Art and Postcapitalism: Aesthetic Labour, Automation and Value Production by Dave Beech [for Art Monthly]

Review published in Art Monthly no. 430. October 2019

You can buy issue 430 of Art Monthly here.

Art and Postcapitalism is bookended by Dave Beech’s ‘litmus test of postcapitalism’, which states that capitalism will only be overcome with the supersession of value production. This strand of value theory-imbued political thought, as the subtitle of the book suggests, is employed to consider and systematically unpack the prominent schools of thought on the left that claim to steer us into a postcapitalist age. Beech offers us a refreshing theoretical rigour, which is able to simultaneously assert its own argument while emphasising the successes and limits of work that has come before. By addressing an expanding politics of work and questioning the role of labour in the writings of John Ruskin, William Morris and Oscar Wilde, through feminist and Marxist thought, to challenging more recent future-oriented theories of emancipation through automation and mechanisation in the Left Accelerationism of Nick Snricek and Alex Williams and the fully automated luxury communism of Aaron Bastani, Art and Postcapitalism leaves the reader in no doubt that you are in safe hands negotiating the gamut of 19th to 21st-century political thought with Beech. Ultimately, this assault on theories of labour directs us back to his litmus test, convinced that it isn’t labour per se that acts as capitalism’s linchpin but more specifically productive labour, that which extracts value, and which needs therefore to be abolished.

As a lens through which to test his theory, Beech manages to situate art as an integral and necessary tool to understand a postcapitalist world. After all, art contains within itself a politics of work and artistic labour that can be used as a matrix to reflect postcapitalist issues. Art is also a sphere that functions within and questions the status quo, and practices what Beech calls ‘counter-tendencies’, exposing the limits of the capitalism we are living through. Without illustration or relying on any model of ‘postcapitalist art’ to support his arguments, Beech manages to think art’s social relations within the framework of transitioning from capitalism to something else. It is this political and relational aspect of art that Beech does so well to decode and communicate to his readers, contextualising the impact and consequence of art practice that can be antagonistic, hostile, radical and pregnant with change – in other words, exciting. 

After a brief history of postcapitalism and a section spent wondering what impact contemporary theories have on the politics of art, Beech reminds us that art has always had a fraught relationship with capitalism; perhaps this is why art isn’t mentioned in most contemporary postcapitalist treatises. Beech then expands a tenet proposed in Art and Value from 2015 (Books AM390) – that art is exceptional within capitalism – not through economics this time but via an examination of the ‘taboo’ of commerce in art and how art’s discourses and history have facilitated this from guilds and workshops to academies and art dealers. If the main question we want answered before we pick up the book is ‘what impact does postcapitalism have on a politics of art?’, then what Art and Postcapitalism’ssecond act helps us realise is that these politics won’t only be impacted by postcapitalism but will also, because of their existing dissension within capitalism, hold within them an integral and essential toolkit for making cognisant today’s political discourse now.

Passing movements on the notion of ‘genius’ and its labourless labour highlight, through the lack of overlap with his Art Monthly feature ‘I, Genius. I, Robot’ (AM415), just how invested and involved Art and Postcapitalism’s internal mechanisms are. The book’s worth of content that were edited out or purposefully excluded aren’t merely explanatory – ‘I, Genius. I, Robot’ posits its own internal questions of society, for example – and will hopefully play a part in Beech’s upcoming Art and Labour.

The final chapters on the Left Accelerationists and what Beech calls ‘technologies of rest’ attempt to fold the book’s argument in one last time, looping value extraction into the 21st by examining worklessness facilitated by automation and exploitation through playbour and prosumerism. In short, Beech doesn’t buy into the rhetoric that these technologies will unshackle us from work or erode the boundaries between work, art and pleasure. As with all Beech’s most astute writing, the social relations underpinning change are of more interest than the surface manifestations. For example, current global imbalances in technology and infrastructural distribution mean, for Beech, that the left accelerationist dream isn’t the inevitable, hard and fast linear progression some assume it to be and these inconsistencies need to be taken into consideration.

As texts on postcapitalism keep coming, gaps between their successes and failures continue to be filled by works such as this and the political project continues to find its shape. The ‘counter tendencies’ Beech writes of are embodied in Art and Postcapitalism,locating art as a vital mechanism to grasp what is at stake; I can’t wait for more to come.

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