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Four Futures
In his three-hour meditation on the representation of Los Angeles in movies, Los Angeles Plays Itself, film scholar Thom Andersen suggests that “if we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.”23 This book tries to incorporate that insight.
This is not quite a normal work of nonfiction, but it also is not fiction, nor would I put myself in the genre of “futurism.” Rather, it is an attempt to use the tools of social science in combination with those of speculative fiction to explore the space of possibilities in which our future political conflicts will play out. Call it a type of “social science fiction.”
One way of differentiating social science from science fiction is that the first is about describing the world that is, while the second speculates about a world that might be. But really, both are a mixture of imagination and empirical investigation, put together in different ways. Both attempt to understand empirical facts and lived experience as something that is shaped by abstract—and not directly perceptible—structural forces.
Certain types of speculative fiction are more attuned than others to the particularities of social structure and political economy. In Star Wars, you don’t really care about the details of the galactic political economy. And when the author tries to flesh them out, as George Lucas did in his widely derided Star Wars prequel movies, it only gums up the story. In a world like Star Trek, on the other hand, these details actually matter. Even though Star Wars and Star Trek might superficially look like similar tales of space travel and swashbuckling, they are fundamentally different types of fiction. The former exists only for its characters and its mythic narrative, while the latter wants to root its characters in a richly and logically structured social world.
This is related to, but transcends, a distinction that is customarily made among science fiction fans, between “hard” and “soft” science fiction. The former is supposed to be more plausible by way of its grounding in presentday science. But this distinction reflects the biases of the genre’s traditional fan base and its fetishization of the natural sciences. The more important distinction, as just mentioned, is between the stories that take their worldbuilding seriously, and those that don’t. What is called soft science fiction is sometimes just Star Wars–style adventure stories, but sometimes it makes much richer use of social science. Meanwhile many of the supposedly “harder” counterparts pair detailed exegeses of physics with naïve or utterly conventional understandings of social relations and human behavior. Ken MacLeod’s Fall Revolution novels, which tell a tale of political upheaval and space colonization, are rooted in his understanding of Marxist political economy and his personal background in the Scottish socialist movement of the 1970s. It is that grounding, rather than any particular insight into the physics of space travel or Martian terraforming, that gives the novels their “hardness.”
Speculative fiction as a tool of social analysis and critique goes back at least as far as H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine—if not Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—but the field has grown particularly rich of late. In popular culture, this can be seen even in the enormous success of dystopian youngadult fictions like The Hunger Games and Divergent. But while such stories are fairly transparent allegories of the class society we already live in, it is
not hard to find others who have pushed the boundary further, speculating about the long-term implications of present-day trends. The interface between the actual and the potential manifests itself most potently in the near-future fictions of those authors who place their stories just a few steps ahead of the present, like William Gibson in his early twenty-first-century series of novels (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, Zero History) or Cory Doctorow in Homeland (and the forthcoming Walkaway). The significance of information technology, automation, surveillance, ecological
destruction—themes that will echo throughout this book—recur in these novels.
The political implications of different imagined worlds have also begun to come to the fore. Charles Stross is both an author of social science fiction and a frequent blogger in a more social scientific mode. He has particularly criticized the popular “steampunk” subgenre. He notes that it presents a kind of idealized nineteenth century full of zeppelins and steam-powered gadgetry but glosses over the key social relations of that era: the Dickensian
misery of the working class and the horrors of colonialism. But Stross, and others like Ken MacLeod and China Miéville, have used fictions about future, past, and alternative worlds to give a fuller picture of class and social conflict.
Fictional futures are, in my view, preferable to those works of “futurism” that attempt to directly predict the future, obscuring its inherent uncertainty and contingency and thereby stultifying the reader. Within the areas discussed in this book, a paradigmatic futurist would be someone like Ray Kurzweil, who confidently predicts that by 2049, computers will have achieved human like intelligence, with all manner of world-changing consequences.24 Such prognostications generally end up unconvincing as prophecy and unsatisfying as fiction. Science fiction is to futurism what social theory is to conspiracy theory: an altogether richer, more honest, and more humble enterprise. Or to put it another way, it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism).
Rosa Luxemburg, the great early twentieth-century socialist theorist and organizer, popularized a slogan: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”25 That’s truer today than it has ever been. In this book, I will suggest not two but four possible outcomes—two socialisms and two barbarisms, if you will. The four chapters that follow can be thought of as what the sociologist Max Weber called “ideal types”: simplified, pure models of how society can be organized, designed to illuminate a few key issues that confront us today and will confront us in the future—part social science, part science fiction.
Real life, of course, is always much more complicated, but the point of an ideal type is to focus on specific issues, setting others aside.

The aim is to develop an understanding of our present moment and map
the possible futures that lie ahead in stylized form. The basic assumption is that the trend toward increasing automation will continue in all domains of the economy. Moreover, I will not make the assumption that was made by most economists in the twentieth century: that even as some jobs are eliminated by mechanization, the market will automatically generate more than enough new jobs to make up for the loss.
In the spirit of working in ideal types, I will make the strongest
assumption possible: all need for human labor in the production process can be eliminated, and it is possible to live a life of pure leisure while machines do all the work. In fact, this isn’t logically possible, if we’re imagining a world where the machines serve us rather than controlling us like those in the movie The Matrix. We will have to do at least a little work to manage and maintain the machines.
But I assume all human labor away to avoid entangling myself in a debate that has bedeviled the Left ever since the Industrial Revolution: how a postcapitalist society would manage labor and production, in the absence of capitalist bosses with control over the means of production. This is an important (and ongoing) debate, but the issues I’m concerned with will be clearer if I can set it aside. Thus, the constant in my equation is that technical change tends toward perfect automation.
If automation is the constant, ecological crisis and class power are the variables. The ecological question is, more or less, just how bad the effects of climate change and resource depletion will end up being. In the best case scenario, the shift to renewable energy will combine with new methods of ameliorating and reversing climate change, and it will in fact be possible touse all our robot technology to provide a high standard of living for everyone. The spectrum, in other words, runs from scarcity to abundance.
The question of class power comes down to how we end up tackling the massive inequality of wealth, income, and political power in the world today. To the extent that the rich are able to maintain their power, we will live in a world where they enjoy the benefits of automated production, while the rest of us pay the costs of ecological destruction—if we can survive at all. To the extent that we can move toward a world of greater equality, then the future will be characterized by some combination of shared sacrifice and shared prosperity, depending on where we are on the other, ecological dimension.
So the model posits that 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.
Exercises like this aren’t unprecedented. A similar typology can be found in a 1999 article by Robert Costanza in The Futurist. 26 There are four scenarios: Star Trek, Big Government, Ecotopia, and Mad Max. For Costanza, however, the two axes are “world view and policies” and “the real state of the world.” Thus the four boxes are filled in according to whether human ideological predilections match reality: in the “Big Government” scenario, for example, progress is restrained by safety standards because the “technological skeptics” deny the reality of unlimited resources.
My contribution to this debate is to emphasize the significance of capitalism and politics. Both the possibility of ecological limits and the political constraints of a class society are, in this view, “material” constraints. And the interaction between them is what will determine our path forward. The existence of capitalism as a system of class power, with a ruling elite that will try to preserve itself into any possible future, is therefore a central structuring theme of this book, a theme that I believe is absent from almost every other attempt to understand the trajectory of a highly automated
postindustrial economy. Technological developments give a
context for social transformations, but they never determine them directly; change is always mediated by the power struggles between organized masses of people. The question is who wins and who loses, and not, as technocratic authors like Costanza would have it, who has the “correct” view of the objective nature of the world.
So for me, sketching out multiple futures is an attempt to leave a place for the political and the contingent. My intention is not to claim that one future will automatically appear through the magical working out of technical and ecological factors that appear from outside. Instead, it is to insist that where we end up will be a result of political struggle. The intersection of science fiction and politics is these days often associated with the libertarian right and its deterministic techno-utopian fantasies; I hope to reclaim the long left-wing tradition of mixing imaginative speculation with political economy.
The starting point of the entire analysis is that capitalism is going to end, and that, as Luxemburg said, it is either “transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.”27 So this thought experiment is an attempt to make sense of the socialisms we may reach if a resurgent Left is successful, and the barbarisms we may be consigned to if we fail.
This doesn’t mean engaging in the secular eschatology that sets a firm end date on capitalism—too many socialists and apocalyptic preachers have made that mistake. It’s too simplistic to think of discrete endings in any case; labels for social systems like “capitalism” and “socialism” are abstractions, and there is never a single moment when we can definitively say that one turns into the other. My view is closer to the sociologist Wolfgang Streeck:
The image I have of the end of capitalism—an end that I believe is already under way—is
one of a social system in chronic disrepair, for reasons of its own and regardless of the
absence of a viable alternative. While we cannot know when and how exactly capitalism will
disappear and what will succeed it, what matters is that no force is on hand that could be
expected to reverse the three downward trends in economic growth, social equality and
financial stability and end their mutual reinforcement.28
The four chapters that follow are each dedicated to one of the four futures: communism, rentism, socialism, and exterminism. In addition to sketching out a plausible future, each of those four chapters emphasizes a key themethat is relevant to the world we live in now, that would assume special importance in that particular future.
The chapter on communism dwells on the way we construct meaning when life is not centered around wage labor and what kind of hierarchies and conflicts arise in a world no longer structured by the master narrative of capitalism. The depiction of rentism is largely a reflection on intellectual property and what happens when the private property form is applied to more and more of the immaterial patterns and concepts that guide our culture and economy. The story of socialism is a story about the climate crisis and our need to adapt to it, but also about the way in which some old leftist shibboleths about Nature and the Market impede us from seeing how
neither the fetishization of the natural world nor the hatred of the market is necessarily sufficient, or even relevant, to the attempt to construct an ecologically stable world beyond capitalism. Finally, the tale of exterminism is the story of the militarization of the world, a phenomenon that encompasses everything from endless war in the Middle East to black teenagers being shot down by police on the streets of American cities.
We are already moving rapidly away from industrial capitalism as we understood it in the twentieth century, and there is little chance that we will move back in that direction. We are moving away into an uncertain future. I hope to provide a broad context for that future, but I do not want to create any sense of certainty. I follow David Brin, who has both written science fiction and gone by the “futurist” label, when he says that he is “much more interested in exploring possibilities than likelihoods, because a great many more things might happen than actually do.”29
The importance of assessing possibility rather than likelihood is that it puts our collective action at the center, while making confident predictions only encourages passivity. In the same essay, Brin cites George Orwell’s 1984 as a “self-preventing prophecy” that helped prevent the scenario it described from coming true. In the wake of the War on Terror and former National Security Agency (NSA) analyst Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance, one can question just how self-preventing that particular prophecy was, but the general point stands.
If this book contributes in some small way to making the oppressive futures described self-preventing, and their egalitarian alternatives selffulfilling, then it will have served its purpose.

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