Saturday, February 13, 2016

A rather long review of ‘Inventing the Future’ by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek

There’s much to like in this interesting and somewhat unusual book of left-wing political theory, and quite a bit to dislike too. It’s thoughtful, reflective, and critical, and at the same time optimistic and positive. However, it’s also deliberately written in the language of the academic philosophy department (or maybe the critical studies department), which makes it obscure and difficult in places. I’m aware that there’s a strong anti-intellectual current in British cultural life and the British Left, and that there are people who will react badly to any attempt to use specialist language to describe complex phenomena. But there are words in this book that I don’t recognise, much less understand; the dictionary on my Kindle didn’t recognise them either. ‘Hyperstitial’ must mean something, but none of the definitions I could find were at all helpful in understanding the way the authors used it. In fact, there were whole sentences and paragraphs that meant nothing to me.

I’m also OK with intellectual name-dropping, if it’s done in a way that’s sympathetic to a non-specialist reader. I think Paul Mason is really good at that, so that the non-specialist reader ends up feeling like they’ve been introduced to something new and interesting, rather than feeling stupid for never previously having heard of the person cited. Unfortunately, there was more of the latter than the former here. This is particularly unfortunate because it is in part a call for ‘organic intellectuals’ a la Gramsci, and also because it elsewhere condemns impenetrable academic language. For the most part I can’t see how the wealth of academic citations enhances the authors’ argument, though I do see how demonstrating familiarity with this burnishes their academic credentials.

This is particularly annoying because there is so much about this book that is great. I was thrilled to read the demolition of what the authors call ‘folk-politics’, by which they mean the unquestioned conventional wisdom and practices of the left. There is a really well thought through critique of the way the left prioritises direct action (stunts and marches), localism and the absence of leadership and power. It makes a lot of useful distinctions between vanguards and representation, acknowledges that transparency and clandestinity both have their places, and recognises the differences between all sorts of activities as useful tactics and elevating them to a principle. It recognises, too, the need for a division of labour, between movement and party and campaign groups and think tanks. It’s not an organisational manual, but it’s not a bad place from which to start writing one.

I also liked the emphasis on the need to confront the future of work, and the impending destruction of those ‘jobs’ that have survived globalisation and flexible labour markets by automation. I rather suspect the authors under-estimate the challenge that is involved here – I can’t help thinking about the way that attempts to introduce a shorter working week and longer holidays have not gone well in, say, France. But the argument for doing this, and the way that they raise it, is very strong. There is a strong account of why we can’t just go back to the days of good old social democracy with male breadwinners and family wages, and an argument in favour universal basic income/citizen’s income that is closely intertwined with this.

It’s positive and future-centric too, arguing that the left needs to reclaim the optimism and association with modernity that it once had, and which it has largely ceded to the ‘modernising’ right. It calls for more utopias, and more learning from utopian communal living experiments about alternative ways to organise everyday life, even though it’s not very excited about local initiatives and temporary autonomous zones – seeing them as a part of the problem of the left’s inability to countenance the need to develop power strong enough to combat that of capital. In this it must surely be right – it’s hard to avoid the way that it’s much easier to write and sell dystopian visions on the left. If we can’t even dare to dream, how can we dare to win?

The third theme – about embracing technology and its ability to re-shape what it means to be human – left me somewhat colder. Firstly, because it was the section of the book most shrouded in difficult language (synthetic freedom is something we ought to aspire to, apparently), but also because there’s just something uncomfortable about the prospect of using technology to simply escape the human condition. I know that this is confused, confusing and difficult ground. I know that there is a strand of ‘conservative’ thinking on the left, and particularly in the greener stretches of it, that privileges the ‘natural’, sometimes in a way that is a bit unthinking. But equally, I’m aware that most of the remaking of the self that has taken place to date has been under the influence of capital, and I think a certain wariness about that kind of remaking is warranted. There is quotation from Trotsky somewhere (which I admit I am unable to find) about how when we've solved the material problems of human existence we’ll be able to confront the essentially tragic dimensions of the human condition. I'm in sympathy with this; I think that a left-wing version of ‘transhumanism’ that seeks to overcome ageing and death, or do away with the process of childbirth in favour of something cleaner and less troublesome, would make us something different to humans. This isn't part of my personal political objectives, and I don’t see any reason why it should form part of the objectives of a renewed, vigorous, successful, left.

There’s lots more to say about this book. It mentions lots of ideas and concepts that deserve further exploration, and it does act as a gateway to important discussions and material elsewhere. There are some great references to the ‘cybernetic engine’ deployed in the Allende government’s planned economy, and to the participatory economy. Not many leftist texts will have a reference to the Blockchain, not even now. It ignores some work that I think it shouldn't – Polanyi’s stuff about the way that capitalism not only created ‘economic man’ in theory but also in reality is important, as is his discussion about motivation in pre-capitalist societies.

But this is definitely a worthwhile read. I just wish – hope, perhaps – that the authors will write it again in a way that makes it accessible to those to whom it ought to be addressed; the new generation of activists who may not find a place in Sociology Departments or Critical Studies courses, but will nevertheless be engaging with capitalism at the sharp end. They certainly need a new, thoughtful perspective on what they are trying to do and how they might do it better and more effectively.

No comments: