Art by Shigeru Komatsuzaki (1960)

Inventing the Future: a documentary adaptation

  • April 6, 2017

Capitalism & Crisis

Austin Hayden Smidt, producer of the cinematic adaptation of Inventing the Future, interviews co-authors Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams and director Isiah Medina about their upcoming documentary.

The task is to invent and not merely hope
— Isiah Medina

Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ influential book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work was published at the tail end of 2015. Since then, the social and political landscape has shifted in certain crucial areas. Srnicek and Williams recently teamed up with Isiah Medina and Austin Hayden Smidt to adapt Inventing the Future into a cinematic experience that will respond to the historical moment in ways that take up the mantle of the book, while pressing it towards new horizons.

In support of their crowdfunding campaign, political philosopher and producer Austin Hayden Smidt interviews Srnicek, Williams and Medina.

Austin Hayden Smidt: For those who are not familiar with Inventing the Future, what is the central argument outlined in the text?

Nick & Alex: There are two key arguments to the book. The first is an analysis and critique of some of the dominant ideas that have shaped leftist political action in recent years. What we call “folk politics” is a set of ideas about the appropriate ways to act in the world — ideas that came to dominate much (though not all) of Occupy Wall Street in particular. In its place, we argue for a counter-hegemonic project for the left — explicitly aimed at scaling up, building our capacity to act, and transforming the social structures of our world.

A second set of arguments surrounds changes in the economy and changes in the goals of the left. Examining the nature of contemporary capitalism, we argue that capitalism is increasingly generating surplus populations that struggle to find wage-labor and are simply left to survive at the margins of the economy. On top of this, we have a new set of technologies that pose immense challenges for employment in the near-term future. Given capitalism’s inability to generate sufficient numbers of jobs, let alone good jobs, we argue that the left must turn towards a post-work future. We must use the liberating potential of these economic changes and new technologies to build a world that is increasingly weaned off of the coercive force of wage-labor. This, we think, will position the left in a much stronger position from which to build a new world.

Since its publication, a lot has changed in the world, in a very short span of time. How do you feel the ideas advanced in Inventing the Future are adaptable to the present historical moment?

Nick & Alex: On the one hand, there’s plenty in the world to be pessimistic about. It seems that, nearly universally, the far right have been the beneficiaries of the 2008 crisis. It has taken some time for their projects to come to fruition, but with the collapse of the 2010-’11 cycle of struggles, and the weak recovery of the global economy, it was perhaps inevitable that the right would eventually gain traction. So the reactionary sentiments behind the vote for Brexit, and the white nationalist vote for Trump (not to mention Le Pen’s surge and the continued viability of quasi-fascist parties across Europe), certainly leaves us in a more difficult position than before the book was published.

Yet at the same time, we have seen a significant uptick in struggles and organization amongst the left. The reaction to Trump’s Muslim ban, among other policies, has been remarkably widespread and effective. Perhaps most importantly, though, the left seems geared towards building up its capacities to act. No longer are we content with sporadic protests (though they continue to serve their mobilizing function), nor are we content with simply occupying public spaces as an act of emblematic prefiguration. Instead, many people are now actively organizing, rather than simply acting.

We are also reaching a much broader group than we ever have in recent years. People are joining movements, working together, strategizing, and imagining better futures. So while the forces of the far right appear to have the upper hand at the moment, we are also more optimistic about the changes and potentials for the left in the long-term. In that context, imagining better futures is essential to moving beyond defensive actions, and we like to think that Inventing the Future has a role to play in those discussions.

The book spends a lot of time discussing neoliberalism as a political project with humble beginnings that came to be hegemonic. How do you feel the left can build a similar program?

Nick & Alex: The easiest way to think about how the left can build a counter-hegemonic project is to think of it as a process of assembling new capacities to act, and these might take a few different forms. One of these is building organizational and institutional forms that can enable political action and thought to persist over time, beyond the reactive moment of protest (but often building out of it). In this, it is important that we work out, collectively “what we want.”

It can be informative to look back on the process by which the neoliberal thought collective worked out what it stood for, beyond an anti-socialist or anti-communist, pro-capitalist politics. This process took many decades to resolve into anything like a program, even on issues as foundational as the role of corporations or the attitude to take to unions. In this process for the left today, it is important that no singular voice dominates — for example, in attempts to push a “class first or only” perspective over those arguing for the central importance of gender and race within the struggle for a better future.

Clearly the world that we want will need to emerge from the neo-socialist movements and parties that have emerged in the last few years, but also very clearly from decolonization struggles, queer movements, socialist feminism and ecological groups. Building spaces and institutions in which these intersecting but non-identical movements and beliefs can negotiate and develop is therefore important.

It’s also helpful to remember that we don’t need to think in massively determinate bullet-point-listed plans. A strategic orientation needs to be flexible, and it is only in the course of trying to get some of what we desire that we can determine what is possible, in turn revising what we are aiming for. The list of demands we set out in Inventing the Future is our attempt to offer one possible starting point for such a process, oriented on the centrality of work and the opportunities new technology offers left politics to contend that. But a broad hegemonic politics will obviously need more than just what we propose to work effectively.

A final characteristic of a counter-hegemonic politics — of the kind we propose — is that it doesn’t work as an “all or nothing” proposition. Rather, it advances in stages and across multiple fronts. It aims towards state power, but does not believe that state power alone will be sufficient to assure success. Just witness the failures of Syriza, to cite only the most recent example of an overly credulous belief in state power.

Universal Basic Income, full automation, a shortened workweek, and a diminishing of the work ethic — these are demands that you make for a counter-hegemonic image of the future. Are they realistic demands?

Nick & Alex: They push at the bounds of “reasonable” debate at the moment, but that is precisely the point. Our intention is to stretch out the Overton window; to bring about a shift in how work is valued and conceived of; and to push for a different approach to the question of employment. Yet at the same time they remain realistic demands — one can plausibly imagine their achievement in the next couple of decades.

This is important because part of a leftist counter-hegemonic project must be to give waypoints to broader aims. We must have goals that we can achieve immediately, goals that may take decades, and goals — say, full communism — that appear only on the distant horizon of possibility. Part of the problem in recent years has been that the left has aimed either at immediate goals, like resisting a specific austerity measure, or distant goals, like full communism, with little consideration of how to bridge the gap between the two. We think post-work is a viable and desirable midway point between these times, neither a utopian heaven on Earth nor a merely reactive protest. Such an agenda is designed in turn to open up new possibilities and more radical future options.

When you wrote the book, did you foresee it turning into a documentary? Or did you envision any other forms of artistic collaboration?

Nick & Alex: One of the central claims of the book is that to build a left politics capable of actually exerting power at a mass scale you need to intervene in the popular imaginary. The left, in both radical and more moderate forms, has to remember to think imaginatively, sometimes beyond the usual coordinates.

One of the most depressing features of late neoliberalism is its closing down of the sense that other ways of organizing the world are possible. A key political role of art in such times is to try to keep these alternative possibilities open, and in this sense, the project outlined by the book invokes an artistic response as much as a political or theoretical one. To date it has largely been musicians and visual artists who have responded to it, and it will be very interesting to see how its core ideas can be re-imagined in a narrative film.

Isiah, your debut feature 88:88 was met with stellar reviews after playing at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the New York Film Festival (NYFF), Locarno and others. It was called “an avant-garde sensation” by IndieWire. What does it mean to be able to take that momentum into a collaborative project with a text that has received similar praise?

Isiah: 88:88 and Inventing the Future also received their share of criticism. To work together means to overcome individual weaknesses within a collective subject; but also within a subject, to confidently know what to ignore as mere babble or careerism. Critical thought isn’t simply a pathway to a career in academia or film writing, since the goal isn’t a career but post-work.

Nick and Alex talk about the virtues of a “post-work world.” What does a post-work world look like in cinema?

Isiah: Within cinema, we have an automated vision that seizes a phenomenal world in frames and a flicker. But cinema also knows that this automation in itself is not enough — there needs to be organization of “the before” of automated vision, as well as the during and the after. We need a découpage of automation and a montage of automation, an organization around the cut. Automation needs direction. The universal direction of political emancipation will not arise by itself through particular economic necessity. This automation must be linked to a politics that links itself to a name that points in a direction, even if the worker of this name has no special skill — in fact often this worker is not specialized at all, but enjoys taking part in all aspects of the production.

In cinema, post-work will not only appear within the frame, but outside of it as well. Itʼs not just, “What will post-work look like on screen?” It’s also: “what will the automation of the movie look like?”; “what will film criticism and theorization look like when one can rely on UBI rather than disappear into a house-style?”; “what will the living standard of avant-garde filmmakers look like, as this would be the first time they are paid?”; “what will the new forms of compromise look like?”; “what type of movies would play in a movie theater?”; “what will cinema look like when, with UBI, one no longer needs to specialize if one does not desire to?”; “what does this mean for direction?”; and so on.

If we see a scene in a movie where people fall in love, marry, have children and a job, perhaps within post-work we can see new domestic arrangements: a synthetic birth that removes us from that oft-seen display of a woman in labor; the children can be raised by automated care or parents and others who no longer have to work and thus have time to think with children, to corrupt the youth and show impiety to the gods. Gone would be the scene telling a child to seek profit, or even worse, that math class where in an attempt to make mathematics more “exciting” the teacher says “this will help you in the real world…” Someone would not need to stay in an abusive relationship simply because living with someone makes paying rent easier — many scenes would simply disappear or become historical costume drama. These imagined scenes are conditioned from the perspective of what we presently live. But if we simulate conditions of post-work within the production, then our conditions of what we can rationally imagine can change as well.

You’re obviously comfortable with theorizing the future. So, what do you hope this film is capable of doing within the socio-political and artistic landscapes of the future?

Isiah: One must not confuse cinema with politics, or even with art. If Inventing the Future is cinema, it needs to deploy simulated forms of UBI, automation, and so on, within the organization, creation and reception of the movie itself. If it doesn’t, then it is not the future. By forcing a new model of creation we will find new ways to inhabit our names. The task is to invent and not merely hope.

Isiah Medina

Isiah Medina is a filmmaker from Winnipeg. His debut feature 88:88 premiered at Locarno before playing TIFF, NYFF, and a host of other festivals around the world.

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Austin Hayden

Austin Hayden Smidt is a political philosopher, producer, writer and performer. Apart from academic research, he has been involved in developing television, film and online content for 7 years.

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