Nick Srnicek is a UK-based theorist and co-author, with Alex Williams, of the book “Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work” (Verso 2015). The book is at once a critique of recent leftist movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, and an imagining of a near future in which robots do almost all jobs, the changes this will force on the labor market, and the ways in which the economy and culture could adapt to ensure not just a functioning society, but an ideal one that offers more opportunities for individual happiness than does our current condition.
The architecture world has picked up on many of these ideas, and as a result, the Texas A&M School of Architecture invited Srnicek to lecture on September 19, making A&M the first American university to host the theorist. Texas Architect Editor Aaron Seward interviewed Srnicek before the event about some of his ideas and how they relate to architecture.
Aaron Seward: Do you have an elevator speech of the theme of your book?
Nick Srnicek: The first half is a critique of the way in which leftist movements have been acting for the past 20 years. Why — despite millions of people coming out for things like Occupy — have they not been able to make any massive changes? The second half of the book then says: Right now we’re in a situation where there’s a mass wave of automation that’s about to hit; it’s going to upset the labor market; it might not lead to mass unemployment, but it is going to cause a lot of people changing jobs. So how do you respond to that in a way that doesn’t just say we don’t want robots, but instead says: Well, how do we actually make use of these changes in a way that helps everybody? So that’s the aim of the book: to say, well, here’s what we can do, here’s the demands, and here’s the strategy for actually attaining it.
And the demands are from leftist social ideas?
They’re sort of leftist, but I think a lot of people can get on board with them whether or not they’re leftist. One is a demand for full automation, getting rid of the jobs right now that are cheap to do, having them automated. The second demand is for a reduced working week as a way to spread the work around more equitably. The third demand is a universal basic income — so, providing everyone with basic means to live, where they don’t have to rely upon a job in order to survive. And the fourth [demand involves] moving away from the work ethic toward something else. So, [diminishing] the centrality of work to our identity, to who we think we are, to the ways in which we meet people and socialize, [might reduce] the sense that the only thing that’s valuable in life is a job — if you’re not working at a particular job then you’re useless, you’re a bum — moving away from that cultural sentiment.
Do you think that technology is going to be a means of effecting a cultural change that ideology itself has never been able to accomplish?
No, I think technology is going to force certain changes on people and the way in which we respond is entirely up in the air. It could be done in that way, which is more progressive and allows everybody to come on board. It could also be a way in which the fewer people who are still in work hate the people who aren’t working even more. So the same technological changes could lead to completely different outcomes. This is why it has to be a critical project, and this is why we have to be thinking about it now rather than 10 to 20 years down the line when it’s too late.
In a world where almost everything is automated, there’s a lower demand for a workforce, yet we have an increasing population. As you say, we have to break down our cultural dependence on work to give ourselves identity and self worth, but what do people do?
Part of my response to this is always to say people want to do something, they want to have some sort of project in their life. I think just channeling that into jobs is a really poor way to express that desire. So people stocking shelves in a grocery store is not a very good way to satisfy that desire to work. I think most people would find something that they want to do. There’s a really interesting example in Spain where a civil servant basically [expletive] off for six years, wasn’t doing any work whatsoever and was still getting paid, but what he was doing was actually going back and educating himself. He was reading Hegel and all this philosophy, Spinoza and stuff, and becoming a philosophical expert in his spare time. That seems to me to be one of the options, [that] people have the capacity to go and do their hobby and go and get educated. They can stay at home and take care of a family, whether it be young children or elderly parents; they could start a new business; they can do all sorts of things, and I think just giving people a basic amount of money where they can survive allows them more free time to have that choice. It’s not going to be luxurious; it’s not going to be you on holidays all the time, but it is enough that you don’t have to worry about working a job.
This is where architecture, I think, comes in. You have to design a world that’s affordable, that can provide decent housing for people who aren’t spending gobs of money on custom homes.
I don’t know how 3-D printing has been taken up in the architecture world, but it seems to me there have been some interesting developments there in terms of the provision of cheap housing, and housing that can be rapidly built. I don’t think it’s there at the moment, but the idea is there to be able to do that sort of thing.
The architectural design field has been enabled more and more by technology — design technology as well as fabrication technology — and the link between design and fabrication has become almost seamless. But design itself is still something that people do. In this new world, as you imagine it, some people will still be doing imaginative jobs, like architecture, right?
It’s not a world without work. The title includes “A World Without Work” — it’s a bit polemical — but obviously people will still be doing work. A lot of creative work is not well done by algorithms. Machines can’t do that sort of stuff, so we still have a role for humans there. We also have a role for humans in situations that involve a lot of social context, social cues that can’t be picked up by machines. So care work is a major one here, work that requires a lot of emotional labor. This involves a lot of healthcare work, a lot of social care work. That stuff, you’re still going to need people to do it. The idea is that people don’t have to work 40 hours a week; they don’t have to work five days a week. As a first step, our suggestion is moving to a three-day weekend. This has not only physical and mental health benefits; it also has environmental benefits. People are commuting back and forth to work one less day a week; they’re not turning on office lights and things like this. So the amount of energy consumption that can be saved by taking off one day a week is quite immense. But they will still be working 15 hours a week, 20 hours a week. So work doesn’t disappear completely.
How do your ideas tie in with general accelerationist philosophy?
Accelerationism is, I would say, the idea that the way in which we want to solve the problems of capitalism is not to destroy capitalism, but instead to build upon the best elements of capitalism. It’s a traditional Marxist idea. Marx thought capitalism did immensely great things. He thought it had increased the productive power of humankind to an unprecedented degree, and that’s exactly what we think as well. We think that capitalism has enabled us to build machines that need very few humans to produce a whole lot of stuff. So we have all this productive power; the question is, do we destroy capitalism entirely, or do we use these material bases to build something else? So accelerationism is that idea that we go through capitalism rather than try to revert to something different. That means it sees the positive elements of technology. It also recognizes that the way things are headed is not looking very good, to the average person. We’re in favor of an emphasis on systemic structural thinking about where we’re headed, which at least among the left has been forgotten recently. [On the left,] you’ve got a whole lot of people talking about individual elements of our current condition, but not really connecting them all together.
Do you see this new world as one in which there is more centralized government control?
One of the nice things about the post-work world is it’s an argument for giving people more free time to chose exactly what they want to do individually, rather than having a government or a company telling you what to do. So there’s a libertarian aspect, in that sense, giving people more individual freedom. It does rely, though, on a government providing basic needs to exist, so basic income is the biggest example of this. It needs to be provided by something like a central government that’s able to tax the wealthiest people and redistribute that money amongst everybody else. I see the central government as a platform to enable individuals to flourish and have freedom.
How do you effect a change in which the wealthiest people give up their power?
That’s the million dollar question. Part of the answer has to be that it’s a long-term project. In the book, one of the chapters is on how neoliberalism arose, this resurgence of free-market thinking in the 1970s and onwards. You can trace it back to the 1930s, when a small group of people was discussing how to get free-market thinking back in when you’re surrounded by Keynesians and social democracy. They spent four decades building up an entire ideological infrastructure: long-term ideas, big utopian thinking, and also piecemeal policy proposals for what exactly should be done by government if they wanted to implement this stuff. Their idea was to change the common [perception by] people in government, the ruling classes, the managing classes: change what they thought government was for and how the state should be ruled. That was a long-term project, and I think the left has to do a similar thing, to really get people to rethink what is work for, what is an income for, what is the government for, and what is freedom, as well? I think one of the parts I’m proud about in the book is that leftists don’t normally talk about freedom. It’s normally a concern of the right to advocate and defend freedom. But the sort of freedom that gets defended by the right is a sort of formal freedom, where you’re formally free to run for the president of the United States, you’re formally free to buy whatever you want, but in actuality most people can’t buy a mansion, most people can’t become president of the United States because they just don’t have the money. So there’s this distinction between a formal freedom, where you’re legally allowed to do something, but then the concrete freedom to actually do something. The right emphasizes the formal one, and the left should be emphasizing the concrete, real freedom of giving people the means to be able to do these sorts of things — not necessarily buy a mansion, but recognize that wealth inequality and income inequality are issues of freedom.
Do you see national borders disappearing?
We talk about borders being a way to deal with the problem of unemployment. If robots are going to cause more unemployment, or more under-employment, it’s likely that we’ll get harsher and harsher borders; we’ll get more and more xenophobia. So borders figure as the negative response to the problems that we’re pointing out. Our preference would be for open borders, which it turns out mainstream economists actually really like as well, so it’s not a radical idea at all; it’s politically radical, but economically mainstream.