Getting lost on the road to communist utopia

A response to Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani (Verso Books, 2019)

Communist utopias are the stuff of life. They have given hope, widened horizons and fired imaginations, from Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done (1863) and William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) through to Woman On the Edge of Time (1985) by Marge Piercy.

So when my copy of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto arrived, I had high hopes. They were not all realised.

There were things in Bastani’s book I really liked: his optimism, and his conviction that any communist society – that is, any society free of exploitation and hierarchy – will be based

From the front cover of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Gollancz edition)

on material abundance. But his ideas about how this might be achieved were unconvincing.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), he writes in the concluding chapter, is

a map by which we escape the labyrinth of scarcity and a society built on jobs; the platform from which we can begin to answer the most difficult question of all, of what it means, as [the economist John Maynard] Keynes once put it, to live ‘wisely and agreeably and well’ (p. 243).

Bastani writes that FALC, unlike the world of actually existing neoliberalism,

will not demand constant sacrifices on the altar of profit and growth. Whether it’s ‘paying down the debt for future generations’, as our politicians are so keen to repeat, or growth and rising wages always coming ‘next year’ it’s becoming ever clearer that the good times aren’t coming back. What remains absent, however, is a language able to articulate that which is both accessible and emotionally resonant.

Bastani aspires to provide that language – by identifying political principles for a movement beyond capitalism; by returning abundance to a central place in socialist thought; and by pointing to technological change as the basis for social change. I will comment on these three aspects of the book in turn.

Politics and transitions

To put society on the road to a communist future, “a populist politics is necessary”, Bastani writes (p. 187). A politics that

blends culture and government with ideas of personal and social renewal. One that, to borrow a term, invents the future.[1] Anything less will fall short.

This politics includes elements widely shared by the left wing of social democracy (i.e. “Corbynism” in the UK): a break with neoliberalism; “relocalisation of economies through progressive procurement and municipal protectionism”; “socialising finance and creating a network of local and regional [state] banks”; and “a set of universal basic services which take much of the national economy into public ownership” (p. 208).

On an international level, Bastani suggests a tax of $25/tonne on carbon emissions from high-GDP countries, to channel resources from rich countries responsible for climate change to poorer ones (p. 222).

Where Bastani completely loses me is with his vague suggestions about how we might move from these social-democratic reforms of the capitalist state towards communism, and about who might be the motive forces of such a movement.

“The return of ‘the people’ as the main political actor is inevitable”, he writes (p. 191) – but sees this less as the active participation of people in changing society as an appeal (by who? politicians? activists?) to the people.

“Many” understand that the problems are large and unprecedented, and that the solutions must be, too, Bastani writes. So, given the possibilities afforded by technological change, “promise them what they deserve – promise everything” (p. 192). But who is making these promises?

Not a party based on the model of the 1917 Russian revolution, he argues. I don’t want one of those either, but the alternative Bastani offers – a focus on electoral politics – is equally unattractive. He writes:

The majority of people are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time. To an extent this is regrettable, the outgrowth of a culture that intentionally cultivates apathy and constrains a wider sense of popular power. […] The problem is not, therefore, that most people do not care about politics but rather they can not afford to care [in the face of work commitments, family, and so on]. […] it is often only around elections when large sections of society – particularly the most exploited – are open to new possibilities regarding how society works […]

This seems to me a dismal, conservative perspective, based on a misunderstanding of how social change happens. The most significant political shifts of recent decades – the fall of the Stalinist regimes in the former Soviet bloc in 1989-91, the “Arab spring” of 2011, the Greek revolt against austerity policy imposed by the EU – have all been initiated and carried through by mass movements on the streets and in communities. The defeats and setbacks, most obviously in Egypt and Syria after the revolts, do not alter that reality.

In the rich countries too, many of the greatest changes in our lifetimes have been brought about by movements in society – trade union movements, the women’s movement, struggles around environmental protection – that originated outside parliament and only found reflection there subsequently. In all these cases, people engaged in social movements outside parliament with little regard for electoral process.

I can not imagine an earth-shaking social transformation – the movement towards communism – that does not have at its centre the active participation of millions of people. This was a core belief of 19th century communists, and it is one we should retain.

Moscow, August 1991: the crowds that defeated the KGB coup. That’s how history changes

In the 1840s, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote about the working class doing away with labour and doing away with the whole idea of classes and nationalities; for the “production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness”, “a practical movement, a revolution” is necessary; to achieve it, not only would the ruling class have to be overthrown, but the class doing the overthrowing would have to “rid itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew”.[2]

I agree with Bastani that a “revolution” taking us towards communism can not and will not be a re-run of Russia in 1917. It can only be something completely different. But I can not envisage it without the active participation of millions of people. It’s not about politicians “promising them what they deserve”. They must become the historical subject of a process in which politics as a way of doing things would be superceded. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, “when […] class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character.”

Obviously, there is a long, complex discussion to be had about this. I thought Bastani could have paid more attention to the piles of books by communist writers who have considered this transition to communism.

Even the utopian fiction writers imagined not only communist futures, but also the paths by which people might get there. Think of the characters in The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, who recall the bitter struggle to establish an anarchist commune on one of the planets depicted. When it comes to prefiguring the social character of this transition, Bastani’s book is pretty light.

Scarcity and abundance

The future will be shaped by the rapid development of computers, robots and other forms of automation, Bastani writes, which mean that there will be “extreme supply” of both information and labour (p. 37); this abundance will form the basis for FALC.

Capitalism, Bastani argues, operates with “a central presumption” that “scarcity will always exist” (p. 137). Twentieth-century “socialism”, in the Soviet Union for example, was also based on scarcity. Now a “tendency to extreme supply” in energy, labour and resources undermines this presumption. In the present technological revolution, which Bastani defines as the “third disruption”,[3] “the ‘fact’ of scarcity is moving from inevitable certainty to political imposition” (p. 243); now, the market imposes “artificial scarcity” (pages 154-156).

We are moving into a post-scarcity age, Bastani believes; information wants to be free; labour wants to be free; these driving forces will not only overcome what he calls the “five crises” of our times – climate change, resource scarcity, aging population, a “surplus of the global poor” and the “new machine age which will herald ever-greater technological unemployment” – but also bring the possibility of FALC (pages 22-23).

Here, again, Bastani loses me. I do not believe we live at a historical turning point between past scarcity and future abundance. And I do not believe the dividing-line between scarcity and abundance is as clear-cut as he thinks it is.

Firstly, it all depends on what you mean by scarcity. Radical scholars long ago took a hammer to this concept. Nicholas Xenos showed how the emerging capitalist class in 18th century Europe “invented scarcity”, at the same time as they accumulated unprecedented wealth. Lyla Mehta and other researchers long ago dissected the way that politicians, development agencies and international financial institutions use the idea of “scarcity” to justify the imposition of hardship and misery across the global south.[4]

So when Bastani writes that capitalism has always been characterised by scarcity, I can not agree. Capitalism has manufactured “scarcity” throughout its history. The Irish potato famine of the 1840s started as a potato harvest failure that was real enough, but was turned into a catastrophe by social structures and trade policies. Mike Davis’s powerful, and frightful, book Late Victorian Holocausts shows how this cruelty was reproduced across the world in the late 19th century.

Both real scarcity and manufactured “scarcity” are to a large degree socially constructed; they are not caused by the lack of the right technology. There were no natural or technological barriers to feeding the world’s population in the twentieth century, but it was not fed. As the Indian economist Amartya Sen showed over a life’s work, famines were caused not by shortages of food, but by the food being in the wrong place, controlled by the wrong people, and having its supply disrupted by wars.

Nor is it so obvious that the 21st century will be a time of “post-scarcity”. The expansion of the capitalist economy in its late-20th-century form produced a new set of tensions between humanity and nature, often referred to as “planetary boundaries”, that could also be called “scarcities”. What is the global warming effect, the main cause of climate change, if not a “scarcity” of atmosphere into which the economy can pour endless quantities of carbon dioxide and methane? What is the global “fresh water crisis” if not a shortage of water resources caused in the first place by the unplanned plunder inherent in capitalist industry and urban infrastructure? But these “scarcities”, too, are essentially produced by the social and economic structures in which we live: they are not the natural or inevitable outcome of human population.

The technological transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the invention of electricity, motorised transport and agricultural fertilisers, did not – given a world economy and social structure dominated by capitalism – prevent famine or other so-called “scarcities”. Indeed the most cutting-edge technology was used to visit disaster on society in the form of war. And there is plenty of evidence that the technological transformations of our times will – again, given capitalist domination – be turned against humanity by aggravating the climate crisis.

Technology and society

Technological innovation, rather than social change, is the central driving-force towards communism, in Bastani’s view. Under capitalism, a “tendency to perpetually innovate as a result of competition, to constantly supplant work performed by humans and maximise productivity” has produced the “third disruption” (p. 37); this has tended to make information the basis of value under modern capitalism; technologies “now paradoxically tend towards destroying the scarcity of information, and therefore its value” (p. 49); the law of “extreme supply” is in full swing; this is the basis for “a world beyond jobs, profit and even scarcity” (p. 49).

(Bastani incorrectly attributes the view that “technological innovation is an inherent feature of capitalism” to Karl Marx. Actually, Marx’s view was far more complex: he saw in 19th century capitalism not only a tendency to push technologies forward, but also the way in which, in capital’s hands, they towered over humanity, feeding into the tyranny of dead labour over living labour. I wrote about this here and here.)

Having set out his claim that capitalist competition inevitably pushes technology forward, Bastani gives us chapter after chapter on the progressive potential of automation; of “post-scarcity in energy” thanks to renewables; of asteroid mining; of gene editing to transform health care; and for synthetic food to replace meat consumption.

Only after this relentless hymn to technology’s virtues, in the very last chapter, does Bastani comment that “how technology is created and used, and to whose advantage, depends on the political, ethical and social context from which it emerges” (p. 237). And, without considering a single example of the corrosive, poisonous impact of 21st century capitalism on the technologies emerging within it, cites only examples to show that technologies have “developed alongside news ideas of nature, selfhood and forms of production”, e.g. synthetic meat came alongside environmentalism and renewable energy alongside concern about climate change (pages 238-239).

Once again, Bastani has lost me.

Firstly, the idea that the relationship between capitalism and technology can be summed up as a “tendency to perpetually innovate as a result of competition” is a gross over-simplification. As historians of technology have shown time and time again, innovation is shaped – pushed forward but also constrained – not only by competition between capitalists, but by all the other forces at work in capitalist society.

How many examples do you need? In medicine, the corralling of cheap and generic treatments by multinational corporations, to make them a means for looting state budgets rather than for healing the sick, has long been an international scandal. In agriculture, the privileging of monocultures fed by fossil-fuel-produced fertilisers has for decades been weaponised against technologies that support small farmers in the global south. In the field of energy, some crucial innovations in electricity generation from wind and solar came in the early 20th century, others in the 1980s; in first-world electricity markets dominated by big corporations, these technologies (together with heat and electricity co-generation techniques) were starved of funds and stopped from diffusing, to protect the domination of fossil fuels and the hopelessly expensive (and ultimately not so successful) expansion of nuclear power.

I could go on. In Bastani’s book, closer attention to such examples might have helped. But that would have spoiled the picture he paints, of technology as a fundamentally progressive force, nurtured by the capitalist market and requiring only “appropriate politics” to free itself from that market. Here are three examples of technologies where this approach leads him to absurd conclusions.

Information technology, robotics and automation, Bastani argues, will produce “technological unemployment”; if only neo-liberalism can be superceded by a welfare state providing universal basic services, FALC beckons. It seems not to have occurred to him that one of the first obstacles to be overcome in a movement to supercede capitalism is the use of information technology by multinational corporations and governments, to reinforce repressive social control on one hand and the individualising logic of consumer society on the other. (I recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s frightening and detailed discussion of these processes in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, or James Bridle’s journalistic descriptions in The New Dark Age.)

For Bastani, capitalism drives technology forward by the law of competition; if this can only be suppressed, the technology will drive forward social change. So he takes no account of the fact that social structure shapes technology and changes the way that it develops. The transformation of the internet from the global collective its pioneers dreamed of, to a tool for state and corporate power, is a lesson.

With regard to energy, Bastani focuses on the sharply falling costs of solar electricity generation, which, he says, will make possible a transition away from fossil fuels. The internet of things and electric cars mean that “in just a few years” saving energy “will be entirely automated” (p. 111). Most electricity will be produced by renewables – indeed “this is already starting to happen”, he claims, noting that in 2016 in the UK wind farms generated more electricity than coal for the first time (p. 112).

This very poor passage reads like a National Grid corporate brochure. For producing electricity in the UK, it’s true that wind is used more than coal – but it’s also true that gas, a fossil fuel, is used far, far more than both. What’s more, only about a quarter of all the fuels used go to producing electricity; the rest are for transport, for industrial processes, for heating, and so on. These are the harder bits to decarbonise, and almost no progress has been made. As for electric cars storing energy: that will not reduce carbon emissions by much as long as the steel for the cars is produced with coal (and that’s a really tricky technology to change) and the electricity is produced with gas.

It is entirely possible to move away from fossil fuels. But it will mean changing whole technological systems, remaking urban infrastructure, confounding consumerist culture, rethinking the way we live – and, above all, challenging the power of oil companies, electricity companies, car manufacturers and all the rest who dominate the current system.

For Bastani, technological change inevitably provides an impetus to social change. I think he’s looking at it the wrong way round. In my view, only radical social change will make possible the technological transformations needed to move away from fossil fuels.

Asteroid mining is another of Bastani’s enthusiasms. Competition between technology companies will drive down the costs of space travel, he claims, and free humanity from

A painting, commissioned by the US space agency NASA in 1977, depicting future methods of generating solar power from an asteroid. By Denise Watt

shortages of the rare metals needed for computer technologies. He doesn’t comment on the dangers that an industry controlled completely by a handful of companies working closely with the military will move in nefarious, even destructive, directions. Post-capitalism will be forever released from “conditions of abiding scarcity”, he writes; “the limits of the earth won’t matter any more – because we’ll mine the sky instead” (p. 119).

This gave me that corporate brochure feeling again. There are any number of capitalist adventurers out there on line, promising investors a new gold rush. But journalists and academics who cover this stuff make clear that, if asteroid mining has any significance in the next few decades – and it might not do – it will be for providing tiny quantities of material from near-earth asteroids for use in space, e.g. on long-range missions, space stations, and so on. (See a quick, sceptical overview here or a detailed, more optimistic academic paper here.)

Shipping substantial quantities of metals back to earth is just not on the horizon of even the most imaginitive researchers, given the laws of gravity, economics, and so on.

But there’s no telling Bastani. He writes that the asteroid 16 Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter is “the most instructive example”, which shows that “mining space would create such outlandish supply as to collapse prices on Earth” (p. 134). And to underline this point, he cites a figure of $10,000 quadrillion for the value of iron on 16 Psyche. It’s a shame he didn’t also cite Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the space researcher who came up with that number, who said: “I calculated it for fun. […] But of course it’s an irrelevant number because (a) if you brought it to Earth it wouldn’t be worth that any more and (b) there’s no way to bring it to Earth. It’s a complete fantasy.”

I have no clue whether someone will be mining asteroids in a hundred years’ time. But I do know that, in that time frame, humanity will damn well have to have tackled climate change, or it will have more things to worry about than ferrying rare metals around in space. Asteroid mining will not solve the problem of mineral resources to supply the renewable energy industry. The time scales are all wrong. Other solutions will have to be found.

This is one more example of the reality that Bastani avoids: that 21st century technologies, and the ways they are used, are shaped by the relations of power and wealth that dominate society. Without social change, these technologies will be mobilised, now and maybe in future, for the interests of power and wealth against humanity.

Bastani’s one-sided view of technology, as a force that inevitably drives towards a communist future, is far less than the forces fighting for radical social change deserve. We can do better. GL, 3 September 2019.

More about technology on People & Nature:

I have seen the techno-future, and I’m not so sure it works (April 2016)

From the Russian revolution to socialism on Mars (April 2016)

We’re all Luddites now (August 2013)

Technologies that multiply inequalities (December 2017)

 I also liked Communism Might Last a Million Years, by Jasper Bernes (2018, the Commune, USA), and Gareth Dale’s review of Aaron Bastani’s book in The Ecologist.

[1] Inventing the Future: postcapitalism and a world without work is the title of a book, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek, that Bastani cites. You can read my response to the book, prepared prior to a debate with Nick Srnicek, here

[2] This is a key passage of The German Ideology (1846), a book in which Marx and Engels worked out many of their communist ideas in detail for the first time

[3] According to Bastani, the first disruption was the start of agriculture in the Neolithic era, the second was the 18th century industrial revolution, and the third is the current technological revolution.

[4] See Nicholas Xenos, Scarcity and Modernity (Routledge, 1989), and Lyla Mehta (ed.), The Limits to Scarcity (Earthscan, 2010)


One Response to Getting lost on the road to communist utopia

  1. […] Source: Getting lost on the road to communist utopia | People and Nature […]

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