Fantasies of “Socialism with an iPad”?: Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams: Review

Sometimes you read a book that helps to crystalize your thinking, not because you agree with it, but because you don’t. Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Verso 2015) is such a book. It has been widely praised by a number of left wing intellectuals and is said to be an influence in a new trend to “Corbo-Futurism” or “Socialism with an iPad”. I came to read a copy because, with politics in the Labour Party in flux and feeling sympathetic to the social justice agenda of many new members, I have been thinking that the best place to promote the convergence of left and green politics is inside the Labour Party. I have wanted a dialogue with the activists there and in one conversation it was suggested that I read the Srnicek and Williams book. I am glad that I did because I discovered an attack on the thinking of much of the green movement.

On the surface this book is mainly about the threat to workers posed by automation and the increasingly precarious existence of millions of people. Yet it also purports to contain a response to the ecological and climate crisis that will allow the convergence of the left, green (and feminist) movements around a populist vision of the future. It even claims to be a way forward for indigenous peoples. It does not lack ambition. It has been written to promote a new ideological hegemony to be counterposed to neoliberalism. It wants to put forward an attractive picture for a “post work” society founded on “four minimal demands” – 1. Full automation; 2. The reduction of the working week; 3. The provision of a basic income and 4. The diminishment of the the work ethic. I don’t disagree with the last three but it is the first that seems to me to be highly questionable on sustainability grounds.

It’s not difficult to understand how and why the authors would arrive at their conclusions about automation. Technology and automation is part of a trend that is exacerbating unemployment and “precarity” (increasingly precarious living conditions). The authors describe the growth of what they describe, using Marxist jargon, as a “surplus population” . There are decreasing employment opportunities and people are being persecuted because of their impoverished and/or unemployed state. Rather than oppose automation the authors want to embrace and even promote it, but in a “re-purposed” form, with state support and as a means to a different kind of society. In their view digital technology, robotics and automation, funded and promoted by the state, can give us all we need – but we should propose using what automation can provide not to enrich ourselves but to free ourselves from the slavery of stressful work, making sure everyone gets the benefits with a reduced working week and through a universal basic income. They propose sharing the work and wealth more fairly – as well as encouraging people not to be so hung up about working hard. There should be a right to be lazy – eroding a prevalent work ethic that makes it possible to scapegoat “the precariat” for conditions that they did not create and have no control over. They argued that this will be good for the ecological system and the climate because automation will not be used to produce more stuff but to reduce the amount we have to work. This will help the cause of women’s liberation because some household and care work can be automated too. “Domestic tasks like cleaning the house and folding clothes, for example, can be delegated to machines” . A “post work politics” will build upon the struggles of post colonial and indigenous peoples, they claim, by providing a means of subsistence for the massive informal labour force as well as mobilising against barriers to immigration.

For our two authors this is a way of reviving the idea of “progress” and taking it back from the pessimists who have given up on it. It is revival of the idea that the future could be one of human liberation. They warn, however, that there is nothing inevitable about the realisation of their vision. It will require a long term project of constructing a popular alliance to capture ideological hegemony away from the neoliberal consensus. Neo-liberalism achieved its successes against the post war Keynesian consensus in a long term systematically organised campaign for ideological dominance. It will now be necessary to organise an equally systematic and long term campaign to develop an alternative “common sense”. This will need to be very different from the current politics of the left. They describe this disparagingly as a “folk politics” of the small scale and local, a politics that rejects all hierarchy as well as giving up on the attempt to operate at the global scale. But this is where real power is exercised.

Writing as a former member of the far left I can understand why many leftists find this book attractive. It presses a lot of left wing buttons. Unfortunately, even if the proposed automation is devoted to reducing working time rather than producing a flood of consumer goods I think there is a flaw in the reasoning. Just to create the infrastracture and equipment for the high tech future that is described is almost certainly a task too far in a global economy teetering on the brink of the limits to economic growth. It would involve a huge ecological footprint and is not a sustainable idea.

What the authors do not consider is that there is already a huge ecological footprint for the existing digital economy and for automated production systems. What they propose would magnify it beyond the limits of ecological possibility. The automation revolution which the two authors call for would require a lot of energy which is not going to be available. The flaw in their thinking shouts at you from the top of page two where they write that “Clean energy technologies” will “make possible virtually limitless and environmentally sustainable forms of power production” .

….as if!

I’m in favour of renewables too but please let’s get real about their potential. This is commonly overestimated by enthusiasts like Srnicek and Williams because they are unaware of the energy costs of developing the renewables infrastructure, including the energy costs of balancing intermittancy. I will return to this question below after first giving important details about the ecological footprint of digital technology and computer controlled production.

The Ecological Footprint of the Digital Economy and Automation

Getting an accurate measurement of the ecological footprint of digital technology and of automation is not easy but it is huge. There is a danger of falling for the illusion that the footprint is low if one thinks only in terms of the energy use of the gadgets at home and in the office – computers, I phones, tablets and the like. What can easily get unnoticed is the energy used in the supporting infrastructure of servers, data storage and, crucially, in the energy used to manufacture the infrastructure and equipment – plus the energy used to make the power plants that are needed to power the additional equipment.

The fact that components like microprocessors are very small can give the misleading impression that the energy used in creating the infrastructure and processing the materials to create those components is small. The contrary is the case – to create and control the manufacturing environment in which precision micro components can be produced and assembled requires a great deal of energy. Many materials for this and complex parts also have to be assembled from all over the world with a further huge energy usage in transport, communications and logistics. When you take all of this together the energy consumption is enormous. One study found that the internet consumed 1,815 TWh of electricity in 2012 – which corresponded to 8% of global electricity production in that year.

In energetics one way of trying to get a sense of the dimensions of energy usage is to compare it with the energy generated by a healthy human body – for example generating electricity using a pedal generator. Before industrialisation work literally was powered by our bodies – labour power – or the bodies of work animals. So what is 1,815 TerraWatt hours using a literal “labour power”yardstick?

“If we were to try to power the (2012) internet with pedal-powered generators, each producing 70 watt of electric power, we would need 8.2 billion people pedalling in three shifts of eight hours for 365 days per year. (Electricity consumption of end-use devices is included in these numbers, so the pedallers can use their smartphones or laptops while on the job)….. 1,815 TWh equals three times the electricity supplied by all wind and solar energy plants in 2012, worldwide.”[1]

The fact that computers and I phones are “cheap” in a financial sense tells us not only about the low pay of exploited workers in the global south. Even more it is a testimony to the low cost of fossil energy and the “work” that that energy does for humans when it powers that machines that we use to produce things.

It is a similar story – of high energy usage and a large footprint – if we focus more specifically on producing and running digital production technologies. When Srnicek and Williams wax lyrical over the potential of automation they appear unaware of the energy intensity of what they are describing.

The switch from human and water powered tools to fossil fuel powered tools increased production but, of course, it also contributed to the greenhouse effect and relied upon depleting fuel resources. The further switch to computer controlled machine tools is more energy intensive still.

According to a detailed study in the Low Tech magazine:

“A comparison of the maximum power requirements by three CNC milling machines (from 1988, 1998 and 2000) and one hand-operated milling machine (from 1985), all cutting a similar workpiece, revealed that the digital machines require 2.5 to 67 [sic] times more power than the manual machine. At full operation, the hand-operated machine tool used 2.8 kW, while the digital machines used 7 kW for the 1998 machine, 9.4 kW for the 1988 machine, and 188 kW for the 2000 machine.”

Even worse for the Srnicek and Williams argument the potential for energy savings improvements are rather small. The same article in the Low Tech magazine quotes a German research agency:

“According to the Frauenhofer Institute, ‘there is no single option with a large environmental improvement potential, and moderate savings of 3-5% can be realised only with the implementation of several individual options’. For metal working machine tools, they estimate the savings potential at 4%.” [2]

It is not only a problem of energy use. The increased production brought about by automation will likely lead to more waste and more non CO2 emissions. But for simplicity let us just stay focused on the energy requirements implied by the Srnicek and Williams vision of automation. As is already clear from what I have quoted current renewable energy resources are completely inadequate even to power the existing internet, let alone a further automation of the economy. But could not renewables be expanded to provide the power? Is not the potential “virtually limitless” as Srnicek and Williams claim?

“Virtually limitless” sources of renewable power?

Actually no. One study that tries to calculate the global potential for renewable enery concludes that

“the global shift to RE will have to be accompanied by large reductions in overall energy use for environmental sustainability” [3]

So what’s the problem?

Most people who are even partially informed realise that intermittency is an issue with renewables – that’s the problem of matching the time that the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine with the time when people actually want to use electricity. At this time the intermittency of renewables can buffered by turning up and down gas, coal or nuclear power stations to fill in the gaps. (Something that makes them intermittent too and increases their costs – it is no wonder that they struggle to compete).

However, how is intermittancy to be buffered in the future when gas and coal (and hopefully nuclear too) has been phased out? If they think about this problem at all most people probably assume that it will be solved by energy storage and/or by smart grids which would turn the washing machine on when the wind is blowing and/or when the sun is shining. I’m supposing Srnicek and Williams share this view because they have not explained how they see the intermittancy issue being resolved.

Yet it is necessary to do the maths rather than simply assume that “buffering” is a simple solution. When you do the maths it becomes clear that a future of “virtually limitless” clean and sustainable energy is not so straightforward. This being so the creation of the infrastructure of automation will not be straighforward either. I write that with reluctance but one has to face the facts. If one cannot create an infrastructure for automated society using energy from renewables it will not be possible to create it at all. Using fossil fuels in the future to generate the power for creating an automation infrastructure would be highly problematic both for reasons of climate change and because of the depletion of fossil fuels (On these points more later). [4]

So why is intermittency such a problem? The answer is that what looks technically possible – developing storage and a smart grid – itself necessitates a great deal of energy. There is an energy cost that must be deducted from the gross energy yield to get the net energy yield.

It takes energy (including electricity) to create, install and maintain the equipment and infrastructure to harvest the sun and wind. It also takes energy (and electricity) to create, install and maintain the equipment and infrastructure to deliver the energy from where it is harvested to its point of use. It also takes energy to create energy storage devices and smart grids too. Before you have a NET energy supply all of these energy costs have to be taken off the GROSS energy yield of systems to repay the energy costs of setting up and maintaining the system. At the moment almost all of the energy being used to manufacture, install and maintain renewables, storage devices and grids actually comes from fossil fuels.

To be sustainable, to work for the long term without climate damage and depletion, the energy inputs to produce the infrastructure of harvesting, delivery and storage needs to come from wind and solar too (and not from fossil fuels). To assess the feasibility of doing this you need to calculate the energy-in to energy-out ratio. In the jargon of energetics this is the EROIE ratio, energy return on invested energy. 

Doing calculations of this sort necessitates a lot of data. For example, if you are doing calculations for solar panels you need to specify where the panels will be installed. The inward solar energy will vary with how close to the Equator you are and with average weather and cloud patterns. You will need as well to specify how long your equipment is going to last – you can’t use it for ever, hail stones damage solar panels for example. You will need to make assumptions about storage systems and so on.

The problem is this. When you do the sums and calculate the energy returned on your energy invested you find little, if any net gain. In fact in many places you are likely to get less out than you put in. A recent study by Ferruccio Ferroni and Robert J Hopkin in the peer reviewed journal Energy Policy looks at solarvoltaics in Northern Europe. It is titled “Energy Return on Energy Invested for Photovoltaic Solar Systems in regions of moderate insolation”. It finds that the energy return on the energy invested is 0.85. You get less energy out of the system than you put into creating it – plus or minus 15% you get 85% of the energy out that you put in to create it.[5]

Other studies for other kinds of solar systems in other places – e.g. concentrated solar power using mirrors located in the deserts of North Africa – give higher results. However they would require considerable land. In northern europe wind turbines give a much better energy return on investment but once you put in the energy needed to construct and maintain the storage systems the net energy is very low for wind too. I won’t go into the details but this graph tells an important story. In it “buffered” means when you calculate the energy return on energy invested in a way that includes the energy for creating, installing and maintaining energy storage to match the needs of the intermittent system (which you don’t need for biomass, coal, gas, or nuclear).

Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested), and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants from Energy 52 (2013) 210e221 D. Weißbach, G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Czerski, S. Gottlieb, A. Hussein
Energy intensities, EROIs (energy returned on invested), and energy payback times of electricity generating power plants from Energy 52 (2013) 210e221 D. Weißbach, G. Ruprecht, A. Huke, K. Czerski, S. Gottlieb, A. Hussein

There are no “virtually limitless” sources of clean energy and that undermines the Srnicek and Williams argument. That’s because the generalised automation that they want to see would require a lot of energy to create and its not clear where it would come from. Politics has to be based on physical realities too!

Biophyical Limits

The key problem with this book is that Srnicek and Williams have not taken into account bio-physical limits. Of course they are partly aware of the environmental crisis in its climate dimension but that is only a part of our problems. The carbon footprint of humanity is 54% of a bigger ecological footprint – the other 46% must be considered too. It includes deforestation, the pressure on land with overgrazing, top soil loss, a crisis of bio-diversity and loss of species, over-use of fresh water supplies, ocean acidification, fisheries collapse and other problems.

Humanity is currently consuming resources and generating wastes as if we had the equivalent of 1.6 planets. Since the early 1970s humanity has been in “overshoot” – like a household consuming more than its income by running down its savings and by accumulating debts. In this case the “ecological debts” will be paid for by future generations who will inherit degraded ecological systems. Their idea of “re-purposing” yet further technological development so that machines can fold their clothes when the energy to do all of this is not available will seem a little bit crazy to future generations as they struggle to survive in a degraded environment.

The rich part of humanity in “developed economies” has create a global economy that is in ecological “overshoot”. The global economic juggernaut is using more resources than can be sustained here and now and humanity as a whole is being carried into a crash. When a household consumes more resources than its income allows the savings eventually run out. A time comes when the debts can no longer be repaid or serviced and its dilapidated home lets in the wind and rain. Overshoot is possible for a time but ends abruptly and catastrophically. The ruling elite are trying to solve problems with ever more ecologically and politically destructive processes like fracking, underground coal gasification, tar sands extraction and the like, as well as policies that generate conflict and pipeline wars. They save money by not treating atmospheric pollution so that now, in China 17% of all deaths are the result of coal emissions and 60% of aquifers are contaminated[7]. A looming problem of melting ice caps is acknowledged but then addressed with technological fantasies for mega engineering solutions that are simply not feasible.

As the environmental, social and financial costs of extracting fossil energy have risen the ability to cope with the harms and to pay the costs has been falling. Rising costs for companies and households have been paid for by debt creation on the assumption that current debts can be repaid out of future growth, as in the past. However, as costs have risen, particularly energy extraction costs, the growth has not been there to repay the debts and that has led, in turn, to deflation and falling prices. Economies are struggling under the deflation-inducing burden of growing financial debt. These deflationary trends are pulling down the prices at which oil, gas, coal and other energy sources can be sold. They leave the energy sector in a catch 22. Its extraction costs are rising but the prices that it can get for the oil, gas and coal that it extracts are not high enough in a deflationary environment for it to make a profit. The “solution” is also unsustainable – to borrow more and get even deeper into debt.[8]

This is another way of understanding “precarity”. I do not doubt that automation has been a threat to jobs over the last few years but the bigger context is a global economy at the ecological limits to growth with a slide into huge and catastrophic problems. The outcome will be similar to that envisaged by Srnicek and Williams – namely an economic crisis in which large numbers of people find themselves unemployed and very vulnerable. But this different analysis suggests a need for a very different menu of responses.

In defence of “localism”

What is particularly unfortunate about this book is not only that they misunderstand the current crisis and have a solution that is unsustainable. It is also unfortunate because they oppose approaches that will help to get us through it – particularly localism. Throughout the book their grand vision is counterposed to what they perceive as a failing style of activism which the authors name “folk politics”. Yet many of the features of so-called “folk politics” were and are efforts to forestall or prepare local communities for a crisis of sustainability.

It is true that in the 1980s and 1990s some people took the idea of “local economy” and developed it in universities, as well as in local authority economic development departments – and it became about how to make local areas attractive to “inward investment” and friendly to big corporations. A strand of localist thinking was co-opted into mainstream local authority politics. It is also true that there are many who view political activity and organisation focused at the national or international scales as futile, or as futile at this point in time. Many have the view, with some justice, that trying to intervene in national or international politics, even if apparently successful at first, leads to leaders being seduced to processes of co-option into the circles of the well connected and well to do – so that political integrity entails not being drawn into the games of powerful people.

Yet there are also approaches to localism which see the value for a focus on local action as combined with a need to network across wider scales and requiring complementary political activity and organisation at national and international levels. Their approach is not either/or. There are movements like permaculture and the transition movement organised transnationally and with a strong internationalism about them – even though their primary rationale is about preparing localities for a future beyond the limits to economic growth. The point here is that they have attempting to promote the re-development of localities as a necessary response to a coming systemic crisis of unsustainability. They have been about saving energy and minimising unnecessary resource use. This has an intrinsically local dimension because it crucially involves the energy efficiency of buildings as well as encouraging walking, cycling and shared public transport.

The authors are rather contemptuous of these kind of activities. They write

“A folk political sentiment has manifested itself in both horizontalist and more moderate localist movements, yet similar intuitions underpin a broad range of the contemporary left. Across these groups, a series of judgements are widely accepted: small is beautiful, the local is ethical, simpler is better, permanence is oppressive, progress is over. These kind of ideas are favoured  over a counter hegemonic project – a politics that might contend with capitalist power at the largest scales. At its heart, much of the contemporary folk politics therefore expresses a ‘deep pessimism: it assumes we can’t make large-scale collective social change’. This defeatist attitude runs amok on the left – and perhaps with good reason, considering the continued failures of the past thirty years.” (page 46)

As will be observed the authors’ ideas of “folk politics” contains many core ideas and ideals from green politics where the “pessimism” is not mainly about “seizing power” but about the very possibility of continued growth.

Firstly, if Srnicek and Williams are going to attack these features of “folk politics” then one is entitled to expect that they try seriously to engage with the origins of those ideas and why they were put forward in the first place. For example, to critique Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, or to engage with the ideas of the Transition Movement which puts a strong emphasis on re-developing localities or to go back to the ideas of the “Local Economy” movement that was influential internationally in the 1990s. They might, for example, have gone to the trouble of critiquing Richard Douthwaites Short Circuit which is about local economy. They do not do that and as far as I can tell from reading their book they have put little effort into understanding the roots of the green variant of localism.

I repeat again, I cannot say what the situation is and has been in “the left” –  maybe Srnicek and Williams are describing a real phenomenon there. Maybe too there are people who would describe themselves as green who see no point in national and international politics – or have no time for it anyway. However from my experience of living and working in movements that were powerfully influence by localism the following passage feels overstated:

“Localism, in all its forms, represents an attempt to abjure the problems and politics of scale in large systems such as global economy, politics and the environment. Our problems are increasingly systemic and global, and require an equally systemic response. Action must always, to some extent occur at the local level – and indeed some localist ideas, such as resiliency, can be useful. But localism-as-ideology goes much further rejecting the systemic analysis that might guide and coordinate instances of local action to confront, oppose and potentially supplant oppressive instances of global power or looming planetary threats.” (p43 – emphasis added)

Having been in a network of local community development projects in the 1980s, the local economy movement of the 1990s, the Transition movement and Feasta in the first decade of the century and having helped developed several local projects in and around Nottingham I and my colleagues were always part of larger networks, often international in scope, that were theorising what we were doing in a larger systemic perspective. Many of us came out of the left and were still influenced by left thinking, then picking up the ideas of the green movement. In this entire process there was ALWAYS an understanding that there was a larger systemic context, that there were larger planetary threats. For goodness sake one of the main slogans was “Think Global – Act Local”. We also went to a great deal of trouble to share ideas as far as possible internationally, networking as best we could. (Not always easy before the internet). Such efforts continue to this day. In his book “Blessed Unrest” Paul Hawken describes how perhaps a million organisations (not individuals) exist all over the world, largely at local level, trying to do something about economic, environmental and social issues – but these million organisations are everywhere looking for meta-theories, ideas that will help them to work at a bigger scale and coming together in conferences and organisations to exchange ideas under titles like “Solidarity Economy”, “the Commons Movement”; “Degrowth”; the “Transition Movement”, the Global Social Forum. Many of these networks overlap and share ideas beyond their locality. They look too for ideas about how to network and “federate the change agents” to have bigger punch at national and international levels.

The Viable Systems Model

Some of the approaches to organising coherence between the diverse organisations of overlapping movements are similar to ideas proposed by Srnicek and Williams. When they claims that localism as ideology rejects the systemic analysis that might guide and co-ordinate against global power I wonder who they are referring to. Green local activists that I have worked with for years have been seeking a systemic analysis and methodologies for action for a long time – including, in some cases by applying the viable systems analysis of Stafford Beer.

That is the methodology that underpinned the Cybersyn experiment initiated by the government of Salvador Allende in Chile. Srnicek and Williams describe Cybersyn in “Inventing the Future” as if it was primarily an example of how computer technology can help democratic socialism but that is only a part of the story. The cybernetic principles themselves are of great importance but you will look in vain in their book for a description of the viable system model as way to create coherence out of the diversity in an organisation or system. That is despite the fact that how this can be done successfully is a major theme for them. As I explain in my book Credo:

“The basic principle is to minimise outside interference in each organisation – while at the same time facilitating co-ordination where joint involvement in a wider process makes it appropriate. These forms of co-ordination would be of these types, only to be activated where the bigger picture makes it appropriate: (a) conflict resolution procedures, (b) steps to achieve synergies, (c) developing a common strategic view of what is happening in shared environments and, (d) activities that clarify and develop shared value systems and purposes.

“The diagram sums up the vision graphically and is ‘recursive’ in form. Recursive means nested similar to the way that Russian dolls are nested i.e. with similar arrangements inside wider arrangements. Thus, each ‘operational unit’, – a person, a work team, a whole project, a federation of projects activates a wider system for the conflict resolution, synergy, strategic and share policy co-ordination functions agreed and as needed – while at the same time taking the maximum decisions for their own operation autonomously. Graphically


So localism “in all its forms” does not reject thinking at the largest scales. Localism in some of its forms may reject thinking at the largest scales but many of the forms of green localism give a great deal of thought as to how to fit into larger systems and their dynamics.

The “struggle” perspective and the “development” perspective

It does seem relevant to point out that Srnicek and Williams see the world, as left wing intellectuals and militants, largely in the context of “STRUGGLE”. But one of the most important features of the “folk politics” is that many of its proponents are project developers. People like this see politics through the prism of managing and developing small businesses, co-ops, social enterprises or not for profit projects. In part that is because these are people who have been driven out of employment and have become self-employed or come together in small organisations and businesses to survive. It is their response to the precarity described by Srnicek and Williams. They may have associated themselves with a variety of projects because, when they became unemployed, they found support and a social network by doing so. They are part of an emerging “lifeboat economy” which is there for at least some of the “surplus population”.

In part creating or joining these organisations is also a way in which radicals can experiment and try to express what they believe in. It is where they can respond directly to the crisis that they see coming down the road at humanity. Some people who might have joined left wing parties in the past nowadays prefer to align themelves with NGOs, with not for profit or community organisations.

Whether for reasons of economic survival or for reasons of political belief people have gravitated towards different kinds of organisations. Some of these organisations then struggle to make headway against market competition while they produce or operate in a different way. If they are involved in growing food they will also be struggling to make cultivation work at a particular location – often developing a fascination with the species, the quality of the soil, the landscape, the quality of the food they produce – and then sharing what they have learned, and sharing their struggles, sharing their seeds with others in professional groups.

Let them eat assessments

For these people Srnicek and Williams have this message:

“Goldman Sachs doesn’t care if you raise chickens”.

To which one response is “So what? If you are part of what Srnicek and Williams call the ‘surplus population’, if you are unemployed, then the eggs will help. Of course a universal basic income will help even more if it is large enough but why should chickens and a UBI be considered either/or?”

Srnicek and Williams particularly sneer at slow food and local food movements. On local food they write:

“Without an assessment of how our lives are structured by social, political and economic pressures that make it easier to eat pre-prepared food than embrace the slow food lifestyle, the end result, is a variant or ethical consumerism with hedonic twists.”

Let them eat assessments! If you try to do something practical, that actually involves growing, or preparing local food, and even if you are well aware of the limitations of what you are doing – then Srnicek and Williams appear to be telling you that you are not making a contribution to the grand project of constructing a popular movement with its hegemonic goal. Perhaps not. Yet why is it necessary to be so scornful? It doesn’t seem like a good way of constructing a “popular alliance”.

Meanwhile a preference for eating locally is subject to the charge that it is guilty of “condensing often complex environmental issues into questions of individual ethics. One of the most serious and intrinsically collective crises of our time is thus effectively privatised”.

This is puerile stuff. No one I know who volunteers in a community garden or has an allotment sees this as a complete solution to either their own problems or the problems of society at a whole, let alone the world. No one that I know who joins up to a box scheme to get locally grown vegetables is seeing it as more than a very partial and, on its own, inadequate response to the complexity of global food and environmental politics. It is a caricature of the local food movement to believe that the people in it think that it is a cure all. It is also a caricature to claim that localism “in all its forms” (sic!) “ abjures the problems and politics of scale”. Jeremy Corbyn has an allotment and I am sure he does not regard it as a complete solution to complex environmental issues. Nor has he given up on the politics of scale.

Localism and Green Systemic Analysis

As a matter of fact, there is a systemic analysis underpinning the ideas about local development. It is not a Marxist systemic analysis but it is a systemic analysis and it has been elaborated by green thinkers. It may not have been reflected very much in ideas circulating in “the left” but that’s a different matter. A good place to start describing that alternative systemic analysis is by describing the political stance of indigenous peoples. That’s because the political stance of indigenous peoples is intrinsically localist. Srnicek and Williams do mention indigenous peoples’ struggles but only in passing. Just as Srnicek and Williams have very little idea about the environmental crisis they have very little idea about the struggles of indigenous peoples. They claim that indigenous people would be helped by their style of “post work” policies because indigenous peoples’ lack of “means of subsistence”. But the lack of subsistence is because indigenous people are being robbed of their lands! These are not just any old lands they are the localities in which indigenous people have their collective identity. They are the places where their ancestors are buried and where they want to be buried. They are the places whose ecological system indigenous people understand inside out and for which they see themselves as being responsible as a sacred and religious duty. Because they belong to these places, these localities, because they understand the ecological system based on generations of accumulated knowledge, they are the best people to protect them.

What is involved here are communities of people living in communities of species (an eco-system). The communities of people organise affairs to accommodate and protect through their knowledge of, and respect for, the other species with which they share the local landscapes and waterscapes. Totem identification with other species helps to bring protection of wild animals (non human persons) into the life of the community and its management of living space. Communities like this have an idea of sustainability based on taking decisions about the places that they belong to in which there is a responsibility to consider 7 generations ahead. That’s why, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, indigenous communities are fighting the hardest of all to protect “the environment” (the impoverished word of western societies). For them nature is “kin”. Their own bodies are part of this environment. They are walking pieces of the earth – and, more specifically, it is the local part of the earth that they belong to.

In short they are “localists” and yet they have often managed to engage with other First Nations in a global struggle for recognition and against a predatory global economy. To really support indigenous peoples and form alliances with them a great deal more is needed than the provision of “means of subsistence”. Alliances must be based on respect for their “localism”.

Consequences of Ricardian Development

There is a different kind of systemic analysis, a green systemic analysis – and one in which ideas like localism and “small is beautiful” are situated. A society based in local economes can be compared to a national or global economy using these diagrams which I have borrowed from work by the late David Fleming presented in a Feasta Lecture.


The two diagrams represent two types of economic systems consisting of four locations with some trade or exchange occuring between them. There are 4 products in both economies – A, B, C and D. In the economy on the diagram on the left each location produces all 4 products whereas on the right hand diagram each location specialises in the production of just one product. This is a vastly simplified representation of what has happened in economic history as the emergence of a global economy has been a movement towards the economic structure represented on the right. For those familiar with the history of economic thought the diagrams may remind them too of the ideas of the classical economist, David Ricardo. He argued that a global economy like that on the right would allow for each nation to specialise in production or services where it has a comparative advantage. This international specialisation, he argued, would lead to increased overall production that could then be shared between the nations according to the terms of trade between them. The Green perception that there is a value in re-localising economies is because of a recognition of what has been lost in the movement from what is represented in the move from the left to the right diagram. There is also a recognition of what may have to be retrieved to survive as the crisis of sustainability really kicks in.

In the left hand diagram trade or exchange may occur between locations (eg when there are problems with local production like crop failure) but it is limited. The economies of each place are largely local and this has many implications that are not at first sight obvious.

One implication is that people in local communities will know or be able to meet in person the suppliers of products A, B, C and D. This matters for individual ethics. When Wall Street sold phoney “AAA” grade financial securities, that they knew were “toxic trash” to pension funds at the other side of the world they would be unlikely to know or ever meet their victims. Srnicek and Williams are do not seem overly impressed by making appeals to individual ethics as a solution to the problems of the world. However ethics is a word derived from “ethos” the common pattern, and behaviour in smaller communities is more likely to work on a “love your neighbour” basis if you actually know your neighbour or meet them on the street. It makes a bit more difficult to cheat them.

Another implication is resilience. A crop failure where there is only one crop, or the collapse of a local industry where there is only one local industry of note, will mean a more vulnerable community. (This is the one point acknowledged by the two authors. I’m unclear why.)

Another implication is energy use and pollution arising from travel, transport and communications. In order for the type of economy illustrated in the right hand diagram to function trade is necessary. It can only work by each of the four locations exporting its one specialist product and importing the other 3 products. Transport is needed not only to deliver farm produce to market, but to bring back soil nutrients and other inputs to the fields to replace the nutrients extracted by the monoculture growing practices. For two hundred years expanding trade volumes have been carried by transport fuel which is fueled by fossil energy, particularly oil. The idea that the future will have plenty of electric cars powered by renewables or biofuels is highly questionable. Srnicek and Williams question food miles as a measure of enviromental impact – and it is true of course that it cannot be counted a sole measure but it is one of several.

Large scale cultivation also de-links fields from the places of consumption and that reduces the chances for returning nutrients to the land. Where there is a tight integration of residential areas and growing areas, food wastes, as well as composted human wastes (faeces) can be returned to the fields relatively easily. The short distance helps to maintain phosphorous and other essential soil nutrients. By contrast, when food sources become separated by distance from food consumption, sewerage ceases to be an easily available resource. The plumbing and sewerage arrangements of urban areas frustrate a circular arrangement with agriculture. Sewerage goes into waste water systems where it is mixed with runoffs from streets and industrial toxins and therefore is contaminated and no longer available as a soil nutrient except at great treatment cost. Since nutrients have to be brought in from afar this leads to a depletion in farm nutrients, particularly phosphorous[10]. All these are dimensions of a local food economy too – ones which Srnicek and Williams appear completely unaware of.

Localism has multiple industrial dimensions too. In the industrial revolution the industries that developed were large scale – exporting their product over a wide area and importing raw materials and essential supplies for their workers from a wide area too. When any production process is scaled up it has consequences for the surrounding eco-system, whether it be an agricultural or an industrial process. All scaled up processes produce large amounts of waste and pollution which are more likely to overwhelm the capacity of local sinks to absorb them.

A further implication of Ricardian development is that the specialisation of labour leads to a specialisation of landscapes. To put in another way, there is a reduction in the biological diversity of landscapes over large areas. If A, B, C and D are living species or crops deriving their sustenance from a landscape the movement from left to right is one of bio-diversity reduction. Yet land is more than a space for injecting inputs and extracting outputs. It is a living community of organisms re-generating life in multiple forms. To be healthy it must be diverse, not specialised, and for ecological health, the most appropriate cultivation is that which supports, uses and works with nature’s diversity.

Contrary to the prescriptions of Ricardo, there are advantages to diversity when it comes to landscapes (instead of monocultural specialisation). Diversity works because particular plants and animals can and do help each other. Their roots might be at different depths and thus, not in competition for nutrients, while some plants attract beneficial insects for pollination and/or attract insects or birds that keep other plant predators at bay. The advantages of non-specialist multi-functionality applies to structures too. A hedge that separates animals and provides fodder for them, can also be a place for wildlife to nest; act as a wind break and sun trap on one side while providing for shade loving plants on the other. There is plenty of specialisation in nature but it only works efficiently at far smaller scales than typically found in market driven specialist monocultures. Of course, if land and structures are designed to be diverse, the labour required to create and maintain them must also be varied i.e. non-specialised. It is not possible to develop such systems from far away in global power centres – they must be developed by knowledgeable people locally. That’s another reason for localism and a local food economy.

Monocultures define everything except one or a narrow range of crops as unwanted, as pests or weeds. Monocultures are, by definition, technological assaults on biodiversity made possible by large quantities of cheap energy, mechanisation and chemicals. These kill the eco-system in favour of the market crop and lead to soil degradation, compaction and erosion, exhaustion of water resources, death of beneficial insects and pollinators, waste of crop residues, no ability to return human and other composted wastes back to the soil. Monocultures thus lead to short run gains followed by long run decline in fertility because life depends on diversity and cycles.  This fossil fuel dependent agriculture is not sustainable in the long run. As a system high tech agriculture “works” at the beginning and is hard to compete with on pure price grounds in markets – but that is when energy is cheap and the damage to the eco-system is not being taken into account. This system cannot be continued indefinitely when the damage costs rise and when energy costs rise too. When this happens the costs of producing food and fibre crops will rise and the problems will have to be worked on at the local leve as well as nationally. But for all the reasons discussed it is likely that the main focus will have to shift back to localities and the political demands at national level should be encouraging and empowering that.

None of these are issues covered by Srnicek and Williams in their rejection of “localism”.

In conclusion – the flaws in left wing reasoning – what they share with right wing thinkers

In conclusion it is necessary to stress once again that the Srnicek and Williams book is aimed at the left. They are arguing for how the left should play a leading role in the transformation of society. From the evidence of this book one I am not reassured that this part of “the left” understand the issues well enough to make such a claim for hegemonic power. True, the left are often strong on championing social justice agendas and supporting vulnerable people. They often have a clear idea within this field of human affairs. Yet their analysis of what is wrong is often outdated. There are many leftists for whom the environmental crisis is seen primarily as just another sign that capitalism is failing. Essentially they see humanity’s problems as a variant of a stock simplified story. This story goes something like this – because it is driven by competition and because it puts profit ahead of other goals capitalism is destroying the environment too. Neo-liberal ideology in particular is our current problem to be resisted. The widely held belief that everything requires a market solution and should be privatised has undermined state protection not only for workers and marginalised social groups but undermined environmental regulation too. These are the things that must be put right.

As their variant of this story Srnicek and Williams propose that by working systematically over time it will be possible to achieve a new ideological hegemony for “post work politics”. This will be to achieve a re-purposing of technology to solve the problems of an increasingly precarious existence in the face of a variety of problems – above all automation. First of all then we must get control over the economy so that it can be repurposed to meet social and environmental needs.

At first sight hard left ideology appears to be radically different from the ideology of neoliberalism in which things are to be left to the market and to control by corporations. Yet on a closer look both left and right ideologies share the western idea of “progress” as something evidenced by, and expressed through, technological change as its key feature. In this book too while Srnicek and Williams want to “re-purpose” technological transformation, the technology itself is an intrinsic part of their big story of human progress. Essentially they see themselves as being in the business of wrestling the idea of progress away from neo-liberalism in order to create a new ideological mainstream and a new big story. “A counter-hegemonic strategy entails a project to overturn the dominant neoliberal common sense and rejuvernate the collective imagination. Fundamentally it is an attempt to install a new common sense – one organised around the crisis of work and its effects on the proletariat” (pp131-132 ). In their “post capitalist” and “post work” story progress occurs because the machines do the work.

Unfortunately it will be biophysically impossible to complete this technological transformation without wrecking the ecology of the planet. They are trying to construct an alliance behind a future that is neither desirable nor sustainable.

Brian Davey
13th August 2016

Thanks to Caroline Whyte who drew my attention to a wider variety of green viewpoints on localism.



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