Really Late Book Reviews: Four Futures by Peter Frase



Peter Frase’s book is a one I wish I could have wrote. It is a piece of “social science fiction” that makes many provocative points, is direct and clear, and only 150 pages!  All excellent things in my opinion.  Even the first sentence of the book is great – “Two specters are haunting Earth in the twenty-first century: the specters of ecological catastrophe and automation.”  That is a sentence that grabs your attention.

The purpose of the book is speculation, specifically speculation about what the future may look like in a post-capitalism world.  Frase argues that a post-capitalist world is probable given the two specters of ecological catastrophe and automation because:

“The two crises I’ve described are fundamentally about inequality as well.  They are about the distribution of scarcity and abundance, about who will pay the costs of ecological damage and who will enjoy the benefits of a highly productive, automated economy.  There are ways to reckon with the human impact on the Earth’s climate, and there are ways to ensure that automation brings material prosperity for all rather than the impoverishment and desperation for most.  But those possible futures will require a very different kind of economic system than the one that became globally dominate by the late twentieth century.”

As the title suggest, Frase outlines four possible post-capitalist futures based on the specters of automation and ecological catastrophe.  The model he develops to justify these four futures holds automation as a constant.  Frase assumes automation will progress to such a degree that the requirement to work to fulfill basic needs to no longer necessary.  The variable ecological catastrophe is allowed to vary between scarcity to abundance.  Will the current and impending ecological catastrophe of climate change and resource depletion lead to extreme depravation and misery; or will geoengineering, a shift to renewables, and automation technology allow us to mitigate or even reverse the worst aspects of climate change and actually increase our standard of living to one of abundance?  Fraser then adds an intervening variable – class power – which “comes down to how we end up tackling the massive inequality of wealth, income, and political power in the world today.” (29)  If the wealthy are able to hoard the benefits of automation then the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of ecological catastrophe on our own.  For a better world, Frase argues, shared sacrifice and shared prosperity will be required and this will only come from a mobilized lower and middle class.

These scenarios gives us the four futures of the title – Communism, Rentism, Socialism, and Extremism.  Frase even creates a handy 2×2 table on page 29 showing how each scenario is derived and which I have reproduced below:

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 5.39.25 PM

The next four chapters flesh out each of the possible scenarios.  When describing each of these scenarios, Frase relies on political philosophy, economics, and science fiction to fill in the picture of what each of these futures might look like and how we might get there.  The first scenario is – Communism: Equality and Abundance.  In this scenario, Frase describes how a universal basic income could be the precipitating factor that leads us to equality and abundance.  If one assumes increasing automation as a constant, as Frase does, then one can also assume that the necessity to work will decline if the benefits of automation are widely distributed. A UBI ensures that these gains will be widely distributed.  The next question then is how are we going to pay for this?  Frase relies on an argument put forth by Robert van der Even and Philippe van Parji’s in an article titled “A capitalist road to communism.”  They argue that a UBI will mean that people will shift to working in desirable and fulfilling jobs and avoid low quality drudgery jobs because with a UBI no one will need to work to provide for their basic needs anymore.  Since employers will not be able to fulfill those drudgery jobs automation will continue to displace them and eventually all undesirable work will be automated.  Eventually the wages for desirable work will fall to zero since everyone will shift to those jobs but that will be okay because the UBI provides for their basic needs.  Over time, Frase argues, “The long-run trajectory, therefore, 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.”(57)  The utopian vision here is one where wage labor is eliminated yet no one is deprived of their basic needs since technological advancements such as 3D printing and voluntary cooperatives take the place of work.  The mechanisms Frase imagines leading us to communism will ensure that resources are adequately redistributed to all.  In this scenario he also imagines that the looming ecological catastrophe is not as catastrophic as predicted and its negative aspects are mostly mitigated by advanced technology and the equal distribution of resources.  On final point about communism from Frase’s point of view is that status hierarchies will exist but the most malicious hierarchy in his view – status based on wealth – will not since wage labor will not exist anymore.  This is not the communism of the dictatorship of the proletariat, five-year plans, and the gulags but rather the utopian communism, vaguely sketched out, by Marx

The second scenario is Rentism: Hierarchy and Abundance.  This scenario is not as utopian as the previous one.  It is a world where technology has progressed to the point where work is not required for the fulfillment of basic needs but, unlike in the communist scenario, the gains from technology are not widely distributed.  They are concentrated in the hands of the few.  Frase labels this world “Rentist” since power is accumulated not through the accumulation of capital as in a capitalist system but rather through the extraction of rents.  In economics a rent is the amount earned by a resource (land, property, patent, etc.) above what it costs to put that resource into production.  Rentiers, therefore get profits above and beyond the productive value of their asset.  As Frase describes it rentiers, “create nothing, make nothing, do nothing; they just passively accept the rewards of ownership.” (73)  As technology progresses intellectual property becomes more valuable and is often concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  This is a world of abundance but also of extreme hierarchy.  The problems of the ecological catastrophe are mitigated for the few extremely wealthy individuals as they are able to wall themselves off from the most destructive elements.  Everyone else is left to suffer.

The third scenario presented in Four Futures is Socialism: Equality and Scarcity.  Here Frase envisions a world where we are forced to live within our means due to ecological collapse.  In this scenario automation and technological advancement are not able to mitigate the worst elements of climate change and ecological collapse, however there is a fair amount of equality as resources are distributed evenly – its just that there is not that much to distribute.  Under socialism the current society is restructured along ecologically sustainable lines.  This will require massive changes to our current infrastructure and energy sources, which in Frase’s vision will require a large roll for the state in achieving this.  Additionally, planning and rationing will be required since the primary physical inputs into production – water, other raw inputs, energy – will be in short supply.  Frase advocates for a paradoxical mechanism to plan consumption in this socialist society – the market.  While it is odd for the market to be the primary planning mechanism in a socialist society, Frase sees the market, combined with a universal basic income, as the appropriate tool here for exchanges to take place between individuals who have equal market power (unlike in our current capitalist system).  Frase describes it this way:

“But if we posit a world in which everyone is allocated the same basic income and nobody has control over vast pools of wealth, this objection [ed. unequal market power] disappears.  Think of the basic income as the ration card that gives you access to you share of all that is scarce in the world.  Rather than allocate specific amounts of each scarce resource, the pricing mechanism of the market is used to protect against overuse.” (113)

He continues:

“If we can tackle the inequalities that make our current market societies so brutal, we might have a chance of deploying market mechanisms to organize consumption in an ecologically limited world, allowing all of us to come through capitalism and climate change as equals.” (118)

Frase socialist society is a welcome anecdote to much of the catastrophic thinking that accompanies leftist theorizing about climate change and the future.

Finally, the fourth scenario is Exterminism: Hierarchy and Scarcity.  If the first scenario, Communism, was the utopian vision then the last scenario, Exterminism, is the dystopian vision.  This is a world where class hierarchy still exists and resources are not distributed equally as in the Rentism order but the crucial distinction here is that, unlike in the Rentism order, scarcity is not overcome by technological advancements.  Ecological and environmental damage is too great to be overcome for all but the extremely wealthy.  So here you have a scenario where all those with extreme amounts of wealth are secure and everyone else is living a life of misery.  What do the wealthy do in this case to prevent the mass of immiserated people from attacking them and expropriating their wealth?  They kill them first, hence Exterminism.  Frase explains the logic of this horrendous outcome as thus:

“In a world of hyper inequality and mass unemployment, you can try to buy off the masses for a while, and then you can try to repress them by force.  But so long as immiserated hoards exist, there is the danger that one day it may become impossible to hold them at bay.  When mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal was of the rich against the poor.” (133)

Mass inequality exists in the Rentism order Frase describes but that does not break down into mass slaughter since scarcity is overcome.  Technology has progressed to the point where basic needs can be taken care of for everyone its just that the gains from that technology is not equally distributed.  In the Exterminism order technology has only progressed to take care of the needs of the extremely wealth which leaves everyone else desperate and willing to fight.  Not such a happy scenario.

Frase has laid out four possible futures with four pathways on how we could get to each one.  Frase claims his book is not an “exercise in futurism”, he is not offering a prediction.  These are just possibilities.  The beauty of the book in my opinion is just that – its possibilities.  The future is not set.  We see major trends that might send us to doom or send us to utopia.  The possibilities here are great but Frase’s point in outlining these possibilities is a political one.  We need to act and organize to ensure the greatest probability for utopia because the other possibilities are not so pleasant.

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