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.