Pondering Life Post-Capitalism in 'Four Futures'

by Hans Rollman

21 October 2016

Can markets be separated from capitalism? From money? From the disenfranchising effects of equating social power with money?
cover art

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism

Peter Frase

US: Oct 2016

It’s open season on capitalism these days. So great is capitalism’s tenacious success, it seems, that everyone has concluded its days must logically be numbered. Scholars and activists from across the political spectrum have converged in recent years on the conclusion that capitalism is doomed (if we aren’t already in a post-capitalist world, something which has been asserted almost since the beginning of capitalism), and they’re now competing to profit off its coming demise.

From the ‘war on terror’ to efforts to lock up or slaughter poor populations within rich countries there is a compelling argument to be made that the world’s rich have simply decided to exterminate the world’s poor, and that we’re witnessing the tipping point of such a future.

While dodging the awkward question of precisely how capitalism is to be led to its purported deathbed (nothing so unsophisticated as revolution, please; nor as politically awkward as terrorism), what many of these scholars of the post-capitalist future apply their focus to is the question of what exactly that future will look like. If they’re not busy itemizing the injustices and suffering of the present world, they’re busy expounding the virtues and wonders which lie just around the corner, provided we do the right things like adopt a universal basic income and democratize our daily lives.

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of aspirational, pre-figurative play after the late 20th century’s long dark winter of leftist discontent. But some of this literature is better than others.

Peter Frase, one of the editors of Jacobin magazine (one of the better and more critical playgrounds for such thinking), offers his contribution to this burgeoning body of literature, with a short meditation on Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.

There are some interesting reflections here, but the book as a whole is a meandering collection of thoughts that don’t follow any particular line of argument. The general idea seems to be to present four possible scenarios that could result from the dual phenomena of capitalism’s inevitable demise, coupled with the equally inevitable environmental crisis. While I share Frase’s perspective that capitalism is hardly sustainable, its demise is far from inevitable. Nevertheless, the idea of exploring possible futuristic scenarios is an intriguing one (even if Frase does hide behind Marx’s reticence to write recipes for the cook-shops of the future—an excuse for avoiding the question of how precisely we are to get to these futuristic scenarios). However, as a thought exercise it seems a bit indulgent: why these particular scenarios? To what end are we engaging in this thought-experiment?

What he winds up with is essentially this: there are many possible future worlds, some of them might turn out vaguely socialist, others might turn out vaguely dystopian, and here are some of the issues and debates that might pop up from time to time to concern possible future selves if these random future worlds come about. Frase is clearly quite an intelligent and well-versed writer but it’s unclear what the point of this book is. There’s an effort to develop a kind of typology of possible futures—some premised on humanity living amid abundance; others on humanity living amid scarcity; some are premised on social equality; others on rigid hierarchies—but it gets mostly lost as Frase careens through a wide gamut of more specialized debates and questions over the course of this short book.

Throughout, Frase makes repeated reference to science-fiction, demonstrating how particular authors, books or television series fall within the gamut of the different futures he’s describing. He’s clearly well-versed in science-fiction; a book more clearly expositing the connections between science-fiction and the political economy of contemporary leftist aspirational ideas would have been quite interesting. But Frase restricts himself to vague name-dropping, drawing broad connections between the questions he sketches out and the authors (Kim Stanley Robinson, Ken MacLeod, Charles Stross, and others) who have treated them more thoroughly in their own fiction.

The ‘four futures’ he examines are, ostensibly—communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism—but again they are so broadly and briefly sketched out as to not really offer much of a sketch of either of them; in actuality Frase engages in various more focused debates vaguely related to the chapter themes. The premise of all of them is that automation will continue to advance to the point of being able to meet all of humanity’s basic needs (as, theoretically, it could today if the fruits of automation were not so disproportionately distributed under capitalism); and that the environmental crisis shall, in some largely unpredictable form or another, continue to intensify. In other words, the present contains the seeds of both the utopias we dream of, as well as the dystopias we dread. Frase then presents four snapshots of what a few utopian and dystopian futures could look like.

The chapter on communism concerns itself primarily with the question of what humans would do to give their lives meaning in a world where automation provides for everyone and jobs and hierarchies are essentially abolished. While Frase basically makes an argument that life would still have meaning and purpose—I fully agree; but isn’t this a bit of a tired and old question already?—the tendency of leftists to continue defending this point only serves to lend more credibility to those who argue otherwise. For instance, instead of arguing, as Frase does, that we could learn to love the bedside manner of robot attendants in hospitals, why not simply take the argument of decommodification to its logical conclusion: if health care (and other public services) is decommodified and automated, then people who enjoy care work would be able to go about offering a caring bedside manner to patients, without any of the drudgery that nursing staff currently find their time preoccupied with. It would be care work in its purest form, for those who find fulfillment in bringing fluffy stuffed toys to sick children and visiting with them (and if there aren’t enough of those people, the robots would still fill the gap).

Either way, Frase then suggests that we needn’t worry about communism doing away with conflict; we would still find other ways to compete with each other, for instance for personal capital on social media networks. It’s just that our competition would no longer be grounded in struggles over wage labour (he embarks on an extended reflection on the rise of cryptocurrencies, perhaps to demonstrate that we’re quite capable of getting hot and bothered over things that bring us no effective material gain). There’s nothing particularly utopian or dystopian about such a future; it’s an interesting observation to make, but again I’m not clear what the point of it is.

The chapter on rentism essentially argues that intellectual property is the new, well, property, and that corporate profiting off ideas is as useless to a productive society as corporate profit on property is: neither involve actually creating anything of value; they merely profit off the creations (or pre-existing spaces) of others. In the future it’s possible this may become a more prominent feature of society, with dystopian results. Fair point, but again it’s hardly new, or novel, or explored in any length.

The chapter on socialism becomes an argument for what’s often referred to as left accelerationism: the solution to our technological problems (including environmental crises) is not to recoil from technology but to embrace it even further. Frase argues that Leftists and Greens who make their point of departure in ecological arguments—the vision of a pristine nature untouched by humanity—get it all wrong: humanity is part of nature, and the more unnatural thing to do would be for us to stop meddling with it. As per his science fiction penchant, he draws allusions to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, where Martian terraformers from Earth who are trying to use technology to create a lush, habitable environment on the Red Planet are referred to as Greens; and those who oppose them, arguing that Mars should be kept in its ‘natural’ state—dead and dry—are referred to as Reds. Perspective is everything.

If Four Futures lacks a coherent argument to carry it through, Frase does ably use the book to make several insightful points. None of them are particularly new but collecting them here offers a useful glimpse at the gradual crystallization of modern leftist thinking.

He points out that the ecological crisis is not about whether or not humanity will survive the various ecological crises that we are engendering, but about how many will survive, and who those survivors will be. As per usual under colonial capitalism, it is the wealthy who are poised to survive and even profit off of catastrophic climate change, while the poor and dispossessed are the ones who will suffer and die in great magnitudes. This point is emphasized throughout the book.

Fatalistically throwing up our hands is not a sensible response. For those who think the challenges facing humanity are insurmountable, Frase simply points to the past century: two world wars, multiple genocides, nuclear weapons—the challenges humanity plowed through in the past century would seem just as great, looking forward at them, as the challenges of inequality and climate change look today. Yet we got through, and arguably with a higher standard of living than we had a hundred years ago.

By the same token, relentless optimism—“in the form of self-help positive-thinking bromides”—isn’t a solution either. “[T]he power of positive thinking is, all too often, promoted as a palliative, a way of resigning oneself to a negative reality rather than questioning and resisting it.” Sun-shiny status updates on social media will not bring about the revolution (nor even minor reforms). Nor will it stave off climate change. Or as Frase sums it up, “positive thinking doesn’t bring about utopia any more than negative thinking brings about the apocalypse.” Here, although Frase has sworn his book will not be prescriptive, is the Marxist call to action: it’s not what we think (and Tweet) that counts, it’s what we do.

A universal basic income is key to making everything work in the future. This is rapidly becoming a core plank of contemporary progressive thought and is another key point of the book: Frase hammers the point in relentlessly. A universal basic income offers a solution, or at least a useful aid, to many of the problems his future worlds might face, and it emerges in some form in all of his futuristic scenarios. 

State planning doesn’t mean the eradication of markets, notes the chapter on ‘socialism’. The point is often lost on those who equate markets with capitalism; many types of markets cannot or would not exist without state protection and guidance. Can markets be separated from capitalism? From money? From the disenfranchising effects of equating social power with money? That’s the real question, and one which some real-world exercises in state planning—the LA Express Park Experiment, which adjusts the price of parking according to computer-monitored supply and demand, is one example—offer considerable food for thought. To some the LA experiment appears to be the epitome of free market supply and demand; but viewed from another angle it also represents a state-planned and imposed economic measure designed to force a more equal distribution of resources (in this case, parking spots). Again: perspective matters.

In fact, Frase suggests in his final chapter on exterminism, haven’t the super wealthy essentially created a communist society for themselves—one where they’ve been freed from the tyranny of the wage relation and where they have accumulated so much wealth that wealth ceases to have any meaningful relationship to the things they buy and consume? Here the automation fetish emerges again: perhaps with robots to do the drudgery, we can all become the 1%! Of course, automation could also lead to the opposite outcome: the great mass of humanity becomes superfluous to the wealthy elites and can now be eliminated. Again the science fiction analogies emerge: in Hunger Games, the poor districts are still needed to produce goods and labour for the wealthy elites in Panem; hence their ability to rise up and crush the oppressor. But in a more Elysium-style scenario, where robotic automation supplies consumer goods and luxury, humanity can be discarded; left to rot in concentration camps on Earth while the elites enjoy their luxury among the stars.

Which future lies in our future? Frase draws on Marxist historian E.P. Thompson’s Cold War notion of exterminism, “these characterisics of a society—expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity, and its ideology—which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.” We’re no longer as concerned with the massive build-up of nuclear weapons and the risk of imminent nuclear war that drove scholars during the Cold War, but that doesn’t mean our tendency toward exterminism has abated. From the ‘war on terror’—which has unleashed murderous slaughter by rich countries onto a wide range of poor countries—to efforts to lock up or slaughter poor populations within rich countries (incarceration of black populations in the US, which has now morphed into increasingly brazen killings of blacks by white police forces throughout the country)—there is indeed a compelling argument to be made that the world’s rich have simply decided to exterminate the world’s poor, and that we’re witnessing the tipping point of such a future.

In what is perhaps his most compelling chapter Frase makes the argument that the rich are becoming increasingly comfortable and adept at rationalizing and perpetrating the killing of the poor, from drone attacks in Afghanistan to police shootings in Ferguson. Exterminism becomes an all-too-real possible future.

Four Futures is an interesting little book, albeit frustrating in its inability to stick to any particular point. While it doesn’t really succeed in developing the typology of possible futures Frase talks about at the beginning, he does tap into a far more interesting issue, and that is the relationship between social science and science fiction. By drawing on science fiction in equal measure to social science, Frase considerably expands the repertoire of left ideas and debates, rendering them more immediate, accessible and real. More social scientists really ought to pay serious attention to literary and science fiction work; otherwise they risk reinventing the wheel.

Moreover, doing so acknowledges the primary importance of imagination in determining our political futures. More important than stale typologies and cynical ‘evidence-based’ policies, it is imagination that allows us to predict the dangers certain paths offer; to consider the data from novel and innovative angles; and ultimately to invent ourselves new and audacious paths forward. If there is indeed to be a life after capitalism, it is not science, but imagination, that will take us there.

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