Book Review: “Four Futures” — Surprisingly Relevant ‘Social Science Fiction’

By Lucas Spiro

Inspired by science fiction and its speculative scenarios, Peter Frase envisions how our current bedeviling social contradictions and economic abuses may play out in the future.

Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Peter Frase. Verso Press, 160 pages, $16.95.


In 2016, I reviewed Peter Frase’s short book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism for this magazine. My review is below. Back then, I wrote that his goal was “to provide existential inspiration, to encourage the current generation to act now – after considering, empathetically and imaginatively, how current social relations intimate the different shapes of the world to come.” Frase’s book is a work of “social science fiction,” using high- and low-brow references to speculate on possible futures based on how we live now.

Frase returns to his observations in a recent article in the socialist magazine Jacobin. His article, “The Rise of the Party of Death,” recognizes one of his possible “four futures” as currently playing out in real time. Unfortunately, the possible future that he recognizes is what he calls “exterminism.”

Exterminism is the market’s way of signaling that it has no use for a large part of the population. In his original book, Frase suggests that automation will have a lot to do with this strategy and it does. But the outbreak of the current pandemic is also highlighting dangerous corporate survival strategies. A lot of people working at home right now are beginning to realize that their job may easily become more or less useless. Some are probably worried that, right now, robots are being ordered  to replace them.

The market has its handmaids, too. In the Jacobin article, Frase argues that “Rising among the ruling class — centered on the Republican Party, but not found only there — is what we might call the Party of Death.” Trump is eager to restart the economy, which will put millions of Americans and other people around the world at risk of illness and death. He is more than willing to sacrifice human life for profit. The stock market (for him) is his only means of public judgment. And there are parts of the media who would seem to agree, putting more stock in Wall Street than in the need to preserve human life and dignity. Voices in the New York Times and Washington Post have warned that we be sure “the cure isn’t worse than the disease.”

On the other side of the aisle, the Biden campaign and the Democratic Party urged people to participate in a poorly planned, chaotic, and potentially deadly set of primaries in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona. The goal was for their preferred candidate to suck up a few more delegates. I hope it was worth it, Joe.

Situations like the one we’re in now are hard to imagine until they’re happening. While Frase did not pretend to be prophetic, his speculations are useful for thinking about what comes next. People refer to a “new normal,” but they’re talking about it as if we have no say in what that might look like. A “new normal”  may mean “everything is changed, changed utterly.” We have no idea of what lies ahead, but we have seen the corporate playbook regarding the aftermath of a crisis before. “Now is the time for ‘disaster socialism’ of a sort,” Frase argues in his latest article, “our counterpart to the ‘disaster capitalism’ identified by Naomi Klein, in which an immediate crisis is used as the pretext to push through fundamental structural changes.” We need to be prepared to fight for ways to shape the “new normal” that is to come.

After the Great Depression, America chose the New Deal. After WWII, the European democracies chose national health services and robust welfare states. After the savings and loans crisis the US government created banks that were “too big to fail.” After 9/11, America chose to give up its privacy and to sacrifice the lives of Iraqis, Afghans, and others. After Hurricane Katrina, politicians, developers, and lobbyists chose to obliterate entire black neighborhoods, profit from land speculation, and hand over New Orleans’s public school system to Wal-Mart. After the 2008 financial crash and housing crises, nonwealthy people were kicked out of their homes so private equity firms could gobble up new rental properties, robbing a generation of its wealth.

What will we choose this time?

We are facing an era of political uncertainty. The upset victories of Donald Trump and Brexit, rapidly increasing ecological disasters, the rise of leftist and right-wing parties across Europe, and mass migration, all signal a radical unsettling of the current order of things. The passing of Fidel Castro, a giant figure of political transformation and 20th-century socialism, reminds us that the old models are dying off. But the same questions about fashioning a more equitable future remain: what kind of world do we want to live in, and what will be our possible choices?

Peter Frase sketches some possible answers in his stimulating short book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, the latest in the Jacobin magazine series from Verso publishers. Inspired by science fiction and its speculative scenarios, Frase envisions how our current bedeviling social contradictions and economic abuses may play out in the future. Drawing on a variety of leftist economic critiques, the book thinks out various political implications. His goal is to provide existential inspiration, to encourage the current generation to act now — after considering, empathetically and imaginatively, how current social relations intimate the different shapes of the world to come.

Frase’s project is not simple, but his methodology is. He is not in the business of outlining a blueprint for a Marxist utopia. His purpose is “deliberately hyperbolic, sketching out simplified ideal types to illustrate fundamental principles.” He calls Four Futures a work of “social science fiction,” designed to explore possible spaces, not to make predictions. The author’s allegiances are with the Left, but this does not mean his analysis follows predictable grooves. He opens the book with a paraphrase of Marx’s opening lines from The Communist Manifesto. This time, however, the specter of communism is not haunting Europe. Rather, the dual specters of automation and ecological catastrophe haunt our planet, a devastating one-two punch that will put the kibosh on the current economic paradigm, no matter where one falls on the political spectrum.

Frase’s decision to limit his predictions to what he sees as the inevitable breakdown of capitalism does not mean he is a wild-eyed radical. Frase knows that other books speculating about the future have come and gone and, despite empirically based analyses, they have left an unimpressive track record when it comes to gazing at the crystal ball. He also is aware that predictive works, by suggesting a set pattern, tend to undercut activism, reinforcing a passive fatalism. Instead, he sees himself as offering a work of “self-preventing” literature. Capitalism’s contradictions are not questioned: continued automation of human labor and the proliferation of technologies such as 3-D printing and open source software already point to a future that will undercut traditional commodity exchange. What sets Frase apart from providing yet another version of  “apocalyptic” futurism is his interest in how politics and policy can be used to shape the societies of the future.

Frase’s analysis runs along two simple axes. On one hand, there is abundance and scarcity; on the other, there is egalitarianism and hierarchy. The four futures that emerge from the relationships between these two polarities are communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism. The models that Frase describes will be familiar to those who have encountered Slavoj Žižek’s First as Tragedy, Then as Farce and The Year of Dreaming Dangerously (both from Verso). Like Zizek, Frase uses pop culture references to explicate his points, but his book is infinitely more approachable because of the absence of Lacanian and Hegelian jargon. If you’re looking for an orthodox, theory-throttled Marxist analysis, you won’t exactly get it from Frase. But that might make Four Futures the perfect introduction for a generation of newly politicized young people who are embracing the concepts of socialism more readily than their predecessors. The general failure of vanguardist politics in the US, and the “popular front” tone of today’s Left, suggests there is a need for books like Frase’s.

The beauty of science fiction is its ability to hold up a mirror to the horrors of the present. Frase seamlessly interweaves references highbrow (Walter Benjamin and Max Weber) and pop brow, including Star Trek, Star Wars, Elysium and The Hunger Games. When it comes to social inequality, Rosa Luxemburg and William Gibson are on equal footing. By creating what he calls “ideal types” (speculative images of the future), Frase investigates where and how his four futures are already playing out somewhere in the world. The Star Trek replicator is compared to 3D printing, a technology that could potentially make working for a wage meaningless, which would seem to support the rise of communism. Rentism represents a world where goods and services are in abundance, but a powerful hierarchy is in place to control the digital “pattern” of reproduction, such as Monsanto’s herbicide resistant seeds. The unreasonable backlash of the Obama administration against activists like Aaron Swartz and whistleblowers like Edward Snowden shows the fight we face when it comes to maintaining our privacy and the ownership of our digital selves.

Socialism is the most demanding participatory vision of the future. There is scarcity, but there is also egalitarianism, forcing society to pragmatically deal with problems as they arise. It is democratic, but it is also messy. The other side of that coin is exterminism. Scarcity of resources and automated labor make the majority of the population obsolete; meanwhile, the 1 percent lives like the elite in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. This is the bleakest and most violent picture of what’s to come in Four Futures. There are disturbing signs of its plausibility today: multimillion-dollar luxury nuclear bunkers in Germany and plans by zillionaires for commercial space travel; militarized police mistreating people of color and the fight at Standing Rock.

Frase does not assume it will boil down to any one of these four alternatives. Rather, he suggests that the future will most likely be an amalgam of the quartet. The time-to-come will manifest itself in different ways in different parts of the world (and potentially in outer space). Inhumane 19th-century working conditions did not disappear in the 20th, they just moved to China and to Bangladesh. We can glimpse various worlds of tomorrow in the world today. As William Gibson put it, “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”

Lucas Spiro is a writer living outside Boston. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin and his fiction has appeared in the Watermark. Generally, he despairs. Occasionally, he is joyous.

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