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What Happens After Robots Make Human Labor Obsolete? Peter Frase’s “Four Futures”

Leeron Hoory By Leeron Hoory Published on February 6, 2017

Sales of George Orwell’s 1984 shot to Number 1 on Amazon during Donald Trump’s first week as president of the United States. Other dystopias and political books like Hannah Arendt’s Origin of Totalitarianism and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World also resurged as bestsellers, representing the dark and disorienting political times we are living in.

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It currently looks like Trump and other far-right leaders are prolonging extreme versions of capitalism, yet Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism argues that capitalism must eventually end and when it does, we will either progress into a social system based on equal distribution of wealth, or regress into barbarism. 

Four Futures is an experiment in creative political thinking that maps out four future socialisms, barbarisms, utopias or dystopias that we could be subject to once capitalism ends.

The rapid development of technology and the evolution of climate change have brought forth urgent questions: What will happen when robots take over all of humans’ jobs? Will global warming end human civilization, and if so, when? These questions have been discussed through various cultural mediums and formats for decades, the threat appearing at times more imminent and inevitable than others.

Peter Frase is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at New York's CUNY Graduate Center and editor of the socialist magazine Jacobin. Frase’s methodology is unorthodox. His project is, “not quite a normal work of nonfiction, but it also is not fiction, nor would I put myself in the genre of ‘futurism.’” Instead, he combines social science with speculative fiction to imagine and develop different possibilities for the future. Given the surprising political events of 2016, and an uncertain political future in the coming year, the importance of envisioning foreseeable and realistic possibilities feels more relevant now than ever.

The two biggest anxieties we face, Frase writes, are diametrical opposites. On the one hand, the fear of climate change is driven by scarcity and running out of limited natural resources. On the other, the fear of technological advances is the fear of abundance: a completely robotized economy threatens the need for human labor. In Four Futures, Frase presents us with realistic future possibilities based on how this abundance and scarcity of ecological and then technological outcomes in a post-capitalist world will play out.

The first scenario, communism, is a world in which labor is automated and the need for human labor ends. People are free to do what they want with their time. Citizens receive a minimum stipend, and the biggest question is what to do with one's leisure time. But what happens if automation makes human labor obsolete, but wealth is not distributed equally? Frase notes that technological advances and automation will not lead to a utopia in itself. Even if technology makes our lives better, we’ll still have the same hierarchies we do now and there is little reason to believe the wealthy will give up their power easily. In this case, we’ll end up with the second scenario, rentism, in which labor ends, but wealth is still controlled by a select few through copyright and patents, and the rest of society must pay to access information and intellectual property.

In his third scenario, socialism, automation eliminates the need for labor, but there is no solution to climate change, and so people are still limited as to how much they can consume. The last future is the darkest, but perhaps the one that most closely resonates with our times. Exterminism is a world in which climate change destroys enough of the planet, but not all of it. The elite will have confines protecting them from the earth’s global warming, while everyone else is left to face the heating planet. But because the necessity of labor ends, anyone who is not wealthy will be considered an inconvenience to society and easily exterminated.

Frase intentionally does not highlight this last scenario, as horrifying as it is. “The reason there are four futures, and not just one, is because nothing happens automatically. It’s up to us to determine the way forward,” he writes. How these imminent, yet inevitable changes will play out is ultimately up to the political choices we make about the distribution of resources. His intention is to illustrate that all four of these futures are possible and that automation and climate change don’t necessarily have one fixed positive or negative end.


Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City with a focus in arts and culture.