JG: we are holding this interview in the context of our studio at the RCA. This year we explicitly took on the question of Post Capital, referencing in particular both your book, and Paul Mason’s. It’s been interesting so see how hard it’s been for students. Looking at what we produced this year, there is an interesting mix of hyper-capitalist and post-capitalist projects…
JG: .. which isn’t a new thing to the studio.. the studio is a mix.. there’s bits of Marx, bits of surrealism and constructivism, cybernetics… re your own work Nick, the mix of Marx and systems thinking is shared, and indeed cognitive mapping.. a lot of the work that we do charts tendencies that are either explicit or implicit in the world around us, and exaggerate them.
I first came across your work in the Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics in 2014, which I enjoyed enormously.. in your more recent work you have stopped using the term accelerationism…
NS: haha yeah. So why is that the case? The project we are trying to undertake is a counter-hegemonic project, which means convincing people and changing people’s common sense. And it means a flexibility with the sort of terms we are using, which is why we prefer post-capitalism over communism and socialism, because those terms have so much baggage. If you want to be talking about ending wage labour and things like this, and if you talk in terms of communism you have twenty battles before you get to that point, whereas if you talk about post-capitalism you can just go there. So rather than fight needless battles we chose post capitalism. Same thing with accelerationism. It has so many varied resonances, and apparently in New York it just means ‘vote Trump!’, so rather than try to explain to people every single time, no that’s not what accelerationism means, we just decided drop the term, and actually drop any branding – the work can stand on its own.
JG: In terms of the emerging discourse around post capitalism, how do you position yourselves re other theorists?
NS: Some people have rather silly ideas about what post capitalism means. I like a lot of Paul Mason’s stuff, I think he’s a bit too naive about the power of open source software, free information etc.. I don’t think that leads to post capitalism I think it will be recuperated by Apple etc … similarly with the peer to peer economy .. some people describe this as post capitalist, I tend to think it is not really post capitalist in a meaningful sense. Indeed actually, there isa qualification that we make in the book, which is that the post work economy that we describe in the book is not post capitalist, but it is a stepping stone towards being post-capitalist.. I think this is an important point to make.
JG: can we talk more about technology.. ideas around technology seem central to post capitalist thinking.. what are some tools that can help us think here..?
NS: Broadly when you look at the philosophy of technology there are two poles. Firstly determinism, where technology determines society, and social constructivism, which says that society can completely choose how technology functions, how it is developed, what effects it has on society. I think both of those are wrong. I think what technology does is it opens up possibilities, it opens up connections. It makes certain things easier to do, other things harder to do, and given the way that society is formed at any particular moment, the technology will get taken up in a particular way. So there is a deterministic aspect, in that it is concretely changing the possibility structure available to society, but whether it gets taken up or not is up to society itself. So there is flexibility, but there is also determinism involved. Now when that plays into something like post capitalism it is a matter of saying we have the technology today to do things like infinitely reproduce music and informational goods at marginal costs. That’s a possibility, although I don’t think this will be taken up, there are too many ways to recuperate it, to make that function political effective. But there is also technology that can automate a lot of labour, and that’s a new possibility available to society, the question is can we build a political movement that takes advantage of this?
JG: What do you see as the relationship between some of the technologies just alluded to, and, in the broadest sense, the question of planning – both economic and urban-infrastructural – and the relation of planning to any conception of post capitalism? How do these technologies change the how we need to think about planning? In the manifesto at least, you refer to Stafford Beer’s Cybersyn project in Allende’s Chile for example…
NS: So I think some form of planning is absolutely necessary, for a proper post capitalist economy, because we don’t want a free market, and we don’t want anarchist communes effectively creating a free market between themselves.. I mean I am not sure how we are supposed to get rid of the free market with anarchist communes interacting with each other… and if we want a relatively sophisticated and technologically advanced society, we have to have the capacity to get resources where they are needed in an efficient and effective manner, we need some sort of planning. Now, there is a famous socialist economic composition problem, which is how do you determine what the relative values of different goods and resources? And it was thought that it was impossible to do. Today arguably it is perhaps possible to do with computers, although I’m not fully convinced of that yet. I think that there are certain fundamental technological limits that just mean that no matter how advanced our technology gets, it will never be able to immediately price everything, and that ultimately the kind of God’s eye view of planning is never going to work in the way that we want it to. What this means is that I think we need to have some kind of decentralised planning, and this is where Cybersyn is quite interesting, because it was at least theoretically an attempt to have the input of workers on factory floors, have the input of middle management,consumers the input of government, collectively coming together.. today there is an interesting possibility put forward by someone like Nick Dyer-Witherford, using the technology we have today to build an economic model, where you set out basic condition in the economy that you want.. you determine the maximum level of inequality that you are ok with, the maximum level of carbon emissions etc.. and you compute the kinds of economic plans that are possible on that basis, and you can vote..
BS: so like an economic parametricism…
NS: exactly, and it seems like this is an interesting way of getting some kind of decentralised planning, enabling the complexity of the societies that we have, and of dealing with the question of cognitive mapping.. i.e. how do you get a complex system into a manipulable framework…
JG: It often seems to me that there are two things that are under-discussed in these kinds of conversations. One is the extent of planning which goes on in the current economy.. not just of course that every business has a plan.. it is very difficult to raise capital without a plan, and of course today at the largest scales those business plans are phenomenal things, individual corporations running planned economies many times the size of the old Soviet Union! So there is the question of the extent of planning going on today, which might suggest that the task of post capitalism is in part just a question of democratising existing planning… and there is a job to do in just opening this up.. seeing what kinds of planning tools capitalism has already developed that might be deployed in other ways.. and this is all tied to a second issue, which concerns the ideology of free markets.. so one of the things that neoliberalism tends to do ideologically, as well as obscure the kind of planning already going on, is that it also tries to naturalise the notion that markets are a capitalist idea.. yet of course markets in a general form we can find historically in all kinds of economic forms… there are historical examples of non-capitalist markets… so in general, it seems that we need to think more about capitalist planning and non-capitalist markets!
NS: I’ll start with non-capitalist markets, and I’ll start with Robert Brenner’s arguments here. Brenner argues that what is unique about capitalism is that people become dependent upon the market. if you want to survive you need to sell your labour in the labour market. If you are a capitalist you need to buy and sell on the market.. everyone becomes dependent on the market, and that changes the social dynamics and the technological dynamics. So yeah you had markets beforehand, but people weren’t dependent upon them. And you can have markets after, so long as people aren’t dependent on them. It is a question of dependency. So this is what I like about post-work. You are no longer dependent upon the labour market to survive, so starting to undercut one of the key aspects of what capitalism is. Ok, so now on capitalist planning. Again yes. Someone on the left needs to write the book on how Walmart and Amazon and all these companies do economic planning, every single day, in incredibly sophisticated ways, tracking goods across the world in much more detailed ways than the Soviet Union ever had… study how are they doing this, what are they doing, and the communist potentials of it… yeah this is really interesting, and nobody really does that yet..
JG: another job for you guys! Ok.. you’ve mentioned post-work a number of times. I’d like to reflect upon this more. I guess one of the key transitional policies or platforms that you have identified in your book in this regard is UBI: Universal Basic Income. Interestingly, even in the short amount of time since you published your book, we’ve seen an amazing acceptance of this concept in more mainstream thinking.. i wonder if you have had any further reflections upon UBI.. for example, to what extent do you think this is a sign of the contemporary crisis of capitalism, the fact that after years of QE and zero percent interest, there is still a need to pump western economies, and is UBI becoming seen as a vehicle for this by more far sighted capitalist strategists, as well as radical for very different ends?
NS: well one thing that has changed actually, is for us a de-emphasis on UBI, precisely because it has been taken up by so many people. Also, our book is not one demand, it is four demands: 1. full automation, 2. reduced working week, 3. UBI, end the work ethic… and it is all of them together … if we had to narrow it down to one demand, it is the demand for a post-work society. UBI is a step towards that. However, UBI can be set in a narrative suggesting that UBI is a way to cut down on government bureaucracy, and that can play into a right wing narrative very easily. We think that UBI needs to be set in a narrative of we want to reduce work, that there is not enough good work to go around, so how do we support people in the face of that?
JG: yeah, one of the things that students had difficulty conceiving was post-work. An example I gave them was the kind of thing that you see happening at some festivals for example, where in certain situations you see people contributing all kinds of labour for free, building things, putting on side shows, etc etc. In these kinds of examples you have a very definite kind of labour going on, but it is not commodified at any stage of the process.
NS: yeah, we would more accurately describe it as post-wage-labour than post-work, but it doesn’t run off of the tongue so well!
BS: We’ve mentioned cognitive mapping .. a pre-capitalist form of mapping totalities is the mythic, and one of the things that interests me is the mythic potential of acceleration, or should we say post-acceleration…
NS: [laughing] are we post-acclerationists now!?
BS: Yeah, and it was said here first haha