By Peter Frase
An exhilarating exploration into the utopias and dystopias that could develop from present society
In Four Futures; Life After Capitalism Peter Frase argues that increasing automation and a growing scarcity of resources, thanks to climate change, will bring it all tumbling down. Frase imagines how this post-capitalist world might look, deploying the tools of both social science and speculative fiction to explore what communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism might actually entail.
Could the current rise of real-life robocops usher in a world that resembles Ender’s Game? And sure, communism will bring an end to material scarcities and inequalities of wealth — but there’s no guarantee that social hierarchies, governed by an economy of “likes,” wouldn’t rise to take their place.
A whirlwind tour through science fiction, social theory and the new technologies already shaping our lives, Four Futures is a balance sheet of the socialisms we may reach if a resurgent Left is successful, and the barbarisms we may be consigned to if those movements fail.
Book Review & Summary
A 12-minute video on the book by the Prosocial Progress Foundation:
About Peter Frase
Peter Frase is an editor at Jacobin magazine, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has written for In These Times and Al Jazeera. He lives in New York City.
Richard W. Coughlin on E-International Relations wrote:
"The idea that computers will soon steal our jobs is an article of faith among many of the world’s most powerful people. [...] you might find yourself wondering what a post-work future would look like. Would it be a heaven or a hell, or somewhere in between? Peter Frase gives four answers to this question in Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. He offers two heavens and two hells: two ways that automation might facilitate a flourishing of human life, and two ways that it might maximise human misery. [...] Frase’s approach stands in stark contrast to other practitioners of the genre. Many mainstream futurists predict that automation will mean lives of leisure for all, as we’re liberated from our day jobs to become artists or artisans or lotus-eaters. Perhaps, Frase responds, but technology doesn’t dictate outcomes. Rather, it sets the parameters of possibility. [...] The day after the robots arrive, Frase points out, capitalist class relations and a collapsing biosphere will still be with us. [...] Frase injects a sorely needed dose of reality to the conversation, and the result is invigorating. In the tradition of the finest science fiction, his futures feel plausible because they’re intensified versions of our present. They’re not narrowly predictive, but roaming, impressionistic – 'social science fiction', he calls it, a mode of speculative analysis that reads like Philip K Dick ventriloquising Marx."
David Beer on Open Democracy wrote:
"Peter Frase’s book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, undermines a central tenet of capitalist ideology in the post-Cold War period: that there is no alternative to capitalism. [...] Frase remarks that 'we can’t go back to the past and we can’t even hold on to what we have now. Something new is coming' (2016: 150). The basis for this contention lies with the unfolding consequences of climate change and the automation of production through robotics and artificial intelligence. Capitalism has unleashed forces beyond its control. We are sliding into the chaos of a deepening crisis of capitalism without any clear conception of what might lie beyond it. The value of Frase’s book is to illuminate the possible institutional structures that might emerge beyond the immediate horizons of the present. What he offers is not an extrapolation of current trends into the future, but a reflection on structural possibilities tied to robotization and climate change. Frase’s innovative move is to consider a set of possible outcomes that combine hierarchy or equality with scarcity or abundance. One can have abundance with hierarchy or equality or scarcity with hierarchy or equality. These conceptions of the future open a political space in which we can imagine possible worlds beyond capitalism – as opposed to being stuck within the eternal present of capitalism."
Claudio Celis Bueno on Westminster Institute for Advanced Studies (WIAS) wrote:
"For those looking for some solace Frase provides little comfort. His is a book that conjures up worrying and intimidating visions. [...] Fortunately, Frase provides some alternatives. Indeed, his book sketches out four possible futures for ‘life after capitalism.’ Having a selection of options is perhaps no more comforting than one dystopian image, but at least there’s a smatter of hope dotted among some of the more appealing sets of outcomes that he provides. Frase doesn’t provide a clear set of actions or dwell in futurism—his book seems to leave it to the reader to try to reverse-engineer the futures that they want. But the author, who admits to being ‘deliberately hyperbolic,’ is clear that collective action around a shared vision is what’s required. [...] Frase uses two intersecting spectrums to explore the potential futures he discusses. On the one hand, we have a spectrum running from inequality to hierarchy. On the other, we have scarcity to abundance. Mapping across these spectrums, Frase ends up outlining a typology of four futures: communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism. These are familiar perhaps, but Frase revisits them in some intriguing ways. He uses various illustrations to give a sense of materiality to these four possible futures. [...] But despite these insights, Frase can’t quite escape the shackles of the typology he has set for himself. I started wondering what other less familiar positions might be mapped onto these axes, or how new axes might be imagined. Similarly, I was left wondering about the tensions that emerge between the different imagined futures or between those who are invested in them. The book implicitly suggests that these tensions will be profound, but what about where visions clash or merge into new types of formations? I wanted a sense of potential hybrids or of the unimaginable."
"Marx teaches us that as long as machines exist within capitalist social relations, the prospects of the masses for working less and having more thanks to technological progress will always be undermined by the core tendency towards the monopolisation of wealth by a few. If we consider that Marx has already laid out these issues extensively, then there is nothing really original in Frase’s book. However, if we consider that none of the recent literature on the topic properly distinguishes between technology and its social use by capital, then Frase’s effort is quite significant. As he puts it: 'The existence of capitalism as a system of class power, with a ruling elite that will try to preserve itself into any possible future, is a central structuring theme of this book, a theme that I believe is absent from almost every other attempt to understand the trajectory of a highly automated post-industrial economy' (p. 30). It cannot be emphasised enough that the future of work will be played out in the terrain of politics and not that of technology. And Frase’s book is very good at making this clear.