In reading about both Roman troubles and our own, modern troubles, a pattern emerges: oftentimes relatively simple or minor problems become large and intractable because they become, as Francis Fukuyama calls them, battles for recognition. That is, they stop being about just the most literal aspects of the question being debated and instead become zero-sum contests for validation of certain worldview, ideology, or presumption of status. A good example of this is, of course, in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict; while the broad contours of the eventual solution are nearly-universally acknowledged, often attempts at even starting talks are short-circuited by demands for unilateral surrender on purely symbolic issues, a recent iteration being Bibi’s demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state as a precondition to new rounds of talks.

In Peter Frase’s phenomenal article outlying four possible futures for our society,he imagines one future as communism, not driven by forced redistribution of resources but an end to scarcity which would obviate the need to have any kind of allocation system for material resources at all. However, he correctly reasons that this would not put an end to all conflict in society:

It is not necessary to conjure starships and aliens in order to imagine the tribulations of a communist future, however. Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Outin the Magic Kingdom imagines a post-scarcity world that is set in a recognizable extrapolation of the present day United States. Just as in Star Trek, material scarcity has been superseded in this world. But Doctorow grasps that within human societies, certain immaterial goods will always be inherently scarce: reputation, respect, esteem among one’s peers. Thus the book revolves around various characters’ attempts to accumulate ‘whuffie’, which are a kind of virtual brownie points that represent the goodwill you have accumulated from others. Whuffie, in turn, is used to determine who holds authority in any voluntary collective enterprise – such as, in the novel, running Disneyland.
The value of Doctorow’s book, in contrast to Star Trek, is that it treats a post-scarcity world as one with its own hierarchies and conflicts, rather than one in which all live in perfect harmony and politics comes to a halt. Reputation, like capital, can be accumulated in an unequal and self-perpetuating way, as those who are already popular gain the ability to do things that get them more attention and make them more popular. Such dynamics are readily observable today, as blogs and other social media produce popular gatekeepers who are able to determine who gets attention and who does not, in a way that is not completely a function of who has money to spend. Organizing society according to who has the most ‘likes’ on Facebook has certain drawbacks, to say the least, even when dislodged from its capitalist integument.
But if it is not a vision of a perfect society, this version of communism is at least a world in which conflict is no longer based on the opposition between wage workers and capitalists, or on struggles over scarce resources. It is a world in which not everything ultimately comes down to money. A communist society would surely have hierarchies of status – as have all human societies, and as does capitalism. But in capitalism, all status hierarchies tend to be aligned, albeit imperfectly, with one master status hierarchy: the accumulation of capital and money. The ideal of a post-scarcity society is that various kinds of esteem are independent, so that the esteem in which one is held as a musician is independent of the regard one achieves as a political activist, and one can’t use one kind of status to buy another. In a sense, then, it is a misnomer to refer to this as an ‘egalitarian’ configuration, since it is not a world of no hierarchies but one of many hierarchies, no one of which is superior to all the others

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And this is all true, but I think he doesn’t quite go far enough. When Atilla was invading the Roman Empire he surely wanted to be recognized as a great conquerer, just as the Romans treasured their self-image as unconquerable; but both sides seemed willing to sacrifice some reputation in exchange for paying tribute. In other words, you can avoid forcing a conflict of recognition by transferring material resources. I’m sure plenty of other obvious examples of this abound.

But in a future with no material scarcity, how can this work? You can see a current future where a desperately poor Palestine could be coaxed into relaxing claims on Jerusalem by an Israeli promise of massive transfers of shekels (presumably backed also by the US and EU). Thus one is ameliorating a conflict over one scarcity (control over God’s city) by ameliorating a different scarcity (not enough stuff). But when there is no material scarcity at all, then all remaining scarcity will be zero-sum, and conflicts over status, whether they be writ small or large, will have no recourse to the pressure valve of bribery and tribute. Not that this is a reason to preserve material scarcity, mind you; just something for future generations, standing on the cusp of utopia, may want to mull as they stride forward.

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