Critique of Frase (2016)’, Four Futures: Life after Capitalism
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Uncertain times have a way of heightening people’s interest in the future. This happens as the ambiguous feelings of the age increase people’s curiosity of what might possibly become of them. This is supported by Beer (2016) who observes that we are oftentimes preoccupied with future predictions during moments of uncertainty as an attempt to grasp whom and what we might turn out to be. Largely, the futures we imagine are political and they serve to motivate, limit, terrify and even regurgitate by promoting meaning, legitimacy, justification, hope or despondency. It could be the uncertainty of our age that could explain the renewed interest among pundits, scholars, business executives as well as the general populace in imagining the future of capitalism (Autor, 2015).
A vision of the future marked by computers stealing people’s jobs have been propagated times without number. The gist of this vision is that advances in artificial intelligence and robots will lead to automation of all human labour (Tarnoff, 2016). For instance, accountants and lawyers will be replaced by software as taxi drivers are replaced by self-driving vehicles. Various practitioners from futurist commenters to scholars have made the vision appear inevitable despite some notable factors that may induce scepticism (Bregman, 2014). However, even if one was to agree with their assertions, one might still be curious what the future of capitalism really looks like. Will the world goes towards equality and abundance or scarcity and extermination?
Frase in his book, “Four Futures: Life after Capitalism” provides four possible futures (Frase, 2016). In a sense, he provides two ways that technology and automation may leads to improved quality of human life and two ways that they may increase human suffering. In all the possible futures, science and automation plays a critical role and what varies is the political context. Consequently, this essay holds that there is a wide range of possible futures and the future of capitalism lies between extermination and utopianism, and while science will play a central role in it, the direction which the future will ultimately take will be determined by politics.
The future of capitalism and the future of science within it
One of the futures predicted by the Frase’s book is communism. This is not communism that implies a regime where one authoritarian party controls government and life as illustrated by the communist regimes of 20th C, but the original communism as understood by Marx (Cohen, 2016). That is, a society characterised by high productivity and egalitarianism that people need not work to survive. As per the book, science will play a central role in actualising this future as robots propelled by indefinite clean energy offer material foundation for a world without work, scarcity and climate degradation. The economy will be entirely robotised creating and producing abundant goods with minimum labour and therefore no need of human workers. In such a society, humans’ chief concern will be how to spend their days as they will be absolved from the necessity of working for survival. However, Frase in the book is quick to point out that while technology will play a central role, it will be politics that ultimately command that future and not science. This mirrors an argument held by Klein (2014) who noted that ultimately the future will be built by politics and not technology. The elites will seek to preserve privileges and other favourable elements of status quo even when wage and labour have been rendered redundant by automation. The very fact of some having power over others is a reward that some would not be willing to sacrifice (Mann, 2017). If the elites manage to preserve dominance in a robotised economy, then we will have rentism as the second probable future.
Rentism as expounded by Frase is where the society like in a communist future is characterised by abundance but the means to create abundance are under the control of small economic elite. This is in concurrence with Freeman (2018) who observes that the future will be owned by those who own the robots, which further shows the centrality of science in this future. However, Frase adds that monopolisation of the robotised economy will not succeed merely by owning the robots but also the data that commands the robots in their jobs. Automation in that future will also come on the backdrop of the ability to encode any job as information. While having a sophisticated and advanced robot is critical, there is still need for the software that direct the robot in making coffee or cleaning the bathroom. There lies the catch since intellectual property laws could allow copyright to the software which means that whenever one need to make coffee he/she will be obliged to make some fee payment (Mirowski, 2011). The implication of this is that people will need jobs. However, the situation will be that there will not be adequate jobs since all important work will be accomplished by robots. The only labour available is that necessary to preserve the ruling elite; writing software (minute number); lawyer (more so intellectual property ones); policepersons –to take care of the many desperate poor. Other than that, this future will be characterised by underemployment, unemployment and subsequent stagnation owing to the fact that the economy will need consumers and the unemployed lack the luxury to consume.
The third possible future as per the book is socialism. In this society, there is no shortcut to egalitarianism, abundance and clean energy as envisaged in communist society. While automation and science will play a central role in government, society and people’s lives, the circumstance that the yield unlimited source of clean energy will be non-existent. In a sense, the society will still face water shortages, climate change, and exhaustion of the soil since equality will have been attained in the midst of scarcity and carbon energy (Tarnoff, 2016). This means that people will still tackle the challenges of the world the old way, remake landscape, infrastructure and reorganise consumption. However, there will be a strong democracy and a strengthened belief in the equal worth of every human. As such, while the world will still be quite hard, both its benefits and burdens will be shared on equal terms as people will agree. The book by Frase provides a way to organise the socialism society efficiently and fairly through such ways as universal basic income. All in all, the third future still implies that while science through innovation will still play a critical role, it will be politics (democracy) that will command it.
While socialism has its challenges, it is Frase’s fourth future, extreminism that is scary. This society is characterised by robots, scarcity as well as climate degradation like a socialist society but unlike socialism is devoid of egalitarianism. The result is a nightmarish vision of the future where the elite retreat to fortified communes where robots carry out any socially important task, and the poor live outside in the hot sun in an increasingly warming planet. Frase argues that in a world characterised by scarcity and hierarchy, automation of the economy and production has the undesirable effect of making the huge portion of the population superfluous at least through the lens of the elite. The elite can warehouse the superfluous population in concentration camps and prison. However, as times goes, the elite might see it convenient and efficient to just carry out extermination of the poor, as they have already lost their importance as workers. In tandem, McGimpsey, Tannock and Lauder (2016) notes that a society where the ruling elite does not depend on the labour of the working class is a society in which the poor are not only an inconvenience but also a danger. In such a society, the ruling elite may ultimately result in extermination of the poor. In support of this, Purdy (2016) notes that the poor could face the same fate as the horses. Following the discovery of internal combustion engine, humans felt that it was of little importance to maintain the idle horses. This can be evidenced by the huge decline of United States horse population to only 3 million in 1960 from 21.5 million in 1900. Frase notes that privatisation of public space (such as islands) which increasingly serves as communes for the rich, increase in private security and killings of people by drone can serve as early pointers to extermination.
Are the vision and the ideas of Frase novel and plausible?
Frase like many other futurists has attempted to paint probable pictures of post-capitalism society; but how novel and plausible are those futures? Of note is that the approach taken by him goes against that of many others in the field. Majority of conventional futurists forecast that automation will lead to leisurely lives as a vast population is absolved from work by robots and thus freed to engage in fulfilling pursuits of one choice. However, Frase is quick to disabuse this notion by asserting that technology does not command outcomes; what it rather does is that it offers possibilities. While utopia is a probable outcome, automation in isolation will not get us there. This point of view is buttressed by the uniquely dystopian characteristics of our present world – a tiny number of elite still control the vast amounts of the global wealth, and the world of today has started in earnest to experience adverse consequence of global warming (Schmelzer, 2016). The automation is unlikely to miraculously end such, and even after robots and automation carry the day, class disparities as well as climate degradation will be a probable feature of the immediate society. This is in tandem with Ireland and Meng (2017) who asserts that science role is to expand the horizon of possibility more so materially, but it is devoid of the capacity to dictate how advantages are shared. Science also cannot be in a position to decide the nature of political and economic organisation with regard to equality and inclusivity. While such assertions appear quite obvious, Jones (2019) observes that they lack from so many futurists’ works. Hence, Frase succeed in bringing about much needed sense of reality to the debate, which helps make his predicted futures appear plausible as they only happen to be heightened versions of our today’s world. This primarily set him apart from so many in the realm of science fiction.
Particularly, let us consider rentism whereby certain red tapes deny the majority access to abundance. Rentism is derived from rentier, which as explained by Dinerstein and Pitts (2018) refer to persons who generate wealth by holding onto valuable resources without any value addition. This can be witnessed in today’s world where, for example, Walk Disney hoards all rights to characters (intellectual property) that were developed even a century ago. Similarly, it will be remembered that Martin Shkreli created controversial by increasing price of a patented AIDs drug. Such examples point to the possibility of rentism in the post-capitalism world (Purdy, 2016). Nevertheless, it is of import to note that rentism still has some elements of utopia which would argue against its plausibility. Importantly, it presumes that unlimited clean energy will arrive from somewhere. What if that never materialises? As pointed by Jones (2019) the presumption that unlimited source of clean energy will appear in future is not expounded sufficiently by its proponents.
Presumption of unlimited clean energy as well as the assumption that the elite of the day will be inclined towards a communism society marked with egalitarianism and abundance is also the main argument against a communism society. What if the world never escapes from scarcity that predominantly marks it and/or the possible horrors of climate degradation? Of note, today’s literature has greatly framed climate change as a crisis for the entire human race. However, such assumption hides the important fact that change in climate impact different people differently (Dirican, 2015). People who are able to mitigate the effects of extreme weather conditions to their selves will be impacted less as the poor suffer the most. This argues against communism while in a sense supporting rentism.
The socialism society as depicted by Frase escape the limitations of communism as it appreciates that unlimited clean energy will be non-existent and the people will still face water shortages, climate change, and soil erosion. However, the society still has bits of utopia. Of note how we will attain equality? Hierarchy and competition are part of what makes us humans as argued by Hodgson (2015). Will the elite be inclined to discard their privileges which set them apart from others and pursue equality? Moreover, Frase does not consider adequately the adverse undesired consequences of universal basic income. To what end will people spend such an income? Some scholars such as Bohle and Greskovits (2012) argue that universal basic income will yield more ills than benefits as people spend it on drugs and other such pursuits in light of the abundant time
Of the four futures, the fourth, extreminism appear to me the most plausible one. In ways more than one, extreminism is already with us. The crises of scarce resources only serve to depict how the comfort of a few can depend on the deprivation of so many others. The water politics in the Middle East greatly illustrate this point Wright (2019). But more importantly, the modern society has a pretty grave record with a population it has considered superfluous, more so economically. One need not look far. A few decades after the migration of Blacks from Oakland to Bridgeport, black populations were abandoned in the U.S northern industrial cities. The assassinations of targeted persons through drone can only foreshadow a regime that fuse politics and science to eliminate persons deemed to be inconvenient (Lucien, 2015). Additionally, it must not be lost to us that vast amounts of capitalist economic gains have gone into the hands of a tiny portion of the populace. Economic growth has not only been unsuccessful in bettering the lives of others as it has created a more unequal society where all including social standing, political influence and dignity is shared as per one’s wealth, it may have as others argue made majority of people’s lives worse( Schmelzer, 2016). It is such illustrations that make post capitalism a struggle for resources and the dominant class eliminating those that would be of any danger to it.
However, while extreminism may appear as a very plausible future, Frase cautions against despondency. He asserts that the future is neither bright nor hopeless. Between extermination and utopianism is politics – which is the only force capable of making and remaking the future. The role of science in that future is to expand the horizon of possibility, materially and otherwise. But it lacks the ability to determine equality, inclusivity and overall economic organization. That politics alone can, and by its influence the future of capitalism will either be gloomy as depicted by communism or hopeful as illustrated by exterminism.
Frase in his book predicts four possible futures; communism, rentism, socialism and extreminism. Communism will be a society characterised by high productivity and egalitarianism as robots offer material foundation for a world without work, scarcity and climate degradation. Rentism is where the society is characterised by abundance but the means to create abundance are under the control tiny elite. Socialism is where there is no shortcut to egalitarianism, abundance and clean energy and a democratic state will organise benefits equally and fairly. Extreminism on the other hand is where automation of the economy and production will make huge portion of the population superfluous and the elite might see it convenient just carry out extermination of the poor, who have already lost their economic importance. However, there are factors that would argue against Frase’s visions of the future. Presumption of unlimited clean energy limits the plausibility of a communism and rentism. Moreover, Frase fails to expound clearly what would make the elite discard their privileges which set them apart from others and pursue equality in a socialist future. He also does not consider adequately the undesired consequences of universal basic income. Of the four futures, extreminism appear to me the most plausible one. In a sense, extreminism is already with us and as such makes post capitalism a struggle for resources and the dominant class eliminating those that would be of any danger to it. However, while extreminism may appear as a very plausible future, the strength of Frase’s book and vision of the future lies in appreciating that there is no certain predetermined future. What will really determine the future is politics, which is the major force capable of making and remaking the future. It is this that advises my conclusion that there is a wide range of possible futures and the future of capitalism lies between extermination and utopianism, and while science will play a central role in it, the direction which the future will ultimately take will be determined by politics.
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