Book Review: Peter Frase, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism

October 2, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve never been a big fan of scenario planning. When I’ve done it in the past, it’s usually involved a bunch of former oil and gas planners asking a group of people to identify big trends (which often boil down to what they’ve read in the FT/Economist that week) and then processing them into a set of four plausible, but rather unexciting, futures. You then waste ages trying to come up with memorable names for them.

But in Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase injects new life into the exercise by drawing on an encyclopaedic knowledge of sci fi (novels and movies) and political/economic writings (a combo he labels ‘social science fiction’) to come up with a brain-stretching depiction of four possible future worlds.

Frase’s starting point is that waged labour will soon be a thing of the past, due to the job-replacing tidal wave of AI, robotics etc. Get over it and think about what comes next. To help with that, he sets out his two variables to get to the required 2×2: Abundance/Scarcity and Equality/Hierarchy.

Abundance/Scarcity is largely about climate change and other planetary boundaries. Will humanity find tech solutions that stay within our ecological limits, or will some kind of rationing be required (whether by diktat or price)? With Equality/hierarchy he brings in the politics that is often missing from these exercises – what kind of political system will drive the decisions as the species moves into the jobless age?

Here are his four scenarios (with their nicknames) – each gets a chapter:

Drawing on social science fiction, Frase illustrates what life might look like in each. By plugging into our cultural memes, Frase is able to use a discussion of, say, Star Trek v Star Wars to bring alive the different scenarios.

Each quadrant also emphasizes a pressing current issue: ‘communism dwells on the way we construct meaning when life is not centered around wage labour; rentism is largely a reflection on intellectual property; socialism is a story about the climate crisis and our need to adapt to it; exterminism is the story of the militarization of the world.’

The most striking futures are the extremes: communism and exterminism. For communism, he revamps Marx as a ‘stoner philosopher: just do what you feel, man (from each according to his ability), and it’ll all be cool (to each according to his needs).’ Turns out that Marx wasn’t a massive fan of the ‘dignity of manual labour’ – he certainly didn’t do much of it himself. Frase’s version of communism looks for self-fulfilment through action and a life well lived, rather than wages. Abundance and AI severs the link between production and labour – there will be enough for everyone, so we can trouser our universal income and get on with more meaningful stuff.

In rentism, IP becomes the chief vehicle for privatizing abundance – he quotes Richard Freeman: ‘who owns the robots, owns the world.’ The least well written scenario is socialism, which actually looks much more like Scandi-style Social Democracy, using resource pricing to stay within environmental limits in a reasonably egalitarian fashion.

But exterminism is the most striking (and disturbing) thought experiment of the lot. In a world of scarcity and hierarchy: ‘the rich will sit secure in the knowledge that their replicators and robots can provide for their every need. What of the rest of us?… Someone will eventually get the idea that it would be better to rid of [us].’

Frase quotes a 1983 article by Wassily Leontief: Workers could go the way of horses after the introduction of the internal combustion engine: ‘from the human point of view, keeping all these idle horses would make little sense.’ As a result, the US horse population fell from 21.5 million in 1900 to 3 million in 1960. For ‘horses’ read ‘workers’. He sees possible early signals in the privatization of public space (enclaves for the rich), the spread of private security and extra-judicial killing by drone. Ouch.

Then he goes further:

‘But suppose we stare into that abyss? What’s left when the ‘excess’ bodies have been disposed of and the rich are finally left alone with their robots and their walled compounds? The combat drones and robot executioners could be decommissioned, the apparatus of surveillance gradually dismantled, and the remaining population could evolve past its brutal and dehumanizing war morality and settle into a life of equality and abundance – in other words, into communism. As a descendant of Europeans in the United States, I have an idea of what that might be like. After all, I’m the beneficiary of a genocide.’

Wow. All in all, highly recommended if you fancy a short (150 page) visit to the brain gym.