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Accelerationism, Blue Labour and the future of work

Credit: Pixar

February 28, 2018   2 mins

Jeremy Corbyn the man and Jeremy Corbyn the cult should not mislead you as to to the nature of Corbynism.

The man hasn’t changed his mind since the 1970s, but Corbynism isn’t about the past. The cult inspires mindless devotion, but Corbynism is diverse in its ideological tendencies.

In a deeply fascinating essay for the New Statesman, Jonathan Rutherford critiques one of the most influential of those tendencies – a futuristic and heterodox school of thought called ‘accelerationism’:

“The Corbynistas influenced by the ideas of accelerationism have larger ambitions than Labour’s conventional manifesto policies. They argue for a reinterpretation of Marx’s theory of historical materialism. Instead of class struggle driving the course of history, the motor of change is technology. This theory of post-capitalism politics is about unleashing the boundless productive forces of capitalism in order to accelerate technological transformation…”

The idea is that in an era of super-productivity, the state will give us everything we want and robots will do all the work:

“…Everyone will be their own musician and poet in a state of ‘fully automated luxury communism’.”

Jonathan Rutherford is part of the Blue Labour movement – which is non-Marxist, communitarian and often characterised (mostly by its enemies) as culturally conservative. Judging by Rutherford’s arguments, it is also anti-accelerationist:

“For Corbynistas, automation will liberate people from wage labour. A Universal Basic Income will create the conditions to allow each individual to be and do whatever they want. For Blue Labour, work is how people create their lives. They contribute to society and in return receive esteem. Work fulfils the ethic of reciprocity which binds people together and by which we support those unable to work. A Universal Basic Income would undermine social solidarity by increasing the power of the market and state. Workers need more power and control not the promise of free money.”

The accelerationists are right about one thing. Automation really does have the potential to liberate people from drudgery. We can be confident of this because it’s already happened (for example, try washing your clothes without a washing machine).

Automation has also destroyed millions of manufacturing jobs across the developed world. A new wave of innovation in robotics and machine learning is set to go even further – upending basic economic assumptions. Even if one doesn’t agree with their conclusions, the accelerationists are surely right to think about the implications.

However, Rutherford is right to question the desirability of a world without work. We already know what happens to communities when they lose their work-based institutions and worklessness becomes the norm.

The accelerationists may protest that in their vision of the future Universal Basic Income will be hugely more generous than today’s welfare system; that, though, is to presume that the only problem with a life of worklessness is a lack of money:

“The pursuit of individual freedom without constraint is a kind of promethean bourgoise version of Marxism. It is the other side of the coin to neo-liberalism and unwittingly represents the interests and preoccupations of a knowledge class. It would destroy the web of communal social relations and values that bind people together.”

Still, at least the Labour Party is having a debate about these issues – unlike their Conservative opponents, who govern as if tomorrow’s economy is going to be substantially the same as today’s.

Spoiler: it won’t be.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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