Against Think-Tank Socialism: a Review of ‘Inventing the Future’

The following originally appeared at Cosmonaut

Jean Allen reviews Srnicek & Williams’ ‘Inventing the Future’, which calls for an intellectual counter-hegemony to neoliberalism. Does this proposal for counter-hegemonic institutions really put anything new on the table, or just reflect the prevailing organizational norms of the existing left?

When Inventing the Future came out, it immediately became the target of a series of relatively uninteresting critiques. This wasn’t accidental: the book is very self consciously a gadfly text meant to sting the left into a particular strategy, and it is purposefully oriented in opposition to much of the Left’s practices. This makes it the difficult kind of book where, despite its flaws, the critiques are often worse than the book itself. Despite the small uproar the book created, few of these reviews hit the mark. This problem comes from an utter lack of critical tools available to current socialists which have produced few critiques that are able to take in the entirety of Srnicek & Williams’ argument.

One could separate Inventing the Future into two arguments: first, their practical one, and second, their policy platform. These proposals, including the abolition of work and the furthering of automation (or “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”, or FALC as the meme goes), understandably got most of the attention, alongside their argument that the left should surrender its particularism and return to a universalist and future-oriented viewpoint. Because there has been quite a bit of writing on this aspect of the text, I will bracket it, excepting a discussion of what these arguments meant from a practical standpoint.

In the period when Inventing the Future was written, the Left was at an interregnum. The long wave of direct action based activism, which in the United States started shortly after McCarthyism ended any hope for Communist politics, had been running on fumes through the entirety of the 00s, with some of the most inspired texts of the time acting as a basically total critique of activism as it currently existed (from nihilist communism to communization to the post-left). The frontism and isolated activism of the Bush years were unable to survive into the Obama administration, and along with every other Left in the world the American left was completely incapable of responding to the financial crisis, a failure which brought the beginnings of the newest act of the ongoing rightward shift which has afflicted world politics and which we are currently dealing with the problems of.

Occupy seems to many to be the bright point during this period, the beginning of a new, anti-capitalist politics. But if Inventing the Future is any proof, the ‘new politics’ emerged mostly in negative. Occupy, which was set up by the Adbusters milieu, had a strict opposition to hierarchies, goals, or mediation of any kind, which made it if anything more of a culmination of post-left tendencies around during the 00s than the beginning of something new. And the new socialist groups which emerged immediately after Occupy, from Jacobin to the left accelerationists, were very much formed around a critique of the politics that surrounded Occupy.

Srnicek & Williams characterize these tendencies as ‘folk politics’, a term which includes many of the left’s horizontalist, particularist, and localist aspects under one critique: that they are all products of the left’s inability to look beyond the horizon and theorize what the future should look like. To quote their “#ACCELERATE MANIFESTO“:

We believe the most important division in today’s left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology. The former remains content with establishing small and temporary spaces of non-capitalist social relations, eschewing the real problems entailed in facing foes which are intrinsically non-local, abstract, and rooted deep in our everyday infrastructure. The failure of such politics has been built-in from the very beginning.

There is unquestionably a degree of truth in this critique. As I argued in my review of Kauffman’s Direct Action, the greatest tragedy of the repression that characterized the 90s and 00s is that it led to the Left forgetting its own history—and with that, it lost the context for the strategies and tactics it used. It, therefore, theorized its own weakness by retreating into a series of strategies which justified its own weakness: a fear of cooptation went hand in hand with remaining within one’s cultural milieu, horizontalism was substituted for larger organization building, and a fetishization of powerlessness became an excuse for lack of political ambition.

The alternative that Srnicek & Williams propose is in many ways better than what came before: the post-left era’s distaste with envisioning the future,  the narrowing of its ambitions to promoting simply the possibility of an alternative. A conversation between the primitivist post-left and left-accelerationists needs to happen. Whatever the shortcomings of both tendencies, between the absolute bound of FALC and the absolute limit of primitivism, I think the left can begin to etch out a vision of a better future.

But that ‘better future’ is only significant to us in so far as it provides a map of practices with which to implement that future. Which moves us from the policy platform to their practical program: how do they plan to implement this post-work future? Well, through think tanks, of course.

Yeah.

There are two ways of conceiving this argument, which are associated with ‘broad’ and ‘narrow’ definitions of what the authors mean by think tanks. I will address the broad definition quickly because that is relatively easy to do. The broad definition of a leftist think tank includes all leftist activities which work towards changing the ‘common sense’ of society. It would include book clubs, journals, even this blog. This definition has a certain internal consistency, and I would agree with this in an analytical context.

The issue is that if one proposes this as a novel solution to the problems of the left one is quickly confronted by the fact that intellectual projects have been a major aspect of the left since its inception. Occupy, the very object of Srnicek & Williams’ objections, was started by a call to arms from none other than that leftist thinktank, Adbusters. Which may lead to the conclusion that Srnicek & Williams merely want slightly different think tanks proposing slightly different policies more in line with their own, an argument which ignores both a large section of their practical analysis and the tone with which they present their argument. Thus while I would agree that most intellectual activity can be placed under the same banner, it would be disrespectful to Srnicek & Williams to argue that they were avidly and excitedly proposing the creation of something which clearly existed right in front of their faces.

So what is the narrow argument for think tanks? Inventing the Future presents this strategy through an analysis of the rise of neoliberalism and the think tanks and intellectual groups who slowly moved the ‘common sense’ of bureaucrats in various governments until pro-market policies were the only option imaginable within the halls of power. These groups worked over elites in all circles for decades building a ‘counter-hegemonic’ consensus and, over the course of decades, toppled the competing Keynesian consensus. Srnicek & Williams propose that we recreate this strategy in reverse, working to create counter-hegemony and to build a new common sense out of ‘non-reformist reforms’, seemingly common sense goals which are unachievable under capitalism.

This ‘operational’ aspect of Inventing the Future has been seriously under-critiqued (with some notable exceptions), usually being glossed over before turning to what one agrees or disagrees with regarding the book’s programme. Indeed, the sense one gets from many reviews is that these “think tanks” are merely set dressing, a machine that produces the actual ideas up for debate. This is why the book is such a perfect target of an organizational materialist critique because it allows us to place this text in its context and critique it holistically rather than flipping through the practice to yell at the theory.

The unsuitability of a ‘neoliberalism in reverse’ strategy, of creating socialist think tanks that slowly change the status quo, is not limited to the standpoint of future socialist transformation—such a strategy requires utterly different resources than the socialist movement currently has and is likely to have in the years to come. How is one to build a movement to support these discourses and not just come back to the same formation that led to the book’s writing?

This structure is detailed in their last chapter, titled Building Power. In it they critique the limited unity of the whole Movement of Squares era, forced by either proximity or by opposition to tyrannical regimes, and that they should replace this with a ‘populist’ unity which can connect issues of class, race, gender, and sexuality together into a singular logic. This is a perfectly fine concept, but then comes the kicker:

From the anti-globalization movements, to Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, numerous Latin American movements, and Occupy across the Western world, these movements have mobilized large cross-sections of society rather than just particular class interests.

Ignoring that the Marxist in me wants to scream about just how ‘particular’ the class interests of the proletariat are, let’s speak to the way that the left-accelerationist/Jacobintendency uses this language of left-populism.

Left populism as a discrete strategy dates to the mid-80s when Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe wrote Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. They build on Gramsci’s concept of hegemony: that an advanced capitalist state can rule through cultural consent, mediating between different factions within the ruling class and between the ruling class and the middle class. Laclau & Mouffe combined this argument with developments in linguistics to create what they refer to as left populism, post-Marxism, or radical democracy. Through this analysis, they advocate for a strategy wherein the creation of counter-hegemonic discourses—which would not be tethered to those old leftist constructs like the working class or the left-right divide—would be allowed to create a movement which mediates between different groups of the popular classes.

This analysis gained increasing popularity in the Left in the late 00s, coming into force after the Occupy movement with the parties Srnicek & Williams cite, in the Jacobin left in the United States, and in the left-accelerationist tendency that produced Inventing the Future in Britain.

Setting aside the tragic—but no less absolute—failure of Syriza, Podemos seems like a good example of this model in action. The transformation of the party from a body of ‘radical democratic’ councils to a centrally managed electoral party which was really an apparatus of a ‘neo-Leninist communications theory’ seems like the ideal move from folk politics to accelerationist politics as defined in Inventing the Future. And it was seen as such and lauded in other connected milieus as the next big thing after Syriza’s failure against the troika of European and financial interests.

The fact of the matter is that this discursive strategy has failed. Podemos lost much of their momentum after the transition to this more central and ‘normalized’ party, especially after a right-wing party—Ciudadanos—appeared using the same kind of discursive strategies. The party now seems stuck in third place, despite having unified with several other groups since the 2015 elections. Similarly, left-populist movements in the rest of Europe don’t seem to be getting the massive success despite all the old bugbears they drop, up to and including replacing the red flag with the national one and accepting right-wing arguments about migrants and the importance of the nation.

The sad conclusion of this is—even in the ideal state that Srnicek & Williams point to—this discursive strategy of building an intellectual group who has a party does not work. Hegemony is more than a series of common sense ideas, more than can be overcome with any number of memes, jokes, articles or dinner table arguments. It is supported and created by a series of institutions, most of which aren’t democratic. As is clear in the case of Ciudadanos, or more recently with “Abolish ICE”, it is an immensely easy matter for the media to co-opt and defang radical discourses. The discursive strategy proposed by Srnicek & Williams fundamentally misdiagnoses the problem and proposes a solution that is critically incapable of solving it.

Which brings us to a larger question: why was the book’s central argument in favor of an intellectual-activist axis ignored? Why was most of the fervor at Inventing the Future based on its platform rather than its program?

Let us return to the ‘broad definition’ of a think tank, which consists of any kind of intellectual activity, and consider the makeup of the left at the time. In 2013–2014 when Srnicek & Williams were writing Inventing the Future, the Anglophone left could be narrowed down to two kinds of non-party groups: more directly activist groups, and an increasingly large nexus of blogs, Tumblrs, Facebook pages, journals, newspapers, and magazines which all sought to do basically what Srnicek & Williams describe—to change the common sense, to develop a counter-hegemony through their intellectual activity. So this think tanks-as-vanguard ideal represented an agreeable organizational situation for leftist intellectuals. A world where their intellectual work was not only important but gave them leadership over the broader left is really the best endpoint for an intellectual property rentier one can imagine, so it makes sense that the critiques one could see in larger media outlets were not the organizational/strategic argument that “media outlets should be the vanguard of the left”, but what specifically that vanguard should do.

Thus, the failure of criticism that surrounds Inventing the Future implicates not just the left accelerationist/Jacobin tendency, but the whole US left, as being fine with the structure of the thing if prone to quibble over the details. But as I noted, if we accept that the medium-term goal of Inventing the Future is merely to recast the Anglophone left into an intellectual-activist axis in which the intellectuals are in charge, then we return to the precise thing that the book was written against: a magazine calling for action.

This is not to diminish their accomplishments. The tendency which Inventing the Future is a part of has played a part in the greatest expansion of the Anglophone left since the 1970s. I would not even disagree that intellectual and discursive work is going to play an important role if the Left is to continue to work towards socialism. But it cannot be the only work and it cannot be primary. Intellectual work needs to be connected to the organizations of the working class if we want to avoid cooptation and recuperation, to keep pushing forwards. The act of invention, despite the popular myth, does not stop in the garage. It involves steps of engineering, funding, testing and manufacturing, a process which includes far more than just the individual genius who discovers a new technique. Similarly, if we are to win then we cannot be satisfied with merely schematizing the future, but need to build it as well.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s