What’s easier to imagine, the end of the world or the end of business-as-usual?
For most of us growing up in a capitalist society, it may be easier to picture aliens, meteors or humanoid apes destroying our planet, than envisioning the transition to a different economic and political system. There’s no alternative, you may have heard from a lady once upon a time in the 1980s. After all, the 20th century proved that life under capitalism is preferable than life under the other dictatorial experiments, right? However you feel about this, to think that there is no alternative to the current system is dangerously limiting our imagination, and giving up on the possibility of another, potentially (even slightly) better system. I argue that it is our mandate to imagine different futures, however hard that may be. But where does one start?
I decided to start from a short book, Four Futures: life after capitalism by Peter Frase, which deploys science fiction and political analysis to map four possible future societies, organised around two axes.
The book begins with the assumption that the end of capitalism as we know it is inevitable: the spectres of climate change and automation are threatening business-as-usual at its core, and they won’t go away. These two driving forces are pulling 21st century capitalism in opposite directions. Climate change is pulling towards scarcity of natural resources, the loss of agricultural land and struggles over habitable environments. On the other hand, an automated economy pulls towards an abundance of products and services with little/no need for human labour. So the first axis in Frase’s map of possible futures is abundance vs scarcity.
The second axis is political. Both climate change and automation are a consequence of human decisions, on a global scale. They both exist in an economy dedicated to maximising profits and growth, in which wealth and power are increasingly held in the hands of a tiny elite. The key questions Frase asks throughout the book are who benefits from automated abundance, and who pays the costs of environmental scarcity? On one end of this struggle we can envision future societies organised around equality between people, and on the other end we end up with hierarchy (inequality in power and wealth).
The resulting four societies are:
- Communism: equality + abundance
- Rentism: hierarchy + abundance
- Socialism: equality + scarcity
- Exterminism: hierarchy + scarcity
If you want to explore all four futures, the book is just 150 pages at a rather large font size. Here, I’m going to dive into the one I think is our best shot: socialism.
I start from the assumption that we live in a finite world where material resources are rather scarce than abundant. This makes future scenarios constrained by scarcity more realistic. Can we build a fair society around scarcity? How can that society distribute the fruits of technological progress and mitigate the consequences of environmental damage?
Since the Industrial Revolution, capitalist societies have been concerned with scarcity. The Earth material limits are at odds with an economic model that demands limitless growth, including a growing hunger for resources. What happens when coal/oil/whatever runs out? asked Malthus, Jevons, Hubbert and many more. But even if fossil fuel reserves were unlimited, extracting and burning them causes irreversible changes to the Earth climate. Acknowledging the reality and severity of climate change requires us to question the foundations of our society.
The real question is not whether human civilisation can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive together, in some reasonably egalitarian way.
Unless we’re ok with an unevenly distributed future, where a small portion of rich and powerful people insulate themselves from the damaging consequences of climate change, while keeping the rest of us at bay (which is the focus of the Exterminism chapter).
We face a massive challenge: reducing carbon emissions by 90% before 2050, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We can’t expect business-as-usual, an economy ran by private companies seeking short-term profits and facilitated by a servile political class, to achieve that.
While private capitalist production has been very successful at incentivising labour-saving technological innovation, it has proven to be terrible at conserving the environment or rationing scarce resources.
Transitioning away from destructive fossil fuels towards a sustainable society, in a relatively short time, calls for a
state-driven project that can mobilise resources and labour in a way that’s beyond the capabilities of either the free market or communist free-for-all.
Frase sketches the socialist society that could pull that off. Future Socialism blends seemingly incompatible elements: large-scale planning powered by algorithms, and markets designed to distribute scarce resources fairly, via universal basic income.
The shortcomings of planned economies in the 20th century have been (ab)used by neoliberals as evidence that free markets know best and that any attempt to regulate and direct an economy will inevitably fail. But we could also think that efficiently planning production, distribution and consumption on a national scale was simply beyond the reach of Soviet-era technology. Considering that the average phone nowadays is more powerful than the computers that sent humans to the moon, we can imagine that in a not-so-distant future machines will be able to crack the complex planning of a large-scale economy. This is not to say that machines will dictate what we do. Rather, they can help us decide how we want to allocate resources and what we want to produce with them. Future Socialism means technology-augmented democracy.
Not everything should or needs to be planned though. Rather than subordinating everyone to a rigid plan, Future Socialism aims to create the conditions for all citizens to be free, intended both as free from any type of coercion or exploitation, and free to realise their own potential and desires. Markets could play a role in this, according to Frase. We’re used to think of the market as a fundamental and almost exclusive component of a capitalist economy, where pretty much anything can be commodified and traded on some market (including of course our time and labour).
But a market, for any one particular type of thing or service, can also be considered as a technology, one with very different meanings and effects depending on the larger social structure in which it is embedded. In our society, characterised by extreme concentrations of wealth and income, the market allocates social power in proportion to money.
However, if we imagine a future society in which everyone is allocated the same basic income and nobody has disproportionate control over wealth, then the pricing mechanism of the market can achieve very different outcomes.
Frase uses the LA Express Park experiment as an example of how markets and central planning can work well together. In this case, for the mundane activity of parking vehicles. Rather than turning parking over to private companies that compete for customer (which would be the typical free-market solution), LA Express Park starts from a simple target: to keep one empty parking space on each street. A system of sensors (installed in the pavement below each space) and algorithms creates price signals that will meet the target. This in turn reduces traffic (drivers congesting streets while looking for free spaces) and maximises revenues for the local government.
Supply and demand are still at work, but instead of market price fluctuations leading to an unpredictable level of production, it is the production target that comes first. In Future Socialism, the market can be used to allocate scarce resources fairly, provided that targets are democratically decided and everyone has access to an equal pool of wealth.
In an unequal society like ours, market planning systems end up being unequal: a high parking price still means less to a rich driver than a poor one. The answer is not to discard market planning altogether, but to tackle the underlying inequality that makes current markets so brutal.
Universal Basic Income can be an answer. You can think of UBI as the universal suffrage principle applied to wealth distribution. These days we tend to accept that every citizen gets a vote, regardless of their education, political leanings, social class, etc. If we extend this right-to-vote to a right-to-earn, then every person would get a guaranteed, unconditional amount of wealth (money in our society, but it could be another form of currency in Future Socialism), irrespective of work or any other qualification. If this sounds radical, that’s because it is. But so was universal suffrage only a century ago, and prior to that the idea that no person should be a slave.
There is an extensive debate over the practicalities of UBI, which is beyond the scope of Frase’s book. Let’s say that it is technically possible, if there are enough people who push for its gradual adoption. The question is, would UBI actually tackle the structural inequality of our capitalist system, and would it pave the path for the transition to a fairer society?
Think of the basic income as the ration card that gives you access to your share of all that is scarce in the world.
In Future Socialism, UBI would be useful to manage the distribution and consumption of scarce resources. You would use your income not to buy the products of others’ labour, but rather the right to use up a certain quantity of resources, which by default would be equally allocated. You could still trade one type of consumption permit for another.
Where there is scarcity, there will surely be political conflict, even if this is no longer a class conflict. Conflicts between locales, between generations, between those who are more concerned with the long-term health of the environment and those who prefer more material consumption in the short run — none of these will be easy to solve. But we will at least have arrived on the other side of capitalism as a democratic society, and more or less in one piece.
Whether these ideas sound exciting or horrible to you, let them sink in.
Imagine yourself in 2050.
What kind of future would you like to inhabit?