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Fully Automated Luxury Communism: Vision or Fairy Tale?

Despite a laudable positive outlook on the future, Bastani’s “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” lacks an in-depth exploration of capitalism and technological development.

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It is the year 2019. In an idyllic perch at the base of Mt. Fuji, FANUC Corporation’s fully-automated factories churn out an endless tide of industrial robots headed for China’s manufacturing hubs. In the Congo Basin, children slave away in mud-choked lakes and trenches digging for the cobalt used in cellphone and laptop batteries. In Greece, a political party founded by Trotskyists and Maoists imposes austerity and privatization while police repress protesters in the streets. The party loses its reelection bid, returning power to the right-wing. This is the school of practical experience that has given birth to a new generation of radical organizers and theorists.

In Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (Verso, 2019), Aaron Bastani advances a contrasting vision of a future liberated by radical new technologies. Automation on a massive scale eliminates the need for burdensome work. Solar power provides abundant, emissions-free energy at little cost, trivializing humanity’s battle with climate change. Asteroid mining relieves us of the challenges posed by limited supply of minerals.

The plummeting cost of gene editing allows us to cure major diseases like Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis while minimizing the economic impact of caring for an aging global population. Synthetic meats and dairy allow us to avoid the dangers of a fundamentally unsustainable agricultural system, preventing food scarcity without major changes in first-world eating habits. And all this by the year 2030!

There is much to recommend in the spirit behind Bastani’s book. It is firmly focused on the future, raising the potential for new technologies to liberate us rather than merely entrench the power of the capitalist class. It is optimistic, delivering a message of hope when such a message is badly needed. It carries an embryonic understanding of the radical social consequences that the continued progress of automation will pose instead of relying on the hand-waving theories of mainstream economics.

Against even the mainstream of today’s radical left, it argues that capitalism is a historical system that will come to an eventual end. All of these facets speak to an emerging left-wing consciousness that is ready to break free from the stain of decades of defeat and propose a bold vision for social transformation.

But these bright spots are overshadowed by an incomplete exploration of capitalism and technological development. This lack of a systemic analysis causes Bastani to overstate the power of technology to liberate us from social ills. In its worst excesses, the book trivializes the challenge posed by climate change and the approaching ecological limits of our planet, offering an all-too-comforting vision of a species delivered in the nick of time by a series of nifty inventions.

Moreover, it offers a tepid parliamentary strategy for social change that fails to engage with the real limits on power imposed by the capitalist nation-state. Taken together, these shortcomings limit the usefulness of Bastani’s insights, even if Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) helps to point us toward a genuinely forward-looking radical politics.

Socialism without Sacrifice

The most controversial aspect of FALC is the book’s engagement with the problem of climate change. For most on the left, climate change is an existential threat whose solution requires a complete overhaul of our production system. Not so for Bastani, who buys into some of the most optimistic claims of the growing solar power industry, arguing that the declining cost of solar panels will enable a complete transition to renewable energy by 2040. Solar power will be so cheap and ubiquitous, Bastani argues, that there will be no need for the wealthiest nations to reduce their per-capita energy consumption. All of this is projected to occur largely through the capitalist market, as solar outcompetes its non-renewable rivals.

Solar power doubtless has a large role to play in our transition to a renewable energy system. However, it has significant limits. Not least of these is the fact that creating the necessary quantity of solar panels would require us to increase our extraction of certain rare earths minerals by a factor of ten.

Moreover, a substantial portion of the world’s fossil fuels are consumed for land, sea and air transportation. Electric vehicles are being adopted at a snail’s pace, and there are still no clear fuel substitutes for the airplanes and ships that link the global economy. Nor does Bastani’s argument offer an adequate accounting for the massive infrastructure investments required to make our electrical grids compatible with the use of solar power on a large scale. But we are not going to be rescued from climate change by technological advances alone.

A similarly cavalier attitude prevails in Bastani’s treatment of non-renewable resources and agriculture. Bastani assures us that asteroid mining will provide near-limitless access to non-renewable metals in the next couple decades, without even the slightest accounting for the massive logistical leaps required to make transporting billions of tons of metals from space competitive with earthbound mining.

Bastani avers that lab-grown meats will avert the monumental challenges facing modern agriculture. A lightly researched section ignores the frightening pace of topsoil erosion and the fundamental unsustainability of artificial fertilizer and monoculture-based farming. Here, again, the heroic advance of technology spares us from any real need to reckon with our way of life.

This analysis fails at two key points. First, Bastani incorrectly argues that technological development tends to proceed exponentially — technology works “ponderously at first” before exploding in a “sudden transformation.” Hence the rapturous assertions about the imminent triumph of limitless energy, asteroid mining and so on.

But technological development proceeds much more gradually: initial breakthroughs are followed by a steady stream of gradual improvements that make the technology both cheaper and more widely useful. This process can take decades. The 3D printer was first invented in 1984, and it is still not sufficiently advanced to compete with other forms of production in most fields. If we are looking for technologies that can actually be used to combat climate change and ecological devastation over the next decade, we need to focus on those that are already viable.

The second point of failure is at the emotional level. FALC may appeal to those who want to believe that the solutions to our present problems require no major changes in the profoundly wasteful ways that we use food and energy and interact with our planet. Eat as much meat as you want, leave the lights on, drive a Hummer!

In search of this reassurance, sober analysis is replaced by speculation that has more in common with a cryptocurrency enthusiast than with Marx. An ecologically sustainable society must make use of technologies like solar power if it hopes to prevent catastrophic warming. But it must also fundamentally alter the unsustainable practices that prevail in much of today’s Global North, from the level of the production system all the way down to how we eat, get around and relax.

Automation and Capitalism

Like Paul Mason and others on the futurist left, Bastani’s FALC correctly asserts that the continued progress of automation will have a significant and disruptive impact on capitalism’s future development. Using the mechanization of agriculture and manufacturing as past examples, Bastani offers a laundry list of other breakthroughs —self-driving cars and programs that read MRIs — that will decrease the demand for human labor.

The most promising portion of FALC lies here, where Bastani illuminates the potential for a world where the burden of toil and drudgery is steadily lifted off the shoulders of the working class.

But like so many of its closest cousins, FALC is long on evocative prediction and short on analysis. The bulk of the book’s theoretical grounding lies in management consultants like Peter Drucker and Marx’s comparatively short work now known as “The Fragment on Machines.” What’s missing is any real engagement with Marx’s much more substantial work on mechanization, capital composition and crisis found in Capital. Bereft of this framework, we have no real way of comprehending either the spread or social impact of radical automation.

How are automation and capitalist crisis linked? Will technological unemployment spell crisis due to under-consumption, or will advances in productivity lead to chronic overproduction? Bastani hints at both, but adequately explores neither. If capitalist automation poses a serious challenge to the global working class — and it does — we require a systemic analysis of its internal dynamics and how we might respond to that challenge.

Thankfully, history can help us understand the future development of capitalist automation. The previous advance of radical automation in fields like agriculture led to crises in those industries due to the over-accumulation of capital and plummeting product values. States were forced to intervene to subsidize these industries on a permanent basis, either through direct payments or by encouraging monopolization.

What is particularly troublesome for today’s capitalism is that this dynamic looms over so many industries simultaneously. What this means is that the crises facing today’s capitalism will only intensify as automation progresses, perhaps even to the point of undermining capitalism’s ability to survive.

While one cannot fault Bastani for not writing a different book, one can take issue with the recommendations that stem from incomplete analysis. In response to the unemployment caused by the advance of technology, Bastani advocates for the creation of a universal basic services regime — essentially a robust welfare state that freely provides food, housing, transportation and education to citizens.

This is a laudable goal that should be included in any leftist program. But FALC misses the single most vital reform that can respond to the declining demand for labor: the reduction of the workweek without reduction in pay. Short of revolution, there is no better way to share available work, decrease unemployment and attack the power of the capitalist class. Instead, FALC offers an all-too-familiar version of a world where welfare imperfectly offsets the fact that some workers labor more than 40 hours a week while others cannot find work at all.

Revolution without Revolution

Communism is a form of society where all are provided for according to their needs and where burdensome labor has been replaced by voluntary work. It is a world based on free sharing and relative abundance instead of scarcity, oppression and inequality. One might imagine that the transition to such a radically different form of life would involve a wrenching struggle between today’s oppressors and oppressed, culminating in a revolutionary transformation.

Indeed, contemporary events point to the ever-growing chasm between classes, the rise of social conflict and the total inadequacy of parliamentary politics in the face of enduring capitalist crisis.

But this struggle is essentially absent in Bastani’s FALC. Instead, we are presented with a warmed-over version of the Keynesian welfare state powered by the electoral triumph of a “new worker’s party.” This shouldn’t be too surprising, given Bastani’s affinity with Corbyn’s Labour Party. But this proposal is both misleading and dangerous. First, it radically overstates the power that modern states have to shape fiscal policy, particularly when the commanding heights of the economy remain in private hands. Second, it takes as a given the impossibility of the kind of revolutionary organizing that will be required to create a socialist society.

For a book that so explicitly invokes the idea of communism, there is precious little dealing with the transition from capitalism to socialism. In addition to robust welfare policies and massive public support for renewable energy — again, both laudable initiatives — Bastani suggests the gradual socialization of financial markets.

But FALC does not provide a roadmap for this process. Instead, Bastani argues that the state must found new investment banks to uncomfortably work alongside private capital. Nowhere does Bastani lay out how the working class and/or Keynesian state will ultimately overcome the monstrous entrenched power of private capital, the single key step in a genuine transition to socialism.

In no country will the capitalist class allow itself to be euthanized without a fight; it has starved nations and crashed economies for far less. Winning an election is not sufficient to stave off this reality. Nor do the vast majority of the world’s countries have anything approaching the economic sovereignty presumed by Bastani’s approach.

At best, powerful developed nations rely on production chains that are inextricably woven into the global capitalist system, which they cannot simply opt out of. Most nations have it far worse, being entirely dependent on foreign capital investment, the World Bank and the IMF. To attempt to do battle against these forces without seizing control of domestic capital — and here I mean all of a country’s main banks and financial institutions — is a recipe for a worker’s party’s suicide. The examples of both Syriza and Venezuela attest to this stubborn fact.

Why, then, do we have a call for a revolutionary transformation without revolution? For Bastani, the majority of people are too apathetic, fearful and exhausted to meaningfully engage in political activity. This is a given, which can only be responded to by mobilizing them to vote in elections every four or five years. Any organizer should know that this is a recipe for political disaster. The strength of the radical left lies in mass action. We need to be engaged in deep organizing that replaces fear and apathy with hope, helping our oppressed comrades fight and struggle to improve their lives. Through tenant organizations, radical unions, self-defense groups and other vital projects, we can build the organized strength that will ultimately allow us to usher in a revolutionary transformation.

Any left-wing politics that hopes to fundamentally restructure society without challenging its dynamics of power is doomed to fail.

FALC concludes with a telling misstep: “To paraphrase Marx, technology makes history – but not under conditions of its own making.” But history is made by class struggle, not technology. Technology alone cannot deliver us from crisis — it can, at best, drive the contradiction between potential abundance and imposed poverty to new heights.

Even if capitalism were to collapse of the contradictions created by radical automation and climate change, no utopia would be guaranteed. To expect capitalist technology to rescue us from looming disaster is to place our hopes in the very forces that have consigned us to a long and desperate struggle for the future of our species. Where that future is at stake, let us prefer the hard truth to an easy myth. We cannot stumble backwards into a prospective world of freedom and abundance.

We must organize for that future, and we must seize it.

Ben Reynolds is the author of The Coming Revolution: Capitalism in the 21st Century, out from Zero Books. He is a US-based writer and activist whose work has appeared in ROAR Magazine, The Diplomat and other forums.

ROAR is an independent journal of the radical imagination providing grassroots perspectives from the front-lines of the global struggle for real democracy.