Sam Kriss wrote a pretty good critique a little while back in Viewpoint Magazine of the arguments of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams around automation, universal basic income, and futurism, outlined in their book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015). Kriss talks about quite a few things, some more philosophical than others, but one argument that stood out was whether successfully winning UBI would actually put the working class in a better position to fight for real socialism/communism, and how this relates to the alleged tension between big, national visions and local “folk politics”.
To briefly summarize the book: Srnicek and Williams argue that the left has been paralyzed by what they call “folk politics”: a cluster of practices characterized by localism, horizontalism, prefiguration, direct action, and direct experience. All these forms privilege immediate suffering and immediate struggles – folk politics isn’t getting us anywhere, they argue; it fights small battles on fractured terrains, without any master plan for a transformed society, and even there it loses. We’re trapped in nostalgia for a lost era of Maoist revolution or social-democratic comfort, and all the while the world is slipping into a digitized apocalypse. To halt the coming catastrophe, the left needs to offer an enticing vision of the future, and Srnicek and Williams have such a vision. We should demand full automation of production, a reduction or elimination of the working week, a universal basic income, and “the diminishment of the work ethic.” …
…But the compensatory effects of UBI might not be as great as they imagine, and the proposals in Inventing the Future are not themselves intended to amount to communism. Its authors might argue that they only place the working classes in a better position from which to dismantle the existing state of things. I’m not so sure. While the workplace was never the only place where workers have historically struggled, it has always been an important site of radical agitation – it is here that the working classes exercise tremendous power and great capacity to disrupt production. While recent struggles have demonstrated the disruptive potentials of blockades, I’m skeptical that the disappearance of longshoremen or warehouse workers will necessarily advance our position. What forms could resistance take once the workplace is safely cleared on all human flesh, yet private property still remains firmly in the hands of the capitalists? One: nihilist terrorism. Two: protest marches, boycotts, and online activism. Or, in other words, folk politics.
This is a solid point, and builds toward a larger critique of Inventing the Future based on the lack of theorization around how socialist strategy (rather than programs) should be worked out. Srnicek and Williams seem to have given much thought to programmatic policy ideas, but not to the strategic questions of day-to-day proletarian struggle.
However, I think more thought needs to be put into analyzing the actual impact of automation on the working class, and class composition. I’ve been growing more skeptical about whether we’re realistically ever going to see the mass destruction of jobs, rather than a general recomposition of the working class to be more and more immersed in the techno-scientific labor of creating software, robotics, algorithms, etc. There is huge and increasing demand for tech work, which has already been having an affect on educational institutions, and this trend will only increase. Based on my own experience in the field, computational work — whether we’re talking about industrial automation, or data analysis — isn’t really any less labor intensive than “traditional” working-class jobs. Software requires construction and maintenance and troubleshooting, just like the physical things they control, like valves, pumps, cranes, conveyors, etc. And capitalists would absolutely love to increase the supply of capable workers, and push down the relatively high wages and nice benefits that tech workers currently command due to their favorable position in the labor market.
Dislocation and displacement will almost certainly happen from the ports, factories, and warehouses, but this will probably simply imply a shift of workplace-based class struggle, rather than its disappearance. But for class struggle to really manifest, the radical left will need to keep up with the restructuring of capitalism and penetrate these new emerging layers of techno-scientific workers.