The End Is Always Near

Museum of Science & Industry, Chicago, Illinois

The flourishing of fascism depends upon a sense of inevitability; Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism summons the will and concentration to imagine differently.

IS there any reason to expect that technological advances will address economic inequality? In an 1856 speech, Karl Marx raised this question by pointing out that “the newfangled sources of wealth, by some strange weird spell, are turned into sources of want.” He noted that though machines were “gifted with the wonderful power of shortening and fructifying human labor,” workers were nonetheless overworked and hungry. “All our invention and progress,” he argued, “seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force.” That is, technology tends to dignify machines at the expense of people’s dignity. Eleven years later, in the first volume of Capital, Marx would claim it “possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt.”

From a vulgar Marxist point of view, technological immiseration seems inevitable: If capitalists alone fund the development of new technologies, then those new technologies will inevitably be oriented toward protecting capitalists’ interests. Machines and automated processes will be used to deskill workers and undermine their bargaining power (as historian Harry Braverman argued in his 1974 book Labor and Monopoly Capital, and Shoshana Zuboff extended into white-collar workplaces in her 1988 study In the Age of the Smart Machine). If you don’t work longer for less, we will replace you with a welding robot or an algorithm. Or they will be used to expand the domain of exploitable human labor (the lifeblood of capital) rather than reduce the need for it, as with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, or Slack-mediated workdays that never end. Or they will provide what are ultimately trivial improvements in the quality of life for workers while assuring they continue to face the systematic deprivation that renders them susceptible to coercion. Please enjoy your phone while you try to find a job and work off your student debts.

But what if workers are able to subvert technologies meant to pacify them, or what if they could seize the means of technological production? Might technology be oriented toward some brighter horizon, rather than intensifying injustices? Sociologist and Jacobin editor Peter Frase considers this and other possibilities in Four Futures, a work of “social science fiction” that follows technological development to what might hopefully be considered its logical endpoint—a post-scarcity world in which all work can be automated—and then examines the political possibilities of that world, particularly in light of the already unfolding ecological disaster brought on by human-driven climate change.

Who will reap the benefits of automation, and who will suffer the detriments of global warming? Or, as Frase puts it, “Will new technologies of production lead to greater free time for all, or will we remain locked into a cycle in which productivity gains only benefit the few, while the rest of us work longer than ever?” Frase approaches the interplay of these questions schematically, setting them up in a Greimas square of sorts: By crossing an abundance-scarcity continuum with an equality-hierarchy continuum, he yields four possible political environments—“two socialisms and two barbarisms”—which he addresses in turn. This obviously leaves out an infinite number of alternative futures that pivot on other axes, or that fan out rhizomatically from the innumerable ways in which abundance and equality might be pursued or deferred. But it has the advantage of clarity, even if it obscures some intractable political questions about tactics. Frase’s aim is to clarify the stakes of such tactics without having to get too bogged down with what they actually are. It is an argument against fatalism that can’t risk the deadening dreariness of details, the internecine fights that inevitably erupt when contemplating how best to ally and how best to proceed against which fronts. Frase merely wants to convince us that such fights must be endured.

The first of Frase’s four futures—abundance joined with equality—yields communism, a scenario in which automation decommodifies labor, and material plentitude allows everyone to autonomously pursue meaningful work and seek social recognition among a proliferation of status hierarchies, “no one of which is superior to any other.” In other words, the hierarchies of hierarchies would be minimized, and one could be as happy being a good chess player as being a good hedge clipper. Frase recognizes that such a world would not be an automatic utopia: not everybody can live on the beach, not everyone can be famous, and so on. No one would be in a position to starve, but this would not prevent attention and reputation from being hoarded, nor would it prevent an anomie-induced inanition, in which a lack of shared norms leads to people who couldn’t care less about doing anything. But Frase argues that a society “in which conflict is no longer based on the opposition between wage workers and capitalists or on struggles over scarce resources” is preferable to one in which all and any conflict is reducible to the arbitrating force of money.

His second future inverts the communist scenario, joining abundance with hierarchy to yield what he labels “rentism.” This is a scenario in which elites use intellectual-property protections to deprive and control the masses. That is, material abundance would be matched with an artificial scarcity arbitrarily imposed through access controls. The model used today for software, in which something that could be freely duplicated and distributed is instead made subject to monthly subscription fees (as with, for instance, Adobe’s “Creative Cloud” system), would be expanded to cover the entire span of goods and services. Imagine a world where the Internet of Things is fully implemented, and you can be denied access to your refrigerator, or your water supply, or your medicine cabinet, and so on, until you pay a licensing fee to whomever holds the patent or property rights to the things you need to live. This is an Ubik-like world in which you would have to pay your door to leave your house.

Frase offers the history of land privatization as a model for the IoT takeover: As technologies for documenting and tracking ownership developed, land once held for communal use was systematically enclosed. The ability to precisely chart existing territory—through writing, maps, and ledgers—led to the ability to assign stable rights to individual owners, who were charged with controlling it.

But mapping technologies need not be limited to land. A digital simulacrum can be produced to encompass all the things in the world. The same technological capacity that permits a post-scarcity world would also be able to produce a totally surveilled world, in which every object—even every digital object—could be assimilated into the map of ownership. And, that map could be infinitely subdivided, in space and time, to capture ever more fine-grained units of value. Every possible thing with a use value could have a unique identifier and a single owner inscribed in blockchain-like ledgers. Objects could circulate freely and uselessly, inaccessible without the proper code. Because each copy would be traceable, duplication of digital property and 3-D printable objects would be futile. Every time you read a book, for instance, you would have to pay anew: every reproduction of the text would be traceable as a discrete object on a fully surveilled network of things. Templates would cease to be templates; there would be no distinction between blueprint and object, and each object is counted. In such a world, any software that could produce a tangible benefit to humanity would also double as guard labor, preventing most of humanity from enjoying it.

If material abundance generates artificial scarcity, we would still need jobs to access what’s gated, even though there would be little production left to do. Frase imagines such an economy would allow for lots of lawyers, marketers, and guards, and not much else. The lack of “effective demand” (that is, people with means to pay what owners insist on for their supply) and the manifest injustice of artificial scarcity, he suggests, would make this potential future deeply unstable.

The third future Frase considers is one in which climate-driven scarcity is crossed with social equality, or what he calls “socialism”: the communist future combined with mandatory conservation regimes. In this scenario, a shared sense of doom leads to technologically abetted cooperation rather than competition. But there is no guarantee that people would elect shared sacrifice over limited resources. Frase is forced to posit that “we can transform our class-stratified society into something more egalitarian” rather than propose the mechanisms by which this transformation can come about. In other words, good faith and political will prevents this future from degenerating into his last scenario, which Frase, adapting a term from E.P. Thompson, calls “exterminism”—a future in which automation makes workers superfluous, and climate crises make elites conclude the most efficient thing to do with the surplus population is eliminate it.

Though Frase doesn’t set out to be so pessimistic, it is telling that his exterminism scenario feels the most familiar. As with rentism, for which we have the already existing Internet of Things as a guide, exterminism comes with a playbook. Frase’s account shows how far along we are toward this future, detailing the “inverted global gulag” of “gated communities, private islands, terrorism paranoia, biological quarantines,” where elites build heavily guarded and well-supplied enclaves, and impoverished regions are left to the ravages of global warming, rising oceans, and dwindling resources. Militarized policing, the relentless expansion of the carceral state, and remote killing by drone complete the picture, seeming to chart a clear course to this most final of destinations.

Frase’s descriptions of technologically facilitated genocide in a war of the rich against the poor are chilling, especially given the billionaire who is set to assume the presidency in the U.S. and who is eager to compile lists of people—Muslims, immigrants, flag burners, who knows who else—that he and his administration have deemed undesirable, deportable, expendable. Meanwhile, authoritarian nativist regimes all around the world are, at this very moment, maintaining power by dividing populations into “us” and “them.” Virtually anywhere you look—from the official statements of Presidents and Prime Ministers to the craven stenography of the mainstream media’s remnants to the opportunistic “fake news” posts that populate social media feeds—it is easy to see evidence of the post-truth nihilism that whets the appetite for expediency, and from there, as 20th century history has demonstrated, it is a short leap to extermination. The path to the more benign futures Frase outlines seem far more provisional, more reliant on science fiction rather than real-world examples of scalable human benevolence.

We should clearly take this asymmetry as a warning. The political imagination exists to devise routes to more inclusive and equitable futures for human existence on this planet, but it requires will and concentration to summon the “collective power” to fight for it, as Frase concludes. It is far easier to see the unfolding of events as inevitable, as the product of technological determinism or the insurmountable selfishness of human nature rather than as the sum of innumerable and never-ending political choices, acts of compliance or resistance chosen or rejected, solidarities sought after or surrendered. The flourishing of fascism has depended on that sense of inevitability, that sense of futility, that sense of fuck it, and fascists will be quick to leverage technology to deepen the pervasive sense that one can experience power only by surrendering to it.

Frase takes pains to emphasize that all the futures he describes are interpenetrated with each other; they are all “dynamic and ongoing political projects,” which means the struggle to keep them on course is ceaseless. The often-voiced promise that technology will simplify our lives and make everything more convenient has the effect of making this struggle seem even more arduous. But technology never solves politics; it serves them. And the sites of struggle remain, despite any efforts to obfuscate them. No matter how abusive technology becomes in the service of power, it can never extinguish the possibility of political alternatives or better uses worth fighting for.