In the LA Review of Books, Jedediah Purdy reviews Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Peter Frase, published recently by Verso. In the book, Frase innovatively combines social theory with a dash of science fiction to sketch out four possible futures for our world. Purdy finds Frase's methodology and his arguments immensely useful for informing a political practice that might avert our worst possible futures. Here's an excerpt from the review in which Purdy outlines the "four futures" of the book's title:
How to think about these prospects together? Frase suggests that two pairs of alternatives combine to point toward four possible worlds: “two socialisms and two barbarisms,” he jokes, adapting Rosa Luxemburg. These are the “four futures” of his title. A sketch of these worlds gives us one rough map of the road, or roads, ahead. The alternatives go roughly like this. If we achieve both material abundance and social equality, then we will have communism: a world where our major problem will be how to spend our days, now that we no longer have to barter them for survival. If we achieve equality without conquering scarcity — if we head into the pincer of climate change, soil exhaustion, water shortages, and so forth with strengthened democracy and a strong principle of equal human worth — then we will be living in socialism, an often hard world where both burdens and advantages are shared in ways that people agree to on equal terms.
If, on the other hand, we end up in a world where social hierarchy persists or even deepens, the alternatives for most people look much bleaker. In a future of abundance where a small number of people continue to own the 3-D printers, or the raw materials, or the copyrights and patents for the machines and their programs — whatever the bottleneck may be to others’ access to plenitude — we will be in a world of rentism, after “rentier,” the economics term for those who collect wealth just by sitting on valuable resources without actually adding anything of value. This is the situation today of The Walt Disney Company, which continues to hoard all intellectual property rights to characters developed as early as the 1920s, and of Martin Shkreli, the speculator who recently stirred controversy by jacking up prices on a patented AIDS drug.
Frase’s grimmest future though, combines scarcity and hierarchy. With this pairing, he argues, we might be looking down the barrel of what he calls exterminism: a more or less explicit commitment to the elimination of people who produce no economic value. “A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor,” Frase argues, “is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience.” In such a world, the ruling class’s response might range “from repression to outright extermination.” The scenario of exterminism crystallizes both the strength and the weakness of Frase’s speculative method. In a sense, exterminism is already here. Resource crises promise to make very explicit how the comfort of some can rest on the deprivation of others, as in the water politics of the Middle East, for example. Post-industrial societies have a rather miserable record with people they have come to see as economically superfluous. Black urban populations abandoned in the industrial cities of the northern United States a few decades after the Great Migration, from Oakland to Detroit to Bridgeport, may be the canary in the coal mine of history here. Drone assassinations of targets designated terrorists might foreshadow a more or less perennial regime of politics-plus-technology for weeding out the most inconvenient people.