Four Futures: Life After Capitalism
By Peter Frase
Verso (October 11, 2016)
Our postmodern fear of losing control of the machines while laboring under an oppressive technocratic regime is becoming all too real. Resource scarcity, widespread automation that eliminates jobs, and the rise of a technocratic elite are no longer the domain of science fiction. With the ascent of Trump as president America’s historical footnote may well be remembered as a Discovery Channel documentary on how a fascist Right forged a totalitarian regime in the midst of – what was once described as – a “great” democracy. Science fiction has served up this dystopic terrain many times and in Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, author Peter Frase mines its horizons to surmise how civilization will look without the mantle of capitalism. His polemic is particularly trenchant in light of the emergence of a far Right across Europe. Europe’s Nationalist fringes have been largely ignored until America’s presidential election galvanized worldwide scrutiny and drew comparisons to Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s National Front, Austria’s Freedom Party and of course, the stunning Brexit decision.
Frase assures us capitalism will end. The next recession will take care of that. Resource scarcity and automation will force capitalism to “either transition to socialism or regress into barbarism.” Either one – or a mixture of both – will emerge. Frase details four possible contenders: communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism. Though Frase frames his arguments through the lens of science fiction, his speculation is couched in sociology. Our rapacious exploitation of resources and catastrophic environmental disasters will lead the fall. The development of large-scale automation will replace most jobs and eliminate the need for wage labor. But what then? The conundrum is obvious. Humans are never in stasis and creative destruction is ongoing. Social theory depends on methodology and classification and to lend credibility to his models, Frase borrows sociologist Max Webber’s concept of “ideal types”. Weber concedes that ideal types never fully encompass how social groups are constructed in reality. Instead, an ideal type is “the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena.” This ambiguity serves Frase as he constructs a hypothesis of abundance, scarcity, hierarchy and equality. The one constant is social hierarchy and the emergence of a new class of privileged robot owners. Those who are positioned to reap the benefits of an automated economy will realize Utopia, everyone else – not so much.
We’re in the midst of a “Rentier” economy now. Bill Gates became the richest man in America by positioning Microsoft as a universal standard and privatizing the intellect necessary to produce that standard – the software. From secret algorithms that predict our every move to subscription based software that guarantees we can never own what we are paying for, information – like capital – is tightly controlled. The controllers only need to set back and reap the profits. Rentier capitalism is hurling us toward a two-tier society by prohibiting underprivileged populations from gaining access to “intellectual property” and the final step is ensuring that copyright and patents remain in the hands of an elite. The new manorial landowners are plutocrats who – instead of charging rent for land – charge rent for information while controlling all the resources necessary for their continued success. It’s a system that perpetuates gross inequalities. Frase points out that the technology to ensure abundance is accessible, “but stymied by ossified class structures and the state powers that defend them.” He rightly assumes that controlling the poor and preventing them from getting their hands on any wealth would become the focus of militaristic governments. Travel to any underdeveloped nation with abundant resources, corrupt politicians, and despotic leaders and you’ll see this in action.
The least plausible future is socialism. It requires people reconnect with the environment and learn how to create a sustainable economy – one that doesn’t exploit nature or perpetuate class stratification. It’s a tall order. It presupposes we have transitioned away from our dependence on fossil fuels and become fully vested in creating an egalitarian society. This future depends on adapting clean energy, but the overhaul demands total disruption of the current infrastructure. Subsequent large-scale solutions, in order to be effective, will require centralized state control. Even more control is needed to ensure that workers remain efficient and productive – and we still come up against the problem of limited resources and who controls them. In a “postscarcity society” we would be consumed with how to ration resources and ensure distribution is equal. That demands bureaucracy; it’s a Catch-22.
In the most dystopian future, elites monopolize resources and consign the underprivileged to polluted, resource-starved ghettoes. In this future, the poor and exploited fare even worse than they do now. Compelled by social hierarchy and the systemic hoarding of resources by an elite, we arrive at exterminism. Here, humanity is disposable. Democide is routine and deemed necessary in order to preserve the ecosystem for the privileged. It’s not that difficult to imagine. Consider the resource rich, under-developed countries where huge swathes of the populations exist in degradation. Think of the thousands of people in these countries who would rather risk their lives in a raft crossing the Mediterranean than endure another day of oppression. Now consider a Trump presidency where the underprivileged and marginalized are patently targeted for removal. Exterminism is not that implausible; prisons in America have increased their populations 500% over the past forty years and a majority of the incarcerated are minority men. That’s one way to curtail a poor and disenfranchised population. The US criminal justice system is big business. Frase points out that “an impoverished, economically superfluous rabble” is always a dangerous element that needs to be controlled. Once a tipping point is reached, the threat of society’s growing numbers of poor and frustrated will be palpable. At that point, advocates of exterminism will view the poor as “merely a danger and an inconvenience”. The 1% won’t need much convincing.
Neither, utopian nor dystopian, Communism suggests that “decommodification” of wage labor has fostered innovation and money is superfluous. Ecological scarcity has been solved by technology. Universal basic income [UBI] ensures that people are able to procure acceptable social minimums – at least sufficient to prevent poverty. Once labor is divorced from necessity, people will be free to pursue activates that bring them pleasure – but not more wealth than they have already. This future is contingent on the rejection of bureaucracy and guarantees of adequate health care, housing, and food. It’s the shift in social consciousness that will be problematic. Everyone needs to be on board with the idea that all citizens have a “universal right” to decent standards of living. The fly in the ointment, as always, remains hoarders of wealth who will not graciously relinquish their capital.
Frase’s arguments about how a post-capitalist world might look, becomes a rallying cry for an insurgent Left to delegitimize the Right’s toxic ideologies. He admits his approach is “deliberately hyperbolic” but amid his often circuitous speculations are kernels of uncomfortable truths – not the least of which is the fact that we are dangerously close to a combination of dystopic futures.
— Deborah Johnstone