On Algorithmic Communism
By Ian LowrieJanuary 8, 2016
Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams
IN THE NEXT FEW DECADES, your job is likely to be automated out of existence. If things keep going at this pace, it will be great news for capitalism. You’ll join the floating global surplus population, used as a threat and cudgel against those “lucky” enough to still be working in one of the few increasingly low-paying roles requiring human input. Existing racial and geographical disparities in standards of living will intensify as high-skill, high-wage, low-control jobs become more rarified and centralized, while the global financial class shrinks and consolidates its power. National borders will continue to be used to control the flow of populations and place migrant workers outside of the law. The environment will continue to be the object of vicious extraction and the dumping ground for the negative externalities of capitalist modes of production.
It doesn’t have to be this way, though. While neoliberal capitalism has been remarkably successful at laying claim to the future, it used to belong to the left — to the party of utopia. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future argues that the contemporary left must revive its historically central mission of imaginative engagement with futurity. It must refuse the all-too-easy trap of dismissing visions of technological and social progress as neoliberal fantasies. It must seize the contemporary moment of increasing technological sophistication to demand a post-scarcity future where people are no longer obliged to be workers; where production and distribution are democratically delegated to a largely automated infrastructure; where people are free to fish in the afternoon and criticize after dinner. It must combine a utopian imagination with the patient organizational work necessary to wrest the future from the clutches of hegemonic neoliberalism.
Strategies and Tactics
In making such claims, Srnicek and Williams are definitely preaching to the leftist choir, rather than trying to convert the masses. However, this choir is not just the audience for, but also the object of, their most vituperative criticism. Indeed, they spend a great deal of the book arguing that the contemporary left has abandoned strategy, universalism, abstraction, and the hard work of building workable, global alternatives to capitalism. Somewhat condescendingly, they group together the highly variegated field of contemporary leftist tactics and organizational forms under the rubric of “folk politics,” which they argue characterizes a commitment to local, horizontal, and immediate actions. The essentially affective, gestural, and experimental politics of movements such as Occupy, for them, are a retreat from the tradition of serious militant politics, to something like “politics-as-drug-experience.”
Whatever their problems with the psychodynamics of such actions, Srnicek and Williams argue convincingly that localism and small-scale, prefigurative politics are simply inadequate to challenging the ideological dominance of neoliberalism — they are out of step with the actualities of the global capitalist system. While they admire the contemporary left’s commitment to self-interrogation, and its micropolitical dedication to the “complete removal of all forms of oppression,” Srnicek and Williams are ultimately neo-Marxists, committed to the view that “[t]he reality of complex, globalised capitalism is that small interventions consisting of relatively non-scalable actions are highly unlikely to ever be able to reorganise our socioeconomic system.” The antidote to this slow localism, however, is decidedly not fast revolution.
Instead, Inventing the Future insists that the left must learn from the strategies that ushered in the currently ascendant neoliberal hegemony. Inventing the Future doesn’t spend a great deal of time luxuriating in pathos, preferring to learn from their enemies’ successes rather than lament their excesses. Indeed, the most empirically interesting chunk of their book is its careful chronicle of the gradual, stepwise movement of neoliberalism from the “fringe theory” of a small group of radicals to the dominant ideological consensus of contemporary capitalism. They trace the roots of the “neoliberal thought collective” to a diverse range of trends in pre–World War II economic thought, which came together in the establishment of a broad publishing and advocacy network in the 1950s, with the explicit strategic aim of winning the hearts and minds of economists, politicians, and journalists. Ultimately, this strategy paid off in the bloodless neoliberal revolutions during the international crises of Keynesianism that emerged in the 1980s.
What made these putsches successful was not just the neoliberal thought collective’s ability to represent political centrism, rational universalism, and scientific abstraction, but also its commitment to organizational hierarchy, internal secrecy, strategic planning, and the establishment of an infrastructure for ideological diffusion. Indeed, the former is in large part an effect of the latter: by the 1980s, neoliberals had already spent decades engaged in the “long-term redefinition of the possible,” ensuring that the institutional and ideological architecture of neoliberalism was already well in place when the economic crises opened the space for swift, expedient action.
Srnicek and Williams argue that the left must abandon its naïve-Marxist hopes that, somehow, crisis itself will provide the space for direct action to seize the hegemonic position. Instead, it must learn to play the long game as well. It must concentrate on building institutional frameworks and strategic vision, cultivating its own populist universalism to oppose the elite universalism of neoliberal capital. It must also abandon, in so doing, its fear of organizational closure, hierarchy, and rationality, learning instead to embrace them as critical tactical components of universal politics.
There’s nothing particularly new about Srnicek and Williams’s analysis here, however new the problems they identify with the collapse of the left into particularism and localism may be. For the most part, in their vituperations, they are acting as rather straightforward, if somewhat vernacular, followers of the Italian politician and Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci. As was Gramsci’s, their political vision is one of slow, organizationally sophisticated, passive revolution against the ideological, political, and economic hegemony of capitalism. The gradual war against neoliberalism they envision involves critique and direct action, but will ultimately be won by the establishment of a post-work counterhegemony.
In putting forward their vision of this organization, they strive to articulate demands that would allow for the integration of a wide range of leftist orientations under one populist framework. Most explicitly, they call for the automation of production and the provision of a basic universal income that would provide each person the opportunity to decide how they want to spend their free time: in short, they are calling for the end of work, and for the ideological architecture that supports it. This demand is both utopian and practical; they more or less convincingly argue that a populist, anti-work, pro-automation platform might allow feminist, antiracist, anticapitalist, environmental, anarchist, and postcolonial struggles to become organized together and reinforce one another. Their demands are universal, but designed to reflect a rational universalism that “integrates difference rather than erasing it.” The universal struggle for the future is a struggle for and around “an empty placeholder that is impossible to fill definitively” or finally: the beginning, not the end, of a conversation.
In demanding full automation of production and a universal basic income, Srnicek and Williams are not being millenarian, not calling for a complete rupture with the present, for a complete dismantling and reconfiguration of contemporary political economy. On the contrary, they argue that “it is imperative […] that [the left’s] vision of a new future be grounded upon actually existing tendencies.” Automation and unemployment are the future, regardless of any human intervention; the momentum may be too great to stop the train, but they argue that we can change tracks, can change the meaning of a future without work. In demanding something like fully automated luxury communism, Srnicek and Williams are ultimately asserting the rights of humanity as a whole to share in the spoils of capitalism.
Inventing the Future emerged to a relatively high level of fanfare from leftist social media. Given the publicity, it is unsurprising that other more “engagé” readers have already advanced trenchant and substantive critiques of the future imagined by Srnicek and Williams. More than a few of these critics have pointed out that, despite their repeated insistence that their post-work future is an ecologically sound one, Srnicek and Williams evince roughly zero self-reflection with respect either to the imbrication of microelectronics with brutally extractive regimes of production, or to their own decidedly antiquated, doctrinaire Marxist understanding of humanity’s relationship towards the nonhuman world. Similarly, the question of what the future might mean in the Anthropocene goes largely unexamined.
More damningly, however, others have pointed out that despite the acknowledged counterintuitiveness of their insistence that we must reclaim European universalism against the proliferation of leftist particularisms, their discussions of postcolonial struggle and critique are incredibly shallow. They are keen to insist that their universalism will embrace rather than flatten difference, that it will be somehow less brutal and oppressive than other forms of European univeralism, but do little of the hard argumentative work necessary to support these claims. While we see the start of an answer in their assertion that the rejection of universal access to discourses of science, progress, and rationality might actually function to cement certain subject-positions’ particularity, this — unfortunately — remains only an assertion. At best, they are being uncharitable to potential allies in refusing to take their arguments seriously; at worst, they are unreflexively replicating the form if not the content of patriarchal, racist, and neocolonial capitalist rationality.
For my part, while I find their aggressive and unapologetic presentation of their universalism somewhat off-putting, their project is somewhat harder to criticize than their book — especially as someone acutely aware of the need for more serious forms of organized thinking about the future if we’re trying to push beyond the horizons offered by the neoliberal consensus.
However, as an anthropologist of the computer and data sciences, it’s hard for me to ignore a curious and rather serious lacuna in their thinking about automaticity, algorithms, and computation. Beyond the automation of work itself, they are keen to argue that with contemporary advances in machine intelligence, the time has come to revisit the planned economy. However, in so doing, they curiously seem to ignore how this form of planning threatens to hive off economic activity from political intervention. Instead of fearing a repeat of the privations that poor planning produced in earlier decades, the left should be more concerned with the forms of control and dispossession successful planning produced. The past decade has seen a wealth of social-theoretical research into contemporary forms of algorithmic rationality and control, which has rather convincingly demonstrated the inescapable partiality of such systems and their tendency to be employed as decidedly undemocratic forms of technocratic management.
Srnicek and Williams, however, seem more or less unaware of, or perhaps uninterested in, such research. At the very least, they are extremely overoptimistic about the democratization and diffusion of expertise that would be required for informed mass control over an economy planned by machine intelligence. I agree with their assertion that “any future left must be as technically fluent as it is politically fluent.” However, their definition of technical fluency is exceptionally narrow, confined to an understanding of the affordances and internal dynamics of technical systems rather than a comprehensive analysis of their ramifications within other social structures and processes. I do not mean to suggest that the democratic application of machine learning and complex systems management is somehow a priori impossible, but rather that Srnicek and Williams do not even seem to see how such systems might pose a challenge to human control over the means of production.
In a very real sense, though, my criticisms should be viewed as a part of the very project proposed in the book. Inventing the Future is unapologetically a manifesto, and a much-overdue clarion call to a seriously disorganized metropolitan left to get its shit together, to start thinking — and arguing — seriously about what is to be done. Manifestos, like demands, need to be pointed enough to inspire, while being vague enough to promote dialogue, argument, dissent, and ultimately action. It’s a hard tightrope to walk, and Srnicek and Williams are not always successful. However, Inventing the Future points towards an altogether more coherent and mature project than does their #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO. It is hard to deny the persuasiveness with which the book puts forward the positive contents of a new and vigorous populism; in demanding full automation and universal basic income from the world system, they also demand the return of utopian thinking and serious organization from the left.
Ian Lowrie is a graduate student in anthropology at Rice University. His current project focuses on the changing relationship between industrial and academic data scientists in Moscow, and on how their collaboration is restructuring higher education in applied mathematics there. He also works as the book review editor for the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft, and as an associate editor for the CASTAC blog. When he isn’t in the field, he lives in Houston with his exceptionally wonderful fiancée and entirely too many cats.
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