Hierarchy and Scarcity: Exterminism
[I]f we do not arrive [at a post-capitalist society] as equals, and environmental limits continue to press against us, we come to the fourth and most disturbing of our possible futures. In a way, it resembles the communism that we began with—but it is a communism for the few.
A paradoxical truth about that global elite we have learned to call the “one percent” is that, while they are defined by their control of a huge swathe of the world’s monetary wealth, they are at the same time the fragment of humanity whose daily lives are least dominated by money. As Charles Stross has written, the very richest inhabit an existence in which most worldly 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.
Which is to say that for the very rich, the world is already something like the communism described earlier. The difference, of course, is that their post-scarcity condition is made possible not just by machines but by the labor of the global working class. But an optimistic view of future developments—the future I have described as communism—is that we will eventually come to a state in which we are all, in some sense, the one percent. 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 of today’s rich? 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 consumption? If we arrive in that world as an egalitarian society, then the answer is the socialist regime of shared conservation described in the previous section. 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; I will call it by the term that E. P. Thompson used to describe a different dystopia, during the peak of the cold war: exterminism.
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 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 is as the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever” had it: “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, when bosses began to fear that both profits and control over the workplace were slipping out of their hands.
If buying off the angry mob isn’t a sustainable strategy, another option is simply to run away and hide from them. This is the trajectory of what the sociologist Bryan Turner calls “enclave society”, an order in which “governments and other agencies seek to regulate spaces and, where necessary, to immobilize flows of people, goods and services” by means of “enclosure, bureaucratic barriers, legal exclusions and registrations.” Gated communities, private islands, ghettos, prisons, terrorism paranoia, biological quarantines; together, these amount to an inverted global gulag, where the rich live in tiny islands of wealth strewn around an ocean of misery. In Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti makes the case that we are already constructing this new order, as climate change brings about what he calls the “catastrophic convergence” of ecological disruption, economic inequality, and state failure. The legacy of colonialism and neoliberalism is that the rich countries, along with the elites of the poorer ones, have facilitated a disintegration into anarchic violence, as various tribal and political factions fight over the diminishing bounty of damaged ecosystems. Faced with this bleak reality, many of the rich—which, in global terms, includes many workers in the rich countries as well—have resigned themselves to barricading themselves into their fortresses, to be protected by unmanned drones and private military contractors. Guard labor, which we encountered in the rentist society, reappears in an even more malevolent form, as a lucky few are employed as enforcers and protectors for the rich.
But this too, is an unstable equilibrium, for the same basic reason that buying off the masses is. So long as the immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that it may one day become impossible to hold them at bay. Once mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor. Many have called the recent Justin Timberlake vehicle, In Time, a Marxist film, but it is more precisely a parable of the road to exterminism. In the movie, a tiny ruling class literally lives forever in their gated enclaves due to genetic technology, while everyone else is programmed to die at 25 unless they can beg, borrow or steal more time. The only thing saving the workers is that the rich still have some need for their labor; when that need expires, so presumably will the working class itself.
Hence exterminism, as a description of this type of society. Such a genocidal telos may seem like an outlandish, comic book villain level of barbarism; perhaps it is unreasonable to think that a world scarred by the holocausts of the twentieth century could again sink to such depravity. Then again, the United States is already a country where a serious candidate for the Presidency revels in executing the innocent, while the sitting Commander in Chief casually orders the assassination of American citizens without even the pretense of due process, to widespread liberal applause.
Original essay, upon which the subsequent book is based, freely available at Jacobin. Highly recommended.