Technological utopias: the nuts and bolts

The “utopian potentials” of 21st century technology are imprisoned by a “parochial capitalist imagination” and must be liberated by “an ambitious left alternative”, write Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future: postcapitalism and a world without work (Verso, 2015). We need an “an alternative vision” of a high-tech postcapitalist society, they argue (p. 3).

This review responds to some points raised by Inventing the Future, with a view to developing such a vision.

Srnicek and Williams were motivated to write the book partly by frustration with what they call “folk politics” in the “Occupy” movement of the 2010s – meaning tendencies to “reduce politics to an ethical and individual struggle”, to “make it local”, and to “imagine that we simply need ‘good capitalists’ or a ‘responsible’ capitalism” (p. 15). I agree with some points they make about those movements, although I think they underestimate their heterogeneity – people had many, many different ideas.

But this review focuses on Srnicek and Williams’s proposals for a vision of post-capitalist society, which are organised around four demands (p. 127): “1. Full automation. 2. The reduction of the working week. 3. The provision of a basic income. 4. The diminishment of the work ethic.”

“Full automation” and post-work utopia

“Our first demand is for a fully automated economy”, write Srnicek and Williams. “Using the latest technological developments, such an economy would aim to liberate humanity from the drudgery of work while simultaneously producing increasing amounts of wealth” (p. 109).

Fair enough. Liberating humanity from the “drudgery of work” has always been a central aim of socialism. Post-work imaginaries were central to the 1871 Paris commune. Karl Marx, having thought over the lessons of the Commune, envisaged the abolition of the “enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour” in a future communist society.[1] Paul Lafargue, the French socialist, railed against the “disastrous dogma” of work in his pamphlet The Right to be Lazy, written in prison in 1883. William Morris published his popular post-work utopia News from Nowhere in 1890.

But here we are, more than a century later, and a post-work society seems little closer. Is it the lack of “full automation” that is the problem? Srnicek and Williams imply that it is.

“Without full automation”, they write, “postcapitalist futures must necessarily choose between abundance at the expense of freedom […] or freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias” (p. 109).

I do not agree. Obviously it is impossible to define the exact level of technological development needed to enable people to live meaningful lives, to reduce the length of the working day, and to look forward to superceding work (i.e. alienated labour, carried out under someone else’s control in order to receive money) all together. But, for sure, humanity achieved that level of technological development a long time ago.

Going right back to the oldest types of human social organisation, before the widespread introduction of settled agriculture 8-10,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers worked very hard for intense periods, and had long periods of rest in between. The anthropologist Marshall Sahlins pointed out in Stone Age Economics (1974) that male hunters in these societies probably worked three to four hours a day on average, and that they and their families enjoyed an “unparalleled material plenty – with a low standard of living”.

Obviously, there were many things about pre-neolithic life that most of us would not want to replicate: intermittent food supply and vulnerability to food shortages and starvation; helplessness in the face of disease or natural disaster; make your own list. And Sahlins acknowledges all this. But what his work shows is that the length of the working day is determined first by the social relations between people, i.e. how they live together, and organise to get what they need from their natural surroundings. The level of technology is a secondary factor.

And there are many other examples. Patterns of intensive work, followed by long periods of rest, were for centuries common for peasants living under various – exploitative and harsh but not capitalist – types of social relations.

It was only with the development of capitalism that large chunks of the population were brought into urban settings, where they had to work for wages to survive. This process also involved leaps of

Demonstrating for "no jobs", London 2015

Demonstrating for “no jobs”, London 2015

technology: the 18th-century industrial revolution brought manufacturing techniques that enabled people to be fed and clothed in many respects as they are today; and the second industrial revolution of the late 19th century brought electricity, motor and air transport, and the first generation of automated manufacture. Nineteenth-century leaps forward in medicine relieved much of the physical suffering all previous generations had been used to.

Demonstrating for jobs, London 2012

Demonstrating for jobs, London 2012

A hundred and more years ago, socialists who witnessed these changes were convinced that the productive forces had in rich countries already developed to the point at which they could support the transition to a new society. I think they were right. (See article on socialists and electricity here.) What prevented such a transition was capitalism’s frightful and impressive ability – even as it went through its own deep-going crises, such as the two world wars – to find and hone new methods of social control.

And another thing (about the Soviet Union)

Here’s that sentence again, which I found unconvincing. I’ve put back into it a few words in brackets that I left out before for the sake of clarity:

Without full automation, postcapitalist futures must necessarily choose between abundance at the expense of freedom (echoing the work-centricity of Soviet Russia) or freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias.

I am not nit-picking, but it’s nonsense to say that the Soviet Union was a regime of “abundance at the expense of freedom”. Just ask anyone who used to live in it. It was a regime of shortage – in particular, shortage for urban workers by comparison to their counterparts in rich capitalist countries.

Even in the USSR’s last three decades (1960s, 70s and 80s) when the bureaucrats who ran the Soviet Union sought to provide the population with some consumer goods, life was characterised by long queues for basics such as bread, and the total absence of “luxuries” that many workers in western Europe took for granted (e.g. fresh fruit, or sanitary towels).

On the other hand, industrialisation – accomplished under Stalin with terrifying brutality and harsh labour discipline of which any capitalist regime would have been proud – laid the basis for a post-war society that largely overcame the starvation, and lack of basic health care and education, which characterised most capitalist countries outside the rich world.

It would be silly to try to sum up what happened under Stalin in a sentence or paragraph. But it was not “abundance at the expense of freedom”. At least one side of it was an attempt to overcome the economic backwardness of the 19th century Russian empire, relative to European states, by forced industrialisation (and collectivisation of agriculture) on the backs of working people both urban and rural, and at the expense of their freedom.

As for “freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias”, I just don’t see why any post-capitalist society would be confronted with that prospect.

There are countries outside the rich world (Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, etc) where attempts have been made to break free, in limited ways, not from capitalism but simply from neo-liberal hegemony. This has led to isolation, imposed by the international political alliance of rich countries – and to desperate hardship and shortages, such as those currently being suffered in Venezuela.

But this is a political and economic issue, not a technological one. People in Caracas are short of consumer goods not because they are lacking technology (although they may be), but because their country’s previous relationship with world capitalism – selling oil at high prices and using the proceeds to buy stuff, to simplify it – has been disrupted by falling oil prices.

Yes, a socialist vision for the future should embrace the positive sides of 21st-century technology. But it’s not the lack of “full automation” that is stopping us from moving past capitalism. I think it is the political and social hegemony of capitalism that those late 19th and early-20th century socialists optimistically underestimated.

Automation, full and part

What is “full automation”, anyway? How will we know when it will be achieved? Will it be like living in Iain M. Banks’s “The Culture” novels?

Srnicek and Williams say “a variety of policies” that can bring about full automation include “more state investment, higher minimum wages and research devoted to technologies that replace rather than augment workers” (p. 112).

Really? Of course workers’ movements strive to push up minimum wages as high as possible. As for state investment, which social democratic politicians have always believed in, it depends on what the investment is for. If it goes to “technologies that replace rather than augment workers”, and these are handed to capitalist corporations, the winners are their shareholders who have avoided investing funds in research.

To my mind the important thing is not to make automation “full”, but to find ways of taking collective control of technological progress and automation.

Technology under capitalism: a double-edged sword

In a section on “Repurposing Technology”, Srnicek and Williams underline that “without a simultanous shift in the hegemonic ideas of society, new technologies will continue to be developed along capitalist lines, and old technologies will remain beholden to capitalist values” (p. 153). But nowhere do they assess what that technologies “beholden to capitalist values” look like. Nor do they assess the mountains of radical critique of existing and developing technologies.

To take an obvious example – the internet. “Cryptocurrencies and their block-chain technology could bring forth a new money of the commons, divorced from capitalist forms”, they claim (p. 182). Well maybe. But it seems, in the wake of Bitcoin’s recent crisis, that the cryptocurrencies could also get incorporated into the international banking system … which is meanwhile appropriating other cutting-edge technology (e.g. high frequency trading) to perfect new forms of financial accumulation, to be paid for by ordinary people’s suffering.

“Social media – divorced from its drive to monetisation and tendency towards narcissism – could also foster economic democracy by bringing about a new public”, write Srnicek and Williams. Yes, maybe so … but (i) accomplishing that divorce is a matter of social transformation, and that is the real problem; and (ii) there are indications staring us in the face of all sorts of negatives, arising from corporate control of social media. Facebook’s ban on one of the 20th century’s iconic war photographs is just a recent and obvious example of these corporations’ frightful ability to distort and misinform; the battle over control of personal data is being waged by all sorts of techies and academics against these corporations, but I don’t think they are winning yet.

Global warming highlights the shakiness of Srnicek and Williams’s argument. The prospect of a dreadful rupture in humans’ relationship with nature has been summoned up by a range of technologies (fossil fuels, and things moved by them or made with them). These technologies, like newer ones, may have positive potential, but, because of the relations of power and wealth within which they are used, they are starting to wreak damage on humanity – damage that could grow to terrifying proportions later this century. In Inventing the Future, Srnicek and Williams say almost nothing on this issue.

There are struggles going on now over all types of technologies, from GM crops to nuclear power, which

The photo Facebook banned: On 8 June 1972, crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack. From left, the children are Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim's cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Photo Nick Ut/AP. (http://www.ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2012/AP-napalm-girl-photo-from-Vietnam-War-turns-40)

The photo Facebook banned: On 8 June 1972, crying children, including 9-year-old Kim Phuc, centre, run down Route 1 near Trang Bang, Vietnam after an aerial napalm attack. From left, the children are Phan Thanh Tam, younger brother of Kim Phuc, who lost an eye, Phan Thanh Phouc, youngest brother of Kim Phuc, Kim Phuc, and Kim’s cousins Ho Van Bon, and Ho Thi Ting. Photo Nick Ut/AP.

centre on the issue of who controls them. “The democratic guidance of the economy is also accelerated by emerging technologies”, Srnicek and Williams claim (p. 182). Really? Actually, as long as these technologies are controlled by capitalist wealth and power, they can, and sometimes do, frustrate and obstruct attempts to control the economy democratically.

What about the workers?

The way that the global working class is changing, as a result of (among other things) technological change and deindustrialisation, is discussed by Srnicek and Williams in a chapter on “The future isn’t working”.

They point to the global trend towards precarious employment and growth of a “surplus population”. (There are some striking statistics about this in a recent report by the International Labour Organisation, which estimates (i) that “wage and salaried employment accounts for only about half of global employment”, and that in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia, for only 20% of employment, and (ii) that global unemployment was 201 million in 2014.)

Srnicek and Williams emphasise (p. 97 and p. 110) that manufacturing employment is declining even outside the rich world, and expect this decline to continue in future. I am not so sure. If and when world capitalism lurches out of its current recession, I think it’s (not certain, but) possible that manufacturing will surge again in China, India and south-east Asian nations and/or that other countries e.g. in Africa will get pulled into this process.

Nevertheless, the trends towards precarious employment, and the way that technology enhances that, is in our faces.

Srnicek and Williams conclude from this that the “traditional battle cry of the left, demanding full employment, should therefore be replaced with a battle cry demanding full unemployment” (p. 127). I don’t agree. Yes, the traditional “left” with its empty slogans is politically on the road to nowhere. But isn’t this just replacing one empty slogan with another?

“Full employment” was a reformist demand that appealed to workers in rich countries, when social-democratic governments could enact Keynesian economic policies to reduce unemployment. Those options have largely gone. But how will “full unemployment” get us closer to a post-capitalist, post-work society, i.e. go further than social democracy could or would have gone? When is this “full unemployment” going to happen? What is its relevance to social and labour movements here and now?

Surely a post-work future means a society free of capitalist exploitation, in which work (alienated labour) is superceded, transformed into meaningful activity. “Full unemployment” doesn’t capture such ideas and I don’t see it popularising them.

Srnicek and Williams say their demands are for “non-reformist reforms” that have a “utopian edge that strains at the limits of what capitalism can concede” but are “grounded in real tendencies of the world today” (p. 108). I don’t see that “full unemployment” is any of these things.

In the real world, there are workers’ movements aimed at improving the terms on which they are employed; struggles by precarious workers, the unemployed, students and others, sometimes framed more generally as revolts against the social system as a whole; feminist struggles to redefine and change the terms of domestic work; struggles by migrant workers to assert their right to work in the rich countries’ economies.

Rather than guessing at slogans, I think it’s better to pay close attention to these movements and think about how they can be developed and united into more general struggles to overcome capitalism. A really good recent article on this by Wildcat Germany says:

Workers ignore old organisations and parties; new ones are not yet visible. There isn’t any idea of a new society yet, which takes hold of the masses. In the struggles themselves we can see some new developments, though. In Asia and beyond, workers have proven extraordinary capabilities to organise their struggles and coordinate them beyond the boundaries of their respective regions. They have understood that they can only win collectively. They raise egalitarian demands against the divisions that capital introduced. They don’t let unions hold them back, who want to control them. They don’t shy away from hard confrontations. They address and create problems for which the system has no solutions.

Wildcat voices the hope of an “encounter of the workers’ movement and social movement […] to define the role of the social-revolutionary left”. I think that’s a good way of looking at it. GL, 23 September 2016.

■ Nick Srnicek and Gabriel Levy will discuss these issues, and more, at the Anarchist Bookfair on Saturday 29 October 2016 in London. Please come and join us!

Networked socialism: back to the future

■ More about technology and socialism here, here and here. Site contents here.

[1] From Marx, the Critique of the Gotha Programme. One key paragraph reads: “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

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2 Responses to Technological utopias: the nuts and bolts

  1. dunxd says:

    Facebook didn’t ban the picture. They use machine learning to automatically identify and block porn, which of course isn’t perfect, resulting in incidents such as this one, and breastfeeding image bans. Facebook are tech-supremicists, so when criticised for this tend to favour their algorithm, but generally they succumb to reason and unblock images that shouldn’t have been. In fact, that is just how they improve their algorithm. The scandals around these image blocks are just “click-bait” for increasingly desperate media outlets, not real news stories – at least not for longer than the 48 hours (or less than 24 in this case) before Facebook see sense. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/sep/09/facebook-reinstates-napalm-girl-photo

  2. Gabriel Levy says:

    Thanks for clarifying that.

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