Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, by Peter Frase

Frase is a writer for Jacobin, a left-wing political magazine that sponsored his book. Left wing polemics being predictable, this book seemed of little interest until spotting a couple of reviews by other authors saying that it was mind opening.

Critics complained that the book left too many unanswered questions. However, raising questions was the author’s intent. He denied having answers. He projects four future economic scenarios. None are advocated as either utopias or surefire forecasts. Although I took issue with evidence that Frase chose to illustrate some of his points, his scenarios paint four contrasting futures:

  1. Communism: Equality and Abundance. We live in a world where so little human effort is needed to survive, that the need for capital and labor melts away. Human happiness is doing what we want to do, free of the stresses of investment decisions or of a work-a-day world. Is this a utopia? Maybe not because other forms of social distinctions would arise. At worst, many of us would become human blobs. (Marx’s ideal was a post-capitalist world of fairness, free of drudgery. However, we usually associate communism with totalitarian control of an economy by the state.)
  1. Rentism: Hierarchy and Abundance: In medieval times rent was the payment by peasants to land owners just because they owned the land – and perhaps provided protection. Frase avers that current laws on intellectual property generate payment systems much like land rent. We have to pay whoever owns patents, copyrights, software, robots, or 3D printer algorithms, as well as land and buildings. According to the European Patent Office, intellectual property intensive businesses make up 39% of the European GDP. Frase argues that these payments cease to have economic purpose in a post-industrial economy, but political elites will impose them because they can. Other authors refer to similar ideas as extractive capitalism or predatory capitalism. But this system can only be stable if we do not have shortages of raw materials.
  1. Socialism: Equality and Scarcity: In Frase’s vision of an environmentally regenerative economy, an egalitarian society must work together to build and sustain its relationship to nature. He notes that the problem is how many of us can survive oncoming debacles, but dwells on energy limitations to the exclusion of other limits. Even then, he doubts that the U.S. will fund the infrastructure changes necessary to adopt alternate fuels, and politically hobbled market forces won’t do it. If funding does come, large scale planning is assumed to be necessary, and Frase favors a “participatory model” so that plans respond to individual needs rather than being handed down from remote bureaucrats. Consumption has to be constrained, and Frase’s ideas to do that choke on inequality issues. This vision is incomplete, but it imparts an important lesson: Many people can neither visualize nor accept any system to deal with a resource-limited world that does not satisfactorily resolve fairness issues. Indeed, that is the heart of politics.
  1. Exterminism: Hierarchy and Scarcity: Frase posits that we already have “communism for the rich.” Anything that the ruling elite needs costs nothing compared with their wealth. Worst, they don’t need masses of workers to provide them, so upkeep of the poor is just a burdensome cost. It’s like reducing the horse population after we no longer needed horses. All the elite need do is make up excuses to justify exterminating superfluous people by one means or another. The prospect of the rabble expropriating elite wealth may be the only excuse they need. As omens of what could come, Frase cites examples of increased militarization, including in American police departments. The endless wars of the early 21st century are not between nation states. They are between the elite’s military enforcing the status quo and the rabble enflamed by ideology, both religious and secular.

Frase cannot shake his preconceptions — his anti-elite frames. A boss that does not exclusively act in his own interest or in that of ownership is hard for him to imagine. If he could, his scenarios might re-conceptualize “the system” differently. However, his insight is that re-conceptualizing business as a system is much more than just enlightening owners and managers. If business executives are kidding themselves that they are improving efficiency, or doing anything effective for all of society, then we’re in for a pure power struggle. To escape that, society has to overcome acrimony over age-old issues dolled up in newer technology clothing.

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