There is a famous adage, attributed to the science-fiction writer William Gibson, that goes: “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed.” If technological progress under capitalism is accelerating, it is doing so under the auspices of a capitalist class that is manipulating its development for their own self-interest. As billionaires hold their own private space race, others rely on food banks or work whilst homeless. The very idea of the future becomes a luxury for the few who can afford it. Whilst many conservative political pundits will claim that we are all – no matter our class, creed, or colour – increasingly better off under capitalism, it seems that, for most people, the futures we were once promised by politicians and poets have plateaued onto an endless expanse of sameness and stagnation. Inequality rises as the ways we measure equality become rapidly outmoded.
At a time when the very idea of “class war” or “class struggle” has been diminished by decades of neoliberal policy, which insists upon the sovereign agency of the individual, minimizing the structural nature of inequality, this position may seem out of touch with the lived experiences of working people. However, a clear example of this disparity between future and present can be seen in the UK when we consider the 2019 Labour Party policy to provide all households with a broadband internet connection.
In a speech at the University of Lancaster, then leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn announced that his “Labour government will make broadband free for everybody … Full-fibre broadband to every home, in every part of our country, for free – as a universal public service.” He noted that, outside of the UK, many other countries are far better connected. They recognise that “What was once a luxury is now an essential utility”, and one that is “too important to be left to the corporations.” Under the plan, he would create a new company called “British Broadband” – much like British Telecom, or BT, a once publicly owned telecoms supplier that ran the country’s telephone network before it was privatised in 1984 under Margaret Thatcher. Despite that fate, many of the UK’s most important and cherished institutions began life this way, and it was time, in Corbyn’s words, for a new set of public services that reflected the needs of working people in the twenty-first century.
Denounced in the media as “Broadband Communism”, it was a policy later poached from the Labour Party’s manifesto by an incumbent right-wing Conservative government that was also forced to acknowledged that the Internet was not a futuristic luxury but an essential utility within our working and social lives under contemporary capitalism – something that became even more apparent when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Even prior to the pandemic, many on the left were rightly framing the idea of nationalised broadband as being like the idea for a National Health Service, which many argued had faced similar resistance at the time. Ash Sarkar, for example, writing for the Guardian, explored how the “idea of the NHS took root in the political imagination less as an example of social entitlement’s victory over private provision, and more as the embodiment of brand Britain.” A year later, Boris Johnson’s right-wing government embraced the idea of full nation-wide access to broadband, supposedly along these lines. Broadband isn’t a frivolous luxury but good for business! After a bruising Brexit process, rebuilding “brand Britain” was precisely what was needed.
Johnson later scrapped the plans as private companies resisted the move, arguing that government subsidies were insufficient to cover the work required. With residents largely unable to pay for it out of their own pocket, the plan was shelved. But by that time, public opinion had shifted and embraced universal access to broadband as a no-brainer. Johnson was left embarrassed as the extra provisions argued for by the Labour Party – that a nationalised broadband service would be necessary to counter private enterprise’s constant handwringing about their profits – were validated as corporate handwringing stopped the project in its tracks.
What is most telling about this scenario is the government’s ideological pivot, from denouncing the plans as “Broadband Communism” to embracing them as good business sense. It demonstrates how capitalist ideology routinely falls behind itself, dismissing access to its own elevated standards of living as somehow “communist”. In insulting arguments that would extend the reach of “communicative capitalism” to untapped markets, it only illustrates how engagement with the shifting landscape of modern life under capitalism has transcended any “classical” capitalist thinking.
This is also true in a negative sense. Capitalism not only dismisses its successes as “communist” but also its failures. A common sight online during the coronavirus pandemic, for instance, was empty shelves in Western supermarkets as the virus disrupted supply chains. “It’s like living in a communist country”, some would say, whilst others pointed out it’s not “like communism” but a clear result of capitalist ill-preparedness. Western incompetence was ignored in favour of old-fashioned Orientalism and red scare tactics, as if the “Wuhan flu” contained a heavy viral load of both SARS-CoV-2 and Chinese communism. Taking a step back from this capitalist middle ground, supposedly surrounded by communism on all sides, only further cements the idea that capitalism’s ideological stability to wavering.
It was precisely this sort of ideological wavering that accelerationism sought to focus on and exploit, exacerbating the cracks in capitalist realism’s ideological consistency, acknowledging that the increasing speed of capitalism’s development is accompanied by the diffuse sense that – ideologically speaking, at least – its time is almost up. We, as a society, are ready for the next big thing. Instead, capitalists, as the owners of the means of production, have begun to tamp the brakes, choosing to languish in a frenetic stasis, using the latest technological developments to perpetually remake the old rather than push forward towards the new. Why? Perhaps they are unwilling to take a gamble on “the new” as such, because they know it may be constituted by capitalism’s radical mutation or its ultimate demise. And, if that is the case, who can blame them? After all, their livelihoods depend on an artificial scarcity that they have spent decades, even centuries, cultivating. The arrival of a long-promised “red plenty” would surely be the end of the world as they know it.