Wednesday, December 6, 2017

No More Work? (2017)

Book Review from the March 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'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.  
Paul Bennett

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