From rentism to communism
Peter Frase Four futures: life after capitalism Verso, 2016, pp160, £8.99
For once, it is not too late to write a review of a book which was published three years ago. The author is talking about the end of capitalism and possible outcomes, which will not happen tomorrow! But, if the two ‘neo-nasties’, Johnson and Trump, are to share power in the coming period, then Anglo-American neoliberalism will be seriously destabilised, and who knows what will happen? - except that the rational idea of a Green New Deal to counteract climate change will take a back seat to military spending, and further tax cuts for the rich! (Military spending is also a major contributor to fossil fuel emissions.) Meanwhile the ongoing technological revolution - ie, automation - will continue to be antithetical to the interests of the majority of human beings.
In essence Peter Frase’s argument is this: As a result of the capitalocene epoch (a mere second or two in terms of geological time), along with the defeat of the social revolution in the 20th century, we are now faced with an existential threat to the human species and the ecosystem upon which we depend. The present is also characterised by the coexistence of two contradictory factors: scarcity and abundance. Scarcity is the consequence of global warming (man-made or otherwise) and capitalist-led destruction of the environment, including animal habitats, upon which we rely (eg, insects), which threatens the future existence of millions of people. This, in turn, has spawned the rise of new, barbaric, genocidal political movements (eg, the Janjaweed in Sudan - now in alliance with a corrupt government, whose ill-gotten gains are invested in the international financial markets). Abundance refers to money and power, as well as technology, in the form of computerisation and automation in the hands of the few. Whilst this is making workers obsolete, the rich few are getting even richer, because they also own and control the technology. This is linked to ‘rentism’ - capitalism in a new form (a difficult concept, which I will explain later).
Frase is right to argue that capitalism will end, but we do not know how or when, and at what cost. Obviously, when considering the future, we have to begin with what is happening now, except we need to add the observation that during the period of neoliberal capitalism (about 40 years) this has widened the gap between rich and poor to unprecedented, obscene levels (eclipsing that of all previous civilisations). On this basis, he puts forward the notion that there are four possible futures for humanity:
Communism (based on equality and abundance).
Rentism (hierarchy and abundance).
Socialism (equality and scarcity).
Exterminism (hierarchy and scarcity).
Although Frase does not spell this out, by ‘hierarchy’ I think he means the continuation of private property relations, alienated labour (even if that comes to an end for many, alienation will continue to exist, since it is a social phenomenon: eg, religious alienation), along with commodity fetishism (since the market is likely to continue) - not forgetting the ongoing bourgeois hierarchical division of labour, which separates intellectual from practical labour; it also reinforces the other impediments to consciousness.
Frase does not make any predictions directly. But the worrying thing is that he does not give sufficient weight to the need for “communist mass consciousness” (as Marx puts it), without which we will not have the revival of the “social revolution”; therefore the telos of humanity cannot be fulfilled (since it is not predestined!). Socialism requires social ownership of the productive forces, as well as planning for humanity’s needs as a whole, which will restore a harmonious relationship between humanity and the rest of nature. But under capitalism and its market, this necessary interaction is ruled, “as by some blind power”. If things continue the way they are, rentism and exterminism are the most likely outcomes.
For Frase, rentism means that those who own and control “the copyrights and patents [of new technologies] become the new ruling class”. It is a system based on the “extraction of rents rather than the accumulation of capital through commodity production” (p71). Exterminism means getting rid of human beings who are surplus to capitalism’s requirements. This is already happening (see below). Thus I agree with what Frase says in his conclusion: “all four futures are already here” - except that they are “unevenly distributed” (p150).
I shall focus mainly on his introduction, because it takes up almost a quarter of the book (ie, it is a summary of what follows). Frase begins with a pastiche of the opening words of the Communist manifesto: “Two spectres are haunting the earth in the 21st century: ecological catastrophe and automation” (p1). The former (wherein capitalism and its market are exacerbating what might also be a natural phenomenon) is clearly harmful to the future of all life on the planet. The second is harmful to the mass of humanity, because it is under the control of the capitalist class, whose primary interest is to make a profit, not to satisfy human needs.
On the one hand, we have “acidification of the oceans, the increasing frequency of droughts and extreme storm events … loss of agricultural land and habitable environments [which points] ultimately to the demise of an earth that can support life” (pp1-2). On the other, “nearly half the jobs in the United States today are vulnerable to computerisation … [There is also] The fear … that a fully robotised economy that produces so much, with so little human labour, [will lead to a situation when] there is no longer any need for workers.” Therefore we are facing “a crisis of scarcity and a crisis of abundance at the same time” (p2, my emphasis). On the one side, we have scarcity, related to the emerging ecological catastrophe: eg, lack of land for food; on the other, we have an abundance of money/wealth, as well as technology itself - except it is in the hands of a few rich and powerful people. (Cf the idea that communism already exists, but only for the 1%!)
Apropos automation, Frase asks, what has been the outcome of this so far? Labour’s demise has been greatly exaggerated, despite an increase in productivity (output per worker). Instead we have a decline in traditional manufacturing, which leads to unemployment, combined with a huge increase in unskilled, low-wage jobs. This “doesn’t add anything to human flourishing”; it only “exists to enrich someone else’s bottom line” (p16). But then mass consumption is also falling, because people do not earn enough to buy what is on offer. This leads to capitalist underinvestment and a decline in profits.
The only rational solution for capitalism would be to go back to state interventionism: ie, a Keynesian economic stimulus to train workers for new, well-paid jobs that could be created to replace the old ones - eg, a Green New Deal to replace jobs based on burning fossil fuels, which would help to solve the climate-change crisis. So far the managerial bureaucracy which runs the system on behalf of the capitalist class has refused to do that, fearing that it might lead to a more militant working class and a revolutionary situation (cf 1968). For the same reason, there is little appetite for the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, in order to boost consumer spending and stimulate growth.
Yet the “spectre of climate crisis” looms closer. Frase points out that “those who deny the existence of human-caused climate change entirely … are backed by the very deep-pocketed corporate interests and [they] have prominent advocates within major political parties”. Further,
the key question … is not whether climate change is occurring, but rather who will survive the change ... It may be possible for a small elite to continue to pollute the planet, protecting their own comfort while condemning most of the world’s population to misery. But we cannot trust the free market to deliver solutions.
For “the enlightened eco-capitalists turn out to not really be so different from the troglodyte denialists”. So far, the “high-tech solutions [are only] accessible to the rich” (p20): eg, electric cars.
Frase rightly criticises the technophiles: eg, Martin Ford’s Rise of the robots or Derek Thompson’s A world without work: “Each insists that technology is rapidly making work obsolete, but they flail vainly at an answer to the problem of making sure that technology leads to shared prosperity rather than increasing inequality.” More importantly, “The one thing missing from all these accounts … is politics and specifically class struggle” (pp21-22).
Finally Frase turns to the elephant in the room: “the crisis of the capitalist economy itself”. He points out that “neither climate change nor automation can be understood as problems (or solutions) in and of themselves”. Whilst he does not provide an extended analysis of the causes of the crisis, at least he says that capitalism is coming to an end, so the crisis is terminal - not a ‘long recession’. On the other hand, the masses understand the effects of this crisis: whilst they do not necessarily see the need to overthrow the system, “Occupy Wall Street struck a chord, with the slogan, ‘We are the 99%’, drawing attention to the fact that almost all the gains from economic growth in recent decades have accrued to 1% or less of the population” (pp22-23). He ends his introduction with:
The two crises are fundamentally about inequality as well. They are about the distribution of scarcity and abundance, about who will pay the costs of ecological damage and who will enjoy the benefits of a highly productive, automated economy. There are ways to reckon with the human impact on the earth’s climate, and there are ways to ensure that automation brings material prosperity for all rather than impoverishment and desperation for most. But those possible futures require a very different kind of economic system than the one that became globally dominant by the late 20th century (p23).
The rest of his introduction is devoted to Rosa Luxemburg’s thesis, ‘either socialism or barbarism’ (my emphasis), which has its genesis in Marx. As Frase says, this is “truer today than it has ever been” (p27).
At the same time, he reminds us that technology and machines per se are not the problem. Machines should be made to “serve us rather than controlling us as in the movie, The matrix” (p28). In this regard, he touches upon what he sees as a challenge to post-capitalist society as well: even though production and planning will be in the hands of the majority, there will still be a problem of automation, since the latter reduces the need for human labour, although, “We will still have to do at least a little work to manage and maintain the machine” (p28).
On the other hand, as Scott Meikle points out, eventually we will no longer have a society wherein “the supply of social labour itself has the value form thrust upon it”. Compare Marx’s “treatment of the value form, which is at the heart of Capital ...” The latter begins with the idea of “an essence in embryo, ‘the elementary or accidental form of value’ [which must then proceed] through a series of necessary metamorphoses of the form”, until we reach a society of abundance, whereupon the value form comes to an end.1
Capitalism is coming to an end, but under the conditions of scarcity and abundance. Automation (which is in abundance) is a constant, but for the majority this is nullified by ecological crisis and class power (p28). It then becomes a question of just how bad the ecological crisis will become, since it is doubtful that capitalism will make the necessary shift in time to renewable energy, combined with developing new methods - including the useful application of automation, artificial intelligence, even robots - to reverse climate change, as well as the pollution and degradation of the environment. As for class power, somehow the mass of direct producers of surplus value have to develop adequate consciousness on a collective basis, in order to overthrow the capitalist class.
But in order for that to be achieved, as I said earlier, both the masses - and the left - have to deal with the impediment of the bourgeois hierarchical division of labour and its effects: ie, the separation of intellectual from practical labour, which is imbedded within the structure of capitalist society. Frase does not consider this. But he is right to point out that we are faced with
the massive inequality of wealth, income and political power in the world today ... To the extent that the rich are still able to maintain their power, we will live in a world where they enjoy the benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction, if we survive at all (p29).
It goes without saying that, if - and when - the masses do rebel, “capitalism as a system of class power with a ruling elite will try to preserve itself into any possible future” (p30). That is to put it mildly! To make matters worse, today the masses are moving towards the right - ie, populism and nationalism - rather than to the left: ie, socialism (as Marx and Engels et al define it).
Therefore Frase appears to err on the side of rational pessimism: he quotes the German sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck: “the end of capitalism … is already under way ...” According to Streeck,
We cannot know when or how exactly capitalism will disappear and what will succeed it; what matters is that no force is on hand that can be expected to reverse the three downward trends in economic growth, social equality and financial stability and end their mutual reinforcement.2
Apropos Frase’s four possible futures, this presents another problem, since he puts them in an abstract way, which is also the wrong order: communism versus rentism, socialism versus exterminism. Maybe he decided that it is just too depressing to begin with a more realistic dialectic? It also contradicts his earlier pronouncement that, if things continue in the same way, then the most likely outcome will be rentism and exterminism (backed up by Streeck’s pessimistic view of how capitalism might end).
But I shall proceed with what I consider to be the correct order!
Rentism: This “is largely a reflection on intellectual property and what happens when the private property form is applied to more and more immaterial patterns and concepts that guide our culture and economy” (p32). This is rather vague, but he spells this out more in a later chapter. It means that the internet is in private corporate hands, which is rented out for human needs: eg, finding a place to live, getting information about philosophy, science, the arts, politics, etc - as well as unnecessary wants, which are manufactured by the advertising industry. The latter is a reflection of private property relations (which, as Marx says, have made us “so stupid and one-sided that an object is only ours when we have it ...”), along with the “inverting power” of money, which “transforms nonsense into reason and reason into nonsense”.3
Again this is reinforced by the bourgeois hierarchal division of labour: “Rentiers create nothing, make nothing, do nothing; they just passively accept the rewards of ownership” (p73). This is a misuse of technology. Add to this the way in which the internet is being used for consumer surveillance: ie, the use of algorithms as a means to direct our attention towards the products which the market thinks we are interested in; not forgetting the way in which the state uses internet technology to spy on the populace in defence of its interests. Thus rentism becomes the latest means for perpetuating scarcity in abundance, whilst we head towards an ecological catastrophe or even a nuclear war.
Exterminism: As has already been said, this is easily understood. But, however grim, we need to realise that this is already happening to our fellow humans. Therefore it requires the least amount of explanation: it is “the story of the militarisation of the world - a phenomenon that encompasses everything from endless war in the Middle East to black teenagers being shot down by police on the streets of American cities” (p33).
Socialism: This is the “story about the climate crisis and our need to adapt to it”. Frase then adds that this requires us to ditch what he calls “old leftist shibboleths about nature and the market”, which “impede us” (p32). He means Green-leftists, who put the preservation of nature above that of human beings.
He asks to what extent we are required to reduce our carbon footprints. This
implies that nature exists in some pristine state and that the task of humans is to withdraw from nature in order to save it. This way of thinking is ultimately a denial of humans as natural biological beings, inseparably a part of nature - just as [the technophile advocates] of transhumanism [my emphasis] yearn to upload consciousness into computers in order to be free of the organic world altogether (p102).
Well said! But we need a revival of the social revolution in order to re-establish the necessary harmony between the human species and the rest of nature. As for the market, it will continue under socialism, until such a time when society is able to provide human needs in abundance for all. But will we get there?
Communism: For Frase, communism is “when life is not centred around wage labour and what kind of hierarchies and conflicts arise, in a world no longer structured by the master narrative of capitalism” (p32). He could have added Marx’s own ideas: ie, it means emancipated humanity, because communist society abolishes the contradiction between “work and pleasure; between the play of bodily and mental powers”. The abolition of classes leads to the gradual disappearance of the contradiction between intellectual and practical labour: ie, the all-sided development of the individual as homo aestheticus. In a communist society “the associated producers regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bring it under their common control, instead of some blind power”, and establishes the material basis for “the development of human power, which is its own end, the true realm of freedom ... The shortening of the working day is its fundamental premise.”4
How will capitalism end? All the evidence suggests that a transitional capitalism is already under way. But in the absence of a conscious revolutionary movement, it is moving towards rentism, combined with exterminism: hierarchy (of class rule) and scarcity (climate change and the slide towards ecological catastrophe and species extinction, much of which we actually need for our own existence) within an abundance of wealth, power and technology, which is in the hands of the 1%.
Thus, as things stand, we will be lucky to get to socialism, let alone the communism envisaged by Marx.
1. S Meikle Essentialism in the thought of Karl Marx London 1985, p10.
2. W Streeck, ‘How will capitalism end?’ New Left Review 2:87, 2014, p47. See Frase, p32.
3. K Marx Economic and philosophical manuscripts London 1992, p351, 378-79.
4. K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1966, p820.