Transcribed from the 15 October 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:
Do we use the productive possibilities of the technology that we have to liberate people from work, to make all of our lives easier? Or do they just become new ways to enrich a small layer of capitalists while the rest of us still have to work our boring and terrible jobs?
Chuck Mertz: We are facing multiple crises that will change our lives and our planet forever. There’s climate change that will be environmentally devastating; we’ve got the crisis of capitalism, which is in a tailspin; and the potential for our jobs to be replaced by automation. And all of those problems may happen a lot sooner than you think.
So what does our future hold for us? Here to talk about the possibilities is sociologist Peter Frase, author of Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Peter is a sociologist at the City University of New York, and on the editorial board of Jacobin. Welcome to This is Hell!, Peter.
Peter Frase: Thanks for having me on.
CM: You write, “Two specters are haunting Earth in the 21st century: the specters of ecological catastrophe and automation.” Why do you see automation as a threat that can be put in the same sentence as climate change? How much of a threat is automation to the planet? What would you say to someone who says that climate change is clearly the most important thing that we need to be engaging with right now?
PF: It’s really the interaction between those two things that we ought to be concerned with. Obviously climate change and the ecological crisis more generally is something that has come to our attention now as the new thing we should be worried about—and we should be very worried about it.
The question of automation is something that goes back to the beginnings of industrial capitalism. If we go back to the nineteenth century, there was the folk tale of John Henry, the steel driving man who tried to outrace the steam-powered drill and dropped dead trying to do it; that encoded an anxiety about workers being replaced by machines already then, and we have anxieties today about robots and algorithms that, depending how you look at it, are either potential sources of liberation, the emancipation from drudgery, or they are going to put us all out of work and leave us on the street.
That’s happening at the same time that we are dealing with climate change and resource scarcities. And both of those things are filtered through the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, which is: do we resolve these crises in a way that is favorable to the one percent that currently control most of the resources, or do we resolve them in a way that’s more egalitarian? That’s the framework that I’m working with.
CM: So is capitalism, then, better at reacting to a circumstance that is happening at this moment and not as well-equipped to deal with potential possibilities down the line?
PF: I would put it in a bit of a different way. Capitalism is very well designed to resolve crises in a way that is favorable to the handful of people who control the resources. If we’re talking about something like climate change, and we’re looking at the most dire predictions about what’s going to happen—and there are some very dire predictions—the reality is that the Earth is not going to become totally uninhabitable. Probably. Hopefully. What’s going to happen is that certain places are going to become uninhabitable. The amount of land that is available for farming is going to decrease. There are going to be more and more natural disasters, and so on.
If you are in the one percent, if you are rich enough to be able to hide in your gated community on your private island that is hopefully far enough above sea level, then you have the ability to ride out that storm and avoid the worst consequences of the catastrophes that we are facing. The question becomes whether all of us, as global humanity, are able to ride out the consequences of climate change, or whether only a small elite survives, and the rest of us are left in misery. That, to me, is the question.
CM: There are many people who are still in climate change denial, some to a greater degree than others. How much are we in denial about automation making human workers obsolete?
PF: I wouldn’t say there’s denial; there’s a constant anxiety about it. There’s always the potential, and there is the continuing dynamic where capitalism will find ways to automate and replace human labor. The question has always been what the long run outcomes of that will be. Do we use the productive possibilities of the technology that we have to liberate people from work, to make all of our lives easier? Or do they just become new ways to enrich a small layer of capitalists while the rest of us still have to work our boring and terrible jobs?
At one time, everyone worked in agriculture. And then agriculture was largely automated, and people moved into the factories. And then the factories were automated and we moved into service jobs, working in call centers or working at McDonald’s. We can iterate that process as many times as we like. My argument is not that there’s any inevitable logic that leads to the elimination of human labor, but that the potential exists, and we need a political struggle to unlock that potential and take the productive potential of the economy away from the capitalist class that currently owns it, and turn it in the direction of serving human needs instead.
CM: So every time automation comes along, there has been a new industry for people to be employed in. Right now, that automation from factories has led to a boom in employment in service. How far has the automation of service jobs moved forward? To what degree have we moved towards an automated service sector as well?
PF: We are moving in that direction, and potentially we could move farther in that direction. There are already fast food restaurants where instead of talking to somebody behind the counter you punch your order into a touchscreen and get it that way, the same way you can go to a grocery store and use the automated checkout machine instead of dealing with a human cashier. Again, it comes down to the fact that the jobs that are replaced there are jobs that are, at this particular time and in this particular context, jobs that people need to survive. But there’s nothing inherently fulfilling about working behind the counter at a McDonald’s or behind the checkout at a grocery store.
These things are all automatable. But often the reason they are not automated is not because it’s not technically possible. It’s because it’s not politically necessary. What I mean by that is: if you’re a capitalist, you own a business, you’re just thinking about the bottom line, you’re thinking about what makes you money. And if workers are cheap and they’re easy to control, and you can hire someone at minimum wage to do a job, then why would you buy an expensive machine to do that job instead? You just hire that cheap worker. But as workers gain power and they gain the ability to demand more for themselves and more out of their jobs, then it does become more appealing to find a technological solution instead of throwing cheap workers at the problem.
CM: Is automated work not as much of a political issue in the popular debate because most of the labor that has been replaced has been non-skilled labor? And would this become an issue if it were affecting people who had higher wages and more skilled jobs like maybe lawyers or doctors?
PF: Well, it is affecting those professions. Remember the IBM-Watson supercomputer they devised a few years ago that competed on Jeopardy—obviously having a computer win Jeopardy was kind of a gimmick, but that project was originally designed for medical purposes. Medicine and law are two areas where this kind of artificial intelligence is very useful, because there is the need to scan enormous amounts of records, whether that’s medical research in the case of doctors or legal documents in the case of junior lawyers who are generally put on this task. It’s not very difficult, it’s just very time-consuming work, and if you can get a machine that’s able to do it, you can replace a lot of this low-level medical and legal work. That’s already happening.
You ask why we aren’t talking about it more, but I think we’re talking about it a lot now, and part of the reason it’s appearing in the media is precisely because this type of automation is moving into the realms of the people who write the stories about automation. Journalists as well are facing this crunch. There are algorithms now that can do some of the low-level work of, say, the most rote kind of journalism, which is sports journalism. I’m a big sports fan, but sports journalism, let’s be real: it’s a very rote kind of work. A game happens, you hit the big points, you write a recap, put it on the web the next day, and there you go. There are already algorithms that can do that. Eventually that stuff will move up the food chain.
So journalists can see the robots in their rear view mirror, too, and I think that’s part of what drives the current cycle of automation anxiety.
The more powerful and well-paid and ornery workers are, the more the boss wants to replace them with robots. That’s a pretty fundamental dynamic of capitalism.
CM: You write, “Some on the left see an obsessive focus on futuristic automation scenarios as a distraction from more pressing political tasks such as government investment in stimulus, and improved wages and conditions in the workplace. Those who believe that technology is given exaggerated significance usually point to the published statistics on productivity growth, and while advances in technology should show a growth in productivity, the rate of productivity growth in recent years has been relatively low—a pace lower than at any time since the 1970s, and half of what was seen during the postwar boom years.
“For Doug Henwood and Dean Baker, blaming the weak economic recovery after the 2008 recession on automation is a distraction from the real issue, which is government policy. Worries about robots, to Henwood and Baker, are both counterfactual (because productivity growth is low) and politically reactionary.”
How is it politically reactionary? Is a focus on automation a conservative viewpoint that distracts us from government policy?
PF: I want to try to focus in on where I both agree with Doug and Dean and disagree with them. I agree that in the shorter term, in a narrow sense, there are things going on in the economy right now that have absolutely nothing to do with robots and automation. They have to do with fiscal policy, they have to do with the failure to invest, they have to do with the failure to put money in the hands of people who will spend it in order to create demand. These are the things that can be done right now to both make people’s lives better and to make the economy more robust.
While that argument is correct on its own terms, I want to think one step ahead. To get back to what I was alluding to before: if you put money in the hands of people, if you empower workers, if you create an economy that works a little better than the one we have right now but is still a capitalist economy, you incentivize automation. You incentivize the replacement of workers with machines and algorithms. You incentivize exactly the kind of productivity growth that is not happening now.
Looking at the statistics now, productivity growth is not happening, and my argument is that that’s because workers are too weak. We don’t get the robots, because workers themselves are being treated like they are robots, like they are machines. When you empower workers to demand something better, that’s when we get the robots. It all comes back down to class struggle for me.
So yes, in the short run, what we need is more stimulus, a stronger working class, a stronger welfare state, but in the long run the point is not just to have higher wages and good jobs, it’s to get beyond the need for having jobs at all, ultimately. That’s the vision that I’m trying to project.
CM: I know this is going to sound a little bit silly, but does labor organizing, do unions lead to robot workers?
PF: In the simplest terms, yes they do. That’s something that we need to be real about. Sometimes people on the left don’t want to admit this, but yes: the more powerful and well-paid and ornery workers are, the more the boss wants to replace them with robots. That’s a pretty fundamental dynamic of capitalism.
We’ve seen this recently. For example, a couple years ago there was that story about Foxconn, the company that makes Apple’s iPhones in China, where workers were committing suicide in protest of the horrible labor conditions there. We’re told that the automation thing is not real because there is tons of labor used in places like China, which is true, but Foxconn’s reaction to those worker suicides was to replace people with robots. And they have begun to do that. China is also hitting a manufacturing plateau.
Ultimately, workers are a necessary evil for capitalists. They don’t like having to rely on them, because workers are ornery. Workers do make demands. And the more demands they make, the more the bosses want to get rid of them. That is part of the dialectic of capitalism, and one that we should be very clear about.
CM: Same thing with the Fight for Fifteen, then, too, right?
PF: Right. And that’s one of those things that rightwing trolls will throw at people who demand higher wages for minimum wage workers: “Oh, well, if you demand a fifteen dollar minimum wage, we’re just going to automate your jobs!” Alright, great! You want to talk about the vanguard of disruptive innovation, that is fast food workers demanding a fifteen dollar minimum wage. That’s what pushes us toward a post-scarcity future, in my opinion.
We should say to the right: yes, fine, great. You’ve got a machine that can do the job better, then bring it. And on the left, we should be honest about the fact that that’s why we have to look two steps ahead and say, okay, if this work gets automated, how do we make sure that the material benefits of that automation accrue to the masses and not just to the one percent that own the robots?
A capitalist economy has the potential to create a good life for everyone, but it does not realize that potential because that potential is monopolized by a small ruling class, and until we take the power back from them and take the property back from them, it will continue to be that way. It’s really as simple as that.
CM: To what degree do we really have a choice or a say in our future? If we truly wanted a fifteen hour workweek without a loss in our standard of living, is that an alternative accessible to us? Do we have a choice in how long we work that doesn’t include being impoverished?
You write about how in the 1930s, the AFL “supported a law to reduce the workweek to thirty hours, but after World War II, for a variety of reasons, work reduction gradually disappeared from labor’s agenda. The forty hour (or more) workweek was taken for granted, and the question became merely how well it would be compensated.”
To what degree is that choice really in our hands for the future that we want?
PF: It’s in our hands precisely to the degree that we bring back things like the demand for a shorter workweek, in combination with new ideas like universal basic income, which I also talk about in the book. It’s a big demand—it’s not big in the sense of the complete overthrow of the capitalist mode of production, which is another idea that I am interested in—but in the shorter run, the idea of reducing working hours without reducing pay is a thing that we can put back on the agenda.
We’re in a society in which most people are not making enough to get by; people are struggling; people are in a time crunch. Maybe we can talk about reducing working hours in addition to other things like higher minimum wages and universal healthcare and free education, other things that I also support. Maybe we can just bring that thing back. It is not a complete blow-it-all-up anticapitalist program. It’s just something that, as you said, was on the menu for the labor movement for generations but faded away in the late twentieth century.
This is a rich society. The richest society that has ever existed. Maybe people can just work fewer hours. Especially at a time when, by the way, because of the entry of women into the workforce, people are spending more time working for wages than ever before. Women are now dealing with the things that they’ve always done—raising children, doing housework—and also working for wages. Now more than ever it’s time to say, look, we just want to reduce the length of the workweek. That’s the starting point for getting into these broader questions of abolition of wage labor, transcending the capitalist system, and all that stuff. It starts with just having shorter hours.
CM: We’ve been told by many people that wages are not keeping up with increased production over the last several decades. So if we could be living in a present where we work shorter hours, and we work those shorter hours for a smaller portion of our lives, how is it that instead we are working longer hours for a longer period of our lives? What explains why all the talk is about social security going broke, and when we retire there won’t be any left, and not possibilities like a universal basic income, shorter work hours, and a shorter work life? Because it seems like we are going in the opposite direction when it comes to preparing for a post-work future.
PF: As the Harvard labor economist Richard Freeman says, when we’re talking about what’s happening with work, the economy, and automation: the question is not the robots, the question is who owns the robots. And who owns the robots is that class that Occupy Wall Street taught us to call “the one percent.” That’s why we don’t live in a world in which the bounty of automation accrues to us in the form of more time and a higher standard of living, but instead accrues to a tiny elite while the rest of us work more and more.
It’s as simple as that: class struggle. This is a very old-fashioned and Marxist thing to say, but I am a very old-fashioned Marxist in that way. I believe that what socialists in the nineteenth century thought is still true, which is that a capitalist economy has the potential to create a good life for everyone, but it does not realize that potential because that potential is monopolized by a small ruling class, and until we take the power back from them and take the property back from them, it will continue to be that way. It’s really as simple as that.
CM: You quote Rosa Luxemburg, the early twentieth century socialist theorist and organizer who popularized the slogan: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads: either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”
And instead, you suggest “not two, but four possible outcomes: two socialisms, two barbarisms, if you will. We can end up in a world of either scarcity or abundance alongside either hierarchy or equality. This makes for four possible combinations, which can be set up as a two-by-two grid, with scarcity and abundance on the horizontal x axis, and hierarchy and equality along the y axis.”
You then find abundance and equality leading to communism; scarcity and equality leading to socialism; abundance and hierarchy leading to rentism, and scarcity and hierarchy leading to exterminism.
Why do you believe hierarchy leads to barbarism, while equality leads to socialism?
Rentism is both the weirdest and most absurd of the futures I sketch out, but also, yes, the one that we might stumble into without realizing just how stupid it is.
PF: The fundamental idea here is that the hierarchical system—by which I mean a class system, something like the one that we have now—is one in which there is a ruling class; they control most of the wealth, and they want to maintain their control over that wealth. One of the important arguments that I want to make about that is that it’s not just about having stuff. It’s not just about being able to eat as much as you want, live in as big a house as you want, things like that. Having control over wealth, having money is fundamentally a form of power over others. It’s the ability to tell other people what to do.
That’s where my idea of the rentist world comes from, in which we potentially live in a post-scarcity society where we have the ability to produce without human labor and we have free energy and all of that. That could still be configured into a form in which things like our current intellectual property laws are used to preserve the wealth and power that the rich have. Because ultimately what they care about is not having stuff, it’s having power. Even now, if you’re a billionaire, that extra million dollars doesn’t mean anything in terms of stuff. It just means something in term of power.
That’s the dynamic I’m investigating. If we do not take that power back from the people who have it now, they will find ways to maintain it, either in a post-scarcity world where they use things like intellectual property to maintain control, or in a world of more dire ecological crisis, in which they run away and hide while the rest of us die due to the effects of climate change. That, to me, is the central political question of our time.
CM: Is there any possible system, any potential future that you see that is the path of least resistance, the way in which we avoid the most difficult struggles and challenges? I am always afraid that the easiest path is the most likely.
PF: In some ways, that was the square of the diagram that I began with. When I started this project years ago, rentism was the first one I invented. It was originally a blog post called Anti Star Trek, because I’m a big Star Trek fan and basically this whole project for me is an interaction between Marxism and Star Trek. The idea I had was: what if we had the technological conditions of Star Trek, like replicators, free energy, and post-scarcity technology, but we also had our kind of class society rather than the communist society of Star Trek? What would happen? That’s where this idea of the use of intellectual property came from, which would essentially force people to pay licensing fees before they could replicate anything.
In the technical best-case scenario where we figure out how to deal with climate change, and we are able to go on in a world in which everyone can survive, but we don’t deal with the fundamental political question, that’s the easy way forward for the ruling class: to virtualize capitalism into a form where we could have this communist society of abundance but we don’t, because the property form maintains the power of the ruling class as it exists. That’s why that chapter is important to me, because it’s both the weirdest and most absurd of the futures I sketch out, but also, yes, the one that we might stumble into without realizing just how stupid it is.
CM: You write, “We are already moving rapidly from industrial capitalism as we understand it in the twentieth century, and there is little chance that we will move back in that direction.”
So what do you say to those who argue we can make America great again by bringing back jobs lost over the last thirty years? Do you believe returning to our past is impossible and promising to do so is disingenuous? Or do the politicians who promote such an idea truly believe that they can turn the economic clock back to a different time despite living in a world with far different conditions and circumstances?
PF: Nothing is impossible within the broad realm—anything that has historically occurred can occur again, in principle. The question is not whether it’s possible; the question is whether it is desirable. There have been ideologies developed to the effect that one should close off one’s economy and restore it to some earlier technical level and become self-sufficient. The great leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung called this “Juche” ideology. The question is whether this is a desirable outcome.
When we talk about bringing back manufacturing jobs, bringing back the mid-century economy, the reason that appeals to people is because it holds out the promise of a decent standard of living. It’s not that people are pining for those Ford assembly lines because they love them so much. It’s that people are pining for a decent standard of living. So the task of the left, and the task that I’m trying to contribute to, is to say that there’s a much better way we can do that, one that is consistent with the actual technical capabilities that we have, that does not require you to go stand on that assembly line, but that does give you healthcare, that does give you education, that does give you a basic standard of living. That’s the strategy that pushes us forward, rather than desperately clinging to what a lot of people rightly regard as the last decent kind of standard that they can think of.
CM: You write, “Climate justice activists are currently fighting for socialist rather than exterminist solutions to climate change, even if the wouldn’t put it that way. And those who are fighting for access to knowledge against strict intellectual property in everything from seeds to music are struggling to hold off a rentist dystopia and keep the dream of communism alive.”
To what degree are climate change denialists correct when they claim that climate change is a socialist plot to redistribute wealth?
PF: They’re completely correct. I am one hundred percent in favor of socialist plots to redistribute wealth, so I would take that as a badge of honor.
CM: Peter, I really appreciate you being on the show with us this week. Thank you so much.
PF: Thanks for having me.