‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto’ by Aaron Bastani reviewed by Bill Jefferies


Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto

Verso, London, 2019. 288 pp., £16.99 hb
ISBN 9781786632623

Reviewed by Bill Jefferies

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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

7 comments

  1. Overall agree with much here, very good critique. The tech promethianism on the left today is absurd, and seems to purport we have advanced AI on the level of Terminator’s skynet right around the corner. But (and I could be misreading you, I’m going off of your ‘i.e.’) I do not think Marx would consider working class *emancipation* “a new ruling class” , even if you could argue that for the revolutionary dictatorship. In fact Marx makes pains to correct a Chicago Tribune interviewer (I think in the 1870s) who calls the movement’s goal the “supremacy of labor” by COUNTERPOSING “the emancipation of labor.” Other quotes about the proletariats mission being the end of class and political rule are of course abound in Marx as well.

  2. Thanks for that review, Bill.

    There are of course always plenty academics who want to capture the intellectual high ground without having done any of the groundwork. They want to get their get-rich-quick ride to the top, through skimming off other people’s work, chatting with important people etc. Doing some real work themselves would be beneath their worth and dignity. The snag is that, rigorously interrogated, they still don’t know what they are talking about, even when they manage to make it to the top.

    However, with the growth of bobo-pomo theory, as Alan Sokal & Jean Bricmont documented, there is a new dimension as well: the turn to gibberish theory, nonsense theory and rubbish theory. This consists mainly of quickly and nihilistically spouting forth a lot of ill-digested ideas, in milieus where this is regarded as “very creative” and “deeply meaningful”. Zizek was feted at most elite universities, Terry Eagleton waxed about the “End of Theory” etc. It is not that theory has ended, but that the self-strangulation of the New Left has reached a terminal stage.

    There seems to be a massive and growing world demand now for theory that is anti-theoretical, science that is anti-scientific, rationality that is irrationalist, social theory which is anti-social, and political theory that is anti-political. With its shrewd intuition about what sells, Verso Press is playing on this hip new trend, with new provocative, anarcho-nihilist titles that challenge the reader to find sense in nonsensical texts.

    The new editor of Marx & Philosophy Review is likewise very much with the trend, when he writes about things like “making dialectics more dialectical”, “Making Guy Debord more German”, “putting the F back into Fetishism”, and so forth and so on. It has nothing to do anymore with Marx and Engels. It is a bit like splattering a whole lot of paintcans on a canvas in ten minutes, as a form of art. Just about anybody can do that, and therefore it seems very “radical and egalitarian”, a real leveller.

    However marvellous the entertainment might be though, the snag there is that it perverts the whole meaning and purpose of theory. The primary purpose of theory is to provide an orientation and a rational guide for judging, deciding, behaving and action, especially when faced with unknown, new or unfamiliar phenomena, new questions and unresolved problems. Theory offers generalizations based on experience, although it goes beyond particular experiences.

    Gibberish theory provides no orientation, and there is no real experience behind it. It provides only a display, or just a display about the displays of a display.

    The real mistake is to read Bastani’s book. It should just sit on your coffee-table, like your cat.

  3. The concept of *scarcity as such* is often badly theorized in economics, whether neoclassical economics, heterodox economics, environmental economics or Marxian economics.

    In actual fact, in conventional economics, economic goods are usually “scarce” *by definition*, the suggestion being, that *because* they are scarce, they have to be economized in a cost-benefit sense for the sake of optimal allocation.

    If there was hypothetically a near-infinite supply of economic goods (super-abundance), no allocation problem would arise in economic science, according to this theory. In fact there would be no need for economics, because the whole problem of too little or too much use of resources would not even arise – whatever the market does, there is always enough supply at some or other price.

    However, conventional economists argue that there *cannot* exist any economic good which is not scarce, or that, if there is such a good, it is not an *economic* good (i.e. a good that can be traded). So the conventional economic concept of scarcity is actually a tautology: by definition economic goods are *always* scarce goods.

    In this way, the concept of scarcity as such is actually trivialized in economic theory, in practice it just means the inability to acquire a sufficient amount of particular goods in the marketplace, because of excess demand or insufficient supply (driving up prices, other things being equal).

    The tautology can obviously also be turned into an argument for the impossibility of communism and the inevitability for inequality, given that superabundance is impossible in any conceivable circumstances*, and that allocations can *never* be truly egalitarian, if goods are *always* scarce to some or other degree (if supply is always insufficient, then what is supplied can never be shared out in equal terms, even in principle). The question of the social organization of the allocation of resource is conveniently spirited away.

    I prefer myself to distinguish between different types of scarcity: absolute and relative scarcity, physical scarcity and economic scarcity, micro-scarcity and macro-scarcity, commercial scarcity and consumer scarcity, individual scarcity and social scarcity, material scarcity and spiritual scarcity etc. and the question then is how different economic systems deal with each of these.

    Probably the strongest criticism of official economics these days concerns the global misallocation of capital as an “artificially induced scarcity problem”, a problem induced by a specific approach to solving economic problems. In actual fact, the classical notion of cost-benefit analysis in terms of assets and liabilities is increasingly perverted in the real world, since nowadays one can not only get rich from debt, but also get rich by indebting lots of other people, on a scale hardly imaginable in Marx’s time.

    Many economists have argued that at the level of income distribution, a fairly modest levy on the resources owned by the wealthiest people and institutions would be sufficient to provide all people on earth with at least a decent life (supplying the goods and services to meet basic human needs).

    That is not say of course that all that is needed is to drop a lot of “helicopter money” on poor people, that has been taken off rich people. If that was true, the problem would be quickly solved. If you are wealthy, everybody would like a slice of your money, but for what? What matters, is how money and resources are actually used. Nevertheless, the distributional argument does show at least, that the resources do exist to solve the problem.

    – At the level of world production, there is a great excess of supply in some places, while elsewhere production is being destroyed.

    – At the level of the world economy as a whole, a very large chunk of capital assets is invested only to earn interest or to yield capital gains, and much of that capital is not available for producing the things that people really need.

    So whereas only the market is said to be the efficient allocator of scarce resources, the real result is a devastating misallocation of resources at every level of production, distribution and consumption.

    A prime example of this, is the production, distribution and consumption of food and water, the most basic things we need to survive. When you study this in more detail, it appears bizarre to regard the process “efficient” in any sense at all.

    The failure to conceptualize scarcity appropriately is not just an academic problem. It leads to weird over-estimations and under-estimations of available resources in the real world. In the real world, capitalism is very far from being “efficient” and there is actually a lot of “slack” in the system.

    There are “zero-growth” environmentalists who say that we should decide to live an austerity lifestyle permanently as frugally and modestly as we could, a bit like feudal monks, so that we do not deplete stocks of natural resources. Yet there is often no good reason for such an imperative at all.

    Among other things, whether we individually consume more or less may not make much difference in the total picture of what really happens. If more money was invested into producing more resources in a viable way (including forests, plantations, fisheries, arable land etc.) or into alternative resources, they would not be “scarce” or at any rate much less scarce.

    These types of “zero-growth” environmentalists abstract from property rights, from economic inequalities among social classes and nations, from the difference between destructive and constructive technologies etc. without realizing that if there was no economic growth, they would condemn more millions of people to poverty and death.

    Such an interpretation neatly distracts attention away from the property system as a whole that *creates* much of the “scarcity”. “Sustainable development” then becomes a euphemism for sustaining the growth of capitalism, rather than a program to (1) block the kind of economic growth that destroys the very basis of economic growth as such, and (2) change the pattern and direction of economic growth.

    The conclusion should be, that capitalist growth is not sustainable economic growth, not just for ecological or economic reasons, but also for social psychological and political reasons. Economic growth is certainly essential to sustain a growing world population, but it is the kind of growth (technically, socially, economically, physically and spiritually) that matters. That is what is crucial for longterm human survival.

    The statistical evidence does suggest that world poverty has reduced significantly in the last 30 years (particularly in China), but to great masses of poor people it is not so significant if they earn a few more dollars per day, because they are still very poor, in terms of meeting their basic needs. To eradicate world poverty would take several lifetimes, if that goal was systematically pursued (but it isn’t, and is unlikely to be, if present trends continue).

    So “fully automated luxury communism”, if it is at all plausible, would be achievable in a foreseeable future only in societies which are already wealthy. It would be a “luxury communism of the few” amidst “the poverty of the many” (the most that “the many” could aim for is a “communism of poverty”).

    How do wealthy countries get so wealthy, and what sustains it? In reality, the wealthy countries own the majority of property rights (including IPR’s and patents), while many of the resources needed locally in poor countries are diverted to wealthy countries, in exchange for money that is not used for balanced development in poor countries, but to maintain them as “client states”. That is, development can often occur in poor countries only insofar as it is compatible with the requirements of wealthy nations.

    It does not help very much, in that case, if a bunch of “luxury communists” live off the fat of the land in wealthy countries. It would take a lot of hard work by a lot of “real communists”, to change the situation around for the majority of people in the world.

    There are good and bad sides in the leftwing thought among my (older) generation, but at the very least I can say they did consider this problem seriously, with the aid of Marx’s insights. It does not help much now, I think, to wave away the problem with sprinkles or sparkles of techno-optimism. Artificial intelligence may be a blessing, but what we need most of all is more human intelligence.

  4. It ought to be said, too, that like any other technology, algorithms used for psychometrics and sociometrics can be used appropriately, or misused. And so the real issue has nothing to do really with “optimism or pessimism”, but with whether you are savvy or naive about the use and misuse of statistical methods to analyse people and things. Even if the tool is highly accurate and effective, it can nevertheless be misused because ethical protocols are ignored.

    The NYT for example has a critical piece on the misuse of algorithms to predict future criminal behaviour. The authors say that “Applying “big data” forecasting to our existing criminal justice practices is not just inadequate — it also risks cementing the irrational fears and flawed logic of mass incarceration behind a veneer of scientific objectivity”. (Chelsea Barabas, Karthik Dinakar and Colin Doyle, “The Problems With Risk Assessment Tools”. New York Times, 17 July 2019).

    In the Netherlands, Unilever, KPN, Albert Heijn, Jumbo, Hema, Deloitte, Heineken, USG People, Randstad, McKinsey and air traffic control all use algorithms and artificial intelligence in selection procedures for job applicants.

    Although exact figures are not available, smart software is on the rise in recruitment here. The companies which use this technology are usually the large employers (Randstad for instance has about 28,500 officers in its recruitment services, and employs half a million people in secondments).

    The methods vary from analyzing hardly perceptible facial expressions and test analyses, to assessing personality with the help of a game. Hunkemöller has applicants submit a video pitch – a computer program is used to analyze the micro-expressions in your face, which supposedly says a lot about the person you are. (“Solliciteren bij een algoritme: ‘Witte mannen krijgen het veel moeilijker’”. Nu.nl, 09 juli 2019).

    If, for any reason, you happen to be an individual with a rather unique combination of characteristics, the more likely it becomes, that the software will misplace the data results – failing to score and categorize input appropriately. Generally, statistical analysis relies on the law of averages, but that can be a weakness as well as a strength, depending on the type of distribution one is dealing with.

    Another example is the problematic use of algorithms in healthcare and homecare. (Colin Lecher, “What happens when an algorithm cuts your healthcare”. The Verge, 21 March 2018).

    I also read elsewhere (I don’t recall the reference just now) about a case in the US where someone was denied an insurance policy, because the algorithms placed the person in a no-go category for unacceptable risk, apparently without good reason once the real circumstances were made clear.

    In the past, there was a huge controversy about the validity of IQ tests. Today we are seeing a similar controversy emerging about the misuse of big data analytics to screen, select and allocate people or to predict their future behaviour.

    So, algorithms can be a great help, but they can also lead to the industrialization of human contact, the dehumanization of social relations, and serious social injustice. The technology as such might be fairly “neutral”, but its use is never “neutral”. Hence, the path of technological development is definitely influenced by the outcome of conflicts and competition about the uses to which technologies are actually put.

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