Fri 10 Mar 2017 02:02:23 AM -03

  • Author: Peter Frase
  • Year: 2016
  • Publisher: Verso / Jacobin


Fictional futures are, in my view, preferable to those works of
“futurism” that attempt to directly predict the future, obscuring
its inherent uncertainty and contingency and thereby stultifying
the reader. Within the areas discussed in this book, a
paradigmatic futurist would be someone like Ray Kurzweil, who
confidently predicts that by 2049, computers will have achieved
humanlike intelligence, with all manner of world-changing consequences.
24  Such prognostications generally end up unconvincing as prophecy
and unsatisfying as fiction. Science fiction is to futurism what
social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more
honest, and more humble enterprise. Or to put it another way, it
is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general
from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general
(science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general
to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular

-- 16

           Abundance   Scarcity
Equality   communism   socialism
Hierarchy  rentism     exterminism

Exercises like this aren’t unprecedented. A similar typology can be
found in a 1999 article by Robert Costanza in The Futurist. 26
There are four scenarios: Star Trek, Big Government, Ecotopia,
and Mad Max. For Costanza, however, the two axes are “world view
and policies” and “the real state of the world.” Thus the four
boxes are filled in according to whether human ideological
predilections match reality: in the “Big Government” scenario, for
example, progress is restrained by safety standards because the
“technological skeptics” deny the reality of unlimited resources. My
contribution to this debate is to emphasize the significance of
capitalism and politics.


So for me, sketching out multiple futures is an attempt to
leave a place for the political and the contingent. My
intention is not to claim that one future will automatically
appear through the magical working out of technical and ecological
factors that appear from outside. Instead, it is to insist that where
we end up will be a result of political struggle. The intersection of
science fiction and politics is these days often associated with the
libertarian right and its deterministic techno-utopian fantasies; I
hope to reclaim the long left-wing tradition of mixing imaginative
speculation with political economy. The starting point of the entire
analysis is that capitalism is going to end, and that, as Luxemburg

-- 17

Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, describes a society that
seems, on the surface, like a postlabor utopia, where machines have
liberated humans from toil. For Vonnegut, however, this isn’t a utopia at
all. He describes a future where production is almost entirely carried
out by machines, overseen by a small technocratic elite. Everyone else
is essentially superfluous from an economic perspective, but the society
is rich enough to provide a comfortable life for all of them. Vonnegut
refers to this condition as a “second childhood” at one point,
and he views it not as an achievement but as a horror. For him, and
for the main protagonists in the novel, the main danger of an automated
society is that it deprives life of all meaning and dignity. If
most people are not engaged directly in producing the necessities
of life, he seems to think, they will inevitably fall into torpor
and despair.

-- 19

The French sociologist Bruno Latour has made the same observation through his
reading of Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction tale, Frankenstein. This
story is not, he observes, the warning against technology and humanity’s hubris
that it is so often made out to be. 13 The real sin of Frankenstein (which is
the name of the scientist and not the monster) was not in making his creation
but in abandoning it to the wilderness rather than loving and caring for it.
This, for Latour, is a parable about our relationship to technology and
ecology. When the technologies that we have created end up having unforeseen
and terrifying consequences—global warming, pollution, extinctions—we recoil in
horror from them. Yet we cannot, nor should we, abandon nature now. We have no
choice but to become ever more involved in consciously changing nature. We have
no choice but to love the monster we have made, lest it turn on us and destroy
us. This, says Latour, “demands more of us than simply embracing technology and
innovation”; it requires a perspective that “sees the process of human
development as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather
as a process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of
nonhuman natures.” 14

-- 43-44

But short of that, there are ways to turn some of the predatory “sharing
economy” businesses into something a bit more egalitarian. Economics writer
Mike Konczal, for instance, has suggested a plan to “socialize Uber.” 26  He
notes that since the company’s workers already own most of the capital—their
cars—it would be relatively easy for a worker cooperative to set up an online
platform that works like the Uber app but is controlled by the workers
themselves rather than a handful of Silicon Valley capitalists.

-- 48

The sociologist Bryan Turner has argued that we live in an “enclave society.” 8
Despite the myth of increasing mobility under globalization, we in fact inhabit
an order in which “governments and other agencies seek to regulate spaces and,
where necessary, to immobilize flows of people, goods and services” by means of
“enclosure, bureaucratic barriers, legal exclusions and registrations.” 9 Of
course, it is the movements of the masses whose movements are restricted, while
the elite remains cosmopolitan and mobile. Some of the examples Turner adduces
are relatively trivial, like frequent-flyer lounges and private rooms in public
hospitals. Others are more serious, like gated communities (or, in the more
extreme case, private islands) for the rich, and ghettos for the poor—where
police are responsible for keeping poor people out of the “wrong”
neighborhoods. Biological quarantines and immigration restrictions take the
enclave concept to the level of the nation-state. In all cases, the prison
looms as the ultimate dystopian enclave for those who do not comply, whether it
is the federal penitentiary or the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. Gated
communities, private islands, ghettos, prisons, terrorism paranoia, biological
quarantines—these amount to an inverted global gulag, where the rich live in
tiny islands of wealth strewn around an ocean of misery.


Silicon Valley is a hotbed of such sentiments, plutocrats talking openly about
“secession.” In one widely disseminated speech, Balaji Srinivasan, the
cofounder of a San Francisco genetics company, told an audience of start-up
entrepreneurs that “we need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by
technology.” 12  For now, that reflects hubris and ignorance of the myriad ways
someone like him is supported by the workers who make his life possible.

-- 53

Remember exterminism’s central problematic: abundance and freedom from work are
possible for a minority, but material limits make it impossible to extend that
same way of life to everyone. At the same time, automation has rendered masses
of workers superfluous. The result is a society of surveillance, repression,
and incarceration, always threatening to tip over into one of outright

But suppose we stare into that abyss? What’s left when the “excess” bodies have
been disposed of repression, and incarceration, always threatening to tip over
into one of outright genocide.  But suppose we stare into that abyss? What’s
left when the “excess” bodies have been disposed of and the rich are finally
left alone with their robots and their walled compounds? The combat drones and
robot executioners could be decommissioned, the apparatus of surveillance
gradually dismantled, and the remaining population could evolve past its brutal
and dehumanizing war morality and settle into a life of equality and
abundance—in other words, into communism.

As a descendant of Europeans in the United States, I have an idea of what that
might be like. After all, I’m the beneficiary of a genocide.

My society was founded on the systematic extermination of the North American
continent’s original inhabitants. Today, the surviving descendants of those
earliest Americans are sufficiently impoverished, small in number, and
geographically isolated that most Americans can easily ignore them as they go
about their lives. Occasionally the survivors force themselves onto our
attention. But mostly, while we may lament the brutality of our ancestors, we
don’t contemplate giving up our prosperous lives or our land.  Just as Marcuse
said, nobody ever gave a damn about the victims of history.  Zooming out a bit
farther, then, the point is that we don’t necessarily pick one of the four
futures: we could get them all, and there are paths that lead from each one to
all of the others.

We have seen how exterminism becomes communism. Communism, in turn, is always
subject to counterrevolution, if someone can find a way to reintroduce
artificial scarcity and create a new rentist elite. Socialism is subject to
this pressure even more severely, since the greater level of shared material
hardship increases the impetus for some group to set itself up as the
privileged elite and turn the system into an exterminist one.

But short of a civilizational collapse so complete that it cuts us off from our
accumulated knowledge and plunges us into a new dark ages, it’s hard to see a
road that leads back to industrial capitalism as we have known it. That is the
other important point of this book. We can’t go back to the past, and we can’t
even hold on to what we have now. Something new is coming—and indeed, in some
way, all four futures are already here, “unevenly distributed,” in William
Gibson’s phrase. It’s up to us to build the collective power to fight for the
futures we want.

-- 63-64