation to work. I am intuitively optimistic in this regard, but the details remain clouded.