The Future Has Already Happened


In Novem­ber 2015, Verso Books sent a copy of Invent­ing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams to every mem­ber of the UK’s Labour Shadow Cab­i­net. The shadow Chan­cel­lor John McDon­nell, at least, appeared to have read it: a few days later, he unveiled a very future-ori­ented eco­nomic pol­icy. “It’s social­ism,” he said, “but social­ism with an iPad.” Not long after­wards, the Guardian writer Zoe Williams directly ref­er­enced the book in a column titled “The future’s at stake: the left must show it could cre­ate an iPad.” Which is on the face of it strange, because the iPad doesn’t belong to the future; it’s some­thing that already exists, and has done so since 2010. How is it that “invent­ing the future” has come to be effec­tively syn­ony­mous with “invent­ing the iPad?”

As soon as it’s crys­tal­lized, the future is already over. This thought is not new; few things are. In High Rise, thirty-five years before the iPad, J.G. Bal­lard – the only writer capa­ble of really under­stand­ing the 21st cen­tury – saw the tide of pro­gress car­ry­ing us into a “land­scape beyond tech­nol­ogy.” Sur­rounded by bro­ken wash­ing machi­nes and clogged-up air vents, the pro­duc­tive appa­ra­tuses of soci­ety trans­formed into a set of sym­bols, his hero Robert Laing senses a “future that had already taken place, and was now exhausted.” And Bal­lard has strange com­pany here. For Srnicek and Williams, the same period in which he was writ­ing, the 1970s, also marks the point where their own future died. 

It was in the 70s that futu­rity was cap­tured by the polit­i­cal right; under neolib­er­al­ism it’s the right that rad­i­cally reshapes the world accord­ing to its own vision, while the left has resigned itself to a series of des­per­ate rear­guard actions, try­ing to defend the last frag­ments of the wel­fare state, cling­ing to a social­ist past instead of try­ing to imag­ine a social­ist future. 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.” We should demand a future in which the point­less tedium of waged labor is elim­i­nated entirely, and human­ity is free to con­cen­trate on some­thing more impor­tant. There’ll be iPads.

All these things, they assure us, are actu­ally achiev­able, and I don’t doubt them. We are all still pro­gress­ing for­wards in time, many of us have our own slowly fail­ing gad­gets; what is this thing, “the future,” that we lost? In what sense do these pro­pos­als bring it back? And does a future that’s been resus­ci­tated, dragged out of the past and into the present, have any real claim to futu­rity?

* * *

Full automa­tion and a uni­ver­sal basic income are not things that belong only to some spec­u­la­tive sci­ence-fic­tion imag­i­nary. Since the days of the post­war boom, and up until it met the grind­ing shab­bi­ness of the crises of the 1970s, work­ers and intel­lec­tu­als have fairly con­fi­dently pre­dicted that in a short period of time human labour would be made super­flu­ous by tech­no­log­i­cal advances. (John May­nard Key­nes, hardly a social rev­o­lu­tion­ary, was a major pro­po­nent of this idea.) The uni­ver­sal basic income has sim­i­larly long roots. After all, the idea has been toyed with sev­eral times within a cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety, even in the US state of Alaska. Richard Nixon, another unlikely hero for the left, pro­posed a Fam­ily Assis­tance Plan not entirely dis­sim­i­lar to cur­rent UBI, which only nar­rowly failed to pass Con­gress. Nei­ther Key­nes nor Nixon had much inter­est in get­ting rid of cap­i­tal­ism. The future Snricek and Williams pro­pose isn’t really all that het­ero­ge­neous to the awful present we’re inhab­it­ing now, or its awful recent past. Some­thing very impor­tant is miss­ing.

To their credit, the authors are care­ful to remind us that they are not pre­sent­ing a total vision but a set of actu­ally achiev­able demands that could set us on the road to a bet­ter world. These are tran­si­tional demands, but once they’re achieved we’ll be out of cap­i­tal­ism and into some­thing else. On this point I dis­agree. (That said, there are some – such as David Grae­ber and McKen­zie Wark – who argue that we’re already out of cap­i­tal­ism, and into some­thing worse.) The book con­sis­tently refers to its future not as com­mu­nism, but “post­cap­i­tal­ism.” It’s a world with­out work, but also with­out the com­mons. “The the­ory of the Com­mu­nists,” write Marx and Engels, “may be summed up in the sin­gle sen­tence: Abo­li­tion of pri­vate prop­erty.” But here, pri­vate prop­erty remains untouched. The pro­duc­tive appa­ra­tuses are to be fully auto­mated, remov­ing work­ers as much as pos­si­ble from every stage of the pro­duc­tion process: who, then, will own them? Who will own the com­modi­ties that these appa­ra­tuses pro­duce? And if human­ity is unbur­dened from the need to work and left to pro­duce freely in the pur­suit of its own self-expres­sion, who will own that? With­out any­thing to oppose bour­geois prop­erty, the result could be fully mon­strous: a bloated, glut­to­nous rul­ing class engaged in lim­it­less pro­duc­tion, and recap­tur­ing any losses when the new peons come to spend their uni­ver­sal basic pit­tance. The prop­er­tied classes would fuse with an automa­ton that requires no human parts except for own­er­ship to form a sin­gle appa­ra­tus; Utopia as a cyborg dic­ta­tor­ship.

This future has, in fact, already been described – it’s E.M. Forster’s 1909 sci­ence-fic­tion story The Machine Stops. Here, all of human­ity lives in tiny cells within the body of the vast sub­ter­ranean Machine. The Machine pro­duces all their con­sumer goods, it pro­vides them with any­thing they might want or need at a moment’s notice, it speaks to them, and allows them to speak to each other through video-mes­sag­ing. Peo­ple tend not to leave their cells; it’s not for­bid­den, but it’s cer­tainly not encour­aged. Full automa­tion. Uni­ver­sal basic income. A net­worked soci­ety. In the end the Machine starts to slowly dis­in­te­grate. Bil­lions die, and Forster, who had some­thing of a reac­tionary streak, can only see this as a good thing. Who owns the Machine? The Machine does. 

The abo­li­tion of work is a worth­while project – and, what might be more impor­tant, an effec­tive slo­gan – but depend­ing on other fac­tors, it could have any num­ber of con­se­quences. As Srnicek and Williams point out, the automa­tion of pro­duc­tion under neolib­er­al­ism is not lib­er­a­tory but merely dis­poses­sive; with­out the guar­an­teed basic income it becomes a plague rather than a cure. 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.

The notion of “folk pol­i­tics” is based on that of “folk psy­chol­ogy,” a bor­rowed con­cept from the phi­los­o­phy of mind, so I’ll bor­row one myself. Gilbert Ryle used the notion of a “cat­e­gory error” to help dis­en­tan­gle some of the con­fu­sion in the mind-brain prob­lem: he gives the exam­ple of some­one vis­it­ing Oxford, being shown around the col­leges and libraries, and even­tu­ally turn­ing to their host and ask­ing, “but where is the Uni­ver­sity?” Sim­i­larly a neu­rol­o­gist will spend all day stick­ing his fin­gers in people’s brains, and at the end of it ask, “but where is the mind?” And Srnicek and Williams, trudg­ing along with the rest of us in another fruit­less anti-neolib­eral street protest, ask: “where is the coun­ter-hege­mony?”

It’s in their cri­tique of folk pol­i­tics that I have the most sym­pa­thy for Srnicek and Williams’ posi­tion. I’ve been on some of the same depress­ing marches, inevitably bro­ken up by cops or (more likely) rain; I’ve seen the same wit­less pre­fig­u­ra­tive car­ni­vals; I share the same exhaus­tion with the idea that if we all buy our milk from local sources the world will turn into a bet­ter place. They’ve touched on a very impor­tant point: the way the left does pol­i­tics now is not work­ing; we need to seek out a new organ­i­sa­tional strat­egy. Find­ing a strat­egy that works is an enor­mously chal­leng­ing task, though, and Invent­ing the Future doesn’t really attempt it. The folk-polit­i­cal dog­mas of local­ism and hor­i­zon­tal­ism and their call for a new vision of the future do not belong to the same cat­e­gory; they’ve seen a defi­ciency in the means the left uses, and pro­pose to cor­rect it with a new set of aims. This is a cat­e­gory error – it’s like say­ing that we’re not walk­ing quickly enough, so we should decide on a dif­fer­ent des­ti­na­tion.

For all its faults, folk pol­i­tics does actu­ally give peo­ple an idea of what they can per­son­ally do to help; it has a pro­gram for the arrange­ment of bod­ies: you join the demon­stra­tion, you buy local, you express your undi­min­ish­ing out­rage on Twit­ter. The old party model was sim­i­lar: you orga­nize your work­place, you go on strike, you vote Com­mu­nist. Srnicek and Williams say: you cre­ate a coun­ter-hege­mony. How? When it comes to actual, tac­ti­cal sug­ges­tions, their con­tri­bu­tion is slight. They sug­gest, for instance, that we should attempt to cap­ture sec­tions of the media to pro­mote our mes­sage. Which comes off a lit­tle con­de­scend­ing, as if peo­ple weren’t already try­ing to do pre­cisely that. We should also be build­ing think tanks, estab­lish­ing a “Mont Pelerin of the left.” We should imi­tate Syriza and Podemos. The book may have been writ­ten before the former’s total capit­u­la­tion to neolib­er­al­ism last year, and it would be unfair to crit­i­cize the authors for not antic­i­pat­ing it. But as the exam­ple of Greece shows, our trou­bles go deeper than an over-reliance on plac­ards.

The call for a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” already famil­iar to those of us with an unhealthy expo­sure to social-ish wonks, might be the most trou­bling; a hyper-Gram­s­cian­ism that treats all ideas as fun­da­men­tally equal quan­ti­ties, capa­ble of being trans­mit­ted through the same indif­fer­ent chan­nels. The authors antic­i­pate the argu­ment that neolib­eral insti­tu­tions such as the Mont Pelerin Soci­ety could be so effec­tive because their ideas were amenable to the rul­ing classes, and respond by not­ing that between its foun­da­tion in 1947 and the first imple­men­ta­tions of neolib­er­al­ism in the 1970s there was a long period in which their pro­gram was seen as entirely non­sen­si­cal. This is less than con­vinc­ing. The rul­ing classes have also always been pre­sented with a diver­sity of strate­gic forms, and it’s his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances, which are not always entirely within their con­trol, that make one or the other more fea­si­ble. But their power to choose is greater than ours – one can’t leg­is­late com­mu­nism by an act of Par­lia­ment, or decree it in a Papal bull; it’s unlikely we could build it with think-tanks either. 

* * *

Still, the real prob­lem with Invent­ing the Future is not the defi­cien­cies in its pro­gram – any bugs in the pro­pos­als could always be ironed out in the test­ing stage – but its rela­tion to futu­rity as such. It’s strange that a book titled Invent­ing the Future doesn’t really con­tain any attempt to actu­ally think through the con­cept of the future, rather than just its con­fig­u­ra­tion. Its vision is con­di­tioned by the assump­tion that what we’re urgently in need of is a future, and that we all agree on what a “future” actu­ally means. This is not, I think, the case. Hence the occa­sional con­tra­dic­tions: will our future emerge out of our present, through sheer force of mind, or do we dredge it up from the recent past? How does one invent the future?

One major machine in which the future is pro­duced is of course cul­ture – which Srnicek and Williams give remark­ably lit­tle atten­tion, despite their call for a new cul­tural coun­ter-hege­mony. Not every Marx­ist work needs to pep­per its pages with the con­stant play­ful read­ings of pop-cul­tural texts so beloved of Slavoj Zizek et al., but there’s some­thing eerily dis­com­fit­ing about read­ing page after page on how there was once a future – from the Soviet con­quest of space to afro-futur­ism to fem­i­nist cyborg the­ory – with­out a word on what any of this actu­ally looked like. There’s not even the oblig­at­ory Star Trek ref­er­ence. Over two hun­dred and fifty pages, we’re given pre­cisely one divert­ing anec­dote, about a near-riot in 1924 occa­sioned by rumors of a rocket voy­age to the moon, and even that’s skipped over as briefly as pos­si­ble, as if it were some­how shame­ful.

This exclu­sion of lit­er­a­ture is in some sense a mask. Invent­ing the Future is a fic­tional text dis­guised as a polit­i­cal man­i­festo. It describes a state of affairs that does not exist, and invites us to imag­ine. This is why lit­er­a­ture is so essen­tial to the polit­i­cal imag­i­na­tion: both are steeped in the unreal, but it’s an unre­al­ity that makes claims on our actual exis­tences. And, like the lit­er­ary fic­tion of which it is a part, this sense of the future has not always existed. It’s pos­si­ble that Srnicek and Williams give such short thrift to cul­ture because any cul­tural exam­i­na­tion of the future reveals how frag­ile and tem­po­rary a notion it was. The future has already been invented, and it exhausted itself some time ago. But if we really want to think about why the future ended, it would make sense to look at how it began. 

It’s hard to find a pre­cise date, but chances are that the future was first invented some time between 1627 and 1770. This inde­ter­mi­nate era, in which ordi­nary time ended and some­thing very dif­fer­ent took over, is nicely brack­eted by two impor­tant books. In 1627, Fran­cis Bacon pub­lished his New Atlantis, a vision of a Utopian soci­ety hid­den some­where in the Paci­fic Ocean. In 1770, Louis-Sébastien Mercier pub­lished L’An 2440 (trans­lated into Eng­lish, con­fus­ingly, as Mem­oirs of the Year 2500), a vision of a Utopian soci­ety hid­den some­where in the twenty-fifth cen­tury. Some­where, space turned into time.

Bacon’s text was part of a great tra­di­tion of Utopian lit­er­a­ture, hew­ing closely to the orig­i­nal mean­ing of the word: a topos des­ig­nates a place. (Even if the neg­a­tive pre­fix ‘ou-’ indi­cates that this place isn’t really a place at all.) Campanella’s City of the Sun is set in ‘a large plane, imme­di­ately under the equa­tor’; Moore’s Utopia is hid­den some­where on the route from Europe through the Amer­i­cas to Cey­lon. A 12th cen­tury Irish poem describes the land of Cokaygne, “far in the sea to the west of Spain,” where the houses are made of pies and nuns swim naked in rivers of milk. This geo­graph­i­cal dis­place­ment isn’t just a lit­er­ary device: these ideal places are rep­re­sented as being fully ideal, and while Bacon would cer­tainly have liked his own soci­ety to look a lit­tle more like the fan­tasy he described, it’s nei­ther a pre­dic­tion nor a reg­u­la­tive model. The inhab­i­tants of his New Atlantis live under an enlight­ened gov­ern­ment with just laws and wise cus­toms, but it’s not clear that this is what makes their soci­ety so har­mo­nious; because this is a piece of fan­tasy, they’re also all per­son­ally vir­tu­ous. His Ben­salemites are chaste and vir­tu­ous, and these qual­i­ties grant them the favor of God Him­self, who sends them the Chris­tian gospel on a mirac­u­lous pil­lar of light, despite their being sep­a­rated by an ocean and a con­ti­nent from goings-on in the East­ern back­wa­ters of the Roman Empire.

Mercier’s is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent. Some­thing very impor­tant has changed: he doesn’t have opu­lent cities in the undis­cov­ered trop­ics, but one per­fectly ordi­nary France. His story is the dream of a con­tem­po­rary French­man who falls asleep and finds him­self trans­ported into the far future, a world in which all the injus­tices of his time have been righted – not through the imag­i­na­tion or through divine prov­i­dence, but polit­i­cal and sci­en­tific change. Reli­gion has been thor­oughly dis­es­tab­lished from the State, and what remains is decid­edly Uni­tar­ian: the tem­ple of the future has no paint­ings or images, being dec­o­rated only by the name of God in dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Wor­shipers pray in silence, and the priest­hood claims no greater knowl­edge of the divine than the laity. The king, mean­while, is a harm­less tin­kerer, freed from the duties of gov­ern­ment, whose main social role is to come up with new sci­en­tific inven­tions. Sud­denly, instead of a lat­eral dis­tri­b­u­tion of var­i­ously per­fected soci­eties in space, we have a ver­ti­cal, sequen­tial evo­lu­tion of society’s per­fectibil­ity over time: the answer to our prob­lems isn’t here, but it’s on its way. And Mercier, who went on to serve in the National Con­ven­tion as a lib­eral rev­o­lu­tion­ary, would try to speed its arrival.

As the polit­i­cal force that has every­where tried to insti­tute change, for a long time this future belonged to the left. Early utopian social­ists would busy them­selves design­ing new machi­nes for mak­ing ladies’ hats, to be used in the ratio­nal soci­ety of the future. But it was the Soviet Union that most strongly pulled the as yet unborn into real­ity. (Recall Lin­coln Stef­fens’ report on vis­it­ing the fledg­ling USSR: “I have seen the future, and it works.”) Almost as soon as it was born, the Soviet Union promised to do away with the antag­o­nism between man and nature, man and woman, man and God. Look at their Christ­mas cards: while the Santa of the cap­i­tal­ist bloc trudged about on a flimsy rein­deer-pow­ered cart, the Soviet Santa zipped through space, occa­sion­ally wav­ing to cheer­ful cos­mo­nauts through the rocket’s port­holes. Through­out this period, cap­i­tal­ism still had its own visions of what might come – chiefly, dystopia, which is always faintly reac­tionary; the future for­mu­lated as a threat. “You think you have it bad now?” dystopia warns us. “Just look at what might hap­pen later.” There’s a cer­tain cap­i­tal­ist hos­til­ity to Utopi­anism – any new social for­ma­tion might have the power to inter­rupt its global dom­i­nance – that’s most clearly expressed in block­buster films: the one who tries to rad­i­cally change the world, the one with plans and schemes, is always the vil­lain; our heroes just want to keep things the way they are.

But at the same time there’s a strain of left­ist thought that’s also deeply sus­pi­cious of all this tem­po­ral mish­mash­ing. It goes back to Marx and Engels: in Social­ism, Utopian and Sci­en­tific, Engels pokes fun at the pre­ten­sions of the mas­ter­plan­ners. “Com­pared with the splen­did promises of the philoso­phers,” he writes, “the social and polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions born of the “tri­umph of rea­son” were bit­terly dis­ap­point­ing car­i­ca­tures.” The Marx­ist cri­tique of the future came most strongly from the philoso­phers of the Frank­furt School, in par­tic­u­lar from Wal­ter Ben­jamin, Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Wit­ness­ing the mech­a­nized hor­rors of the Third Reich, they came to see the notion of pro­gress as an insid­i­ous lie. For Adorno and Horkheimer, enlight­en­ment never rids itself of bar­barism; for Ben­jamin, we must place a “taboo on the future.” Besides, there’s some­thing philo­soph­i­cally as well as polit­i­cally unsound about this future: the grand social future requires a tran­shis­tor­i­cal sub­ject, a gaze of rea­son that looks out from beyond time, like the four-dimen­sional Tralfamado­ri­ans in Kurt Von­negut. For all its pre­ten­sions to ratio­nal­ity, there’s some­thing about the pro­gres­sive future that remains meta­phys­i­cal, mys­ti­cal, even shamanic.

Why did human aspi­ra­tion come to be so closely con­nected with this slightly spooky process?  It might be pos­si­ble to sketch out a mate­ri­al­ist cri­tique. In the years between Bacon and Mercier, the tran­si­tion of Utopia from spa­tial to tem­po­ral dis­place­ment accom­pa­nied the trans­for­ma­tion of an econ­omy based on prim­i­tive accu­mu­la­tion into one based on cap­i­tal­ism proper. By 1770, sur­pluses gained from spa­tial expan­sion were begin­ning to be replaced by sur­pluses that come out of labor, which adds value over time. Today, with the fic­tion­al­iza­tion of much of the econ­omy, prof­its are made from the com­mit­ment to repay a debt at a future point, with those com­mit­ments them­selves bought and sold as tiny tokens of the future. The future has burst through into a dizzied and decon­tem­po­ralised now. It exists within the present as a saleable com­mod­ity the para­dox­i­cal promise is always for tomor­row to hap­pen today. As Der­rida writes, “our time is per­haps the time in which it is no longer so easy for us to say ‘our time.’”

But the future has always been sev­eral: how could it be oth­er­wise, when it hasn’t hap­pened yet? The mil­len­nial or apoc­a­lyp­tic future, the future that abol­ishes time itself, is not the same as the prophetic future of a pos­si­ble or desired out­come, which is not the same as spec­u­la­tive future of sci­ence fic­tion, which is not the same as the future envis­aged by a cal­en­dar or a to-do list, which is not the same as the future of the high-yield bond, which is not the same as the future which will involve you read­ing the next sen­tence, or decid­ing not to. But what all these have in com­mon with the phe­nom­e­no­log­i­cal future – the one involved in the direct sen­sa­tion of time pass­ing, the thing that draws fur­ther out of reach the closer you get to it – is their slip­per­i­ness. Futures can never be touched or expe­ri­enced, only imag­ined; this is why they’re as diverse as the human psy­che, and why they tend to be so dream­like: at turns ludic, libid­i­nal, or mon­strous.

* * *

I don’t think that I’m cas­ti­gat­ing the book for being about its own sub­ject-mat­ter rather than some­thing that I’d prefer. Rather, I’m afraid Srnicek and Williams have not thor­oughly inter­ro­gated their own terms. In an excel­lent inter­view with Novara Media’s Aaron Bas­tani – in which the authors do a sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter job of out­lin­ing their ideas than they do in the book itself – they explain that Invent­ing the Future is intended to be a coun­terblast to what they regard as a dom­i­nant left­ist strain of Frank­furt School-inflected pes­simism, but their book makes no attempt to defend their under­stand­ing of the future from any other. 

We’re told from the start that the left has ceded the future to the right, that the right imag­i­nes new social forms while we’re try­ing only to slow the advance – as if the future is itself a ter­rain, a neu­tral sub­strate in which every­thing is set, rather than some­thing which is con­tin­u­ally pro­duced by a present that is in turn trans­formed: in other words, some­thing that’s been invented. If the left has lost its capac­ity to pro­duce futures, what’s hap­pened? What exactly, did we lose? For Srnicek and Williams, the future as such is strangely homo­ge­neous and immutable; the con­cept never changed, we’ve just been led astray by poor organ­i­sa­tional tac­tics. The fail­ure of the party-state model led to the rise of folk pol­i­tics, but if we could drop our plac­ards and reach out a lit­tle fur­ther, we’d finally be able to grab hold of tomor­row. If we’re seri­ous about inter­ro­gat­ing what hap­pened to the left, this isn’t an answer; it’s a strate­gic retreat from the ques­tion.

The prob­lem isn’t the plac­ard, it’s the iPad. Invent­ing the Future is a seri­ous and no doubt well-inten­tioned attempt to think thor­oughly about the kind of future we might want, and it fails because the iPad is the future, because the future is some­thing that’s already hap­pened. Part of the book’s dif­fi­cul­ties comes from its over-eager­ness to accept the ego-ideal of neolib­er­al­ism, to accept it as a gen­uinely trans­for­ma­tive and future-ori­ented move­ment, rather than rec­og­nize it for what it is: a tac­tic for accu­mu­la­tion, hap­haz­ardly imple­mented, with no real goal beyond its own entrench­ment. The par­tic­u­lar mode and con­fig­u­ra­tion of the future Srnicek and Williams describe was a tem­po­rary phe­nom­e­non, last­ing two-and-some­thing cen­turies, and its embrace by the left was never nearly as total or enthu­si­as­tic as they sug­gest. It’s over now: we’re all Robert Laing, crouch­ing in the ruins of our wash­ing machi­nes; we’re in some­thing else. The real chal­lenge for the left, if we’re to start win­ning again, is to find out what that some­thing else might be.

Author of the article

is a writer living in the United Kingdom. He blogs at Idiot Joy Showlands.