Luxury communism and automation

Is a world possible where robots do everything, while we simply enjoy life? We consider how automation will affect us, based on the book “Fully Automated Luxury Communism. A Manifesto” by Aaron Bastani.

Passengers either talking or reading in observation car. c 1905

Passengers either talking or reading in observation car. c 1905 | George R. Lawrence, Library of Congress | Public Domain

With regard to transformations in the sphere of automation he has no doubts: in the year 2020, we will reach 3 million industrial robots. Fully Automated Luxury Communism considers how robots will do everything while we humans enjoy the fruits of their work in equal measure: social justice and unlimited abundance. Taking Bastani’s work as a starting point, we reflect on what type of automation is being imposed upon us and what type could be desirable.

When one hear or read anything regarding something called luxury communism, all one can do is express interest, because although it seems to be an eccentric term, it is connected to a series of traditions and critical practices that link emancipation with abundance, understood as a qualitatively rich life which is placed in common. It is what so-called “left-wing Nietzscheanism” or the freer Marxist tendencies secretly promised. Utopian cities such as Constant’s New Babylon are some of the best-known ruins of that fascinating revolutionary future that never arrived. However, the untimely echo of the urge that moved them, namely, the desire for a life not subjected to the resentment and servitude of a material and vital scarcity, still resonates today. That is why, while the new techno-monarchs fantasise with things such as constructing city-states in the sea, you receive the news on Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) with expectation, even if that leads to you quickly becoming suspicious of it.

To be very brief, the background and immediate context of FALC are at least two: on the one hand left-hand accelerationism, whose paradigmatic political expression can be found in works such as Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (here is their manifesto); and on a historical level, the crisis of the neoliberal model and the most recent cycle of struggles (from Tahrir Square to the contemporary global revolts), accompanied by the simultaneous deployment of a series of techno-scientific revolutions that Bastani groups under the term “the Third Disruption”. The central argument recreates theFragment on Machines” of Marx and affirms that these transformations will procure, through the automation of production processes, an extreme supply of resources. According to Bastani, we can find indications of a certain exhaustion of capitalism and a potential break thanks to the effects of automation, as indicated by the tendency towards reducing marginal costs, which will lead to everything being able to be free in a near future.

In this sense, it is a fervent response to “capitalist realism” and to the famous Thatcherian mantra, “There is no alternative”. It prolongs the criticism of immediatism and political immanentism that Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams call “folk politics” to designate forms of political struggles incapable of planning an emancipatory future, leading to an anarchic and impotent cul-de-sac. For Srnicek and Williams, it is necessary to return to the “grand narratives” of modernity, to tackle the political from a single position that embodies all the other positions (an idea that resonates in other militant environments) and to restore institutional and state mediation with the aim of planning universal strategic objectives. Bastani’s FALC is that strategy of large-scale objectives. An alternative that presents “a reality of plenitude beyond all imagination.”

The idea that transformations in the field of automation are strong seems to be beyond all doubt (known by those above and those below), and this is perhaps one of the reasons for which it is worth reading the text in the style of a compendium. For example, if in 1970 there were 1000 industrial robots in the world, in 2016 they numbered 1.8 million and in 2020 they will reach 3 million, with an exponential curve in increased productivity typical of nearly all sectors (thanks to the experience curve). Technological unemployment will be, the author explains, an insurmountable barrier for capital, breaking the cycle of accumulation in the absence of consumers.

Why is NASA sending a spacecraft to a metal world? | Linda T. Elkins-Tanton | TED Ed
Why is NASA sending a spacecraft to a metal world? | Linda T. Elkins-Tanton | TED Ed

From the energy perspective, the infinite potential of the sun to provide energy will be used in the same exponential terms, meaning that technologies such as solar cells, lithium ion batteries, wind turbines and LEDs provide permanently cheaper energy. Interstellar mining will exploit key water and mineral resources (people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are already working in this direction), although the tendency points towards complete decarbonisation and full reuse of already existing minerals. In any case, asteroids such as 16 Pysche are examples of the promise of “a wealth beyond value”, which makes necessary the relaunching of public state-funded space projects.

Gene editing, through simple techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, will also be increasingly accessible and will help to prevent HIV, Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis, among many other genetic diseases. What is interesting is not only their curative function but the stretching of our bio-capacity. Genetic biohacking could be socialised following models that have transformed other industries (such as P2P), enabling the break with the privatising protectionism of patents and intellectual property. Thenceforth, genetic manipulation will expand even to include pets. All of this will have to be the subject of “vigorous public debate” which, ultimately, will lead to adequate regulations.

In the words of the author: “Just like SpaceX and rocket technology, CRISPR-Cas9, doesn’t permit humans to do anything particularly new. Rather, it illustrates how information, wanting to be free, disrupts mainstream views about scarcity and makes extreme supply possible.” In this sense, molecular agriculture is following the same path and is already a reality that could make the food of 9.6 billion people sustainable: lab-cultured steaks based on samples of animal tissue, lab-cultured fish, or the lab-cultured milk and eggs of Clarafoods, for example, will modify our relationship with food facilitating a diet rich in animal products without the (ecological and moral) inconveniences of the meat industry. Whisky and other drinks are no exception (although wine nostalgics will be able to enjoy “purity” for longer, due to its infinity of nuances).

The imminent ecological disaster (the “sixth mass extinction” or disappearance of a quarter of mammals) makes the acceleration of a sustainable ecological transition obligatory because, paradoxically, “there is no alternative”. However, this transition should not be based on a return to the local, to the “small is beautiful”, because its efficiency is less than the global articulation of strategies of ecological transformation. This “post-scarcity”, as well as the ecological transition, will be accompanied by a socio-political transformation in a populist key that, in addition to being capable of defining what “the people really are” (sic), will pivot around four organisational pillars.

Firstly, a worker cooperativism and a protectionist municipalism that will determine criteria for procurement based on cooperativist and ecological parameters. Both pillars will be given in the wider context of the return of the Nation-state, which will renationalise the majority of basic services (“effective action can only happen through Nation-states”) and will pursue “socially controlled finances” (i.e. national energy investment banks). So that development includes the global South, the fourth pillar will be constituted by an anti-globalist internationalism, which through institutions to be created such as the International Bank for Energy Prosperity and One Planet Tax will extend post-scarcity to the whole of the planet.

To be fair, Bastani’s explanation is more accurate and extensive, rich in the sense of an upgrading of the technological possibilities, and it is correct in that the popular masses will be the protagonists in future struggles (whether in their fascistic, elitist or egalitarian version). What is concerning, however, is not so much the ambition and fascination (which one can come around to sharing) but the absence of any more elaborate theoretical proposal. Bastani affirms that the revolution will be red and green. One might imagine that luxury communism should have more colours. And not as an appendix or a supplement, with which we secretly render accounts, but as what, in the manner of a premise, should mark the reflection around automation.

Atlas, The Next Generation | BostonDynamics
Atlas, The Next Generation | BostonDynamics

Bastani protects himself from potential criticisms – from critics incapable of being propositional – of his utopian enthusiasm. But the propositional compulsion of his text contrasts with the complete lack of dialogue (due to forgetfulness or caution) in relation to problems such as social reproduction, among others. Authors such as Silvia Federici have criticised Marx’s followers’ “continuing love affair with the ‘Fragment on Machines’ (in Revolution at Point Zero). Proposals closely related to Bastani’s text, such as the xenofeminist politics for alienation (sensitive, incidentally, to the problem of difference), as well as the broader debate around a non-Eurocentric universal, imply a more demanding reflection, even for a manifesto. It is not enough to say that the nation-state returns through the necessity imposed by “quick, effective action”, against the impotence of localism and the cult to globalism, because “it is time to make history again”. The affirmation that “the point is not to change the words we use, but the reality they describe” seems insufficient. And not so much because of any anti-institutional, rhetorical or “immediatist” urge. It is simply surprising that Bastani celebrates the spectacular curve of development of companies such as Boston Dynamics without noticing anything else. To be brief, the project for post-scarcity through automation requires, in turn, a critical reflection regarding automation itself.

Although Bastani affirms that communism “… is luxurious – or it isn’t communism.” and that a life of abundance will dissolve “any boundary between the useful and the beautiful”, and despite accompanying his work with interesting quotes from poets and artists, we will find few clues to an experimental attitude in his manifesto: his desire to demonstrate quantitatively and technically the viability of an alternative to capitalism (with the incessant resource of monetary calculations) gives his text an alternativist and technocratic air.

The absence of the Situationist International in the debate around post-work is intriguing, although what has been said about the State can explain it. Nearly 60 years following its publication, a text such as The Situationists and Automation, by situationist painter Asger Jorn, is still brilliant. Jorn defends against the technocrats and sociologists who prefer to “first establish automation, then figure out what to use it for”, that automation must be implemented “based on a purpose contrary to its own establishment”. In other words, between “defeatism” and “moronic optimism” it opts, not so much for an abundance “beyond all imagination” (Bastani), but an “active imagination” that can “go beyond the realization of automation itself” (Jorn). The determining political question, therefore, to avoid the future becoming the hypertrophy of the baseness of the present, does not involve knowing whether automation is possible or not, but a reflection that does not postpone the question around what kinds of automation we want and we are capable of imagining. Which involves questioning, beyond its accelerated inevitability, the premises upon which automation, as imposed upon us today, is based.

When the 1917 Revolution broke out, a poet named Gastev rushed to introduce Taylorism with an impetus that would not envy the most ambitious American entrepreneur, until he convinced a reticent Lenin of its virtues. What we ask ourselves is whether the automation of the 21st century will find its artists and thinkers before coming up against those who, in the name of urgency, have decided to leave the poetry for later.

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Luxury communism and automation