Swan Song of the Ultraleft
May 30, 2022
In his recently published study, Aaron Benanav takes on the proponents of what he calls “the automation discourse.” The main thesis of this discourse is that capitalism is digging its own grave by making human labor obsolete on an ever-larger scale. Benanav focuses on a 2016 book by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams entitled Inventing the Future, which made the case for a universal basic income (UBI) as a means to accelerate this self-undermining employment trend towards a society beyond the capital-wage labor relation. Although Benanav agrees with the fundamental assumption of this discourse, that the main problem confronting society is that “there are simply too few jobs for too many people” and that the situation is only going to get worse, he rejects their explanation for why this is happening and the solutions they propose. Skeptical of the bleakest prophecies of “catastrophic unemployment and social breakdown,” Benanav foresees a more slow-motion, yet equally inexorable implosion of the job market, which he hopes might ignite new forms of anti-capitalist social struggle. Sympathetic reviewers have expressed an appreciation for the author’s attempt to articulate a systematic approach to the future of capitalism in order to frame strategic perspectives on the future of anti-capitalism. While the economic and political argument he is making will be called into question here, the text addresses many topics of considerable importance and so warrants an in-depth review.
Benanav’s account of the historical unfolding of this rising tide of unemployment, or, as he puts it, a “declining demand for labor,” was first proposed as a striking interpretation of Karl Marx’s Capital presented in Endnotes, a journal whose editorial collective understands itself as continuing the tradition of the so-called Ultra-Left. The journal is perhaps best known for the claim that Capital is above all “a history of unemployment” (Frederic Jameson) that is now, under what might be called “late capitalist” conditions, culminating in a global expansion of jobless and precarious surplus populations. Here, Benanav seeks to make apparent the utopian possibilities of societies supposedly locked in the vise-like grip of this employment crisis. The theme of precarity was a hallmark of the post-2008 Left scene, and Benanav’s study can be seen as a resumé of the economic ideology of this now dissolving formation. Every era of capitalism, we are often reminded in the pages of this journal, gives rise to its own forms of class struggle as well to distinctive theorizations of its central contradictions which express the fears and hopes of those who participated in its victories and defeats. And this is certainly true of the mini-period in which Endnotes came into being.
In this book, put together from two unrevised pieces he wrote for the New Left Review, Benanav’s conception of the capitalist logic leading to ever greater unemployment leans not as much on a reading of Marx’s Capital as on what I will argue is a questionable interpretation of Robert Brenner’s conception of a “long downturn.” The latter holds that the slowing down of growth rates of world’s most advanced economies from the 1970s to the present is the result of a persisting “crisis of overproduction.” Benanav has repurposed this theorization to argue that capitalism is experiencing a terminal structural decline in the availability of employment. I hope to show that the logic of his claim is defective, that it is contradicted by the evidence, and that the political conclusions he draws from it are utopian only in the pejorative sense of being remote from reality.
Benanav summarizes the argument of “the automation discourse” in four propositions:
1) Workers are already bei