It was 53 years ago last month that “The Jetsons” made its television debut, with its futuristic world of flying cars, flat-screen TVs and a robot maid named Rosie. The screens and domestic robots – even the flying cars – are futuristic no more, but what about George Jetson’s workday? On the ABC show, daddy Jetson worked only three hours a day, three days a week. What will today’s workers do in an age of touch-screen cash registers and drive-themselves taxis? Enjoy more leisure or be put out to pasture like so many horses in the age of the automobile?
Jacobin contributing editor Peter Frase sticks to the optimistic view. With more tech tools, there’s more leisure in our future, as there should be, he says. He’s also convinced that capitalism will end.
Laura Flanders: You say that technology isn’t so much a thing as a social relation. I mean, somebody does have to make this thing, but it’s the social relation behind it that is the important factor.
Peter Frase: Exactly. A few years ago, we saw the stories of the horrible labor conditions of the workers in Foxconn’s iPhone factories. They were committing suicide; they were organizing; they were rising up. One of the reasons that that came about in the first place is because with China entering into the capitalist world you had this enormous influx of cheap labor that essentially made it so that workers were cheaper than machines. You could basically treat human beings as though they weren’t human beings. Once those workers started to rise up, and also, once the labor market became tighter in China, one of the first comments the owner of Foxconn said was, “Well, I’m going to look into robots to do this stuff.”
It’s not just here; it’s not just in the rich countries but even in places like China, that you see that persistent struggle, where workers struggle to get higher wages, better working conditions and more control over their work, but the people who actually own the property who control the wealth and who control the production process respond by saying, “How can I cut the workers out of this process?”
You say that’s actually what was going on with the Luddites. Going back to that group who are always raised whenever anyone criticizes new technology. “Oh, you’re just a Luddite.” It’s not quite that simple …
No, because people raise that as though the Luddites were somehow ideologically against progress or against technology.
These were people at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.
Yes, early in the Industrial Revolution, who did smash machines. These were people who were weavers, people who saw new technologies that were being used by the bosses, essentially, to control them, and they did sometimes use smashing machines as a way of having leverage over the boss.
It wasn’t because they were against technology or they were against the forward motion of increasing our social wealth. It was because that was how they could make the boss pay attention to them. They didn’t limit themselves to smashing just the machines in the workplace. They would go and smash up the personal property of the boss because that was just a part of the overall strategy of labor struggle to improve their position as workers.
If it’s all about social relations and the relationship between labor and owners, what’s the future? You talk about four futures. The folks over at The Atlantic magazine who quoted you not so long ago talked about three futures. What are the possible options that we’re facing, as far as you’re concerned?
Four Futures spins out from a couple of different dimensions. I’m starting from the standpoint that it’s possible for us – doing a thought experiment – suppose we could automate everything. Suppose we didn’t need any human labor. Then what? There’s a certain style of liberal futurist that says, “Well, great, we’ll be the Jetsons, and we’ll just all have great lives and it’ll be post-scarcity and whatever.”
My view is that we only get there through a political struggle because we remain in a society where property and political power and wealth is controlled by a small elite that wants to preserve that power and will want to continue to preserve it, whether human labor en masse is necessary or not.
The big struggle going forward is – is our social wealth shared out equally or is it not? One aspect of that is: In order to preserve their power and their wealth, the elite often promotes kinds of work that are not necessary, in the sense of improving our lives or our social welfare, but that are necessary in terms of preserving wealth and power.
Intellectual property is a way in which that’s done. By creating claims over things that are essentially free to reproduce by controlling the copying of music files, say, you are preserving somebody’s claim on wealth. Then people have to work to earn money to buy things that don’t cost anything to reproduce.
The other aspect of this that intersects with all these questions is the ecological crisis. Climate change, resource scarcity, water scarcity – all of these things are very much happening now. Even if in principle we have the technology to produce an arbitrarily high standard of living for everyone, maybe the earth for this moment can’t sustain that. And if it can’t, is there going to be a shared sacrifice, a shared sort of rationing of what we can do? Or are the rich going to lock themselves away in their green enclaves, with their robots and leave everybody else to rot? Which is a very dangerous scenario in a situation where they don’t actually need huge numbers of workers to produce goods. The questions become about ecological scarcity rather than about the need for labor.
What can people concerned about this usefully fight around? Labor power is being undermined daily by new technology, amongst other things. There are an ever-growing number of people in that pool of reserve labor who can be called in to undermine bargaining power at any moment. That seems like it’s only going to grow. What gives us the political oomph, and what can we organize around, if we want to try and change some of these relations you’re talking about?
It’s a good question and I certainly don’t pretend to know all of the answers to it or I’d be doing something more important than editing a socialist magazine. I think it’s a battle that proceeds on multiple fronts. I think that, for example, to the extent that we see new kinds of labor struggles arising like the fast-food workers, the Fight for 15 workers demanding a higher minimum wage in the low-wage sectors. That’s important and it’s important in a way that goes beyond just the fact that it would be better for people to make a higher wage.
It’s an attempt to break us out of a situation where, in some ways, the problem is not that we have too many robots but too few. Often, the response you get to something like Fight for 15 is “If the wages get too high, we’ll just replace these workers with robots.” There’s a company that actually makes a machine that does all the hamburger flipping and everything. The response to that has to be that in the long run, that’s not so bad. That’s better than being stuck in a situation where we feel the only option, the only way for people to survive is to be stuck in these crappy, minimum-wage jobs.
Well, it’s not so bad if your family’s not going to starve and you’re not going to lose your house.
That’s the question. There have to be multiple fronts. We have to look at the larger scale of how to make sure everyone can achieve a basic standard of living. Everyone has the ability to live and not have that tied necessarily to wage labor, to jobs, in the way that it has been in a lot of the recent history of the liberal left.
So “You can have your technology, Mr. Employer, if we get to disconnect our health coverage from our job, if we get to have a guaranteed minimum income and if we get free education, guaranteed housing?” But I’m still asking – where is the political power going to come from to be able to fight for any of those things?
I think it comes from where it always comes from, which is the capacity of masses of people to disrupt, which I think we still do have.
The ability to quit before the robots take over?
The thing that is scary and dangerous is that we are in a world in which the rich can really just hide in their fortresses and send out the drones to keep order. It does become harder. I don’t think that we live in that world right now.
You think capitalism is going to end?
Yes. Which doesn’t mean that I think exploitative, hierarchical, social structures are going to end. I just think that what we have thought of as capitalism, based primarily on the exploitation of wage labor to make profit, is going to turn into something else.
In the book, I quote Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase: “We face a choice between socialism or barbarism.” The book is in a certain way a working out of that idea. What does socialism mean in the 21st century? What does barbarism mean in the 21st century? Those are some of the ideas I’m trying to explore.
Where do you see examples of green shoots of a new system out there? I do, to some extent. We try to cover them on the show.
On a political level, it’s these new labor movements; it’s things like Occupy and all the things that came out of Occupy that have continued to grow and develop. It’s worker cooperatives; it’s various other kinds of ways – whether it’s open-source projects or other kinds of collaborative, not money-mediated kinds of projects. That stuff is all around.
I’m not enough of an anarchist to think that that stuff will just make the new society on it’s own without a kind of pitched battle and a real direct break, and a struggle at the level of the state. The makings of that new world are all around. I think that’s definitely true … The more that we … win reforms that allow people to have more time, to have more money, have more security in their health care and their education, to be able to pursue new ways of living, new ways of organizing. There are so many people that want to do that and the more that they have the opportunity to do it, the more we’re going to see people figure out the elements of that new world.
It may be that the more they have the necessity to do that, the more they figure that out.
That’s true too. We’re going to see in places like Greece, we’re going to see people, of necessity, creating these new forms. Sometimes that can also be the basis of something that people hadn’t imagined was possible.
Peter, thank you so much for coming and we look forward to your book coming out, Four Futures.
Great. Thanks for having me.