News | Alternatives to Society “We Can Be Certain That Capitalism Will End”

Peter Frase, author of Four Futures, in conversation about where human civilization is headed.

Peter Frase
Peter Frase Foto: Joshua Brown

 Peter, your 2011 Jacobin article “Four Futures”, which you later expanded into a book, is now appearing in German in the new edited collection, Jacobin: Die Anthologie. Can you start out by explaining your core argument?

“Four Futures” is an attempt to think about possible trajectories into a post-capitalist society, using the tools of both social theory and speculative fiction. I describe four simplified future social structures, along the lines of what the sociologist Max Weber called “ideal types”. Each future arises from the interaction between two parameters. The first stipulates whether the society has mostly overcome scarcity and resolved the ecological crisis, or whether it is sharply constrained by ecological limits. The second defines whether society is very hierarchically stratified by class, as it is today, or whether it has approached the condition of material equality long envisioned by socialists and communists. From these parameters flow the four futures: Socialism (scarcity-equality), Communism (abundance-equality), Rentism (abundance-hierarchy), and Exterminism (scarcity-hierarchy). I go on to describe these societies, including illustrative examples from works of speculative fiction that take place in worlds that resemble the future under discussion.

You write, almost menacingly, that “one thing we can be certain of is that capitalism will end”. Yet you don’t assume that this “end” will translate into socialism. Where do you see our societies heading? How do you evaluate the last two years since your book came out?

It could be interpreted as menacing, I suppose, but it was really meant as a truism, in that nothing lasts forever. Capitalism has only existed since about the 17th century, or the 19th if we’re talking about proper industrial capitalism. No other system has lasted forever, and capitalism is faster paced, more volatile, and more ecologically rapacious than anything that preceded it. So the end is likely to be sooner than later. But my argument is, indeed, that what comes next isn’t necessarily socialism, and isn’t necessarily an improvement on what we have now. It’s a version of the famous slogan of Rosa Luxemburg, that we face a choice between “socialism or barbarism.”

I always intended my four “futures” to be distillations and exaggerations of possibilities and tendencies that already exist, and I still think they work that way. The movement toward eco-socialism and communism—in the United States at least—seems much more plausible politically than it did even a few years ago. But also, the barbarisms I describe as Rentism (in which intellectual property rights are used to restrict access to material abundance) and Exterminism (in which the rich use technology to protect themselves from climate change and from a mass of suffering, superfluous former workers) have each become more real in the last few years. But it is climate change, and the associated attempts of the rich to insulate themselves from its effects, that has really moved more rapidly than I anticipated.

If automation offers the possibility either of mass unemployment or radically expanded free time, who ultimately makes that decision? Could we radically reduce working hours under capitalism without leading to a bloated reserve army of labour and plunging labour unit costs?

Political struggles ultimately make the decision. It was the struggles of socialists and trade unionists that led to things like the 8 hour day and the right to paid leave. Today, with wage growth having lagged behind economic growth for decades, the argument for decreasing work hours without a corresponding cut in pay is stronger than ever. Shorter hours, perhaps in concert with a Universal Basic Income, would allow automation to lead to shared abundance rather than immiseration. But we can’t expect the market to deliver this outcome automatically, it will require action from trade unions, social movements, and state policy.

Winning these kinds of demands is definitely possible under capitalism. Whether a capitalism with a strong welfare state and empowered workers’ movement is stable in the long run is a more complicated question. My read of the crisis of the social democratic welfare states after the 1970s is that it isn’t. At some point, capital finds the constraint on its profitability and prerogatives intolerable, and so a crisis arises that either leads to neoliberal retrenchment or to a break with capitalism. So our movements have to be prepared for that eventuality, but recognize that it is some ways off from where we are now.

A major theme of your work is the looming ecological disaster and finding some kind of path around or out of it. One possibility you discuss is that of geo-engineering, i.e. human-driven, technological interventions into the natural world in order to reverse or at least stave off some of the worst impacts of global warming. This has proven controversial. In the German context in particular, some Jacobin authors’ support for nuclear power as a transitional energy source would be considered downright explosive. How do you feel about nuclear energy and geo-engineering more generally? Are they, perhaps, a necessary evil?

Nuclear, specifically, is not something I worry about particularly. The political obstacles to it are enormous. Even France, historically very nuclear-friendly, isn’t moving any farther in that direction. Besides, supposing the political opposition could be overcome, and the issue of waste disposal dealt with, the time scale necessary to get sufficient amounts of nuclear power online is simply too long given the immediate crisis we face.

Geoengineering more generally, however, is something I think we have to talk seriously about. I agree with the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson (whose work is discussed in the “socialism” section of “Four Futures”), who recently argued that the left should take seriously the need for some kind of democratic, internationally agreed-upon project of geoengineering.

That’s not to say this is a replacement for efforts to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and move to clean energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. And there’s certainly a danger in exploring intentional climate manipulation—both because some people will use it to deflect attention from the need to de-carbonize the energy system, and because of the potential for enormous unintended consequences. But it’s increasingly clear that at current atmospheric carbon levels, and projected near-future emissions, severe or even catastrophic levels of warming are unavoidable without some kind of geoengineering in the mix.

The capitalist class and capitalist states are already beginning to seriously examine geoengineering, and left to their own devices they’re likely to implement it in a way that disproportionately advantages rich people and countries, and disadvantages those that are poor and marginal. So it’s imperative that the left have a response that isn’t just to categorically rule out any attempts to either remove carbon from the atmosphere, or reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the planet, or other strategies to directly counteract global warming.

Within the ruling class, the group most vocal about saving the environment and creating new employment opportunities are arguably the scions of Silicon Valley, who portray themselves not as traditional capitalists reaping profits from the exploitation of others’ labour, but rather as noble visionaries and dreamers, who only coincidentally find themselves in the private sector. To what extent, if at all, do you think Silicon Valley capitalism will really be able to address humanity’s major challenges? Or is it basically a con?

It’s hard to point to any really impressive innovations or large scale projects coming out of Silicon Valley. Sure, electric cars are nice, and there’s some progress here and there on things like battery technology. But you also get ridiculous things like the Tesla “hyperloop”, which proposes to spend a lot of money to accomplish much less than just properly investing in our public transportation infrastructure. And beyond that, a lot of what we see from “green” companies are ways to make people feel like they’re doing something ecologically responsible, whether or not there’s any serious impact. To take one example I saw recently, there are startups that purport to reduce food waste by selling “ugly” produce that other retailers reject. But it turns out that they’re redirecting food that otherwise would be donated to food banks, and in the process they undermine local Community Supported Agriculture programs by undercutting their prices. It’s a classic example of selling the feeling of green consumerism without any substance behind it.

Government-funded research still dwarfs anything the private sector can manage, and that’s where the action is going to remain, even if private enterprises have a role to play. For example, Germany’s renewable energy policy, and Chinese state support for their solar industry to meet German demand, did more to move us concretely toward a green future than anything coming from Silicon Valley. Of course, there are problems associated with the Chinese competition and its effect on domestic producers in Germany, but the point is that it’s still governments, not private capitalists, who have shown the will and the capacity to really move the needle on saving the planet.

What about individual freedom? Given the scale of challenges we face, one could understand a certain de-emphasizing or downplaying of the importance of individual rights in order to deal with immediate social and ecological problems. But do you think freedom is an important factor in evaluating the desirability of potential social outcomes? Can there be collective emancipation without individual liberty?

I think it depends on what you mean by individual freedom. The prevailing ideology in capitalist societies is one that defines freedom in a very particular individualized way, and also one that simply ignores certain pervasive forms of unfreedom. As the political scientist Corey Robin likes to point out, a huge proportion of the population spends much of its waking time in an environment where they have few individual freedoms: the workplace. So unless you define freedom as being “free” to take whatever job you can get in order to survive, there’s no contradiction at all between increasing freedom and expanding social rights.

And when it comes to the environment, some people might see, for example, a high tax on gasoline as an impingement on their individual right to drive a big, gas-guzzling car. But if those revenues are being invested in public transportation, then the freedom of mobility is being increased in a different way. So while I certainly think rights like freedom of expression and assembly are necessary for any emancipated future, I think the larger question is more one of social priorities and ways of organizing our lives, so as to create an environmentally sustainable version of what the Paris Communards, in a phrase revived by Kristin Ross’s recent book on the Commune, called “communal luxury.”

Nick Srnicek, author of Inventing the Future and Platform Capitalism, will be speaking at our foundation’s upcoming “ÜberMorgen” conference, which focuses on alternatives to capitalism in the medium term. What do you think of the school of thought known as “accelerationism” with which he is identified? Does it overlap with your own ideas?

I sometimes joke that it’s great people like Nick exist, so that I can position myself as a kind of “soft accelerationist” as against their harder version. I share the accelerationist preference for automating necessary labour in order to increase everyone’s autonomy and free time. However, at times the accelerationist argument tends in the direction of accepting capitalism’s intensification independent of popular control—although this is less a problem in Srnicek than some others, and certainly he isn’t comparable to the inhuman extreme of right-wing accelerationism you find in somebody like Nick Land.

But I find that slogans like “demand full automation” somewhat put the emphasis in the wrong place, as if we’re calling upon capitalists to be better capitalists. I prefer to argue that by fighting for higher wages and stronger workers’ organizations, we create the incentive for labour-saving technologies to be invented and implemented, which may not happen when employers have access to a large pool of cheap, docile human labour. What I share with the accelerationist perspective, however, is an insistence that the replacement of human labour by machines isn’t something the left should simply oppose, but that instead we should struggle to make sure that the benefits of automation are broadly distributed, and that technology in the workplace is truly for the purpose of reducing work rather than simply controlling it more tightly.

Given the dire state of the world, what do you think is the best that people alive today can hope to realize politically? Slogans like “fully automated luxury communism” might make for punchy magazine articles, but aren’t much of a roadmap for the next 20-30 years. What does your socio-political roadmap look like? 

A lot of it looks like building up an updated version of the socialist and social democratic organizations that built the 20th-century welfare state. It’s interesting that at the moment, the biggest upsurge seems to be in the historical laggard countries, like the UK and US, while in the rest of Europe the old social democratic parties are falling apart and the left alternatives like Die Linke haven’t been able to supplant them or stop the rise of the far right. In the UK you have Jeremy Corbyn and the movement around him taking over the Labour Party. Of course in the US you have Trump and things are dire in that sense. But you also had the surprise of the Bernie Sanders campaign, and more recently we saw Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeating one of the most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives under the banner of democratic socialism. Left policies are broadly popular--universal health care, under the label “Medicare for All”, has surged in popularity in just a few years.

For my part, I’m active in my local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, and our day-to-day work involves things like canvassing for universal health care or for the local left-wing candidates we support. But it also involves things like reading about and discussing the municipal housing projects of Red Vienna, or even the Paris Commune, so that we can keep our eyes on the long term vision.

On that same note, do you think the left has a responsibility to provide guiding images of the future – utopian visions for what tomorrow could look like? Or should we just focus on staving off the coming global disaster, and worry about the rest later on? What are the immediate steps socialists and socialist organizations need to take?

We don’t need, and can’t really create, what Marx derisively referred to as “recipes for the kitchens of the future.” That is, there’s no way to write an exact, detailed blueprint for the future society in advance, because a new society has to be democratically and collectively created by the movement itself.

But I don’t think you can build a really ambitious mass movement that aims to radically transform society—and that is what we need—if you only focus on staving off disaster. At their peaks, the socialist and communist movements offered workers not just a response to poverty and exploitation, but some kind of vision of what an emancipated society and an economy run by workers might look like. And that’s all the more important when much of the day to day work of socialist politics doesn’t seem especially utopian or radical. In the United States, where I am, day-to-day work focuses on things like guaranteed access to free health care and education, and getting liberal politicians to stop taking money from fossil fuel interests. To keep people energized and committed, you have to situate those reforms in a larger vision that points to the decommodification of labour and a fully decarbonized economy. That’s how you keep people from burning out or giving up. I see my work as a contribution to that, along with the theorists and the artists who’ve inspired me.

Peter Frase is a member of the editorial board at Jacobin Magazine and the author of Four Futures (Verso, 2016). He is the vice chair of the Hudson Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.

The interview was conducted by Loren Balhorn for the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung.