Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Peter Frase (Verso, 2016)
Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers by Stephen Graham (Verso, 2016)
Around the time of the 2016 US Elections Florian Philippot, chief strategist of France’s virulently racist Front National party, jubilantly tweeted “their world is collapsing, ours is being built”. This was an ominous allusion to a shared optimism amongst the global Far Right. From the US to the Philippines, the belief is that an era of weak-minded tolerance and elite-imposed cosmopolitanism is being overthrown by national chauvinism and authoritarianism. The promise is of a world of hardened borders, reinforced racial and gender hierarchies, hate memes and mass deportations. In turn, a wave of media commentary depicts us sinking back to 1930s style Fascism, jackboots just around the corner. Although such historical analogies tend to dramatically simplify the complexities of the present, it is clear that the current global political order is in profound flux. In last year’s book How Will Capitalism End, leftist economist Wolfgang Streeck argues that low growth, environmental chaos, shocking inequality and institutional collapse have broken the stability of the world system. Without a systemic challenge from below, the current trajectory for the future is grim, “neo-feudalism…which offers rich opportunities to oligarchs and warlords while imposing uncertainty and insecurity on all others, in some ways like the long interregnum that began in the fifth century CE and is now called the Dark Age”.
The Hard Right is eagerly fermenting with ideas of how to bring this future about. We can see variations from the Narendra Modi government in India to the coup in Brazil. Even in South Africa, the state has become increasingly repressive and socially conservative, while President Jacob Zuma’s supporters have often mobilised xenophobic rhetoric to legitimate his kleptomania. But perhaps the most diverse body of dystopian ideas come from the motley assemblage of religious zealots, white supremacists and reactionary technophiles orbiting the Donals Trump White House. Eager to relive the worst parts of the 20th century are figures like his chief strategist Steve Bannon, former executive of the white supremacist Breitbart News, which he proudly describes as the “platform for the alt-right”. In a speech he made at the Vatican in 2014, Bannon could barely contain his excitement about a purifying conflict between the “Judeo-Christian West” and “Islamic Fascism” and the end of secular humanism. A more marginal Trump supporter, who nonetheless won major media coverage, is frat boy Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, who openly agitates for both a “white ethno state” created through “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and the Caucasian colonization of space. Spencer’s love of the spotlight recently backfired, with a video of him being punched in the face by an anti-fascist protester becoming a hugely popular meme.
Representing the Religious Right is dead-eyed Vice President Mike Pence. Pence’s vision seems to be that of Christian theocracy in which torture is legal, but reproductive and LBGT rights are a thing of the past. And then there is PayPal founder Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist who has attached his star to Trump’s. As A.M. Gittlitz has detailed, Thiel promotes a Gothic spin on Silicon Valley libertarianism. Along with the usual billionaire pursuits of supporting space travel and tax-free sea nations for the rich, Thiel regularly rails against the evils of democracy. He is opposed to women having the vote and has sponsored research into 19th century racial pseudo-science. Like that other sinister elitist Count Dracula, he has allegedly received blood treatments to prolong his lifespan. A key insight into Thiel’s fusion of feudalism and high technology is provided in the name of one of his companies. Palantir, which performs data-mining for Trump’s promised deportations, is named for a crystal ball used by evil wizards in the Lord of The Rings series.
Thiel’s socially reactionary views may seem backward, but his vision of a world where the rich holiday on Mars and live for centuries is perfectly in sync with the ideology of contemporary capitalism. Since the 1970s, neoliberal hegemony has held that allowing unfettered wealth and influence to accrue to the rich is a sure-fire recipe for social progress. Ideologically, the media and academic cheerleaders of neoliberalism have presented the market as the great emancipator of humanity, a force which breaks down racial and gender barriers. But in practise, the market has to regularly be sustained through authoritarian interventions, from the violent policing of dissent to mass incarceration of suspect populations. As critical theorist Mark Fisher argued this is no contradiction. The true enemy of neoliberalism was never the Stalinism of the Soviet Union, but the radically democratic socialist movements which emerged in many parts of the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Capital recuperated the ideas of these struggles, adopting a radically individualistic rhetoric to break down institutions of collective power like unions and to free business from any social obligations. Politicians will pay rhetorical service to individual freedoms whilst actively pursuing policies which intensify existing inequalities. Perhaps no figure better represents this dual movement of freedom and repression than Barack Obama. During his presidency, Obama overlaid an inspiring vision of social progression onto the dirty work of power politics. He allowed Wall Street to emerge unscathed from its financial misdeeds and intensified the global system of covert wars and mass surveillance initiated by George W. Bush – to which Trump now has the keys. A resurgent Far Right is aiming to build upon an existent weaponization of migration and social policy, with lip service to multiculturalism replaced with brute invocation of racial utopia.
In the triumphal heydays of the 1980s and 1990s, many academic and media cheerleaders predicted a future of instantaneous movement, leveraged through the internet. But as literary scholar Evan Calder Williams writes, the dark cultural mirror of this was cyberpunk science-fiction which envisioned a strikingly prescient future. Films like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) and novels like William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer (1984) offered landscapes of overweening corporate power, balkanized social relations, polluted cities and an oppressive sense of powerlessness. As a character observes in Blade Runner, “you know the score, pal. You’re not cop, you’re little people.”
Two excellent recent works of speculative sociology offer a non-fiction take on these visions. In Four Futures, Jacobin magazine editor, Peter Frase, argues that capitalism as we know it is haunted by two spectres. On one hand, global warming threatens massive ecological destruction, competition for scarce resources and the possible extinction of human life. The other is the trend towards automatization, with robots replacing the need for human labour in many economic sectors. Given current trends, automation will result in mass unemployment and worsening misery. But if attached to a transformative socialist program it could liberate people from many bullshit jobs.
Frase outlays four potential scenarios for the coming century. The giddiest is a libertarian communist society in which clean energy and automation create the conditions for a classless society free of material deprivation. Using the utopian vision of Star Trek as an example, he suggests that such a society would not be suddenly cleared of conflict. Rather it would be free of what Marx called ‘necessity’ and the demeaning struggle to survive by wage labour. (It should also be noted that the appealing society of Star Trek emerges after humanity almost destroys itself in a nuclear war). While there would no longer be compulsion by capital, there would remain voluntary hierarchies as people compete for glory and social status. The capitalist alternative is a rentier economy, in which companies aggressively monopolize ideas and formulas. Superabundance would be fenced off from the majority. In a similar manner to intellectual property on the Internet today, the free society would be always just out of reach.
But global warming means that this society of abundance may itself be a physical impossibility. In a third scenario, Frase depicts an egalitarian society which has to cope with regular scarcity. This is not endlessly austere regime of rationed misery, fortunately. Rather he argues that it is possible to conceive of a post-consumer society in which basic material needs are met, combined with far greater personal freedoms than most of us enjoy today.
But it is a final scenario which appears disturbingly immanent. Instead of being decimated by environmental catastrophe, a ruling class could adjust by carving out enclaves of wealth amidst global deprivation. Facing crisis, the rich in both the global North and South (which functionally also could include many of the working class in the wealthier countries) choose to stockade into fortresses protected by automated weapons systems and private militaries. The practical blueprints for this exist. In Africa already it can be seen in the archipelago of lifestyle estates around Gauteng or efforts to build Eko Atlantic in Nigeria, a private city shielded from the impact of climate change on Lagos. This secessionist impulse is especially blatant amongst the techbros of Silicon Valley, with genetics investor Balaji Srinivasan issuing dark proclamations about the wealthy needing to create an “opt in society, outside the US.” More grandiosely, it is reflected in fantastical schemes to create settlements in outer space. Last year, the South African-born Elon Musk announced detailed plans for creating a colony on Mars to escape mass extinction down here. Others, however, imagine a more terrestrial approach to surviving the apocalypse. Some anxious investors have sunk money into weapons stockpiles and luxury fallout shelters. Tellingly, a recent New Yorker profile on this phenomenon described a growing fear in the upper echelons of the tech industry that the job losses caused by automation will lead to a violent backlash against the wealthy.
Under the combined pressures of ecological and economic crisis, it takes little for this paranoia to become murderous. Repurposing a term used by the great historian E.P. Thompson to describe the insane logic of the Cold War nuclear race, Frase paints an eerie vision of ‘exterminism’. “What happens if the masses are dangerous but no longer a working class, and hence of no value to the rulers? Someone will eventually get the idea that it would be better to be rid of them”.
Notably as part of their Brexit campaign, the British party UKIP unveiled a notorious poster which showed a train of bedraggled refugees with the slogan “Breaking Point”. Desperate people escaping warzones are pathologized as parasitic carriers of death and chaos. (Memes on Facebook distributed by UKIP supporters were even more hateful, with migrants depicted as bestial subhumans.) This stunt was widely condemned for its closeness to Nazi propaganda. But its tone was not at all dissimilar to the same imageries employed by many of the world’s militaries and security agencies. A video leaked from the Pentagon last year depicts the megacities of the global South as the “incubators” and “breeding grounds” for instability, and thus future targets for military intervention. Tellingly, the film was produced by the Special Operations Command of the US military, a structure which oversees covert actions across the globe, including throughout Africa. The clip announces that global warming and inequality make a chaotic future “unavoidable”.
British geographer Stephen Graham chronicled this world of dark futurism in his previous book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. In the new follow up, Vertical, he offers a global tour of strata’s of power and poverty. The book descends from the orbital satellites which organise both war and commerce to the deepest South African mines, where workers sweat for a pittance kilometres below the Earth. With its dramatic scope, the book becomes an atlas for our extreme present, taking in everything from the elite enclaves of the Gulf to the favelas of Latin America. A key theme throughout is the extent to which security technology emboldens exterminist thinking. Drone warfare has enabled a form of aerial occupation over large parts of Asia and the Middle East, with pilots casually describing their targets as “bug splat”. Viewing the world through cameras and heat sensors has encouraged a sense of god like omnipotence. Military personnel now brag of “total information awareness”. The videos of air strikes feed into a blood-thirsty civilian culture, with one commentator on a “drone porn” clip gleefully adding, “I want to see for myself that they are dead or dying. Just for my own satisfaction”. Such weapons platforms are increasingly marketed to monitor migration into North America and Europe.
The book excels at highlighting the grotesque inequalities of the vertical world. In Mumbai, billboards promise the chance to share the “same address as God”, while an entire skyscraper is dedicated to the five member Ambani family. In Sao Paulo, the rich use helicopters to commute between fortified offices, malls and country clubs. This sense of material arrogance seems to breed its own pathologies of voyeurism and greed. The residents of towers in Rio consume the violence in the favelas below as spectacle, blithely describing tracer bullet fire as “beautiful! We have a free fireworks display almost every day”. And an advert produced by the London-based Redrow inadvertently gave potent insight into the Randian power fantasies of neoliberalism. The 2015 video follows the literal career ascent of a financier. Through sociopathic levels of focus, he avoids the dangers of the city streets, public transport and basic social interaction. All these are demons he must slay as he fights to his penthouse where he eulogizes “I did this! To stand with the world at your feet!” The advert was pulled after intense social media mockery highlighted it similarities with the film adaptation of the yuppie serial killer novel American Psycho. In both the film and Bret Easton Ellis’ original book, we are given a front view to the life of Patrick Bateman, a late 80s Wall Street trader obsessed with both designer brands and murder. The sick joke is that his obvious psychopathy is barely noticed amidst the cocaine parties and junk bond dealing of his social circle. Throughout the book, Bateman idolizes one man – Donald Trump, to the extent that his fiancée tells him, “This obsession has got to end”.
Trump himself has expressed his plan to commute between the White House and his New York tower, protected behind Tiffany branded barricades. That such a buffoonish and sinister figure is now the ostensibly most powerful politician in the world is appropriate for the extreme geographies mapped by Frase and Graham. In pursuing its goal of total freedom for those who can afford it, neoliberal ideology and practise has proved amenable to all manner of authoritarianism. This is to not to argue that the technocratic, centre-right politics of a Hillary Clinton are indistinguishable from the Hard Right agenda of Trump and his global equivalents. One is clearly worse than the other. But pining for a return to some imagined neoliberal political centre is a dangerous delusion. The centre has been very successful in creating its own barbarism, without any help from neo-fascists. The centrist normality is when the miners described by Graham are murdered by the State, where Oxfam reports that just three billionaires have the same wealth as 50 percent of the South African population.
The threat now is that the politics will be increasingly defined by even more vicious social policies, aided and abetted by Capital. Neither of these books pretend to offer solutions to these dark days ahead. But what is clear after reading them is that the Left needs to be thinking not just about resistance, but what future it is fighting for. As Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams have argued, neoliberal ideologues gained power through aggressively seizing the imaginative terrain of society, and making their beliefs appear synonymous with progress itself. Even darker dreamers are now trying the same. But, as Frase argues, the technology for a post-capitalist society, which is both freer and less destructive than our present exists in embryonic form. It is a question of building the organisation and cultural hegemony to realize this stirring, humane vision. The alternative is a waking nightmare.