The battle now shapes the future

Submitted by Matthew on 21 September, 2016 - 12:39 Author: Colin Foster

Peter Frase’s book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism is due to be published on 1 November. He will be explaining its ideas in a speaking tour in Britain from 24 September, and has already written about them on the website of Jacobin, the US socialist magazine he writes for.

He explains, at the end of that preview article, that his argument is dramatically over-simplified. The aim is to jolt us out of the always-common prejudice that society will go on much as it is now, with a nudge this way or that. It won’t.

As Frase starts off by saying “humanity has never before managed to craft an eternal social system, and capitalism is a notably more precarious and volatile order than most of those that preceded it.
The question... is what will come next”.

Some of his variants of “life after capitalism” seem to me more like a much-changed capitalism than actually post-capitalist, but that takes little away from the argument.

Deliberately simplifying, Frase discusses three axes of development: automation, resources, democracy vs hierarchy. He assumes for the sake of argument that the speculations of today’s enthusiasts for automation are well-founded.

Automation, he says, will invade “service” industries too, and can shape things so that a small cadre of designers (and, presumably, maintenance workers) provides about all the living labour necessary for most goods and services. Those designers will be flanked by a supplementary group of marketers, lawyers, and police both public and private. This scheme, I think, may oversimplify so much as to be misleading at least for several decades.

For some time now, output per worker-hour in the richer economies has been increasing only very slowly compared to previous tempos, and that despite the fact that many “service” industries have been squeezed not by automation but more by old-fashioned speed-up.

Nevertheless, elements at least of Frase’s scenario are developing. Let’s go along with the argument. The automation might come with new energy technologies, new economies in the use of raw materials, and improvements in recycling, which would allow all production to become abundant.

With a democratic, egalitarian social order, that economic development would make reality the old socialist slogan: From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The “millions of people [who] choose to go to graduate school, or become social workers, or start small organic farms, even when far more lucrative careers are open to them” would become the norm rather than the exception. There would be generalised leisure and generalised creativity. It would not be a society of uniformity. There would still be “competition”, in the sense of individuals vying for reputation, respect, and status. But there would be no master hierarchy.

A would be a respected mathematician, B a celebrated poet, C no famous social figure but highly-esteemed by a circle of friends. Suppose, however, in that benign economic scenario, that we lose the battle for democracy. That a small wealthy class manages to monopolise the proceeds through intellectual-property law and technological rents. The majority would be relegated to jobs as personal servants and the like, or to existence on the dole. (Already, in the USA, the two job categories officially estimated to grow fastest, by far, between 2014 and 2024, are “personal care aides”, up 350,000, and “home health aides”, up 450,000. The dystopian prospect, with abundance and automation, is that the rich and the well-off recruit whole armies of such workers, while other such workers give pauper provision to the majority).

Alternatively, the automation might come with resource scarcity. An egalitarian and democratic, that is, socialist, option is possible then, too. There would have to be some rationing of consumption, probably best done by market mechanisms on the basis of a fairly equal distribution of income, and much ingenuity and technology would have to go into efficient planning of the scarce resources.

If we lose the battle for democracy, the resource scarcity would increase the urge for the wealthy class to keep their economic privileges, and the drive towards what Frase calls an “enclave society”, where the rich lived in gated complexes physically screened off from the majority. The rich would have less motive to pay big armies of personal aides, or to pay out dole to millions. Then, as Frase puts it, “a final solution lurks: a genocidal war of the rich against the poor... The United States is already a country where a serious candidate for the Presidency revels in executing the innocent...”

In all the options, the deciding factor is the victory or defeat of the struggle for economic democracy and equality. Here Frase’s schemes dovetails with the arguments in Sean Matgamna’s book, recently published by Workers’ Liberty, Can Socialism Make Sense?

Go to Frase’s meetings; read his book when it comes out; follow up by reading and study Can Socialism Make Sense?

For dates and information about the tour, see here.

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