The Art of the Possible: Peter Frase’s “Four Futures”

By Jedediah PurdySeptember 27, 2016

The Art of the Possible: Peter Frase’s “Four Futures”

Four Futures by Peter Frase

HISTORY, THE SOCIAL THEORIST Roberto Unger once observed, is genuinely surprising: it does not just seem that way. A corollary comes from Yogi Berra: it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. Yet — to continue in a Yogic vein — where do we have more at stake than in the future? Just because we never get it right, should we never think about it at all?

An obvious rejoinder — that we should think about the future more rigorously, extrapolating from what we can confidently know in the present — only makes things worse. The problem with the genuine surprises of history is that we do not know how to make them unsurprising. Forecasting from what we do know is a token of false confidence, an epistemic Maginot Line.

The critic Peter Frase tries to wriggle out of this conundrum in Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. The result is well worth reading. An energetic blend of polemic, book report, and caffeinated blog post, Four Futures essays more lines of argument in 149 short pages than many respectable op-ed pages manage in a year. Frase aims to make conjecture about the future useful by yoking what may seem to be wild fantasies (read: genuine surprises) to rigorously specified problems. His unconventional pair of tools is science fiction and social theory. As he puts it, in a kind of methodological motto, “Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory.” Both, that is, aim to look beyond the horizon of the future and the veil of events; but only one recognizes its feral relation to fact, and so remains sane in its partial, probing unreality. With problems like ours, Frase insists, getting real demands a dose of antirealism.


The rigor of Four Futures, such as it is, comes from a schema of urgent questions. Frase begins from the observation that both utopia and dystopia seem closer than ever to realization, and are perhaps approaching at the same speed. The upcoming utopia is the long-anticipated conquest of scarcity and abolition of labor. The next wave of automation, driven by algorithms, supple robotics, and 3-D printing, promises — or threatens — “a fully robotized economy that produces so much, with so little human labor, that there is no longer any need for workers.” (Frase concedes that, in practice, some people will be needed to do some things, but imagining the total abolition of necessary human labor helps him to get his ideas clear; his approach is, as he puts it, “deliberately hyperbolic, sketching out simplified ideal types to illustrate fundamental principles.”) At the same time, ecological disaster is steaming down the dystopian track in the forms of climate change and resource exhaustion. With one hand, the world promises a dream of plenitude; with the other, a nightmare of scarcity.

How to think about these prospects together? Frase suggests that two pairs of alternatives combine to point toward four possible worlds: “two socialisms and two barbarisms,” he jokes, adapting Rosa Luxemburg. These are the “four futures” of his title. A sketch of these worlds gives us one rough map of the road, or roads, ahead. The alternatives go roughly like this. If we achieve both material abundance and social equality, then we will have communism: a world where our major problem will be how to spend our days, now that we no longer have to barter them for survival. If we achieve equality without conquering scarcity — if we head into the pincer of climate change, soil exhaustion, water shortages, and so forth with strengthened democracy and a strong principle of equal human worth — then we will be living in socialism, an often hard world where both burdens and advantages are shared in ways that people agree to on equal terms.

If, on the other hand, we end up in a world where social hierarchy persists or even deepens, the alternatives for most people look much bleaker. In a future of abundance where a small number of people continue to own the 3-D printers, or the raw materials, or the copyrights and patents for the machines and their programs — whatever the bottleneck may be to others’ access to plenitude — we will be in a world of rentism, after “rentier,” the economics term for those who collect wealth just by sitting on valuable resources without actually adding anything of value. This is the situation today of The Walt Disney Company, which continues to hoard all intellectual property rights to characters developed as early as the 1920s, and of Martin Shkreli, the speculator who recently stirred controversy by jacking up prices on a patented AIDS drug.

Frase’s grimmest future though, combines scarcity and hierarchy. With this pairing, he argues, we might be looking down the barrel of what he calls exterminism: a more or less explicit commitment to the elimination of people who produce no economic value. “A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor,” Frase argues, “is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience.” In such a world, the ruling class’s response might range “from repression to outright extermination.” The scenario of exterminism crystallizes both the strength and the weakness of Frase’s speculative method. In a sense, exterminism is already here. Resource crises promise to make very explicit how the comfort of some can rest on the deprivation of others, as in the water politics of the Middle East, for example. Post-industrial societies have a rather miserable record with people they have come to see as economically superfluous. Black urban populations abandoned in the industrial cities of the northern United States a few decades after the Great Migration, from Oakland to Detroit to Bridgeport, may be the canary in the coal mine of history here. Drone assassinations of targets designated terrorists might foreshadow a more or less perennial regime of politics-plus-technology for weeding out the most inconvenient people.

The exterminist future is one where zero-sum interdependence intensifies much more quickly than bonds of either sympathy or political connection. Like all worst-case scenarios, it is helpful to bear in mind. But it also feels like too great a leap, as if the momentum accumulated from examples of familiar kinds of social neglect and repression could carry Frase across the abyss to inferno. Discussing mass incarceration, he quotes Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy to the effect that California’s prison conditions were recently “incompatible with the concept of human dignity.” Well, yes. But the source of authority here isn’t Jacobin or even The New York Times: it’s a Reagan-appointed justice, who is still regarded as a conservative except among culture warriors who hate his gay rights rulings and his waffling on abortion and affirmative action, in an opinion directing California to reduce crowding in its prisons. The world is in terrible shape on humanitarian grounds, but it is also about as sentimentally and notionally cosmopolitan about “human dignity” as it’s ever been. The age of endless war is also the age of human rights, including wars waged according to rather rigorous procedures for protecting individuals compared to anything that existed during, say, the Vietnam War. The omission of these complicating, countervailing considerations makes Frase’s discussion of exterminism feel lopsided, like an assemblage of your like-minded friends’ Facebook posts after some attention-grabbing atrocity.

But maybe I am being too complacent. Frase did get me thinking about the limit case of social evil, and that’s really the goal of his schema. He is clear that his purpose is not to win bets or compete with Nate Silver, but to help mark the landscape of possible futures so that readers can act to bend the world toward the best and away from the worst. Frase consistently insists that “where we end up will be a result of political struggle.” Technology may set the horizons of material possibility, but it doesn’t determine how its benefits are distributed, nor does it decide whether our political orders are equal or unequal, inclusive or exclusionary. This book is an exercise in public thinking as a political act, charting courses for movement-builders and citizens. In a project of that sort, a somewhat hysterical dystopia is worth the time of day.


Another way to understand Frase’s book is as a kind of radical, humanities-inflected foray into the space opened two years ago by the appearance of Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking, best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty’s 200-year global study of trends in wealth and income inequality showed that, contrary to the premises of mainstream economics and the law-and-policy worlds that it has substantially colonized, increases in aggregate wealth are not necessarily good for everyone. Most of the gains of economic growth in recent decades have gone to very few people. Growth has not only failed to make others better off, by creating a more unequal world, where everything from political influence to social standing and dignity is distributed in line with wealth, it may have made their lives substantially worse. This is why it’s so helpful to regard the future, as Frase does, as a set of possible distributive scenarios: more or less equal or unequal control of the world’s resources will shape the kind of world people can hope to inhabit.

The great value of Frase’s four rigorously simplified societies (which he calls “ideal types,” borrowing from the sociologist Max Weber) is not that the future will be the pure form of one or the other, but that any future is likely to be a mélange of two or more. If you hope to see more of what Frase calls communism and less of rentism, you should be very interested in who controls the technologies of cheaply reproducible goods: digital books and music, 3-D printing and biological engineering, and, ultimately, the underlying resources of soil, fuel, sun, and wind that the technologies rely on and deploy. If you are convinced that ecological scarcity and superfluous labor pools will tend to encourage the logic of exterminism, you should be interested in any political movement that mobilizes and empowers workers now, so that their strength in the future does not depend on their usefulness to those who control the technologies that may make them obsolete.

In these ways, Frase’s antirealist conjecture is deeply practical and realistic. It is not a slave to facts that we now know, but it should be immensely useful in sorting the importance of future facts as they arise. Increasingly, these are sure to be facts that people have made, the symptoms of our collective world-making. They might intensify our best tendencies toward freedom and equality, or our worst, toward hierarchy, exploitation, and mutual indifference. To have maps of these possible futures, we will have to accept that they are partly fantastical: one part cost-benefit analysis, one part Tolkien chart of the borders of Mordor. Frase’s imaginative efforts are a fine early report from that terrain.


Jedediah Purdy is the author of five books, including After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene.

LARB Contributor

Jedediah Purdy lives in Carrboro, North Carolina, and teaches law and political thought at Duke. He is the author of five books, including After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene. You can follow him on Twitter.


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