'Four Futures'

The Left’s Dreams & Nightmares

For decades, America’s right has dreamed bigger than its left. Conservative think tanks developed elaborate plans to revolutionize education, Social Security, health care, the Middle East—you name it. Faced with a barrage of radical manifestos, the Democratic Party took on the role of the responsible, centrist, “grown-up” party—first cleaning up the deficit left by Reagan, and then the housing mess left by Bush. As Republicans spun off a fantasy platform in 2016—promising deficit-reducing tax cuts and a manufacturing renaissance—the Democrats remained true to form, promising modest increases in social spending in exchange for modest increases in taxes. Aided by America’s skewed electoral rules, fantasy won resoundingly. So, too, did the motivating power of a parade of Trumpist nightmares: dark and groundless visions of Mexicans, Muslims, and inner-city hellholes, all threatening to wreck the American way of life.

So what are the left’s visions, its paradigms of social harmony and disorder? Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism envisages a heaven of communist abundance for all and a hell of “exterminism,” where the marginal are simply disposed of. Those two possibilities arise out of Frase’s provocative typology of four potential conditions for future politics. If rapid automation generates ample goods and services for all, they may be fairly shared (in a communist polity) or rationed according to who has intellectual property rights to things like 3-D printers (in what Frase calls a “rentist” polity, run by rentiers). If automation falters, or rapid climate change wreaks havoc in food production and access to other resources, the reduced social bounty may be fairly shared (as a form of socialism), or hoarded by the most powerful and wealthy (exterminism). These four scenarios—communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism—offer concise and entertaining perspectives on fundamental issues in political economy.

Four Futures is animated by one central question: Can future societies value persons as such, regardless of their economic contributions? For Frase, the answer to that question depends not just on politics, but on nature and technology. If developments in each area break our way, abundance will give us some breathing room—particularly if social relations are relatively egalitarian. But even a future of absolute abundance, where any good can be produced by a 3-D printer or any service performed by a robot, could be ruined by what Frase deems “rentism:” excessive intellectual property (IP) laws that limit access to copyrighted works and patented inventions.

In an era when price-gouging pharmaceutical executives exemplify unrestrained greed in the medical industry, Frase’s case against IP is an increasingly popular one. Even libertarian authors bridle at copyrights and patents as “state sanctioned monopolies”—once a company has patented a product, the state decrees that no one else can make that product (without the patentee’s permission) until the patent expires. The more left-wing “access to knowledge” movement has characterized both IP and trade rules as giveaways to powerful corporations.

Frase’s account of rentism would have been richer if he took defenses of intellectual property more seriously. Defining IP as “ultimately not a right to a concrete thing but to a pattern,” he characterizes it as “an increasingly important component of the property held” by the rich. But the legal scholars Justin Hughes and Robert P. Merges have argued that “copyright is one of the few social institutions that permit a person to turn labor directly into economic assets (in the form of copyrighted works), and hence to create real, sustainable wealth starting only with personal labor.” Robust copyright law may be one of the few things standing between the independence of journalistic outlets like the New York Times, and their absorption into mega-platforms like Facebook and Google. Reconciling concerns about access to knowledge with parallel claims to fair pay for creators of knowledge is a difficult task. It cannot be solved either by dismissing the fairness of IP generally, or by assuming technological change will make the protection of IP impossible. Patents can be an important signal to investors, assuring them that even if the product they help fund is easily copyable, there is some way of recouping their investment.

Moreover, some of the services we care about most require something inherently finite: the time of others. When Frase implies that some combination of dogs and robots could one day replace nurses, for example, the book’s hardheaded logic curdles into a dismissal of the importance of inherently human functions.

Nor does Frase seriously reckon with the importance of positional goods in any society, including one of abundance. No matter how many hamburgers and houses a 3-D printer might make, it cannot replicate the best spots to live in a given city, or the twenty best restaurants, or the most powerful positions in governments or corporations. Frase promotes “a hundred status hierarchies” to make persons feel better if they are not among the chosen few who succeed in the main ones. But what governance structures will decide where one belongs in all these hierarchies? Would we really be comfortable with an egalitarianism so thoroughgoing that it randomizes one’s position in a hierarchy?

The assumption of abundance that drives half of Four Futures reminds me of a critical discussion of dance under conditions of zero gravity. It’s fun to imagine what might happen if choreographers could devise movements unbounded by the risk of hard falls, broken bones, and twisted knees. But whatever art of human movement was devised in space would quickly diverge in its standards of excellence from the standards governing dance here on earth. Weightless artistic movement relates to present dance as Frase’s political economy of abundance relates to ordinary political economy. Given that the primary economic problem is scarcity, it may not be a form of political economy at all, but rather, pure politics.

Four Futures  is most compelling when Frase describes conditions of scarcity, under either egalitarian social relations (socialism) or hierarchy (exterminism). He predicts that if access to food, water, or even ordinary consumer goods worsens in very hierarchically organized societies, the systematic killing of the poor could ensue—and malign neglect is virtually guaranteed. This is a world worse than that of The Hunger Games, where the Capitol’s need for labor obliges it to pay subsistence wages for workers in its provinces. Rather, Frase explains, it is more like the earth of the movie Elysium, where a tiny elite colonizes space and leaves the rest of humanity to perish in a chaotic hellscape patrolled by brutal robotic police.

Evocation of movies and novels may seem out of place in a work analyzing the political economy of climate change and automation. But Frase convincingly argues that we can “use the tools of social science in combination with those of speculative fiction to explore the space of possibilities in which our future political conflicts will play out.” Frase is no futurist—he is all too familiar with the grandiosity of what Dale Carrico has called “robot cultists.” Frase writes that “science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise.” He writes in a new genre—“social science fiction”—meant to ground the speculation of sci-fi in the empirics of sociology. Frase’s reflections on “exterminist” scenarios move deftly from the theoretical to the actual: he cites news stories of wealthy elites shuttling from enclave to enclave in private jets, as death squads “pacify” slums.

For Frase, socialism is the only way to overcome such cruelty amid conditions of scarcity that are likely to be exacerbated by climate change and bad technological choices. A humane government would spread the burdens of adaptation to disasters ranging from crop failures to flooding to earthquakes. Frase proposes both technical and social strategies of resilience. He wants to see more experiments in transportation, praising algorithmic pricing for urban parking. He is also optimistic about Harvard’s “RoboBee,” a microdrone that could pollinate plants in areas where bee populations have collapsed.

Frase’s overarching theme is a progressivism that sees nature as a servant of human needs, to be tweaked in directions that reduce suffering. But one hopes this socialism of the Anthropocene is eventually leavened with a sober awareness of the hidden costs of technological “advance.” The RoboBee may be a great pollinator—but do its programmers also intend it to mimic all the other roles bees play in ecosystems? Do we even know the full extent of these roles? Here a faith in technological progress needs to be coupled with the precautionary principle.

Nor should aesthetic and spiritual attachments to nature be dismissed as softheaded romanticism. On a personal level, I would experience a garden buzzing with RoboBees as a tragedy, a site of loss. Admittedly, a child born in a bee-less world would never know what he had missed. But that potential ignorance of the past—or indifference to parts of it now fading—is not a reason to consign our present to radical change without first exploring all possible avenues for respecting the earth by controlling the kind of development that is now trashing our lands, waters, and skies.

In parts of Four Futures, Frase seems impatient with such attachments to nature. To be sure, there is no eternal and pristine landscape to save—the environment always evolves over time. But that span of time is immense compared to the pace of technological advance today. As Pope Francis’s Laudato si’ reminds us, nature is not simply a standing reserve to be manipulated to our ends. Apart from whatever instrumental value it has for us, it also has an intrinsic value.

Left “accelerationists”—those who welcome rapid technological change in both social relations and the natural world—may find such a point of view quaint or mystical. But it’s hard to see how they could consistently protect humanity itself from the type of rapid manipulation they favor for the planet on which we evolved. After all, why shouldn’t we solve the problem of scarcity by genetically engineering human beings to be satisfied with the status quo? Why not promote deeply egalitarian social relations by medicating away any striving for superiority? To guarantee a truly humane future, we’ll need institutions and economies that can keep the tendency toward mechanization, standardization, and the diminution of human experience in check. Respect for the stability of what is—be it nature or human nature—will be indispensable.

Four Futures does not give us a roadmap for developing such institutions. But Frase deserves great credit for illuminating the possibilites our politics, technology, and environment now enable and constrain. Simultaneously entertaining and deep, Four Futures should inspire more “social science fiction.” The most powerful politicians in America are now pursuing libertarian fantasies of trickle-down growth and paleo-con visions of social exclusion. To provide some balance in our political imagination, the communism of abundance and socialism in the face of scarcity that Frase sketches are essential dreams for the left. 

Published in the March 10, 2017 issue: 

Frank Pasquale, author of The Black Box Society (Harvard University Press), is presently editing a book on the policy implications of Laudato si'.

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