Automation, climate change and Donald Trump: What kind of future are we in for?

Author Peter Frase combines science fiction and Marxist theory to imagine possible outcomes, for better and for worse.

SOURCEMoyers & Company
Photo Credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons

It has been a long, strange trip towards 2017. Donald Trump is due to get his hands on the nuclear codes Jan. 20, so thinking too far into the future may be a pointless exercise — but let’s suppose humanity makes it out the other side of his presidency more or less in one piece and engage in some literary speculation.

There will still be two impending crises — urgent now and more urgent in the years to come — with the potential wreak havoc on our society, economy and politics. First, the increasing automation of jobs may lead to the end of work as we currently know it. Second, climate change will fundamentally alter how we interact with the planet and the resources that it provides.

Sociologist and writer Peter Frase suggest that these existential threats could spur a dramatic reordering of society — for better or for worse. In his new book, Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Frase examines the different ways humanity might respond. Drawing on science fiction, Frase paints pictures of two utopias, in which automation and climate change push us toward a more egalitarian society, and two dystopias, in which these forces do the opposite. “There are four scenarios,” he writes: “Star Trek, Big Government, Ecotopia, Mad Max.”

Frase’s second influence, besides science fiction, is Karl Marx: The other names he gives his four futures are rooted firmly in political theory. Future 1, or the “Star Trek” utopia, is communism, in which there is enough stuff to go around, due to automation (3-D printers, perhaps, could be responsible for all manufacturing), and that stuff is shared according to each person’s needs. Future 2 is rentism, in which automation provides unlimited resources, but elites control who has access to them; Frase likens this future to the way in which intellectual property laws control access to information, including medical texts that could save lives, today. It’s the “Big Government” dystopia.

Future 3 is socialism, in which automation obviates the need for work, but Earth’s limited resources reduce consumption. This is what Frase compares to the utopian 1975 novel Ecotopia. And Future 4 is exterminism, in which resources are limited and those with access to these resources hide them away — or guard them ferociously. “When mass labor has been rendered superfluous,” Frase writes, “a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor.” Frase likens this future to the world depicted in the Mad Max films.

Here’s another way to look at Frase’s potential futures and the social factors that could create them:

Abundance Scarcity
Equality communism
(Star Trek)
Hierarchy rentism
(Big Government)
(Mad Max)


Of course, there’s no certainty we’ll end up with any of these futures. Frase says his book is a thought experiment, not prognostication. He quotes science fiction author David Brin, who has said he is “much more interested in exploring possibilities than likelihoods, because a great many more things might happen than actually do.”

We spoke to Frase last month about his ideas, the usefulness of science fiction in inspiring social change, and the way the election of Donald Trump one week before our conversation had shaped reaction to his book. This Q&A has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

John Light: Did you want the message of this book to be one of hope or one of warning?

Peter Frase: I would certainly say it’s both. What I’ve found since I started in on this project is that people become too drawn to the dystopian aspects. And there’s a certain way in which people almost find it comforting — to say we’re just heading into the exterminist future, or whatever, or climate catastrophe, you know? Because it then absolves you of the responsibility of really having to do anything. You just sort of bemoan that we’re doomed. So I always have to push against that and say, “Yes, part of this is a warning, but part of this is about hope and about the idea that this is actually up to us, that we can still control our destiny as a collective political mass movement.”

Light: You’ve been traveling a lot to promote this book. What kind of feedback are you getting from readers?

Frase: It’s a range. People tend to kind of pick up on one or another aspect depending on what their interests are. Part of what I wanted to do with this book is bring together some things that aren’t normally talked about together. For example: Fights over intellectual property and information happen in one space, talking about Black Lives Matter or opposing militarism happens in a different space. The environmental stuff also gets talked about in a different space. And so, people sort of latch on to one or another piece of it, generally depending on what their interests are.

And then, people want to link it to what’s going on politically. I did three events after the election. Obviously, that changed where people were coming from. I actually started out doing talks in the UK. I was all over England and Scotland. This was a month or two ago, and a lot of people I was talking to there were involved in the left wing or the Labour Party, and the movement around Jeremy Corbin. We were talking about sort of linking that concrete politics to this more speculative stuff [in the book]. And of course, they wanted to ask me about Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and American politics and how it compares.

Light: The scenarios in the book are very speculative, and reach beyond day-to-day politics. But at the same time, the issues you’re talking about in the book are very much a part of today’s politics. Insecurity about the nature of work seems to be a big part of what motivated voters in the presidential election. The impending climate catastrophe seems so much more urgent now that Donald Trump, who doesn’t believe the science, is at the helm of things. So I’m curious: Do you enjoy discussing the politics of today when talking about your futuristic models? Or would you prefer that your book be more disconnected from things like the election?

Frase: I definitely do want to connect them. Because, I mean, I do normal day-to-day politics as well. Part of what I want to argue is that historically movements of the left have always had both that concern with immediate practical tasks and that larger vision of where we want to go — even if it’s not an exact blueprint, just a general sense of the direction we want to go in. And that’s the purpose for me of writing the kind of book that I wrote.

But, there’re also all kinds of concrete linkages to make, right? In some ways, each of the futures that I describe is sort of already here. Each one describes some aspect of our contemporary reality.

In my retooled version of the talk I’ve been giving since the election, I’ve been starting off by saying, “Look, a lot of these places that went heavily for Donald Trump are these deindustrialized parts of the Midwest, places where jobs have disappeared and Donald Trump says they’re in China or they’re in Mexico.” And that’s true to a certain extent, but in many cases, it’s just the case that they’ve been automated away and so what he’s promising is not actually going to address what’s happening in these places. But unfortunately, his opponent did not offer a message that spoke to that condition either.

Light: Right. Has your message been coming through? Have folks been thinking, “Yes. Okay. I can take away from your book that we want to steer toward one of the better two situations described and want to steer away from the other two?” Have you been hearing that resonate more in this week since the election?

Frase: I think so. People always want to ask — despite my strenuous efforts to avoid making predictions — “which one of these do you think we’re moving toward?” And, obviously, well, the rentier/exterminist coalition took a step forward in the last week.

Light: Yeah.

Frase: But, again, you have to pull people out of the catastrophic or nihilistic way of thinking, and back into thinking about how we can pull things back in the other direction.

Light: Right. And can you take that forward a few steps? I mean, what are your thoughts on how we do that?

Frase: Well, of necessity, at least at a national level, much of what we’re going to be doing for the next few years is defensive. But just in practical terms, I think, a lot of the focus on the presidential race has obscured the way that the left has collapsed at all the lower levels of government over the course of the Obama administration.

I live in a small, deindustrialized city of 28,000 people [Newburgh, New York], where we’re in the process of trying to put together a progressive political coalition to do what we can do here, and it’s building things up from that level in terms of people who, at all levels of government, have a different vision for where we can go and what we can do, whether that’s in terms of dealing with these questions of work, or dealing with the climate crisis. That’s what we’re going to have to be doing at the same time that we’re resisting whatever’s going to be coming down the road from the Trump administration.

Light: I’m curious how you were inspired to write this book, and how long you were working on it for? I see you published something similar with Jacobin five years ago.

Scarcity at some point is not necessarily going to be the scarcity of human labor, but scarcity of the planet’s ability to provide everyone a decent standard of living.

Frase: Yes, and in fact the origins of it go back even farther than that. I had been thinking about Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is one of my major science fiction influences from when I was a kid. What Gene Roddenberry portrays in that show is what I would call a post-scarcity Communist society.

The flaw in a lot of the way that was always presented is it sort of suggested that if you had certain technologies, replicators and anti-matter energy systems and so on, you would automatically get an egalitarian future. My view — you know, my other influence than being Marxism — was you don’t actually get that without some kind of political conflict. There’s another path you can imagine where our hierarchical class relations persist, even in the context of a world that has that kind of post-scarcity technology. So, that led to a thought experiment blog post that at that time I called “Anti-Star Trek.” Then a friend of mine suggested that I add the ecological dimension, and that’s what got me to this 2-by-2 grid structure that became first the article, and now the expanded form of the book.

Light: Since your December 2011 article laying out these ideas first appeared at Jacobin, the magnitude of ecological destruction and climate change has become very apparent, with each year being warmer than the last. I’m curious if trends like that informed how your thinking developed?

Frase: I started off thinking a lot about the role of intellectual property and things like that in creating sort of rent-based forms of accumulation. It was something I’d been thinking about for years, even before I wrote it up for the first time. And, I was, of course, aware of the ecological crisis, aware of climate change, but yes, it just started to seem more and more pressing as the years went on. It became more in the forefront of my thought, even since I wrote the book, I’ve been spending more time thinking and reading about various aspects of the climate crisis. It just seemed like something that had to be taken really seriously as the major cause of scarcity that I think we’re facing. That scarcity at some point is not necessarily going to be the scarcity of human labor, but scarcity of the planet’s ability to provide everyone a decent standard of living.

Light: I want to ask about the 3-D printers, which figure very prominently in this. Were they more of a means to an end in terms of the thought exercise? Or do you see the 3-D printers as playing kind of a game-changing role in our future?

I sometimes call myself a socialist of the HX section, which is the Library of Congress library code for Marxism, because I would walk down to my local library and go to that section, and take out all the books that looked interesting.

Frase: I’m fairly agnostic about whether that will end up being the most important technology. The 3-D printer is interesting to me for a couple of different reasons: one, because it seems like a crude precursor to the replicator from Star Trek, where you just press a button and get what you want. That made it very easy for me when I’m writing about this stuff and I’m trying to pitch it to people who aren’t necessarily immersed in science fiction, trying to give a real-world linkage that allows people to think about that. The other thing that’s interesting about it is that because it’s a very decentralized technology, it gives us a way of thinking about production that’s not on the gigantic, massive industrial scale that production tended to take in the 20th century. And so, that also opens up certain possibilities in terms of thinking about a world where we can provide for ourselves without being enmeshed in those kinds of industrial superstructures.

Light: Sure. And it’s also terrifying in a way just because humans could get their hands on all sorts of really negative forces, and replicate them, too.

Frase: Yep. Somebody brought that up in one of the talks I did the other day; some people would just want to replicate weapons and hunt poor people for sport. The society we live in has produced a lot of damaged personalities. Yeah, there are those certain kinds of terrifying possibilities.

Light: You mentioned two main influences for this, Marx and Star Trek. What drew you to these ideas to begin with?

Frase: I grew up in the Midwest reading science fiction. I was just always really into that stuff. And then, I became politicized as a teenager in the mid-1990s. I wasn’t really that connected to the actual organized left. There wasn’t much of it at that point in time.

I sometimes call myself a socialist of the HX section, which is the Library of Congress library code for Marxism, because I would walk down to my local library and go to that section, and take out all the books that looked interesting. It was only later that I really started getting involved with organized socialists, eventually ending up in the Democratic Socialists of America, of which I’m still a member.

Light: It’s interesting that you were a science-fiction buff, and that led to some of the ideas that inform this book. Whether we’re talking about Star Trekor Mad Max or Cory Doctorow’s novels, what do you think the role of science fiction is in inspiring social change? Certainly, these books and these films have far more of an audience than a publication like Jacobin. They’re mass media things.

Frase: Yeah, absolutely. I think they provide ways of imagining fundamentally different kinds of society in a way that’s more approachable than some kind of dense Marxist theory. And it also avoids the pitfall that you see in a lot of so-called futurism, thinking you can map out in advance exactly how things will develop, which I tend to think is a mistake in a couple of different senses. First, it rarely works out. You rarely get it right. Second, if you think, as I do, that a radically different future should be the democratic collective project of masses of people, that’s not consistent with thinking that you can predict in advance how it will turn out.

But fiction, and story, does provide a good way of illustrating possibilities, and illustrating the ways in which we can imagine a fundamentally different kind of society both in a positive sense, in terms of the Star Trek-type future, or in the more dystopian, Mad Max or Hunger Games type of thing.

Light: It strikes me that one of the main issues with reaching either of the two more optimistic futures you describe — at least in America, with the political structures we have — is the narrative that we tell ourselves about work. And you address this: You say that there’s a stigma around unemployment. We value people who are able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, etc., and we devalue those who aren’t; we feel like that failure is shameful. We expect people to work, even when there aren’t jobs — and in the future, as automation progresses, the need for work will certainly continue to decrease. Do you have thoughts on how we begin to change that story that we tell about who we are as a people, as a country?

Frase: Yeah, I mean, you’re right. The work ethic is just powerfully foundational to capitalism, and always has been, though it’s taken different forms in different periods. But I’m somewhat hopeful that in the younger generation that’s changing, somewhat, and particularly the way in which wage labor, masculinity and race identity all kind of got woven together for some people.

I think, for me, as a matter of both politics and cultural criticism, the thing is to really try and interrogate and unpack what it means when we say “work” — that we “value work,” or that we “want work,” or that we think that a person’s worth is defined by work. What we often find is that people don’t have clear ideas. They sort of assume they know what work means — but then you get into it and it’s not really so clear. Does it just mean anything you do for a wage? Because in that case, all kinds of destructive activities are still working. Or is it the things we think are genuinely necessary for the reproduction of society? But then you have things like raising children, which historically has mostly been done for free, mostly by women. Is that what we mean? Or do we mean something that takes effort and is difficult, and that you do simply because you find it rewarding?

I spent a lot of time learning to play the guitar, although no one has ever paid me for it and I don’t think it’s necessary for the reproduction of society. “Work” is all of these different things that we mix together, and so I think we have to sort of talk more clearly about what it is that we value, or don’t value, and what it is that we mean when we talk about “work.”

Light: Right. Even in your most utopian future, there was still a hierarchy that remained based on social standing. Did you choose not to imagine a society completely free of hierarchy because it seemed impractical, or because you thought it was impossible? Why not take it that additional step further?

Frase: Well, I guess at a certain point, it’s not necessarily — I try to avoid saying, “Oh, this can’t happen because of human nature, or whatever,” right? Obviously, part of the point of the book is to push the envelope on what we can imagine being possible. But on some level, to me hierarchies of status are not what I find to be the deeply objectionable feature of capitalist societies. Rather, it’s that there’s one particular hierarchy, which is a hierarchy of money that kind of binds everything together.

So, you are within some group of people that are competitive. I play competitive video games online, and in that community there’s a hierarchy of who’s better at the game. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it’s a voluntary system that you choose to be a part of or not. Now, of course, any group like that can have biases and prejudices built into it; sexism, racism — all of that stuff can arise and have to be dealt with, whether or not it’s occurring in the context of a capitalist society. But it’s much better if you have a situation where that’s not tied directly to your ability to make a living, to survive, to have wealth, and these hierarchies are bound to that fundamental question in capitalism.

Light: I wanted to return to a point you made earlier: In various ways each of these four futures are already here. What are the ways in which we see these four futures at play in the present, right now?

Frase: Sure, I’ll just take the chapters in order. In terms of the communist future, there are things like Wikipedia, or open-source software, which are these projects that are undertaken as collective, voluntary projects not fixed directly to the purpose of making money. There are these communist islands within capitalist society, and they have their own conflicts and hierarchies and so on.

Rentism — that chapter is about intellectual property primarily. Aaron Schwartz gave his life to the fight for access to information. People who were fighting for access to life-saving medicines in poor countries which are restricted by patents and companies that charge big amounts of money for them — that bears directly on this issue.

The socialism chapter is all about ecology, and relates to our debates about climate change. How do we cut carbon emissions? How do we move to renewable energy? Should we be talking about geoengineering, as it’s called — plans to actually affirmatively intervene more in the climate to remediate the things that have already happened? All of the people, again all over the world, who are fighting these battles: these questions are upon us.

And finally, the exterminism chapter: Whether it’s prison abolition activists and Black Lives Matter activists in the US who are talking about the kind of internal militarization of society or it’s antiwar activists who are talking about that projection of imperial power abroad, that’s how that question is alive for us right now.

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