Automation, Book review., Books, Brexit, Capitalism, Creative Destruction, Economic Growth, Humanism, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, Marx, Marxism, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Nostalgia, Phil Mullan, Politics, Productivity, Robots, Technology, Universal Basic Income
Cor, I miss the days when that crate was in the air. I can remember staying at me Nan’s in Dover and the sonic boom was at nine o’clock sharp, on the hour and on the dot. You go to Dover now, every clock is a different time. Not then! And when they let off the boom, all of my Nan’s teacups would chatter on the shelves and the golliwogs would dance around the mantelpiece. Those were the good old days, eh?
Most of the raw material for “contemporary” politics is in fact nostalgia. The Labour party’s 2017 manifesto was condemned by its Blairite critics as a programme to take the UK “back to the 1970s.” They themselves wanted to turn the clock back only as far as their heyday of 1997. The “Remainer” movement is essentially a nostalgia for 2006, or for some time when populism was still sleeping like a baby and international finance had not been discredited beyond repair. Scottish nationalists are nostalgic for a medieval state, the Prime Minister for grammar schools. Politics today resembles a load of people who are squabbling over the coordinates of the time machine.
I am not sure whether “nostalgia” is a big enough word to convey what currently remains of left-wing radicalism. Uniquely, it is a nostalgia for progress, for the futurism of the classical Left.
It will soon be a century since the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, with the mission to abolish and reinvent everything that fell into their hands. We have surely had enough meekness from the Left in recent years to atone for Bolshevism several times over. The Left has, like DH Lawrence, “something to expiate: A pettiness.” To think that a youthful new leader or another hopeful movement can reverse decades of stagnation is to fail to square up to the historical crisis. The challenge is not merely political but philosophical; it is not to retrieve the policies of socialism but to reconnect with the sheer life-force of humanism.
Two recent books to address this challenge are Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future (2015) and Phil Mullan’s Creative Destruction (2017). There might be better or more relevant books in circulation, but these two have caught my eye.
Inventing the Future fires several thousand volts into the modern Left, as if to galvanise Frankenstein’s monster. Its authors propose that, “many of the classic demands of the left… are materially more achievable than at any other point in history.” They call for a universal basic income (UBI) and “full automation.” They want to displace wage labour from the heart of the economy, rather as Galileo had unseated the Earth from the centre of the universe. Like a jaunty Maoist slogan, they enumerate that, “Neoliberalism has failed, social democracy is impossible, and only an alternative vision can bring about universal prosperity and emancipation.” Universal prosperity and emancipation might sound greatly more attractive than the 0.3% growth in GDP that we enjoyed during the last quarter.
This book nonetheless makes the old strategic error of laying out the case for change and then finishing with a ta-da and an “over to you, guys.” Inventing the Future is yet to recruit the devotees that its proposal requires and, two years after it first appeared, this is its failure in one. It has been reviewed only by journalists and academics who are placing its gambit on the historical record rather than by economists who want to sign up to its world-changing challenges.
Inventing the Future was treated to a sorry little symposium at the Disorder of Things website in which it was essentially murdered by timewasters. Two of the contributors helpfully pointed out that, “nihilism inescapably returns to haunt the project, in the form of a creeping instrumentality that ensnares every end into a circular subservience to mere efficacy.” No economist numbered amongst the windbags and Derrideans. There is something unjust about this – about the littleness of the critical response to this book’s appeal – since Srnicek and Williams have repeatedly gone out of their way to spare people’s feelings. Inventing the Future is an excruciatingly diplomatic polemic.
Gently, the authors point out the futility of what they describe as “folk politics.” You are often marvelling at their politeness. They commend the Occupy movement for drawing “significant mainstream press and television news attention to issues of economic justice.” From their depiction of Occupy, readers who cannot remember it (surely a 99% in itself) might assume that this protest was a form of popular culture that had inexplicably failed to leave any mark upon contemporary politics. One can still read between the lines. Inventing the Future is never realistically able to avoid wounding and alienating many on the Left. Any sincere weighing up of “folk politics” shows it to be hopelessly divorced from the classic imagery of people power that it normally evokes. In disdaining “politics transmuted into pastime – politics-as-drug experience, perhaps,” the authors bid a firm “go home” to countless young activists and write off an awful lot of their politics.
Left-wing “folk politics” is no doubt politically insignificant and magnified only because most of the surrounding Left is now so small. One sometimes wonders why the authors do not dismiss “folk politics” out of hand, rather than bothering to try to keep its rag-bag on side. The gulf between localism and the authors’ power politics is effectively as wide as that between conservatism and socialism.
The book’s main thesis is that the Left needs to engineer an alternative “common sense,” just as proponents of neoliberalism had done when ousting Keynesianism:
… neoliberalism was a fringe theory. Its adherents found it difficult to gain employment, were often untenured, and were mocked by the Keynesian mainstream… Neoliberalism was never a given, never a necessary endpoint of capitalist accumulation… It succeeded by skilfully constructing an ideology and the infrastructure to support it, and by operating in a non-folk political manner.
This line of argument has been clipped whole from Guy Standing’s The Precariat (2011). The authors even single out the same quote that Standing had curated from neoliberalism’s enfant terrible Milton Friedman: “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.” This may seem rather like scripture quoting the Devil, but Friedman’s words hand down both a plan and a precedent that are closely tailored to the requirements of the latter-day Left.
Friedman and his Mont Pelerin Society co-conspirators had “built up an entire ideological infrastructure that was capable of insinuating itself into every political issue and every fibre of political common sense.” Srnicek and Williams want to marshal their own intellectual class, an army of opinion formers and think tanks that will venture out into the media to manufacture consent and promote false consciousness. The obvious danger looms of ending up as distant from the masses as any neoliberal political party. When the authors call for “insistent demands charged with belligerence and antagonism,” their technocratic tone sounds comically at odds with the coveted belligerence. When they are aspiring to translate “medium-term goals into slogans, memes and chants,” one cannot help picturing the forlorn politician Nicola Murray from The Thick of It. It is surely patronising to assume that anybody can be stirred up with a meme – why not a good incendiary opera?
Marx had never personally used the term “false consciousness” and the chief theoretical weakness of Inventing the Future lies in its failure to interrogate its own comfort with this dubious notion. Such an interrogation would probably reveal that neoliberalism had not manipulated millions of working people into abandoning social democracy – it had simply bought them off. Moreover, recent politics confirms how variable the mass mind can be.
The authors despair of how “political mobilisation becomes a dream that is perpetually postponed, driven away by the anxieties and pressures of everyday life,” but this unfortunate line is now immediately contradicted by Brexit. Barely a year after Inventing the Future was published, Brexit has left this book’s game plan in disarray. Brexit, rather than neoliberalism, offers the most encouraging template for Inventing the Future to follow. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage did not sinisterly insinuate themselves into public consciousness over decades. They were clownish opportunists who found themselves surfing the head of a spontaneous current in politics that washed everything away.
With Brexit, the “Overton window,” a spectrum that is used by policymakers to gauge the political acceptability of new proposals, has itself flown out the window. UKIP, after all, managed to overturn half the international order without ever being politically credible. If Srnicek and Williams have ruled out a Brexit-style takeover, and they instead wish to smuggle change past unsuspecting citizens, then this speaks to the lack of confidence behind their appeal to the masses.
With their fantasies about a new Mont Pelerin Society, Srnicek and Williams overlook one that already exists: the “network” that had replaced the UK’s terminated Revolutionary Communist Party after 1996. The RCP broke up, or moved on, into the consecutive magazines LM and spiked, and the think tanks the Institute of Ideas and the Manifesto Club. The RCP’s allegiants are viewed by their critics as “entryists” who are infiltrating the media just as the Mont Pelerin Society do in Srnicek and Williams’ narrative. Former RCP members now appear regularly in national newspapers and on the BBC.
The neo-Marxism of the post-RCP and its guru Professor Frank Furedi can be located at roughly the same point on the political map as Srnicek and Williams’ impatience with anti-capitalism. Furedi’s politics is often interpreted as “revolutionary defeatism,” an unremarkable libertarianism, or a straightforward sell-out to corporate clients. In Furedi’s estimation, we are stuck with capitalism and “hollowed out” political parties, but, rather than indulge in further Marxist agitation, we should commit to defending the core humanism of the Enlightenment. As the Left increasingly disintegrates, human agency is the one value that should be clung on to.
Much of Phil Mullan’s career after the RCP was in business management and he salutes us from the movement’s economic flank. His new book Creative Destruction: How to Start an Economic Renaissance argues that the fall of the Berlin Wall had left capitalism only superficially supreme, since the capitalists have internalised the same scepticism towards human agency as many of their defeated opponents. In Mullan’s ambiguous assessment, Marxism is not exactly wrong but just not possible in the present era of capitalism: “Working out how to overcome the limitations of a profit-driven economy is not today’s priority.” There can be no revolutionary overthrow of capital because “the working class’s demise… brought that era of possibilities to an end.” Mullan tells a story of declining productivity and economic atrophy across the West, concluding with a call for a “fourth” industrial revolution.
The urgency and single-mindedness of his futurism is familiar from Inventing the Future. The two books prove equally copper-bottomed in their humanism. Inventing the Future is at its surest and most fecund on the philosophical terrain but altogether weaker in its political application. The authors hold “a vision of humanity as a transformative and constructible hypothesis: one that is built through theoretical and practical experimentation and elaboration.” Humanity, in other words, will be whatever we want it to be. Some of this underlying scale is reflected in the sheer ambition of the UBI. The authors think the UBI big enough to be “capable of generating support from across the political spectrum – from libertarians, conservatives, anarchists, Marxists and feminists, among others.” Yet Inventing the Future finds it easier to call for a UBI than it is to budget for one. The authors are never tempted to play around with the figures:
While the problem of funding UBI appears immense, most research in fact suggests that it would be relatively easy to finance through some combination of reducing duplicate programmes, raising taxes on the rich, inheritance taxes, consumption taxes, carbon taxes, cutting spending on the military, cutting industry and agricultural subsidies, and cracking down on tax evasion.
Is that it? – “most research”? – “some combination”? The footnote to this paragraph cites four pages from two books and a newspaper article. It is not quite the New Deal.
Where Srnicek and Williams are economically wishy-washy, Mullan is agreeably hard-nosed. A lot of Creative Destruction is dedicated to myth-busting. Mullan expends most of his energy in simply trying to provide a faithful and reliable account of Western economies. He rips away the various fig leaves so we can see how tiny productivity really is. Bursts of hotshot economic growth are downgraded to mere evidence of the “resilience” of capitalism. The insincerity of corporate investment in research and development (R&D) is put into unflattering perspective. We assume that we are living in a productive society, Mullan chides, because of the apparently incredible advances in the internet and digital technology, but this actually represents a very narrow band of production. Agriculture, healthcare, housebuilding, industry, and transport remain pretty much where they were in the 1970s. Indeed, he reminds us that the world went faster when Concorde was around.
There are significant differences between the two books, the sharpest of which is their respective positions on automation. Mullan discounts the prospect of a “rise of the robots” rather too summarily and he argues that more automation will inevitably lead to a multiplication of human jobs. It is not in the evident interests of employers to make more employment but Mullan blithely assumes that they will, as if this is an ahistorical outcome of capitalism.
With his dedication to the nitty-gritty, Mullan nevertheless achieves some of the “Overton window” seriousness that Srnicek and Williams are hankering after. Like Inventing the Future, though, Creative Destruction does not venture very far from where it begins. I was disappointed with this book because I read it on a Kindle and I therefore had no grasp of its size. As it crept towards its ending, I assumed that it was building to a lengthy final chapter in which Mullan would show what the economy could look like as vividly as he had shown what it does look like. Instead, there was a perfunctory overview of the technologies that might feature in the new economy. In this respect, the book’s subtitle “How To Start An Economic Renaissance” is something of a broken promise.
In fairness, Mullan makes the argument that R&D is inherently unpredictable and that trying to finance it through existing capitalism is a fool’s game. It is here, where we are hungry for specifics, that Creative Destruction decides to broaden out. Mullan warns that, “the biggest challenges are not objective, economic, constraints. They lie in the realms of ideas and imagination, culture and politics.” The following critique of Western civilisation is strident and, one suspects, rather Germanic (the term “creative destruction” has itself got a venerable and mostly German history). Modern policymakers are accorded the same role that Friedrich Nietzsche gave to Plato and his ilk – that of the “veil makers” who weave comforting illusions and deny the reality of life. Mullan is often in implicit agreement with Nietzsche’s rage that, “The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far?”
Mullan argues that recessions purify the economy “through the destruction of less competitive firms and the consequent boost in productivity.” The last industrial revolution concurred with the Second World War and indeed “the destruction of capital assets in Germany and Japan as a result of military defeat facilitated a more thoroughgoing economic restructuring and higher levels of productivity than in the UK or US…” It seems that human ingenuity comes to the surface only during crises and that we should rejoice in upheaval.
One is struck by the contradiction that Mullan thinks Marxism to be impractical and “creative destruction” to be still sellable on the doorstep. He admits to his prospective customers that, “the process of creative destruction will mean economic ruin, adding to areas already severely affected by deindustrialisation.” We are left with a dispiriting gap between what the economy requires and what is so far politically acceptable in our democracy. Mullan’s refusal to press on with his book appears to confirm that he cannot, at least without resort to an idealism that is at odds with his previous hard-headedness.
So both books are in effect prefaces and there are still volumes to be written.