Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism is a vision of a post-capitalist Utopia, but can we get there and would we like it if we did, asks Elaine Graham-Leigh.
According to Marx, the review of Volume One of Capital in the Paris Revue Positiviste criticised it for being simultaneously too positivist and not positivist enough. His economics were metaphysical; yet he stuck to ‘mere critical analysis of actual facts’ rather than engaging in speculations about what a future communist society might look like: ‘writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.’The Parisian positivists did not need to worry, as many subsequent writers of fiction and non-fiction have attempted to supply these recipes for a future communist Utopia. Bastani himself refers to this passage of Marx’s (p.53), but nevertheless, Fully Automated Luxury Communism can still be read in this context as a Utopian recipe of sorts. Unfortunately, it is one which suggests that Marx’s distrust of all such speculations was the more sensible position.
The core of Bastani’s argument is that we are facing five related, simultaneous civilisational crises: climate change, resource scarcity, societal ageing, growing numbers of global poor and the rise of a new machine age. These will see the end of capitalism as we know it, but, Bastani maintains, will also provide an opportunity to usher in something better. That something better is fully automated luxury communism; an idyllic system in which we will:
‘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 and medieval knight’ (p.189).
This luxury will be enabled by technological developments; hence Bastani stresses that while the ‘luxury’ part emphasises what we have to gain, ‘fully automated’ is also an essential part of the program. These technological advances, including renewable energy, genome sequencing, asteroid mining and synthetic meat and other foods, will usher in an age of ‘extreme supply’. This will be in contrast to the scarcity which has dominated the capitalist and every other preceding era, putting a limitless standard of living within everyone’s grasp for the first time in human history.
Many of the specific advances discussed here will be familiar from eco-modernist literature, and indeed, Fully Automated Luxury Communism seems distinctly eco-modernist at heart. Bastani makes an explicit contrast between his programme and much green thinking, railing against the green tendency to think that ‘the only way to save our planet was to retreat from modernity itself.’ In contrast to the ‘folk politics’ of ethical consumption, Bastani echoes Mark Lynas in saying that ‘our technology is already making us gods - so we might as well get used to it’ (p.189).
Bastani makes some valuable points about the technology available to us to address the crises we face. It is worth reiterating, for example, that it is eminently possible to generate sufficient electricity for our needs from 100% renewable sources. (This is, incidentally, a point of difference between Bastani and most eco-modernists, who tend to maintain the necessity for nuclear power.) Other solutions are less obviously beneficial. Bastani’s enthusiasm for electric cars, for example, ignores fairly widespread and reasonable concerns about traffic congestion and safety. A version of fully automated luxury communism in which children still couldn’t play outside for fear of all the electric cars gliding down their streets might not sound to everyone like a society in which we would all be living our best lives. Similarly, vat-grown food may not appear appealing to those who believe, not unreasonably, that the less processed our food is, the better it is for our health.
Bastani’s focus is on extolling the benefits of the technologies rather than on discussing their potential drawbacks, which leads him to make some rather startling pronouncements with little substantiation. It would be nice to believe that in the near future, we will ‘overcome nearly all forms of disease’ through genome sequencing (p.30) but there is little by way of a convincing case here. In the same way, the path to zero-carbon emissions from energy would be an easier one if heating for all existing buildings could be obviated by insulation, but this is not widely thought to be achievable.
Bastani’s case on these might be more persuasive if he had provided any references, but footnotes clearly are not going to feature in the tech Utopia of the future. As it is, Bastani’s bold but slenderly-supported statements on various imminent technological breakthroughs render not only these but the more recognised examples less credible overall than they might otherwise have been. Setting the proposition that we could overcome our looming resource constraint issues by mining asteroids, for example, on the same level as generating electricity from renewable sources, shows such a lack of understanding of what proven technology looks like that it may be more likely to give ammunition to renewables sceptics than disarm them.
Eco-modernists are correct to reject the type of green thought which extols sacrifice and austerity as a general good. Arguments which end up concluding that individual excessive consumption is the root cause of the climate crisis are not only unsystematic but can be used to justify attacks on working-class living standards in the name of saving the planet. It does not follow from this that every technological solution to an environmental or agricultural problem has been and always will be beneficial; an obvious statement, perhaps, but one with which much eco-modernist thought would come close to disagreeing. Bastani here is remarkably insouciant about the real environmental and social damage which previous technological fixes have caused, providing for example an extended discussion on the benefits of the Green Revolution, and a bare two sentences on the considerable issues with its marketisation of subsistence agriculture (p.167).
A common complaint levelled at eco-modernists is that they are calling for techno-fixes, which might (in the most optimistic scenarios) provide a temporary answer to the immediate climate crisis, but will do nothing to address the deeper issue of the inherent environmental destructiveness of capitalism. No one could accuse Bastani, however, of suggesting only minimal social changes. His argument is that the coming technological advances will be so far-reaching that they will amount to a civilisational disruption on a par with the adoption of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution, which Bastani calls the First and Second Disruption respectively.
This may appear to be a technological determinist argument, and Bastani is indeed alert to the possibility of this criticism. Technology, he maintains, does not determine every path; ‘technology matters, but so do the ideas, social relations and politics which accompany it’ (p.239). This is shown, for example, in the case of synthetic-meat technology, which he argues has been developed at least in part in response to demand from vegetarians and vegans. This means that social processes are leading technology, not the other way around.
This argument is not an effective defence against the accusation of technological determinism, demonstrating a rather worrying belief in the capitalist mantra that demand leads supply, rather than a Marxist understanding that it is the other way around. Particularly in the case of food, there is an abundance of evidence for how eating habits have been shaped over more than a century by the needs of food corporations rather than by individual preferences.In the specific instance Bastani uses, it could be argued that the recent mainstream discovery of veganism is because companies have found ways of using enthusiasm for veganism to sell highly-processed products which deliver acceptable rates of surplus value. It is not the case that everyone going vegan is actually clamouring for synthetic-meat imitations, but that when going vegan meant turning to more unprocessed vegetables, this was not a profitable choice to be encouraged.
This individual example aside, Bastani's claim not to be technologically determinist fails ultimately because, whether he is prepared to admit it or not, he is making a technological-determinist argument. This is apparent in his brief accounts of both his First and Second Disruptions. In the First, agriculture was invented and civilisation with all its trappings (including, in what would have surprised the cave painters of Lascaux among others, the ability to think about the future and ‘the realm of abstract thought’, p.32) proceeded from that technological change. In the Second, the Industrial Revolution meant the transition to capitalism. Thus, with the Third Disruption, it is the particular technology we will be adopting which will enable us to enter the new era.
The reformist road to utopia
The path to the luxury communist utopia, for Bastani, is surprisingly mundane: a reformist government rejecting neoliberalism and instead instituting a package of universal basic services and programmes of socially-useful bank lending to worker-owned businesses and co-operatives. This would be a positive and welcome programme, but hardly a revolutionary one. What would make this the beginning of the post-work paradise of fully automated luxury communism would be technology. The difference between this social-democratic government and, say, the 1945 Attlee government would be not political but technological. Previous social-democratic governments have been working within the constraints of extreme scarcity. The technology of extreme supply, on the other hand, would make the worst fears of the Daily Mail come true; a Corbyn government really would be a pathway to communism.
Bastani makes this process sound almost automatic. While he states that a ‘workers’ party against work’ (p.194) will be needed, it is difficult to see precisely what role it would play in a transition determined by technology rather than by struggle. Certainly, something so old-fashioned as a Leninist party is entirely irrelevant:
‘Leninism, meanwhile, views production, and by extension working class subjectivity, as critical, while ignoring a world whose ideas and technologies are hugely changed from those of the early twentieth century’ (p.196).
Leninism is doomed here because it is concerned with workers who were using nineteenth and early twentieth-century technology, so in a technological-determinist view, can have nothing to say about workers on the technology of the early twenty-first century.
Bastani constructs a justification for his view of how change occurs using a passage from Marx (unreferenced, but from the Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy). In this passage, Marx explains how the totality of the relations of production form the economic structure of society, on which arises a legal and political superstructure. When the productive forces in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, the changes in the economic foundation of society lead to an era of social revolution in which the whole superstructure is changed. Marx is talking here about eras like that of the bourgeois revolutions, where the economic power of the bourgeoisie led them to try to overthrow the political structures of society which were created by and for the aristocracy of the feudal period. Bastani, however, interprets the superstructure as ‘shared popular culture, how we comprehend nature and even how we author our own personalities’ (p.200). This turns Marx’s concrete observation about the relation of economic and political power into something more inchoate, as if all that is necessary to usher in fully automated luxury communism is to tweet a lot about driverless cars.
This is not a serious analysis of how to achieve social change, omitting as it does any understanding of class struggle. It is notable, in fact, that Bastani’s analysis throughout is virtually silent about class, which does not appear to enter his understanding in any meaningful way. Invisible in Bastani’s account of the origin of agriculture, the development of class society in the Neolithic Middle East was the real First Disruption in human history; the driver for such civilised developments as bureaucracy, oppression and war. These did not arise naturally and inevitably as a result of technology, but were imposed by the exploiting minority on the majority, often against fierce and sometimes successful resistance.
Class and capitalism as a system
Similarly, the chronology of the development of capitalism might have appeared simpler to explain here if Bastani had allowed himself to see it as primarily a particular mode of production with particular class relations, rather than simply another word for the Industrial Revolution. It is of course ignoring the existence of class which enables Bastani to write Leninism off as irrelevant. If the proletariat are understood not as workers who use a particular level of technology, but rather as the majority of the people, who do not control the means of production and have to sell their labour power in order to live, then it is hard to argue that Lenin’s analyses of how the proletariat can organise to defeat the bourgeoisie should no longer have anything useful to show us.
Bastani’s neglect of class is paralleled by a seeming blindness to the reality of capitalism itself. He is critical of capitalist realism, a position summed up here by the Jameson (or Žižek) line that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Given this, he finds it oddly difficult in practice to consider capitalism as a historical system. He is obviously aware that capitalism is the system in which we live, but somehow his analysis has a tendency not to consider it systemically, as determining particular relations of production which could be different in a different system. Thus, for example, in his discussion of food production, ‘it is the meat and dairy consumption typical to diets in the Global North which have us living beyond our ecological means’ (p.163), not the nature of meat and dairy production and how they work within the global food market under capitalism.
This is particularly important in the context of consideration of what a post-capitalist future could be, since it goes to the heart of the question of what sustainable consumption under a different system could look like. If the problem is simply that people eat too much, as Bastani seems to think, (as shown for example by his erroneous use of the rounded version of the figure for US food productionper head - 3770 calories - as the average daily calories consumed, p.161)then clearly the answers are either for them to cut down or for technology to find them another source of food. If, however, we are open to the possibility that food production under capitalism is inherently and deliberately wasteful, then we could consider that our food options under a different system may be far wider than the system-less calculation makes them appear.
This is not simply a point about food production. Understanding capitalism as a system inherently destructive of the environment is essential if we are to cut through the profit-driven techno fixes for climate crisis on one side and the notion that the human species is simply too greedy and selfish for planetary health on the other. Bastani’s rather flat consideration of capitalism is also, of course, what allows the implicit assumption that it, like Leninism, belongs to a particular technology and will therefore simply not carry forward into the new technological age. Unfortunately for his argument, capitalism was destroying the environmentlong before the new technology of the Industrial Revolution. We cannot be as sanguine as Bastani wishes to be that it will not survive future technological developments with its destructive capabilities intact.
Organising resistance or hyping the future?
As a picture of a future Utopia, fully automated luxury communism is perhaps closest to Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, portraying a far future society in which humans live lives of unimaginable plenty and indulgence while AI does all the work. This was never going to appeal to me personally, as I have always found the Culture humans so appallingly smug that in every novel I immediately start rooting for the unregenerate bad guys, as indeed Banks himself sometimes seemed to do. That Bastani’s vision of the future calls to mind science fiction as much as it does eco-modernism might indicate that we should view it as a diverting but unserious imagining of a technological future. There are two reasons however why this cannot simply be dismissed as entertainment.
The first is that Fully Automated Luxury Communism forms part of a growing body of literature which perceives the problems of capitalism and the necessity for system change while writing off as hopelessly old-fashioned and boring the tradition of proletarian organisation to achieve just that. Bastani manages to give the impression that fully automated luxury communism will emerge automatically out of a decent reformist government if we all just believe in it enough. This is an unrealistic understanding of the proletariat’s task of seizing control of the means of production. It may well be, as Bastani argues, that technological developments will pose challenges for the current incarnation of capitalism, but an assumption that it will therefore gracefully retire is hardly conducive to serious politics.
The second reason why Bastani’s tech Utopianism is damaging is the use to which these sorts of arguments are put in the here and now. There are a number of schools of thought on the likely effects of automation and AI on employment, ranging from the apocalyptic to the complacent. Bastani follows uncritically the line that AI will wipe out vast swathes of modern jobs, which in his view is to be welcomed as it would free us from toil. This is not the only possible left-wing view. It is true that Marx argued that capitalists in competition with others would always have a tendency to replace labour with machinery in search of a competitive advantage, but he also pointed out that this leads to the greater organic composition of capital and therefore to the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. It is possible that, given the immense cost and complexity of AI, capitalist business owners in a range of sectors may continue to find it more profitable to employ minimum-wage workers, who after all can be made to take care of the reproduction of their labour at their own cost and in their own time.
At the current state of technology, this is speculation. What is not speculation is the way in which firms have been able to use the mantle of technological innovation. They are able both to cast themselves as something new and therefore outside existing regulatory structures, and to threaten labour with dire consequences for their future employability if they fail to embrace supposedly modern ways of working. The most obvious example of this is Uber, which despite the innovative packaging is, when it comes down to it, just a minicab company with terrible treatment of its workers, but there are many others.
The uncritical extolling of these companies as the way of the future which is such a frequent part of tech-enthusiast discourse helps create a situation where posited developments in technology can be used to threaten workers into accepting poor conditions even if the developments themselves never come to pass. It may be that the threat of robots is more profitable for a range of capitalist businesses than the robots themselves could ever be.
Bastani is right that, in fighting against the capitalist system, we should be clear that we are not fighting for immiseration, whether for the sake of the planet or not, but for a better world. Attempts to imagine what that better world would look like can be entertaining, but the most serious examples are always more about the society in which they were written. As Ursula Le Guin commented about her Utopian novelAlways Coming Home, it was,
‘a mere dream dreamed up in a bad time, an Up Yours to the people who ride snow mobiles, make nuclear weapons, and run prison camps … a glass of milk for a soul ulcerated by acid rain.’
After all, attempts by the alienated products of the capitalist system to imagine the society that people free from alienation would build, are hardly likely to turn out to be accurate. The value of writing the recipes for future cook-shops lies in how helpful they are to the job of getting to that future. Bastani’s neglect of class struggle for technological determinism means that, whether the task is electing a Corbyn government or overthrowing the capitalist system, Fully Automated Luxury Communism is more likely to disarm than to help.
Review: Elaine Graham-Leigh
Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism(Verso 2019), x, 278pp.
Karl Marx, Capital, vol.1, Afterword to the Second German Edition, (Moscow 1961), p.17
For example, how US diets were shifted from pork to beef from the late 1950s, Elaine Graham-Leigh, A Diet of Austerity. Class, Food and Climate Change(Zero Books 2015), p.56.
Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy(Moscow and London 1970), p.21
The US average food availability per head sometimes appears as 3,774 calories per head and sometimes 3,747,but is usually around that figure. It is however always referring to production rather than consumption; Diet of Austerity, p.15.
Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home(Grafton Books 1986), p.316
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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