Book Reviews: ‘Inventing the Future – Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’, & ‘ S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism’
No More Work?
‘Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work’. By Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. (Verso £9.99)
This is in some ways similar to Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, reviewed in the September 2015 Socialist Standard. Indeed Mason is quoted on the front cover as describing this as ‘a must-read’. Like Mason, Srnicek and Williams discuss the possibility of overcoming scarcity and eliminating boring work; unlike him, they give relatively little attention to the information economy, though they do refer to the importance of technological developments and automation, and say that any vision of the future must be based on current tendencies. They also emphasise the likelihood of ‘surplus population’, with capitalism needing less labour to produce the same output, so large numbers of people will have trouble getting ‘decent’ jobs.
They begin by criticising ‘folk politics’, a common-sense kind of local political activism that is prevalent on the left. This, they say, is not wrong but it is not enough by itself: it is fine for movements such as Occupy, but is problematic for attempts to overcome capitalism and climate change, as it is too small-scale. Small interventions are unlikely to change the socio-economic system, and acts of resistance are defensive rather than active. To the extent that folk politics can be seen as similar to the policy of pursuing reforms to capitalism, these remarks are unexceptionable. Some other good points are made in passing, for instance that consensus decision-making can lead to the adoption of lowest-common-denominator demands.
The alternative to folk politics is to be more ambitious and aim for a post-work world, by means of ‘non-reformist reforms’ (compare Mason’s ‘revolutionary reformism’). The four minimal demands of this are: full automation, reduction of the working week (possibly via a three-day weekend), provision of a basic income and diminution of the work ethic. As part of this, ‘the demand for a post-work world revels in the liberation of desire, abundance and freedom.’ The authors also refer to ‘the possibility of production based on flexibility, decentralisation and post-scarcity for some goods.’
It is accepted that there are various ways of realising such a post-work future. One would be ecologically unsustainable, while another would be misogynist, with women still bound to household work. Srnicek and Williams opt for the leftist version, which among other things involves open borders, a reduction of both waged and unwaged work, an improved welfare state and a global basic income. It is acknowledged that this would still have commodity production and private property, so would not be post-capitalist, but ‘would be an immensely better world than the one we have now’.
But, just as with Mason’s book, the reader is forced to ask, why just advocate this, why not abolish commodities and wage labour? The authors do refer at one point to the aim ‘to build an economy in which people are no longer dependent upon wage labour for survival’, and they also talk about full unemployment (which is not clear, but might mean an end to the employment relation). Moreover, despite the sub-title, their vision of future society is not really post-work either, as the aim is just to reduce necessary labour as much as possible. So they are pretty inconsistent as to what they want, and moreover they see their proposed reforms as taking decades to achieve, so it is hardly a matter of ‘something now’.
The book makes some interesting points, but, while Srnicek and Williams criticise folk politics as too timid, their own demands are essentially reformist and so are themselves not ambitious enough.
‘S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism’. By Richard Swift. (New Internationalist Publications. 2016)
In this revised, second edition one-time editor of the New Internationalist Richard Swift surveys various attempts to counter capitalism over the years. He begins with USSR-style state capitalism (which he misleadingly calls state socialism) and Social Democrat parliamentary reformism. Of the former he makes the point that:
‘In retrospect it could easily be claimed that orthodox state communism was not really an alternative to capitalism at all but merely a transitional form of it that allowed certain large ‘backward’ societies, hitherto blocked in their development path, to move towards their own peculiar model of autocratic capitalism.’
As to the Social Democrats and Labourites, they evolved as mere alternative managers of traditional-style capitalism.
He goes on to dismiss Marxists for still talking about the class struggle, anarchists for living in the past, and Italian autonomists for being too vague (he could have added for being incomprehensible). What he likes are movements in the South (Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil) and indigenous communities resisting the impact of capitalism.
Despite the title, most of the book is taken up with describing opposition rather than alternatives to capitalism, and not so much to capitalism as such but to ‘untrammelled’, ‘rapacious’ and ‘unregulated’ capitalism. It is not until page 156 out this 184-page book that he makes the point that ‘people need to know what you are for rather than just what you are against.’
A valid point but, as in so many books like this, what is proposed is disappointing. In Swift’s case, ‘degrowth’ (reducing production and consumption), ‘bringing finance under control’, and a universal guaranteed minimum money income. There is no understanding that, to be able to control ‘growth’, whether to stop, increase, or re-orient it towards meeting needs – and to end what he had earlier called experiencing ‘the economy as a kind of external force disconnected from human will’ – ownership of the means of production will have to pass to society as a whole, with the consequent disappearance of the market and market forces.
All Swift comes up with about ownership of means of production is vague talk about co-operatives operating within a system where there is still finance and money incomes – which wouldn’t really be an alternative to capitalism.