“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells,” writes Karl Marx in Das Kapital, likely the most direct invocation of architecture in his influential, and controversial, writings. “But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
Regardless of the veracity of his claims about the imaginative faculties of bees, Marx’s point stands: humans don’t just work, they also create the conditions within which they work. And the social attitudes we have towards our labor are constructions as well. “Four jobs in 20 years, oh this can never be, we only take on men who work on until they die,” sings Donovan in “Gold Watch Blues,” assuming the voice of a boss. This seems ridiculous today – more like four jobs in two years, just to get a good CV – because the availability of jobs, as well as their character and pay, has radically changed in the fifty years since the song was written.
But while the conditions of labor – and our relationship to it – has dramatically changed since the days of Fordist factory lines, the ways we organize and demand more equitable conditions have largely stayed the same. As neoliberal policies have progressively dismantled labor movements, reversing trends towards better pay and guaranteed jobs in the name of flexibility, entrepreneurship and austerity, the Left continues to rely on outmoded tactics, fighting defensively rather than imagining a new future, at least according to theorists Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, authors of the new book Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World without Work.Demand full automation. Demand universal basic income. Demand the future.
The London-based duo first garnered a degree of notoriety for their “Accelerationist Manifesto,” in which they argue that the Left must co-opt existing sociotechnic tendencies within capitalism in order to accelerate its demise and transformation into a more equitable system. Inventing the Future takes this further, beginning with a critique of contemporary leftist politics, before attempting to establish a new, constructive horizon for the Left to rally behind: universal basic income and full automation.
Described by Mike Davis as a “A conceptual launch pad for a new socialist imagination,” Inventing the Future is both accessible and original. I talked with Williams and Srnicek to discuss some of the major points of their new book, as well as what a future like they describe would mean for architecture.
I was thinking we could begin at the place where your new book Inventing the Future begins: the contemporary political situation. You characterize Occupy, the acampadas movement, and other forms of contemporary leftism that heavily emphasize non-hierarchical structures and consensus-building as “folk politics”: “a collective and historically constructed political common sense that has become out of join with the actual mechanisms of power.” Could you explain folk politics a bit? How is this detrimental to the left?
The basic idea of folk politics is that it is, as you mention, a common sense. It is the default assumption about how politics should be done tactically and strategically. In today’s context, the folk politics of the radical left is focused through a lens of immediacy. Implicitly – and often explicitly – the radical activist and academic left sees a return to immediacy as the best way to respond to the problems posed by global capitalism. This takes the form of various localisms (ecological, agricultural, monetary) as well as a preference for types of political organisation that only work in immediate contexts (consensus, direct democracy, pure horizontalism).
If we want to transform the political fabric today, we need to be placing issues of scale at the forefront of our strategic analysisThe problem with this common sense is that it, by necessity, rejects the project of scaling up and expanding political power. Our argument is that if we want to transform the political fabric today, we need to be placing issues of scale at the forefront of our strategic analysis. By neglecting this aspect, today’s folk politics more often remains bound to transient and marginal gestures – content to build a temporary space of respite from the world, but unable to change broader structures.
Now it is important to note that we don’t reject all small-scale projects, as such. The point is that, on their own, they tend to be inadequate to deal with large-scaled, structural hegemonic phenomena, like globalised capitalism.
Right now, architecture could be described as undergoing something of a “social turn,” with a new emphasis on the relationship between a project and its local political situation. For example, the Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who just won the discipline’s highest prize, will curate this year’s Venice Biennale and focus on practices that attempt to improve social conditions. While a lot of the projects are well-designed and improve the lives of their users, some critics wonder if they fail to address the larger, systemic conditions producing worldwide housing crises – and, in fact, may be helping to “wash” over these structures by implicitly positing volunteerism as an adequate replacement for a now-dismantled welfare state.
Does this resonate with your conception of folk politics? I’m interested in what you think of the viability of something like a discipline-specific politics. And more broadly, what do you consider the political character of architecture?
Part of the usefulness of ‘folk politics’ as a concept stems from the fact that it does cut across disciplines. As such, there is little doubt that it could apply to particular architectural practices. However, one needs to exercise caution – not every local project is folk political. Since every politics begins at the local level, the essential characteristic of folk politics is a neglect of scaling and extension, and a privileging of immediacy.Architecture, as the design and provision of space, is inherently political
Architecture, as the design and provision of space, is inherently political. We need only look at the speculative housing bubble of the 2000s, its relationship to inequality and debt-fuelled consumption to see this. Likewise, a billion members of the surplus population make do with precarious and informal housing in the slums of the world. And the inequality that someone like [Thomas] Piketty points out is at a higher level than nearly ever before – that stems in significant part from the rise in housing prices in particular urban spaces. If architects ignore their role in these processes, they are willing accepting complicity in them.
Given this context, it seems to us that the most rigorously political architecture is also, oftentimes, the least glamourous. While we have nothing against the megastructures of modern architecture per se (quite the opposite, in fact), the key point is that too often these large-scale structures are today built upon hyper-exploited migrant labour and/or built for the purposes of augmenting the wealth of the richest. This is not to mention the numerous ways in which luxury housing within a city like London operates as a vector of dislocation for the poorest. No matter how politically-attuned your building may be, if it is participating in these sorts of social processes, it is politically retrograde. What could be done in its place? The UK is fascinating case here, as the brutalist social housing built in the postwar era is a remarkable testament to the politically-sensitive and hyper-Promethean possibilities latent within architecture. We need to revive these sorts of projects for the 21st century.
You argue that full automation and a universal basic income could, and should, become orienting demands for a leftist project capable of challenging capitalism. Starting with the former, I think the prospect of full automation is something that places architects in a very particular position. A lot of developments have been made with robotics and construction – and many architects have readily, and happily, been involved with this work. So, first, I’m interested in how you think full automation could change the building industry for the better. Why should architects demand full automation? And what would that look like?
Full automation offers a chance to transform nearly every industry, and architecture is no exception. Architects have been deploying computer models for some time now, and this is already a type of automation. But for our purposes, the most interesting aspects lie in things like additive manufacturing and the various attempts to create cheap, quick, and liveable buildings. The construction industry is a notoriously labour-intensive one, and filled with demanding manual labour. The promise (though not yet reality) of additive manufacturing is the ability to “print” out a building at very cheap costs. In terms of reducing the dearth of social housing in places like the UK, or even formal housing in places like Bangladesh, this could drastically change what is possible.Full automation offers a chance to transform nearly every industry, and architecture is no exception
On the other hand, many architects have struggled to find work since the last financial crash, and would probably be more inclined towards traditional demands for full unemployment. I think this may have to do with the particularities of architecture as both an “art” and a “profession.” Architects like their job – and tend to hate AI-designed projects and other efforts to automate design. What would your idea of full automation mean for work, like design, that people enjoy (or believe they do)? Would all jobs be automated in the future you suggest?
Not all jobs would be automated, as there are technical limits to even the most advanced technologies. In particular, creative activities have to date been difficult – if not impossible – to replicate with a computer. We can create computers that generate music and art, but they’re not particularly good at adjudicating between good and bad creations. Much generative art (and we could include architecture here) tends towards the bland. We’re uncertain if this is absolute limit, and would be hesitant to claim that creativity is entirely outside of the realm of some significant degree of automation in the future.
In our book, we present the future as one involving the end of work – but by this, we don’t mean the complete abolition of work. Rather there would be a progressive decrease in the amount of work we have to do for a boss, and a subsequent expansion in our abilities to do self-directed work. This could involve a whole range of activities – more education, care for families, and of course, creative work. The idea is that automation liberates us from the coercion of wage labour, but we need to put the proper social systems in place first.
Going off that, one of your main points in Inventing the Future is that we have to actively deconstruct the value that capitalist society gives to a “work ethic”. Architecture is a great case study in the harmful character of this work ethic, i.e. normative expectations of unpaid labour, sleepless work culture, and grueling academic standards. But architects also take pride in these conditions. How are ideals around a work ethic produced? Why should – and how could – this be dismantled?
It sounds like architecture is much like academia in that regard – and this stems in part from having the luck to be able to work at something you enjoy. The problem is that in both industries that feeling of being privileged is then used by employers as an excuse to extract all sorts of unpaid labour. We feel almost guilty at having a decent and enjoyable job, and as penance, we must sacrifice ourselves when asked.The problem is not hard work – the problem is the demand to work hard
Now the problem is not hard work – the problem is the demand to work hard (i.e. the work ethic) and the subsequent inability to choose whether or not to work hard. I think many architects and academics gladly work hard at their projects, and there is a lot of pleasure to be found in that. But when the pressures of a job start taking their mental and physical toll on people’s lives, and they feel unable to escape those pressures, we clearly see there is a problem. Moreover, in the case of industries like architecture, or academia, which place a premium (rightly) on creative and original thought and action, there is an immanent tension between the work ethic – which says you have to clock endless hours – and the real objective to create new and useful work. The latter might be equally well-served by a reduction in work schedules, work hours, and a turn away from the work ethic. The work ethic itself has a long and complex history, but today is most damaging in the sense that it is self-enforced, and connected with many other qualities and social norms that are beneficial – such as creativity, for example. Part of the task of undoing the grip of the work ethic will involve practical measures – the creation of liveable universal basic incomes policies, embracing automation, and so on. But it will also involve transforming mental conceptions and ideological constellations – in this case reducing the association of ‘work ethic’ with such concepts as ‘creativity’, ‘entrepreneurship’, ‘innovation’, ‘conscientiousness’.
There’s this image circulating around right now of Mark Zuckerberg walking past an audience of people wearing VR headsets. People seem, if not attracted to the kitsch sci-fi feel, genuinely frightened by the image and the future it suggests. Should we fear the ubiquity of technology in our lives?
We think, more often than not, the fear of technology is a displaced fear of capitalism. The real issue here is the lack of control over where things may be headed. But it’s important to always remember that technology does not have a life of its own; it is driven by other forces. And living in a capitalist economic system, the primary driver is the search for profits. (As an aside, it is interesting to note that even in the academic literature on “autonomous technology”, it is economic incentives which are the hidden actor behind technology’s “life”.) This means that what we fear is typically the capitalist use of technology, not technology itself. We recognise, often subconsciously, that we have very little power in this world, and that when a new technology is introduced, it will not be up to us how it is used. Big data could be a boon for the medical sector, for instance, but more likely it will be a way for companies to monitor our credit, our spending habits, our friends, our intimate relations, and our travel patterns. Technology is not to blame here; our economic system is.Technology is not to blame here; our economic system is.
Architecture, and the urban field more broadly, is often seen as among the most viable sites for the introduction of new technology. However, this has increasingly manifested in ubiquitous surveillance and dataveillance, guised as “smart urbanism” and “smart architecture”. How could new technologies be implemented to create a more just future rather than a more repressive one? What technological transformations in the domestic sphere most interest you right now?
Perhaps the most obvious example of ‘smart’ home technologies are Internet of Things devices – yet all too often these don’t necessarily improve on what has gone before (your heating system effectively being broken because of a firmware update which failed to install properly), as well as being poorly secured. Much more interesting would be the use of all this data being generated by homes and other buildings to better manage complexity. A more primitive version of this was the Cybersyn cybernetic management system developed by Stafford Beer and other engineers in the early 1970s in Allende’s Chile. This was intended to be a ‘socialist internet’, connecting factories and the government, incorporating sentiment monitoring systems, all with the intention of managing the process of transition from capitalism to socialism. We might imagine contemporary versions of the same system being a crucial tool in enabling both a better grip on socio-technical complexity, as well as making possible more sophisticated forms of democratic participation in decision-making.
Moving towards your demands for a universal basic income, I was wondering if you could briefly explain this idea for those who aren’t familiar with existing UBI projects.
The essential of UBI is to give, without criteria, every person living within a given spatial area an income sufficient to live on. Now this idea has attracted much attention of late, but has a long history going back several hundred years, with proponents on both the left and the right wing of politics. For the right wing, it is attractive as a way to basically take apart what is left of the welfare state – and to enable the marketisation of everything. For the left, the attraction is that it enables a totally different attitude to work to develop, strengthens organised labour (since you would no longer fear not being able to provide for yourself if you went on strike), and meshes well with phenomena like increased automation of the work place. The left and right versions of UBI also look quite different – right wing formulations tend to be set at a low level, and would replace the welfare state. Left wing versions would be set at a high level (genuinely enough to live on) and would supplement most of the welfare state. With the increase in attention the idea is receiving right now (governments in Switzerland, Finland, and the Netherlands are all seriously considering the idea) this battle to define which form of UBI becomes ubiquitous has taken on a new significance.The entire present structure needs to be radically transformed
What are your thoughts on the “current housing situation”, i.e. mass shortages in almost every city in the world, lack of proper facilities and access to resources, poor construction methods, etc? Is this a particular situation of today or something more structural? How do you think these two demands – full automation and a universal basic income – could help solve housing issues? Without wage labour and income disparity, how would housing work? Who would pay for it, and how would it be decided where one lives? In short, would a full revision of the normative structures of housing (i.e. landlords, tenants, rent and utilities, developers) be necessary?
We both live in London, possibly the most dysfunctional housing market in the world, so these issues are unavoidable for us. The chronic shortage of affordable housing, the use of new build ‘luxury’ (often quite shoddy) developments as pure investments, the effective cleansing of the poor from large areas of housing within the city, all of these are working together to create an almost unliveable situation for many. This has to be understood as a structural problem, absolutely a part of the overall crisis of global capitalism. The lack of good investment opportunities means that one of the safest forms of investment becomes London property. In turn, historical decisions, most importantly the policy of the Thatcher government of the 1980s to effectively buy off factions of the working class by offering cut rate home ownership for those in previously public housing, has had devastating long-term effects on availability of affordable housing stock. Recent policies have only served to accelerate these tendencies.
Ultimately the entire present structure needs to be radically transformed. UBI could have an important role to play in making housing more affordable, but ultimately we would want to see significant transformations in the housing market itself in order to prevent UBI becoming a subsidy to landlords (as has become the case with housing benefits) – and some of these might be directly related to how UBI is funded. For example, one idea for funding UBI would be a form of land tax. This combined with other similar measures might work to both fund UBI and redirect wealth away from relatively non-productive investments in property and towards more socially useful ends.
One of my favorite parts of your book is the discussion on “negative” and “synthetic freedoms.” Can you describe the difference between these two terms? Could housing be positioned as a fundamental right and a necessity for a free society?
Negative freedoms are the kind of freedoms we are all quite familiar with – they take the form of ‘freedoms-from’. For example, we might think of freedom from the state – the idea that one should have a private space that is not open to state interference. This is the kind of freedom that neoliberalism is (at least ostensibly) focused upon realising. Synthetic freedoms are constructive, ‘freedoms-to’, freedoms to do things. These are important because it places an emphasis on the actual capacities of people. We may all be formally free to run for political leadership of our countries – but the actual capacity to do that is limited by elite networks, funding, and access to important institutions. The formal freedom masks what is a real inequality in freedom. In this context, things like affordable, high quality housing should certainly be considered in this positive sense, given its status as a kind of platform from which people are able to execute their lives. Transforming our understanding of housing towards one shaped by synthetic freedom would entail identifying it as both a basic right but also an enabling condition for a broader range of potential human flourishing.
How does our understanding of architecture change once we see it as a platform for human development rather than an investment for the wealthy?
Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams was published in November 2015 by Verso Books and is available for purchase here.
This piece is part of Archinect's special March 2016 theme, Money. How did you weather a tough economy, or manage a great projects with a shoestring budget? Our open call for Architectural Survival submissions ends March 20 – for more information, and to submit, click here.
The interview is also the second in Archinect's new series focusing on conversations between architecture and the broader humanities. Check out our interview with the ecophilosopher Timothy Morton here.
Writer and visual artist living in Los Angeles. I am interested in the margins of architecture, in particular its intersections with art, politics, and ecology. Get in touch: email@example.com