Like the singularity, but socialist.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism
Verso | $24.95 | 288 pages
In September of 2013, as capitalism struggled to hoist itself from the Great Recession on the misery and truncated futures of its subjects, two Oxford professors published a paper titled “The Future of Employment.” Michael Osborne, a machine-learning researcher, and Carl Frey, holder of a Citibank-sponsored chair in economics, predicted that 47 percent of jobs would be lost to automation by 2030. Published amid a recovery that was shaky at best, the report sparked panic among policymakers, unions, and job-holders of all kinds. Within a few years, big thinkers from Stephen Hawking to Elon Musk had pronounced robots an existential threat to humanity.
But in a small corner of the radical left, such scenarios were greeted with a strange optimism. Centered in the UK, where “recovery” had meant meat-grinder austerity policies, zero-hours contracts, and declining real wages, a coterie of writers and theorists welcomed the vision of job-destroying machines. “Our first demand is for a fully automated economy,” declared Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in Inventing the Future. “Using the latest technological developments, such an economy would aim to liberate humanity from the drudgery of work while simultaneously producing increasing amounts of wealth.” Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism set Napster sailing on Kondratieff waves, arguing that an alternative mode of production was emerging from the wreckage of neoliberalism.
Amid this ferment came the meme “luxury communism,” reputedly a bit of cheek from Tumblr Marxists treating accelerationist utopianism with the ambivalent embrace that characterizes so much digital culture. (Today, the meme survives, incorporating the appellations “gay” and “space”). Aaron Bastani, the energetic founder of British left-wing media outlet Novara, created explainer videos for a “fully automated” version of the term; his recent book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), continues where these left off.
FALC is a breezier affair than its accelerationist predecessors. Gone are the lengthy excurses on Soviet economics and postcolonial theory — really, there is very little theory at all. Instead, Bastani expounds breathlessly on the wonders of the latest “disruptive” technologies, and how, “if these trends continue,” technological innovation will abolish scarcity in the coming decades. Successive chapters speed through a host of such trends on the cusp of altering our world forever, from self-driving cars to portable solar cells to genetically engineered vintage wines. The cumulative effect is like binging on Wired.
Indeed, that magazine’s founding editor, Kevin Kelly, provides an epigraph for Bastani’s fourth chapter. Kelly is only one example of the type of thought-leaders who provision the book’s explications of these technologies and their earth-shattering effects. Ousted Uber CEO Travis Kalanick testifies to the centrality of autonomous vehicles to our future; “billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks” Mark Cuban is cited as an authority on artificial intelligence; forecasts on electric cars and travel to Mars come from Elon Musk, CEO of both the electric car company Tesla and the private space company SpaceX. Extracting scarce minerals from asteroids? “Chris Lewicki, CEO of Deep Space Industries, is optimistic on this issue.” That turns out to be a typo: Lewicki was until recently the CEO of Planetary Resources, a similar space mining endeavor, which, after running short on venture capital, was sold off to a “blockchain venture production studio” earlier this year. The fate of the quadrillions of dollars in minerals floating through the solar system is more ambiguous than the book lets on.
Bastani’s faith in tech entrepreneurs to rescue humanity from deprivation sounds remarkably similar to a slightly older book: 2012’s Abundance, by serial entrepreneur and Planetary Resources cofounder Peter Diamandis (his epigraph graces Chapter 6). Diamandis argues, as Bastani will, that “exponential technologies” are currently building “a world of nine billion people with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.” While some of the specific enthusiasms, such as those for 3-D printers, mark Abundance as a product of a particular time, much of its thrust is identical to that of FALC. In a widely cited 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Diamandis remarked that, in spite of his own libertarian beliefs, “we’re heading towards a future of socialism” where “maybe people don’t have jobs.”
Bastani’s own professed sympathies are libertarian socialist, not libertarian capitalist. You’ll be hard-pressed to find many anticapitalist radicals amid the throngs of chief executives in the book’s pages, but you will find Marx, his corpus mined for its most technologically deterministic passages: his early praise for capitalist production in the Manifesto, the hoary “fetters” bit from the Contribution to the Critique, and, of course, the so-called “Fragment on Machines” from the Grundrisse, a favorite passage of Full Automators and their intellectual forebears on the technophilic side of postoperaismo.
From the Grundrisse, Bastani reconstructs Marx’s theory of technology: “competition compels capitalists to innovate in production,” a position shared, as Bastani notes, by Joseph Schumpeter and Milton Friedman. This is true enough, but Marx would go on to identify other prerogatives for bourgeois innovation. In Capital, Marx describes an additional motor for capitalist technological development: “It would be possible to write quite a history of the inventions, made since 1830, for the sole purpose of supplying capital with weapons against the revolts of the working class.” In other words, while such developments may indeed have the salutary effect of increasing productivity, capitalists develop technologies to undermine workers’ struggles, increasing their control by restructuring the labor process away from zones of accumulated worker organization and resistance. As soon as workers construct methods by which to fight back, capitalist technology shifts the ground under their feet, a process that autonomist Marxists called “decomposition.”
The history of technology in the labor process speaks to its use against worker organization. What Bastani refers to as Frederick Taylor’s “productivity revolution” was not simply technological and organizational, but was, by Taylor’s own account, an ideological one, meant to control both mind and body. This “complete mental revolution on the part of the workingmen” was driven by Taylor’s nigh-sociopathic ability to deceive, cajole, and discipline workers into toiling harder. “Automation” as a term came into vogue to describe the incorporation of numeric control devices into factories in the 1940s. As historian David Noble documents, this transition was not a project of productivity, but one of military control pushed through by the Air Force, which wanted to undermine the massive wildcat strike wave that plagued factories during and after World War II by wresting control of production from workers. Throughout the history of capitalism, bosses used technology to break up worker power, while workers attacked, thwarted, and hacked the systems and devices of home, factory, and office in defense of their conditions of work and life. This means that emancipating these spaces will require a politics rooted in worker participation in technological use and development, a difficult and complex process. In comparison, “full automation” comes across as one simple trick that waves the problem away.
As economist David Autor argues, responding to John Maynard Keynes’ Depression-era speculation on automated luxury futures, automation will never be “full.” Rather than a complete replacement of tasks, automation reorganizes work, polarizing job assignments. Either you get a top job designing and administering technological processes, or you find yourself an adjunct to a machinic system still reliant on human traits (such as language and manual dexterity) that stubbornly resist automation. At one pole, a highly-paid designer of autonomous cars’ “artificial intelligence”; at the antipode, a Kenyan mother paid a pittance for repetitively tagging images to feed that car’s machine-learning system.
Increasing automation may or may not provide a plenitude of goods. It will, without doubt, mean increasingly degraded and surveilled working conditions, stronger divides among workers, and an ever-wealthier and more powerful class of CEOs. If you are someone who believes, as Marx did, that communism comes from worker struggles to abolish their own exploitation, you have good reason to maintain a deep skepticism of current technological developments. Indeed, many already do.
Class struggle plays only a minor role in FALC, which is far more enthralled by the cookshops of the future (replete with lab-synthesized flesh). In fact, Bastani notes that Marx’s prediction that the proletariat would dig the grave of capitalism “never came to pass.” So rather than strict class politics, he advocates for “luxury populism,” a patchwork of policies sketched out in the book’s final fifty pages: co-operative businesses, “universal basic services,” and technology transfers to the Global South. These will be anchored by an invigorated social democracy: “governments of the radical left” installed via “mainstream, electoral politics.” The “communism” of the title is cybernetic Corbynism.
Such a vision has its appeal, but pessimists of the intellect may well wonder what the aforementioned captains of industry will do about such a scenario. The antagonism that “communism” summons stems from a recognition that capitalism’s hierarchies and deprivations are not caused by a dearth of lithium ore, but are ceaselessly, violently imposed by a class enemy that has never let a few elections stand in its way. Fighting this enemy necessarily means undermining its technological edge, not enhancing it. If you’ve come to FALC with an appetite for eating the rich, you’ll have to settle for something grown in a vat.