On this blog, I have been writing mostly about the incredible opportunity digital disruption presents, but the opportunity for a better, abundant, egalitarian, opportunity-offering society is not the only possible outcome. There are postcapitalist nightmares that have their own forces at work as well, and these nightmares are the reason we need to be focused on a new thought environment now. Two of those nightmares are outlined effectively by Peter Frase in his book Four Futures. He dubs them rentism and exterminism.
As dystopic futures go, rentism is the slightly more benign. Frase characterizes it as hierarchy with abundance, where the hierarchy is manifested primarily through ownership, especially of intellectual property. By contriving ways to own ideas, genes, seeds, and everything humans need to survive, the elite control everything while everyone else must rent. (This dynamic is even invading the digital world via software subscriptions. If you use MS Office, Adobe, or Salesforce.com, you do it via subscription, not purchase. You don’t own anything at all—you rent access to the intellectual property.) This rentism pervades everything, and business models are rapidly changing to reflect it. As rentism grows and we subscribe to more and more instead of purchasing it, we move toward a return to comprehensive feudalism wherein the noble elites own everything and most people are renting serfs.
Far worse than rentism, exterminism is every bit as ominous as it sounds. Here, the abundance of the automated, digitalized world is hoarded by the elite 1 percent who, as Frase points out, essentially already enjoy a world in which anything they need is essentially free in the context of their great wealth. The elite are able to avail themselves of all the benefits of digitalization and automation, thereby putting almost everyone out of work and creating “surplus population.” This population, which far outnumbers the elite in their enclaves, is perceived as a threat. In this scenario, a question will inevitably arise in the mind of some powerful person: “What do we need all these people for?” This question engenders a new thought environment not unlike that of Nazi Germany or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, in which subtle changes and not-so-subtle initiatives begin to change the social dynamic around surplus people. For the Nazi’s, everyone not Aryan was deemed surplus, especially the Jews, and this gave support to an entire social structure leading to extermination.
What is concerning to many observers is that this thought structure, which will compete with the postcapitalist principles I laid out in the Postcapitalist Manifesto for the future of society, already has a foothold and is being expressed in concrete ways. In the United States, there is a lot of debate over the incarceration of young black men, and the concern is usually expressed as racism or classism, both of which are evident. Through another lens, we can see that the young men so incarcerated are also almost uniformly unemployed, and therefore considered by elites to be “surplus.” Our answer today is to lock them up; tomorrow it could be far different.
Should the elite grow to control automation, roboticization, and digitalization to their exclusive benefit, it is not hard to see where it goes—we get a robotic police force. There is no longer any need to masterfully persuade the people through propaganda; you can simply program and direct the robots to carry out the messy business of policing. Robots will conveniently “do what needs to be done” without moral compulsion or reprehension. Indeed, as Frase points out, we already have the precursors of this in the use of drones to attack “likely” targets. While that is currently excused as a military activity, all military tactics eventually become police tactics. In a world of exterminism, those tactics will be directed inevitably at the so-called surplus population. Finally, the rhetoric of exterminism is already taking hold as well, as the 2016 campaign showed. The so-called alt-right doctrines, the rise of hate crimes, and the mainstreaming of racial supremacism all illustrate the development of this thought environment. In other words, the seeds are there, and some are germinating.
This horrific view, as well as the somewhat less painful vision of rentism, illustrate the urgency of the need to develop the opposing thought environment I call postcapitalism. The seeds are sown for these dystopias, but seeds are also sown and germinating for the much more generous postcapitalist future we can hope for and work toward together. The networks, collaborative work projects, conversion, and abundance principles I have outlined (see the Postcapitalist Manifesto for a summary) are built into the technology that is releasing us from capitalism. Yet the postcapitalist vision is currently behind in the development of the thought structures to compete with these dystopias. If we develop the ideas strongly enough, the momentum will shift because the technology supports the new vision. If we fail to do so, some form of these dystopias is likely to dominate the world order in the immediate decades to come. Let’s get to work now.
Anthony Signorelli founded www.PostCapFuture.com to explore postcapitalism with other people around the world. Join the blog here. He is also the author of three books including the forthcoming volume Speculations on Postcapitalism.