Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Book Review.
Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto. (Verso Books, 2019)

Aaron Bastani, co-founder and public face of Novara Media, and public advocate for the Corbyn project, is probably best known for popularising the phrase Fully Automated Luxury Communism. In a 2015 opinion piece for Vice, he called it the “political adventure of our lifetime,” claiming it would free us from the stifling regime of austerity and even provide “Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses and Chloe for all.”

When Fully Automated Luxury Communism stopped being a tumblr meme and began to circulate within mainstream public discourse, many sniggered. Fully Automated Luxury Communism? Gulags with computers? It seems like a crass oxymoron. When one thinks of communism, luxury isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Understandably, because of the Soviet experience, in the popular imagination communism is seen as a bleak Stakhanovite dystopia, with unwashed people in overalls, working in factories, inefficiently producing poor quality machine parts that have no use at all and living in drab concrete towers. Living a life of luxury is usually understood as having made it big under capitalism and being able to afford things most people can’t—such as a yacht, Ferrari, mega-mansion or Rolex watch. Luxury goods are luxurious precisely because they are exclusive and often serve as a marker of class difference. This doesn’t exactly fit the Communist beliefs in equality and the abolition of class society.

Bastani’s new book, published by New Left publisher Verso Books, is an elaboration on FALC, and an attempt to document the various epochal technological developments within contemporary capitalism which, together, he thinks will spell the end of capitalism and lay the basis for a new post-capitalist, post-scarcity society that fits the description of Fully Automated Luxury Communism. This is an adaptation of a similar thesis by Jeremy Rifkin formulated in the 1990s—though without the name .  Readers of Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism will also be familiar with this line of argument.

Bastani’s thesis rests on two pillars. The first is that humanity is living through what he calls the “third disruption” (the first and second being the Neolithic and industrial revolutions respectively), in which information is becoming more abundant, ushering in an era of post-scarcity, in which everything we could possibly need and want will be provided either extremely cheaply or for nothing at all.

His second argument is that there are currently five crises to which capitalism will eventually fail to provide a solution: climate change; resource scarcity; ageing populations; an increasing surplus of the global poor, whom he calls the “unnecessariat”; and automation, meaning that increasing amounts of labour are performed by machines, not humans. “Confronting such crises is the basis of FALC,” he writes, “Capitalism … is about to end. What matters is what comes next.”

In the first part of the book, Bastani lays out in detail the coming changes, which are relatively rapidly becoming reality, in a very readable style and with some impressive statistics and anecdotes. For example, he writes that “the energy of the sun is so immense that … in just ninety minutes the earth is hit with the equivalent energy all of humanity uses for a year.” However, the technology to capture and store this “virtually free limitless energy” has, until recently, been “uneconomical and inconvenient” compared to fossil fuels. But technological improvements and price performance now mean that “a watt of solar energy in sunnier countries can cost as little as fifty cents.”

Likewise, the first cultured meat cost around $325,000 to produce, from petri dish to plate, in 2008. In the coming decades, it could cost as little as $12. He also cites the rather less believable prospect of mining asteroids, which are packed with mineral wealth. 16 Psyche, located between Mars and Jupiter, contains iron, nickel, gold and platinum to an estimated value of around $10,000 quadrillion. Bastani writes, “mining space would create such outlandish supply as to collapse prices on earth.”

It is easy to dismiss asteroid mining as a teenage sci-fi fantasy. However, in fairness to Bastani, it isn’t absolutely beyond the realms of possibility. It is theoretically plausible that, with improvements to technology, in the future one could send drones out into the solar system to extract resources from a nearby asteroid and return to earth with the goods. No one imagined that humanity was capable of sending a man to the moon so one shouldn’t downplay humanity’s capabilities of breaking down barriers and expanding frontiers. However, Bastani is way too optimistic about the rapid development of asteroid mining and the prospect of advanced AI on the level of Dolores Abernathy from Westworld just around the corner. It would take at least a century before you could advance these technologies to such a level—assuming we were lucky.

Nevertheless, Bastani clearly feels that FALC will lead to a higher form of human civilisation:

Under FALC, we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent — if we so wish — of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.

Some may feel repulsed by the idea that the proles of today will one day, under FALC, imitate the vulgar and obscene lifestyles of today’s nouveaux riches. But, despite its aesthetic inelegance, in many respects, FALC is a nod to an aspiration, with a long history on the Left, that should be reemphasised. The revolutionary Left used to believe that the advent of socialism would mean breaking down the barriers capitalism presented to social and economic progress and creating a new system that would move all of humanity beyond scarcity and into a world of plenty.

As the great suffragette and socialist Sylvia Pankhurst wrote in 1923, “Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity but of abundance.” Pankhurst complained that, under capitalism, consumption was “artificially checked” and “cruelly limited.” Her vision of a socialist society was one that would produce “anything and everything the people desire,” including “adornments and amusements”—not simply satisfy our basic needs of hunger, thirst and shelter.

This sentiment that “we can have bread and roses, too” used to be left-wing orthodoxy, but some parts of the contemporary Left—partially influenced by the New Left’s anti-consumerism and an understandable concern for the environment—have turned against this aspiration and espoused a green-tinged anti-capitalism that is romantic, moralistic, utopian, anti-modern, anti-consumerist and anti-progress—and, taken to extremes, smuggles in some dark neo-Malthusian and primitivist ideas. It argues that we— at least in the West — have too much and consume too much and should roll back consumption, tighten our belts, lower our aspirations, recognise our limits and so on, in order to save the planet.

In a sense, it is quite refreshing that FALC, for all its flawed fantasia, is tapping into the optimistic and progressive aspirations of previous socialist generations and making the positive case that “the impulse to lead fuller, expanded lives, not diminished ones” and the reduction of the hyper-exploitation of the environment need not be mutually exclusive. “Rather than reducing our quality of life,” Bastani declares, “the transition to renewable energy offers a bridge to energy abundance — permitting more prosperous societies than previously possible under the petty limits of fossil fuels.”

However, the book has its flaws. FALC isn’t a recycling of twentieth-century Marxism-Leninism, nor is Bastani a closet Stalinist, who is trying to smuggle totalitarianism in by the back door—though he really could’ve done without the passing comment that the seventy-year survival of the Soviet Union “remains one of the great political achievements of the last century.” I really don’t see how the Soviet Union can be described as anything other than a total failure and travesty in every respect.

One flaw of the book is that the way FALC will be established seems rather limited. Bastani doesn’t really explain how FALC will be implemented on a global level, beyond some vague talk of internationalism (which he contrasts with the “cult of globalism” under neoliberalism) and maybe a generous redistribution program, whereby the “Global North” transfers some of its ill gotten gains to the “Global South.”

Another blind spot of FALC is that it doesn’t really involve the agency of the working class or the wretched of the earth, whom Bastani feels FALC will benefit. To the extent that Bastani does talk about the social agency of the working class, it is limited to their role as voters, who will ratify the policies and ideas of “luxury populism” in “reforging the capitalist state.” “The majority of people,” he writes, “are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time … Which is all the more reason why FALC … must engage in mainstream, electoral politics.” Electoral politics and reforms are all well and good, but they can only be effective when you have a developed consciousness and an independent mass movement, whose members feel themselves to be political actors with radical social transformation as their ultimate goal.

While he is not a techno-determinist, Bastani does presume that technological developments will do most of the heavy lifting to build the new communist society—without exploring how working people around the world can potentially use these new technologies within their communities to help them create and shape a new society themselves, not simply be passive beneficiaries of it. Maybe this is a topic for a future book, but it still seems like a gaping hole in Bastani’s argument.

This goes to the nub of my problem with FALC : the economic and political crises of 2008 and 2016 have created cracks in the capitalist realism that Mark Fisher eloquently described. With establishment liberalism beginning to collapse under its own contradictions and national populists ready to fill the void, there is space for a genuine emancipatory Left alternative. I am sceptical, though , as to whether FALC can provide such an alternative or a plan to get us there. FALC is a good meme, but not an effective political programme.

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23 comments

  1. Sounds rather like The Culture. I’d like to think that fusion power, asteroid mining and AI Minds will get us there in the end, but it’s a long and obstacle-strewn path.

  2. Once everything is automated what is everyone to do? All labour will be surplus labour.

    If you want to see what becomes of humanity when there is no real threat to their existence and every trivial demand is instantly catered for, look at Evergreen.

    1. Good question. We’ll have to reinvent ourselves, that’s for sure. Various dystopias have worlds full of partying morons governed by a very small elite of thinking people.

    1. “My problem with this book is that he’s speculating on the benefits of a level of automation that we will not have for at least another century.”

      Don’t be so sure about that. AI is getting easier and easier. Nuclear fusion is still not working but seems more and more around the corner. Self-replicating robots or similar seem bizarrely harder, but breakthroughs can be expected. If only with these 3, a lot can be done, and FALC can be jumpstarted.

      My guess is weirdly not that technological improvement will occur too slowly, but rather that it will take unpredictable twists and turns and that technological progress will likely not look at all like what we currently fantasize.

      FALC frightens me a bit, too be honest. I hope we’ll instead get to Partially Automated Carefree Poppero-Rawlsianism rather than Fully Automated Luxury Communism. But what I’m pretty sure of is that it won’t be an anti-authoritarian fantasy paradise. I believe human cognitive resources will be in high demand for quite a while and not everyone will be able to provide such cognitive resources. So we’ll likely end up with a semi-authoritarian system that will place extreme value on rationality and (forced?) education.

      The other alternative seems to me to be Google Taking Over the World.

      Or maybe there’s no real difference between these projects?

      But I also foresee that religious issues and questions about morality will keep being rampant questions, and will even grow in force and demand for recognition. So I do not see the path to the future as an easy ride at all. And the roadmap isn’t quite clear yet…

  3. This Bastani fella sounds like a clever guy. I think he’s right that capitalism, at least as we’ve known it, must be replaced with something better and speculations are to be encouraged, but I don’t think he’s got it exactly right with luxury communism. However I do think about the Star Trek model: in Roddenberry’s vision of the future, wealth is a meaningless concept since anyone can go up to a replicator at any time and order a perfect copy of anything. If you want the Hope Diamond ask the replicator for one and have it. Have ten.

      1. That’s not unreasonable. Wherever we go, there we are. There is no utopia, whatever we do, we’ll have problems and we might even make a complete shambles of it, tho we do tend to save ourselves at the last second. As to Idiocracy, I don’t deny the problem. Every bit of tech we’ve ever invented has dumbed us down a bit. The plebes do like their bread and circuses don’t they?

      1. That’s just the point. The whole underpinning of greed vanishes. And should some item be of genuine usefulness, you never lack one.

            1. every human failing and foible can be improved upon. all you have to do is impose strict, top-down rules governing their behavior in direct, abstract, and esoteric ways.

              the problems only arise when you try to apply these rules to humans. but man, on paper they sure look great, don’t they?

              1. “all you have to do is impose strict, top-down rules governing their behavior in direct, abstract, and esoteric ways”

                Or educate.

  4. the best part of fully automated luxury capitalism is the the meat of the Eloi would become more tender a succulent for the Morlocks to eat.

  5. This seems, for lack of a better word, idiotic — on the part of the book author, that is, not the author of this piece.

    Two things that leap to mind:

    History!
    How many promises of a better, more equitable and peaceful world do we have to hear from the Nobels and the Gatlings? To say nothing of the toadies merely repeating the “gospel” of technological advancement (scaaaary scare quotes).

    Economics!
    Feasibility aside, don’t things like growing meat and asteroid mining sound just a little bit capital intensive? It’s hard to excuse the (sorry, but,) stupidity of writing about communist space mining at a time when NASA is literally contracting private companies for launches. Will the (and which?) government just seize all the intellectual and physical property of multinational companies and then expect the brains to come with it?

    I’m not going to read this book, because for the time and money I’d probably get better ideas with opium.

    1. “the “gospel” of technological advancement (scaaaary scare quotes)”

      But is it usually the capitalists who preach this gospel. “Don’t worry”, they say, “as productivity increases due to technological advancement, some wealth is bound to trickle down to the workers.”

      “stupidity of writing about communist space mining”

      Well, the commies did lead America in space for quite some time. Some say that if it were not for an outright panic on the part of the Americans, and giving NASA a blank cheque, and all those rehabilitated Nazi scientists, the commies would have put a man on the moon first, too, in spite of the fact that their country was devastated by WWII whereas America was not. I’m not saying that commie space mining is a good idea, but neither is it impossible. Some future tasks might just require the combined efforts of the entire planet, no?

      1. I think we agree in part. In woodworking, they say a minute of inattention is ruinous, or a second with power tools. With Gatling and Nobel, the promise was not about “increase” or “trickle down” but the wholesale peaceful transformation of humanity. They got the wholesale transformation part right. The point is, what we are is the problem, and technology doesn’t do it the right way, but the “Max Power way”

      2. And the human cost of pumping all that money and expertise into the space race, not to mention the arms race?
        They could only achieve it on the back of three things.
        The state being repressive and authoritarian. There’s no way a country so poor would with a genuinely open democratic system have chosen those priorities.

        Secondly, seeing the prestige of the state as more important than the wellbeing of its citizens.

        Thirdly, massively neglecting the rest of their infrastructure. This directly lead to events like Chernobyl and massive pollution.

        Unless you’re willing to go down that route for the ‘greater good’, there’s really no positive lessons from the Soviet space achievements.

        1. Agree to all. I’m merely pointing out that commies can achieve things when they want to. In fact, by controlling entire economies they could achieve far greater feats than the squabbling, dog eat dog capitalists if they wanted to. I’m no fan, but one can exaggerate the helplessness of the commies.

    1. There is a further point to note – that even without full automation a moneyless wageless stateless communist world would be vastly more efficient and aspect at generating abundance given that probably 70 percent of the work that we currently do which is only necessary to enable capitalism to function would completely disappear with communism

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