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The radical future has to become a radical present. Interview with Nick Srnicek

We have to get rid of the centrality of work to our lives. We have to build alternatives.

Jakub Dymek: What’s behind the idea of a ‘radical future’ on which you and Alex Williams just wrote a book?

Nick Srnicek*: The core argument is the idea that the left has given up on the idea of the future and we have to reclaim it. With changes to the labour market, through automation, we can start building towards something like a post-work society.

We have to get rid of the centrality of work to our lives. We have to build alternatives.

There are four demands. One, to push for automation – let’s automate all the drudgery and hard work that we can. The second key demand is to reduce the working week – a classic demand in the labour movement, preferably by having Friday off and having a three day weekend. The third demand is for universal basic income, having a sum of money distributed to everybody in society regardless of whether they work or not. What it does is enable people to survive without having to work. This isn’t only a redistribution mechanism for helping the poor, but also a political tool that empowers large groups of people: you don’t have to listen to your horrible boss, you can strike indefinitely, and you don’t have to take a job that you don’t want. The fourth demand we make in the book is to end the work ethic. Every time that demands such as these above are presented, there are people asking the question, “What would we do without work?” And this is because the work ethic became so central to who we are, how we think of ourselves, and how we communicate and socialise with people. Even those who hate work (and there are many) nevertheless have to participate in a society that valorises jobs, and that primarily enables socialising through the workplace. We have to get rid of the centrality of work to our lives. We have to build alternatives.

Work makes you bereft of life!

Basic income, less working hours, longer leaves and better on and off job social security – how is that different from what social democratic parties propose? You could easily trace these ideas to programs that used to be (and in some places still are) introduced by the established left.

Classic social democracy wants everybody in full time employment, and only there comes benefits, retirement, and security. And if you are unemployed, it’s temporary. I don’t think that this project applies to today’s world anymore: work is more precarious, people work less, traditional benefits don’t work, and there’s much bigger risk of unemployment. This is where universal basic income actually helps. To give just one example: research shows that when somebody is unemployed for a long time, they eventually will get a job, but it’s worse than their previous one. Their skills deteriorate and in the end it’s worse for them as well as worse for society. If you can take that time off – go to school or get new skills – instead of looking for any job that pays, you’d be more flexible, self-sufficient, and confident. There’s a major benefit in that, whereas there’s only limited in today’s scenario.

Universal basic income doesn’t cut you from your already existing safety net and social security?

There’s two versions of UBI, left and right. The right says, “the welfare state, housing benefits, child benefits, healthcare – we’ll get rid of that and just give people a lump sum of money.” Such an idea would put every service on the market, basically marketising everything. This is why people like Milton Friedman like the idea.

A UBI that tries to get rid of the welfare state will inevitably turn into a neoliberal dystopia.

I think it’s really important for the left to articulate a different vision of UBI – one where the state also provides things like childcare, healthcare, and pensions. So let’s retain all of these, but also give people a chunk of money. You can’t get rid of the welfare state, and a UBI that tries to will inevitably turn into a neoliberal dystopia.

Historically state-driven moves towards a more egalitarian labour market and a flat wage scale were largely unsuccessful when they removed incentives to work. Socialist industrialisation projects everywhere from China to Poland had their troubles with mobilising workforce and eventually had to turn to more diverse schemes of paying and awarding workers. However almost full-employment in West Germany and the US at the same time didn’t have that big of a problem with it.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reindustrialise countries. I believe that with a reduced working week and UBI people won’t stop doing anything with their lives – they will pursue projects and will channel their desires to do something meaningful in many different ways. This can include helping others, taking care of the family, participating in communal life – these are all extremely important things for sustaining our society. We also already have a group of people who are living the post-work dream: retired people. They don’t have to work anymore and what do they do? They often volunteer, they are taking part in community life, they are supporting grandchildren, and so on. I think this is good evidence for what people – given more free time and possibility – would do.

OK, let’s focus on policies in place already. The Government of Poland recently introduced a guaranteed social benefit for families with two or more children, a little more than 100 euro per child, which, piled up can easily amount to one third or more of somebody’s income on the market. This – for many reasons – may be the closest approximation of UBI societies that we see in emerging economies, and it’s promoted by the conservatives.

There’s something very important about universal benefits: they create a political constituency that will defend it.

I see a couple of good things about it. First, it’s universal. Many people are against the fact of the rich receiving money as well, but there’s something very important about universal benefits beyond that:  they create a political constituency that will defend it in the future. If everybody is getting the benefit, everyone tends to support it. Even in the US there’s wide acceptance for universal benefits.

What I also like about such ideas: there’s a certain recognition of the fact that people need at least some support to raise children. That being said, the problematic aspect is tying the benefit to children. I know that Poland, and especially this government, is very family-centric, but families aren’t the only ones who need social support in a world of precarity and joblessness. We need a basic income, not an incentive for families. Not only because we have too many people in this world as it is…

I wouldn’t say it’s the safest way and most politically sound way of presenting this.

Yeah, surely not in Poland! [laughs]

The money issue. Even if every government wanted to have universal basic income, they wouldn’t necessarily have a way of doing it. Isn’t it then a better – and perhaps the only possible – idea to start with smaller groups of citizens before going universal?

It’s best to start with experiments.

In terms of achieving a basic income, I would say it’s best to start with experiments. Start distributing money in closed environments, see where it gets you, start getting people used to the idea. A basic income is still such a radical idea that people need to be accustomed to it first. I don’t think targeting particular groups of people is the right way: it creates a stigma, and it doesn’t create a large political constituency. Universal programs get rid of the stigma: everybody just gets the money in their bank account, no questions asked.

But I have to say: UBI is a long term proposal, in my opinion, we won’t get there in 10 years. But a more achievable demand is the reduced working week (already implemented to some degree in France – though this is being rolled back as we speak).

The fantasy of the middle class: exploitation in a Romanian call centre

Let’s go back to labour markets. You say it’s more and more precarious. There’s a counter-argument to that, one that has been raised a couple of times in polemics with Guy Standing as well. The labour market isn’t more precarious than it was in pre-war US for example, with people waiting in the front of a factory for one-day employment, no rights against sacking workers, et cetera. Job security in the modern sense was a historical anomaly.

Yes, I agree that what was created after the Second World War in western economies was a unique moment of job security, growing wages, and full employment. However what we can do? We can try to go back to the 1950s and the full employment – but certain aspects and conditions of these times cannot be replicated, first and foremost the devastation of WWII. Back then you had devastated economies and a huge opportunity to grow quickly. By contrast, today’s economies are growing incredibly slowly. And every mainstream economist is wondering why the global economy isn’t shooting off, despite their every effort. In addition, because of the discontent of 1930s, the rise of fascism in the pre-war era, post-war governments in the west were consciously aiming to realise full-employment and trying to get as many jobs as possible. But today, governments have given up on that in favour of austerity. Last but not least, in the golden age of post-war capitalism, almost half of the population, women, were confined to the household to take care of the children – so there was a smaller labour supply. These are all conditions you cannot replicate today. The world of good permanent jobs was a unique moment of capitalism that is now behind us.

You cannot leave out the fact, that in the so called golden era of US capitalism, American society was still a segregated one. And this can be economically exploited: you deliberately exclude one group from better opportunities, and thus create an easy way of advancement for the other.

Of course. It wasn’t until late the 60s or 70s when black Americans gained full access to manufacturing jobs, but then manufacturing jobs left the US as a result of automation and globalisation. With that, it just exacerbates the problems of ghettoization, poverty, inequalities, and joblessness (black unemployment is routinely double that of white unemployment, for instance).

Abolish Work, The Robots Are Coming!

One of the steps to the radical future that you propose is automation. When and where, historically, has automation improved labour standards?

Good question. Let me give you one example: dock workers. Prior to introducing machines in the docks, dock workers had to get on the ship, unload heavy loads, basically destroying their bodies in the course of a few years. Now there’s robots doing that. We’ve managed to eliminate some of the most arduous and physically demolishing work (along with similar work in agriculture, manufacturing, and many other industries).

And less dock workers.

But we want less people working – we want people to have more free time to do what they want. We talk about liberty from governments all the time, but equally important is liberty from bosses. The challenge is to build up a social system where people are able to survive without working.

There’s at least two approaches here. One says that it’s technology that has improved conditions for workers – the dock workers in your examples. The other stresses the fundamental aspect of labour struggles for rights, because without it, the owners of docks or steel mills or mines would never take worker’s well-being into consideration. The irony is that people mining minerals for these robots – in China, Kongo or Ukraine – work in despicable conditions in order to supply the process leading to them eventually being laid-off.

Technology changes possibilities and costs, but it doesn’t determine outcomes. That’s up to politics.

Absolutely – technology changes possibilities and costs, but it doesn’t determine outcomes. That’s up to politics. Dockworkers are a good example, as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in the US has used its power as a union to be able to control the adoption and use of technology in ports for decades now. This has meant that wages have been maintained, and workers have benefited from the introduction of new technology.

China is an interesting case here too, since they have a pretty strong labour movement. They’re also experiencing a real wage rise in last 15 or so years, leaving many other countries in the world cheaper. What happens in turn is there are more companies willing to automate the work done there. Foxconn and others are discussing this. On the other hand, China is also the economy that invests the most in workplace robots, just because of rising wage demands and the wish to stay as the industrial powerhouse that they are.

This conflict is inevitable because we live in a capitalist society. Eventually these machines will become cheaper and capitalists will replace labour with machines, and what then? For all the reasons mentioned earlier, I don’t think a full employment policy will work in the future, so what it leaves us with as an alternative is some kind of post-work society.

Isn’t the Chinese struggle just the single most important then? The question of 1.3 billion people getting a retirement or some form of benefit, or not getting them at all, might weight on the future more than whatever happens to the length of the workweek in Europe.

Let me take a macroeconomic argument with that. There’s a huge amount of savings there, because there’s no retirement, so if you want to have a pension, you have to save. Why that’s interesting, is because having all those savings demands finding a way of investing that money or keeping them somewhere – so they buy US treasury bonds among other things, like real estate. It keeps US interest rates low, and people like Ben Bernanke argue that it was indeed the glut of Chinese savings that caused the 2008 crisis. So I agree with you, what happens to the biggest labour market of them all is a crucial thing for the future. I also think that the Chinese government already knows that, and is trying to move towards a model where more money is spent then saved. And how that it is done will have a bigger impact than what happens here, in Europe.

Sacred Retail and Progress

So if China is thinking increasingly more in terms of a domestic market, consumption, demand, buying power of wages et cetera… why isn’t the US yet? The presidential campaign of 2016 is highlighting this issue, there’s more talk of trade and industry, and the need for bringing jobs back than ever before.

Well the situation is quite different for the US – particularly since you have both global labour markets now and highly advanced manufacturing technologies. Since the fall of the USSR, the global labour market has basically doubled, which has also meant that offshoring manufacturing was easier than ever. There was a whole new supply of cheap labour for manufacturers to move their factories elsewhere. If the UK or US wanted to get that manufacturing back, they would have to compete with the cheapest labour on earth. And with new technologies, those jobs are eventually going to be lost to robots anyway. (On a side note, there are big problems for developing countries here, as manufacturing used to be the way to transition to higher-value sectors – but that’s no longer an option). With the US and the UK, you do have some manufacturing coming back to these countries with so-called re-shoring, but it’s not bringing more jobs back with it.

Neither can money nor skill intensive, but an extremely low labour intensive business model that emerged from Silicon Valley can.

Facebook has like 12 000 workers, Google like 60 000…

…and these are the biggest ones.

The whole world is deindustrializing. Unless you reverse this trend, there’s no recipe for reindustrialization.

Exactly, and yet they’re incredibly highly valued companies. There is research showing that the newest industries of the economy (broadly, what we’d consider the digital economy) employ about half a percent of the working population – they’re not jobs creators, fact. Part of the fact we used to have high employment was that we had manufacturing which demanded a lot of people for development, and now we don’t. The whole world is deindustrializing. The amount of people working in manufacturing is decreasing, services are growing, so unless you reverse this trend, there’s no recipe for reindustrialization.

One might say that the Silicon Valley presents arguments not that different: with robots and automation there soon will be a technical fix for everything. Maybe we’ll work less, too. How much do you see your argument in line and how much against this logic?

Technology is a force that can work for us, but we have to build political capacity to be able to use it to our benefit. We don’t propose a technological fix, we don’t think technology can change anything on its own. What we’re saying is we need a change to the relation between our life and labour, so that we have more time for the previous, without the latter consuming us. Our argument is political, and this involves building a force amongst the precarious, the unemployed, the young, the marginal, and all those excluded from traditional wage relations.

Post-work society. Who and how is going to make it possible?

The million dollar question… It’s not going to be achieved right now, let’s say that clearly. Today, a lot of political energy is coming from anti-austerity movements. But I think that the anti-austerity message wasn’t that successful in the UK and elsewhere because it lacked the proposal for what next. We have to know what to propose instead of just being against something. What are we for? And that’s where post-work society can be something which guides and directs our efforts.

Our Own Personal Labor Camps

Wait, is saying that the Left is unsuccessful because they don’t have a vision, implying that the Right is, because they have one?

They have, since the 1970s, been very good at pushing what Karl Polanyi called ‘market utopianism’ – the idea that if we unleash the forces of the self-regulating market, we’ll get to a utopian future. Now that’s not a very credible vision of the future, nor is it an optimistic one – but at least it is one.

I think that this post-work story is a good one for the left to adopt, particularly given the changes affecting the world economy today. I don’t think it is the only one, and I’d be happy to accept other stories. But we have to have a positive vision of society if we’re going to move beyond defensive actions.

How sustainable is an economy organized around your demands? For example, the push for the most skilled workers and making sure there’s constant will on the side of people to strive for those jobs, by educating themselves, and thus a creating demand for higher education.

What we propose is not post-capitalism.

In most cases this is about paying some jobs more than others. What we propose is not post-capitalism. There’s still wage labour, there’s still need for GDP growth, et cetera. The universal basic income provides a basic floor beyond which your income cannot fall. But there would still be market incentives in the system to work at different jobs. But importantly, the relative value of these jobs would change, given that people would no longer be coerced into doing them. Many of the most socially necessary, but undignified and dangerous work, would require paying people more to do them.

But if the GDP doesn’t grow at some fixed rate…

Yeah, I see where you’re going. The problem with GDP growth, is that when it stagnates today, you start losing job growth, and there’s a need to do something around it because frustration starts growing as well. For example, a guaranteed income would present a solution to these waves of recession. In terms of taxation and generating the revenues for a basic income, the solution is to emphasise capital taxation more than income taxes.

Migration. How can the project for universal basic income and today’s record number of refugees and economic migrants looking for stability elsewhere go hand in hand?

This is an important issue, but we also need to be clear about the worrying logic of this argument. The logic of this argument is that we cannot have too nice of a society, because we’ll attract too many people. I’m not denying there’s an issue, but there’s something perverse about that logic.

But if we look at migration research, people mostly migrate because of push factors instead of pull factors. Pull factor would work when you see something very nice abroad and want to move there because of that. Push factor, which is much more common, is when because of some circumstances you’re pushed out of the place where you know the language, customs, and where you have networks of colleagues, friends and family. Usually people do not wish to leave it behind, unless something is pushing them to. As it is the case today, most notably with Syria.

With really good universal basic income, the way to deal with migration is to have in mind the push factor, while not overextending the pull factor. I believe the way it works in the UK – that you have to work some years to obtain benefits – would work in this scenario as well.

Does Your Work Make Sense? Sorry, But it Doesn’t

One can argue that the US system, which does guarantee the right to asylum, but unlike Europe not much more than that in terms of welfare, is actually better at integrating migrants into American society. More women work, there’s a smaller incentive to live the traditional, patriarchal family, and there is an economic reward in proving yourself in the workplace and so on. Capitalism actually breaks down traditional models of living as we all should know.

Capitalism certainly breaks apart traditional modes of living, and the US is a good example of that. The problem is that it doesn’t provide an alternative beyond individual self-interest, and mutual competitive hostility between individuals. So the US can be quite good at breaking down the limits of tradition, but at the same time it leaves people entirely before the force of the market. You end up with mass homelessness, high levels of poverty, reliance on food stamps to survive, and some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates in the developed world. My preference would be for a system that both enables people to escape traditional constraints, while also giving them the tools to create new worlds and new modes of living.

Before we finish talking about Radical Future, I want to ask you how your views changed since the Accelerate Manifesto? Since it first came out there were more than few conflicting interpretations, many things have happened in these past couple of years, too. Do we still need to accelerate?

Well…

Do we? [both laugh].

I do not use the term “accelerate” anymore just because, as you’ve said, it leads to so many conflicting interpretations. We’ve tried so many times, in the manifesto as well, to differentiate between speed and acceleration, but it gets confused. Actually, in the physics definition, acceleration can mean stopping and reversing as well. It’s not a matter of speed, but changing direction. But the term, as you see, was confusing and not helpful anymore.

What changed since we used the term “to accelerate” is possible practical uses. You see, the manifesto is a very philosophical text, laden with terms that require reading Deleuze and Guattari to understand, and not even everybody having read those would understand… The new book on the other hand is something for everybody with some basic interest in politics.

What we’re more interested in now is practical policies: how do you combine migration and UBI, reduced working week with the need for growth and job creation, how do you cope with increased labour costs? Basically, what do we do to achieve it? Shortly speaking: how does the radical future become a radical present?

 

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*Nick Srnicek is a lecturer at City University. He is the author of Platform Capitalism (Polity), Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (Verso, with Alex Williams), and the forthcoming After Work: What’s Left and Who Cares? (Verso, with Helen Hester).

Featured image courtesy of Humans of Late Capitalism.

Bio

Jakub Dymek

Journalist, editor and translator.