Behind the News, Doug Henwood (b. 1952), Dr. Alex Williams, Dr. Nick Srnicek (b. 1982), KPFA, Marxian economics, neoliberalism, Occupy Wall Street, Pacifica Radio Network, refusal of work, transcript, unconditional basic income (UBI), universal basic income (UBI)
LUMPENPROLETARIAT—As we’ve noted recently at Lumpenproletariat, discussion of an unconditional basic income (UBI, or universal basic income) policy proposal has increasingly become something of a trending topic on the left. The refusal of work as a human tendency or behaviour, with or without a political or philosophical program, goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. And, since at least the time of classical political economists, such as David Ricardo, the notion of technological unemployment has anticipated that automation will lead to mass unemployment or the obsolescence of wage labour. In other words, machines are anticipated to eventually replace human workers in most areas of society.
Although wage labour is usually taken for granted as an inevitable fact of modern life, diverse theorists and thinkers have questioned its necessity. And, given technological unemployment, at least regarding simple reproduction and the social provisioning process, the question becomes: What should society do about its redundant population? Should they be criminalised as vagrants, profligates, or debtors for their inability to find work and pay their own way? Or should the redundant population be emancipated from the increasingly arbitrary world of wage labour? (On a related philosophical thread, this also touches on various movements to abolish money.) 
Addressing some of these questions on this week’s edition of free speech radio’s Behind The News, economic journalist Doug Henwood spoke with Dr. Nick Srnicek and Dr. Alex Williams about their 2015 monograph, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso Books), which was revised and expanded in October of 2016. The interview delved into the monograph’s topics, including a critique of contemporary political timidity on the left (e.g., Occupy Wall Street’s aversion to defined direction and clearly articulated goals), a review of neoliberal successes on the right (e.g., Hayek‘s Mont Pelerin Society agenda), and an advocacy for an unconditional basic income as a path towards ending the contemporary sociopolitical hegemony of wage labour relations. Notably, however, the interview lacked an awareness of another class consciousness-raising policy, of which most UBI advocates are usually ignorant, the MMT-based job guarantee (JG) programme (or ELR, employer of last resort). The UBI and the JG/ELR are often viewed or presented as being incompatible, although they need not be. Listen (and/or download) here. 
[Working draft transcript by Messina for Behind The News and Lumpenproletariat.]
BEHIND THE NEWS—[6 APR 2017] [KPFA announcement] [station identification by Erica Bridgemen(sp?)]
“Hello, I’m Doug Henwood. And we’re moments away from Behind The News. Today, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams will talk about moving beyond folk politics. But, first, some [KPFA] News Headlines.
[KPFA News Headlines (read by Max Pringle) omitted by scribe] (c. 6:10)
DOUG HENWOOD: “Hello; and welcome to Behind The News. My name is Doug Henwood. Two guests today, and simultaneously, not in sequence: Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, co-authors of Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. The book was first published by Verso in 2015 and, then, reissued in an updated, expanded edition last October.
“The broad topic of the book is contained in its title. It is a critique of the timidity of so much left politics today and an argument for a future, in which machines do more of our work and humans do less. An important part of it is this advocacy of a universal basic income (UBI), an idea with a long history, that has recently gained adherents and critics across the political spectrum. It refers to a provision by the state of a basic monetary grant to all citizens, which runs into the problems of citizenship, which we’ll hear later, regardless of their work status. We’ll have more on the UBI on future shows.
“Now, Nick Srnicek—he’s the one with the Canadian accent—and Alex Williams, with the English accent. [Audio seems to cut to pre-recorded interview.]
“The book opens with a critique of folk politics, which I found very invigorating. Although, you seemed to [chuckles] step back from it in your afterword. What is folk politics? And why should we, uh, be concerned about it?” (c. 7:48)
DR. NICK SRNICEK: “I think another name for folk politics might have been, uh, a politics of immediacy. And, partly, our argument was against this sort of turn towards a lot of localised ideas, local alternatives, and the idea that these things are sufficient on their own—the same sort of tactics, that were used in Occupy Wall Street, where they just simply don’t scale up beyond, you know, maybe, a few hundred people. And these sorts of things become really problematic when you want a politics, that actually can grapple with global complexities.
“It seemed to us that it had become sort of a common sense idea that these sort of tactics and these ideas and strategies, uh, they needed to be critiqued because, in part, they were at the heart of why something like Occupy Wall Street, despite mobilising millions of people, still failed in the end to make any sort of significant social transformation.” 
DOUG HENWOOD: “There’s also a reticence about goals. How does that fit in with the organisational issues?”
DR. ALEX WILLIAMS: “Well, I think the issue about goals, as we recall a particularly important one for Occupy Wall Street, but also for other movements around the same time—so, there was a student movement in the U.K. around the same time, which was very much sort of ideologically and organisationally structured in a similar way. It’s based on consensus decision-making and a deliberate refusal of leaders and even a kind of refusal of, kind of, goals. Although, that did have a bit more of an obvious protest dimension to it.
“What we kind of see is that there’s a kind of refusal of goals, which is partly because of the fact that the way these organisations are kind of internally structured meant that they wanted to enable consensus decision-making to occur, which always involved pushing back as much as possible a definitive programme, even at the level of kind of large-scale future goals. As soon as you say that you want something, then that means that certain groups will be annoyed by that; certain groups won’t want to take part anymore.
“There was a privileging of the kind of organisational form over its political efficacy.”
DOUG HENWOOD: “Did this all emerge from a reluctance to make demands, that would prove to be divisive, that would threaten the group’s unity? Or is there something else at work, an unwillingness to think grandly or to speak of where one wants to go because it would exclude other destinations? How do you link this, this combination of organisational diffusion with a reticence about goals?” (c. 10:13)
DR. ALEX WILLIAMS: “The two always occur together. You know; it’s partly that there has been a lack of large-scale leftist thinking. Or there has been. I think this is improving now. But I think that in the kind of era around, and immediately in the wake of the [Global] Financial Crisis, what it really exposed was the paucity of detailed leftist political thinking, that wasn’t massively academic in its focus. And it’s just this sheer absence of viable options beyond windy declarations around some sort of metaphysical communism or sort of very milquetoast Keynesian, social democratic options. The coverage was a bit threadbare.
“So, I think the fact that people hadn’t really thought of what they want, that maybe they know what they didn’t want, but defining down exactly what they did want, I think that there was definitely an absence there. And this absence was there for historical reasons.” (c. 11:04)
DOUG HENWOOD: “It’s funny. We’re recording this on the anniversary of, uh, Joseph Stalin’s assumption of the role of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [chuckles]. But there is that spectre of Stalin, that was hanging over these conversations about, both, organisation and goals, that people think you’re moving in a Leninist direction or a Stalinist direction if you start talking about some kind of enduring organisation; but you’re also putting us at risk of gulags, if you start talking about major, ambitious transformations. So, the way of avoiding these problems seems to be, uh, to be modest in terms of organisation and ambition.”
DR. NICK SRNICEK: “Yeah. And I think, partly, it leads to a really sort of defensive and small-scale, small-c conservative idea about what politics is all about. It becomes a matter of just, you know, defending people and their situations, as they exist now, without any sense that we can actually transform the conditions, which are leading to these sorts of outcomes.
“It’s partly a matter of the defeat of the left. The left has been knocked back for decades now. And, as a result, the idea of dreaming big has been lost.”
DR. ALEX WILLIAMS: “I think also, in terms of the kind of issue of Stalinism, we need to think about the broader kind of historical sequence here. And you can see organisations, like Occupy Wall Street, you know the immediatist politics, as very much being the result of a particular dialectic. So, this begins with the New Left in the 1960s, 1970s—and is associated with feminist and natural rights movements— who make accurate, for the most part, criticisms of some of the existing leftist organisations, that they tended towards unchecked authority. It was often abusive. And these are criticisms, that we largely share.
“If you take that kind of vector and you continue it too far, you end up with this totally acephalous, amorphous form of politics, which is, you know, even to the extent where you have people saying: Well, I can’t speak for anybody else in this movement. There’s a degree of individualism, which, at times, I think, with digitally-mediated movements can be good ‘cos it means there’s very low costs of entry. They can kind of customise the kind of messaging of the organisation. But, at the same time, the rejection of any long-term goals or any kind of persistent institutions is problematic.
“Persistent institutions need not be equivalent to Stalinism. That seems kind of a hyperbolic argument to suggest that. What’s necessary is to come to terms with the accurate aspects of the New Left—a critique of the older left organisations—but not, basically, junk all persistent institutions or goals because you end up with a kind of politics, which is continually having to reinvent the wheel, continually having to learn the same lessons because it has lacked any institutional memory. And this is paralysing, I think.” (c. 14:03)
DOUG HENWOOD: ” [additional transcription pending] “
[snip] (c. 59:59)
Learn more at BEHIND THE NEWS.
VERSO BOOKS—[accessed 6 APR 2017] A major new manifesto for the end of capitalism. Neoliberalism isn’t working. Austerity is forcing millions into poverty and many more into precarious work, while the left remains trapped in stagnant political practices that offer no respite.
Inventing the Future is a bold new manifesto for life after capitalism. Against the confused understanding of our high-tech world by both the right and the left, this book claims that the emancipatory and future-oriented possibilities of our society can be reclaimed. Instead of running from a complex future, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams demand a postcapitalist economy capable of advancing standards, liberating humanity from work and developing technologies that expand our freedoms.
This new edition includes a new chapter where Srnicek and Williams respond to their various critics.
Learn more at VERSO BOOKS.
The book begins (chapters 1–2) by critiquing dominant left-wing thinking in the West, suggesting that since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s it has been characterised by a “folk politics” which aims to bring politics down to the “human scale”. By emphasising temporal, spatial, and conceptual immediacy, folk politics tends to privilege reacting to change (through protest and resistance) over imagining new long-term goals; the immediate and tangible over the abstract; personal involvement in direct action over institutional responses; single issues over complex strategies; horizontal organising over hierarchical; and the local over the large-scale. While arguing that these approaches are important and can at times be effective, Srnicek and Williams argue that they are insufficient to tackle global capitalism and specifically neoliberalism.
In chapter 3, Srnicek and Williams contrast left-wing folk politics with the success of neoliberalism in achieving global cultural hegemony. This is illustrated by the long-term, top-down strategising characterised by the Walter Lippmann Colloquium and Mont Pelerin Society, the development of networks of think-tanks, and positioning of neoliberal ideas and thinkers in government and media. This strategy enabled neoliberals to offer a set of ready-made policies to leaders looking for new ideas in the wake of the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the 1970s oil shocks. Srnicek and Williams suggest that the Left needs to adopt similar strategies. Accordingly, in chapter 4 they argue that the Left needs to offer a positive vision of a new modernity, embracing the importance of dismantling hierarchies of gender and race while also accepting that promoting universal human values is necessary to achieve a progressive vision of the future and positive freedom.
Chapter 5, ‘The Future isn’t Working’, identifies a crisis in capitalism’s ability (and willingness) to employ all members of society, arguing that ‘there is a growing population of people that are situated outside formal, waged work, making do with minimal welfare benefits, informal subsistence work, or by illegal means’. Chapter 6 argues that a ‘Mont Pelerin of the Left’ should press for:
- Full automation of as much work as possible.
- The reduction of the working week, redistributing the remaining work more equitably.
- The provision of an unconditional and generous income for all citizens.
- The diminishment of the work ethic.
Srnicek and Williams argue that it is necessary to raise the costs of labour in order to incentivise investment in labour-saving technologies, envisaging a positive feedback loop between a tighter supply of labour and technological advancement. Chapter 7 argues that to achieve these goals, the Left must invest in establishing a new hegemonic status for these ideas, building on the successes of capitalism, repurposing its structures, and investing in scholarly research and the modelling of emergent policies.
The final chapter argues that an ‘anti-work’ or ‘post-work’ politics—providing a clear vision of a future where people work less—should appeal to a broad enough range of different interest groups to be the basis for a populist movement. The chapter sketches how this populism needs to be harnessed to get post-work politics into mainstream media, intellectual life, trade unions, and political parties, and how the pressure points where direct action can be targeted have changed as capitalism has undermined the power of organised labour to disrupt production.
In November 2015, the book was the subject of a symposium, involving its authors and a number of other thinkers who presented critical responses to the book. The proceedings was published in blog format at the academic International Relations blog The Disorder of Things.
Reviews of the book include:
- Rich Jevons, ‘Book Review: Inventing the Future’, The State of the Arts (12 November 2015), http://www.thestateofthearts.co.uk/features/book-review-inventing-the-future/
- Neal Lawson, ‘Review of Inventing the Future’, Compass (12 February 2016), http://www.compassonline.org.uk/review-of-inventing-the-future/
- Ian Lowrie, ‘On Algorithmic Communism’, Los Angeles Review of Books (8 January 2016), http://lareviewofbooks.org/article/on-algorithmic-communism
Learn more at WIKIPEDIA.
 On the abolition of money, the anarchist schools of thought have been some of its biggest advocates. Mutualism is an anarchist school of thought which can be traced to the writings of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who envisioned a society where each person might possess a means of production, either individually or collectively, with trade representing equivalent amounts of labor in the free market. Since the time of Proudhon, collectivist anarchism (also known as anarcho-collectivism) has represented a revolutionary doctrine, which advocates the abolition of the state and private ownership of the means of production. Instead, it envisions the means of production being owned collectively and controlled and managed by the producers themselves. This contrasts with anarcho-communism where wages would be abolished, and where individuals would take freely from a storehouse of goods “to each according to his need.” The Anarchist Editorial Collective’s FAQ contrasts collectivist anarchism with communist anarchism this way:
The major difference between collectivists and communists is over the question of “money” after a revolution. Anarcho-communists consider the abolition of money to be essential, while anarcho-collectivists consider the end of private ownership of the means of production to be the key. As Kropotkin noted, “[collectivist anarchism] express[es] a state of things in which all necessaries for production are owned in common by the labour groups and the free communes, while the ways of retribution [i.e. distribution] of labour, communist or otherwise, would be settled by each group for itself.” Thus, while communism and collectivism both organise production in common via producers’ associations, they differ in how the goods produced will be distributed. Communism is based on free consumption of all while collectivism is more likely to be based on the distribution of goods according to the labour contributed. However, most anarcho-collectivists think that, over time, as productivity increases and the sense of community becomes stronger, money will disappear.
 Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving: Behind The News, this one-hour broadcast hosted by Doug Henwood, Thursday, 6 APR 2017, 12:00 PDT.
 Dr. Williams and Dr. Srnicek critique folk politics, which is akin to the critiques of the contemporary left posited by Dr. Jane F. McAlevey, which seeks to move the left beyond the constraints of temporal and shallow mobilisations and defanged advocacy to goal-orientated organising.
[Image of book cover by source, used via fair use.]
[6 APR 2017]
[Last modified at 19:56 PST on 7 APR 2017]