Review of Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism

Peter Frase spoke about his new work, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, to a packed Potter’s House bookstore on October 25. The event was co-sponsored by Metro-DC DSA and the Jacobin reading group. Frase gave a brief overview of his project, putting forth this argument:

  • If there is full automation, then
  • There are two axes that chart our possible futures: ecology and class struggle, where
  • The ecology spectrum runs from resource scarcity to abundance, and
  • The class struggle spectrum runs from egalitarianism to hierarchy.

The coordinates yield different futures. A world of resource abundance and egalitarianism is called Communist. A world of resource scarcity and egalitarianism, Socialist. The possible world of resource abundance and hierarchy would be what Frase calls “Rentism”. The possible world of scarcity and hierarchy, “Exterminism”.

He comments on what each of these futures would look like by calling on a work of science fiction to set the stage and then how a known feature or idea could be the realization of that future. Frase considers a universal basic income at length in the Communist future, markets to allocate scarce goods in Socialism, intellectual property rights in Rentism and militarized police forces in Exterminism.

While Frase spends a chapter on each of these possible futures, these are all rather secondary to his main thesis that capitalism will come to an end, and socialists would be well advised to admit uncertainty about which of the four possible futures will follow. As Frase puts it in his book, “the importance of assessing possibility rather than likelihood is that it puts our collective action at the center, while making confident predictions only encourages passivity” (page 33).

It is unclear whether Frase means that a confident prediction causes passivity or that behind confident predictions there is the intention of the speaker to cause (encourage) passivity. Yet, we can see clearly that there is no essential causal relationship between confident predictions and passivity, and I submit that there is at least one among us, who at one time, made a confident prediction without intending to cause passivity.

Moreover, it is preferable to be prepared for a small range of possibilities through exacting analysis of the balance of class forces, rather than being minimally prepared for a large range of possibilities. Having no sense of what is coming next may also contribute to conditions of passivity. The causes of political passivity are many and interweaving, and strong predictions and the lack of predictions can fit into a causal network that tends towards a disposition of passivity. The project of the Left is to make conditions tend towards action. Even if we falsely assume that strong predictions on their own create dispositions towards passivity, this only puts the onus on us to balance that tendency with other causal forces of persuasion, rather than forfeit confident predictions based in strong analysis.

Frase stated his critique of predictions even more strongly at Potter’s when he posited that, “we cannot say what will happen and be consistent with democratic mass struggle.” While dictating what will happen is certainly inconsistent with democracy, when Leftists say what will happen, far from commanding it as so, we put forward what we think is likely to happen given the balance of class forces in the class struggle, and the material interests that underpin them. Saying what is likely to happen given the current balance of forces is not inconsistent with democracy.

Frase equivocates speaking about what will happen with commanding that it happen and so his concern is misplaced.

The argument to establish Frase’s four futures as exhaustive fails. As a conditional argument, it is invalid if the antecedent can obtain and the consequent does not follow. This is clearly the case for Frase’s conditional. While he allows that once we transition to one of the possible futures we can transition to another possible future, he does not allow for countertendencies of capital to reverse full automation.

To the extent that he does anticipate this objection, he commits a fallacy of equivocation, as turning back to human labor-power is not the same as turning back to capitalism, industrial or otherwise. On the very last page of the book, Frase comments, “it’s hard to see a road that leads back to industrial capitalism as we have known it. That is the other point of this book. We can’t go back to the past, and we can’t even hold on to what we have now” (page 150). But we can go back to partial automation from full automation if there is a crisis of profitability, as there surely could be.

Frase’s project turns out to be quite fanciful. While the possibilities he outlines are indeed some of our possible futures, they are not exhaustive in the way he hopes, and so his project falls short for not accounting for the conditional antecedent that countertendencies will reverse full automation and avoid the four futures he proposes.

In sum, Four Futures is an accessible book that perhaps could serve as an entry point for science fiction fans to be introduced to some socialist ideas. It is also perhaps useful to committed socialists and Marxists as a reminder that the next mode of production might not be socialist. But Frase’s attempt at a theoretical contribution to socialist literature is wanting. His arguments that we must be theoretically prepared for the full range of possible futures are unconvincing, and moreover, his attempt to offer a map of that full range of possible futures fails.

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