Reviewed by Bill Jefferies
Aaron Bastani is the founder of Novara Media, his Fully Automated Luxury Communism is an attempt to diagnose various key technological trends of contemporary society, which together he considers will lead to the end of capitalism and its replacement by a new society he calls ‘fully automated luxury communism’ (FALC). It closely follows the work of Jeremy Rifkin who originally developed this thesis (if not the name) in the mid-1990s, or more precisely that of Paul Mason, who advocated a Marxist version of Rifkin’s ideas.
Bastani claims that through the course of human history there have been ‘three disruptions’ (10). The first disruption was the agricultural revolution circa 12,000 years ago, the second disruption was the industrial revolution circa 200 years ago and now the information revolution – the third disruption. This disruption will ‘offer relative liberation from scarcity’ in ‘energy, cognitive labour and information’ (11). Following Mark Fisher, Bastani considers this disruption means the end of ‘capitalist realism’, the idea that ‘it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’, which was Fisher’s description of the dominance of capitalist ideology after the collapse of the USSR. According to Bastani our world is ‘increasingly defined by low growth, low productivity and low wages’ (26). Not only in the West, rapid growth is over in India and China too. This finite world of stagnant economies and living standards produces five crises: ‘climate change, resource scarcity, ever-larger surplus populations, ageing and technological unemployment as a result of automation – are set to undermine capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself’ (48). This crisis of stagnation is so grave that it poses an imminent threat to the future of capitalist production. Yet at the same time it is so dynamic that it will abolish scarcity and introduce a regime of luxury communism, to paradoxically save capitalist production from itself. Bastani considers that
For Marx the realm of necessity was where we ‘wrestle with nature to satisfy our wants and to maintain and reproduce life – in other words it was a world defined by scarcity… In Marx’s day it formed the central question of classical political economy: how do you efficiently and equitably allocate resources in a world where they are limited? (54)
But this was not the question of classical political economy. It was the question of neo-classical economics. The principle problem of classical political economy was to determine the laws that regulate the distribution of production among ‘three classes of the community’. Output was not scarce but produced, as Ricardo put it, ‘almost without any assignable limit’. Bastani’s question, and his theory of communism, comes not from classical political economy but Lionel Robbins. Bastani’s assertion that the working class revolution will ‘eliminate work and thereby end all class distinctions’(55) derives from a definition of work provided by William Stanley Jevons where ‘labour is any painful exertion of mind or body undergone partly or wholly with a view to future good’ and so something to be avoided at all costs. Bastani considers that in his FALC ‘work becomes more akin to play’, aimless activity the produces nothing but fun. This communist work is a ‘route to self-development rather than a means of survival’. Bastani quotes Marx who considers that in a communist society ‘labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want’ (55). Labour is not then akin to play, it continues to provide the means of life, but is no longer alienated, it is not something to be avoided, but life’s prime want. Communism does not abolish labour, but alienated labour, the alienation of humanity from its own essence, the human need to consciously transform the world to provide for its own needs. Bastani’s lethargic utopia is something quite different. There is no labour in it, but life is luxuriant lassitude, perhaps like the do-nothing existence of the royals or the Trumps?
Bastani supports this vision of the new society by quoting J.M. Keynes, the liberal economist who considered that scarcity, the premise of marginalist economics, would eventually disappear with rises in productivity, Peter Drucker, the management theorist, who considered in 1993 that ‘knowledge has become the resource rather than a resource’ (59) and Paul Romer, the neo-conservative Chief Economist of the World Bank, who asserted in 1990 that technological change was ‘endogenous’ to growth (63). According to Bastani this was something new to economics. Maybe to economics, but not to political economy, premised on the assumption that capitalism exists through constantly revolutionizing the technical basis of production. Bastani quotes Brad Delong and Larry Summers who complained that with the rise of the internet, production no longer fulfils the basic condition for economic efficiency, that price equals marginal cost, as information could be produced at no cost. Bastani asserts that this means the ‘price mechanism had broken down’ (65). This is at a basic level untrue. Delong and Summers were wrong, technological advance means that the owner of the latest technology is able to extract monopoly rents. Hence the determination of the Chinese and Huawei for example, to catch up with the USA and Apple. But let’s say it did, what if technological advance meant that manufacturing output was produced for nothing, would this mean the end of capitalism? It would not. There are many factors of production that are given to producers for nothing, such as air, water, and surplus labour. Why should the addition of another cause the price mechanism to break down? More fundamentally, in any real economy price cannot equal marginal cost. Price or average revenue only equals marginal cost in a society based on perfect competition an internally incoherent abstraction which never has and could never exist. Firstly, as there is no such thing as marginal cost, production is continuous so there never is a final unit. Secondly, even if there were, and prices equalled marginal costs, then prices could not change. Thirdly, all producers have some market power, however miniscule, which means marginal costs do not equal prices, which is why prices can change at all. Fourthly, there is no profit if marginal cost equals price, as profit is the difference between average cost and price at the given quantity. The equilibrium condition of the neo-classical economics, where marginal cost = marginal price = average cost = average price is one that excludes profit and so curiously capitalist production itself.
Bastani’s understanding of the labour theory of value is similarly sketchy. Bastani says that ‘if capital can become labour – if tools produced by humans can subsequently perform any task they themselves complete – then, within a market system, the price a worker can demand for their time collapses’ (70). The realm of output produced by tools, machines and technology has expanded exponentially under capitalism and will continue to do so. So what? There remains a fundamental distinction between machines and humans within capitalist production that no amount of expansion will change – property relations. Humans can own machines but, machines cannot own humans and, in capitalism, humans cannot own humans either. As surplus value is a transfer of property, that is a redistribution of value from one set, or class, of humans to another, only humans can produce profits – not machines. If humans are eventually excluded from the capitalist production process, not only will the demand for labour collapse, capitalist production will do too, as there will be no profit to transfer.
Bastani claims that ‘faced with the limitless, virtually free supply of anything, [capitalism’s] internal logic starts to break down. This is because its central presumption is that scarcity will always exist’ (137), but this is not the central presumption of capitalism, but of neo-classical economics. The premise for capitalism, and of classical political economy, is that commodity production takes place without almost any assignable limit. As technology reduces the cost of manufacturing production, so commodity production will expand into new previously unthought of realms of production, just as it has done over the last three centuries. Bastani claims that the absence of ‘scarcity’ in certain domains of production is at ‘odds with the essence of capitalist social relations, a system where ‘the basic condition for economic efficiency … [is] that price equal marginal cost’ – that is where things must be made for profit if they are to be made at all’ (115). This is not the basis of capitalist production, but of marginal economics, a condition which never occurs, and if it did, bizarrely excludes profit. If the domain of manufacturing extended across all production, to the point where all human labour was excluded, not only would the price of labour fall to nil, so would capitalist profit, as profit is a transfer of human property between humans. As the source of profit will have disappeared, if these capitalist property relations persist, and Bastani never suggests they will not, far from the future being a luxury automated communism, it will be an automated hell of universal collapse.
Bastani points to the growth of robots, the spread of solar and wind power, the potential mining of asteroids, the genetic manipulation of humans and possibility of growing steak in petri-dishes. He finds that technological advance can be amazing. But what about the political programme for this FALC movement? How does society advance to it? Bastani says that ‘the return of ‘the people’ as the main political actor is inevitable’ (191), but there will be no return to the ‘anti-liberal coup’ of 1917 (193). FALC is different as it recognizes ‘the right of personal happiness’ (193). The FALC is not ‘so simple to achieve as to merely require replacing one group of rulers with another’ (55). Merely? The ‘revolution [FALC] portends is not simply one that substitutes one ruling class for another’ (194). That’s a relief, as the substitution of one ruling class by another (i.e. the emancipation of the working class by its own self-activity) is in any respect unachievable as ‘the majority of people will only be politically active for brief periods of time’ (195) hence, FALC must engage with ‘electoral politics’ (195) which ‘shapes the parameters of what is possible’ (195). Bastani advocates a set of reforms more or less limited to the Labour Party’s 2017 manifesto, plus a few minor additions such as worker owned businesses, an improved central bank, some renationalization and municipalisation, and a reworked definition of GDP (233). The working class has scarcely any social agency in Bastani’s schema, at their most active they appear as voters. The rest of the time they are victims; of the five crises and of technological advance. Bastani’s future is not one to be fought for, as there is no way of fighting for it, it is merely a case of waiting for technology to deliver what the class struggle could not.
11 June 2019