By Roger of Radical Think Tank, and Radical Assembly Education group
Some time back in the analogue days of the 1980s I was sitting in a room with three other nerdy, design-obsessive anarchists, working out the founding principles of the worker and housing co-op federation Radical Routes. While I was a staunch pacifist, Russ opposite me was a militant class war man. We were at daggers drawn most of the time, but we were both unusual in being totally focused upon the minute practicalities of social revolution – or as Russ put it, “so how are we going to run the bus service?”
By the nineties, in the halycon days of “capitalist realism” and with dreams of revolution fading, I semi-retired in a sulk to grow organic veg in Wales. But now, after forty years of defeat, recrimination, escapism, and general miserabilism the structural tide has started to turn. In the last few years, glimmers are at last appearing in the hide-outs of the radical left – a sense that perhaps history is returning to our side. There is a new embrace of a radical futurist modernity based upon the ever-increasing emancipatory affordances of the automation revolution, social media and open source technologies, a refreshing reconnection with the half forgotten lineage of the anti-work tradition. This fusion of utopian idealism with hard headed empirical realism is what makes Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future the most important book of the year. Along with the publication of Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism, this will be seen at a pivotal year in the development of the radical intellectual left – a time of new found confidence in confronting neoliberal hegemony.
But of course, not so fast. At the authors advise, having a strong argument is one thing – changing society is quite another. This may well be a thirty year project, maybe more. In the meantime there is an urgent organisational challenge: to connect intellectual argument with practical, grounded strategies for political mobilisation. New think tanks, radical media platforms, local community assemblies and campaigning networks need to come together, to form clear, ambitious, concrete and collective objectives.
The book is not without its shortcomings of course. Their critique of ‘folk politics’ – the orthodoxy of volunteerist horizontalism and localism – joins a growing discontent with these exhausting “tyrannies of structurelessness”, but there is little suggestion of what specific transformations are required. Their regularly repeated position that ‘folk politics is necessary, but …’ ignores how folk political practice itself can be vastly improved. For example, the cognitive revolution taking place in empirical social science, from behavioural economics to mindfulness, is helping to transform business management and conservative political strategy – and yet the left has made no such use of this new paradigm. There are reams of research that could inform and improve the effectiveness of direct action, of the communication of radical ideas, and the functioning of our organisations. On this educational challenge, we have recently founded a “Radical Think Tank”, to coordinate projects that develop empirically tested best practice for radical change. Inventing the Future, in its admittedly understandable focus on the long game, has left little room to discuss how to transform our political organising right now.
Other reviewers have flagged up their own omissions and criticisms, such as in the excellent series of responses on the Disorder of Things website. The core argument however stands firm: that the trajectory on the left must shift away from firefighting on local battles against austerity, towards developing a broader project of how to bring about radical change in a world of expanding technology.
So how about that fully automated luxury bus service? As Nick and Alex implore us, let’s imagine: free travel, on driverless buses, run on solar powered electricity. Cleaning and maintenance performed by robots. An internet-of-things for logistics and timetabling. A socialised Uber-style vehicle sharing. And in case this sounds too soulless and tech-y, each month an online crowd sourced competition selects a new artistic makeover for the vehicles, hand painted by volunteers. A service that is free, both monetarily and creatively. And of course, should money still be necessary, everyone will be on a generous universal income to ensure we all reap the benefits of socialised automation.
All this is possible, if not today then certainly in a future that is dawning rapidly. We just need to invent it.
Buy a copy of Inventing the Future from Verso Books here