Book review: Four Futures

Following an exercise that has been performed by other authors, Peter Frase tries to unveil what life after capitalism might look like; and the end of capitalism is, for the author, not only inevitable but already taking place. The added-value of his work is, he claims, the fact that unlike other essays, “Four Futures” introduces politics and class struggle in the debate, proposing further solutions to reduce inequalities, rather than entrepreneurship and education alone. The book is openly political and engaged, giving a Left-wing perspective and, at the same time, posing several question to that same political field, namely regarding the role of basic income. Although referring straightforward that the book is not an exercise of future-telling – which would be doomed to fail, as he admits – Frase, one of the Editors of Jacobin magazine, drafts four hypothetical scenarios, some utopian, others dystopian.

On a pleasant and swift style, the book recurs to several academic papers as well as several works of fact-based science-fiction. Thus, Frase peculiarly calls his book a type of “social science fiction”. The departure point is clear, as XXI century haunts us with two main challenges, linked to crisis: automation and ecological catastrophe. But there’s an antagonism on both crises, as the ecological one is a crisis of scarcity – in the sense that the natural resources of planet Earth are finite – and the automation crisis is one of excess – the more automation develops, the less human labour will be required. This contradictory dual crisis is already visible today and expected to be deepened in the near future. A common element is, nevertheless, present: both are crisis of inequality, about scarcity and abundance, about who will profit from automation and who will suffer from climate change.

Simultaneously, a third crisis runs in parallel, pushing the two others: the crisis of capitalist economy. There’s a simple and rather strong statement made by the author: it is naïf and not enough to think that the post-work/post-capitalist prosperity will be more and better distributed as, “who benefits from automation and who loses is ultimately a consequence not of the robots themselves, but of who owns them.” And if automation is not yet in full implementation, Frase argues, it is because it is still extremely easy to find cheap labour amongst the pools of desperate people.

Ecological crisis and human caused climate change is considered as an evidence. It is not considered to be unanimous because some powerful lobbyists, especially in the USA, work to prove otherwise because, as Frase believes, are the ones that can protect themselves against the effects of climate change for which, in the first place, they are amongst the main responsible. This is especially useful to remind that he climate crisis doesn’t imply that all humanity will be extinguished but rather that a small elite – the top 1% – will be capable of protecting itself, whereas the majority of the people – the 99% – will struggle for survival.

But if regarding climate there seems to be a consensus, regarding automation the situation is slightly different. The author lists the three main objections to the fears of automation as 1) an exaggeration of the possibility of robots to replace human jobs, 2) that, as in past technological breakthroughs, progress will eventually create more jobs than those that it will replace and 3) the critic from the Left, which argues that automation is a distraction from more pressing discussions regarding current workers and their conditions. Similarly to other authors, namely former Greek FM Yannis Varoufakis, Frase considers that current technological innovation will destroy more jobs than those that it will create. He considers that the “real impediments to tight labour markets are currently political and not technological”.

In order to draft his four futures, Frase recurs to Weber’s simplified and pure models (“ideal types”), assuming that reality is logically more complex. The constant element in all futures presented is that full automation – thus no need for any human labour – is a reality, being the variables the ecological crisis and the class power, translated into “abundance” and “scarcity” in the latter and by “equality” and “hierarchy” in the former. Thus, four futures are presented: communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism. We shall look into each one in detail.

Communism

This is a future where the ecological crisis still allows abundance of resources and where there’s a rather equal relation of powers. Despite of its problems, it’s the future closer to utopia. Being a post-work and post-scarcity future, there would be the pressing need to find new sources of meaning and purpose, which are currently linked to having a job. This implies the need to separate the social meaning of work from its attached income. Thus, all labour becomes decommodified, effectively ending the capitalist model of society. It can then, Frase defends, be seen to respect Marx’s statement of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.”

The road to this Star Trek style of future, where we would be capable of getting everything we want from a replicator, can be made via a Gorz’s “non-reformist reform” such as the universal basic income (BI). This BI would support what Van der Veen and Van Parijs called the “capitalist road to communism”. Thus, being essential in order to reach communism, BI would be a temporary, intermediate step, by the simple reason that, eventually, everything would be accessible for free, making any use of income unnecessary.

Unfortunately, even in such egalitarian and equal society, hierarchies would exist; not anymore based on money or wealth, they could be based on less tangible aspects such as reputation or, we would add, the intrinsic capacities for some types of work, namely artistic. Moreover, other negative aspects such as sexism and racism wouldn’t simply disappear with the end of capitalism, being necessary further measures to deal with those issues.

Nevertheless, in our opinion, this sort of utopia leaves room to some undesired consequences, such as the replacement of care workers by machines, with which, the author argues, emotional links can be created as well.

Rentism

If communism looks like a sort of utopia, how would the future look like if there was still abundance of resources but they were controlled by the elite? Unlike capitalism’s accumulation of capital through commodified products, such a future would be based on “rents” of intellectual propriety, licenses, copyrights and patents. That would be “rentism”. Capitalist ideas would thus still exist but only for a small elite which would own all the intellectual propriety of the world. By that the author means the robots but as well all the codes and programmes that would generate all sorts of products in the replicator referred in the communism chapter.

If a small elite controls all the intellectual property, where would individuals get the money from, knowing that human work would pretty much be unnecessary? Some possibilities are advanced: innovators, lawyers, marketing people and guard labour (police and military). Nevertheless, such (very) limited number of jobs would not be enough to ensure that individuals would have the income to keep such a system running. Some form of redistribution would be mandatory. Taxation of the profits of the “rentier-capitalists” could then serve to pay a basic income – probably in exchange of some “meaningless make-work” Frase notes. This means that, on the long run, rentism could be turning into communism. But such inequalities as observed in this future would probably trigger questions from the people excluded from the elites, risking such a hierarchy-based model.

Socialism

But what happens if the climate crisis simply limits the access and use of resources? Such future of scarcity would not annihilate the entire human race, so the question is not so much if humans can survive such a crisis, but more if they can do so together, in an egalitarian way. Under the socialism future, despite being a world of limits, it is also a “world of freedom”, where individuals work together to improve their relation with nature. And, criticising historical pessimism of the Left, the author rejects as well the nihilist resignation regarding the challenges that humanity will face.

An essential difference between socialism and communism is that the former would require a strong government, which would have a crucial role to play in the definition of a sustainable society. This would be essential in the economic planning and definition of policies that would ensure the sustainable consumption of the (few) remaining resources and its distribution in the fairer way. And how could it be done? Ironically, the author defends market solutions for it which, he argues, can actually be useful on an equal society, where no one has control over pools of wealth, such as the one considered in this future.

Thus, all citizens would receive a basic income that would then serve to allocate the “scarce inputs that feed the replicator”. It would do so by giving the same amount of money to everyone and allowing the market to define the prices of the scarce resources, ensuring this way its preservation: the rarer they become, the more expensive they are. This explanation seems, nevertheless, short in the defence of the respect of the different types of ideal society and consumption as if we allocate all resources this way, some individuals might simply not have the possibility to access products that they estimate to be essential for them. And, even assuming that everyone as the same level of wealth, new hierarchy forms would certainly be developed.

Exterminism

The last of the presented scenarios is the ultimate dystopia, where the resources are scarce and the political organisation is un-egalitarian; it is called exterminism. Being based on extreme inequalities, the elite who control the resources would actually manage to live under a communist model; the rest of the society, though, would become pretty much superfluous – again, we must remember that full automation is assumed. So, if we consider that the norms of morality might change (and Frase notes that they presently exist), we could even assume that those people could simply be sacrificed, as they would pose both a danger and an inconvenience to the elite.

More than extermination, this future would see the development of an “enclave society”, where the poor would be put in ghettos, whereas the rich would be capable of living in highly-secured enclaves. Such enclaves could go from buildings up to entire cities and large shares of land. If this sounds scary, the book gives some examples of such enclaves that are being set up nowadays. The society would become highly militarised and police and military forces would have even more power; in parallel, the value of life would be reduced.

 

All the presented futures are still a possibility and, by getting to one, doesn’t mean that we couldn’t eventually get to another. As important as the final state of all the presented futures are the paths leading to them, although the book doesn’t pay a lot of attention them. Nevertheless, some possibilities to avoid a darker future are presented (e.g. Green New Deal, development of renewable energy sources) but the political difficulties regarding their implementation are assumed by the author to be capable of blocking them. We are presented with possible utopias and possible dystopias but, as Frase states, “where we end up will be a result of political struggle”.

 

Four futures – Life After Capitalism, by Peter Frase; Verso Books, October 2016

Link: https://www.versobooks.com/books/1847-four-futures

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