I was very excited to listen to this talk between Paul Mason (well known to many from Channel 4 News) and Canadian Nick Srnicek. However, this was like being on a very serious, earnest rollercoaster, thrilling in its twists and turns, but leaving me feeling dizzy, frustrated and slightly disappointed at the end of the ride. I wanted to hear what ideas they had for a postcapitalistic world, as this is a subject I am passionate about. Paul Mason began like a firework, with a highly articulated, forcefully delivered summary of the ideas outlined in his latest book, Postcapitalism. The moderator was unusually engaging, and amusing too, but at times making assumptions about the audience’s viewpoints on Scottish independence. Maybe she knew her Glasgow audience better than I did. Nick Srnicek, a young Canadian author, there to discuss his book (written with Alex Williams) Inventing the Future, drew the short straw in a way, as he understandably wasn’t up to speed when the discussion invariably turned to Scotland’s independence.
Interesting, how much the idea of Scottish independence became woven into the conversation about possible futures. It was suggested that it was a reaction to the loss of community in Scotland and also predominantly an economic issue, and yet ultimately put down to a cultural movement. Identity politics, defined in their rallying around a shared culture in opposition to traditional class loyalties, were lumped into one; without a more subtle understanding of the issues underpinning them. Their attempt to lump in Scottish Independence with Black Lives Matters didn’t sit well with me. This argument needed to be teased out in a coherent way, because if you accept that the BLM movement necessarily has to include class struggle as it fights inequalities beyond police brutality, only then the same could be said for the movement for Scottish independence, perhaps? Is it even possible to define a movement purely as identity politics as the inequalities being fought against are always bound up with class? That debate is for another day.
Paul Mason suggested that utopias based on work are over and that people are no longer defined by their work. This is quite a North American/Eurocentric idea, surely, which most of the debate seemed to be. Various case studies in Europe, in countries such as Greece and Spain were cited to show how extremely individualistic the UK is, and indicated as having the lowest level of cooperatives in Europe. Nick Srnicek suggested that the mindset of competition that we live and breathe was now an extreme of neo-liberalism and this continual need to brand yourself in order to get a job had the direct effect of breaking down communities. Mason suggested that we are seeing a very new stage in capitalism and that there is something unique about the most recent boom-bust cycles that we have seen. With the vast explosion in information, much of it becoming free, prices were starting to dissolve and the idea of work becoming disconnected from wages. Modular work; both increasingly decentralised and horizontally organized was becoming the norm but that it was actually highly unusual for capitalism.
Nick Srnicek’s stress on the creation of a positive alternative future to which to look forward was a valid one, as it’s a hell of a lot easier to shrug off a cloak of apathy and garner the energy to make great changes if you can believe something much better is going to come from it, rather than just trying to side-step environmental and social Armageddon. He suggested that we could create a post-work economy that was based around leisure and embracing full automation. I wondered how much the mechanisation of agriculture is sustainable, knowing that organic agriculture without the use of GMOs generally needs a greater workforce. We have a great deal of work to do to stop the tipping point into ecological disaster, and I would think we need to include this in worthwhile work, paid or otherwise. Perhaps I am becoming a grumpy, middle-aged bourgeoise in pointing out the buts in their utopian vision. No, I just wanted them to go even further.
A interesting definition came from Paul Mason; one of neo-feudalism, a word used to describe the monopoly on the exchange of information by Google or Facebook. This ties in with the possibility of linking up social movements to effect lasting change. The Arab Spring came to mind. Srinicek’s despair at the Left’s inability now to effect any lasting or substantial change is due to that the pockets of resistance like the Occupy movement have a tendency to fizzle and die out due to a lack of centralised structure and organization with one another. You can understand his frustration with the Left, and his disagreement with thinkers like Noam Chomsky that a loose configuration of groups opposed to capitalism is about as good as it can get under the tight grip of capitalism. There wasn’t time to tease this out, but his book suggests that the Left take up a more centralised structure of organisation in order to be effective, but how this is to be done without the watchful eye of the corporations is anyone’s guess.
What seemed to be missing from the debate was any mention of what economic base their ‘socialist utopia’ was based on. I asked Srnicek after the talk how their utopian society with their 30 hour working week and a basic income for all, (sounding similar to Green or Hugo Chavez’ revolutionary ideas) fitted with the dismantling of neo-colonial structures, and it seemed as if this hadn’t been considered enough. He suggested that it was a separate debate, like the environment but also agreed that it was all ultimately intertwined. Srnicek suggested throughout his talk that we embrace automation, instead of fighting it, and use all the advancing technologies to free ourselves from the binding drudgery of many hours of work.
The myriad cascade of thoughts tumbling forth were interesting and stimulating, but there seemed to be no anchoring in ‘reality’, however you define that, but for me, that reality needs to include both the very real underpinnings of a finite earth and the dependency on extremely low wages and low priced raw materials, extracted by coercion, violence and war. But I wondered how far the definition of ‘ourselves’ extends, for if you are basing your utopian economy on the proliferation of technology, does this extend to the child slaves suffering in the Congo to mine and produce coltan for your latest smart phone?