What do you think of socialism
«Capitalism will end»
Peter, yours Jacobin-Items «Four futures» from 2011 you later expanded into a book, now appears in German in the recently published anthology«Jacobin: The anthology». First of all, can you explain your main argument to us?
"Four Futures" is an attempt to think about possible lines of development of a post-capitalist society by using both tools of social theory and speculative fiction. In it I describe four simplified social structures of the future. Max Weber called this the “ideal type”. Every future arises from the interaction between two parameters.
The first records whether human society has largely overcome shortages and resolved the ecological crisis, or whether it is subject to significant ecological constraints. The second defines whether human society is strongly hierarchically stratified along classes, as is the case today, or whether it has reached a state of material equality, as socialists and communists have long imagined. Four futures result from these parameters: socialism (scarcity-egalitarianism), communism (abundance-egalitarianism), rentism (abundance-hierarchy) and exterminism (scarcity-hierarchy). From this starting point I describe these societies with the help of illustrative examples from works of speculative fiction that take place in worlds that resemble the respective futures I have discussed.
You write almost threateningly that we «have a certainty», namely: «Capitalism will end». At the same time you don't assume that this «end» automatically leads to socialism. Which direction is society going in your eyes? How do you rate the last two years since the publication of your book?
It can be interpreted as threatening, but actually it was meant as a truism, insofar as nothing lasts forever. Capitalism has only existed since the 17th century, or even since the 19th century, if we are talking about industrial capitalism proper. No other system has lasted forever and capitalism is faster moving, more volatile and more greedy for the environment than any other system that preceded it. So the end will come sooner rather than later. But my argument is precisely that what is coming next is not necessarily socialism, and it is not necessarily an improvement on the system we have now. It is a variant of Rosa Luxemburg's famous saying that we have a choice between "socialism or barbarism".
I have always understood my four “futures” as exaggerations and exaggerations of the possibilities and tendencies that already exist today, and I think they still work that way. The movement for eco-socialism and communism seems much more politically plausible today - at least in the United States - than it did a few years ago. But also the forms of barbarism that I call rentism (in which intellectual property is used to restrict access to material abundance) and exterminism (in which the rich use technology to make themselves redundant from climate change and from the masses of the suffering protecting earlier workers) have become far more real in the past few years. But it is climate change, and the related attempts by the rich to protect themselves from its effects, that has evolved far faster than I anticipated.
If automation offers either the possibility of mass unemployment or radically expanded leisure time, who will ultimately make the decision? Can we radically cut working hours under capitalism without creating a bloated industrial reserve army and dropping unit labor costs?
Ultimately, the decision is made through political struggles. It was the struggles of socialists and trade unionists that led to the 8-hour day and the right to paid leave. Today, with wage growth lagging behind economic growth for decades, the argument to cut hours without cutting wages is stronger than ever. Shorter working hours, possibly in conjunction with an unconditional basic income, automation can lead to shared abundance rather than impoverishment. But we cannot expect the market to automatically deliver this result. It requires action from trade unions, social movements and state politics.
These demands can undoubtedly be enforced under capitalism. However, whether capitalism with a strong welfare state and an empowered workers movement is stable in the long run is a more complicated question. The way I understand the crisis in the social democratic welfare states after the 1970s is not the case. At some point, the constraints on their profitability and privileges become intolerable to capital. This creates a crisis that either leads to neoliberal cuts or a break with capitalism. Therefore, our movements must be prepared for this eventuality, but at the same time recognize that we are still a long way from it today.
A central theme of your work is the looming ecological catastrophe and how we can find a way out of or around it. One possibility that you are addressing is «Geoengineering», i.e., human-powered technological interventions in the natural world to reverse, or at least postpone, the worst effects of global warming. That is quite controversial. Especially in the German context, the support of a few would be JacobinAuthors * for nuclear power as a transitional energy source downright explosive. How do you feel about nuclear power and geoengineering in general? Are They Possibly a Necessary Evil?
Nuclear power in particular is something that I'm not really worried about. The political resistance to this is enormous. Even France, with its historically very positive attitude, is not moving any further in this direction. Apart from that, even if we assume that political resistance can be overcome and the problem of waste disposal can be resolved, the time window necessary to be able to provide sufficient amounts of nuclear power is simply too great in view of the imminent crisis that is ahead.
But I think we have to talk seriously about geoengineering in general. Science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson (whose work is discussed in the “Socialism” chapter of “Four Futures”) was right when he recently argued that the left felt the need for a democratic, internationally agreed project of geoengineering in should take some form seriously.
That is not to say that there is a replacement can be for efforts to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible and to resort to other, clean energy sources, such as wind, solar or water energy. And research into intentional climate manipulation undoubtedly poses dangers - both because some people will use it to distract from the need to detach the energy system from carbon, and because of the potential for enormous unintended consequences. But it is becoming increasingly clear that with current levels of carbon in the atmosphere and emissions projected for the immediate future, severe or even catastrophic global warming will be inevitable unless some form of geoengineering is used.
The capitalist class and capitalist states are already seriously considering geoengineering, and if left to them, they will likely implement it in a way that will benefit disproportionately rich people and countries and disadvantage the poor and marginalized. Therefore, it is imperative that the left have an answer other than a categorical no to any attempt to either remove carbon from the atmosphere or reduce the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, or any other direct anti-global warming strategy .
Within the ruling class, the offspring of Silicon Valley are arguably the loudest group when it comes to talking about saving the environment and creating new forms of employment. They don't portray themselves as traditional capitalists making profits by exploiting other people's labor, but rather as noble visionaries and dreamers who just happened to end up in the private sector. To what extent, if at all, do you think Silicon Valley capitalism will be able to address the key challenges facing humanity? Or is it nothing more than a fraud?
Showing real innovations or major projects in Silicon Valley is difficult. Sure, electric cars are nice and there is some progress here and there, such as with battery technology. At the same time, some projects are rather ridiculous, like Tesla's “Hyperloop”. The proposal contained therein would cost an enormous amount of money in order to achieve less than if one invested properly in the public transport infrastructure. In addition, many products from “green” companies are just something to feel good about, as if something ecologically valuable is being done, regardless of any real impact. To take just one example, I recently saw startups claiming that they were reducing food waste by selling "ugly" products that other retailers had rejected. But it turns out that they are diverting food that would otherwise go to food banks, thereby undermining community-sponsored local farming programs by undercutting their prices. It is a very classic example of selling the feeling of green consumption without really anything behind it.
Government sponsored research makes any private sector research measly, and real steps will continue to be made there, even if private corporations have a role to play. For example, the German government policy on renewable energy and the support of the Chinese state for its solar industry to meet German demand have brought us much closer to a green future than anything that Silicon Valley has ever produced. Of course there are problems with the Chinese competition and its consequences for the national producers in Germany. But the point is, it is still governments, not private capitalists, who have shown the will and ability to take steps towards saving the planet.
What about individual freedom? Given the magnitude of the challenges we face, one can understand why the importance of individual rights is downplayed or less emphasized. How important is individual freedom in these scenarios? Can there be collective emancipation without individual freedom?
I think that depends on what you mean by individual freedom. The prevailing ideology in capitalist societies defines freedom in a very specific individualized way, which at the same time ignores certain widespread forms of bondage. Political scientist Corey Robin points out that a large part of the population spends a large part of their time in an environment in which they have few individual freedoms: the workplace. Only when you understand freedom to be “free” to take on any job that enables survival will there be a contradiction between increased freedom and the expansion of social rights.
On the environmental side, some people may think of a high gas tax as a restriction on their individual right to drive a large, gas-guzzling car. But if that tax revenue is used to invest in public transport, then freedom of movement is increased in a different way. So even if I believe that the rights of freedom of expression and assembly are necessary for any emancipatory future, I also think that the bigger question is rather that of social priorities and ways of organizing our lives in order to create an environmentally friendly version of it, what the Paris Communards called "communal luxury," a term revived by Kristin Ross in her recent book on the Commune.
Nick Srnicek, Author of Inventing the future and Platform capitalism, will be on the About: morning conference speak of our foundation, which focuses on medium-term alternatives to capitalism. What do you think about the mindset of the «Accelerationism»he is often associated with? Does this overlap with your own ideas?
Every now and then I joke that great people like Nick exist so that I can position myself as a kind of "soft accelerationist" versus their tougher variety. I share the accelerationists' preference for automating necessary work in order to increase everyone's autonomy and free time. Yet in some ways the accelerationist argument tends to accept the intensification of capitalism independent of public scrutiny - even if this is less of a problem with Srnicek than with others, and it undoubtedly cannot be compared to the misanthropic extreme of right-wing accelerationism that you are find land with people like Nick.
But I think slogans like "demand full automation" sometimes mislead, as if they are asking capitalists to be better capitalists. I prefer to argue that the struggle for higher wages and stronger workers' organizations creates the incentives to invent and implement labor-saving technologies, which may not happen when employers have access to a large pool of cheap, docile human labor. However, I share the accelerationist perspective, which insists that replacing human labor with machines should not simply be rejected by the left. Instead, it should fight to ensure that the benefits of automation are distributed as widely as possible, and that technology in the workplace really serves the purpose of reducing working hours rather than increasing control over work.
Given the state of the world, what do you think is the best that people living today can hope for politically? Slogans like «fully automated luxury communism» may make themselves nice as provocative newspaper articles, but are hardly a real roadmap for the next 20-30 years. What is your socio-political roadmap?
It seems very much like an updated version of the socialist and social democratic organizations that built the 20th century welfare state. Interestingly, it seems at the moment that the biggest upswing is taking place in the historic laggard nations, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. While in the rest of Europe the old social democratic parties are falling apart and left alternatives like Die Linke seem unable to replace them or stop the rise of the right.
In the UK, there is Jeremy Corbyn and the Labor takeover movement around him. Of course we have Trump in the US and in that sense it looks bleak. But at the same time there was the surprising success of the Bernie Sanders campaign and recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the most powerful Democrat in the House of Representatives under the banner of democratic socialism. Left-wing politics are very popular - universal health care under the Medicare for All label has become immensely popular in just a few years.
For my part, I am active in the local group of the Democratic Socialists of America and our day-to-day work includes promoting general health care, or local leftist candidates we support. But it also means reading up on the communal housing policy of the Red Vienna or even the Paris Commune and discussing them so that we can also develop a long-term vision.
In the same vein: do you think that the left has a responsibility to provide models for the future - utopian visions of what tomorrow might look like? Or should we just focus on preventing the coming global catastrophe and worrying about the rest later? What are the immediate steps socialists and socialist organizations should take?
We do not need “recipes for the cookshop of the future”, as Marx condescendingly called them, nor can we really create them. I.e.it is impossible to produce an exact, detailed blueprint for future society in advance, because a new society must be democratically and collectively created by the movement itself.
But I don't think you can build a really ambitious mass movement that aims to radically transform society - and that's what we need - if you just focus on averting disaster. During their climax, the socialist and communist movements offered workers not only an answer to poverty and exploitation, but also a possible vision of an emancipated society and economy controlled by workers. And that is all the more important when a large part of the day-to-day work of socialist politics does not seem particularly utopian or radical.
In the USA, where I live, the focus of everyday work is on things like guaranteed access to free health care and education, and on getting liberal politicians to stop accepting money from the profiteers of fossil fuels. In order for people to remain determined and motivated, these reforms must be placed within a larger vision aimed at the decommodification of work and a completely carbon-free economy. This is necessary so that people do not burn out or give up. I see my work as a contribution to this, together with the theorists and the artists who have inspired me.
Peter Frase is editor at Jacobin Magazine and author of Four futures (Verso, 2016). He is also vice chairman of the Hudson Valley branch of the Democratic Socialists of America.
The interview was conducted by Loren Balhorn for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Translation by Johannes Liess.
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