Demeaning the Future

By De-Arrest Editorial Services, 13 April 2016
Image: Ubermenschen3.0. Image: aggy propz / unlucky phd

Srnicek & Williams’ Inventing the Future proposes a forces-of-production-based programme leading to guaranteed basic income. But do the wageless workers of an already automated and accelerated world really need this new revolutionary ABC? De-Arrest Editorial Services checks out the wares of competing brands of rocket men, left and right, and urges wholesale product recall 




It is a commonplace of programmatic writings on the current situation that the revolutionary left has too few ‘ideas’. Usually it is implied that it lacks them because it is actively afraid of them, in more or less the same way that ex-smokers might be afraid of nicotine or traumatised people might be afraid of ‘intimacy’. The line is that the left wants them but can’t get too close: it is afraid of negative consequences of the kind listed in a self-help forum or outlined in a diagnostic manual. The condition extends beyond the collectivist and authoritarian ‘old left’ and today equally affects the anti-statist libertarian: both types of left personality are obsessive compulsive, tic-ridden and confused; both can be found constantly washing their hands to disinfect them of new and frightening realities. The fact that one buys product smelling of meat-packing factories and the other of dank squats is neither here nor there; in each case the active ingredient is nostalgia adulterated with self-regard, a combination that kills off 99.9 percent of new thinking before it has had the opportunity really to sink in or spread like a rash over the surface of an in-group vocabulary.


The presentation of this psychopathology of revolutionary incognisance serves a particular kind of role. If there really were such a thing as ‘the left’ of which it can be said that it ‘lacks ideas’, and if this ‘lack’ really were due not to objective impoverishment but to a chronically phobic abstinence, then why not just scribble out a prescription for a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and be done with it? Thinking-phobic revolutionaries need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the office of A Brighter Future and taught to want what they’ve learned to eschew, not accommodated and affirmed in their moody adolescent aversive dialectical materialism. Contemporary advocates of the Joy of Ideas know this and say it explicitly. ‘I stress the centrality of the domain of the ideological’, wrote Stuart Hall in 1981, in elevated Gramscian Whitmanese.


[1] ‘The distinction between a movement and its ideology is not only hopeless, but also irrelevant’, amplified Ernesto Laclau in 2005.[2] ‘Neoliberalism’ was successful because it ‘thought in long-term visions’, proclaimed Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams around six months ago.[3] For all of these self-identifying Political Thinkers, cogitating between the first election of the Thatcher government and the second election of the Cameron junta in May of last year, it is the principal role of revolutionary theorists to set themselves up as psychotherapists of the long-view. Left strategists are the key-workers for radical mindfulness in default of the radical actions that ‘activists’ can never take; they are carers coaxing their patients and loony analysands to move in radical baby-steps towards the goal of a fully articulated left programme, whether that means a left programme for a post-industrial British socialist culture, as it did for Hall in 1981, or a programme for investment controls and a Universal Basic Income, as it does for Srnicek and Williams’ in their Inventing the Future.[4] In any case, left-wing phronemophobia is the common enemy, a bug running wild in the leadership’s hegemonic calculator, converting even its most carefully laid plans into little heaps of organic fertiliser for the ‘folk political’ hydroponic gardens of the lumpen anarchist fringe.[5]    


In this approach it is the vocabulary of pathology that justifies the conservatism of the programme. The moderation of the demands that one finds in books like Srnicek and Williams’ does not amount to ‘reformism’ in any conventional sense but is instead a homeopathic attempt to mitigate a clinically specifiable aversion, ‘thinking’, whose aetiology it is presumed goes all the way back to the regrettable orgy of ideation that took place sometime after Josef Stalin was appointed General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party in the heady days of 1922. Revolutionary theorists have responded to this catastrophe and its long miserable aftermath by attaching themselves to a maximum programme of class struggle, workers’ control, abolition of value, etcetera, whose psychic overvaluation leads immediately to practical paralysis, disappointment, profound feelings of inadequacy, vegetative inaction, and so finally to embolisms in exactly the network of middle-to-long-term ‘vision’ that a high-functioning left-wing will need most keenly if it isn’t to embarrass itself in front of its co-workers. Moderatescalable demands are the lifeblood for the high-functioning left, they are to its conditions of mental wellbeing roughly what a twelve-step programme is to the good life of a chronic alcoholic, a stairway leading towards a political sobriety so extreme that no exaggeratedly millenarian ultraleftism and no ‘folk political’ municipal gardening scheme will ever again tempt them from the Universal Basic Wagon.


This tendency in critical analysis affects the way in which the ‘alternative’ is justified. The veracity of an argument like Srnicek and Williams’ is to be judged primarily on the basis of the conversion statistics that it gives rise to and not on the grounds of the plausibility of the end-state that it envisions, which is to say that the argument turns out in the last instance not to have been about ‘ideas’ at all but rather about attitudes, in the sense of the industrial relations theory to which psychotherapy is now commonly expected to defer; and since the attitude of the left is manifestly bad, which is to say, because it stays at home all day and doesn’t want to pull its socks up, the socially dominant conclusion juts up out of Inventing the Future like a spectral front-page headline from The Sun. There will be no revolutionary transformation in social relations until ‘the left’ gets over its oedipal complex and learns to love ‘the vertical’;[6] and anyone who has already scaled that y-axis towards the bliss-point of theoretical enlightenment will already know that once you get to the right altitude, the difference between a post-work society and a back-to-work programme becomes exceedingly vague and indistinct.




It is a well attested fact that we live in pessimistic times. Perceptive commentators among the ‘leading classes’ express this fact most keenly, because they more than anyone are inclined to believe that the existing status quo is benignly and surpassingly good. Recently Martin Wolf has argued in the Financial Times that Donald Trump is the US’s Emperor Augustus, ‘an American “Caeserism” ... become flesh’, lurking at the podium of the popular subconscious like the state of exception with barely a comb-over; and in these terms he gives voice to the anxious intuition of the liberal fraction of the capitalist class that in the not-too-distant future it too may be burnt to death at a garden party for the world market.[7]


But the same pessimism also filters down into the conservative discourse of therapeutic anti-capitalism. In Srnicek and Williams’ text, and also in Paul Mason’s most recent book, it is argued that the only way to overcome exploitation is bureaucratically to introduce so much machinery that there is no work left to perform.[8] This is the theoretical residue that gets squeezed out of the current global outlook: where there is no human mass movement to end the power of the bourgeoisie, what we most of all need to prove is that bourgeois class power can be overcome by a mass movement of machines. ‘Productivity’ is the only trend in capitalist history that seems to be more or less fully vicissitude-proof, it is the one-size-fits-all replacement for leaky, obsolete class consciousness, you can put all of your eggs into its basket and they double in processing power every twelve months. Some of them threaten to go 3D. And anyway expropriation talk just doesn’t get people hot and bothered like it used to: it sounds too much like hard work, probably in the olden days people would have to spend their whole Sundays on it. The revisionist dogma of the technocratic moderniser whispers, Why bother when you can get a kitchen appliance to do it for you. The pseudo-populist dogma of the technocratic moderniser screams in counterpoint, What would your line-manager think. The academic-opportunist rounds off, Where is my next research council grant coming from.


The worldview is pessimistic because it affirms a situation of weakness under the guise of showing the way out from it. There is no war in this worldview, there is no mass suffering, there is no imperialism, there is no bombing campaign, there is no struggle for territorial access or control over markets, there is no counter-revolution, there is no mass death, there is no mass incarceration programme except as a kind of specious knowing aside made to prove that we aren’t racists. There is no real history in this worldview, ‘market forces’ operate in a theoreticist petri dish, new ‘modes of regulation’ grow out of them and are squinted at through rose-tinted microscopes bunged up with smelling salts. There is no fascism either, no populist authoritarianism, no dynamic of interaction between racist street movements and property billionaire demagogues, no USA Freedom Kids, no migrant Freitod or torturable body. And so there is no acknowledgement that what brought all of this shit into existence is exactly the thing that post-capitalist post-politicos re-assert in the form of an election manifesto; that automation, capital overaccumulation and warfare are a trio; and that it was exactly automation that made intense inter-capitalist and inter-state competition progressively more and more violent, until today it begins to break out as open populist-authoritarianism at home and as pre-emptive bombing campaigns everywhere else, justified in the usual bicep-pumping owner-occupier Esperanto as the defence of ‘our’ borders and ‘our’ women and ‘our’ luxury indoor heated gene pool.


It is optimistic in the face of all of this to hold to the idea that there is no progressive way forward that does not involve the direct and open affirmation of the expropriation of the expropriators. It is optimistic in the face of all this to believe that expropriation is still the way forward even when it becomes difficult to see how most workers could seize and self-manage their means of production. We do need to think about how the immediate seizure of what we need to live (in places like the UK this would also mean mass non-payment campaigns) could open into new forms of social organisation; also about how import-export relations can be sustained in industries that are necessary to social reproduction once the power of capitalist owners has been annulled (what would the UK wheat industry – low-value in capitalist terms but an important source of necessary physical goods – look like in the aftermath of the dissolution of the two or three companies that administrate it?) We do need to think about this; but the question of how to re-organise the world market along ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’ lines is meaningless without an acceptance that mass movements can only succeed by making severe inroads into bourgeois property relations. There is no ‘forces-of-production’-only solution to the present disaster for the human species because the forces of production have already spoken. Their mouthpiece is Donald Trump. He is the ‘independently wealthy’ voice-box of the fictitious capital that decades of competitive fixed-capital investment and overaccumulation in the ‘real economy’ has given rise to, prophet of the total blow-out to come, fully ‘independent’ because totally insane in the technical sense that Marx developed in the third volume of his famous work of leadership psychology.[9] He is the embodiment of capital that can profit from war and mass annihilation and catastrophic currency devaluations and still feel fresh enough afterwards to climb onto the roof of the palace complex to play ‘Rocket Man’, Nero-style, to his little bands of falangist homophobe supporters.[10] And he wouldn’t be anything if the post-industrial working class who the post-capitalist theoreticians think are good for nothing except street demos decided that they were going to live rent free in the more upscale ‘affordances’ of his endless fucking real estate portfolio. [11]




A ‘traditional’ Marxist approach to Srnicek and Williams’ book might dismiss its theses by arguing that they give exact expression to a particular kind of class ‘ideology’, just like, back in the olden days, Marx argued that Proudhon’s socialism gave particular expression to his solicitude for small-to-medium-size businesses. An argument along these lines would probably pick out in particular the emphasis in Srnicek and Williams’ programme on abstract free time as the principal means ‘by which a collective of different identities are knitted together’. It could assert that this knitting-group approach to social identities seems to retail a particularly conflict-averse kind of ‘populism’, in which the nominated universal good of more free time is more than usually paradigmatically non-specific and indifferent in the possibilities that it parameterises. It might add to this that the way in which the good is to be achieved, by means of an aggregation of identities which once it arrives at its hegemonic weight-class can simply assume state power and pass its economic reforms through parliament – that this vision of transformation is derived from an academic and administrative ‘worldview’, in which ‘the economy’ is organised not as a system for the mediation of fundamentally antagonistic interests but rather along the lines of a particularly challenging spreadsheet. An approach like this one might say that the real technical problems of organising social reproduction without exploitation, class relations, and bourgeois property are travestied in works where the tradition of all past generations is converted by means of conceptual chicanery from a tradition of theftexhaustionunfilled capacitiesanger, and yearning into a more or less indifferently assembled set of legacy systems, which it is the task of some indifferently assembled set of experts to pick through and ponderously to reassemble.


All of these arguments may be true, though evidently they wouldn’t say anything that isn’t equally applicable to any number of other works of technocratic reformism, whether written in the old cybernetic-authoritarian style or with the light coating of contemporary movementist jargon that has been sprayed over Inventing the Future. But there is also perhaps a better response to the text than the one that just sneers at the political marketing categories that it reverse graffitis onto all of its rhetorical flat surfaces. The response is a stylistic one, and, so, inevitably, it has to begin with a basic observation. The observation is this. Inventing the Future is not only a ‘petty bourgeois’ text; it is also and at every turn a singularly and formidably dull one. It has the permanently preliminary tone of an abstract that has somehow got lost from the academic article that it was meant to introduce and which has gone wandering aimlessly along the aisles of a supermarket in search of its point. Any reader not scanning the book on an iPhone while processing real-time updates on the world-market price of Brent Crude and trying to call an Uber will find it difficult to avoid the impression that the authors are only intermediaries, Mechanical Turks paid by the word to do a revolutionary programme to order, receiving their instructions from an algorithm somewhere upstream. The style of the text is almost ineffably machine-like. It passes with equal indifference through passages of contrived declamatory urgency and passages of contrived technical precision, orchestrating the ups and downs with all of the dynamic range of a symphony played on a barrel organ nailed hurriedly to a lab coat in order to deceive passers-by.


Why is the dullness of Inventing the Future theoretically significant? The accusation that Srnicek and Williams are presenting a luridly middle-class programme for a popular movement may be less important than the accusation that they are presenting a stupidly selective or theoretically deranged one, badly overinflated by the usual self-destructing cutting-edge speak, overpopulated by pedantically sophisticated and nonsensical conceptual distinctions, perennially anxious to negotiate little theoretical peerages for social identities, histories and movements that it in fact marginalises or suppresses, which is to say more generally that their argument is a kind of miniature replica of the economy that it claims systematically to counteract. [12] But why should it matter? Why is it important that the book is so generically flat and inert?


The answer to this last question returns us to the book’s diagnostic claims discussed earlier on. The argument in Inventing the Future that ‘the left’ suffers everywhere from a kind of pathogenic immediatism, and that this immediatism blocks off the possibility for a practical ‘hegemonic’ project against ‘neoliberalism’ – this argument has its own parallel in the failure of the text to provide any indicator of the middle-term conflict that would be necessitated by a movement for the abolition of wage-labour on a global scale.[13] The middle-term is largely repressed, trodden under the boot of we’re-being-reasonable, down into the forever yielding soil of can’t-we-talk-about-it-later, and so just where you might expect the text to imagine in detail the ways in which its ends might require a corresponding uptick in the radicalism of political means, everything goes silent. Clocks tick, pins drop, air-conditioning units filibuster, and all at once the workers of the world find themselves trussed up in the open-plan office of a think-tank with the planning documents for the ‘delinking of work from income’ stuffed into their mouths like a ball gag during an interrogation scene,[14] wondering why the wet ink tastes so challengingly stale, and perhaps just faintly recalling that ‘delinking working from income’ is what the international bourgeoisie has been doing ever since it first enclosed a piece of ground, bethought itself of saying This is mine, and found people stupid enough to believe it.[15]


The middle-term is repressed in Srnicek and Williams’ argument because it is in the middle-term of active struggle that a movement against capital must necessarily arrive at the stage of greatest tension and uncertainty. It is a moment in which the most fundamental contradictions of class and ownership cannot be ‘knitted together’ into a woolly hegemony and then handed over to a ‘future’ which can scarcely mask its ingratitude. In other words, Inventing the Future increases the plausibility of the prospect of a ‘post-work’ society still defined by bourgeois property relations only by eradicating from its schema of development every last trace of an account of bourgeois counter-revolution, as well as, more significantly, the desperate measures that would have to be taken by a mass movement of prolerianised and oppressed people in order to seize for themselves a political victory. The eradication of this scenario at the level of theory is also an eradication of tension at the level of imaginative foresight; the one deletion cannot be carried out without the other; and so the thin and unbelievable ‘optimism’ of the text’s prospectus is purchased at the cost of the rheumatic dumpishness of the prose in which it is written.


No text as boringly written as Srnicek and Williams’ can offer an adequate conception of ‘populism’, because no text as boringly written as theirs can conceive of the basic fact that populists as diverse as Hugo Chávez and Nigel Farage have forever known instinctively in their blood. What they have known is that populist politics when it succeeds must find a means of suddenly setting aflame in shared consciousness some instinct that liberal society has blocked off or incarcerated in the realm of merely private conscience, which is another way of saying that populist politics when it succeeds must be felt by its subjects as a sudden and exhilarating source of disinhibition.[16] The intense and bewildering need for this disinhibition is itself one historical component of our total technical inheritance. And while the forward-thinking reformers who overlook it in favour of good attitudes and healthy balanced organisational ecosystems may do so in the name of the future, for so long as they fasten their thousand-mile stares exclusively to an à la carte menu of automation, robots and technical fixes, and fail to see that the violent needs and sensations unfolding right in front of their eyes are themselves a force of production, even their most visionary modernist fantasias will turn out on arrival to be yet another helping of last week’s subcultural primitivism, warmed up on a plate of yesterday’s news, and surreptitiously spat in by the same old-new post-capitalist working class.


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Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. London: Verso 2015




[1] Stuart Hall, ‘The Battle for Socialist Ideas in the 1980s’, in The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left (London: Verso, 1988), p. 177.

[2] Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), p. 13.

[3] Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Folk Politics and the Left (London: Verso, 2015), p. 66. Note the accusatory tone of someone explaining to their partner why other people’s relationships are more exciting than theirs.

[4] The relationship of Srnicek and Williams’ book to Hall’s conjunctural essays on the failure of the British left is striking, if only because the conclusions that they arrive at from shared neo-Gramscian premises are at first glance so incompatible (Hall arguing against ‘economism’ in favour of ‘culture’; Srnicek and Williams arguing against left ‘subculturalism’ in favour of programmatic economics); but the divergence can at least partly be explained by the predictable historical irony that Hall’s new left ‘culture’ did in fact become hegemonic in a period of capitalist growth, only then to be swept away again in a period of capitalist decline, which is to say by the fact that his programme was turned upside down in practice well before any group of his theoretical inheritors could undertake to turn it upside down in theory. It should also be said that the essays collected in The Hard Road to Renewal are irascible and distinctive intellectual contributions whose too antinomic treatment of cultural and economics is nevertheless everywhere aflame with care for the social phenomena it misrecognises; whereas the arguments regurgitated in Inventing the Future are torpid and generic contributions whose too antinomic treatment of economics and culture is everywhere clogged up by the social phenomena on which it tends idly to browse.

[5] ‘Folk politics’ is Srnicek and Williams’ name for any form of leftism that repudiates future-oriented, demand-based politics. Its extension to incorporate tendencies as unalike as the slow-food movement and Tiqqun amounts to a polemical inclusivity that nevertheless serves to disguise the fact that localism and Social Democratic demand-based populism are not jointly exhaustive of the possibilities for revolutionary activity. More will be said about this in the following.

[6] In an organisational ‘ecology’ in which ‘mobile vanguard functions’ have replaced the ‘vanguard party’, ‘hierarchical and closed groups’ will exist ‘as elements of the broader network’ (Inventing the Future, p. 163), etcetera.

[7] Martin Wolf, ‘How Great Empires Meet Their End’, Financial Times, 1 March 2016.

[8] Mason’s book is PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (London: Allen Lane, 2015). A good critical review is Gabriel Levy, ‘I Have Seen the Techno-Future, and I’m Not So Sure it Works’:

[9] Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, translated by David Fernbach (London: Penguin, 1981), Chapter 29.

[10] ‘Elton John: I Do Not Endorse Donald Trump’, The Daily Telegraph, 3 February 2016.

[11] To this might be counterposed statements like the following: ‘ ... as we write, Greece and Spain are showing the potential that arises when social movements engage in a dual strategy both within and outside the party system’ (Inventing the Future, p. 165). But in fact this is just the uncritical reproduction of the press-release verbiage employed by Syriza and Podemos themselves, in which the exact nature of the relationship between party and movement is prudentially redacted ‘until further notice’ in the interest of the mobile vanguard functions down at the organisational headquarters. For a more more realistic sketch of the ‘dual strategy’ of social movements in Greece, see the short text by Ady Amatia, ‘Some Notes on Syriza’, available at:

[12] The authors’ predilection for nonsense is best showcased in their discussion of the concept of ‘surplus population’. According to Srnicek and Williams, the surplus population, which when it comes down to it is defined more or less tautologically as that part of the population surplus to the sector of ‘formal’ capitalist employment (pp. 90–1), is produced by three mechanisms, the first mechanism containing three qualifications, the first qualification containing three cases or perhaps two cases and an example, the second qualification also being a situation or a ‘case’, the third qualification being a restatement of the first case of the first qualification, and the second mechanism being premised on a confused thumbnail history that clears the way for the mystification of the fact that mechanism three is only indirectly related to surplus populations at best. Readers given a guided tour around this labyrinth may be liable to forget that the main point of a definition of ‘surplus population’ founded on an idea of ‘formal’ employment is conceptually to downgrade the centrality to the category of exploitation, and therefore of capital more generally. See Srnicek and Williams, pp. 86–92, and also pp. 218–19n.

[13] In fact their maximum programme is for ‘a new point of equilibrium beyond the imposition of wage labour’ (Inventing the Future, p. 136), rather than for abolition outright, but the deliberate categorical haziness of the multitude-containing futurist means that terms like ‘abolition’ (p. 126), ‘transcendence’ (p. 176), and ‘transformation’ (p. 166), as well as the prefixes ‘post-’ and ‘under’ (pp. 218–19n), tend to be sucked into a single vortex of can-do blues-skies positivity, in whose oceanic fundament they swirl and commingle with all of the other matters of detail due to be resolved sometime after post-capitalist capitalism has been hegemonised into existence.

[14] ‘The post-work project, and, more broadly, the project of postcapitalism, are progressive determinations of the commitment to universal emancipation. In practice, these projects involve “a controlled dissolution of market forces .. and a delinking of work from income”’ (Inventing the Future, p. 178). The quote is from Paul Mason.

[15] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, translated by Donald A. Cress (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992), p. 44.

[16] Of course they often do this merely by giving voice to the sorts of meanly pettifogging resentment that the perennially ‘squeezed middle’ secretly nurtures in relation to its competitors from below.