Top Quotes: “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism” — Peter Frase

Background: Frase digs into two of the most prominent crises of the modern ages, climate change and automation of labor, and discusses how major changes in each of these areas could lead to an end of capitalism as we know it. He shares his theory of four different directions things could go — major climate change in a world with or without major inequality (as we have today) and major automation in a world with or without major inequality. The four futures range from optimistic (we all get to live comfortable lives without working) to horrifying (the rich kill off everyone else since their labor isn’t needed) — and sadly the latter seems more realistic.

Introduction

“At Oxford University, a research unit released a widely publicized report estimating that nearly half the jobs in the U.S. today are vulnerable to computerization.”

“The fear of climate change is a fear of having too little: it anticipates a scarcity of natural resources, the loss of agricultural land, and habitable environments — and ultimately the demise of an Earth that can support human life. The fear of automation is, perversely, a fear of too much: a fully robotized economy that produces so much, with so little human labor, that there is no longer any need for workers. Can we really be facing a crisis of scarcity and a crisis of abundance at the same time?

“It is the interaction of these two dynamics that makes our historical moment so volatile and uncertain, full of both promise and danger.”

“In California, changing Mexican economic conditions and border crackdowns have led to labor shortages. This has spurred farmers to invest in new machinery that can take on even delicate tasks like fruit harvesting, which until now have required the precision of a human hand. This development illustrates a recurrent capitalist dynamic: as workers become more powerful and better paid, the pressure on capitalists to automate increases. When there’s a huge pool of low wage migrant farm labor, a $100,000 fruit picker looks like a wasteful indulgence. But when workers are scarce and can command better wages, the incentive to replace them with machinery is intensified.

“The trend toward automation runs through the entire history of capitalism. In recent years it was muted and somewhat disguised, because of the enormous injection of cheap labor that global capitalism received after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the turn toward capitalism in China. But now even Chinese companies are facing labor shortages and looking to new ways of automating and robotizing.”

“Automation is liable to even move into the oldest and most fundamental form of women’s labor. In the 70s, the radical feminist theorist Shulamith Firestone called for growing babies in artificial wombs, as a way to liberate women from their dominated position in the relations of reproduction. Fanciful at the time, such technologies are becoming a reality today. Japanese scientists have successfully birthed goats from artificial wombs and grown human embryos for up to ten days. Further work on applying this tech to human babies is now as much restricted by law as science; Japan prohibits growing human embryos artificially for longer than 14 days. Many women find such a prospect off-putting and welcome the experience of carrying a child. But surely many others would prefer to be liberated from this obligation.”

“In the short run, the lack of jobs can be attributed not to automation, but to a lack of what is known, in the economists’ jargon, as aggregate demand. In other words, the reason employers don’t hire more workers is because there aren’t enough people buying their products, and the reason people aren’t buying their products is because they don’t have enough money — either because they don’t have jobs or because their wages are too low.”

“The solution to this situation, according to traditional Keynesian economic theories, is for the government to increase demand by a combo of monetary policy (lowering interest rates), fiscal policy (government investment in job creation, for instance through building infrastructure), and regulation (such as a higher minimum wage). And while governments did lower interest rates after the Great Recession, they did not do so in combination with sufficient investment in job creation, leading to a ‘jobless recovery’ in which output — that is, the quantity of goods and services provided — slowly began to grow again, but employment did not return to its prerecession levels.”

“Even if the short-term obstacle of austerity economics and insufficient government stimulus is overcome, we still face the political question that we have faced ever since the industrial revolution: will new technologies of production lead to greater free time for all, or will we remain locked into a cycle in which productivity gains only benefit the few, while the rest of us work longer than ever?

The key question surrounding climate change is not about whether climate change is occurring, but rather who will survive the change. Even in the worst-case scenarios, scientists are not arguing that the Earth will become totally uninhabitable. What will happen — and is happening — is that struggles over space and resources will intensify as habitats degrade. In this context — and particularly in concert with the technological trends discussed above — it may be possible for a small elite to continue to pollute the planet, protecting their own comfort while condemning most of the world’s population to misery. It is that agenda, not any serious engagement with climate science, that drives corporate titans in the direction of denialism.

Who benefits from automation, and who loses, is ultimately a consequence not of the robots themselves, but of who owns them. Hence it’s impossible to understand the unfolding of the ecological crisis and developments in automation without understanding a third crisis through which both are mediated, the crisis of the capitalist economy. For neither climate change nor automation can be understood as problems (or solutions) in and of themselves. What’s so dangerous, rather, is the way they manifest themselves in an economy dedicated to maximizing profits and growth, and in which money and power are held in the hands of a tiny elite.”

The automation and climate change crises are fundamentally about inequality. They’re about the distribution of scarcity and abundance, about who will pay the costs of ecological damage and who will enjoy the benefits of a highly productive, automated economy. There are ways to reckon with the human impact on the Earth’s climate, and there are ways to ensure that automation brings material prosperity for all rather than impoverishment and desperation for most. But those possible futures will require a very different kind of economic system than the one that became globally dominant by the late 20th century.”

Future One: Communism

“Rosa Luxembourg, the great early 20th century socialist theorist and organizer, popularized a slogan: ‘Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.’ That’s truer today than it ever has been.”

“Robert van der Veen and Philippe van Parji’s 1986 essay ‘A Capitalist Road to Communism’ begins from the proposition that Marxism’s ultimate end is not socialism but rather a communist society that abolishes both exploitation (that is, people getting paid less than the true value of their work) and alienation, much like Marx’s ‘realm of freedom’: ‘productive activities need no longer be prompted by external rewards.’ Suppose, they say, ‘that it is possible to provide everyone with a universal grant sufficient to cover their ‘fundamental needs’ without this involving the economy in a downward spiral. How does the economy evolve once such a universal grant is introduced? The answer is that the basic income would ‘twist’ the capitalist drive to increase productivity. ‘Entitlement to a substantial universal grant will simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding work (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway, people can now accept a high-quality job paid far below the guaranteed income level). Consequently, the capitalist logic of profit will, much more than previously, foster technical innovation and organizational change that improve the quality of work and thereby reduce the drudgery required per unit of product.’”

“If you extrapolate this trend forward, you reach a situation where all wage labor is gradually eliminated. Undesirable work is fully automated, as employers feel increasing pressure to automate because labor is no longer too cheap.

Meanwhile, the wage for desirable work eventually falls to zero, because people are both willing to do it for free and able to do so because a basic income supplies their essential needs. Certain activities ‘may be partially repatriated into the sphere of autonomous activities and reduce the demand for these things to be provided by external services, whether public or commercial.’”

The long-run trajectory, therefore, is one in which people come to depend less and less on the basic income, because the things they want and need do not have to be purchased by money. Some things can be produced freely and automatically, as 3D printing and digital copying technologies evolve into something like Star Trek’s replicator. Other things have become the product of voluntary cooperative activity rather than waged work. It therefore comes to pass that the tax base for the basic income is undermined — but rather than creating an insoluble crisis, as in the hands of basic income critics, the withering away of the money economy, and its corresponding tax base, becomes utopia.”

“Consider, for example, a basic income that’s linked to the size of GDP. We’re used to a capitalist world in which the increase in material prosperity corresponds to a rise in GDP, the measured value of economic activity in money. But as wage labor comes to be replaced either by automation or voluntary activity, GDP would begin to fall, and the basic income with it. This would not lead to lowered standards of living, because the falling GDP here also denotes a decline in the cost of living. The basic income withers away and ‘capitalist societies will smoothly move toward full communism.’”

“Being the technocratic liberal that he was, Keynes believed that if paying interest to property owners couldn’t be justified by scarcity, then it should and would disappear. From this perspective, the only reason to have a capitalist market economy in the first place was to allocate scarce goods in a circumstance where everyone couldn’t simply have as much as they want. If rent serves no economic purpose, then why should it exist?

“These would be the main source of employment in the world of anti-Star Trek: creators, lawyers, marketers, and guards. It seems implausible, however, that this would be sufficient — the society would probably be subject to a persistent trend toward under-employment. Especially if all the sectors except (arguably) the first would be subject to pressure toward labor-saving technological innovation. Even high-level managerial functions can be partly automated. In 2014, a Hong Kong venture capital fund called Deep Knowledge appointed an algorithm, a program called VITAL, to its board, where it receives a vote on all investments.

There’s another way for private companies to avoid employing workers for some tasks: turn them into activities that people will find pleasurable and will thus do for free on their own time. The computer scientist Luis von Ahn has specialized in developing such ‘games with a purpose’: apps that present themselves to end users as enjoyable diversions but which also perform a useful computational task, what von Ahn calls ‘Human Computation.’ One of Von Ahn’s early games asked users to identify objects in photos, and the data was then fed back into a database that was used for searching images, a technology later licensed by Google to improve its Image Search. Later, he founded Duolingo, a company that provides free language training exercises and makes money by inviting its users to practice their language skill translating documents for companies that have paid for this service.”

Future Two: Rentism

“The current economic elite could maintain their power and wealth in an environment of total automation in a world where the techniques to produce abundance are monopolized by a small elite.”

“The concept of ownership takes on a different texture in a highly automated world. When we talk about ‘owning the robots,’ we’re not just talking about having control over a physical bundle of metals and wires. Rather, the phrase ‘Who owns the robots owns the world’ metaphorically describes control over things like computer software, algorithms, blueprints, and other kinds of info that we will need to produce and reproduce the world we live in. In order to maintain control over the economy, then, the rich increasingly need to control that information, and not just physical objects.”

“Unlike physical property, intellectual property dictates not only rights to the possession of physical objects but also control over the copying of patterns. It can thus persist in a world where, for example, most objects can be cheaply and easily copied on 3D printers. Those who control the most copyrights and patents become the new ruling class. But this system is no longer capitalism as we have traditionally understood it. Because it’s based on the extraction of rents rather than the accumulation of capital through commodity production, I call it ‘rentism.’”

“Star Trek provides a fable of an egalitarian, postscarcity society. But what does that look like without the egalitarianism? In other words, given the material abundance made possible by the replicator, how would it be possible to maintain a system based on money, profit, and class power? Economists like to say that capitalist market economies work optimally when they are used to allocate scarce goods. So how to maintain capitalism in a world where scarcity can be largely overcome? This requires a kind of antithesis of the Star Trek universe, which takes the same technical preconditions and casts them in a different set of social relations.”

“Intellectual property differs from other property because it grants rights not just over concrete objects but over patterns and all copies and uses of those patterns. And the entire infrastructure of Star Trek is based on patterns that are fed into the replicator and used as the basis for fabricating a physical object, just as a blueprint provides the guidelines for building a house. This is the quality of intellectual property law that provides an economic foundation for anti-Star Trek: the ability to tell others how to use copies of an idea or pattern that you ‘own.’ So imagine that unlike Star Trek, we don’t all have access to our own replicators. And that in order to get access to a replicator, you would have to buy one from a company that licenses you the right to use it. You can’t get someone to give you a replicator or make one with their replicator, because that would violate their license and get them in legal trouble. What’s more, every time you make something with the replicator, you also need to pay a licensing fee to whoever owns the rights to that particular thing.”

Future Three: Socialism

“This chapter is about what happens when you do have to figure out how to live within your means (because of the constraints of scarcity and ecological devastation) while providing everyone the best lives possible.”

“The real question is not whether human civilization can survive ecological crises, but whether all of us can survive it together, in some reasonably egalitarian way. Although the extinction of humanity as a result of climate change is possible, it is highly unlikely. Only somewhat more plausible is the collapse of society and a return to some kind of premodern new Dark Ages. Maintaining a complex, technologically advanced society no doubt requires a large number of people. But it does not necessarily require all 7 billion of us, and the premise of this book is that the number of people required is on the decline because of technological developments in automation, etc.”

“For this reason, we should not take at face value the farcical ‘debate’ about the existence of climate change that persists in mainstream media and politics, particularly in the U.S. Debating the reality of human-caused climate change is no longer relevant or productive. Those who deny climate science do not genuinely reject that science, but they are indifferent to its impact. They are, in other words, people who are sufficiently rich and powerful that they believe they can escape even the worst case scenarios while imploring their costs on the rest of the population, so long as our current social structure is maintained.”

“Anyone whose social network includes ecologically minded liberals has no doubt seen the spread of various reports of climate catastrophe, accompanied by the implicit or explicit idea that we are all doomed. Many of the findings coming from climate science are genuinely terrifying — the rapid shrinking of the West Antarctica ice sheet, for example, which is occurring far more rapidly than anyone expected even a few years ago. But even some epochal events, which are occurring almost instantaneously in geological terms, will unfold over decades or centuries. That’s an eternity in terms of human society. So while it’s hard to imagine human society dealing with environmental changes of this magnitude, it’s no more outlandish than picturing the regimes of 1914 reckoning with the upheavals of the past century. Two world wars! Industrialized genocide! Nuclear weapons! It would probably reduce a socialist of an earlier generation to tears; a Rosa Luxembourg might conclude that humankind has succumbed to barbarism already, making any hope of socialism little more than a pipe dream. Yet we have muddled through, for better or for worse.”

The bigger danger is not that we simply fall of the climate cliff altogether. It is that human civilization does adjust to the climate catastrophe, but in a way that only carves out a comfortable existence for a tiny ruling class, cocooned in their bubbles of wealth strewn around a wider world of deprivation.”

“Another version of this creed is the phony utopianism of Silicon Valley plutocrats. From Facebook to Uber, these new-school robber barons shimmer with self-satisfaction as they insist that the market will solve all our problems and deliver prosperity to all, if we would only get out of the way and stop insisting on petty labor standards and market regulations. The whole charade is an evasion of politics, whether undertaken in the guise of the utopian right or the nihilistic Left. The ruling class tells us that the future is inevitably bright; left-leaning curmudgeons reassure themselves that the future is inevitably gloomy. The result: the Left take meager emotional satisfaction from being right while our opponents take their payment in a more tangible form.”

“Think of your basic income as the ration card that gives you access to your share of all that is scarce in the world. Rather than allocate specific amounts of each scarce resource, the pricing mechanism of the market is used to protect against overuse.”

“To illustrate what this means, consider parking. In American cities, street parking has traditionally been free in most areas or available at a small fixed price. This is a dramatic underpricing, in the sense that it leads people to overconsume the limited resource of parking spaces, leading to a shortage of free spaces and many cars cruising around looking for spaces. In some areas of NYC, most of the traffic on the streets is people looking for parking, wasting their time while creating pollution and congestion. As an alternative, some cities are experimenting with various schemes for pricing street parking, often under the influence of UCLA parking theorist Donald Shoup. One of Shoup’s key themes is that urban governments should avoid under-pricing street parking, because to do so leads to Soviet-style shortages as described above, along with tedious rationing rules such as two-hour limits and the like. Under the influence of this theory, the city of LA decided to implement a wireless smart-metering system called LA Express Park. Sensors are installed in the pavement below each space, and they detect the presence of cars in a given area. The computerized system then automatically adjusts the price of parking depending on how many spaces are filled. When spaces are in high demand, the price can rise as high as $6 per hour, and when many spaces are available they can be as cheap as 50 cents.”

“The LA Express Park scheme has been widely discussed and promoted as applying the ‘free market’ to parking. This naturally grates on those of the Left who equate the market with capitalism and with inequality. But in this case talk of ‘markets’ is more than just an ideological subterfuge to further enrich the powerful; it gives some hints at the potential of markets as limited technologies separable from capitalism.”

“Marxists have commonly made two objections to capitalist markets. The first is narrowly economic: under the ‘anarchy’ of capitalist competition, the pursuit of private profit leads to unjust and irrational results. Luxury goods are produced while the poor starve, inventories pile up that no one can afford to buy, factories lie idle while thousands are looking for work, the environment is despoiled, and so on. In Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Program, in which he laid out a short term reformist program for his communist followers, there are repeated references to this kind of market anarchy, which will inevitably be superseded by a superior form of rational, conscious, worker-controlled planning. Indeed, says Trotsky, ‘The necessity of controlling economy, of placing state guidance over industry and of planning is today recognized — at least in words — by almost all current bourgeois and petty bourgeois tendencies, from fascist to Social Democratic.’ Yet Trotsky himself was adamant that market mechanisms had to be a part of planning the economy. In 1932, hew rote, ‘The innumerable living participants in the economy, state, and private, collective and individual, must serve notice of their needs and of their relative strength not only through the statistical determinations of plan commissions but by the direct pressure of supply and demand. The plan is checked and, to a considerable degree, realized through the market.’ Seen from this perspective, the LA system is not a capitalist ‘free market’ deregulation. The city is not turning parking over to private companies to compete for customers. The LA Express Park experiment is in fact an exemplary case of central planning. The city begins by decreeing a production target, which in this case is maintaining one empty parking space on each street. The complex system of sensors and algorithms is then used to create price signals that will meet the target. In a fundamental way, the capitalist market’s causal arrow has been reversed: rather than market price fluctuations leading to an unpredictable level of production, it is the production target that comes first, and the prices are dictated by the quota.”

“There’s another argument against markets. That they are not merely anarchic and inefficient, but also induce ideological mystifications that perpetuate capitalism and exploitation. The Marxist political scientist Bertell Ollman has often argued this. ‘A major virtue of centrally planned societies,’ he says, is that ‘it is a precondition for democratic accountability, because only a critique of market mystification will enable us to put the blame where it belongs, which is it to say — on the capitalist market as such and the class that rules over it.’ But despite the presence of price signals and a market, it’s no mystery who’s responsible for the new regime of fluctuating meter prices: the city of LA, urged on by its advisor Donald Shoup. Indeed, it’s the very visibility of the planners that makes projects like this controversial among those who take their right to free parking for granted and who oppose policies such as congestion pricing that would mitigate traffic by charging drivers for entering busy areas. This is also part of what makes climate policies such as a carbon tax vulnerable to right-wing attack: whatever its ‘market-based’ costume, everyone knows that the policy begins with government lawmakers and bureaucrats.”

The real failing of LA Express Park and all systems like it is that they exist within a dramatically unequal capitalist society. In such a society, $6 for a parking space means less to a rich person than to a poor one, and so the system is inherently unequal. The answer is not to attack the system of market planning, but to overthrow that underlying inequality. Ultimately, this means overcoming the capitalist system of resource distribution and approaching a world in which control of wealth is equalized.”

“There are ways to turn some of the predatory ‘sharing economy’ businesses into something a bit more egalitarian. Economics writer Mike Konczal, for instance, has suggested a plan to ‘socialize Uber.’ He notes that since the company’s workers already own most of the capital — their cars — it would be relatively easy for a worker coop to set up an online platform that works like an Uber app but is controlled by the workers themselves rather than a handful of Silicon Valley capitalists.”

“Socialism is a world of limits, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a world of freedom. Here, limits are imposed by the physical environment in which we live. We can still reduce labor to a minimum, even if consumption must be bounded. And what work of ecological reconstruction is necessary can be shared out fairly rather than dictated by those with access to wealth. It may sometimes be drudgery, like people ripping up asphalt for recycling. In other cases, though, the work we do may be something that people find fulfilling and exciting. Whether it’s designing robo-bees or parking algorithms, socialist ecology is full of compelling challenges, a bit of communism in the eco-socialist future. The socialist future can be as grand as transforming our own planet, reconstructing it into something that can continue to support us and at least some of the other living creatures that currently exist — in other words, making an entirely new nature and ensuring that we still have a place in it.”

Future Four: Exterminism

“The fourth permutation of our axes of hierarchy-equality and scarcity-abundance is a world where scarcity cannot be totally overcome for all but can be overcome for a small elite.”

“We can already see tendencies in [this] direction in our contemporary economy. The very richest inhabit a world in which most goods are, in effect, free. That is, their wealth is so great relative to the cost of food, housing, travel, and other amenities that they rarely have to consider the cost of anything. Whatever they want, they can have.

“The difference, of course, [between the present and this imagined future] is that their postscarcity condition is made possible not just by machines but by the labor of the global working class.”

“An optimistic view of future developments is that we’ll eventually come to a state in which we are all, in some sense, the 1%. As William Gibson famously remarked, ‘The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.’ But what if resources and energy are simply too scarce to allow everyone to enjoy the material standard of living that the rich enjoy today? What if we arrive in a future that no longer requires the mass proletariat’s labor in production but is unable to provide everyone with an arbitrarily high standard of living? If we arrive in that world as an egalitarian society, our system will resemble the socialist regime of shared conservatism. But if, instead, we remain a society polarized between a privileged elite and a downtrodden mass, then the most plausible trajectory leads to something much darker. The rich will sit secure in the knowledge that their replicators and robots can provide for their every need. What of the rest of us?”

The great danger posed by the automation of production, in the context of a world of hierarchy and scarce resources, is that it makes the great mass of people superfluous from the standpoint of the ruling elite. This is in contrast to capitalism, where the antagonism between capital and labor was characterized by both a clash of interests and a relationship of mutual dependence: the workers depend on the capitalists as long as they don’t control the means of production themselves, while the capitalists need workers to run their factories and shops. It was that interdependence that gave hope and confidence to many socialist movements of the past. The bosses may hate us, the thinking went, but they need us, and that gives us power and leverage over them. In the old labor and socialist standard ‘Solidarity Forever,’ the victory of the workers is inevitable because ‘they have taken untold millions that they never toiled to earn, but without our brain and muscle not a single wheel can turn.’ With the rise of the robots, the second line ceases to hold.”

“The existence of an impoverished, economically superfluous rabble poses a great danger to the ruling class, which will naturally fear imminent expropriation; confronted with this threat, several courses of action present themselves. The masses can be bought off with some degree of redistribution of resources, as the rich share out their wealth in the form of social welfare programs, at least if resource constraints aren’t too binding. But in addition to potentially reintroducing scarcity into the lives of the rich, this solution is liable to lead to an ever-rising tide of demands on the part of the masses, thus raising the specter of expropriation once again.”

“This is essentially what happened at the high tide of the welfare state, in the aftermath of the Great Depression and WWII. For a while, robust social benefits and strong labor unions coincided with high profits and rapid growth, and so labor and capital enjoyed an uneasy peace. But that very prosperity led to a situation in which workers were empowered to demand more and more power over the conditions of work, and so the bosses began to fear that both profits and control over the workplace were slipping out of their hands. In a capitalist society, this is an avoidable tension: the boss needs the worker but is also terrified of their potential power.”

“So what happens if the masses are dangerous but are 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 get rid of them.”

“We still live in a heavily militarized world, where the military budget takes up almost as large of a percentage of the U.S. economy as it did in the early 2000s. But the conflicts that define the era of the so-called ‘War on Terror’ are asymmetrical ones, pitting technologically advanced militaries against weak states or stateless insurgents. The lessons learned in these theaters come home, leading to the militarization of domestic policing as well.”

A world where the ruling class no longer depends on the exploitation of working class labor is a world where the poor are merely a danger and an inconvenience. Policing and repressing them may ultimately seem more trouble than can be justified. This is where the thrust toward ‘the extermination of multitudes’ originates. Its ultimate endpoint is literally the extermination of the poor, so that the rabble can finally be brushed aside once and for all, leaving the rich to live in peace and quiet in their Elysium.’”

“In a 1983 article, the Noble Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief anticipated the problem of mass unemployment. In what he he calls, with some understatement, ‘a somewhat shocking but essentially appropriate analogy,’ he compares workers to horses. ‘One might say that the process by which progressive introduction of new computerized, automated, and robotized equipment can be expected to reduce the role of labor is similar to the process by which the introduction of tractors and other machinery first reduced and then completely eliminated horses and other draft animals in agriculture.’ This led most people to the conclusion that ‘keeping all these idle horses…would make little sense.’ As a result the U.S horse population fell from 22 million in 1900 to 3 million in 1960. Leontif goes on to express, with the cheery confidence of a mid-century technocrat, his confidence that since people are not horses, we will surely find ways to support all of society’s members. Echoing other critics of wage labor, he argues that ‘sooner or later…it will have to be admitted that the demand for employment is in the first instance a demand for livelihood, meaning income.’ However, given the contemptuous and cruel attitudes of today’s ruling class, we can in no way take that for granted.”

“Fortunately, even the rich have developed norms of morality that make it difficult to reach for this Final Solution as a first resort. Their initial step is simply to hide from the poor. But all around us, we can see the gradual drift away from just corralling and controlling ‘excess’ populations, into justifications for permanently eliminating them.”

“Of course, it is the movements of the masses whose movements are restricted, while the elite remains cosmopolitan and mobile. Some of the examples are relatively trivial, like frequent-flyer lounges and private rooms in public hospitals. Others are more serious, like gated communities (or, in the more extreme case, private islands) for the rich, and ghettos for the poor — where police are responsible for keeping poor people out of the ‘wrong’ neighborhoods. Biological quarantines and immigration restrictions take the enclave concept to the level of the nation-state. In all cases, the prison looms as the ultimate dystopian enclave for those who do not comply. Gated communities, private islands, ghettos, prisons, terrorism paranoia, biological quarantines — these amount to an inverted global gulag, where the rich live in tiny islands of wealth strewn around an ocean of misery.”

“Cartier jewelry exec Johann Rupert told a 2015 Financial Times conference that the prospect of an insurgency among the poor is ‘what keeps [him] awake at night.’ But while such views are repugnant, they aren’t without logic. In a world of hyperinequality and mass unemployment, you can try to buy off the masses for a while, and then you can try to repress them by force. But so long as immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that one day it may become impossible to hold them at bay. When mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor. The specter of automation rises once again, but in a very different way. In rentism, it merely tended to make more and more workers superfluous, intensifying the system’s tendency toward underemployment and weak demand. An exterminist society can automate and mechanize the process of suppression and extermination, allowing the rulers and their minions to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.

“But is that final move, from repression to outright extermination, really plausible? Such slippages begin first where a class conflict is overlaid with a national one, as in the Israeli occupation of Palestine. At one time, Israel was heavily dependent on cheap Palestinian labor. But since the late 90s, these workers have been displaced by migrant workers from Asia and Eastern Europe. Having thus rendered Palestinians superfluous as workers, Israel is able to give free reign to the more fanatical aspects of Zionism’s settler-colonial project. In its 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip, the government made claims of ‘self-defense’ that were almost laughably perfunctory, even as they bombed hospitals, schools, and power plants, indiscriminately killing men, women, and children alike and leveling much of the housing stock. Open calls for genocide came from members of the Israeli parliament; one, Ayelet Shaked, proclaimed that ‘the entire Palestinian people is the enemy.’ On this basis, she justified the destruction of Gaza as a whole, ‘including its elderly and its women, its cities and its villages, its property and its infrastructure.’”

“Americans might think themselves immune to such barbarity, despite the political class’ almost uniform support for Israel’s war on Gaza. But Nobel Peace Prize-winning President Obama already claims the right to kill American citizens without the pretense of due process. His government even uses algorithmic methods to identify targets without necessarily knowing their identities.”

“In 2012, the Washington Post published a story about something called the ‘disposition matrix.’ This was the Obama administration’s ‘next-generation targeting list,’ a sort of spreadsheet of doom used to keep track of all those foreigners marked for anonymous drone assassination as alleged terrorists. The story was full of chilling comments from officials. One of them remarks that a killer drone is ‘like your lawn mower’: no matter how many terrorists you kill, ‘the grass is going to grow back.’ To streamline the process of indefinite killing, the process is partially automated. The Post reports on the development of algorithms for so-called ‘signature strikes,’ which allow the CIA and [Joint Special Operations Command] to hit targets based on patterns of activity…even when the identities of those who would be killed is unclear.”

“More than a diffuse cultural shift, militarized policing should be understood as a conscious state strategy, with the federal government using anti-terrorism as a pretext to make local police more like soldiers. Many police officers are themselves veterans, hardened to civilian deaths by their experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The US government encourages the transition of soldiers into law enforcement agents through its Community Oriented Policing (COPS) program, by prioritizing grants to agencies that hire veterans. Meanwhile, the technology they use — the massive armored fighting vehicles that now grace the streets of even small towns — are repurposed military equipment. The US Department of Homeland Security hands out ‘anti-terrorism’ grants with which police departments large and small can purchase such equipment.”

The warrior cop is not merely a danger to individual train riders and cigarette hawkers, illegal gamblers, or occasional pot smokers. Their fate is tied to the fate of political mobilization, as can be seen in the U.S. and around the world. Mass protest everywhere is already violently repressed, and not just in states like Egypt or China that are popularly regarded as authoritarian. A 2013 report from the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations documents the widespread ‘use of lethal and deadly force in response to largely peaceful gatherings seeking to express social and political viewpoints,’ in places ranging from Canada to Egypt to Kenya to South Africa to the U.S. The crackdown on the Occupy movement was one example of this, a show of force by squads of armored cops in cities across the country. Meanwhile, the surveillance-state techniques revealed by former NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and others show just how powerful are the state’s tools for repressing dissent and monitoring the activities of activists.”

“In this context, it becomes easier to envision the slippage from inhuman prisons, violent police crackdowns, and occasional summary executions to more systematic forms of elimination. Algorithmic targeting, combined with the increasing power of unmanned combat drones, promises to ease the moral discomfort of mass killing, by distancing those who mobilize violence from their targets. Operators can sit safely in remote silos, piloting their death robots in far-off places. We can already see how our political and economic elites manage to justify ever-higher levels of misery and death while remaining convinced that they are great humanitarians.

I read non-fiction and take copious notes