The fourth scenario: Exterminism
- From Four Futures: Life after Capitalism by Peter Frase. X-post as you see fit.
Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 movie Elysium portrays a dystopian Earth in the year 2154. A small elite—the 1 percent, if you will—has decamped for a space station called Elysium. There, they enjoy lives of comfort and leisure, lives that are apparently eternal due their access to miraculous “Med-Bay” technology. Back on Earth, meanwhile, the rest of humanity lives on a crowded, polluted planet, governed by a robotic police force. The plot centers around Max (Matt Damon), one of the Earth-bound rabble who has been poisoned by radiation, as he attempts to penetrate the sanctum of Elysium and access its medical wonders. The political economy of Elysium is somewhat difficult to extract from the film, but some suggestive themes emerge. Most important is that the rich on Elysium do not appear to be economically dependent on Earth in any significant way. We do see a factory, where Max works in the beginning of the movie and which is run by one of the Elysium elite. But the purpose of that factory seems to be merely the production of weapons and robots, whose purpose in turn is to control the population of Earth. For the most part, the residents of Earth appear less like a proletariat than like inmates of a concentration camp, where populations are warehoused rather than exploited for their labor. The political economy of Elysium therefore differs from that of, for example, The Hunger Games, in which the posh lifestyles in the capital city of Panem are sustained by the surrounding “districts” where the poor produce essential commodities. The ending of Elysium suggests that perhaps the lifestyles of the rich can be generalized to everyone, with luxury and immortality for all. This is by no means unambiguous, however. In a previous chapter, I suggested that if such a postscarcity society were to arise in the context of class hierarchy, it would be more likely to take the form of a rentier economy centered on intellectual property. Elysium looks like something different: the fourth permutation of our axes of hierarchy-equality and scarcity-abundance—that is, a world where scarcity cannot be totally overcome for all but can be overcome for a small elite. Communism for the Few Ironically, the life enjoyed within Elysium’s bubble appears not too different from the Communist scenario sketched out several chapters earlier. The difference, of course, is that it is communism for the few. And indeed, we can already see tendencies in this direction in our contemporary economy. As Charles Stross has noted, 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. For the very rich, then, the world system already resembles the communism described earlier. The difference, of course, is that their postscarcity 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 1 percent. As William Gibson famously remarked, “the future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”1 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 consumption? If we arrive in that world as an egalitarian society, our system will resemble 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. 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 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, in fact, 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 World War II. 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 where 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 his or her 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. The Extermination Endgame In 1980, the Marxist historian E. P. Thompson wrote an essay reflecting on the Cold War and the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation, called “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization.”2 In it, he contemplated the increasing turn of both the capitalist and communist economies toward the technologies of militarism and war. It was, he thought, inadequate to understand the arms race and the military buildup as merely tools to defend the larger political economies of the contending sides, be that the planned economy of the USSR or the capitalist market of the United States. The military-industrial complex was taking up a larger and larger part of the economy in the rich capitalist countries, and the Soviets were likewise increasingly preoccupied with building up arms. Thompson proposed that we needed a new category to understand this social formation. He quotes Marx’s famous line from The Poverty of Philosophy: “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.”3 That is, as the central economic relations of a society change, all the social relations in that society tend to change with them. Confronting the logic of military industrialism, Thompson asks, “what are we given by those Satanic mills which are now at work, grinding out the means of human extermination?” His answer was that the category we needed was “exterminism.” This term covers “these characteristics of a society—expressed, in differing degrees, within its economy, its polity, and its ideology—which thrust it in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.”4 The specific configuration Thompson discussed has largely disappeared—there is no longer a Cold War or a USSR. Despite the best efforts of militarist neoconservatives and others to nostalgically recreate great power conflicts with Russia or China, these hardly compare to the shadow of nuclear terror that hung over Thompson’s head. And so I have repurposed his word to describe another order, the final of my four hypothetical societies. Yet what I will describe is nevertheless another kind of society that is “thrust … in a direction whose outcome must be the extermination of multitudes.” We still live in heavily militarized world, where the military budget takes up almost as large a percentage of the US economy as it did when Thompson wrote his essay. 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 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 Nobel Prize–winning economist Wassily Leontief anticipated the problem of mass unemployment that has been contemplated throughout this book. In what 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.5 As he then notes, this led most people to the conclusion that “from the human point of view, keeping all these idle horses … would make little sense.” As a result, the US horse population fell from 21.5 million in 1900 to 3 million in 1960.6 Leontief 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 Gorz and 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.”7 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, much like the characters in Elysium. But all around us, we can see the gradual drift away from just corralling and controlling “excess” populations, into justifications for permanently eliminating them. Enclave Societies and Social Control The sociologist Bryan Turner has argued that we live in an “enclave society.”8 Despite the myth of increasing mobility under globalization, we in fact inhabit 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.”9 Of course, it is the movements of the masses whose movements are restricted, while the elite remains cosmopolitan and mobile. Some of the examples Turner adduces 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, whether it is the federal penitentiary or the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. 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. In Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parenti shows how this order is created in the world’s crisis regions, as climate change brings about what he calls the “catastrophic convergence” of ecological change, economic inequality, and state failure.10 In the wake of colonialism and neoliberalism, 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, a feature of the rentist society, reappears in an even more malevolent form, as a lucky few are employed as enforcers and protectors for the rich. But the construction of enclaves is not limited to the poorest places. Across the world, the rich are demonstrating their desire to escape from the rest of us. A 2013 article in Forbes magazine reports on the mania, among the rich, for evermore-elaborate home security.11 An executive for one security company boasts that his Los Angeles house has security “similar to that of the White House.” Others market infrared sensors, facial recognition technologies, and defensive systems that spray noxious smoke or pepper spray. All this for people who, although rich, are largely anonymous and hardly prominent targets for would-be attackers. Paranoid though they may seem, large numbers of the economic elite appear to regard themselves as a set-upon minority, at war with the rest of society. Silicon Valley is a hotbed of such sentiments, plutocrats talking openly about “secession.” In one widely disseminated speech, Balaji Srinivasan, the cofounder of a San Francisco genetics company, told an audience of start-up entrepreneurs that “we need to build opt-in society, outside the US, run by technology.”12 For now, that reflects hubris and ignorance of the myriad ways someone like him is supported by the workers who make his life possible. But it demonstrates the impulse to wall off the rich from what are deemed to be surplus populations. Other trends are less dramatic than decamping to an opt-in society, but nevertheless disturbing. Around the United States, residents of wealthier neighborhoods are beginning to hire private security to defend themselves from the perceived threat of their neighbors. In Oakland, small groups of neighbors band together to hire their own guards, and one neighborhood even took the initiative to raise $90,000 through a crowdfunding campaign.13 Thus do the ranks of guard laborers swell. And there are already those who would build an entire city to hide from the masses. Off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, a group of Lebanese developers are building a private city, Eko Atlantic, intended to house 250,000. It is to be “a sustainable city, clean and energy efficient with minimal carbon emissions.”14 It is also going to be a place where the elite can escape from the millions of nearby Nigerians who live on less than a dollar a day and scrounge in the informal economy. Another island, the island of Manhattan, is also gradually being turned into an enclave of the global rich: in 2014, over half of Manhattan real estate sales worth $5 million or more were to foreigners or anonymous buyers behind shell companies (most of whom are believed to be non-American).15 These purchases serve the dual purpose of laundering money and hiding it from prying governments, as well as providing a landing place in case of unrest in their home countries. At the intersection of paranoia and tasteless consumption, there’s Vivos, whose website promises “the ultimate life assurance solution for high net worth families.” The company is building an eighty-apartment, radiation-proof megabunker, carved into a mountain in Germany. These aren’t your ordinary bomb-shelters, but rather luxury apartments featuring all the leather and stainless steel trappings of the nouveau riche. Company founder Robert Vicino described the complex to the Vice website as comparable to “an underground yacht.” For a mere 2.5 million Euros and up, you too can wait out the apocalypse in style. And Vivos is only one example of what Forbes magazine called the “Billionaires’ Bunkers” industry.16 From Enclave to Genocide Today, we laugh at out-of-touch billionaires like venture capitalist Tom Perkins, who in 2014 compared criticism of the rich to Kristallnacht, the attacks on Jews in Nazi Germany in 1938.17 Or Cartier jewelry executive Johann Rupert, who told a 2015 Financial Times conference that the prospect of an insurgency among the poor is “what keeps me awake at night.”18 But while such views are repugnant, they are not 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. Under 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 heavily depended on cheap Palestinian labor. But as political economist Adam Hanieh has demonstrated, since the late 1990s these workers have been displaced by migrant laborers from Asia and Eastern Europe.19 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.”20 Americans might think themselves immune to such barbarity, despite the political class’s almost uniform support for Israel’s war on Gaza. But Nobel Peace Prize–winning President Barack 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.”21 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, then, 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.”22 Such actions are supported by a substantial number of Americans. Sadly, this indifference to the deaths of those seen as foreigners or others has long characterized the response to US warmaking. But the exterminist mindset has its echoes domestically as well. In the United States, the willingness to countenance the elimination of unruly surplus populations is tightly intertwined with racism, though it is unquestionably a class phenomenon as well. This can be seen in a prison system that now incarcerates 2 million people, many for nonviolent drug offenses. And it often does so in conditions that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy called “incompatible with the concept of human dignity,” with “no place in civilized society,” in his opinion on overcrowding in the California prison system.23 The American prison system has long been a way to control the unemployed who get locked away inside while buying off those who remain on the outside. In her analysis of the California prison system, Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes the massive growth of incarceration as the construction of a “golden gulag.”24 Urban youth who lack social services and jobs are ruthlessly targeted by police, locked up for long terms under draconian drug laws and California’s “three strikes” provision. The resulting explosion in prison construction, meanwhile, provides jobs in rural areas of the state with depressed economies. With agricultural work automated or shifted to ultra-low-wage migrant labor, and manufacturing jobs lost to deindustrialization, prison work has become among the last remaining well-paid labor in these places. Prison sentencing can even be offloaded onto algorithms, the better to allow administrators to deny their active role in constructing these warehouses of misery. At least twenty US states now use so-called “evidence-based sentencing.” The name sounds innocuous—who could oppose the use of evidence? Richard Redding, a University of Virginia law professor and advocate of the method, goes so far as to claim that it “may even be unethical” to use sentencing techniques that are not “transparent” and “entirely rational.”25 But the factors that can go into an evidence-based sentence, by Redding’s own account, include not just crimes a person has committed, but those they might commit in the future—the “risk factors” and “criminogenic needs” that “increase the likelihood of recidivism.” At this point these models of “future crime risk” start to come uncomfortably close to the dystopia of the Philip K. Dick story (and later Tom Cruise movie) The Minority Report, in which a “Precrime” division arrests people for crimes they have not yet committed. Today even some on the right are questioning mass incarceration, sometimes simply on budgetary grounds. But barring any effort to actually provide for either prisoners or the workers who benefit from the prison boom, what is to become of all these surplus populations? Sometimes, those who make it to prison are the lucky ones. Steeped in a culture that is quick to resort to violence, police forces routinely maim and kill those suspected of minor crimes or no crime at all. The brutality of the police is not new, but two things have changed: they have become more militarized and more heavily armed, while the Internet and the ubiquity of video recording equipment has made documentation of their behavior easier. Radley Balko has described the militarization of the police as the emergence of the “warrior cop.”26 Police increasingly dress in military style and think in military terms. SWAT teams, heavily armed paramilitary units that were originally promoted as a response to high-level threats, are now deployed as a matter of routine. A few hundred SWAT raids per year were conducted across the United States in the 1970s; now there are 100 to 150 every day. Often these raids are responding to minor crimes like marijuana possession or gambling. And they can be performed without a warrant, under the guise of being “administrative searches” such as license inspections. A few videos of these raids can be found on the Internet, and they convey the surreal horror of a heavily armed battalion storming someone’s house over a few ounces of pot. The result is a steady stream of dead and injured suspects and their family members—or nonsuspects, in the frequent scenario where the SWAT team invades the wrong house, as Balko documents at great length. He cites raids like the one in 2003, when fifty-seven-year-old government employee Alberta Spruill died of a heart attack after the New York Police Department threw a “flash-bang” grenade into what they thought was the apartment of a drug dealer, based only on an anonymous tip. Even when they have the right address, militarized police responses can cause chaos and destruction that even the people who called the police in the first place never intended. The 2015 documentary Peace Officer tells the story of Dub Lawrence, a former Utah county sheriff who became a police critic after his son-in-law was shot by a SWAT team officer during a standoff that was originally precipitated by a domestic violence call from his girlfriend.27 At the street level, too, the threat of police violence is constant, especially for the black and brown. In July 2014, New York City resident Eric Garner died after being placed in a chokehold by officers, for the suspected crime of selling untaxed loose cigarettes. His death provoked an uproar in part because the incident was caught on a cell phone camera, but also because it brought attention to something that is all too routine. Soon after, Mike Brown was shot down in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, giving more fuel to a national movement. Although exact details of the encounter are disputed, all agree that Brown was unarmed and that the officer who shot him started a confrontation over the grave crime of walking in the street. These events echoed many similar incidents around the country, an unceasing drumbeat of violence over the years. In Oakland, for example, there was the police execution of Oscar Grant. After being detained by a transit officer in connection with reports of fighting on a BART train, a bystander’s cell phone video showed the officer shouting racial epithets at Grant and then shooting him while he was restrained and face down on the platform. This touched off a protest movement that was an important precursor to Occupy Oakland. Recent police militarization has its roots in the social upheavals of the 1960s, when the state sought to repress the black freedom and anti-war movements. And the transformation of the police into something akin to an occupying army is inseparable from the history of American imperialism and warmaking abroad, because it is both a literal and figurative case of bringing the war home. Historian Julilly Kohler-Hausmann describes the intersection of these struggles with Vietnam itself, with the imagery of “urban jungles” contributing to “widespread social acceptance of the idea that urban police were engaged in warlike sieges in poor communities.”28 The process of militarization has accelerated in the era of the “war on terror,” as not just imagery but weapons flow from the battlefield to the homefront. 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 Services (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. Other agencies can acquire similar gear for free, by participating in the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which distributes surplus military equipment freed up by troop withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan.29 The result is absurdities like the delivery of a Mine- Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle to High Springs, Florida, population 5,350.30 These heavily armored, tanklike vehicles were originally used to protect soldiers from the explosives of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, who are generally thought to be uncommon in central Florida. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then—or perhaps it is a rare example of police sanity—that the police chief of High Springs reported that he had not used the MRAP in the year since receiving it and was hoping to transfer it to another agency. But other departments are happy to roll out the tanks and body armor, as we saw in the images from Ferguson. In a remarkably short time, we’ve become used to these images, which recall Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 movie Robocop, a movie that, at the time, was intended as an absurdly over-the-top dystopian depiction of a militarized near-future Detroit. 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 United States 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 United States.31 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 National Security Agency 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. It approaches the world of Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. In that story, a child is recruited to train for a war with a race of aliens. As part of his final training, he participates in a simulation in which he destroys the entire homeworld. It was of course not a simulation; young Ender has actually finished the war by committing genocide. Things in our world may not play out with such literal deceptions, but 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.