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A Review of Peter Frase’s Four Futures

Monday, October 24, 2016 18:26
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 Peter Frase. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 2016).

Frase’s book builds on Rosa Luxemburg’s prediction a hundred years ago in the Junius Pamphlets that “[b]ourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” Specifically, he sketches — in very broad strokes — two versions of socialism and two versions of barbarism as possible alterative futures all resulting from large-scale automation. As Frase himself admits, “my approach is deliberately hyperbolic, sketching out simplified ideal types,” or “simplified, pure models…, designed to illuminate a few key issues that confront us today and will confront us in the future.”

Popular press treatments of automation, Frase notes, range from pessimistic predictions of technological unemployment to “liberal bromides” about “entrepreneurship and education.” But all of them are missing one thing: “politics, and specifically class struggle.”

This outlook ignores the central defining features of the society we live in: capitalist class and property relations. Who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately not a consequence of the robots themselves but of who owns them.

In Frase’s presentation of the four possible futures of automation, class power is front and center: “the distribution of scarcity and abundance, …who will pay the costs of ecological damage and who will enjoy the benefits of a highly productive, automated economy.”

This not a conventional venture in what’s commonly referred to as “futurism.” “Rather, it is an attempt to use the tools of social science in combination with those of speculative fiction to explore the space of possibilities in which our future political conflicts will play out.” And on the speculative fiction side, Frase’s work is closest to those forms of science fiction like Star Trek which “take their world-building seriously” and root their characters in “a richly and logically structured world.”

The four exercises in building alternative automated future scenarios represent the possible combinations of two variables with two values each. The ecological crisis will either be solved at relatively low levels of environmental damage and cost of energy transition, or it will not. The issue of class power will be resolved either by confronting and defeating inequality, or the rich will maintain their power. In the latter case, “they [will] enjoy the  benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction….”

So the four possibilities are abundance with equality (Communism), abundance with hierarchy (Rentism), scarcity with equality (Socialism), or scarcity with hierarchy (Exterminism).

To return to Luxemburg’s framing, “[t]he starting point of the entire analysis is that capitalism IS GOING TO END.” And along with that assumption, “a central structuring theme of this book” is the existence of a capitalist ruling elite “that will try to preserve itself into any possible future.” So Frase’s world-building exercises are “an attempt to make sense of the socialisms we may reach if a resurgent Left successful, and the barbarisms we may be consigned to if we fail.”

“Communism” is a moneyless economy of total or near-total abundance, in which the consumption of goods and services is divorced from labor.

Using Vonnegut’s Player Piano as a foil, Frase notes that an automated economy needn’t be centralized, mass-production or planned by a managerial elite. “Technologies like 3-D printing (and for that matter the personal computer) point in [the] direction” of a decentralized, less management-intensive economy.

This amounts also to a critique of models like Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society, which posits extremely thick, smart infrastructures like the “Internet of Things” and, by implication, a rather large amount of production for the global market even if production itself is decentralized.

For me the most interesting part of Frase’s chapter on Communism was his speculation on how we might get there. Like Mason, Holloway and others in the autonomist tradition, he devotes relatively more attention to gradualist, evolutionary models (analogous to the transition from feudalism to capitalism) than to insurrectionary models. That means, namely, strategies that “build the alternative to capitalism before it is completely overturned,” and “giving people the ability to survive and act independently of capitalist wage labor in the here and now….” Such strategies will take the form of what Andre Gorz called “non-reformist reforms” — for example, the Universal Basic Income.

He describes a scenario in which the introduction of a Universal Basic Income, tied to some percentage of GDP, leads through a sort of invisible hand mechanism to a moneyless or near-moneyless communism.

One criticism of the basic income is that it will not be systemicaly viable over the long run, as people increasingly drop out of paid labor and undermine the tax base that funds the basic income in the first place. But from another point of view, this prospect is precisely what makes basic income a non-reformist reform Thus one can sketch out a more programmatic kind of utopianism that uses the basic income as its point of departure.

Frase bases the specifics on a 1986 essay by Robert van der Veen and Philippe van Parijs, “A Capitalist Road to Communism.”

If the UBI is sufficient to fund basic subsistence needs, it will likely lead to the withdrawal of labor altogether or coupled with a demand for higher wages in the jobs that are currently the most unpleasant and lowest paid (e.g. fast food work). It will also mean that people have freedom to seek out more fulfilling kinds of work that pay less. As a result, the wages of the most unpleasant and demeaning forms of work will be driven up, and pay for pleasant and fulfilling work will be pushed down. So a growing share of unpleasant work will be automated, and a growing share of labor will be shifted either into fulfilling jobs with lower pay, and many will withdraw from wage labor altogether and into the informal and social sector. Much of the labor force shifts into lower-paid but socially meaningful work. Many more will choose to live entirely on their UBI and volunteer their efforts in the informal and social economy, perhaps participating in commons-based peer production — and perhaps even with some non-monetary support in-kind from others similarly producing outside the money economy.

The long-run trajectory… is one in which people come to depend less and less on the basic income, because the things they want and need do not have to be purchased for money. Some things can be produced freely and automatically, as 3-D printing and digital copying technologies evolve into something like Star Trek’s replicator. Other things have become the product of voluntary cooperative activity rather than waged work.

So the money economy and the Basic Income, reductions in the one leading to reductions in the other and vice versa, both eventually wither away and societies approach full communism.

“Rentism” is a social model in which post-scarcity technologies are fully developed, but scarcity is nevertheless maintained artificially maintained through property rights. The technologies for pure abundance are available, “but stymied by ossified class structures and the state powers that defend them.” Frase anticipated rentism in 2010 with a blog post on “Anti-Star Trek,” in which replicators and all the other technologies of abundance from Star Trek: The Next Generation existed — but rentier capitalism was enforced through patents on the replicators themselves and on the molecular patterns of the goods which they reproduced.

The U.S. Security State is all too aware of the central role “intellectual property” plays as the main source of profits in the capitalist global economy. An article by Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, in a 2010 Foreign Affairs article (“Defending a New Domain: The Pentagon’s Cyberstrategy“), predicted that the “threat to intellectual property” would be “the most significant cyberthreat the United States will face over the long term.”

The third possibility, “Socialism,” is basically the full communism of chapter one, but with the addition of natural resource scarcity and other constraints resulting from environmental damages from climate change and pollution. Or to put it another way, Chapter One is the socialism of Chapter Three with such factors abstracted from it. So for me the difference between them isn’t really that dramatic or interesting. It’s hard to imagine any plausible post-scarcity economy without some birth scars from our degradation of the natural environment. And his “Socialism” strikes me as pretty abundant, regardless of natural resource constraints.

Given the energy savings from eliminating planned obsolescence, guard labor, and waste production, and the radical shortening of distribution chains attendant on relocalization, renewable energy (perhaps including safer and democratically controlled fission power, and eventually even fusion power) would be more than sufficient to support an economy of abundance. Closed-loop recycling of bottleneck natural resources, and eventually robot asteroid mining, would likewise minimize resource constraints.

Generally speaking, technologies of abundance (i.e. those which maximize the production of use-value per labor input), tend to also be ephemeral (in the sense of minimizing the consumption of other resource inputs and the ecological footprint as a whole).

To the extent that repairing environmental damage is a major consideration, Frase’s Socialism reminds me a bit of the world of Marge Piercy’s Woman On the Edge of Time — certainly a humanly appealing post-scarcity world by our standards. The same is true of areas under the control of the Acquis networked society in Sterling’s The Caryatids.

Frase’s Socialism scenario strikes me as a bit pessimistic in its vision of a command economy for allocating energy and scarce resources and coordinating the repair of environmental damage (“some kind of centralized, state-driven project that can mobilize resources and labor in a way that is beyond the capabilities of either the free market or the communist free-for-all of Chapter 1”). He envisons enormous projects for rebuilding infrastructure, and and central planning rationing scarce energy supplies.

In regard to scaling back energy consumption, he underestimates what can be done purely on a decentralized, stigmergic basis, by such means as pricing natural resource inputs at true cost. My guess is that, absent subsidies to fossil fuel extraction (including preferential access to deposits on public land, eminent domain for pipelines, subsidized long-distance transportation, subsidies to sprawl, wars for access to foreign oil reserves, and taxpayer-subsidized naval protection for oil tanker routes), and absent subsidies and protections for all forms of waste production, greenhouse gas emissions would rapidly fall far below 1990 levels. And there’s far more low-hanging fruit for achieving such reductions than Frase imagines:  the shortening of supply and distribution chains, through import substitution by local micro-manufacturing and recycling of local scrap; shifting remaining long-distance freight to trains and airships; transition to local mixed-use economies through developing mini-“downtowns” in suburbs and adding walk-up apartments and other cheap housing in downtown areas; elimination of most business air and train travel by telecommuting and teleconferencing; etc. Rather than large-scale retooling to greenwash the transportation system via high-speed trains (“Green New Deal,” in Jill Stein’s phrase), it would make far better sense to reduce the need for such transportation in the first place.

Frase also suggests the Basic Income as the means for allocating whatever scarce inputs remain under socialism — not the output of the Star Trek replicators themselves, but of the scarce inputs that go into them. My guess, as already stated above, is that closed loop recycling would go a long way towards addressing this need. But the use of a price system to ration remaining scarce goods is an expedient common to many post-scarcity utopias — e.g., “whuffie” in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. In this regard, the actual boundary between “Communism” and “Socialism” once again blurs.

The fourth, and darkest scenario is “Exterminism.” In this scenario, the capitalists automate production within their own luxury enclaves (gated communities, offshore platforms like those envisioned by the techno-fascist Peter Thiel, or perhaps enormous space-colonies like in the movie Elysium), rendering human labor obsolete for serving their needs. Disposable humanity is locked out to starve in an overpopulated, polluted world — to be policed by automated hunter-killer drones, or possibly eliminated altogether through some kind of large-scale democide to eliminate the burden on the ecosystem.

Fortunately, both barbarisms — Rentism and Exterminism — strike me as utterly implausible.

One issue that Frase neglects, in framing the the dystopian scenarios of Rentism and Exterminism, is the extent to which the technologies of abundance themselves undermine the class power of capitalists. To a considerable extent, the very technologies of abundance themselves are reducing the enforceability of the legal monopolies that rentism depends on.

In the informational realm, the technologies of circumvention — encryption, cracking DRM, etc. — are generally several steps ahead in the arms race against technologies of artificial scarcity. Look at what file-sharing has done to record company profits. Anyone who wants to badly enough can get a copyrighted album free from a download site, at minimal risk. As a result, the price of songs on iTunes has been driven down to a nominal level just equivalent to the convenience of getting a copy of guaranteed authenticity with minimal searching around.

In the physical realm, CAD/CAM files stripped of DRM, and downloaded by local garage factories for production with open-hardware CNC tools, will probably have a similar effect. And low-cost patent enforcement, historically, has assumed the production of a small number of product models from a handful of oligopoly corporations, marketed through a handful of nationwide retail chains. The dispersion of production into tens of thousands of neighborhood economies will raise the transaction costs of patent enforcement well well beyond sustainable levels.

The question is whether the capitalists can prevent everybody else from adopting technologies at least of soft, if not hard abundance.

As for Exterminism, our irrelevance to automated capitalist production is beside the point. If they don’t need us, we don’t need them either. Barbarism — particularly Exterminism — is unlikely because of the inability of capitalists to prevent grass-roots adoption of technologies of communist abundance. Exterminism is possible only when capitalists own the machines. When the machines themselves are ultra-cheap, their power to exclude disappears.

Even if the capitalists own expensive robots, the availability to ordinary people of the next-best alternative of cheap, open-source, small-scale CNC tools will prevent a capitalist monopoly on access to the means of production and subsistence. And as Frase himself says, total automation is somewhat hyperbolic anyway. The “next-best” alternative would require very little labor — probably no more than, if as much as, Keynes’s prediction of 15 hours a week. When we talk about “who owns the machines,” we must remember there is more than one model of super-abundant machines — and one of them is not amenable to capitalist monopoly.

For that matter, an economy of 15-hour weeks at worker-controlled craft production or in the community garden, perhaps largely divorced from consumption rights and engaged in production for consumption within communistic social units like multi-family cohousing projects or micro-villages, might be more appealing than fully automated robot production. Although human effort would not be abolished in such an economy, toil would be — with the remaining effort analogous to Adam and Eve tending the Garden, and hard to distinguish between other forms of purposeful creative and social activity.

Frase notes that work, in Marx’s terms, “is still the realm of necessity and not of freedom.” But people still putter in their gardens or workshops after work and on the weekends. And he himself also quotes Marx on the higher, communist stage in which “labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want.” That would mean, Frase says, “erasing the distinction between what counts as a business and what counts as a collective leisure activity…. Then we could all obey the injunction to ‘do what you love’ — not as a disingenuous apology for accepting exploitation, but as a real description of the state of existence.” As it is now, Frase points out, millions of people garden, or engage in paid labor they find socially fulfilling even at the cost of taking large cuts in pay, because they derive some inherent fulfillment from them. When “bullshit jobs” http://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ like guard labor and production for planned obsolescence are done away with, and some of the more unpleasant tasks are automated, it may well be that people sort themselves into the remaining hours of labor based on affinity and enjoyment on the model of Bob Black’s “abolition of work.”

Frase closes by reiterating the choice between socialism and barbarism, and calling us to action for the former. As he said in the Introduction, his goal in writing this book was to help make the dystopian prophecies self-defeating, and make the utopian ones self-fulfilling.

The reason there are four futures, and not just one, is because nothing happens automatically. It’s up to us to determine the way forward.

Climate justice activists are currently fighting for socialist rather than exterminist solutions to climate change, even if they wouldn’t put it that way. And those fighting for access to knowledge, against strict intellectual property in everything from seeds to music, are struggling to hold off a rentist dystopia and keep the dream of communism alive.

The Center for a Stateless Society (www.c4ss.org) is a media center working to build awareness of the market anarchist alternative

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