Fully Automated Luxury Communism (a counter-review by Sam Nicholls)

✑ SAM NICHOLLS` ╱ ± 8 minutes
In a work of popular non-fiction, simplified language is often necessary.

At its core, Aaron Bastani's book Fully Automated Luxury Communism shows both how bad things could get if the people of the world do not unite, and how good it could get if we do.

From: Socialist Economist, Feb. 29, 2020. ╱ About the author
Sam Nicholls is an amateur historian. He writes articles on his medium, and tweets as @toldandretold.

In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Bastani achieves what all Marxists dream of. His book about communism is fully readable. As such, it is a badly needed contribution to a living, breathing Marxism, one that seeks knowledge of the world in order to change it. To Bastani the world is heading into a future already foreseen by Dr. Karl. Capitalist competition has always incentivised innovations that reduce the need for labour. This process is leading, according to Bastani, to a near complete loss of jobs. As a system dependent on wage labour, capitalism will no longer be viable. Or at least, it will no longer be the dominant mode of production. To Bastani, this is only one of five present crises of capitalism. The solution to all of them is Fully Automated Luxury Communism. If only a populist movement could create it, people could have all their basic and luxury needs met. A system of innovation and production driven by AI and asteroid mining would allow all to benefit from a world of post scarcity in both labour and resources. In this possible future, history would stop ending and start beginning.

What Bastani does best is highlight how catastrophically bad things could get, while also showing how easily the very opposite could happen. If on the one hand the world could descend into the horrors of climate change induced mass displacement and famine, and a political economy operated by and for monopolies, it is equally true that there is a solution to every problem. This should not be taken for granted. It is just as likely that we humans would find ourselves in a situation as messy as the present, but without solutions. Indeed, there are likely thousands of universes in which humans never even had the opportunity to die from climate change. Even more optimistically, the solutions to each of the world’s problems help address all the others. As Bastani notes, solving climate change also helps solve poverty, and solving poverty also helps solve climate change.
What Bastani does best is highlight how catastrophically bad things could get, while also showing how easily the very opposite could happen.
This fork in the road, with climate change induced genocide on the one hand, and fully automated luxury communism on the other, is most evident when Bastani discusses the situation faced by the world’s poorest people. Mainstream economists have long justified inaction on global poverty because capitalism’s rising tide would eventually lift all boats. Just look at China, capitalist propagandists would and still do say.  For them China is obvious proof of the folly of humans who think they can do better than the market. Don’t worry underdeveloped states, eventually you will get the luxury of being the world’s sweat shop. The problem is, and as Bastani shows, China’s rise is not a future foreseeable for any other developing country hoping to industrialise. Why? Because with the massive reductions in the need for labour that AI-driven automation will bring, there will be no need to offshore. If there are no labour costs, it’s better for companies to keep their Intellectual Property safe at home. If true, then an economic rise like China’s will not necessarily be possible for poorer states.

Nevertheless, Bastani’s FALC offers a solution to global poverty, climate change, and automation. To solve climate change, developed states must fund a new wave of green industrialisation in the Global South. This won’t just mean catch up, but leap frogging. Just like the widespread adoption of mobile phones in Africa, the relatively cheap virtual power networks offered by solar panels and batteries are already spreading, as seen in Bangladesh. If the emissions of wealthy states are taxed in order to further expand such provisions, the economic development of the Global South would be accelerated just as climate change is drastically reduced.

Curiously, however, Bastani’s FALC has not been welcomed by socialists with open arms. In the pages of this very website, Bastani’s book has been attacked. Bill Jefferies wrote that ‘Bastani’s future is not to be fought for’. In Jeffries’ reading, FALC presents a future in which workers will only be able to spend their time ‘waiting for technology to deliver what the class struggle could not.’ This reading of Bastani is ungenerous and unforgiving. I feel Bastani’s goal of presenting a readable book has been a success, even if this means he does not get as bogged down in structure-agency dilemmas, and the true complexity of the history of economic thought, as Jefferies might hope. As evidence for this, I picked up FALC in a real-life bookshop in Australia last week. But Jeffries’ reading can’t be explained only by an inability to tolerate readable books. Instead, Jeffries’ core claims are not true. Bastani certainly has not written a history in which workers have no agency. Nor is it one in which workers should just sit around and wait for the crises of capitalism to unravel. For Bastani, workers do not only have the world to win, but they have far more to lose than their chains. Indeed, things could get much much worse.
Bastani certainly has not written a history in which workers have no agency. Nor is it one in which workers should just sit around and wait for the crises of capitalism to unravel.
Thus, while Bastani does write of the great historical importance of technological innovation, he does not assume it to have occurred in a vacuum. Rather, it is conditioned by the politics of the day. Just as the labour saving innovations that are leading to a world without jobs have been shaped by past class struggle, so it will in the future also. For Bastani such struggles will mean the difference between a world destroyed and a world won. Bastani’s calls for people to take voting seriously should not be read as his only proposal for worker agency. His proposals are presented as necessary first steps. If worker power is not built up early, then workers will not be able to capitalise on any of the gains made possible, but not inevitable, by the crises of automation. Indeed, beating at the heart of Bastani’s book is an urgency for action. Not drawing up a precise blueprint for exactly how the politics of FALC will unravel is as much a result of Bastani being aware that the future can’t be predicted, and that collective agency might need to go in many directions, as it is something to justify dismissing his entire approach to history and the future.

Of course, there are problems with Bastani’s writing. Talk of ‘capitalism’ doing things, or capitalism as a subject, ignores that capitalism is just a sound used to describe, along with other equally artificial words, a certain mode of production which is driven forth by the actions of people who exist in many different relations to both the ideas and material forces that they themselves help create. Nevertheless, in a work of popular non-fiction, simplified language is often necessary. Attempting to write about change in history without slipping into language that evokes a sense of inevitability, or without treating constructs like ‘nation states’ and ‘capitalism’ as subjects, is highly tedious.

Writing a digestible work on such issues is made even more difficult by the fact that it will inevitably rub shoulders with core debates not only of Marxism, but of social science more generally. Here, it must be noted that Jeffries is not entirely wrong. Bastani’s language does sometimes imply inevitability, particularly about an impending automation that takes away all jobs. This is not inevitable. Quite possibly, a great crisis from any direction will engulf the world capitalist system before automation does. It is also possible, although grossly unlikely, that humans will create the power and consensus to restrict the application of innovation. Maybe, just maybe, the whole world will become Amish.

This point about inevitability touches on another aspect of Bastani’s argument. He claims that communism has never been possible before, because previously luxury could not have been granted to all people. But this ignores the prospect of people creating a culture that did not want limitless luxury. Maybe people could not have had iPhones in the past, but it is possible that they could have been content and free without them, and it is possible that they would have found work satisfying if they had received from it the full value of their labour, such that they could enjoy far more free time. Of course, Bastani’s argument is more complex than I am making out. At issue is not just what people could get, but how quickly and expensively goods are to produce at various points in history. Here Bastani’s book relates to an interesting debate within Marxism. How necessary is the capitalist mode of production for a future socialism? Was it ever necessary? Is it still necessary?

While Bastani has not written a work that footnotes the endlessly intricate, and no-doubt important, debates about the nature of capitalism and historical materialism, he has given all present and future social forces a big-picture view that is useful for making sense of many complex developments. It is deceptively simple, and for this it is powerful. At its core, FALC shows both how bad things could get if the people of the world do not unite, and how good it could get if we do. This vision need not scare away the cold-war conservativism of anyone’s parents (though it no doubt will), because it is a historical materialism of and for the present. While not inevitable, Bastani’s vision just might prove useful to a populist movement seeking to grapple, in many different ways, with the many different crises currently facing, and soon to be facing, the world capitalist system.

Top image: From cover of Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto.


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