Event Highlights: The End of Capitalism with Peter Frase and Richard Seymour

October 24th, 2016 in Event Highlights

From the rise of US third party candidate Jill Stein, challenging the two-party system, to Jeremy Corbyn’s ascension in the British Labour party, dealing a huge blow to the Blairite opposition, radical politics has been forced into the mainstream. This event – organized as a conversation on the current state of radical politics and the emerging futures that may result – address the ‘End of Capitalism,’ a subject both Richard Seymour and Peter Frase have alluded to in their extensive writings. Recognizing that humanity has never before managed to craft an eternal social system, capitalism is notably more precarious and volatile than most preceding global orders. Increasing automation and a growing scarcity of resources, thanks to climate change, could potentially bring it all tumbling down. These are the issues tackled in the Q&A event organized by the Boston University Center for the Study of Europe and moderated by Jacobin editor Nicole M. Aschoff.

Richard Seymour is the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder (2008), Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012), and Against Austerity (2014). He currently presents a programme, ‘Media Review’, for TeleSur, and has previously appeared on BBC, Al Jazeera and C-Span. He is finishing a PhD at the London School of Economics, where he also teaches. Peter Frase is an editor at Jacobin magazine, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the CUNY Graduate Center, and has written for In These Times and Al Jazeera. He lives in New York City.

The event began with welcoming remarks by Center Director Vivien Schmidt and a brief introduction of the authors by Nicole Aschoff. Richard Seymour began by talking about the transition away from capitalism. He explained the rising idea of a “left party” in Europe and the United States as “there is a feeling among a growing number of people that we are not represented and that it is about time we had a party.” Seymour then explained how the emergence of Corbyn as an alternative to the establish elite in the UK parliamentary exemplifies “the nature of the crisis at the present – and the nature of the tendencies with which we have to work in order to make socialism a more realizable prospect.” He then described how the left did not deserve this opportunity, but merely emerged from the crevices of capitalism.

Seymour transitioned into a critical analysis of the various mutations experienced within the crisis of capitalism in Europe since 2008. Emphasizing the limitations exposed in the capitalist system, Seymour stated that the compounding effects of the crisis revealed the fragility of a system of consumption based entirely upon speculation and debt. After the crisis of the financial system exposed the rotten subprime housing market, Seymour explained how the crisis of capitalism began to spread into the general economy, resulting in limited investment, a sovereign debt crisis in the peripheral countries, and a final transition into the public domain as the EU establish counteractive austerity programs. Seymour said, “the crisis of economy became a crisis of politics, of ideology,” and continued by explaining how a crisis in representation became accentuated, resulting in the ostracization of working class populations who began withdrawing from politics.

Revealing the underlying nature of the crisis, Seymour explained how the gradual disinterest in voting can be directly related to a definite process in which “democratic capacities of the state have been deliberately – and as a matter of political strategy – closed down. And the name of the beast is neoliberalism.” He then moved into a summary of the rise of neoliberalism and proceeded to critique the assumptions made by politicians who depended upon the expectations of neoliberal society and its effects on citizens. Pointing out various flaws in the capitalist system, Seymour analyzed the limitations of basing all economic, political, and social aspects of life on the logic of the market, centered upon a governmental system which enforces the laws of competition. He described how the system has limited the opportunity for social democratic parties to establish legitimate social bases, while simultaneously cited that increasing numbers of people have begun to feel unrepresented in the “representation of representation, or, the media.” Seymour delved into a critique of media bias and the resulting disconnection between the poor and working classes from the elite policy makers. Seymour then offered an overview of the rise of Corbyn in the UK, highlighting the relatable nature of his campaign efforts and the growing role of social media in mobilizing populations disillusioned with the status quo crisis of representation (which in turn offers long-term solutions to the crises in capitalism).

Proposing the major question of the left wing project, “What are the prospects of success or failure?” Seymour took on the issue of whether the left could use the established institutions of government for radical transformations or if an entirely new governmental structure would be necessary to transition away from the contemporary capitalist system. He explained how the left would have to convince capitalists that they are not proponents of “anti-business politics,” as governance of a capitalist society requires the investment of capitalists. Recognizing that the left-wing project must demonstrate itself as beneficial to business, Seymour highlighted the preference of the left to establish a long-term investment system, based upon: automatization, educating and scaling up the workforce, and ironing out dysfunctions in the economy. Seymour admitted, however, the entrenched resistance of the media and civil servants who prefer the status quo, and explained how they would remain the central obstacles to the rise of the radical left establishing itself as a legitimate alternative leadership.

The final challenge facing the left-wing project is the major question of “what is the state?” Seymour explained that the simplistic Marxist view that the state is merely the “machinery of oppression” limits the possibilities for a leftist project. He recommended overcoming the conceptual assumption that the state is something exclusively controlled by the wealthy or elite. Instead, Seymour argued that we should “see the state more as a field of power and a field of contest and a field of struggle.” Seymour described his dual-level perception of the left-wing struggle, based upon strengthening participation among citizens in civil society organizations, and establishing a transformative agenda within the state. He concluded by emphasizing the idea of transition, highlighting the importance of the left depending upon both the collection action of the people and the power of office to back the development of their alternative radical project.

Peter Frase then began by speaking about his book, which he explained was a thought experiment addressing the question of “how will the crisis be resolved? And what happens next?” Frase emphasized his Marxist opinions, and stated that while he believes “capitalism as we understand it will come to an end sooner rather than later,” the future alternative will not necessarily be better or worse, “just different.” He explained how in writing his book, he decided to focus on the constant drive to increase productivity, and how the modern world is experiencing a total transformation of our production systems in favor of robotized automatization. Frase summarized the two reactions to this trend: optimism and pessimism. The first view is hopeful, identifying the possible sources of bounty, wealth, leisure for all of us if we could harness these technologies in different forms within society. The “alternative holds the possibility of reducing us all to misery and unemployment if we do not control how these technologies are implemented.” Frase explained that both of these arguments have existed since the emergence of the industrialized capitalist society, and decided to begin his thought experiment with the total assumption that automatization replaces human labor.

Inspired “partly by Karl Marx, and partly by Star Trek,” Frase combined politics with the more hopeful perspective on the automatization of production in his recent book. He quoted the classic Marxist idea that ‘we face the choice between moving into socialism or regressing into barbarism,’ which influenced his decision to write his book. Based on the speculation of the crossroads between political struggle, intersecting class and technological dynamics, and the global ecological crisis, Frase stepped to the board to draw a representation of what he argued in his book as the “four possibilities.” Automatization is the premise of Frase’s book, and his 2 by 2 diagram featured a horizontal “ecological” axis (ranging from ‘scarcity’ to ‘abundance’) and a vertical “class struggle” axis (ranging from ‘equitability’ to ‘hierarchy’). Frase explained how he individually examines each of his four futures in the book, and offers examples from both contemporary theory and science fiction.

Frase summarized the two extreme futures, beginning with what he called his “communist box.” Frase explained how the combination of equality and abundance may outwardly seem utopian, but he identified the different problems arising in such a societal arrangement. He predicted an environment in which “rentism” would emerge, in which an economy independent from human labor would instead be based upon charging access to physical objects and intellectual property, in turn “virtualizing the economy.” Addressing the ecological component of this society, Frase explains a necessary accountability for countries negatively impacting the environment as not all countries are equally impacted by the effects of climate change. He described an organization or “plan of consumption’ for natural resources, in addition to a system of “ecological credits” which would ensure all people would be equally responsible for the protection of the planet.

Transitioning to the alternate extreme future, Frase highlighted the major aspects of his “exterminism box,” existing under the conditions of scarcity and hierarchy. Frase cynically argued that without the mutually dependent relationship between laborers and capitalists (as Frase’s thought experiment assumes totally automatized production), the elite would view unemployed workers as a “surplus population.” He explained how, given the limitations of natural resources resulting from ecological crisis, the elites would not want to “waste resources” on the surplus population and sacrifice their own standards of living. In turn, the poor would be isolated and neglected, with limited or no opportunities for social mobility. Frase insisted that, while a pessimistic view, he ends his book by offering a “matrix of possibilities” rather than concrete predictions for the future. He concluded by emphasizing how, “on one level all of these possible futures are happening now, but which parts we draw out and which we suppress are, in many ways, up to us.”

Aschoff began the Q&A portion of the event by asking both guest speakers a variety of questions. She asked Seymour to compare the rise of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Corbyn in the UK, and for his speculations on the potential emergence of a stronger radical left movement in America. She then asked Frase to explain his reasoning behind using examples from science fiction instead of emphasizing current leftist literature dedicated to “emerging futures.” Additionally, Aschoff asked the writer to speak about whether or not thought experiments – similar to his own book –could be used for building social movements on the ground.

Seymour responded by first describing the pessimism of left-wing projects, and how radicals should “organize a cultural counter-pressure against the default left optimism and bad hope which always results in disillusionment, and demoralization and demobilization.” He warned the audience the dangers in believing each new idea will become “the thing that will change everything, turn everything around” and suddenly make the left both successful and popular. Seymour explained how it is “realistic to be pessimistic” as the balance of power is not in favor of the left, emphasizing the scale of challenge requires “a generation of work.” He ended with a call to action, citing how the left can take the Bernie Sanders experience as a collection of memories and scars of defeat or use the radical politicization to launch a new radicalized cultural movement in favor of establishing a more permanent and sustained left-wing project in the United States.

Frase responded to Aschoff by explaining how he uses science fiction in context, arguing that, while rational pessimism is necessary, we must hold onto a vision of a speculative future. He said he relied on fiction because he “didn’t want to write blueprints, recipes for the kitchens of the future,” as events never turn out as predicted. Frase described the inherent contradiction in predicting the future as a Marxist, as Marxist theory is based upon the unpredictability and continued struggle for emancipatory socialism. He also explained how thought experiments are deeply ingrained in traditional Marxism, as the conceptual structure was used to draw together multiple struggles into a whole image. For this reason, Frase claimed, he decided to knit together major contemporary issues (environmental crisis, class struggle, intellectual property, militarism, etc.) into a vision of a broader future in which we discover what unifies us.

This event takes place as part of a new initiative entitled “Interferences,” a series of events on issues pertinent to democratic politics in the US and Europe. Organized as part of EU Futures, a series of conversations exploring the emerging future in Europe. The EU Futures project is supported by a Getting to Know Europe Grant from the European Commission Delegation in Washington, DC.

– Claire Coffey ’18

Watch the event on YouTube:

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