This is a superb book, precisely the sort of analysis that the left is lacking at the moment.
Srnicek and Williams start with a critique of the modern left. After the collapse of communism and the manifest failure of social democracy in the face of the neoliberal assault of the last 30-40 years Srnicek and Williams show how the left has retreated into defensive tactics that lack any sense of overarching strategy. The term they use for this approach is “folk politics”, meaning a defensive withdrawal into resistance characterised by ‘horizontalism’ and ‘localism’. Small scale local protest is valued over large scale challenge to the overall system. Organisation is horizontal – exemplified by the Occupy movement – based on direct democracy and consensus decision making. The emphasis is on defending gains made over the last century from the drive of neoliberalism rather than seeking new gains.
Meanwhile the defeat of social democracy has been built on a long term neoliberal project pursued over decades by the opponents of the then dominant Keynsian consensus. In contrast to the modern left, this project used multiple channels – think tanks, academic work, journalism and more – to establish an alternative set of policy solutions which, when systemic crisis arrived in the 1970s, was able to establish itself as the only possible response (“there is no alternative”).
Srnicek and Williams use the language of Gramsci to define this as establishing neoliberal “hegemony” and use the remainder of the book to think through what an attempt to build a new left-progressive movement to counter this hegemony might look like.
They stress that a modern left project should be built around three key pillars. Reclaiming the commitment to progress as such; a commitment to a universal programme of change; and a belief in and commitment to ‘synthetic’ freedom, specifically that this is only ‘true’ freedom if it comes with the capability to realise it. In short the left needs to be less tactical and defensive and instead become more strategic and lead the drive into the future.
They move on to establish the direction of travel for modern Capitalism, which is increasingly towards reducing the amount of work required and increasing the surplus population – leading to “the misery of not being exploited”. In particular they stress the influence that automation is predicted to have in the coming decades.
This leads into a number of key demands which could be used to shape this new left project. Prominent here is the for a basic income coupled with maximising automation as a means of reducing the requirement to work (rather than to increase capitalist profits). This will create the opportunity for revolutionary change. The left should reclaim a transformational view of the future to which people can aspire.
To achieve this, Srnicek and Williams believe the left needs to create a much broader ‘counter hegemonic’ movement, learning from the approach of the neoliberals over the last 70 years. The initial goal of this project should be to expand the “Overton Window” – the breadth of what it is possible to discuss as part of ‘normal’ political discourse. While protest movements such as Occupy will form part of this, the movement should they believe be more eclectic with a range of elements within the overall drive for change. Again the emphasis is on a Gramscian approach to building hegemony as a key requirement to any realistic move into power.
If there is a weaker part to the book, it is this section on organisation where it does not feel that what the authors are laying out is a convincing way forward for the left. However as a critique of the shortsighted and defensive nature of the modern left it is insightful, and as a manifesto for the future rejuvenation of the left built around the opportunities to move beyond capitalism that are beginning to present themselves, this book is inspiring.