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27 June 2018

If capitalism ended, what would replace it?

Four possible economic futures, from luxury communism to exterminism. 

By George Eaton

The Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson observed in 1994 that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism”. By this, he meant that environmental apocalypse appeared more likely than the triumph of a systematic economic alternative. This unremittingly sober view, also adopted by the New Left Review’s Perry Anderson and the late cultural theorist Mark Fisher, became known as “capitalist realism”.

In recent years, a succession of authors have championed an alternative vision. Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism (2015) and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s Inventing the Future (2015) both argue that technological advancements will render most work unnecessary and could liberate humans – sustained by a state-funded universal basic income – to pursue true freedom.

Aaron Bastani’s forthcoming Fully Automated Luxury Communism (January 2019) will occupy similar terrain, asking: “What if, rather than having no sense of the future, history hadn’t really begun?”

When I interviewed David Graeber, the US anthropologist and author of anti-work manifesto Bullshit Jobs (2018), he too argued that, within 50 years, “we’ll definitely have a system that isn’t capitalist”. But he added the proviso: “It could be something even worse.”

During a recent visit to the V&A’s “The Future Starts Here” exhibition, I stumbled upon a book that artfully examines this possibility. In Four Futures (2016), Peter Frase, an editor at Jacobin magazine, offers alternative visions of liberation and oppression. Like others, he assumes that technology will make human labour obsolete, but crucially, he adds, “who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately a consequence not of the robots themselves, but of who owns them”. Class inequality – and the existential challenge of climate change – both mean that technology may not usher in a utopian society.

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Frase’s book is neither a prophecy nor mere fantasy, rather it is a work of “social science fiction”: an attempt to “explore the space of possibilities in which our future political conflicts will play out”. The first scenario is one of equality and abundance: communism. Technology has enabled the transition to a post-work and post-carbon future, and traditional class divisions have withered away. But Frase warns that status hierarchies will persist. He cites Cory Doctorow’s 2003 novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, in which “debates are resolved not by who has the most money, but by who can acquire the highest social status”. China’s “social credit system”, which ranks citizens according to their behaviour, and the West’s tyranny of social media likes and retweets offer glimpses of this future.

The second scenario, which most closely resembles the present, is that of “rentism”: hierarchy and abundance. Though the material conditions for luxury communism exist, new technologies and patents have been monopolised by an extractive elite. Human labour, Frase suggests, may endure since “having power over others is, for many powerful people, its own reward”.

But rentism is still predicated on the resolution of climate change. Should environmental degradation persist, Frase writes, we face two possible futures. One is socialism: equality and scarcity. In an ecologically constrained world, the state is empowered to radically overhaul infrastructure, and there is a fair distribution of risks and rewards. Labour is progressively reduced but so is consumption: sustainable socialism, rather than luxury communism.

The barbarous alternative is that of “exterminism”: hierarchy and scarcity. As the rich seek to monopolise space and resources in the face of eco-apocalypse, the bulk of humanity is ever more marginalised. Frase makes the haunting observation that “the great danger posed by the automation of production… is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite”. Rather than neglecting or imprisoning the poor, why not simply eliminate them? Humanity’s past and present both render this possibility disturbingly large. Unmanned drones and “killer robots” will allow individuals to distance themselves from future genocides (and plenty require no such inducement).

Which of these futures prevails, Frase emphasises, ultimately depends on human agency. Four Futures is a resounding corrective to technological determinism of all kinds. Men and women will continue to make their own history – if not in circumstances of their choosing.

This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone