Nine futures

Everybody needs to unwind with a bit of escapist reading from time to time and, like many people I’m sure, one of my favoured genres in this respect recently has been treatises of left-wing futurology. I’m thinking, for example, of titles like Inventing the Future, How Will Capitalism End?, Alternatives to Capitalism and Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts1. I’ve found all of these books (with one exception, which I’d guess should be obvious from its title) to be interesting and thought-provoking, even if I don’t find myself fundamentally in agreement with them. Another one I’ve read recently, one of the best of the bunch, is Peter Frase’s Four Futures: Life After Capitalism2.

My aim in this post is to use Frase’s book as a cue to discuss some issues of interest to me, rather than reviewing or précising it as such – but I’d certainly recommend taking a look at it. Like many left-futurologists, Frase in my opinion gets a little too excited about the prospect of an automated and jobless future (one of the features of the genre is that you have to mention 3D printing, driverless cars or biomimicry on virtually every page as some kind of avatar of future abundance), but at least the insights he generates from these new-old chestnuts are subtler than most. Frase proposes a 2×2 matrix of future scenarios across the dualities of abundance/scarcity (which he links to the play of ecological outcomes like climate change and resource depletion) and equality/hierarchy (which he links to the outcome of class conflicts over the distribution of resources). It’s a simple device – perhaps an over-simple one – but a useful one. I wish I’d thought of it myself…

Frase fills this matrix with the ‘four futures’ of his title thus:

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Communism Socialism
Hierarchy Rentism Exterminism

In case these concepts aren’t clear I’d precis his ‘communism’ as an egalitarian, leisured world of technologically-undergirded jobless plenty, ‘rentism’ as a capitalism-max, competitive world of endless commodification, ‘socialism’ as a world of egalitarian shared labour to wrest a livelihood from a damaged nature, and ‘exterminism’ as a world in which an impoverished working class whose labour has become superfluous as a result of automation is subjected to increasingly militarised control, and ultimately to extirpation (a process that Frase already detects among other things in the paramilitary police disciplining of African-American youth in the USA). It’s an interesting point inasmuch as discussions of future constraint or collapse often omit class and converge around a kind of Mad Max scenario involving a war of all against all. More likely indeed is intensifying resource competition between rich and poor, with the odds strongly favouring the former.

Frase writes interestingly about all these scenarios – and about how one might bleed into another – raising a host of issues that I hadn’t thought much about, if at all. But, as ever, I want to focus on a couple of points where I disagree with him rather than the many where I agree, if only because they help me develop my larger theme. So, Frase writes “Freedom begins where work ends – the realm of freedom is after hours, on the weekend, on vacation and not at work”3. That’s certainly a familiar story we tell ourselves, but psychological research suggests it’s not necessarily true4: people often rate their feelings of wellbeing higher at work than at play – maybe not so surprising when you consider that at work people are often engaged positively with other people in order to achieve complex ends, which is kind of what humans are evolved to do. Whereas at leisure they’re often kicking around on their own among the alienating appurtenances of contemporary consumer culture, thinking “God, I’m supposed to be having fun – is this really what life’s about?”

Let me leave that thought hanging for a moment, and come on to a second point of disagreement. Frase critiques the ‘nature worshipping’ school of ecological thought, which holds that human actions are wrecking nature, on the grounds that humans are a part of nature – and that nature in any case is never ‘in balance’ but is always profoundly dynamic5. I won’t argue with that, but I’d dispute the merit of turning it into a duality that forces us to choose between ‘nature worship’ or ‘anything goes’. This leads to false choices. For example, Frase talks about the ‘mysterious phenomenon’ of bee colony collapse disorder in the USA, and suggests that one solution might be to manufacture pollinating ‘RoboBee’ micro-machines, concluding “there seems little choice at this stage to deepen our engagement with nature” and that we must “embrace our monsters” (ie. accept that there will be unintended consequences of human actions in the world6). Quite so – but we can deepen our engagement with nature in numerous ways, including by increasing the input of human labour into agriculture (people enjoy working, remember) and de-intensifying the production methods that are prompting colony collapse and other troubling symptoms of over-reach. To do so wouldn’t involve ‘nature worship’ – it would still be a managed human agroecosystem – but it would represent one point on the wide spectrum between sublimating ourselves within nature and assuming total control of it which is effaced in Frase’s bald dichotomy.

It strikes me that with this sort of thing it would help if we started thinking more hierarchically – ‘hierarchically’ not in the everyday sense of the term as rank ordering, like a football league table, but in the more technical sense of a Venn diagram, of parts encompassed by wholes without any necessary rank ordering. So, as indicated in the diagram below, it becomes possible to see that from the human perspective (H) there’s a distinction between the human and the natural, whereas from the perspective of nature (N), there is no such distinction (by the way, the relative size of ‘nature’ vis-à-vis the ‘human’ in the box isn’t intended to indicate their respective importance – it’s more an indicator of my incompetence with software). But it’s doubtful that there’s such a thing as ‘the perspective of nature’, so H and N are really just different manifestations of self-conscious, human theories of being. The natural implies the human and vice versa. It makes as much sense to debate the autonomy of one against the other as the autonomy of up from down.

nature-humanI’d apply the same logic to the way we think about human life as an individual or collective property. Despite a long and bizarre philosophical tradition of social contract theory based around the notion that each person is a sovereign individual who ‘contracts in’ to society, this is clearly not the case. There are aspects of being human that are ineluctably individual (I) and others that are ineluctably social (S), but individualism is contained within sociality: a complete individualism, like a private language, is an impossibility. However, I think it’s reasonable to say there can be different political styles that place greater emphasis on individualism or sociality. Through most of my life, I’ve been suspicious of individualism in politics, because far too often I see it as a right-wing tactic (ab)used by soi disant ‘self-made men’ who weren’t, in fact, made by their selves, but who use the ideology of individualism to kick away the social supports giving succour to other people who are less systemically advantaged.

soc-indiv

But for all that, I think there’s something alive in notions of individuality, autonomy or self-realisation that can’t be negated by truisms about the social nature of humankind. I guess I could try to establish the point with a general argument, but maybe I’ll just make it personal. So – one of the reasons I quit academia and tried to make my way as some kind of farmer was a growing sense of the soullessness of a life spent indoors living off the backs of others, and a diminishing self-respect as my ignorance and inability to create even a semblance of my own material subsistence began to dawn on me. Perhaps you could say that those are just my own issues, magnified through the lens of a culture that vaunts the Robinson Crusoe myth of individualism. Maybe so, though I think people wrestle with issues of self-realisation in every culture, and what interests me in any case is how to deal authentically in the currency of my own. Doubtless there are people who do manage to achieve self-realisation through our contemporary consumer culture – the anthropologist Danny Miller has built virtually his whole career around articulating this point, which is a good one…though it strikes me as something of a rearguard defence7. Consider the multitudes who longingly seek a small patch of city ground to garden, who get busy individualizing and improving their homes, or fixing up their cars – even those who follow any number of crazy adventure sports, or pursue authenticity through cuisine or mindful letting go (a recent list of the UK’s non-fiction bestsellers was split about 50:50 between cookery and how-to-be-happy books). It seems to me that the big story of global capitalist development over the past few centuries is the power of humanity collectively to create vast material flows, mostly to the benefit of a minority. And the story that’s scribbled in its margins, desperate to be told, is how much we yearn for an autonomy or self-realisation that the big story, for all its undeniable successes, can’t give.

So to get to my point, I’d like to suggest a third duality to add to Frase’s equality-hierarchy and scarcity-abundance dualities – collective vs. self-realising. I’d like to hedge it with lots of caveats about the social nature of self-realisation, and I’d also like to acknowledge that the distinction poses further questions. What is the ‘collective’ we’re talking about here? The state? Or some other (perhaps more than one?) basis of collective human identity? What does human self-realisation look like? Who is the ‘self’? And where might it go to get its realisation? One answer I’d give to the latter question, predictably perhaps, is that the self could do worse than working with a small number of other known people to transform or ‘humanise’ nature on labour-intensive, low tech small-scale farms.

But let me try to put the ‘self-realising vs collective’ duality to work in terms of wider political ideologies. Below I’ve split out Frase’s 2×2 matrix into an 8-cell matrix across my additional duality. I wouldn’t claim that the eight (well, actually nine – I’ve cheated) possible futures thus generated fit unambiguously into their respective boxes with no complexities or overlaps, but it does seem to me that the expanded table generates some points of interest.

 

Abundance Scarcity
Equality Collective Communism Socialism
Self-realising Anarchism Agrarian populism
Hierarchy Collective Social democracy Fascism – Feudalism
Self-realising Rentism Exterminism

Just to expand briefly on the new futures I’ve sketched (Frase’s original four are in italics) I’d say that anarchists don’t have to believe in technologically-driven abundance, but it helps. In this respect, Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism8, with its upbeat 1960s take on technological liberation, set the tone for much contemporary anarchist thought. Most of the anarchists I’ve come across (and not a few non-anarchists too) take the view that scarcity is imposed artificially by a self-interested, hierarchical, centralising state. I think they’ve got a point, but on the basis of my travails on the farm I’d say that anarchists can be wont to overstate the eagerness of Mother Nature to render her gifts unto humankind. And when they get down to work on the farm, it strikes me that things like property rights and questions of desert start looming larger than is usually allowed for in the parent doctrine. I’d acknowledge, though, that my comments here only scratch the surface of the anarchist tradition, to which I’m quite sympathetic overall.

Frase’s ‘rentism’ looks pretty much like the terminal logic of capitalism in its contemporary neoliberal guise, in which any collective notion of human wellbeing (trade unions, the human right to food etc.) is dismissed as a market distortion. It strikes me that this extreme individualism of present times represents a collective delusion which, if left unchecked, undermines its own conditions of possibility. In practice, it isn’t left unchecked – even the most enthusiastically neoliberal of regimes nowadays finds it necessary to intervene in private markets in numerous ways in order to secure human wellbeing (and indeed in order to secure private markets themselves, which would fold in short order without government sponsorship). But without straying beyond a commitment to capitalist private enterprise, there’s a spectrum of possibilities from the extreme individualism of rentism (everything, everybody and everywhere is commodifiable) to a more collective, social democratic sense that managed private markets serve human flourishing. A good deal of contemporary writing – pretty much the entire corpus of ecomodernism, for example – effaces the distinction, but a politics that makes human flourishing an end is different in principle to one that makes rentism an end. Unfortunately, in practice the dalliance of social democracy with the animal spirits of the market gives it few defences against a slide into rentism.

Fascism is a curious amalgam of most of the other political ideologies on show, but it seems to me that it’s at its strongest in situations of scarcity and social stress. There is no place at all within it for personal autonomy or self-realisation. ‘The leader’, ‘the party’, ‘the state’, ‘the people’ and the ‘nation’ are indissolubly fused in fascist ideology. But in practice such a fusion is impossible, which is why fascism has affinities with exterminism: the only way to reconcile its extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity with plural social and individual worlds is to try to eliminate the pluralism.

I’ve listed feudalism (for want of a more accurate shorthand) in the same box as fascism because when the tortuous contradictions involved in the attempt of fascism to reconcile equality with hierarchy through recourse to ideas of corporate identity have exhausted themselves, what’s left in situations of resource scarcity is a more thoroughgoing sense of inequality: the few are born to rule, while the many are born to serve. This doctrine is collective inasmuch as it attaches rights and responsibilities to the respective castes in service of a wider sense of social order. It isn’t just a free for all. I’ll have a fair bit more to say about this in future posts, so for now I’ll just remark that this is quite an obvious way to go in situations of scarcity, but not an especially satisfactory one if you happen to be born among the many.

Finally, agrarian populism fits in the equality–scarcity–self-realisation box. In an agrarian populist society a large number of people are small-scale farmers (‘family farmers’, if you will) or artisans supporting the agrarian economy. So self-realisation is local and to a considerable extent individual/familial/household-based (more questions elided right there, I acknowledge) and geared to self-subsistence. The situation demands broad equality of entitlement to land and other productive resources, otherwise the populace ceases to be agrarian and we move towards more collective solutions. But, of course, in order to secure the equality, some kind of state or collective agency is required. This is the political contradiction at the heart of agrarian populism, which I mention here as an agrarian populist myself to highlight the fact that it’s not a panacea or an easy solution. It’s just that the solutions offered by the other doctrines seem yet more implausible and contradictory. I’d argue that agrarian populism fits within the ‘scarcity’ box for similar reasons to those that prompted our much-esteemed prime minister to remark recently that money doesn’t grow on trees (despite the fact that she seems to have magicked up this very week a cool £1 billion for Northern Ireland to keep herself in No.10). Just as money doesn’t grow on trees, the same is true with the fruit of the land. Well, OK, that’s not entirely true – some fruit does in fact grow on trees. But not much of it without appropriate breeding, grafting, fertilising, pruning and picking, using the scarce resources of land, energy, fertility and human labour.

So to summarise, the world of agrarian populism is one that seeks abundance-in-scarcity, and this is the trail I want to follow. Which leads me to a final point of divergence with Frase, who writes of a recurrent capitalist dynamic where,

“as workers become more powerful and better paid, the pressure on capitalists to automate increases. When there is a huge pool of low wage migrant farm labor, a $100,000 fruit picker looks like a wasteful indulgence. But when workers are scarce and can command better wages, the incentive to replace them with machinery is intensified”9

Not much to quarrel with there as historical retrospective – apart from the argument that the incentive to automate may sometimes stem more from the urge to make workers less powerful and more poorly paid10. But there are numerous ecological and economic reasons to think that, when projected into the future, this capitalist dynamic has an endpoint. After that occurs, it seems likely that hired labour, energy and machinery will all be expensive, so to the average farmer both migrant farm labour and $100,000 fruit pickers will then seem a wasteful indulgence. What commends itself in that scenario is the agrarian populism of the ‘middle peasant’, who’d most likely pick the fruit themselves, and then eat it.

Notes

  1. Srnicek, Nick and Williams, Alex. 2015. Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso; Streeck, Wolfgang. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso; Hahnel, Robin and Olin Wright, Erik. 2016. Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy. London: Verso; Phillips, Leigh. 2015. Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts: A Defence of Growth, Progress, Industry and Stuff. Alresford: Zero Books.
  1. Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.
  1. Ibid. p.40.
  1. Kahneman, Daniel. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. London: Penguin.
  1. Frase op cit. pp.101-6.
  1. Ibid. p.106.
  1. eg. Miller, Daniel. 2012. Consumption and its Consequences. Cambridge: Polity.
  1. Bookchin, Murray. 1971. Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Black Rose.
  1. Frase op cit. p.8.
  1. Eg. Malm, Andreas. 2016. Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam Power and the Roots of Global Warming. London: Verso.

 

46 thoughts on “Nine futures

  1. I really like the ‘Anarchism – Agrarian Populism’ line.

    As for Rentism and Exterminism, I’ll link to it again (it’s certainly nothing new, and reducing Rentism to free market extremism ignores its political Foundations):
    https://consortiumnews.com/2017/06/23/deep-history-of-americas-deep-state/

    “… the eagerness of Mother Nature to render her gifts unto humankind.” That’s in the Permaculture Manifesto, I think.

    “..the only way to reconcile [fascism’s] extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity with plural social and individual worlds is to try to eliminate the pluralism.”
    Mmmh…let’s try this version:
    the only way to reconcile its extremist ideology of pure corporate collective identity per se is to try to eliminate the contradictions that arise from this very concept by attempting to externalise/remove them as impurities from the ‘corpus’ and exterminate them.

    “…the world of agrarian populism is one that seeks abundance-in-scarcity…” Political abundance no doubt.

    • Thanks for that. The Thacker post is interesting – though I think it suffers from a characteristic populist weakness in assuming that the constitution of ‘the people’ is less ideological and problematic than the constitution of the state. I’d agree that neoliberalism has specific political foundations which I haven’t highlighted here, though I don’t think I’ve effaced them either.

      I guess I’d go along with your rewrite of my argument on fascism. You’re right that ‘corporate collective identity’ is contradictory, and I probably should have framed this better. But it’s the contradiction at the heart of fascism.

      On abundance-in-scarcity, actually I was thinking of edible abundance. But you’re right that political abundance also has to be in play. I think the latter raises much trickier issues than the former if agrarian populism is to avoid degenerating into feudalism or communism.

      • A couple of comments on a very interesting post (and your comment):

        First:

        I think the latter raises much trickier issues than the former if agrarian populism is to avoid degenerating into feudalism or communism.

        One of the reasons why agrarian populism will be hard to maintain without feudalism or communism is the necessity, as the preamble to the US constitution puts it, to “provide for the common defense”. Both feudalism and communism (in the sense of small, egalitarian, even tribal, groups) have collective defense covered as part of their structure.

        Self-realizing agrarian peasants will have to figure out some form of collective method of defending themselves. I think there will be a strong tendency for them to drift into feudalism or communism depending on the number of peasants involved.

        Second:

        I am relying on your summary of Frase’s matrix, but I think that communism and socialism should swap places. Socialism requires enough abundance to support a complex society, especially if robots are doing all the work, whereas very poor folk can still develop and share minimal resources communally.

  2. Hi Chris,
    I am happy that you are so good at bringing these ideas and issues to us, over many thousands of miles in my case.
    I am writing here now after having gotten no further in your discussion than the phrase ‘Robo-Bee’.
    First I must say that you certainly have more patience for these guys than I do. They are nearly all guys, aren’t they?
    But Robo Bees? Has Frase ever even watched a bee do what it does? Has anyone even codified what a bee does? Has anyone built a robot of any size that even approximates the kind of functions that we are talking about, not to mention autonomous, small, and self powered? And in the millions.
    The devil is still in the details, and these guys are not paying attention.
    3D printing is a good example. Yes, it is possible to make complex shapes with a 3D printer. It takes a long time, and even then the resolution will probably not be very good. And yes, you can print materials other than plastic, but you are not going to print tempered steel. Those details – the devil is in them.
    Many of the so-called solutions to our war on nature are based on a faith that just because someone made a large low resolution version of something using plastic, that surely in the future someone else will make a tiny high resolution tempered aluminum version of that thing.
    Such faith is unfounded, and I don’t share it.

    I will try now to calm myself and finish reading, because I want to know your take on the politics of resource allocation, and I am sure it will be thoughtful as always.
    Thanks

  3. “Abundance in scarcity”.

    I would like to buy one, please, in size Medium Long, organic cotton.

    On the whole abundance side of the matrix, I really have lost patience with people who are unwilling to do even basic research. Maybe it is my design background, but there are some basic questions that need to be asked.

    For example, if we are going be swooping around in driverless cars, will we have fuel for them?

    No, they will be electric!
    Great, do we have the minerals and manufacturing fuel for making all the batteries we will need?

    So, the abundancers rest on two things: 1) absolute religious FAITH that “we will figure something out”, and 2) a whole-cloth acceptance of economics gospel.

    Both of these things are rather ill-fitting for people who are supposed to be progressive and like to think of themselves as rationalists.

    Lastly, there is nothing for those who say humans are a part of nature, and therefore everything we do is natural except a sneer and a punch to the nose.

    JB MacKinnon calls what we have wrought a 10% world. We are so far from having even a glimmer of a clue of what sort of natural abundance once covered this planet. Then assbaskets like Frase come along and suggest it doesn’t matter what we do to the shadow that remains, because “we are part of nature.”

    • A week late – please forgive my tardiness, but the threat of a punch to the nose seems so inviting…

      Whether intended or no, the Venn diagram Chris constructed above shows us (humans) wholly enclosed within the Nature circle. And with my nose guard firmly in place I want to suggest I’m totally fine with that representation. One could have drawn part of the human set outside the perimeter of the nature set… suggesting some aspect of our humanness is super-natural.

      I want to argue that going out against our being an entirely natural organism is in its own way a hubristic manifestation. And one not well supported by evidence. Yes, one could observe that we seem to sit alone atop the pile of critters capable of defiling the nest. But other critters do defile the nest – just to less effect. Other critters far outstrip our ability to dive to great depths in ocean. Other critters far outstrip our ability smell scents on the wind. We don’t describe these other super abilities as unnatural, so why should we reserve for ourselves the label of unnatural for these processes and behaviors we “excell” at?

      If we wind back into the past for a bit, it will become apparent that anyone arguing that humans are not entirely natural should be forced to demonstrate some point where we would supposedly have passed through the boundary – where we crossed the line from natural to unnatural. What was the defining moment? Hiroshima? But ugly as that moment was, it is mere expansion of weapons of war. Other critters battle and kill even their own, so this can’t be a supernatural moment.

      I agree there are many things we Homo sapiens do that we really shouldn’t. But suggesting somehow that we do them because we are unnatural misses a bigger point. Nature as we know it right now will always be a subset of what nature is going to be in a future. Other critters will continue to hone their abilities and behaviors just as we will. There won’t be some line crossing where dolphins become unnatural because their jumping from the sea evolves into ballet performed to sea turtle song accompaniment. If there is some benefit to them and variation in their DNA (along with contextual necessities) then it can develop.

      Our deliberate defining of what nature is, of what it is not, is very hubristic. Recall we as human are a subset of nature. How is it our responsibility to draw the lines circumscribing nature?

      My bigger point here is to turn to and stay within a human value system. Lets stay within our circle. We proscribe laws for collective behavior. We can also describe what we see around us as beautiful or ugly. These definitions are for our own purposes. Killer whales and walruses care not if we think orchids are pretty. Killer whales and walruses may well be disadvantaged by tons of floating plastic debris in the oceans left by our inconsiderate selves. But I’m not imagining they’re collecting signatures on a petition to push us off to Mars.

      So we should draw up and enforce laws for ourselves – that we should behave in non-ugly manners. We needn’t draw up straw men of some mythically unnatural state to be our scapegoats. When we move ahead to be better at what we do, to share the space less recklessly than we do now, we will be evolving… a still natural process.

      • Pow! Sock! Biff!

        “Our deliberate defining of what nature is, of what it is not, is very hubristic.”

        But if we do it, hubristic is natural, and therefore good…

        “I agree there are many things we Homo sapiens do that we really shouldn’t. But suggesting somehow that we do them because we are unnatural misses a bigger point.”

        But what the technofetishists do is miss the bigger point by suggesting we do things because they are natural.

        We can turn this whole planet into radioactive glass. Is that okay, because we are natural, and therefore everything we do is natural?

        Few would think so. Unlike you, the people who make this argument seem to want to miss the bigger point, because that justifies their Jetsons fantasies.

          • I am not, but “they” are. We should both direct our blows at those who avoid the bigger point.

          • Now you’re talking. Sort of like superheroes… batman and robin… Pow!!

            Wait, superheroes would be outside the Venn circle for mere heroes… I’m so conflicted!

            Natural gets beat up so much – even the US Government struggles to define what natural means on labeling. And labeling has become such a touchy subject as well. How will it all end?

            Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. A wise man suggested this, and I believe him.

          • Sorry. My nose seems to be a bit out of place after all the pugilistics just displayed. I use your words with respect.

            Now what color will your cape be?

          • Given the superiority of “nature”, I will choose a cape of fibrous gossamer, like the leaves you find of which only the veins remain, the rest eaten away by bugs or microbes.

            You?

          • My cape color would have to be green. The color of chlorophyll – many shades could be used, chlorophyll is flexible that way. Nature’s own photovoltaic engine. Water splitting and redox potential generation among the benefits it participates in providing us. Without green there would be very little of anything living here.

  4. a whole-cloth acceptance of economics gospel

    I’m currently reading Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, a tour-de-force of serious collapsenik anthropology.

    Tainter makes the point that 99% of human existence has been mostly happy and healthy outside of civilization, that civilization is the exception, rather than the rule.

    Frase (et. al.) just don’t seem to understand that an economy based on interest-bearing currency demands growth, and infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Sooner or later, we must revert to the mean.

  5. I agree with everyone’s strictures against the ‘abundance’ school of thought, though I fear that I’ve set up Frase as a bit of a whipping boy in this respect. I’d recommend taking a look at his book rather than relying on my second-hand account of it – there are many aspects of it that are worthy of attention.

    Still, I think the point about the inherently dynamic character of the natural world, its lack of a baseline, is worth pondering. Instead of inhabiting the extremes of the duality by either validating whatever we do as ‘natural’ or fruitlessly trying to define the limits of ‘earth-right’ human behaviour, I’d like to focus more energy charting the ground in between. Though I agree that the less time spent talking about RoboBees or 3D printing in doing so the better.

    Eric, you’re right that these books all seem to be by men, and that’s probably significant. If anyone could point me to some leftist futurology written by women or from a feminist perspective, I’d be interested.

    On Jan’s point about human exceptionalism, I’d say that probably all nine positions implicitly invoke a human exceptionalism in the sense that other organisms probably don’t spend much time trying to figure out and advocate for improved scenarios for self-government? But I’d agree that civilisation makes these problems trickier. Without it, there’s often the option of going elsewhere (notwithstanding evidence of prehistoric conflicts in resource-rich areas). Civilisation is basically the denial of an elsewhere.

    On Joe’s points – both very a propos in terms of trying to wrest an agrarian populist future from the present. Defence is important, but difficult when less preferred social forms are better at putting hands on swords or guns. And Frase’s definitions of communism and socialism indeed are probably a bit unorthodox. But I take the point – similar to Jan’s – that ‘primitive’ communism is at least theoretically feasible outside ‘civilisation’. Two key tasks, I think, are defining plausible modern versions of this, and figuring out how to get there.

    I’ve just finished reading Kristin Ross’s very interesting book ‘Communal Luxury’ on the legacy of the Paris Commune, which is relevant to all this.

    • There is a funny thing about the word futurology—it sounds serious, perhaps even manly.

      And yet we can see with even a cursory Google that very little ology has gone into much of the work. It is more like an extrapolation of the most breathless Silicone Valley press releases.

      So, let’s call it for what it is—Fantasy and Science Fiction.

      And as such, I would recommend Octavia Butler, famous for her Parable trilogy, and Ursula Le Guin, whose dystopian novel of anarchism contributed to me having an emotional breakdown.

  6. An afterthought – much as I share the exasperation expressed here with our society’s excessive and insouciant technophilia, I’d argue that it’s good to build bridges across the divide where possible (not that I’ve always been exemplary at doing so in the past myself). There are people like Mike Shellenberger and Stewart Brand who are so wrapped up in their techno-dreams that it’s not worth the bother. But my sense is that Frase isn’t of that ilk. Despite his badly-chosen example of the RoboBee, he’s surely right that whatever humanity does from here is going to ‘engage nature’ in profound ways, and I think it’d be a good thing to argue over what that might look like with more or less anyone who’s not absolutely convinced that further high tech innovation is the single key to future abundance for all. Perhaps there’s also an interesting argument to be had there with those who think that scarcity or lack-of-means-relative-to-ends is no more than a manifestation of capitalism or modernity – a position I’d go along with up to a point, but only up to a point.

    • Chris,
      Yes, sorry for the RoboBee diversion, but when I hear those kinds of things, I just get so angry…
      And I think the “RoboBee point of view” (to coin a phrase) is an excellent example of what I am coming to believe is perhaps the primary problem: Our civilization does not value nature. The elites are busy pursuing all-out war against nature in the making of money, and the hoi polloi think this is normal, not giving a thought to the needs of all the other living things that make our life on this planet possible. If the average person gave as much thought to our position in the web of life as they do to their hair style, it would be a vastly different world.

      So I am less interested in the management of abundance or scarcity. We will have enough. That is, our consumption will match the available resources, and if that means there need to be fewer of us, then there will be.
      I think the first job is learning to recognize what is enough. Basing our accounting on a respect for the living world strikes me as a good way to start. I am describing a pretty drastic change from how things are getting done these days, at least in my neighborhood. John Michael Greer has his issues, but he may be right about one thing; this kind of change may require a new religion.
      Maybe building bridges is how to go about it. But it is so tiring swimming against that strong current of the culture of pavement. The more so because that is the culture I am native to.

      And as for not getting killed by the warlords while we are making that new society, yes that is a problem. My entire home continent, and the next one south are filled with examples of failure on that point. I think the Piraha had a pretty good approach. Hiding, extreme poverty, and punctuated ruthlessness.

      https://www.overdrive.com/media/161735/dont-sleep-there-are-snakes

      Thanks for listening.

  7. Interesting article! My favourite anarchist, Kropotkin, is quite far from Bookchin. But I think both of them are interesting. No special point to make other than a recommendation to read Kropotkin!

    The abundance – scarcity dicotomy is a tricky one. While nature is abundant, it is not “wasteful” and as resources are put into use there is at the same time scarcity. And our capitalist society actually thrives on making resources exclusive and scarce as that is how you can charge for them, and own them. Looking out on a big forest one can simulataneously think that there are many trees, wildlife and abundance there, while realising that there are limits to how many trees we can cut. I guees my point is that I am not totally satisfied with the dicotomy.

    Linked to that, is the need for a state or uberpower bigger when there is scarcity than when there is abundance? I lived in a community for a long time when we shared all income, not equally but on a needs basis. I think it worked well because we always earned so little so the priority was mostly obvious to all. When there is surplus to distribute there is a bigger need for central power.

  8. Lovely. A number of comments.

    The quadrant of the first matrix bounded by Equality/Scarcity may have been tagged by Frase as “socialism” but the thing my mind rushed to was the anarchism of the Anarresti people in Ursula Le Guin’s novel The dispossessed. Le Guin is a very subtle writer with an anthropological background, who writes what one might almost call “social-science fiction”. I wrote a short piece which briefly explores the idea that scarcity – or to be more correct adequacy (our sense of ‘scarce’ might have become somewhat distorted latterly) might even be a soil in which sustainable egalitarianism can grow more easily than elsewhere. I dunno. I note you hint at this later on in the post.

    The “work as necessary evil” thing is also interesting. Of course you’re right and the best, most irresistable, ‘leisure’ activities are things like perfoming music – which (personal experience) engages every social, physical and intellectual capacities in a shared endeavour. But, yeah c’mon, an awful lot of paid work as it now exists is totally non-engaging and often kind of insulting – though interesting that Frase can’t see that even now that’s not true of every job – ivory tower syndrome? (Huge bunch of things to think about here).

    Interesting what you say about Daniel Miller – well it gave me a new persepctive because I must admit the effect of reading him was to make me feel rather sheepish as I felt I had just been subject to an implied ticking off!

  9. Thanks for the further comments. Ruben, I’m feeling bad that I flagged probably the worst bit of Frase’s book – the RoboBees – when a lot of what he has to say is pretty thoughtful. To be fair to him, ‘futurology’ is my own sardonic term and he makes it clear that he’s mostly not trying to predict but to draw out arenas of contemporary conflict. In fact, he explicitly refers to a good deal of fiction in the process…So thanks for the Le Guin tip (memo to self: try to read more fiction…and avoid breakdowns).

    Eric, I agree with you and I’m sorry that I triggered your anger. Though talking of triggers, one of the few things I’d fear as much as a future of RoboBees is a post-liberal eco-spiritual future designed by John Michael Greer. I hope to come on to such things in due course. Meanwhile, I agree with you about travails of swimming against the current. Still, as a general political strategy (rather than a credo which I’d want to apply to everyone) I’d still prefer to try to think of ways of transforming our existing society structurally than through environmental shocks.

    A nice debate brewing up via Gunnar and Martin’s comments about what we mean by scarcity and whether it might be a good thing. It’s an issue I’ve tiptoed around on this blog for years, for fear of falling into the peasant romanticism trap, but it needs to be confronted more directly. It’s a shame it’s so hard to do so in mainstream discussion, but among friends here on this site I think that time is approaching… On Gunnar’s question about states and surpluses, yes I think there’s a positive correlation – it can sometimes seem like a virtuous circle, but I think is ultimately almost always a vicious one. I’m sure Kropotkin would agree there – thanks for the heads up on him. I’ve been reading him a little of late (Ross talks about him a lot in her book) … much to agree with in him.

    Martin, on work – of course you’re right that a lot of work in contemporary society is non-engaging, but I’d say that a lot of non-work is also non-engaging, and it’s an interesting finding that the social contact and cooperation involved even in (or perhaps in the interstices of) non-engaging work can be more positive than non-work. On Danny Miller and ticking off – well, he was once one of my teachers, and I found him quite inspiring…then in 2014 I critiqued him (ticked him off?) in my article in the Journal of Consumer Culture, and he was very generous about it – at that stage I don’t think he’d thought in much depth about the green case against consumerism.

    • Hi Chris,
      Don’t worry about the anger trigger. It was the other guy, and besides the anger is medicinal. And I’m with you about not wanting to hang out with JMG & his brethren. Though from what I’ve seen, there doesn’t look like much danger of them actually achieving much.

      But tying this in to the point of your original post, what I fear is any kind of fundamentalism. It seems that there is much urge to push the teeming mess of society into a tidy box and trim off the parts that don’t fit.

      I don’t want to live where I cannot express my individuality. There are very few things as satisfying as working collectively to a communal goal. I cherish my private property, and I recognize the benefits of land held in common. All contradictory, and I’ll bet most of us are mixed up like this.
      I think what is required for any society to work while holding these conflicting motives is a baseline of good will and a commitment to getting along with each other. Diminishing qualities, by recent accounts.
      This is why I suggest the value of some shared ethos, and I am okay with it being a religion, just so long as nobody tries to make me actually believe in it.

      • Yes, nicely put. I’d very much sign up to the contradictions and sentiments in your last paragraph. Though I do have a fundamentalist streak…

  10. Fascinating post Chris, really thought provoking. (I also love the idea of Robobees as the epitome of all that’s wrong with present-day Western society)

    I’ve been worrying at the nature of the categories used to define these dualisms. It seems to me that your ‘self-realising’ and ‘collective’ categories possess what could be called both ‘ideological’ and ‘organisational’ registers. So, for example, you suggest the ‘collective’ pole might be both an organisational body (‘the state’, ‘trade unions’) and some kind of idea about ‘collective human identity’ (‘human right to food’, ‘human flourishing’, ‘fascist corporate identity and ideology’, ‘feudal doctrine of those born to rule and those born to serve’). Likewise ‘self-realisation’ might be about the organisation of society along individual lines (e.g. capitalist commodification of everything in a global market place) or, in your own case, about the idea of a personal journey resisting the forces of conformity (and so resisting the very individualism encouraged by commodification).

    I’m not sure it’s wise to conflate these two registers, especially as many of your caveats concern organisational elements within societies defined by particular ideologies. For example, as you make clear, ‘self-realising’ capitalism actually always features some kind of state intervention in private markets. Indeed, it goes deeper than this: companies are by definition the communal enterprises of share holders, corporations seek mergers and takeovers in a quest for monopoly, and members of the capitalist class often act in solidarity to advance their own interests (the so-called ‘communism of the rich’; bankers are the obvious recent example); one of Marx’s insights was that capitalism individualises consumption but socialises production .

    I’m probably about to do violence to your original intentions here, for which I apologise in advance (and God knows what Frase would think – I’ve not read his book). I would suggest letting Frase’s categories of ‘equality’ and ‘hierarchy’ do all the ideological work. After all, any notion of ‘equality’ has to involve some idea of what being equal means, and therefore about the place of action with respect to the wider human (or even natural) community. Conversely, ideas about ‘hierarchy’ always involve making ranked distinctions, which different ideologies try to naturalise in different ways. So, for example, the current neoliberal breed of capitalism is all about enforcing the dominance of finance capital by encouraging people to assemble (and to want to assemble) ‘individual’ identities as ‘unique’ combinations of marketable commodities.

    I’d then suggest that your categories do purely organisational work: so perhaps ‘collectivism’ could become ‘centrally planned and managed’, and ‘self-realisation’ might refer to ‘locally managed’ activity, or ‘decentralised organisation’; ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ for short. This for me makes more sense of the different positions in the grid, and removes some of the paradoxes. So, ‘rentism’ is all about promoting a hierarchical ideology (competitive individualism) in a decentralised way, whereas social democracy prefers central planning; to me, it’s an important point that, for as long as it promotes the freedom of the market as a governing principle, any social democratic government is promoting a hierarchy based on spending power, no matter how socially egalitarian it might claim its goals to be.

    In this model, agrarian populism comes out as something that promotes an egalitarian ideology within a decentralised organisational space. What really fascinates me is how ‘equality’ might be defined here. What is it that’s equal and how is it measured? In centrally-planned societies all sort sorts of indicators are measured and compared – that’s presumably undesirable in a bottom-up society. Even the old liberal saw ‘equality of opportunity’ just shifts the question: what are equal opportunities? Do we simply ensure equal access to land and hope the rest will follow?

    I’ve shied away from the ‘abundance’ – ‘scarcity’ duality here. Like Gunnar, I’m not convinced it’s a real duality; more two points on a spectrum, and a multi-scalar one at that, and probably derivative of questions of ideology and organisation.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me think out loud about a very stimulating post.

    • Thanks for that Andrew. Yes, I see the merit in your distinction between ideological and organisational registers and I’d agree that this needs to be better clarified than it was in the post above. I’m not sure that self-realisation vs collectivism can be emptied of ideological content, but I agree that it’s wise not to conflate ideology & organisation unwittingly.

      Your questions about the nature of equality under agrarian populism are good ones – though I think an adequate answer to them will have to wait. In brief I’d say that equal access to land, along with the forms of social capital appropriate to an agrarian society, would be the major plank of equality but I don’t think it would be quite enough, which is where the issues get trickier.

      On equality-abundance I’d agree with your scepticism – though I think all of these dualities really are points on a spectrum. I’d defend it only as a heuristic for prompting the question ‘abundance/scarcity of what?’, which I think it’s done quite effectively in the responses posted here…

    • Cool.
      There exists a theory that the coevolved pollinator for Asimina Triloba has gone extinct. The flowers do not attract bees, and pollination is the major limit to fruit production if there is enough sunlight.
      So I find myself out among my trees with a small paintbrush doing the pollinating. And there is something about the way the flowers smell…

  11. I’m looking forward to your (assumed) post on the recently published A People’s Food Policy. My initial reaction; a few tasty morsels in a heaping serving of platitude pablum.

    • Ah well, maybe I will – but its origins lie within my circle of colleagues so a judicious approach is called for. In fact, I even had a very minor hand in it in commenting on a draft. I trust it was the tasty morsels that I helped cook up…but I’d be interested to hear more on what you found good and not so good.

      Meanwhile, I came across this review of Daniel Drezner’s book ‘The Ideas Industry’ on the corruption of US academia to serve short-term fiscal interests: https://newrepublic.com/article/143004/rise-thought-leader-how-superrich-funded-new-class-intellectual. Looks interesting – and kind of relevant to some themes on this blog?

      • Thanks for the link… this fits nicely with some other reading I’m working on. Your own personal choice to escape academia back in the day may have been more prescient than you’d imagined.

  12. Chris,

    Can we get a hard copy of the Peoples Food Policy anywhere?

    Also, if the text was ‘black and white’ its much easier to read – especially for the visually impaired, and much much cheaper to print off……………..

      • Nice work, Joe. Not sure about the availability of hard copies. I’ll try to have a read of it and make some comments when I get a chance – I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t yet read the final version.

        • “In England, as in many countries, food policy has been substantially shaped by a ‘market-driven’ approach that has focused on large-scale distribution, economic efficiencies and increasing productivity as the primary guide for food policy-making. This emphasis on the economy has led to a policy-making environment that is largely driven by the interests of multinational corporations and powerful private sector interests.
          In contrast, A People’s Food Policy is based on two complementary frameworks that offer a strategy for changing food policy in England: ‘the right to food’ and ‘food sovereignty’. These two frameworks put the needs of people and planet at the heart of decisionmaking.”
          Is that taken seriously it is a shift of paradigm (a word I usually avoid). Earlier I detested the “food soverignity” expression as being imprecise and narrow minded (I mean, when farming you are at the mercy of the local conditions, the weather, your neighbours, thousands of years of accomplishments and failures of previous generations, commercial structures and whatnot, how can you ever claim to have soverignity). I still have issues with it, but it seems to gain traction in a rather positive way….

          • What I object to isn’t “food sovereignty”, that seems ok despite the weird name, but “food safety” that predicates that turning everything into humans by cranking more and more food, always more and more! It’s a scam. Yeah, humans are entitled, right? Right to food and all that, and no corresponding responsibility to limit one’s species biomass so that other species may eat and live.

          • “…and no corresponding responsibility to limit one’s species biomass so that other species may eat and live.”

            Fair enough, but what sort of solution do you propose? We have a fox in the hen house sort of presence here… we are the fox, and every other species looks like a hen. And to complicate it further, some of the foxes feel like they’re not getting their fair share of the hens, still others feel the hens they are getting are not of sufficient quality, still others argue that it really isn’t about the hens at all but whether we should look out toward a future where hens are as scarce as – well… hen’s teeth (sorry, mixed metaphors and all that).

            So – is there some sort of measure one might apply, some limit to enforce, that could allow the foxes to have their food security while at the same time allowing other species a slice of the Earth ecosystem? And if only the foxes have a vote in the matter, how do you suppose it will turn out? Killer whales and walruses might like to “Brexit”… but until they can access the internet and participate in this thread I’m guessing their real passions will be misrepresented.

            Sufficient. Adequate. Sustainable. Nice words, but difficult to parse sufficiently, adequately, and oh heck… sustainably. But nothing ventured…

            So I’m not opposed to your message, actually quite sympathetic. I’m just of a mind we might want to get on with opening up the hen house, taking only what we need, helping others do the same, and shaming, opposing, constricting (enforcing) others who take more than necessary. Still not easy – we could start by defining what is necessary. But still not as easy as that sounds.

          • Fair enough, Clem. I am working on it, been thinking about it since the threads on Malthus and all. It’s gonna take me a bit more to fashion a coherent thing. In the meantime, what would really help, a lot, is if we stopped all the rah-rah-rah for increasing the food supply. It ruins food prices for the farmers, it creates the sort of ag where cows are bred with udders so big they buckle under the weight while farmers are flushing millions of gallons of milk into manure lagoons. True, dat, in the US. Yet ag scientists are working hard on making cows produce even more! This is madness. It is propaganda for the Machine (or the Matrix, if you prefer). It feeds human overpopulation. And it’s terrible for farmers, esp. the smaller ones.

            Not MORE food. JUST ENOUGH food.

          • Hence, I think, the idea of food ‘sovereignty’ – sovereignty as in self-rule, self-possession, self-determination. When a person (or a community?) produces their own food, they tend to produce ‘enough’ and then stop, devoting the rest of their precious time to other worthwhile things. It lacks the accumulative dynamic of a capitalist food system.

  13. I was happy to come across written info as to where you place agrarian populism on the spectrum or chart, and the mention that it would take some collective action to establish it.

  14. For those of us not so well read in philosphy
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desert_(philosophy)
    “Desert (/dɪˈzɜːrt/) in philosophy is the condition of being deserving of something, whether good or bad.”

    http://grammarist.com/spelling/just-deserts-just-desserts/
    “Just deserts vs. just desserts
    The expression meaning that which is deserved was originally just deserts. The phrase is the last refuge of an obsolete meaning of desert—namely, something that is deserved or merited. But because most modern English speakers are unfamiliar with that old sense of desert, the phrase is often understandably written just desserts.”

    American “dessert” translates roughly into English “pudding” (but only the sweet kind).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *