'It is easier to imagine the end of the world,' the theorist Fredric Jameson has remarked, 'than to imagine the end of capitalism.' Jacobin editor Peter Frase argues that technological advancements and environmental threats will inevitably push our society beyond capitalism, and Four Futures imagines just how this might look. Extrapolating possible futures from current changes the world is now experience, and drawing upon speculative fictions to illustrate how these futures might look, Four Futures examines communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism-or in other words, the socialisms we may reach if a resurgent Left is successful, and the barbarisms we may be consigned to if those movements fail.
The above, indisputable fact, makes most of this type of book almost not worth reading. Peter Frase has tried to overcome this problem by projecting four different perspectives: communism, rentism, socialism and exterminism.
It is easy, as I appeared to do, in the first sentence of this review, to dismiss prediction but, the alternative is to go blindly where ever life may lead. We need some form of planning and, to mash up and misuse a well known phrase, a one eyed man is a better guide than a blind one.
This book is only 150 pages long and has been written in a style accessible to the common reader (and I should know: there's few commoner). As with any book of this type, one doesn't read it for all the answers, but to obtain a better grasp of all the questions and, Mr Frase does a very good job of that. Well worth a read.
The four scenarios include aspects of socialism, communism and extermism, in which the rich annihilate the poor in a society where the poor are no longer necessary for anything. Machines do all the labor, from picking fruit to guarding fortress homes. If the planet has been destroyed environmentally, the rich will escape to orbiting luxury space stations. But the most frightening one to me was also the most possible – the rentier future. In this scenario, there are no more factories, no more developments or mines. Instead, the rich own all the intellectual property, and rent it out. No one actually owns anything; they must pay continuously to license and operate it. We already see this in software, music, TV, games, phones, in agricultural seeds, and of course in living quarters. Everything in Western life is being converted to subscription, with payment removed directly from bank accounts. John Deere claims you never own your tractor – you merely license it while you use it, despite having paid to own it. So tampering with the motor or the electronics makes you a criminal. That is a horrifying future to me. It is well underway and is every startup’s dream business model.
The only thing certain is that we can’t go back to an industrial revolution civilization. Factories are going away. The gig economy keeps the 99% on the prowl to scratch together a living. 3-D printing is on its way in (though you won’t own the printer or the product codes, and there will severe restrictions on what you can produce with one), providing a kind of Star-Trek “Replicator” future. So depending on how we occupy our plentiful time, how much abundance there is versus scarcity, and how powerful the rich become, one of Frase’s scenarios is likely.
Naturally, these are not prescriptive choices; there is no pure vision or outcome. They can and will have elements of each other, and Frase points out several crossovers along the way. Mostly, Four Futures is an intellectual challenge. It is a very fast read, couched in the pop culture visions of sci-fi writers and dystopian-future films, things that are very easy to relate to. It is a pleasure to be so challenged, even if the result is less than heartwarming.