Regarding the book:
* Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. Verso, 2015
I must confess, I have not read the book yet, but I am familiar with the ‘accelerationist’ manifesto, with various reviews and discussions on the book, etc .. There is probably not a single book that has been recommended to me so many times by p2p friends, usually in the context of the book that has to be read in conjunction with Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism, which I am in the process of reading, and appreciating.
I believe though that it is fair to say that the authors criticise the dominant ‘left’ on two points
* that the left has become localist , and that his is wrong
* that the left has become negative in its vision of the future, and must positively re-embrace technology and its emancipatory potential
It proposes that two demands should become a priority for change agents: full automation and the universal basic income.
Here then is my commentary on how I believe the p2p/commons movement should position themselves regarding ‘accelerationism’.
First of all, though we do share the critique of localism, it is perhaps not from the same perspective.
it is very important, in a conjuncture of global and national ‘blockage’, that local re-organizing of life and livelihoods take place. It is very necessary to re-organize the supply chains of the basic stuffs needed for life, even as we no that we will never be able to do it ‘just locally’. It is in other words, necessary but not sufficient. What is also necessary, and vital, is to combine the local with the global, not just naturally, because the local is now in any case ‘glocal’, through the networks, but consciously. It is important to organize knowledge, even as it is locally embodied, in global and open productive communities which can share knowledge, expertise and experience. It is just as important to create global phyles, i.e. ethical livelihood organisations that are organized our commons and create power and scale for the alternatives. And it is just as necessary to connect his with social and political movements that are able to scale to any level of governance. In other words, it is entirely counter-productive to see localism and localists as misguided or even as enemies. On the contrary, they are taking the first important steps in a reorganizing of our mode of production.
A second important remark is about the role of technology and automation. In my opinion, most of the debates are very misguided. Of course, it is useless to deny that there is a new push towards automation, especially as it targets the more routine aspects of knowledge and service work, and risks displacing millions of people. But that has happened before and each time, a new economic wave replaced the old one creating new jobs in new sectors. And the reason is simple, automation does not just destroy, it liberates human energy and resources to do entirely different things. To be fair, that is in essence the thesis of the book, which clearly sees both sides. Hence the problem is never just automation, but the economic structure in which this automation is embedded. And under neoliberal capitalism, the gains are not re-invested in any new productive economy. The problem therefore is the economic system and the prevailing social contract, not the ongoing automation.
But does that mean that we should just embrace automation? This seems to me a very dubious proposition. Technology and technological systems are areas of contention and conflict, and serve material interests. In my opinion, the shift towards sustainable and organic agriculture, which is absolutely vital to feed the world population (it is more productive that extractive industrial agriculture), and is also vital for soil restoration , carbon sequestration and hence reversing climate change. It is highly doubtful that such a transformation requires anything as simplistic as full automation. It does require automation, if that is what farmers desire, that is entirely subsumed to the goals of the organic farmer. What they need is ‘appropriate technology’, with human participation in its design and deployment. So the ‘p2p’ approach is one that combines technological development by open productive communities who share their knowledge, freely appropriate by local communities and entities which embody these technologies in their context. refusing them if necessary. I am far from certain that in truly democratic societies, there will be the same push for full automation than under contemporary capitalism, where it is motivated by the desire to obtain more productivity for gain. Can the dream of the commoners, really be the same as the dream of capital, which is to free itself from labor entirely ? In peer production, where work is driven by intrinsic motivation and passion, work may precisely not be seen as a drudgery to be liberated from. To me it seems clear that if we have participatory decision-making, various human groups will make various decisions about how far they want to go with technology, so a full automation politics, seem to imply an imposition.
Finally, we must briefly discuss the basic income. I am in favour of the basic income, but also see grave difficulties. First, there is the danger of considering it as a magic mantra, that will solve everything, while concretely, we do not have and it may be unlikely to achieve it. Secondly, the basic income leaves untouched the remaining logic of the commercial and extractive economy, but precisely because it takes away labor as a commodity, it may be unpalatable as a reform measure. Let us not be misled by the current basic income experiments slated in the Netherlands and Finland, which appear first and foremost as projects to eliminate the welfare state. 800 Euro does not even cover rental needs in a country like Finland.
What is seems to be in the end, is that the combined demand for full automation and the basic income, functions as an utopia, and while utopias are very useful to free the mind and the desires and show possibilities, they are also dangerous. They appear to be a political program to unite a variety of forces, who win power and then, afterwards, can start changing things. But what if we do not gain power this way ?
At the P2P Foundation, we see that a bit differently. The first task is to create prefigurative livelihoods which actually embody different post-capitalist logics, and to build social and political forces around this concrete transformative change. The Commons Transition Plan outlines some of the proposals we see emerging for a transition program for future political majorities. This is something that Paul Mason, who does not follow the emergence of these productive communities and their ethical entrepreneurial coalitions as closely as we do, nevertheless clearly sees in his book.
In the end, asking for two utopian demands that are extremely hard to achieve and impose, seems an expression of the traditional leftist strategy, that we must first win power, and then ‘we will change everything’. The alternative is to build the future right now, to change the mode and relations of production where we can, right now, and to build political power and transition proposals on the basis of a counter-hegemony that has already changed reality through its practice and strength.
Readers of Inventing the Future are welcome to tell us what part of peer to peer dynamics and commons development are part of their story. And of course, I promise to read the book soon-ish and not to have misinterpreted too many things in this critique.
It is of course not a question to seek to place ourselves in opposition to Accelerationism, but simply to clarify some of the differences in the underlying approach. Technology obviously plays a big role in our approach. We believe that the technological basis of commons-based peer production, the capacity to share knowledge universally and globally, to create a knowledge-intensive mode of production with the knowledge embodied in the machines (as the designs are in 3D printing), around global platforms for sustainable living and production, will be a key to a free, fair and sustainable world. In that sense to productively marry technological possibilities with new forms of social and productive organisation, we may well be aligned with the accelerationists.”