Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Tech Fantasy

“Four Futures – Life After Capitalism” by Peter Frase, 2016

Sometimes you have to laugh.  This book is a ‘think piece’ about the future under 4 scenarios – communism (1.) or an environmental version of socialism (3.), and authoritarian capitalism (2.) or a descent into exterminatory barbarism (4.).  Marx called detailed plans about the future ‘cook-shops’ that he didn’t indulge in.  But given the future seems to be here, Frase has decided to ‘cook’ a brew that he calls ‘social science fiction.’

A Glass Darkly
The author seems to have been greatly influenced by Star Trek, dystopian movies, the Jetsons, recent science fiction, his pet robot and his internet phone.  The book contains appropriate slams at steampunk and Kurt Vonnegut's book Player Piano.  His idea of nature approximates a terra-formed Central Park.  His idea of food production seems to be a hamburger maker in a vending machine, or to make it more New York, an automat.  He thinks the key commodity is intellectual property.  His idea of the ‘realm of freedom’ that Marx talked about in the Gotha Program means that no one does any necessary work and has all the ‘stuff’ they could want. Like the 1% now!  Frase is a Ph.D. student studying in New York, so it kind of figures.  This is probably part of his thesis. 

This book is published by Verso Press & Jacobin.  The latter specializes in academic discussions of left politics and tries to be vague or on both sides of key issues.  Frase himself wobbles between Keynes, Marx and others.  I”ll try to plow through some of this, as there are tidbits of ideas here that are of interest.

Frase brings up the ‘universal basic income’ (UBI) as panacea in his #1, #2 and #3 scenarios, communism, rentism and eco-socialism.  He calls it a kind of transition belt that could turn capitalism into communism, a ‘transitional demand’ if you will, because it disconnects the proletariat from wage labor. Much as he identifies the welfare state itself as decomodifying labor.  He identifies the 4th International’s Transitional Program as ‘short term reformist’  - though it too is supposed to be a transitional process.  The problem with UBI is that Silicon Valley billionaires are also on board with UBI.  Why?  Because their scenario #4, exterminism includes warehousing the useless proletariat due to the fact there are no jobs, as robots, AI and computers do more work.  Guess how long it would take for people without jobs to be demonized by those who still have them? 

This technological fantasy with automation seems to be Frase’s continuing obsession.  He thinks full automation is actually possible and will leave humans with nothing left to do but non-alienated labor, though he doesn’t even call it that.  In full communism, we’d fight for status and ‘personal capital’ instead, though he does not point out that this might be seen as a residual of class society.   According to his reading of Marx, we’d have every toy and convenience available, and no one would have to do any unpleasant work ever.  Think about it.  Frase’s vision of communism sees no restrictions on production of any thing no matter how useless, because a replicator machine would make it for us.  This utopia of stuff ignores who programs and maintains the machines, who mines the minerals to make the machines, were do the raw materials come from to make each product, who moves it around; who grows the food, how is it grown, etc.  In effect, are there restrictions on resources?  Do we want to allow every single thing?

A list of real tasks will actually still exist even under communism, but they would change based on control of the conditions of labor.  That is what Marx was really talking about.  Would people be working this kind of labor 12 or 8 or even 4 hours a day?  Probably not.  In his misreading of Marx’s ‘freedom’ he confuses a full supermarket with the real necessities of education and childcare, housing, food, transportation, health care and clothing.  As even he quotes, present society already has everything, ‘unequally distributed.’  For instance, organic agriculture requires more labor than machine-intensive factory farming.  So 500 acres of pesticide and oil-based fertilizer mono-crops harvested by one tractor or combine is something he might favor.  But would communism or socialism? 

Frase’s version of socialism recognizes some of what he calls ‘scarcities,’ given the ecological limits of the world.  I do not think communism would jump over that reality either.  Humans will never be totally free, as aging and death mark our lives.  Marx was not unaware of that.  

In that context, he argues for the limited use of certain markets as a check on the plan, citing Trotsky's 1932 The Soviet Economy in Danger. He has the clever idea that if the drivers of Uber and Lyft organized on their own, with their own app as a cooperative, they could reap the profits that the capitalists at Uber/Lyft do.  Of course, this would still be undermining  and scabbing on workers with taxi medallions...

Capitalism’s strengths are its ability to develop technology and raise production.  Frase is obsessed by robotization and AI, and indeed the 2nd wave of the computer revolution is starting. As he rightly notes, capital will be able to put many more people out of work as this process unfolds, while communism/socialism would not proceed in the same way.  However, he ignores Marx’s position on the ‘falling rate of profit’ based on capital’s investment in fixed capital, which is what these robots and machines are.  In the end, surplus value profits come from human labor.  The crisis will not be caused by ‘underconsumption’ as he and Keynes claim.  Underconsumption will result because the capitalist rate of profit will ultimately drop, which results in layoffs and other means of immiseration of the proletariat. The machines are going to actually cut their throat – and ours, unless we overthrow them.

The other hidden side of this is that combined and uneven development across the world means that some people in the U.S. don’t see the Dickensian conditions that exist surrounding this utopia of robots and intellectual property.  Even up to the prevalence of many different forms of virtual slavery!  Frase says that ‘we’ are moving away from the model of ‘industrial capitalism,’ i.e. the same shibboleth about the post-industrial society we’ve heard before.  Few actual Marxists have waited for capitalism to automate everything before moving forwards.  By this stagist logic, socialism and communism is only possible on that basis.  “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ has now been changed to ‘from each according to their status, to each according to their lack of work’ or some such thing.

In scenario #2, 'rentism,' is Frase’s description of abundance for everyone, but under a ruling class –– an impossible contradiction.  Frase thinks that the key to all modern commodities is intellectual property.  And indeed, these ‘patterns’ are key to the software, drug and auto industries already, along with many others, and are a large bone of contention with China.  His version of authoritarian capitalism posits abundance for everyone in the world, but somehow the capitalists want to continue to rule because they love power.  This psychological analysis ignores the material basis of power and the actual nature of capital, which is based on exploitation and commodity production, not removing scarcity.  It may seem this way to some middle-class elements in the highly developed world now, and that is the template Frase is now ‘imagining.’ In this scenario, UBI again comes to the rescue. 

Lastly is Frase vision of barbarism – or exterminism – where the unnecessary proletariat and farmers are first warehoused, then jailed, then separated, then ultimately killed en mass.  How this differs from the present wars, famines and diseases is not clear.  Except many more people will be unnecessary in the full barbarism scenario. 

Frase’s book is loaded with cultural references and quotations from other thinkers and here is its strength.  Its political outlook seems to be clouded by the prism of some sort of middle-class communism.  Enjoy!

Reviews of Hunger Games and Divergent and many other dystopian books or films, below.  Review of Rise of the Warrior Cop and Capital in the 21st Century, below.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
April 17, 2018

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