Hipster reformism and the technological fix

Submitted by AWL on 17 July, 2019 - 9:25

Bruce Robinson reviews Aaron Bastani's 'Fully Automated Luxury Communism'

Back in 2013-14 there was a lot of excitement on the left about “left accelerationism” and the prospect of a transition to a “post-capitalism” fuelled by technological advances based on information.

Aaron Bastani coined the meme of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” (FALC), and it led a fitful life on the Internet. It has now returned in the form of a book which sets out to be a manifesto. Since 2015 Bastani has moved from a politics rooted in “post-workerist” thinkers to become a born-again supporter of Jeremy Corbyn.

The book divides into two parts: the first containing the basis for and outline of FALC as a future communist society near the “end of history”, and the second providing a political and economic platform rooted in the present, self-consciously populist and anti-globalist, in which FALC is “a beginning, not a destination”.

The basic thesis underlying the book is that we are undergoing a “Third Disruption”. The first was agriculture, the second industry and the third is based on information.

“The defining feature is ever-greater abundance in information.” As information goods have a cost that declines to almost zero as more are produced, we live on the brink of “extreme supply”, a post-scarcity society delivered by courtesy of technological breakthroughs produced by capitalism. Labour is also no longer scarce (there are a number of economic objections to this, and issues of viability, which I will skip over for lack of space).

On this basis, Bastani details a number of technologies that he claims will resolve contemporary crises. Energy scarcity will be overcome by harnessing solar energy on a massive scale. Raw material scarcity will be overcome by mining in space, using asteroids. Problems of an ageing population are solved by gene editing to prevent genetically determined illnesses. The provision of sufficient food is ensured by the creation of synthetic protein that’ll taste as good as meat and by the completion of the Green Revolution of the 50s and 60s that introduced higher yielding crops and the use of chemical fertilisers to countries such as India. These measures combined will enable a slowing and eventual end to global warning.

A lot of the book is taken up with advocating these technologies and demonstrating that they are already exist – or are about to – so that in places it reads like a publicity blurb for synthetic hamburgers or reusable rockets.

This is the politics of the technological fix, where social and political problems are taken to have technological solutions. The technologies are assumed to function well and not to have detrimental social, economic and environmental side effects (the Green Revolution is disputed on all three grounds).

If you look closely, Bastani has caveats — not quite there yet, but success is just coming. Those are not allowed to tarnish the overall confidence that the technology developed under capitalism will lead to FALC. This is based on the assertion that “ capitalism is incompatible with natural abundance”.

“Facing such conditions… production for profit begins to malfunction.” FALC is therefore the conclusion of the Third Disruption – capitalism will be driven by its own dynamics to innovate and thus hasten its own demise.

This represents an extreme but not original reading of Marx which takes his words on the development of the productive forces under capitalism (narrowly understood as technology) to imply its transcendence. Productive forces clash with the social relations of production and capitalism cannot survive, in this case because it cannot deal with “extreme supply”, even though, as Bastani accepts, today’s capitalism is finding ways to circumvent that by controlling and restricting supply through enforcing monopoly rights.

In one of the many absences from the book, the human side of the social relations of production gets little attention, whether in the workplace or society in general.

Both the working class and class more generally are absent as agency and struggle. Class struggle also affects not merely the way in which technologies are developed and implemented under capital but also the content of the technologies themselves. We need a means for the democratic assessment of technologies. Instead here we have uncritical technophilia.

His reading of Marx leads Bastani to conclude that the productive forces needed to support “a post-scarcity, post-work” world were in existence only from the late 60s. To attempt socialism before then was impossible: “You could conceive of it… but you could not create it. This was… simply an inevitability of history.”

But it was well within the economic potential of the mid 20th century to provide sufficient housing, healthcare food and education to create a viable socialism, even if not a post-scarcity utopia. It was quite possible to provide a number of the free services that Bastani advocates as transitional measures to FALC.

For Bastani revolutionary socialists in the 20th century were simply before their time and their failure an inevitability. The Russian Revolution was “an anti-liberal coup” (was Kerensky really a liberal?).

The consequence of that reasoning is to airbrush Stalinism as something inevitable and indistinguishable from the revolutionary years of the USSR: “Its [the Soviet Union’s] seven decade survival was one of the great political achievements of the last century.”

His vision of communism is “a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another”. He takes up Marx’s notion of “free individuality” as the essence of communism, but ignores its grounding in social labour, leaving out the need for collectivity and forms of social solidarity and democratic control that flow from the need to produce.

The realm of necessity – the labour of the associated producers — is not abolished, however many robots there are, but rather diminishes relative to free time.

With social labour deleted, Bastani’s communism reduces to individualism. Freedom is “self- authorship… Liberal ends… are impossible without communist means.”

FALC is “the politics of the self-help guru – be precisely who you want to be – embedded within a programme for political change.”

Looking at “full automation”, Bastani argues that, despite the waged working class having grown massively to be the majority on the planet, we have reached “peak labour” and that AI and automation will shrivel the amount of work that needs to be done. Such projections remain speculative.

As Bastani concedes, not all jobs will disappear (he points to health, education, geriatric care and jobs requiring creativity and emotional connection). If social labour continues, then the need continues for decisions about how remaining work is divided up and how a division of labour is put in place that enables needed skills to be developed.

Bastani never considers whether full automation is something desirable from the point of view of a socialism that puts humans and the environment first. Should we just assume there is no alternative to the technological path enabled by capitalism?

For example, the machine learning techniques on which contemporary AI is based are inherently open to bias, false assumptions and false positives. Do we want to live in a machine-run society? Who decides on how technology develops and is implemented? Technocrats or workers?

If the first part of the book might be considered an exercise in utopian thought, the second brings us back to earth with a crash. Purporting to set out the political and economic road from here to FALC, it aims to provide theoretical ballast for Corbynism. In doing so it embraces various classical reformist aims and methods put in a modern context.

The “concrete politics” consist of “a break with neo-liberalism, a shift towards worker-owned production, a state-financed transition to renewable energy and universal services.” Bastani’s “communist means” are based on “reforging the capitalist state”, “demanding that the conscious, intentional planning at the heart of modern capitalism be repurposed to socially useful ends.” This rests on “the re-localisation of economies”, “socialising finance” and a range of free services that will put much of the economy under public ownership.

Relocalisation is based on the premise that also underlies Bastani’s opposition to “globalism”: that “locally we can start right away” and “break with neo-liberalism without needing national state power” via “local protectionism” (the Preston model). But, for Bastani, the national state is the best environment for beginning FALC.

This approach, like Brexit, is both regressive and utopian in trying to reverse capital’s integration and development across local and national boundaries. Of course useful action can be taken at national or even local levels, but to see the local as the source of spreading worker enterprises that will eventually bring us to FALC is an illusion.

Even if central and local bankers favour worker-owned enterprises (Bastani believes central bankers should become central planners), they still have to compete with much larger capitalist enterprises. The Preston model does not “scale”.

As Rosa Luxemburg pointed out in her 1899 reply to Eduard Bernstein’s “revisionism” of that era, cooperatives can only survive if protected from the operation of capitalist competition. Rather than being the means to implement new technologies as Bastani argues, small and local firms, even if worker-owned, are less likely to be able to afford and be able to implement the new technology that he sees leading to FALC.

Why are they able to deal with “extreme supply” if large capitalist enterprises can’t? A big gap remains between the communist model supposedly just around the corner and Bastani’s immediate programme, which essentially gives a contemporary gloss to long established social democratic strategies for improving the capitalist state piecemeal.

Having freed himself from any concept of class, Bastani unashamedly embraces populism. “The people [is] not “a permanent and immutable entity” but has its roots in “certain kinds of assembly, social trait or capacity.” He recognises that there is nothing fundamental here to distinguish this from the populism of the right – it just depends who you think the people are and which traits you choose. The book doesn’t give a clear answer on Bastani’s criteria here. How are the “people” mobilised? Here the Bastani of 2010 who favoured the network organisation of the Internet reappears: “the party form… makes increasingly little sense. The same is true of worker organising, radical or reformist, which are [sic] erroneously premised on the society of work enduring forever.” But a few lines later the Bastani of 2019 counters “The role of the labour movement is to liberate the working class... We must build a workers’ party against work...”

Bastani here makes increasingly little sense.

This book is notable for a number of absences. There is no conception of working class self- activity either in bringing FALC about or in managing production under it. There is no conception of democratic control in the workplace, in governance of technology or in society more generally. There is no notion of struggle from below to transform economy or society. Those things are presumably out of date.

Instead the book combines a view of a future close by in which technology enables us to forget the collective and focus on self with an immediate platform for Corbynism which repackages some traditional left social democratic policies and ideas about how it might come about. These ideas may become fashionable for a while in the same way as Bastani’s original meme.

But, however well- wrapped in the ultra-modernity of new technology in a sort of hipster reformism, they do not offer a road to emancipation from capitalism.

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