Abundance/Scarcity and Equality/Hierarchy: Four Basic Scenarios for the Future

A very important essay:

* Frase, Peter. Four futures. Jacobin. 2012 Winter; 5:27–34.

“Frase considers the endgame of our current political struggles, locating future scenarios along two axes: scarcity versus abundance, and social hierarchy versus equality.

This yields four possibilities:

* communism (abundance with equality),

* rentism (abundance with hierarchy),

* socialism (scarcity with equality), and

* exterminism (scarcity with hierarchy).

The rentist scenario reveals economic rents (return on use of owned property), rather than labor, as the dominant source of surplus value — especially rents on intellectual property. This analysis of rentism dovetails with similar insights in Žižek’s “The revolt of the salaried bourgeoisie”, and is applicable in the present, since the relevant economic changes are already occurring. In the most dystopian scenario, exterminism, the ruling class kills off the vast majority of the population in order to secure its continued enjoyment of privilege under conditions of global scarcity, a scenario chillingly anticipated by Hannah Arendt near the end of Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

In his own words,

Peter Frase:

“These four visions are abstracted ideal types, Platonic essences of a society. They leave out many of the messy details of history, and they ignore the reality that scarcity-abundance and equality-hierarchy are not simple dichotomies but rather scales with many possible in-between points. But my inspiration, in drawing these simplified portraits, was the model of a purely capitalist society that Marx pursued in Capital: an ideal which can never be perfectly reflected in the complex assemblages of real economic history, but which illuminates unique and foundational elements of a particular social order. The socialisms and barbarisms described here should be thought of as roads humanity might travel down, even if they are destinations we will never reach. With some knowledge of what lies at the end of each road, perhaps we will be better able to avoid setting off in the wrong direction.”

Our excerpt presents one of the scenarios, that of ‘rentism’, or what some have called ‘information feudalism’:

“Given the technical premises of complete automation and free energy, the Star Trek utopia of pure communism becomes a possibility, but hardly an inevitability. The bourgeois elite of the present day does not merely enjoy privileged access to scarce material goods, after all; they also enjoy exalted status and social power over the working masses, which should not be discounted as a source of capitalist motivation. Nobody can actually spend a billion dollars on themselves, after all, and yet there are hedge fund managers who make that much in a single year and then come back for more. For such people, money is a source of power over others, a status marker, and a way of keeping score – not really so different from Doctorow’s whuffie, except that it is a form of status that depends on the material deprivation of others. It is therefore to be expected that even if labor were to become superfluous in production, the ruling classes would endeavor to preserve a system based on money, profit, and class power.

The embryonic form of class power in a post-scarcity economy can be found in our systems of intellectual property law. While contemporary defenders of intellectual property like to speak of it as though it is broadly analogous to other kinds of property, it is actually based on a quite different principle. As the economists Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine observe, IP rights go beyond the traditional conception of property. They do not merely ensure “your right to control your copy of your idea”, in the way that they protect my right to control my shoes or my house. Rather, they give rights-holders the ability to tell others how to use copies of an idea that they ‘own’. As Boldrin and Levine say, “This is not a right ordinarily or automatically granted to the owners of other types of property. If I produce a cup of coffee, I have the right to choose whether or not to sell it to you or drink it myself. But my property right is not an automatic right both to sell you the cup of coffee and to tell you how to drink it.”

The mutation of the property form, from real to intellectual, catalyzes the transformation of society into something which is not recognizable as capitalism, but is nevertheless just as unequal. Capitalism, at its root, isn’t defined by the presence of capitalists, but by the existence of capital, which in turn is inseparable from the process of commodity production by means of wage labor, M-C-M’. When wage labor disappears, the ruling class can continue to accumulate money only if they retain the ability to appropriate a stream of rents, which arise from their control of intellectual property. Thus emerges a rentist, rather than capitalist society.

Suppose, for example, that all production is by means of Star Trek’s replicator. In order to make money from selling replicated items, people must somehow be prevented from just making whatever they want for free, and this is the function of intellectual property. A replicator is only available from a company that licenses you the right to use one, since anyone who tried to give you a replicator or make one with their own replicator would be violating the terms of their license. What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you must pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing. In this world, if Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard wanted to replicate his beloved “tea, Earl Grey, hot”, he would have to pay the company that has copyrighted the replicator pattern for hot Earl Grey tea.

This solves the problem of how to maintain for-profit enterprise, at least on the surface. Anyone who tries to supply their needs from their replicator without paying the copyright cartels would become an outlaw, like today’s online file sharers. Despite its absurdity, this arrangement would likely have advocates among some contemporary critics of the Internet’s sharing culture; Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, for instance, explicitly calls for the imposition of “artificial scarcity” on digital content in order to restore its value. The consequences of such arguments are already apparent in the record industry’s lawsuits against hapless mp3 downloaders, and in the continual intensification of the surveillance state under the guise of combating piracy. The extension of this regime to the micro-fabrication of physical objects will only make the problem worse. Once again, science fiction is enlightening, in this case the work of Charles Stross. Accelerando shows us a future in which copyright infringers are pursued by hitmen, while Halting State depicts furtive back alley “fabbers” running their 3-D printers one step ahead of the law.

But an economy based on artificial scarcity is not only irrational, it is also dysfunctional. If everyone is constantly being forced to pay out money in licensing fees, then they need some way of earning money, and this generates a new problem. The fundamental dilemma of rentism is the problem of effective demand: that is, how to ensure that people are able to earn enough money to be able to pay the licensing fees on which private profit depends. Of course, this isn’t so different from the problem that confronted industrial capitalism, but it becomes more severe as human labor is increasingly squeezed out of the system, and human beings become superfluous as elements of production, even as they remain necessary as consumers. So what kind of jobs would still exist in this economy?

Some people would still be needed to dream up new things to be replicated, and so there will remain a place for a small “creative class” of designers and artists. And as their creations accumulate, the number of things that can be replicated will soon vastly outstrip the available time and money to enjoy them. The biggest threat to any given company’s profits will not be the cost of labor or raw materials – both minimal or nonexistent – but rather the prospect that the licenses they own will lose out in popularity to those of competitors. Marketing and advertising, then, will continue to employ significant numbers. Alongside the marketers, there will also be an army of lawyers, as today’s litigation over patent and copyright infringement swells to encompass every aspect of economic activity. And finally, as in any hierarchical society, there must be an apparatus of repression to keep the poor and powerless from taking a share back from the rich and powerful. Enforcing draconion intellectual property law will require large battalions of what Samuel Bowles and Arjun Jayadev call “guard labor”: “The efforts of the monitors, guards, and military personnel . . . directed not toward production, but toward the enforcement of claims arising from exchanges and the pursuit or prevention of unilateral transfers of property ownership.”

Nevertheless, maintaining full employment in a rentist economy will be a constant struggle. It is unlikely that the four areas just described can fully replace all the jobs lost to automation. What’s more, these jobs are themselves subject to labor-saving innovations. Marketing can be done with data mining and algorithms; much of the routine business of lawyering can be replaced with software; guard labor can be performed by surveillance drones rather than human police. Even some of the work of product invention could one day be given to computers that possess some rudimentary artificial creative intelligence.

And if automation fails, the rentist elite can colonize our leisure time in order to extract free labor. Facebook already relies on its users to create content for free, and the recent fad for “gamification” suggests that corporations are very interested in finding ways to turn the work of their employees into activities that people will find pleasurable, and will thus do for free on their own time. The computer scientist Luis von Ahn, for example, has specialized in developing ‘games with a purpose’, applications that present themselves to end users as enjoyable diversions while also performing a useful computational task. One of von Ahn’s games asked users to identify objects in photos, and the data was then fed back into a database that was used for searching images. This line of research evokes the world of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, in which children remotely fight an interstellar war through what they think are video games.

All of this means that the society of rentism would probably be subject to a persistent trend toward under-employment, which the ruling class would have to find some way to counter in order to hold the system together. This entails realizing a vision that the late André Gorz had of post-industrial society: “the distribution of means of payment must correspond to the volume of wealth socially produced and not to the volume of work performed.” This might involve taxing the profits of profitable firms and redistributing the money back to consumers – possibly as a no-strings-attached guaranteed income, and possibly in return for performing some kind of meaningless make-work. But even if redistribution is desirable from the standpoint of the class as a whole, a collective action problem arises; any individual company or rich person will be tempted to free-ride on the payments of others, and will therefore resist efforts to impose a redistributive tax. The government could also simply print money to give to the working class, but the resulting inflation would just be an indirect form of redistribution and would also be resisted. Finally, there is the option of funding consumption through consumer indebtedness – but readers in the early twenty-first century presumably do not need to be reminded of the limitations inherent in that solution.

Given all these troubles, one might ask why the rentier class would bother trying to extract profits from people, since they could just replicate whatever they want anyway. What keeps society from simply dissolving into the communist scenario from the previous section? It might be that nobody would hold enough licenses to provide for all of their needs, so everyone needs revenue to pay their own licensing costs. You might own the replicator pattern for an apple, but just being able to make apples isn’t enough to survive. In this reading, the rentier class are just those who own enough licenses to cover all of their own license fees.

Or perhaps, as noted at the outset, the ruling class would guard their privileged position in order to protect the power over others granted to those at the top of a class-divided society. This suggests another solution to rentism’s underemployment problem: hiring people to perform personal services might become a status marker, even if automation makes it strictly speaking unnecessary. The much-heralded rise of the service economy would evolve into a futuristic version of nineteenth century England or parts of India today, where the elite can afford to hire huge numbers of servants.

But this society can persist only so long as most people accept the legitimacy of its governing hierarchy. Perhaps the power of ideology would be strong enough to induce people to accept the state of affairs described here. Or perhaps people would start to ask why the wealth of knowledge and culture was being enclosed within restrictive laws, when, to use a recently popular slogan, “another world is possible” beyond the regime of artificial scarcity.”