An Argument with Four Futures by Peter Frase

Capitalism is going to be severely challenged by the disruption of digital abundance in the coming decade, and anyone planning for the future must consider alternatives to capitalism that may rise up to replace it. As I continue to explore my own expectations, I also look to other intelligent authors to learn how they may see this new future. With that purpose in mind, I read Peter Frase’s book Four Futures. Frase is a serious thinker demanding serious attention, and while I was not disappointed in the promise of the title, I also found the book worthy of a good argument.

Let me begin with two observations. First, I do not understand why writers with socialist sympathies so often use fiction as a basis for figuring out the problems and challenges of a transforming world. Granted, I may be exposing my ignorance of Marxist method here, but it is an odd habit which Frase, like others, uses liberally. The idealized worlds of fiction may provide imaginative insight, but I find it hard to take an analysis of Star Trek seriously as an analysis of our current economic predicament. It would seem far better to understand the actual forces at work and determine which of those to support with real idea structures than to write social analysis based on fiction.

Second, I find it astonishing that socialists like Frase believe socialism will replace capitalism when the latter ends. They fail to see that socialism works on the same principles. They fail to see that if capitalism ends, so do capitalist driven class structures. They seem to think the demise of capitalism is only about who is in control (class struggle), not that the whole question of class control becomes meaningless. After all, if socialism wins, capitalism is not dead. We’re merely on the other side of the coin.

One of the problems faced by honest social theorists is that they too often set up paradigms of thought that are nothing but their own “straw dogs” to shoot down. Frase appears to be doing this in Four Futures. He starts by quoting a 1915 publication by Rosa Luxemborg: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism” (Frase, 2016, p. 27)  Contemporary society certainly exhibits qualities of both socialism and barbarism, but it cannot be fundamentally characterized as either one of these, which leads me to believe that Ms. Luxemborg has either set up a false dichotomy, or that this is a very large and wide crossroads, which, in the end, has no meaning.

Frase goes on to set up his “four futures” as definitions from a grid along two axes—one is the equality-hierarchy axis, and the other is the abundance-scarcity axis. He then defines each of the four futures as occupying an extreme corner of each of the four quadrants thus made, with equality-abundance cheerfully defining communism, and assorted orders of decay through socialism (equality-scarcity), rentism (hierarchy-abundance), and exterminism (hierarchy-scarcity) (Frase, 2016, p. 29).

For certain analytical exercises, this may be an interesting framework, but for defining the four possible futures that lie ahead, it misses key factors in the extreme. How about digitalism vs. concretism, conversion vs. extraction, conservation vs. progression, or any number of other linear spectrums. These are excluded because they largely defy what appears to be Frase’s main purpose—to assert that “where we end up will be a result of political struggle” (Frase, 2016, p. 31). If you assign any power for change to the changing technological landscape, which has also been an enormous driver of social change over the centuries, it belies the thesis that “change is always mediated by the power struggles between organized masses of people” (Frase, 2016, p. 30). I’m not denying that social strife occurs when society undergoes change, but such strife is rarely the cause of such change.

Frase’s Four Futures

Despite the problems with the setup, Frase makes a critical contribution to the postcapitalist enterprise by outlining what could happen—especially if the more generous elements of society do not formulate the ideas and create the structures necessary to create and develop a meaningful alternative. Let’s take a look at each of the four alternatives he outlines, what he argued, and the implications for the postcapitalist world we could possibly achieve.

Communism—Equality and Abundance

Frase’s first solution is communism, which he says fits into the abundant and equality quadrant. This ideal, optimistic vision ensures that everyone has what they need, people contribute as they are able, and necessity as a cause of work vanishes. I have elements of the same ideas in my own writings on postcapitalism; however, it doesn’t take very long to expose the core problem of communism, and to demonstrate the dystopic aspect of his own idea. Frase quotes Marx: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” (Frase, 2016, p. 48). I describe this as dystopic because one can only assume that “from each according to their ability” means that if you can, you must. People do not have choices—they can’t choose work they prefer, they have to do what they are good at—very much like in capitalism. In capitalism, you do what you are good at because that makes the most money. In communism, apparently, if you are able, you must do what you are good at because it is your obligation. In either case, the likelihood of spending one’s life in a job one does not enjoy is very high. Abundance, if it is anything at all, must allow people to follow their own passions, interests, and dreams because abundance eliminates necessity and frees people to choose. This formulation does not eliminate necessity, so we must ask: where is the abundance?

Equally, Frase’s argument for communism doesn’t deal with the problem of determining one’s ability. Who decides? Wouldn’t we say that if anyone other than the individual makes that determination, then there is hierarchy? How is this, then, equalitarian?

The same dynamics infect the “to each according to their need” side of the equation. Who determines your need? Someone in the hierarchy. And, what is the experience of abundance if all you get is your needs met? I mean, in essence, all anyone really needs is a little food and water, right? Is that how we define abundance?

Two Excursions

In Frase’s section on communism, he also addresses two important ideas: One on basic income, and one differentiating social change from economic change.  The first is a powerful addition to the basic income discussion; the second a flawed argument based on misunderstanding the nature of work and existential decisions capitalist elites are prone to make.

A Cogent Argument on Basic Income (Frase, 2016, p. 49-58)

Basic income is being tested in various places around the world, and advocated openly in the US by activists, labor advocates, poverty reduction workers, libertarians, and even some capitalists. Basic income means that everyone in society is provided with a certain amount of money unconditionally. In most formulations it is not meant to replace income altogether, but to support people and fight economic precarity—the sense of living desperately paycheck to paycheck.

Many capitalist and free market fundamentalists argue, however, that as basic income is adopted, more and more people drop out of the work force, and as that happens, the tax base that supports basic income disappears. When the tax base disappears, basic income can no longer be sustained.

Frase skewers these arguments against basic income. His intelligent challenge is that basic income is a systemic change that gradually de-commodifies labor. If people have basic income, they are no longer forced into terrible jobs to acquire the basic necessities of life. Hence, Frase argues, the undesirable jobs of drudgery will go up in price until it becomes economical to automate them. Fulfilling jobs come down in price because the work is more desirable. In the long run, more and more work is automated, the marginal cost of production approaches zero, and products no longer have prices. In other words, the money economy vaporizes. Rather than the disappearing tax base creating a crisis, the capitalist economy simply withers as money becomes decreasingly relevant to society and no crisis is created at all.

From a postcapitalist point of view, Frase’s argument makes advocating basic income even more worthwhile. Basic income is more than just a response to automation-driven unemployment; it is an actual tool to begin the process of dismantling capitalism. The good news is that eventually basic income will occur because it has to; digitalization and the associated precipitous decline in prices will drive down wages, which will drive down demand, and force capitalist economies to adopt basic income to sustain demand.

Communism and the Social System

Frase also delivers a rebuke to the notion that a collapsed capitalism means a change in the social system: “Reputation, like capital, can be accumulated in an unequal and self-perpetuating way, as those who are already popular gain the ability to do things that get them more attention and make them more popular. Moreover, racism and sexism don’t disappear when capitalism does; they can stratify postcapitalist societies as well” (Frase, 2016, p. 62). He then goes on to point out that Wikipedia, which is a supreme example of collaborative production communities, is hierarchical, partly because so many of the editors are white men who must obviously be exercising their privilege in order to participate—privilege that many others do not enjoy. He also claims Wikipedia’s hierarchy is evident because it “…has a complex bureaucracy of administrators, editors, and moderators, with varying power to bypass screening procedures, block users, delete articles, move files, and other site functions” (Frase, 2016, p. 62-62).

The problem with this rebuke, however, is that it confuses hierarchy with organization. Any complex project requires organization. The power to delete articles and move files may be profound from an organizational perspective, but it is hardly the hierarchical life and death decision of closing factories people depend on for their livelihood. What Frase seems to miss is that the end of capitalism means not only a collapse of hierarchy, but also the end of coercion and extraction. Of course there will still be conflicts of various kinds, but not the kind that create existential economic conflict—at least, not inherently within the system. Because existential conflict is the basis of racism and sexism, when the conflict and the hierarchy that created it dissolve in a new postcapitalist world, racism and sexism will decrease as well.

Rentism—Hierarchy and Abundance

In the notion of rentism and the potential to derail a positive postcapitalist society, Frase has made a serious and positive contribution. While he characterizes rentism as a system of hierarchy and abundance, I think it more accurate to describe it as an incomplete postcapitalism. Under rentism, automation creates abundance by providing things at near zero cost. It also displaces workers and income. But by expanding property rights to seeds, genes, and all intellectual ideas, especially digital ideas, the wealthy maintain control. They own, and the rest of us rent the products from them.

There is precedent for the idea Frase lays out. The powers that be are currently litigating for ownership of every idea they can claim, and as they do so, they are closing off more and more of the intellectual commons. They own ideas, code, processes, methods. They own the genes in seeds you grow in your own backyard. They own the software that they will never sell to you. Instead, new business models are developing to hold this activity; we call it software-as-a-service, or a subscription economy, or more generally, rentism.

The purpose of claiming these intellectual property rights is straightforward: The more the ideas and digital products become property and ownable, the more the owners can reinforce scarcity, maintain the market, and continue to collect cash in a monetized world. In other words, it is a way of preventing the development of postcapitalism in which the products are actually free. Instead, it maintains control of the product, makes it scarce, and demands a price.

Rentism occurs as a result of automating people out of productive work before digitalization causes markets to stop functioning properly. As Frase points out, however, if everyone is out of work, there will need to be basic income for the wealth to keep flowing, and as we discussed previously, the intrinsic feature of basic income is that it de-commodifies labor, eventually phasing out the money economy altogether. In other words, rentism is a very real danger, but it is also a temporary—though potentially very long-lived—stage in the development of postcapitalist society.

Socialism—Equality and Scarcity

Frase describes the socialist possibility in terms we have seen before. The ecological crisis, together with the scarcity of critical resources on a planet with a growing population, will require a rethinking of the allocation of those resources. Although remnants of the market will remain, the market can’t actually do the job without selecting only the elites and leaving everyone else without. As a result, according to Frase and the socialist option, if we are all going to make it, we will need a centrally planned economy that allocates the resources equally—probably through a mechanism like universal basic income.

While the egalitarian prescription sounds enticing, one wonders if the author has ever heard of the USSR. The problem with socialism is that you can’t actually have equality and scarcity in the same system—it is a contradiction in terms, and that’s one reason the Soviet system never worked. Scarcity breeds hierarchy because it has to. A system built on scarcity cannot legislate or construct its way into equality because the inherent competition for the scarce goods always creates hierarchy—in the classic sense, some people have and some have not—and it doesn’t matter if that competition is above board as in capitalism or hidden in black markets or the structure of the bureaucracy; it is still there.

For these reasons, socialism may attempt equality, but it can never succeed. Nonetheless, Frase makes some very cogent points in this section for thinking seriously about a postcapitalist future. For example, he asks us to assume that the world goes digital quickly, and material products we need for every day life can be made digitally and abundantly with 3D printing. You still have the problem of the feedstock for the printer, and that becomes, in essence, a potentially non-abundant supply.

This will be a real problem for postcapitalist theorists such as myself for a number of reasons. First, if that supply is material, it would seem to insist that a vestige of capitalist extraction remains in place. If extraction remains, so does distribution, trade, the need to control geography, and the other underlying drivers of the organization of modern society. In other words, capitalism shifts; it does not die. Second, it suggests that market forces remain in place, even as production moves to the level of the consumer. The capitalist separation between production and consumption may fall apart, but all it really does is move the focus of resource allocation, and therefore planning under socialism, to the personal lives of the consumers who also produce what they need. It can be argued that this is an advantage, but it can also be argued that this is still centralized planning in a scarce commodity—the feedstock—and so ultimately thwarts the postcapitalist vision. Third, trade in the printers and any other tools of production must continue, and probably via a market—unless everything in them is digitally abundant as well.

As such a theorist, two factors are critical to consider—degree and development. I would argue in response that of course there will be some market-type activity (a point Frase makes as well). However, the competitive advantages of trade will not focus on natural endowments or the earth anymore, but rather on the skills and interests of the individuals. I like to write books and you like to make cups, and so, we trade. But this is very different from the market playing the central role in accessing the best land and the distribution of all resources such that the wealthy always get more and the unwealthy always get less—in other words, where the market is systemic.

I would also argue that development refers to where we are in the development of postcapitalism. Frase describes a steady state, which is necessary in a book like this, but like rentism, I see these challenges more as something that could take hold for a period of time, but is not the ultimate destination. The technology is driving the destination, and the technology is not going to stop developing. Neither will postcapitalism. In fact, it any of Frase’s more dystopic views takes hold, it is likely not the defining system for the next 500 years, but rather a step along the way in the development of postcapitalism because the technology will continue to drive change.

Exterminism—Hierarchy and Scarcity

Frase’s final dystopia of his four futures is exterminism, and it is a horrific vision indeed. Many more optimistic writers focus on the freedom of the human race from the drudgery of work in an automated society. Frase sees another danger:

“The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources, is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite” (Frase, 2016, p. 123).

Under capitalism, workers and capitalists live in mutual dependence, even if also in distrust. Workers need the capitalists to create the factories and the jobs, and capitalists need the workers or else nothing gets done. But if the work can be done by robots, the capitalists no longer need the workers. Such a superfluous population represents a danger to the elites, and they will inevitably seek to protect themselves from that danger. As Frase says:

“So what happens if the masses are dangerous but are no longer a working class, and hence of no value to the rulers? Someone will eventually get the idea it would be better to get rid of them” (Frase, 2016, p. 124).

Although this sounds brutal and extreme, there are forces afoot which reflect this direction in society. Frase outlines a few examples:

  • The development of walled enclaves is one, and this goes well beyond the gated communities that are arising with increasing frequency. True elites are buying and building compounds, private islands, and massive estates to wall themselves off.
  • Patterns of incarceration are focused on these superfluous populations, especially unemployed young black men, who are being virtually herded into private corporate prisons across the United States at an incarceration rate that is higher than any other country in the world.
  • Guard work in prisons, gated communities, elite-owned buildings, and similar enclaves is a fast growing industry.
  • The use of drones, a kind of robot in the sky, to kill based on patterns of likelihood of effective targeting. In other words, not only is the actual event extremely remote, the targets are derived from probability-based analysis.

These and other trends show a tendency toward this extreme direction by at least some of the elites and by the way the system is designed. Played out to the end game, this entire scenario of dealing with a population perceived as dangerous and superfluous becomes automated. Artificial intelligence drives robots to control and eventually exterminate the population in a process Nazi Germany could only dream about—a system so dehumanized that the system is created and implemented by robotic automation, and no one has to endure any moral compunction whatsoever.

Conclusion

The reason I read books is to expand my mind and my perception, and frankly, to engage a good argument with a serious thinker. Frase has delivered on both, and I especially owe him for this insight on the potential of exterminism rising within our society. For myself, I treat this not as any kind of forgone conclusion, but rather as a wake-up call to force the development of a better way. We need to be developing the thought structure that is an alternative to this potential outcome, and to talk and push and develop it as much as possible.

The essential nature of the thought environment cannot be overstated. There certainly are elites who will collapse into the exterminist fear the way Frase describes; but there are also elites with a much larger vision of humanity. These are the philanthropists who fund pro-human initiatives. They do it for many reasons, but if the thought environment and social structures are not there to support and enable that activity, they will be swayed by the fearful elites.

This is not to say that the elites are the only ones that matter—the rest of society does, too. How we think and perceive the world also matters. How we define problems and create a social norm to compete with the deceptions of the current system matter—especially as we launch into this brave new world of automation and digitalization. In my view, Peter Frase has advanced the argument so we can see the options, the urgency of the situation, and how the logic will unfold if we do not work and do not act.


References: Frase, Peter. (2016) The Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Verso.
Posted in Arguments with Books, Futures, Postcapitalism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .

Anthony Signorelli is the author of Speculations on Postcapitalism, and other books. They are available as Ebooks on Amazon:

The Postcapitalist Manifesto
Speculations on Postcapitalism Ebook
How to Find Your Purpose, Passion, and Bliss: A Mythological Guide for Young Men