Demanding the future

What does the future hold? Even after Labour’s stronger than expected performance in the General Election (fought on an inspiring manifesto), most people I speak to or follow online seem resigned to a dismal future that doesn’t seem like a fun place to visit for the day, let alone live in.

Where have all the good times gone?

Instead of believing a more progressive and socially just future is possible, it seems many of us believe our future is shaping up to be a cross between 1984, Brave New World and The Running Man, with ever faster internet connections about the only thing we can really look forward to.

Looking around, it’s not hard to see what’s contributing to this gloomy world-view.

The slow-motion car crash of the Brexit negotiations, the daily horrors of the Donald J Trump presidency and the (not so) strong and stable leadership of the surveillance-happy Theresa May are just the latest in a longline of uncomfortable setbacks for progressives, stretching back decades to the origins of the neo-liberal project under Thatcher and  Reagan.

Throw in seven years of grinding austerity and the grim spectacle of ever-rising demand for foodbanks whilst the Government prioritises cutting taxes for business and the richest in society and it’s  hard not to feel like The Kinks had a point.

Despite my best efforts, I must confess I’ve definitely been guilty of pessimistic thinking in recent years, mostly as a result of my own struggles to find a new path in life after austerity brought my first career in public service to an abrupt end back in 2010.

If I’m honest, I’ve also not made life easy for myself. Back in 2015, the bravery of Edward Snowden and my growing unease over the ‘surveillance capitalism’ business model of tech giants led me to establish Open Rights Group Birmingham, a local branch of the Open Rights Group, (so far at least) the UK’s only grassroots digital rights campaigning organisation. While I’m proud of how I’ve grown awareness of digital rights issues in Birmingham and beyond, it’s been a tough slog at times, especially when the Conservatives were able to pass the Snoopers Charter late last year, thanks in no small part to Labour’s dismal opposition.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed

I’m pleased to say I’ve been shaken out of my political gloominess as a result of a book I received as a birthday present recently. There’s still a few months of 2017 to go, but right now I feel pretty confident about saying Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams will be my favourite book (closely followed by Cory Doctorow’s latest novel, Walkaway).

Inventing the Future struck a chord with me for a couple of reasons.

The first is its critique of left-wing thinking and doing in the West since the 1960s. Srnicek and  Williams make a persuasive case for saying that the left, faced with multiple threats from a dominant neo-liberalism, has got stuck in defensive mode, focused on fighting off immediate threats like privatisation plans, leaving little time to develop a leftist conception of the future. Worse still, the authors of Inventing the Future contend that parts of the left have rejected the very idea of such a project, and are instead are practising a ‘folk politics’, which deliberately emphasises small-scale projects and direct participation and gestures of resistance.

As someone who’s been engaged in left-wing/left-of-centre  politics for many years, I can relate to what the authors are saying, even if like most arguments, the authors are perhaps a little too quick to generalise. Certainly, though, for as long as I’ve been a Labour Party member, I’ve had reservations over the romanticism that can be attached to doomed opposition.

The second reason I connected with Inventing the Future is its willingness to not simply point what’s not working (spoiler alert: global capitalism), but also set out a plan for a future that’s worth fighting for.

For example, instead of engaging in what is almost certain to be futile resistance to automation, the authors urge the left to ‘demand the future’ and seek to make automation work in a way that benefits the many, not just the few. Automation could, for example, reduce the drudgery and danger that characterises too many people’s working lives, freeing people to live more enjoyable and meaningful lives.

Universal basic income (UBI) is a central component of Inventing the Future’s vision of what the future could and should look like. The authors believe the introduction of UBI at a level which would allow us all of us to enjoy a decent quality of life would radically transform how people view automation and give more people the freedom to live the lives they choose.

Building the future I want to live in

While I was impressed by Inventing the Future’s vision of a post-capitalist future, it’s fair to say I’m still working out what kind of future I want to help build.

More important, however, than the specifics of what a leftist vision of the future should eventually contain, is the need to for all of us who want to see a more progressive and socially just future to engage in a serious way in building that future. It is here that Inventing the Future really shine.

In the book, the authors describe how the left needs to learn from the neo-liberal project was carefully developed over decades and take a similarly systematic and long-term approach to building a post-capitalist future. In order to own the future, we must find ways to dismantle the dominant neo-liberal orthodoxy and work to make post-capitalist ideas so ingrained that they become to be viewed as ‘common sense’.

Going forward, I want to use this blog to start ‘demanding the future’. I aim to do this by sharing new ideas I discover via books, blogs and podcasts which offer new ways of understanding the present and inventing a future that I would like to live in.

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