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Fully Automated Luxury Communism

We face serious challenges in the world today, among them, global warming and the persistence of world capitalism. Capitalism causes environmental degradation and many other social problems facing the working class, such as poverty, unemployment, poor housing and war.

At the moment there does not seem to be much positive inspiration around at the moment to abolish capitalism and solve the social, economic and environmental problems it causes. There are only a very few socialists on the ground, there is no mass socialist movement working towards a revolutionary end, and the working class in Britain is increasingly giving its support to anti-immigrant and xenophobic far-right political parties. The capitalist Left is either wedded to the “back to the future” policies of Jeremy Corbyn; with the Labour Party’s policies of nationalisation, state regulation of the economy and social reformism, or remains under the dead hand of Leninism with its leadership of professional revolutionaries, telling workers what to think and how to act.

For several decades socialists have been told that there is no alternative to capitalism; no alternative to the market and class exploitation. We have been told that capitalism is the final destination point of social evolution. We have come to “the end of history”. This is known as “capitalist realism” where, according to the late Mark Fisher ‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ (CAPITALIST REALISM: IS THERE NO ALTERNATIVE? 2010).

Socialism, however, does present itself as an alternative to capitalism. The problems created by capitalism remain untouched from one generation to the next, and they are often getting worse. Socialism has never existed, and production directly and solely to meet human needs remains a viable and practical alternative to capitalism. A socialist society would produce sufficient goods and services to meet the needs of the world’s population in ways capitalism never can.

There does need to be an urgent debate about socialism and how socialism is to be established, and what political strategies can take that struggle forwards. Aaron Bastani, a leading figure in Novara Media, an on-line media organisation, has written a book FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM: A MANIFESTO (London: Verso, 2019), which seeks to join that debate. However, despite the many interesting topics it covers on technology, it is an intervention that is fatally flawed.

Under “FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM,” writes Aaron Bastani towards the conclusion of the book:

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 – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic as the feudal peasant ...

” (p. 189) Bastani proposes a world in which technology produces in abundance all that is required for people to live worthwhile lives, rivalling in quantity and quality what billionaires enjoy today. It will be a society:

in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another”(p. 50).

Here is a book which is optimistic and has left capitalism behind. There is optimism in technology, and in its use; a guilt-free optimism about the production of material goods; and optimism that socialism/communism (they both mean the same thing) can be a global organising principle making capitalism history.

The premise of the book is grounded on periodic “historical disruptions” to human society; from the development of agriculture to the development of technologies associated with the industrial revolution. Bastani believes we are about to enter a third disruption which will allow the human species to have infinite energy through solar technology, the ability to mine asteroids for materials like lithium, to use genetic intervention to improve universal health care and well-being and abundant food supply. The bulk of the book looks at each theme in some detail, drawing upon current research and extrapolating trends into the future.

With solar power, for example, Bastani believes society has access to unlimited, clean and free energy. The amount of solar energy constantly hitting the Earth’s atmosphere is around 174 petawatts (The petawatt is equal to one billion millions watts). Of this half hits the planet’s surface. Humans currently consume less than 20 constant terawatts (a unit of power equal to one million million watts) a year meaning that many thousands of times more energy furnish Earth than is even required under capitalism.

Bastani notes that by 2016 solar power was:

the fastest-growing source of new energy installations world-wide, outstripping the growth of all other forms of power for the first time

(p. 103). Socialism, then, has the potential of pollution free and abundant energy source from the sun.

However, whereas the source of solar energy is free as it hits the Earth, the planet is carved up into competitive nation states containing a ruling class who privately own and control the means of production to the exclusion of everybody else. While sun-light is free, solar panels etc have to be manufactured before solar energy can be harnessed. The capitalist class has its interests protected by the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the state. The market control of solar power and its distribution under capitalism is no different to that of fossil fuels, like oil and gas. Even as the price of electricity from solar power falls, it is still under private ownership; still a profitable enterprise.

This brings us on to Marx. Marx makes a lot of appearances in Bastani’s book - selective quotations are taken from THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, THE GRUNDISSE, THE PREFACE TO A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY and CAPITAL. However, what is missing is the class dimension provided by Marx – the reality of class relations, the class ownership of the means of production and the political means necessary to make the means of production common property under democratic control. Class relations are ignored, so too is the class struggle: The book is ‘Marxist-lite’, so to speak.

In Bastani’s book there is no identifiable conscious and political agent of change, certainly not a world socialist movement which has formed itself into socialist political parties with the expressed aim of establishing socialism and only socialism. And, because of his reliance on technological sources from those wanting to retain capitalism rather than abolish it, many of the technological claims made by Bastani are class neutral. Gene editing, the research facilities, those who are employed to work in them and their marketing are all part of commercial enterprises, supported by governments especially over disputes about intellectual copyrights and patents.

Technical developments in capitalism take place within a class society and for reasons associated with maximising profit and capital accumulation. Bastani wonders in awe at the technology coming into existence, but fails to question whether it is the right technology for a future socialist society or whether a future socialist society would want to use it. He offers a future of electric cars, but will a socialist society want the roads, the car parks and the traffic jams which go with this type of transport? Would new patterns of transport be considered by future socialists, forged by new social relationships and ways of doing things?

What is missing from Bastani’s book is a considered understanding of capitalism, the political process by which socialism is to be established and the world-wide socialist majority which is going to establish socialism. There is an acute tension in the book between technological determinism and utopianism which is never resolved.

Marx’s transformed socialism from a utopia into a science. Marx rejected the romantic and idealistic utopianism of Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier in France and Robert Owen in Britain. Marx also dismissed the Jacobin tradition of Louis Blanqui during the French Revolution, whereby a small secret conspiracy of enlightened revolutionaries seized power by means of a coup d’état and imposed socialism on the rest of society.

There is no discussion in Bastani’s book of the self emancipation of the working class. In fact, save for the technological utopia, society does not really change. True, Marx avoided blueprints but he did believe that changing social relations would change society in a revolutionary way. In his criticism of the Gotha Programme he pointed out that creative and fulfilling labour should be one of “life’s wants” and guided by the socialist principle: “from each according to ability to each according to need”. And as a socialist principle he stated that the emancipation of the working class must be the emancipation of the working class itself.

When he drafted the rules for the International workingmen’s Association in 1864, Marx began with the statement: “That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves.”

This brings us to the most disappointing part of Bastani’s book – its final section. Here, he explains how Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) is to be brought about. After presenting reasons why we would want FALC, the question is: how do we get it? Is it just going to fall on our laps from the sky? What about us workers?

Assuming the reader is persuaded by a society without the wages system, the labour market, the buying and selling of labour power, what are we expected to do now? How are we going to get involved and what political mechanism do we use to get from here to there? The answer is disappointing. According to Bastani, we are to remain passive voters. And who we are supposed to be voting for is not divulged either. All he says is:

The majority of people are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time…” (p. 195).

And he goes on to say that the working class are apparently only “open to new possibilities regarding how society works around elections” (p. 195).

Isn’t this a touch arrogant? To limit the majority of society in establishing FALC but to be marginalised to brief periods of political intervention; say once every five years at elections. What are workers supposed to do for the rest of the time? Leave it to technological leaders? Socialists object to this elitism.

The working class have to engage and to be persuaded to become socialists outside elections. The working class must come to understand and accept the case for socialism otherwise they will continue to vote at elections for capitalist political parties and capitalist political leaders like Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn.

Elections for socialists are important. However, the hard work is to first persuade a majority of workers to become socialists. A socialist majority is important so that it can send socialist delegates to Parliament. With the revolutionary use of the vote, socialist delegates, accountable to the people who send them there, will gain control of the machinery of government. This will enable a socialist society to abolish capitalism and replace the profit system by a society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society.

In not understanding that a fundamental change in society requires the active participation of a socialist majority FALC collapses into utopianism; the kind of utopianism found in the writings of Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. This is FALC’S fatal flaw. We are reminded of Engels in his pamphlet SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, where he dismisses the utopianism of his own day as;

...a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook”.
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/index.htm

A remark that is sadly applicable to Bastini’s FULLY AUTOMATED LUXURY COMMUNISM. While it is easy enough to paint castles in the air, those who want to change the world fundamentally for the better, need to organise themselves democratically and work together on Marx’s basic “world to win!”.

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