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Four Futures: Speculative Fiction Explores Alternatives to Capitalism: From Scarcity to Abundance
Four Futures - Book Overview and Thoughts
Before we start with the overview, here are today’s highlights:
Frase identifies automation and environmental degradation as key issues that will shape the future. Automation brings the fear of mass unemployment and wealth concentration, while environmental degradation threatens the availability of resources.
Frase presents four potential future scenarios: communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism.
Communism envisions a society of abundance and equality, where scarcity is no longer a problem and people experience genuine freedom. However, it needs a shift in mindset and reevaluation of work's meaning and social worth.
Rentism describes a society of hierarchy and abundance, where a small elite class owns and controls wealth and resources. Intellectual property rights and the control of information play a significant role in sustaining this power dynamic.
Socialism explores a future of equality and scarcity, where resources are limited but managed through democratic planning and a focus on waste reduction. It needs a fundamental change in mindset, recognizing the interdependence between humanity and the environment.
Exterminism represents a future of hierarchy and scarcity, where resources are limited, and a wealthy elite seeks to eliminate or suppress the impoverished masses to protect their wealth and power. This extreme scenario involves militarized control, suppression of protests, and potentially genocidal actions.
Now, let’s delve deeper into it!
Today, I'd like you to close your eyes for a second and imagine yourself on a busy street. Feel the rhythm of footsteps hammering on the floor as people rush to work, the blaring of car horns, and the humming of voices as they merge into this orchestra of urban life. In the center of this scene, we find ourselves caught in a familiar dance, chasing objectives and pursuing achievement within the constraints of capitalism.
However, underneath all this, there is a communal desire for something better. We see it in the exhausted eyes of people who work tirelessly to make ends meet, in their desire for a greater sense of purpose beyond the pursuit of wealth. We feel it in the disturbing awareness of environmental disaster as our world cries out for air beneath the weight of unlimited materialism.
In previous newsletters, we discussed capitalism, and with Mark Fisher, we discussed topics ranging from critical theory to more Marxist theory with the help of David Harvey. However, we don't need to learn theory or economics to recognize that we could do better: nonetheless, all this theory helps us in translating our thoughts into more concrete ideas and concepts.
That being said, today is not about theory or analytical concepts. Today is all about speculation. With the help of social sciences and speculative fiction, we will delve into Peter's Frase book "Four Futures," and learn about all of the possibilities beyond capitalism, which, as we have previously seen, has intrinsic contradictions that will inevitably lead to its destruction.
Speculative fiction offers a unique and valuable perspective on society, making it an effective tool for social analysis and critique.
Furthermore, by presenting fictional societies, speculative fiction serves as a mirror to our own reality, challenging us to consider social frameworks, power dynamics, and the implications of human actions. Its narratives give an outlet for evaluating many points of view and challenging established norms, developing a deeper knowledge of social issues.
Now, Frase starts the book by describing key points that will be discussed throughout the book and serve as the foundation for all of the speculative possibilities he provides.
The first is automation and the second is environmental degradation. Climate change is the fear of not having enough resources and a habitable environment for human life, while automation is the fear of having too much production without the need for human workers. In other words, he argues that we are facing a dual crisis of scarcity and abundance simultaneously.
Moreover, as we saw in the post about The Madness of Economic Reason, automation, which is driven by labor-saving forces, creates an inherent contradiction in the capitalist system. It has the potential to improve quality of life for all, but it also raises concerns about mass unemployment and the concentration of wealth among the elite, because at the end of the day, who owns the robots, owns the world.
Now, you may be thinking that, as machines take over current jobs, new opportunities will emerge. Some people, though, believe that this time will be different.
When there were economic downturns in the past, the recovery was not particularly strong and many people struggled with low wages and unemployment. Companies were not interested in deploying machines and robots to replace human workers at the time because unemployed and low-wage individuals were available and cheaper to hire. However, when salaries began to rise and it became more difficult to find workers, companies began to turn to new technology and automation. Again, since it costs nothing and increases profits.
On the bright side, though, the topic of automation leads to reducing the number of working hours, which has been a topic of discussion for a long time. However, despite the tremendous increase in productivity in the past years, we still work long hours.
The increase in productivity that leads to a reduction of working hours, can reduce living costs and make societies have more time for other pursuits. There are already many jobs today that don't contribute to the well-being of society but only exist to make money for others, like collecting student loans or engaging in risky financial speculation.
In the end, the lack of jobs is not primarily due to technology, but rather to a shortage of people with enough cash to purchase goods and services. Traditional solutions to these problems involve the government acting in creating demand and jobs. However, these measures simply boost demand, which leads to inflation, and ultimately, as we all know, people are unable to afford the consumption essential for capitalism to function.
Now, as mentioned earlier, automation is only one piece of the narrative; Frase also discusses the climate crisis. Environmental degradation is a major threat to capitalism and human civilization. While there is a scientific consensus on human-caused climate change, others deny its existence for business motives. The question is not whether climate change is happening, but who will endure its consequences as resource wars rise.
Furthermore, a handful of wealthy people may continue to pollute while everyone else suffers, and while not all capitalists believe in climate change, relying just on the free market for solutions is misleading. Green technology, for example, typically favors the wealthy, but global solutions are frequently overlooked.
Now that we know what Frase focuses on in the book, we can discuss his visions, which are divided into four categories: abundance, scarcity, equality, and hierarchy, giving us four possible combinations.
Communism: Equality and Abundance
Let us begin with the most optimistic future vision. However, we must first state that communism, as Karl Marx envisioned it, was a society of abundance in which scarcity was no longer a problem and people experienced genuine freedom.
With this in mind, Frase mentions Player Piano, a novel that shows a civilization in which machines have taken over labor, liberating humans from it. The majority of individuals are economically redundant yet have comfortable lifestyles. What’s more, the author sees this situation as a terror rather than an accomplishment; since, in an automated world, he says, life loses its meaning, leading to apathy and despair.
The meaning of life gets diminished by the idea of paid work that, as claimed by Frase, is rooted in patriarchal views. The novel simply reflects a confusion between socially prestigious work and paid work. It dismisses the significance and potential of labor for reasons other than monetary gain as a source of meaning.
With the idea of meaning without work, Frase argues that in order for communism to succeed, we must overcome this way of thinking. People have to understand that, even if they dislike their occupations, they frequently rely on them for identity and social worth without realizing it. As a result, many people find it difficult to imagine a future beyond work because they see it as one of idleness and decline.
Now, in regards to freedom, Karl Marx distinguished between the realm of necessity and the realm of freedom.
The realm of necessity refers to the fundamental requirement of meeting our needs and sustaining life through physical labor. According to him, this realm exists in all social formations and modes of production, including socialism. What sets socialism apart from capitalism is that in socialism, production is planned in a rational and democratic manner, rather than being subject to the irrationality of the free market.
This social progress, in which all needs are rationalized socially, is merely a precondition for Marx's realm of freedom. That is, the growth of human energy, which he considers as a natural and valuable component of mankind, and which only develops once basic necessities have been met.
In other words, people can't experience actual freedom while working for a living. Until we free ourselves from the realm of necessity, doing what we love will no longer be an excuse for being exploited, but will become a state of existence. In fact, Marx's point is that he imagined a day when we would be able to remove ourselves from the sphere of necessity and experience true freedom.
This is significant because it completely changes the meaning of work beyond social status, identity, and monetary gain, and it is the first step towards real transformation.
This indicates that in order for communism to flourish, we would need to go through a fundamental political shift, as it is foolish to expect that the wealthy will voluntarily abandon power. This implies that, in order for a transformation to occur over time, we must first develop ways for individuals to exist independently of wage labor. And then the rest, as claimed by Frase, will eventually follow by circumstances that force institutions to change how things are made.
For instance, we all have seen how technology pushes politics to change the way things work, like, for example, how artificial intelligence came to change intellectual property rights.
All this brings us to the decommodification of work as the first step towards this stage, since it creates a situation in which you can procure your basic needs without having to take a job and without having to satisfy any bureaucratic condition, to the extent that you get these things simply as a right for being a citizen rather than in return for doing something your labor has been commodified.
A proposal of this type is the universal basic income, which proposes giving everyone a certain amount of money regardless of whether or not they work. There has been a lot of debate about this, but Frase brings out one essential point:
“The basic income, rather than forcing individuals to abandon paid labor, will distort the productivity that drives capitalism. In other words, having access to universal needs raises the wage rate of unattractive and unrewarding jobs, which is usually the opposite of what occurs within capitalism.
People will embrace fulfilling professions even if they are paid less than the expected salary, and this will, in turn, stimulate innovation even more than before.”
Furthermore, because businesses will realize that labor is no longer cheap, unwanted work will need to be automated. And, on the other hand, desirable labor will eventually turn to zero, since everyone would be eager to do it for free because their basic needs are being met. In the long run, individuals will rely less on money for income since the things they want and need will no longer require money to be acquired.
But money and work are just one part of the equation, the most interesting question about a communist society comes when considering status competitions after removing the organizing force of the capital relation.
Frase exemplifies this idea with a novel called “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom,” which takes place in a post-scarcity world where society operates without an overarching hierarchy.
However, immaterial goods like reputation and esteem among peers remain inherently scarce. The book explores the accumulation of "Whuffie," which is a virtual brownie that represents the goodwill you accumulated by others; or in other words, the reputation.
This reputation in the form of “Whuffle” captures the true essence of money, where being respected is needed even without monetary ways of measuring it. Which means that conflicts may still emerge.
Ultimately, the communist vision is not perfect. However, it is a society in which there is no struggle to procure resources and not everything comes down to money, giving people the possibility to experience genuine freedom.
Rentism: Hierarchy and Abundance
The first possible future envisioned an egalitarian society with abundance, but what would happen if the capitalist profit-making mindset didn’t cease to exist?
What would happen is that those in positions of power and wealth will continue to have a motive to maintain a system in which others serve them, even if it is technically redundant.
This type of society has an abundance of wealth and resources, but a small elite class owns and controls them all. This higher class holds power not only by owning and controlling the means of production, but also by owning and regulating access to services, goods, and intellectual property.
In other words, the wealthy will increasingly need to control information in order to keep control over the economy.
Now, it is crucial to note that Peter Frase wrote this book in 2016, therefore if what follows seems familiar to some of you, we may conclude that reality surpasses fiction.
To begin, we are all familiar with the term "rent," which traditionally refers to payments made to property owners. However, in a modern economy, rent can be created from anything, allowing owners to benefit passively from ownership without actively generating or producing anything. This has long been a source of concern for proponents of capitalism.
Furthermore, intellectual property rights play an important role in sustaining this power dynamic. Intellectual property ownership extends beyond the usual concept of property, allowing rights holders to regulate how others employ copies of their ideas.
Now, a society that places a high value on intellectual property, needs new rules that restrict people from freely replicating products, and it would be necessary to enforce licensing fees and copyright laws to maintain profits.
This means that, according to Frase, certain jobs would still remain, such as innovative products for replication, marketing, regulation, and protecting intellectual property rights. However, maintaining full employment in a rentist economy can become difficult, since they are all vulnerable to automation and labor-saving technologies.
The innovation will not only result in people being unemployed, but it will also expand the list of goods that can be copied over time. On the other hand, the money people have to spend will not grow quickly enough to sustain the production; making advertising a vital role in maintaining the system's fabricated scarcity.
As with everything under capitalism, some solutions to this problem may arise, such as wealth redistribution through taxation or a guaranteed income, but these may face opposition from the wealthy. Because, as we all know, no one likes it when things are taken away from them, such as exorbitant fees or high taxes.
All this makes rentism intrinsically fragile and transitory, since the nature of it will eventually cause people to question the state of affairs.
Will ideology win? or are people going to start asking why the wealth of knowledge and culture is being restricted when other worlds are possible beyond the regime of artificial scarcity.
Socialism: Equality and Scarcity
We have already seen two potential futures based on abundance. However, we must consider the potential of scarcity; a world in which resources are limited.
For this, Frase mentions a novel called "Pacific Edge," that offers a utopian vision of a postcapitalist and ecological society. The story takes place in Los Angeles and follows people's efforts to transform the urban landscape into something greener and cleaner.
It is a future where people work together to rebuild their relationship with nature as an egalitarian society.
In this situation, the society has transcended capitalism, at least in mindset, and has become a more socialist and ecologically sensitive system. It is a world defined by both abundance and scarcity, in which production is liberated alongside increased planning and management of the inputs of production. The need to control labor cease to exist, but the need to manage scarcity becomes very important. Making a certain kind of authority critical to sustain the system.
Moreover, the most important aspect of this society is that it focuses on recognizing and managing the waste produced by human civilization, rather than trying to separate it from nature. It focuses more on managing consumption rather than production; having as an assumption that production can be automated, and the challenge lies in managing the resources that support it.
Now, the challenging part of this system is values. People’s values become essential to the shaping of a society that changes their relationship with nature. It needs a complete awareness of the scarcity that capitalism creates, and the issues that can arise economically and environmentally when resources such as oil reserves get exhausted.
In other words, it needs a complete turn around, where technology and innovation are used to preserve the environment, rather than to consume it.
Frase mentions an example of this, where he invites us to stop seeing ecology as the science to preserve unchanging nature, at least not while also trying to keep human societies. He argues that socialism needs a completely different mindset where we no longer see ourselves as a plague on nature, but as an extension of it. Using our innovations to manage better and care for our environment.
An example of this is the “RoboBees,” that are being developed at Harvard. These robotic insects mimic real ones, and help to the reproduction of plants all over the world. It fills human created holes and regenerates our ecosystems.
Now, going back to the mindset, we all know how often these things are commented on in the media, from right-wing politicians denying the existence of climate change since it contradicts their interests; to left-wing politicians who only tend to resign to a negative reality. The issue is that we should focus on taking action and constructing a better world, but again values and interests get in the way.
Another problem that arises from this type of society is the failure of similar systems in the past.
It is important to note that systems that get imposed without a significant change in mindset and a lack of sufficient power to execute planning can lead to a disaster where people resist the system that is just trying to make things better in the first place. We can learn about the seven moments that David Harvey talks about in his book “Capital, Marx and the Madness of Economic Reason.”
Now, as said earlier, in a world of scarce resources, coordination is essential to prevent unsustainable use of the Earth's resources. Democratic planning is needed to achieve this. Which brings us to the importance of distinguishing between democratic planning and a complete non-market economy. A socialist economy could employ rational planning while still incorporating market exchange, money, and prices. Prices would serve as mechanisms to turn planned production targets into economic realities.
Moreover, Frase mentions a situation in which everyone receives a wage as a human right, rather than in exchange for labor. This wage grants individuals to only a limited quantity of resources.
Additionally, although market trades could continue to exist, they would be entirely voluntary. People would have the option to engage in the exchange of different consumption permits based on their preferences, but such trades would be motivated by personal choices rather than the desperate need to survive.
Finally, the biggest difficulty with this system is that it does not entirely eliminate an authority, as communism does. It strictly needs to have stable consumption levels, which may lead to conflicts over resources. Despite this, this form of society will have progressed beyond capitalism into a more real democratic system.
Exterminism: Hierarchy and Scarcity
“The future is already here; it's just unevenly distributed." - William Gibson, science fiction writer.
Finally, we need to discuss a world where the capitalist ideology doesn’t cease to exist, and where resources are scarce, making communism a reality, but only for a few.
One movie that reflects this reality is “Elysium,”where a privileged elite has relocated to a space station. In this space station, the small elite enjoys eternal comfort and leisure, made possible by advanced medical technology. Meanwhile, the rest of humanity resides in an overcrowded and polluted world, governed by robotic police forces.
Furthermore, the film reveals the political economy of this space station. The wealthy inhabitants of it do not appear to be economically dependent on Earth. While there is a factory on Earth managed by an elite, it appears to produce weapons and robots primarily for population control. People on Earth are seen as residents of a concentration camp rather than the workers they once were.
Now, going back to reality, the wealthiest individuals, often referred to as the "one percent," already live in a world that resembles Elysium in some ways. Their daily lives are least affected by financial concerns, and they can afford anything they want because their wealth far exceeds the cost of basic needs.
The goal, though, is that one day we will be able to accomplish something similar for everyone. However, if resources and energy become scarce, it will be hard for everyone to enjoy that standard way of living.
Furthermore, the danger posed by production automation in a hierarchical and resource-constrained environment is that it is economically redundant in the eyes of the rich elite. This renders capitalism as we know it obsolete, because in a capitalist system, workers and capitalists rely on and need one another in order to maintain the system through the commodification of labor and consumption.
In addition to this, the existence of a poor and unnecessary population poses a threat to the ruling class, as they fear expropriation. As a result, different courses of action may be taken, such as limited resource redistribution through social welfare programs. However, this solution may reintroduce scarcity for the rich and potentially lead to increasing demands from the masses, once again raising the possibility of expropriation.
This fear of expropriation combined with the financial capabilities of the rich elite will inevitably lead to them looking for ways to isolate themselves from the rest of society. These people with wealth can restrict the movements of people, products and services by creating enclosed zones, which can be either gated areas, private islands, ghettos, jails or anything with a strict barrier and high control.
On that note, even if these claims seem exaggerated, we all know how wealthy people can buy islands and do anything to protect themselves from as much as possible. Vivos, a company that builds radiation-proof luxury bunkers, is one example of this. These bunkers serve as an underground escape in the event of an apocalypse. The desire for these isolated spaces reflects the fear of the rich being targeted by the masses.
Now, however, this type of isolation is also an unstable situation because the masses pose a constant threat. The possibility of them breaking the barriers and restrictions exists as long as they exist. In the absence of a necessity for mass labor, the rich may fight a genocidal war against the people who don't have.
This extreme possibility is known as "exterminism," and it might seem unattainable, yet historical atrocities and current political trends show that such degrees of brutality are not impossible.
All of this brutality defines "exterminism," a society in which the ruling class strives to eliminate the impoverished masses. Again, Frase admits it sounds impossible. However, history demonstrates that anytime there is power, there is an innate need and desire to protect the wealth that power holds.
Militarized police enforcement threatens not only minor-crime victims, but also political mobilization and protests. Protests are violently suppressed all around the world, not only in authoritarian states. The use of fatal force against protestors has become common, and it can be used without hesitation in cases of fear or expropriation.
Finally, these four scenarios are speculations based on probable outcomes, but in the end, it all boils down to a shift in perception and conflicts with the rich elite who are resistant to change.
However, even if perceptions and conflicts are on the way to significant change, we all know that climate change and automation will continue to evolve until they reach a tipping point that demands a paradigm shift in how societies operate and share wealth and resources.
Some of the outcomes we saw are extremely beneficial while others are not. For example, the path to a world of abundance and equality is filled with challenges. Because, if mindsets do not change, violent confiscation of wealth from those in power may become necessary. This, however, assumes that we will continue to have abundance, which seems unlikely if things continue as they are.
Another crucial point to note is that we do not have to select between these four possible futures. They all represent a specific point in time. Exterminism can evolve into socialism, while rentism can evolve into communism.
Furthermore, some futures are more difficult to sustain than others and may be reversed. For example, socialism is under strain because increased shared material raises the desire for some groups to establish themselves as the favored elite and change the system into an exterminist one.
Similarly, communism is always vulnerable to counterrevolution if people are able to reestablish artificial scarcity and create a new rentist elite, as in rentism.
I truly enjoyed reading this book because it combines my interests in science fiction, sociology, politics, and even philosophy. It is a fantastic attempt that lets us think about alternatives and is well supported by actual analysis.
I truly think that our societies are ultimately products of our imagination and creativity, and that the force of speculative fiction can inspire us to build on possibilities in order to find the best solutions to our current challenges.
However, we are all aware of the strength of ideology and how it prevents us from achieving meaningful change. Time will tell which of the outcomes happens first, but for the time being, all we can do is be aware of our beliefs and the reasons we hold them, while also learning as much as we can and broadening our worldviews to envision new possibilities.
Frase, P. (2016). Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Verso.
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