According to Peter Frase, the historical fork in the road facing humanity is not the two-pronged life-or-death choice of “socialism or barbarism” declared by Rosa Luxemburg a century ago. It’s more of a four-lane superhighway.
Frase’s short and very readable Four Futures: Life After Capitalism includes the two routes identified by Luxemburg and throws in two more – communism, of the post-scarcity, non-statist variety, and “rentism.”
This idea of multiple futures, none of which are inevitable, takes a quantum leap away from traditional historical materialism toward a kind of science-fiction Marxism. But Frase is no Slavoj Žižek – this is not just an exercise in psyochoanalytical Lacanian virtuosity.
Frase is an editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin, which has become an essential platform for debate about the advance of left politics in the U.S.
But where Jacobin gets down to the nitty-gritty of current labor and political battles, Four Futures takes a lighter, more speculative approach to how society may evolve in the wake of intensified class struggles and ecological crises.
The author uses the ideas of speculative and future fiction to explore how society could develop beyond capitalism. To do that he first dismantles the current technological determinism that seems to be in vogue among our tech-smart soothsayers who gleefully tell us the future belongs to the robots.
According to this unsettling narrative, automation will make many current jobs obsolete, leaving millions facing an insecure future in which we fight for scraps of work from the tech billionaires’ table while waiting to be turned into post-human waste tissue by our robot overlords.
While Frase does not dismiss these fears, since the risks are real, he questions the underlying premise that automation has to be a threat rather than part of a more socially balanced future. The missing element in mainstream analysis is, he points out, property relations and class struggle.
Frase contrasts this reality of 21st-century capitalist drudgery with the optimistic hopes of an earlier age, when progressive thinkers such as John Maynard Keynes and H.G. Wells foresaw a leisure-rich future in which people worked no more than 15 hours a week while pursuing a life not unlike Marx’s worker aristocrat, toiling in the morning and fishing in the evening.
It’s still a puzzle how, from the Star Trek-inspired warp-speed communism that we imbibed in the 1970s, we have arrived in the future. It feels a lot more like a version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis fused with Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium. Thousands die in the Mediterranean or Mexican desert trying to reach a safe, prosperous Europe or U.S., while the elite does all it can to keep the non-Western masses in violent hellholes out of the way of the leisured rich and their relatively coddled service class.
Rentism, the route we seem destined to take if we don’t change lanes, is essentially the triumph of the intellectual property overlords, who seize control of not mere bricks and mortar but all forms of property and access to it in perpetuity.
This may sound airy-fairy compared to the problems of actual landlords and property oligarchs squeezing us to death until you realize that of current corporate profits, 35 percent come from intellectual rents, be they pharmaceutical, tech, or agribusiness.
We are already well on the way to a rentist reality.
In his chapter on communism, Frase recalls Marx’s idea of the abundant society in which the division of labour is gradually abolished to make way for all-rounded individuals no longer alienated from the labor process.
He has a slight fixation on 3D printing as a kind of McGuffin device that eliminates the need to talk about the future of production and, while I remain highly skeptical about the idea that it is going to replace mass capitalist or socialist production any time soon, Frase’s point seems to be that outputs are less important on a finite planet than inputs and how to ration them.
Still, Frase’s use of Star Trek as a model of communism is less fanciful than it sounds. This is after all a thought experiment rather than a sketched-out version of 21st-century Marxist social planning. The writer is not looking for underlying laws or processes that will lead to X or Y. He’s simply asking us to think about the “decommodification of labor” — the end of capitalist wage-labor relations of production and the freeing of human potential through actual working models such as citizens’ income and a green energy revolution.
He also explores digital market models from LA’s parking system to Airbnb and Uber and, perhaps optimistically, sees possible socialist applications. This in itself makes Four Futures a refreshing, hopeful look at a future beyond the current horizon of never-ending zombie capitalism.
Which brings us to Frase’s darkest road, exterminism – a particularly extreme kind of barbarism. Given our ecological capitalist endgame, if a turn in the road towards sustainable non-growth economy is not taken, it is logical that capital will look to eliminate the excess labour force on the planet that it no longer requires.
This doesn’t end well – environmental genocide of the surplus population in a permanent war against the poor.
Four Futures: Life After Capitalism
by Peter Frase
[Editor’s note: An essay by Frase exploring several themes from his book discussed above is available here.]
This review originally appeared in Morning Star.