Yesterday, WBAI-FM radio’s Arts Express broadcast part two of my interview with Peter Frase, author of the new book Four Futures.
Frase has an intriguing set of ideas about what the future might look like after capitalism destructs, given the ecological constraints of abundance/scarcity and the political constraints of equality/inequality. In this final segment we talk about what might happen if the world’s resources turn out to be strictly limited.
Click on the grey triangle above to tune in.
You can listen to Part One here:
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I just listened to both parts of this interview, and it is quite an amazing discussion. I think Peter Frase has done a marvelous job of trying to think through just where things could go. He leaves out the class struggle, it seems, so it is sort of speculating in a vacuum, but it is a worthwhile discussion anyway.. It is certainly a better crack at what the future could look like than anyone else has done.
One thing that struck me from the outset–did I say this to you before when we talked a bit about the book or the concept of it?–is that he is or appears to be dealing with the issue “in a box,” i.e., as if the modern industrialized capitalist economies–particularly those with the comfortable people who can afford to buy and read his book–are the world, and setting out the options for them/us to cope with or consider. That is a very narrow social sector of the world capitalist economy.
Meanwhile, the worst case scenario already exists in Africa, for example, where in many countries the rich live inside walls or abroad and the masses of the population live in penury or worse. Actually, there are parts of the US where the vast inequities have created something similar–with the rich capitalists living far away leaving the unnecessary labor power/workers to live in destitution. For these sectors of the world working class, that worst-case scenario is.. now.
He certainly does seem to understand Marxist economics, in my view anyhow–M-C-M1 which is in *Capital* Volume 3. I am not sure that he is a dialectical thinker but he surely has tried to apply Marxist economic thought to come with these hypothetical options.
But it all depends on how effectively the working class can manage to organize itself to overthrow capitalism first, as you stated in your opening remark. (Of course, were the working class to do this, it would change its thinking also. I think this is what spoke of when we initially discussed this book. This is all part of the dialectic of the situation.)
One thing I would raise though regarding the consequences of automation is this: human labor, the quantity of human labor power embodied/congealed in any commodity is the source of its exchange value. Or to put it more accurately, the social appreciation of the quantity of socially necessary human labor power embodied in a commodity usually determines its exchange value/the price people on average will pay for it. The less of this socially necessary human labor power that is contained in each commodity, the less its exchange value on average tends to be. Thus, the more automated production becomes, the more of a particular commodity that is produced, the less the social appreciation of the value of this congealed labor power becomes and eventually the commodity becomes so plentiful–“crisis of overproduction”–that the commodity has no value–it is worthless and nobody will pay for it.
Therefore, capitalists can only go so far with automation before the commodities have virtually no socially necessary human labor power embodied in them–except for that quantity embodied in the machines of automation itself which is transferred in minute quantities to the finished product–until it finally has no value at all–either use or exchange. (That is why the working class must be in charge of the technological innovations so as to determine how these are to be applied and how to best accommodate our lives to this new reality.)
So that the capitalists cannot survive if they automate production to where the working class becomes virtually unnecessary because they will lose the source of their profits–the expropriation of surplus value from the exploitation of human labor power. However in some of the nation states on some continents, this can happen, in fact, is happening right now in huge sections of the capitalist world where the working class constitutes a vast army of the unemployed and unemployable, “surplus” labor power.
Have I made sense in trying to explain this???
Thanks a lot for the interviews and bringing this book and Peter Frase’s book to my attention!!!
GOOD WORK, COMRADE!!!!!
ps: I put this in big type to make it easier to read. 🙂
Thanks, Marilyn. This is another one of those discussions with which I wish we could have gone on longer, and with which I wish I was more familiar with the literature.
I’ve run across the Marxist automation analysis before, but I have to admit I don’t really understand it. While automation leads to overproduction and a swelling of the reserve army of labor, it seems to me that for necessities at least–food, clothing, shelter, and kale smoothies (okay, maybe not the latter)—any automation would benefit a producer who could undercut his competition. I don’t see how a necessity could ever lose its value, by the very definition of the word necessity.
And while the ruling class gets its wealth under capitalism from worker’s surplus labor, I think Frase is pointing to a collapse of capitalism where that labor force will no longer be needed 1) because the labor force costs too much to clothe and reproduce; and 2) because sufficient automation means that the ruling class can provide for itself and 3) if other resources are scarce, then the rich want to monopolize those resources for themselves. The convenient solution to all three of these factors would be to eliminate workers through a program of extermination. You could argue that that would no longer be capitalism. True, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t head that way.
Oh, and your comment about the book being very first-world-centric is very astute, I think. I wish I had thought about that and asked him about it. He did briefly mention the Palestinian people’s plight as an example of heading towards exterminism, but I wish I had pushed further on that.