Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a world without work, Verso, 2015, 1 78478 096 8, pbk, 245 pp, £12.99.

This is a campaign manual for the Left in the UK, but it has wider relevance than that: so this review will first of all discuss the book’s intention and content, and will draw an additional conclusion.

Neoliberal capitalism is a hegemony: that is, the ideas out of which it is constructed have colonised the world’s institutions, including its governments and academies. It is the position from which every debate begins. It has taken control. The book is particularly interesting on the history of neoliberalism, which was given birth by a small group of committed individuals with a strategy. It is on the basis of this history that Srnicek and Williams offer a critique of the Left’s current activity, which they call ‘folk politics’: occupations, strikes, demonstrations, local campaigns, and the like. As they point out, such activity can be very effective in tackling local symptoms of neoliberalism, such as the planned closure of a hospital: but they are no way to create an alternative to neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberal capitalism defeated the previous Keynesian hegemony by building institutions, mainly thinktanks, and institutions tasked with creating yet more think tanks. The people who passed through these institutions ended up as academics, journalists, legislators, and civil servants; and by that means neoliberal capitalism colonised the academy, the media, governments, government bureaucracies, and every other significant institution. Folk politics is no way to tackle a hegemony based on such an institutional takeover. Only another hegemony, created in the same way, will be a match for it. The Left therefore needs to build think tanks and other institutions, and it needs the people who pass through them or are influenced by them to become academics (particularly in economics), journalists, civil servants, members of parliament, and government ministers. Only in this way can a new ‘common sense’ be built. A patient strategy is what is required.

Having suggested how a new hegemony should be built, the authors turn to its content. At its heart will be the personal freedom that comes from the freedom from work (by which they mean employment) promised by automation. As they put it: ‘Our choice is between glorifying work and the working class or abolishing them both’ (p.126). Folk politics promotes work and the working class, both of which play into neoliberal capitalism’s hands. It is freedom from work that will characterise a postcapitalist future, and only a hegemony based on freedom from work will defeat neoliberal capitalism. Achieving this aim will require ‘full automation, the reduction of the working week, the provision of a basic [Citizen’s] income, the diminishment of the work ethic’ (p.127). The book’s final chapter, on ‘building power’, unfortunately contains rather a lot of the folk politics that the first chapter had already shown to be irrelevant. A strategy for the new hegemony needs to learn rather more thoroughly from the history of neoliberal capitalism outlined earlier in the book: so at the heart of the strategy needs to be thinktanks – lots of them.

Srnicek and Williams are of course quite right: a Citizen’s Income will be an essential aspect of the new hegemony. Automation increases the share of the proceeds of production that go to capital, and reduces the share that goes to wages, so if we retain our current tax and benefits system poverty will increase, demand for goods and services will fall, and the economy will collapse. A Citizen’s Income will provide the secure financial platform that households will need in a society characterised by less employment, and, because eventually it will have to be funded by taxing the proceeds of production that go to capital, it will shift purchasing power to households and will maintain demand in the economy.

The authors insist that ‘full automation, the reduction of the working week, the provision of a basic income, [and] the diminishment of the work ethic’ must be created as a package, and that a Citizen’s Income implemented on its own would ‘almost certainly be set below poverty levels and simply act as a handout to companies’ (p.129). This would not be true in any country that currently pays in-work benefits, such as the UK’s Working Tax Credits/Universal Credit. Means-tested in-work benefits function as a dynamic subsidy to companies: that is, if wages fall, then benefits rise, meaning that there is little pressure on companies to increase wages. A Citizen’s Income would be a static subsidy: it would not change if wages changed. It would therefore have a smaller subsidy effect than current in-work benefits. Even if only some of a household’s in-work benefits were to be replaced by a Citizen’s Income, the subsidy effect would be smaller than it is now. This matters. It means that a Citizen’s Income is an immediately viable option for the reform of the tax and benefits system. It might initially need to be funded from within that system: but once it was in place it would enable greater employment flexibility (while protecting household disposable incomes), and would therefore provide a context in which automation could increase, the working week could be reduced, and the work ethic could be diminished. Significantly for the authors’ argument, a Citizen’s Income would be an institutional reform that would generate further institutional reforms, and would therefore cohere nicely with their requirement for an institutional strategy.

The book’s aim is to provide the Left with a viable means of defeating neoliberal capitalism. It is also possible to read it as a manual for anyone seeking to replace one hegemony with another. ‘Full automation, reduction of the working week, provision of a basic income, diminishment of the work ethic’, could be elements in a variety of ideological structures, Right, Left, and otherwise; and the institutional method described could be employed by strategies for each part of that programme as well as for the programme as a whole, or for any ideological structure that contained it. The Citizen’s Income debate is already largely institutional. The authors’ argument suggest that it needs to be even more so: more organisations to campaign and educate, more organisations within organisations, more connections between organisations, and more people passing through organisations.

This book is a lot more useful than the authors think it is.