Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Jacobin)
By Peter Frase
Review by David Wineberg
One thing about the future – it is universally grim. I have yet to see a book where it is bright, inviting or even comfortable. But Peter Frase’s is the fairest assessment I have yet encountered. He has created a matrix of possible outcomes, and examines the four of them as chapters in Four Futures. They are all plausible, all arguable, and all to be avoided.
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, shaving, 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 monthly. Even Amazon is trying to convert customers to subscriptions, from Prime to Kindle to a 5% discount if you subscribe to groceries. 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.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.