Corbynism's conveyor belt of ideas: Postcapitalism and the politics of social reproduction.

Author:Pitts, Frederick Harry
Position::Behind the News


Up until the recent UK General Election, the growing body of work around the concept of postcapitalism (Mason 2015a; Srnicek & Williams 2015a) acted akin to a conveyor belt carrying radical ideas into the mainstream of Labour Party life. Here, we will suggest that these ideas too often tend to read what is in fact a crisis of social reproduction (Bakker & Gill 2003; Caffentzis 2002; Gill 2016; Leonard & Fraser 2016) as the unfolding vista of a world without work. In the collapse of the society of work around which Labour historically took root and thrived, the relationship between the wage and subsistence has weakened. Public sector cuts and privatisation of commons like water, energy and land have limited the development of alternative ways to meet our needs. This is a situation of human crisis, not post-work opportunity.

This crisis has stimulated a renewal of radical politics away from where Labour's current focus lies. This generates an alternative politics of social reproduction which has answers the postcapitalist perspective does not. Grassroots activism has converged on projects that plug gaps in social reproduction. Bristol, our home city, is a venue for many such projects, constituting new commons in housing, food and environment that reclaim unused public space for community orchards, for instance, or acquire unused office space to convert into mixed use housing.

Swapping missionary Corbynism for the detourned Leave demand to 'Take Back Control', Corbyn-supporting left grouping Momentum recently relaunched as a grassroots initiative rooted in local communities, with a programme of Syriza-style 'solidarity networks' in provincial towns across the United Kingdom (Henley 2015; Hermanns 2017). The new agenda, an organiser suggests, includes 'running food banks, co-operative childcare centres and cinema clubs' and 'sponsoring sports clubs, running pubs and opening spaces for community use' (MacAskill &C Hacillo 2017). There is evidence that Momentum's affective politics made a decisive difference in some constituencies in the last general election, using on-the-ground knowledge to direct resources to so-called 'unwinnables' the central party had neglected (Hancox 2017).

Meanwhile, in the most intellectually sophisticated quarters of Corbynism, left dreamers stake their solutions on the unfolding of a technological horizon of an imminent postcapitalist or post-work society (Dinerstein et al. 2016). The divergence of a politics of care and commons from one of accelerationist singularity suggests that 'Corbynism' is a crowded and contested space. Its leader's rise was a 'crest without a wave' --a premature victory without roots in real struggle or an identifiable set of ideas (Bolton 2016; Pitts 2016c). His leadership a blank canvass, concepts kicking around the radical fringe for years have since competed to seize their chance to shine, a conflict exhibited in Momentum's crisis of identity (Berry 2016; Cruddas 2016), from which the short election campaign focused minds otherwise.

In the flux, we have seen ideas pass from radical theory and action into practical schemes and policy agendas, a process of what might be called 'translation (Dinerstein 2017). Two surprising examples of such translation recent years centre the most coherent and stimulating section of Jeremy Corbyn's support. Awestruck by the potential for technological progress to deliver an automated post-work society, the 'postcapitalist' tendency has acted as a conveyor belt translating radical ideas into the mainstream of Labour Party life.

On one hand, the 'accelerationism' outlined in Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams' (2015a) much-hyped Inventing the Future sees an obscure blog-based philosophy blossom into an increasingly influential practical political programme. On the other hand, with the release of Paul Mason's (2015a) bestseller Postcapitalism, Corbynism has segued with the strange afterlife of a slender few pages of Marx's (1993) notebooks, the Fragment on Machines (pp. 704-706)

The blooming of blog philosophy and the afterlife of the Fragment tell a tale of translation that defines one side of the contested intellectual project around Corbynism. And, perhaps, it holds broader lessons for how other fringe ideas 'go mainstream'. We will consider first the techno-utopian visions of the future this tendency offer and then put forward our own alternative, rooted in the politics of social reproduction. Finally, we reflect on what the success of the recent Labour election campaign and the composition of the hurriedly assembled Labour manifesto suggest about the development of these two co-existing strands of the UK left.

Afterlives of the fragment

Marx's 'Fragment', long pored over by a succession of postmodern Marxists in the years since its mid-century retrieval and release, today wields an influence way beyond its true textual stature or status (Heinrich 2013; Pitts 2016b). Formerly the preserve of the left's outer limits, Marx's 'Fragment on Machines' now lurks in commonplaces of the centre-left too. The scenario that Marx presents in the Fragment on Machines pictures a world where the production of goods and services revolves more around knowledge than physical effort, machines liberate humans from labour and the role of direct labour time in life shrinks to a minimum.

After the translation of Marx's (1993) Grundrisse into Italian and English in the mid-20th century, the Fragment became a foundational text for postoperaismo, which, during the nineties and noughties, sought to analyse capitalism in the context of the New Economy and the liberatory potential of the 'immaterial labour' it saw emerge (see Pitts 2016a). This reception, most notably popularised by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (2001) in their bestseller Empire, wielded tremendous influence on the alterglobalisation struggles of the early noughties (White 2009). Since then, its influence has filtered through to, first, the horizontalist movements around Occupy, and, subsequently, the transition of the Occupy generation to a more state-oriented politics of populism, postcapitalism, 'accelerationism' and so-called 'Fully Automated Luxury Communism' (Pitts 20l6d).

Of these, perhaps the most impressive and fully realised is 'accelerationism', an epithet coined by one of its critics, Benjamin Noys (2012). The key introduction to this school of thought, #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader (Mackay & Avanessian 2015) features Marx's Fragment as one of its founding texts. But there are further processes of translation we can unfold from here.

Accelerationism, left and right

Accelerationism grew out of what David Berry calls the 'first internet or born-digital philosophy' (Berry 2014)--Speculative Realism or 'Object Oriented Ontology' (p. 104). Members of this loose milieu produced their principal outputs via a daily-updated dialogic network of personal blogs with names like Synthetic Edifice and Larval Subjects, swiftly satirised in an online random name generator. (1)

Drawing on the work of continental heavyweights like Martin Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari and Bruno Latour, they delineated a piecemeal philosophy focused on the potential of the 'post-human' and the 'flat ontology' of equivalence between all objects, things, people and relations. As Jeremy Gilbert (2017) recounts in a beautiful eulogy to shared intellectual life, a crucial, but often critical, superintendent of the Internet infrastructure holding this community together was the brilliant and sadly missed cultural theorist Mark Fisher.

What is interesting is how this determinedly non-political and often obscurantist philosophical scene eventually gave rise to a halfway coherent political programme that now finds itself discussed in think-tanks and party policy seminars, like the 'New Economy' Shadow Chancellor's Conference at Imperial College, London in May 2016--even though, as we go on to discuss, its influence was foreshortened in the Labour manifesto. The turning point for its uptake is the 2013 'Accelerationist Manifesto', in which Srnicek and Williams (2015b) brought together the cyber-philosophical orientation towards the post-human and the machinic with a concrete political platform promoting mankind's propulsion forwards in pursuit of an automated, workless future. Although now largely latent as its ideas are ploughed over in Shadow Chancellor-convened Labour Party policy meetings--an indulgence since replaced by the fevered activity...

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