Mar. 29, 2021
I recently read and enjoyed Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams' 2015 book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. The authors outline a manifesto of left accelerationism, a theory in which, in order to overcome the challenges of neoliberal capitalism, societies should provide universal basic income instead of menial jobs and embrace automation as a means to free people from dehumanizing labor.
Neoliberalism refers to the mainstream economic consensus which was first discussed among scholars in the 1930s as a response to expanded state powers after the Great Depression, and it rose to transnational dominance under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In the broadest sense neoliberalism is a belief that markets are the optimal way to organize most parts of society.
Its central tenets are reduced price controls, deregulated capital markets, and a greatly curtailed role for government, which largely consists of making space for private interests to serve collective needs via supply and demand. While "small government" is its calling card, the neoliberal order still relies on the state to coerce workers into participating in wage-labor markets, especially via the police and suppression of union activity. (Partly what distinguishes it from libertarianism, which is opposed to all forms of state power.)
Srnicek and Williams identify at least three issues with capitalism that neoliberal policies either create or make worse.
On the first point, the book considers folk-political movements like Occupy indicative of the urgency to do something about income inequality, but nonetheless regards their tactics as temporary and not complete enough in vision. The authors point to the dissatisfaction of just-in-time delivery workers and the inefficacy of unions as evidence of the second point. On the third, the book mentions the extreme rise in tuition rates, the student debt crisis, and the fact that dignity is still framed through paid work, which is a value system the authors argue is outdated.
Ideally a holistic vision of change would address all of these issues and many more not mentioned here. I agree with some proposals the authors make. I also find some of them incomprehensible, and still others have been superseded by changes we've seen since 2015. While all of these issues are interdependent, I want to focus on three areas — meaningfulness and the culture of work, the technological imperatives, and education.
On the topic of meaningfulness, the authors diagnose the issue with our attitudes toward work as being, essentially, that we imagine an unbreakable bond between work and suffering. We talk about suffering as the real currency of work. For the low classes, suffering "teaches character," and one rises to the upper echelons through personal sacrifice, honesty, and perseverance. The opposite of success by suffering is luck. Politicians and CEOs tell tales of coming to power from humble beginnings, emphasizing the toughest parts of their lives, making their social position seem as unlikely as possible and thereby earned through merit.
Because powerful people and the media push these stories of unlikely but hard-earned success, the social mold is set to keep people working hard for little pay and to accept poor working conditions. As result of automation, which has led to fewer jobs overall and relatively more bullshit jobs, work is more a source of suffering than it is of meaning for most people. That claim is, in my opinion, true. The authors and I disagree on solutions.
Srnicek and Williams propose universal basic income as a means to correct inequality and incentivize people to choose creative means of self-expression that do not involve work, such as art, recreation, and natural conservation. The amount of unconditional income, given equally to all citizens, would provide relatively more value for someone of extremely low net worth than someone who is already comfortable. These creative, non-wage-labor paths would become the rational choice amidst shrinking demand for labor. The few who would remain employed would work to automate even more drudgery out of people's lives, in solidarity with all.
A worthy goal and a beautiful utopian picture — the productive base of poor laborers replaced with machines, and the newly liberated lower classes free to pursue ambitions outside of work. The new benevolent overseers would be tasked with identifying and removing more pain points for people, assigning them to machines instead.
The boost provided by permanent stimulus checks to poor people would be immense and could, in theory, be a major driver of such a radical reorganization. But there are two issues. The first is that, however peripheral the connection may be, the poor and soon-to-be-automated perceive themselves as belonging to the same society as the educated ruling classes (the would-be-automators).
Poor Americans put their faith in people like Elon Musk because they see themselves as "temporarily embarrassed billionaires" (Steinbeck). They do not want to be coddled by him, they want to be him. They buy Bitcoin when he pumps it. Wouldn't they be justifiably upset if the postcapitalist regime came in, ripped off the Band-Aid, and told them "being Elon Musk is so far out of reach for you that you might as well not work at all"?
The second is that the work of automation would have to be acknowledged by society as even more important than it is now. Because, by definition, automation is only successful if the number of people employed in its development decreases over time, being an active agent of automation would become a scarce career path and increase in value. Engineering, data science and so on would remain elite professions, and degrees in those fields would remain luxury goods. What would that do to the culture of those fields? Would it change at all?
Above: A nice idea, if you can manage to culturally and practically separate the ambitions of non-working people from working people.
If the post-work society were still meritocratic, and it were socially desirable to be the automator, the automators would presumably have endured a highly selective and competitive process to acquire their positions. Competitive fields usually require more time commitment, more dedication, more perseverance than others. This looks like market dynamics. Overworked STEM students complain about their workloads but at the same time wear their stress on their sleeves as a status marker. Why would this change because of a call to help people who would be, in all likelihood, still structurally shut out of these fields? Would the top-down push for solidarity override the just-world fallacy, that I have earned my place through conflict and you should too?
I fully agree that the current level of market competition is detrimental to physical and mental health. Having grown up in a Bay Area school plagued by suicides and stress-induced social malaise, I've seen what the status quo does even to the rich kids. The flipside is much worse, for communities in food deserts, ravaged by opioid addiction, and so on. I just doubt that the solution is to decide the entire social institution of work is broken and should be replaced.
If we are to replace work with the kind of "synthetic freedom" proposed by Srnicek and Williams, we would probably also extend automation further into creative production. AI-written movie scripts, songs, and TikToks would be the norm. A few of you reading this might make the connection to 1984, wherein the meaningless tunes the proles sing are generated by song-writing machines. If we embrace "full automation," are we ready to live with the consequences of extending its reach into these areas, too? What becomes culture when we have millions of people repeating babble generated entirely by machines?
Work is lindy. The fact that people derive meaning out of work should be celebrated, not vilified. If we are to be reactionaries against neoliberalism, why don't we look at the conditions its American proponents were dissatisfied with? FDR's policies. The original New Deal. The Works Progress Administration built hundreds of dams, highways, hospitals, and schools, and fostered a national unity that carried the nation through wartime. Where is that ambition now? Are we to bask in our synthetic freedoms, spending our stimulus checks on glittering virtual tokens, or come together to fix the abhorrent infrastructure issues this country faces?
Above: Sewage leaking from the ceiling in Penn Station, NYC.
Postcapitalism and the Future Of Work is inspiring, but altogether too myopic and paternalistic when it comes to defining meaningful work. There is zero recognition of the fact that Native American communities in California, for example, have better fire management techniques than any sophisticated risk model could hope to compute. The revolution cannot be carried out by a deus ex machina, it must be carried out by social beings who have evolved to live together both in harmony and in conflict with nature and each other.
There are both "the world of bits" and "the world of atoms," and America primarily needs to be rebuilt in terms of the latter. Who is going to rebuild after the failures of neoliberalism if we primarily concern ourselves with redefining work away from the physical, and ostracize our own human bodies as inefficient and dirty?
We don't need to vilify work in order for leisure to prevail. Two decades of hard work led to the wealth and prosperity of the 1950s. If anything, what we need now is strong leadership in pursuit of some concrete goal other than ease. Maybe that's carbon sequestration, maybe that's Mars, but it sure as hell isn't giving soma to the masses in hopes that some miracle in the algorithm will give us direction.
We need publicly-supported research & development in areas like genomics, materials science, and renewable energy. We need public works programs in physical infrastructure and digital services. We need to regulate cryptocurrencies, recognize the vacuous nature of many new financial services, and encourage people to become builders rather than rent-seekers.
Great ideas, confused solutions.