Some notes on Peter Frase’s “Four Futures: Life after Capitalism”

In recent years several books have been written on the issue of automation and the future of work: Inventing the Future (Srnicek, 2016), Rise of the Robots (Ford, 2015), Service Automation (Willcocks and Lacity, 2016), Post-Capitalism (Mason 2015), The Second Machine Age (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2014), The Zero Marginal Cost Society (Rifkin, 2015), Robots will steal our jobs but that’s OK (Pistono, 2012), and the list goes on. Despite their distinct positions on the issue, what these books have in common is that they all begin by signalling that more and more of the existing labour processes are being replaced by automated machines. According to these authors, this automation is taking place not just at the level of mechanic operations but it also involves cognitive tasks, threatening to displace from the job market both industrial and service workers. According to a recent report by PwC[1], 30% of existing jobs in the UK (and 35% in the US) could be replaced by 2030 while another report by the McKinsey Global Institute[2] predicts that this number could be as high as 50% worldwide by 2050. In such a context we find ourselves overwhelmed by an enormous flow of books and reports that examine the present and future social consequences of automation and work displacement. Some are optimist, suggesting that a new era of leisure is around the corner. Once machines can do the work for us, we will have plenty of free time for all sorts of distractions. Others argue that just like previous forms of automation created new professions, future societies will simply find other forms of wage labour in which to occupy human time, energy, and skills. In more pessimistic lines, some authors claim that automation can only bring forth a future of unemployment, economic crisis, and social unrest.

The truth, however, is that despite the current hype regarding these issues, the uncomfortable relation between machines and labour is not by any means new. In the nineteenth century, the Luddites became famous for destroying the new weaving machines that were completely revolutionizing the textile industry and, most importantly, transforming the labour/capital relation. As Marx repeatedly pointed out, the conflict between workers and machines is just a disguise for the deeper conflict that stems out of capital’s constant need for self-expansion and growth. Hence, he argued that we must pay careful attention to the difference between technology and its employment by capital and therefore, to direct our attacks to the latter rather than to the former.[3] In other words, the social anxieties created by automation are nothing but a displaced symptom of capital’s own internal contradictions.

Bearing this in mind, there is one recent publication regarding the question of automation that stands out. I refer to Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life after Capitalism (Verso, 2016).[4] In this novel combination of social sciences and science fiction, Frase presents us four possible alternatives that derive from our current tendencies towards full-automation and environmental impact. Frase suggests two optimist futures (a communist society characterised by full-automation, abundance and leisure; and a socialist society marked by egalitarian relations but scarce natural resources) and two pessimist ones (a society organised mainly through the privatisation of intellectual property and the monopolisation of wealth; and a society of “exterminism” where only the rich and powerful will have the means to survive).

To a certain extent, Frase’s speculative strategy offers an overall perspective of the main positions on automation that exist in the aforementioned literature. Nevertheless, its major contribution lies somewhere else. Regarding the vast number of publications on the topic, Frase contends that the one thing missing from all of them is “politics and class struggle” (p. 21). This is Frase’s biggest contribution: to highlight that the question of automation is neither technical nor economical, but political. This means that today’s most pressing question is not: “what jobs can and will be replaced?”, but rather: “who will own the robots and how will we allocate their productivity?”.

According to Marx, the aim of capital is simply to produce more capital, to valorise itself. For this aim, capital is always trying to reduce costs and increase profit. Machines, for obvious reasons, become one of the most significant mechanisms of achieving this double objective: technology reduces costs (not only by replacing labour but also by taking negotiating power away from the workers) and hence increases the rate of surplus value. Marx teaches us that as long as machines exist within capitalist social relations, the prospects of the masses for working less and having more thanks to technological progress will always be undermined by the core tendency towards the monopolisation of wealth by a few.

If we consider that Marx has already laid out these issues extensively, then there is nothing really original in Frase’s book. However, if we consider that none of the recent literature on the topic properly distinguishes between technology and its social use by capital, then Frase’s effort is quite significant. As he puts it: “The existence of capitalism as a system of class power, with a ruling elite that will try to preserve itself into any possible future, is a central structuring theme of this book, a theme that I believe is absent from almost every other attempt to understand the trajectory of a highly automated post-industrial economy” (p. 30).

It cannot be emphasised enough that the future of work will be played out in the terrain of politics and not that of technology. And Frase’s book is very good at making this clear. The reason there are four futures and not just one is precisely because he wants to challenge any form of technical or economic determinism. There is instead a political crossroad where the social use that we decide to give to technology will shape what future or futures will eventually come to being. As long as technology continues to be at the service of surplus value, scarcity, crisis, and unemployment will continue to be the norm. Only if technology is put at the service of human needs will machines be able to finally improve workers’ conditions and provide them with larger amounts of leisure time.

Put like this, everything sounds obvious. Yet the confusion between technology and its social use is still today the blind spot of most discussions regarding automation. Surplus value and class struggle are everywhere and still everybody pretends not to see them. Peter Frase’s Four Futures is a great contribution towards unveiling how these key categories not only structure present societies but will also determine the traits of those to come.

[1] http://pwc.blogs.com/press_room/2017/03/up-to-30-of-existing-uk-jobs-could-be-impacted-by-automation-by-early-2030s-but-this-should-be-offse.html

[2] file:///C:/Users/Claudio%20Celis/Downloads/MGI-A-future-that-works_Full-report%20(1).pdf

[3] https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch15.htm#S5

[4] https://www.versobooks.com/books/1847-four-futures


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