Peter Frase is the author of “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism” and contributes to the American leftist magazine “Jacobin”. We caught up with him at the Border Sessions festival in late June.
The Hague, special report
In Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, published in October 2016, American scholar Peter Frase argues that the development of automation and robotization, associated with decreasing resources in the context of climate change, will change everything. Imagining this post-capitalist world, he uses the tools of speculative fiction to explore along two themes, scarcity of resources and hierarchy of power, the four scenarios of a more or less pessimistic future.
The first scenario, optimistic, titled “socialism”, takes into account the scarcity of resources and the imperative of climate change to plan the ecological conversion of markets and the introduction of a universal basic income.
The second scenario imagines a society that has found its own unlimited energy source, leading to a “communism” of general automation, a post-labor, post-scarcity, post-carbon society.
The third scenario, “rentism”, imagines a social-liberal model of a society based on rents. Energy is abundant, but the techniques used to produce it are “monopolized by the elites”. Outside a possessive oligarchy, the vast majority of the population pays rents (apartment, car, Internet provider, telephone, etc). Automation creates unemployment, and universal basic income alone is not the solution.
The last scenario, “exterminism”, is the most disturbing. The rich barricade themselves inside a society where robots do everything for them, while the poor are stuck behind a wall, in prisons or refugee camps, if not simply left for dead in an increasingly unlivable climate. The elites deny climate change, going as far as to consider that there is a surplus population of humanity that must be eliminated.
Peter Frase touched upon his fascinating scenarios during the closing session of Border Sessions in The Hague in June. Makery met with this representative of the American Left.
Do you identify with “left-accelerationism” and its desire for fully automated communism?
I’m critical of parts of it. A lot of people probably call me sort of a soft accelerationist, in the sense that I do work at the possibilities of technical change and automation and things like that, as possible grounds for an emancipated society. But a lot of the accelerationist discourse tends to evacuate politics and evacuate class struggle in a way that is inadequate. It makes capitalism this sort of self-driving machine that just drives us forward to greater and greater technical levels, and then if we can just demand a basic income or something, then we will get the fully automated communist future.
And I tend to emphasize the importance of having organized labor politics that push technological developments forward in terms of increased productivity, but also push in certain directions so they do not become implicated in controling and dehumanizing ways.
Protest for “fully automated luxury communism” (UK, 2014):
"Fully automated luxury communism" – now there's a demand pic.twitter.com/e4XUUCbUro
— Andy Fugard (@inductivestep) November 19, 2014
During the French presidential election in May 2017, the socialist candidate won the Left primaries by proposing a Universal Basic Income to counter robotization and automation in the workplace. In your book, you refer to this future scenario as the “socialist” future. Is it the same socialism?
I use “socialism” in the more general, older, 19th century, sense of the term. The book is trying to look at these automation issues and at the class politics of that and also brings in the question of climate and ecology crisis. And so, when I’m using the term “socialism” as opposed to “communism”, another one of my concepts, I’m talking about the idea of the role of the state in a post-capitalist society. And I’m thinking of it not so much in terms of the way socialism has been talked about in the 20th century, because there you have a lot of conversation about managing labor, the state owning the factories and deciding what is produced, which I’m hoping we can technologically surpass to some degree. There is a need for that. But there’s still this question of how we both transform our energy systems and mitigate the effects of climate change, which is already occurring, which requires some kind of centrally organized and hopefully democratic accountable system. That’s what I’m trying to imagine, an eco-socialism for the 21st century.
In France, the irony was that the Socialist Party, which had gone from a social-democrat position to center right, was taken over by the left during the primaries, on the promises of a basic income and ecological conversion. But because of these internal contradictions, the Socialist Party lost its leadership position to the radical Left.
Yes, this is obviously not only in France, we see this through all of Europe, the old social-democratic parties trying to move to the right, especially after Blairism, and those who follow that path are collapsing.
What do you think of some people’s more positive vision of the Anthropocene (the era of humankind’s irreversible impact on the environment), relying on technological solutionism and defending nuclear energy?
I don’t address the nuclear question in the book, but I’m not pro-nuclear. Some concepts of the “good Anthropocene” won’t play a part in how we think about this, because there is this debate on the left between people using the Anthropocene concept saying it should the “Capitalocene”, because this is all the consequences of capitalism as a mode of production and not just humans in general, which is true. But I do like the Anthropocene as a concept, because it points out that even if it was largely capitalism that created this kind of human-manipulated world that we live in, it will persist in any conceivable future social system.
So we have to keep thinking not solely in terms of just reducing our carbon footprint to protect nature and withdrawing from fossil energies, it’s beyond that. It’s desingenuous to think of it that way, it can actually lead to people becoming demotivated and depressed, because when you understand the true scale of the crisis, if you don’t have any sense that there might be some ways we can actively address the natural world, then it’s easy to give up and despair and think that we’re totally fucked.
Speaking of despair, what do you think of philosophers such as Isabelle Stengers, who suggest we learn to live among the ruins, slow down in a kind of decelerationism? Is this the kind of “folklore” that left-accelerationism wants to get past?
Yes, exactly! What does that concretely mean for the people living on the planet? What is the model that is less catastrophic for people than some attempt to manage the “good Anthropocene”? I see these things not in solutionist terms. I do think it’s important to say that it has to be part of a political program, a political vision, it’s not individual entrepreneurs who are going to come up with magical solutions. Rather, this is the ecological dimension of a larger socialist program that involves changing who actually exercises political power.
Who pays the costs and who reaps the benefits of both economic change and ecological change? Rather than this idea, there are a bunch of clever scientists out there who are going to come up with some good ideas that are going to solve our problems. So we don’t need to worry about the effects on the climate right now.
What do you think of MacKenzie Wark’s idea in his book “Molecular Red” to revive Bolchevik leader Alexander Bogdanov’s “tectology”, a kind of cybernetic management and scientific planning?
There was also Salvador Allende’s Cybersyn experiment in Chile that worked in that direction. Rethinking some of that in light of the techniques and technologies we have now is useful, and I’m glad that some people have been doing this kind of work, even if you have to go back to Bogdanov. But here we’ve only talked about, let’s say, the hopeful positive left-wing vision of the future, but there is the flip side of this, which is: How will the techological changes and the ecological crisis play out in the context of a class society? And that’s where I’m trying to break down this idea that there are some kind of techno-fixes to things that are separate from politics and the distribution of wealth, thinking through the potentials of everything, from 3D printing to the Internet, can be undercut by intellectual property.
So each of the four scenarios of the book cashes out what is the best-case scenario, what these technologies could do in a sort of egalitarian society where we all have access to them, versus what would they look like in the same property form and the same wealth and power we are familiar with now, and the same thing with the ecological question. People, like dystopians, or most dystopian stories, express the idea that you can replace most labor, but you still have these material limits imposed by the Earth. We already see that the rich want to hide away and protect themselves from the masses, which are no longer required. And then they use some kind of robocops like in Neil Blomkamp’s Elysium, where the rich live in a space station and the Earth is a vast slum guarded by robots. The whole idea of the book is to use speculative fiction to illustrate all these things. I start off each chapter with a different story, and I use Elysium for one chapter.
“Elysium”, dir. Neil Blomkamp, trailer (2013):
There is also George Romero’s movie “Land of the Dead”, where rich and powerful White people live in a luxury high-rise, while the rest of the population, mostly Mexicans, subsists in squalor around the tower, but are protected from the zombies behind electric fences…
In some ways, you could see the zombies from the perspective of the rich, who express their fear of this obsolete mass of workers. Since we have so much zombie stuff these days, the horror metaphor is no longer the vampire metaphor of the capitalist sucking the blood from the worker, but that capitalism is in a zombie state essentially, politically, economically and ecologically. The zombie as seen from the perspective of the rich is surplus labor turned out of work by technological changes and by political decisions, the horror of zombies they need to be protected from. That’s the direction where we’re going.
The Dutch-American sociologist Saskia Sassen argues that “smart cities” will not be smart at all and will need a lot of social and legal jobs to manage all the problems they will create. What do you think?
I’m not an expert on the “smart city”, but it depends on what regime it will be implemented under. As long as the existing neo-liberal model of development persists, it becomes another way to produce gentrification and to increase segregation and exclusion. What is the meaning of looking just at the technical solutions rather than looking at the fundamental social question and end we’re attempting to achieve? For whom are we actually bringing this? This also comes up in the “good Anthropocene” ecological thing we talked about, where the danger is that you come up with something clever that is helpful for Europe and North America, and you don’t care what it does to the climate of Bangladesh or Central Africa.
So, on one side there are the robots of the “smart factories” and on the other are the Amazon “turkers” and click-farms in Bangladesh…
Exactly. When we are talking about automation and jobs, people are worried that workers are going to be replaced by robots, and of course, if you lose your job because of automation that’s a problem for you. But the other aspect is that when workers are very cheap and very weak like in parts of the Global South, they can be treated like machines, dehumanized and worked to death.
But you also see that in the rich countries. In Amazon warehouses, it’s horrific work. So we need to separate this question of people needing to be able to earn a living, to have what they need, from this idea of protecting jobs. Because if the workers were able to have higher pay, work in better conditions, work fewer hours, then the factory owners would be further inclined to replace them by robots. That’s the constant dialectic here.
I want to strengthen workers, I want them to be able to demand better jobs for themselves. We have to be ready when the Right will say that if you reclaim those social rights, your jobs will be replaced by robots. That’s why we need broader systems of distribution to help those people who will be displaced.
What do you think of the differences in discourse between the ecological conversion of the Left and the new liberal economy of the Green-techies, where both sides are saying that they will create jobs?
Well, in United States we’re going backwards right now. The liberal Left talks about the Green New Deal, massive infrastructure investment that puts people to work and fixes our energy grid and our transportation system, which all need to be financed as part of the process of conversion. But there is still this neo-liberal Right idea that encourages entrepreneurialism, tax credits for solar power, this kind of stuff. Part of the Right thinks climate change is not real. Here, it’s a different situation.
But there is a fundamental divide between the social democratic project of government investment in infrastructure and putting people to work, versus the neo-liberal model of decentralizing and incentivizing markets and private actors. This is not how projects of this scale have ever been accomplished, so I see no reason why it would be more realistic now. It mainly provides a way of continuing to avoid dealing with the fact that, in any real solution, the ecological crisis requires major changes in the distribution of wealth and power—in my country, in this country, and around the world. So it’s easy for the elites to come up with all kinds of stories, so they don’t have to face that.