The following interview was recorded by This Is Hell. It is partially reproduced here.
Chuck Mertz: We are facing multiple crises that will change our lives and our planet forever. There’s climate change that will be environmentally devastating; we’ve got the crisis of capitalism, which is in a tailspin; and the potential for our jobs to be replaced by automation. And all of those problems may happen a lot sooner than you think.
So what does our future hold for us? Here to talk about the possibilities is sociologist Peter Frase, author of Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. Peter is a sociologist at the City University of New York, and on the editorial board of Jacobin. Welcome to This is Hell!, Peter.
Peter Frase: Thanks for having me on.
CM: You write, “Two specters are haunting Earth in the 21st century: the specters of ecological catastrophe and automation.” Why do you see automation as a threat that can be put in the same sentence as climate change? How much of a threat is automation to the planet? What would you say to someone who says that climate change is clearly the most important thing that we need to be engaging with right now?
PF: It’s really the interaction between those two things that we ought to be concerned with. Obviously climate change and the ecological crisis more generally is something that has come to our attention now as the new thing we should be worried about—and we should be very worried about it.
The question of automation is something that goes back to the beginnings of industrial capitalism. If we go back to the nineteenth century, there was the folk tale of John Henry, the steel driving man who tried to outrace the steam-powered drill and dropped dead trying to do it; that encoded an anxiety about workers being replaced by machines already then, and we have anxieties today about robots and algorithms that, depending how you look at it, are either potential sources of liberation, the emancipation from drudgery, or they are going to put us all out of work and leave us on the street.
That’s happening at the same time that we are dealing with climate change and resource scarcities. And both of those things are filtered through the fundamental contradiction of capitalism, which is: do we resolve these crises in a way that is favorable to the one percent that currently control most of the resources, or do we resolve them in a way that’s more egalitarian? That’s the framework that I’m working with.
CM: So is capitalism, then, better at reacting to a circumstance that is happening at this moment and not as well-equipped to deal with potential possibilities down the line?
PF: I would put it in a bit of a different way. Capitalism is very well designed to resolve crises in a way that is favorable to the handful of people who control the resources. If we’re talking about something like climate change, and we’re looking at the most dire predictions about what’s going to happen—and there are some very dire predictions—the reality is that the Earth is not going to become totally uninhabitable. Probably. Hopefully. What’s going to happen is that certain places are going to become uninhabitable. The amount of land that is available for farming is going to decrease. There are going to be more and more natural disasters, and so on.
If you are in the one percent, if you are rich enough to be able to hide in your gated community on your private island that is hopefully far enough above sea level, then you have the ability to ride out that storm and avoid the worst consequences of the catastrophes that we are facing. The question becomes whether all of us, as global humanity, are able to ride out the consequences of climate change, or whether only a small elite survives, and the rest of us are left in misery. That, to me, is the question.
CM: There are many people who are still in climate change denial, some to a greater degree than others. How much are we in denial about automation making human workers obsolete?
PF: I wouldn’t say there’s denial; there’s a constant anxiety about it. There’s always the potential, and there is the continuing dynamic where capitalism will find ways to automate and replace human labor. The question has always been what the long run outcomes of that will be. Do we use the productive possibilities of the technology that we have to liberate people from work, to make all of our lives easier? Or do they just become new ways to enrich a small layer of capitalists while the rest of us still have to work our boring and terrible jobs?
At one time, everyone worked in agriculture. And then agriculture was largely automated, and people moved into the factories. And then the factories were automated and we moved into service jobs, working in call centers or working at McDonald’s. We can iterate that process as many times as we like. My argument is not that there’s any inevitable logic that leads to the elimination of human labor, but that the potential exists, and we need a political struggle to unlock that potential and take the productive potential of the economy away from the capitalist class that currently owns it, and turn it in the direction of serving human needs instead.
CM: So every time automation comes along, there has been a new industry for people to be employed in. Right now, that automation from factories has led to a boom in employment in service. How far has the automation of service jobs moved forward? To what degree have we moved towards an automated service sector as well?
PF: We are moving in that direction, and potentially we could move farther in that direction. There are already fast food restaurants where instead of talking to somebody behind the counter you punch your order into a touchscreen and get it that way, the same way you can go to a grocery store and use the automated checkout machine instead of dealing with a human cashier. Again, it comes down to the fact that the jobs that are replaced there are jobs that are, at this particular time and in this particular context, jobs that people need to survive. But there’s nothing inherently fulfilling about working behind the counter at a McDonald’s or behind the checkout at a grocery store.
Listen to the rest of the interview here:
Peter Frase is a sociologist, editor at Jacobin magazine and member of DSA.
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