New Utopianism: what future can we meet the day after tomorrow

    10 Nov 2021

    Forty years ago, punk rock band confidently proclaimed that there was no future. In the next decade, society began to argue about the coming of cyborgs, gladly using personal computers. After some time, Soviet socialism was laid out, and the end of history (according to Francis Fukuyama – Ecolife) began. With the appearance of the Internet, the image of the future turned out to be finally associated with revolutionary technologies and not with a revolutionary social system.

    In 2021, everything is different: the endless war with terror and the same infinite economic crisis, the prospect of total automation, artificial intelligence, and phenomena of Donald Tramp – all this with a new force and in unprecedented scale reactivated the search for an alternative future. Utopianism returned, and you should know how it looks like, Knife states. We agree with this statement – so let’s check its journalist’s analysis.

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    Margaret Thatcher loved to say that “there are no alternatives” – the present is in an embrace with global capitalism, or the state of things goes the wrong way. Today, this is almost the most replicable phrase of the British Ex-Prime Minister – the sentence said by the “iron lady” is challenged with a great passion. The deceased cultural physicist Mark Fisher, playing with this phrase in the title of his main work “Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?”, did the accent just at the death of the social imagination in the era of the late capitalism. He described the inability to imagine a different socio-political order simply. In Fisher’s opinion, this state of affairs is the main line of modernity. After almost ten years after the release, the work of Fisher comes to mind one of the first among those where the affirmative answer to the question is whether there is an alternative.

    In the last couple of years, several outstanding books have been published. The authors of them, with varying degrees of seriousness, reflect on what way today’s society is moving. For example, the famous British journalist Paul Mason writes about the coming overcoming of capitalism due to the information abundance: in his opinion, access to information generates a new economy. The critical characteristic of previous epochs was the ethos of resource deficit, which totally confronts a new economy. Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, the authors of the well-known in the philosophical circles “Accelerate manifesto,” in 2016 published the book Inventing the Future. They also developed the idea of ​​postcapitalism as a world with automated production, basic unconditional income, and the absence of oppressive exploitation of labor.

    Both works in one way or another invite us to talk about how an avalanche of information and data, as well as the upcoming large-scale automation of crucial sectors of the economy, can work for the benefit of the vast segments of the population, and not for a group of yesterday’s geeks registered in California.

    This theoretical wave is significant resistance to all alarmists who consider that threatening the alternative to global capitalism means creating a utopia, and creating a utopia means building a GULAG (Soviet-style concentration camp – Ecolife).

    A 2017 book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by American author and editor of Jacobin magazine Peter Frase is a lesser extent the theoretical excursion and more – just an attempt to reanimate and rehabilitate utopian thinking, not forgetting that utopias are neighbors with an anti-utopias. Frase characterizes its work as “social science fiction”, emphasizing the charm of such a union (in his opinion, this genre “for futurism is the same as the social theory for conspiracy”). He’s consciously distancing from the dubious tradition of Western futurology. Author easily refers to, on the one hand, the novels of Kurt Vonnegut and Cory Doctorow and such blockbusters like “Elisium” and “Ender’s game”. On the other hand, he refers to the political-economic theories of John Maynard Keynes, André Gorz, Karl Marx, Wassily Leontief and the whole string of modern authors, including Wolfgang Streeck.

    Four potential options for the future mentioned in the book’s title, Frase calls, according to Weber, “ideal types”: these are two utopias and two anti-utopias of different degrees of radicality. As a background of Four Futures, there are long-standing ghosts of almost total automation of the economy and ecological collapse. Among the first Frase mentioned smart machines producing socks, and robots-lawyers. You need to either fight together against the second, or do not fight at all, if you are Elon Musk and you can at least colonize Mars more successfully than Matt Damon in “Martian”.

    Frase shares his four ideal types on two axes – the economic “shortage vs. abundance” and political “equality vs. hierarchy”. Two of them are familiar to Post Soviet citizens by name: Communism is abundance and equality, socialism is deficit and equality. Two others, less attractive, are “rentism”, a combination of abundance and inequality, and “externalism”, when everything is in short supply, and the items that exist belong to the social high class. As Frase admits in his book, he specifically allocates these ideal types and simplifies everything as much as possible to emphasize the already outlined public trends. In a sense, his utopianism (and anti-utopianism) is a story about virtual societies, which can become relevant in various situations.

    To understand what is communism, Frase offers not to look at China or North Korea but to revise “Star Trek” (SF series – Ecolife), in which the problem of deficiency is solved using a replicator – a universal 3D printer for earthlings,  Vulcanians, and other inhabitants of the (media franchise Ecolife) universe.

    That is, if necessary, the burger with beer or country house can be extracted without excess voltage for the budget. The problem of energy resources, like in “StarTrek”, is solved by investments in clean energy and refusal from oil. This is, in general, already happening in developed countries: in Germany, so much electricity has recently been developed for wind turbines and solar batteries that its value dropped below zero.

    But there is another difficult question – how to live in a world where there is no need for the usual number of workers and brains and, therefore, it is impossible to determine someone’s identity through the profession already? Frase reflects on this in the streamlined, Marx-alike terms: to do about everything is the same as usual. But instead of work as a hike on heads and career ladder, activities are obtained for the benefit of the whole society – Community Work. The free and not-arted off the office development of everyone becomes the condition of the free development of everyone, and there’s no other way.

    Trying not to go to the messianism of the Communists of the old hardening, the Frase emphasizes that in such a society, you cannot still avoid conflicts. But they will be due to the struggle not for material resources, but, for example, for reputation and social status. Simply put, communism is a society with unconditional main income and satisfied basic needs, but moral freaks and, therefore, politics still exist.

    Such experiments with the basic income were conducted repeatedly, and, looking at their results, I conclude that the features of such a society are already visible, but their update implies a number of conditions. One of them is the strengthening of antagonism between classes and the maximum overcoming of the inequality today. There is an anxiety about the inequality not only among ever disturbing leftists, but also among respectable economists with Nobel Prizes in their pocket, like Joseph Stiglitz.

    And if the Socialism described by Frase is proseted – this is the same communism plus the need to deal together with the consequences of the environmental depression – then his paintings of the nascent anti-utopias, according to the old tradition of critical theory, came out much more convincing.

    Rentism is a social system where everything is tied to revenue. This is to some extent, our present, and Frase clearly demonstrates what existing trends can lead. With Rentism, the replicator from StarTerek becomes the object of intellectual elite rights, and the world of information is finally turning into the world of universal copywriting.

    The main feature of such a system is that instead of rights to “plants and steamers” (like in XIX century – Ecolife), the elite possesses the rights to patterns and samples. E.g., if your liver refuses to work, you have to pay for the expensive matrix of the new one and then for using a hospital 3D printer.

    As Frase writes, in this world of “Anti-StarTrek,” new jobs will still be created, but mainly for those employed in creative industries, lawyers (someone should defend copyright), marketers, and, of course, guards. Rentism is approximately what today authoritative media call “digital feudalism,” when new technologies exist primarily for a small and rich layer, and the rest eat only crumbs from the rich table of the information society.

    The extreme version of such a society is well shown in the poor film “Elysium,” to which Frase refers. The plot is that the Earth is unsuitable for normal human life. The elite lives in a space station with an artificial atmosphere and destroys the interplanetary ships of refugees (which has not yet been invented by the coast guard of Italy). In such a resource-deficit society, communism was created only for a narrow layer, and the rest of the population turned into a “danger or inconvenience”. Technological achievements are mainly used for military purposes; this time not against North Korea or Nicaragua, but against the class enemy and competitor for resources.

    If you remember how military technologies used in Iraq for surveillance for potential terrorists (for example, the Stingray device, intercepting mobile signals), later became popular “on a citizen level”, then such a future ceases to be unlikely. According to Frase, the automation of destruction is at least a technically possible scenario which was tested by the American drones in Muslim countries.

    Such sketches of the anti-utopias scare even not by descriptions of mass murders with the use of robots, but by the fact that mutual insulation of rich and the poor has already become a relevant agenda due to the neo-reactive movement – the notorious Alt-right and their intellectual leaders, including Steve Bannon, in the recent past the White House dweller. E.g., in the “Dark enlightenment“, which is a kind of Bible for them, the British philosopher Nick Land quotes Peter Thiel, the founder of Paypal, a friend of Elon Mask and the billionaire. Thiel proclaimed that today “democracy is incompatible with freedom.”

    Thiel has invested half a million dollars in The Seasteading Institute NGO – part of the utopian project for the creation of the Libertarian Islands (Seasteads) outside the traditional jurisdictions, where the market should rule, and not democratic institutions.

    Nick Land, in turn, writes about gov-corps. These are corporations with CEO instead of presidents, which will replace modern states in author’s ideal type of society. In both utopians, the author describes the deregulated market as the most equitable and free social device. Well, the fact that the already established balance of power and inequality turns justice and freedom for all into justice and freedom for a narrow layer of “Peters Thiel” does not matter for Land. Paradoxically, the “Thiel-style Utopianism” is built on the absolute adoption of modern political economy, which denies any alternatives. All this is diluted with a shift from the principles of formal democracy towards what we can call “neo-feudalism.”

    The leading modern utopianism theorist Fredric Jameson wrote that utopia arises at the time of termination of politics when the informal censorship of utopian thinking becomes apparent and unbearable. The outlines of today’s political utopianism, which came from under the shadow of the Tetcherian winged phrase about the lack of alternatives, are formed against the background of the new split of the political elites to the right and left wings. The end of the story, which Fukuyama saw, actually was bluff, the imagination draws the contours of the future – frightening and not, the four types of which proposed by Frase, in one form or another already exist – from free information to environmental disasters and a ghetto of the poor. And as Frase writes, the story is too chaotic for the full implementation of one of the scenarios he described. So the positive of the Frase book is primarily in the rehabilitation of political imagination and utopia as an honest attempt not to specify the right path but critically look at modernity. Well, suppose in parallel someone imagines the best future on the “testaments” of Orwell. In that case, a suitable strategy may have a simple resistance to the increasing anti-utopianism (as Jameson advised).

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    The US billionaire plans to build a smart eco-metropolis in the middle of the desert. Is it another utopia? Let’s get to know here.

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