Review: Fully Automated Luxury Communism
Aaron Bastani (2019). Fully Automated Luxury Communism. New York: Verso.

Aaron Bastani of Novara Media’s recent book Fully Automated Luxury Communism is the latest entry in the burgeoning postcapitalist genre, which includes Peter Frases’ Four Futures, Paul Masons’ Postcapitalism, and Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Reading like a Marxist mirror to the pop tech books that one finds at airport bookstores, it’s definitely the weakest of the lot. Bastani introduces his own conceptual schema to break history into parts, cites mainstream news articles to show the current range of technological possibility, and hits all the standard postcapitalist talking points: zero marginal cost goods, a mention of Marx’s The Fragment on Machines, that one quote by Keynes on the necessity of reworking our values in a highly automated world, etc. There’s nothing substantial in the way of deeper analysis here, just a whirlwind tour of disruptive technologies.

But despite my annoyance at the lack of anything novel, there’s still value to be found in such techno-tourism. Bastani is clearly writing towards a popular audience, and informing more people of what is currently possible technologically has discursive utility. Public discourse both for and against the now popular term “socialism” is largely trapped in a 20th-century framework. Arguments around socialism tend to concern the practicality around things like nationalization of industry, a larger welfare state, and worker cooperatives. The debate rarely includes the technological progress that is occurring all around us. Given this broader context, there’s value to be had in simply pointing out what’s possible today and what could be possible in the future.

But such simplicity is dangerous. Whatever monetary value we get from understanding that a bright, technological future is possible is undercut by the fact that we sweep the fractal complexity of the path there under the rug. This is most obviously apparent with how Bastani treats environmental concerns (which many others have rightly criticized him for) but I think such naivety is best seen in his theory of change.

Bastani primarily sees populist electoralism as the way we reach abundance – taking the state and using its power to either accelerate technological progress or remove barriers to artificial scarcity to unleash abundance. However, this approach is deeply flawed. Even brushing aside the typical anarchist critiques of representative democracy, there’s a clear tension between technologies of abundance and retaining liberal democracy. Liberal democracy is in many ways the result of the material realities of its time: the mass mobilization required for industrial production and industrial warfare demanded things like a somewhat meritocratic elite, as well as decentralization and checks and balances to handle both complexity and the fact that supply chain disruption could threaten the nation-state. But we’re lightyears away from that 19th/early 20th century equilibrium. 

How do technologies that will be as game-changing as nuclear weapons factor into this future? Bastani has the usual Marxist platitudes about how technologies like artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and cheap spaceflight might just empower the rich, but he doesn’t infer that such empowerment could be an existential threat to liberal democracy.

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean such technologies are innately bad. But to lay out a blueprint for left-wing goals for the 21st century and completely fail to acknowledge with the myriad ways by which the primary mechanism for achieving those ends could undermine the strategy you lay out is incredibly naive. I get Bastani wants to be positive and interrupting the book to carefully lay out how things could go wrong would kill his rhythm, but he could at least acknowledge the dangers going forward. I get that he can’t quickly refer to The Wealth of Nations but for machine learning or The Prince but for whatever the interplanetary equivalent of geopolitics is, but he could at least gesture in this direction as a potential research project.

And that’s my main issue with the book, Bastani’s refusal to seriously engage with the complexity of the situation. Every single major challenge that we’ve forecasted for the 21st century is a problem because we lack the means to coordinate at scale. Such coordination problems are of course directly tied to the question of complexity. Sure Bastani makes reference to stuff like local governance and the fact that our current model of capitalism is increasingly combining the worst of both capitalism and state socialism, but there’s no attempt to analyze beyond this. Such failure to investigate these concerns gives me little hope for the future of any such utopian project given that a mature information age society will be magnitudes more complex and dynamic than what exists today.

This brings me to the question of currency. Outside of platitudes around socializing finance and building up cooperatives, Bastani completely ignores money. Sure, it’s a pedantic non-argument to say that even a utopian communist future might still have currency to manage whatever scarcity remains, but to ignore it entirely is concerning. The success liberalism has had that has resulted from a superior understanding of managing collective action problems and currency was a key technology in this process. To give no mention of any of this when the general complexity of our civilization will increase by orders of magnitude as we move toward abundance is concerning. My suspicion is that Bastani is infected with the totalizing Marxist view of markets to admit that such technology might still have use cases even after abundance, both out of a  fear of appearing weak to liberals and because of the usual Marxist concerns about runaway capitalism.

Such concerns are rooted in short-term thinking that prioritizes short term rhetorical positioning over any attempt to get at the deeper dynamics at work. Liberalism, despite all its flaws, has managed to do so well purely because it latched on to some key insights into how to overcome coordination problems that let it supersede rival ideologies. Throwing away everything they’ve discovered so as to avoid the task of updating the models you have of the world is incredibly lazy.

Whatever momentary pain is experienced by acknowledging that some “bourgeois” economists got something right is clearly outweighed by the fact that such a perspective clears the air and provides clarity for how to move forward (and never mind the fact that the actual history of 20th century economics is far more favorable to left wing ideas than is commonly believed). A clearer picture around what is possible obviously outweighs false models of the world, no matter how psychologically nourishing they are. Ironically enough, postcapitalists recognize this dilemma in liberals and conservatives, both of whom are stuck between officially supporting the development of technology and the realization that such technological development may undermine the values and social structures they see as essential.

This mismatch between values held and possibilities on offer doesn’t just result in attempts to restrict progress however. It also results in a discomfort that restricts attempts at modeling future outcomes. One place to see this in practice is with the current public debates had over the “problem” of robots taking all the jobs and the concern by many that such technology will strip us of our humanity. The fabrication of a fixed human nature that must always be this way limits the imagination of those who use such fictions to justify existing power structures. In such circumstances those in thrall to power are structurally inclined towards ignorance around why such alternatives would have popular appeal. Such a disconnect makes cultural victories around such topics much easier because the enemy has a poor grasp of the terrain they fight on. Once upon a time, it may have been easier to imagine the end of the world the end of capitalism, but increasingly, it seems that pro-capitalists have an easier time imagining the end of the world than the end of wage labor. The technological possibilities described by Bastani and his fellow travellers are moving us towards what might be described as Postcapitalist Realism (there are only alternatives!), a state of affairs when the range of functional orders dramatically balloons as a result of technological progress. Those best suited to navigating such a space will be those who believe that alternatives to the current order exist and are worth investigating.

However embracing such fluidity that comes with such exploration is in direct conflict with electoralism. Exporting insights into complex nuanced topics to a wider audience is difficult and the process of convincing individuals that something is possible is difficult, especially in an age of uncertainty, complexity, and grifters. It’s basic epistemic hygiene these days to be skeptical of all incoming information; to build habits to double check what people are selling and find alternative points of view. Such habits are directly in conflict with a radical electoral politics that seeks to first build mass and then make use of it.

There’s also the fact that in many areas electoralism is unnecessary to achieve victories (or at least get the ball rolling). To give one such example, towards the end, Bastani floats the notion of an “abundance index” an economic marker that would replace GDP and act as a signpost for how well regions are along towards the road to a postcapitalist economy. The abundance index would measure stuff like energy efficiency, amount of labour used in the economy, ecological health, the penetration of access to basic services, leisure time, healthspan, lifespan, and basic happiness, and so on. 

Certainly having such data on hand would be useful, but I don’t see why we need the permission of the state to set it up. I’m sure volunteers could put together fairly comprehensive assessments for basically every developed country, as well as the majority of developing countries, simply by accessing and completing publicly available data. More detailed assessments might require dedicated charitable organizations or nation states, but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t get such a project started now. Why bother trying to convince bureaucrats or voters that such a statistic is worth measuring when we can just do it for ourselves?

Adopting such a bottom-up approach to change when abundance (in certain areas) no longer requires the seizing of physical space makes sense when you want to get the ball rolling, especially when you want to enact cultural change. It is far easier to convince others that your system works when you have proto-examples working in real life. Not to mention that if you want people to educate and advocate for social change, it helps if those people don’t have material demands that force them to spend most of their time working. Just as capitalism superseded feudalism with runaway market dynamics, there’s good reason to think runaway abundance could do the same with postcapitalism. If that’s the case every piece of abundance we build, no matter how small, is of value. And if you’re still looking to pursue electoralism, well it’s likely that we’ll see electoral victories in the name of postcapitalism after we have pockets of it working, not before.

Such a failure to go beyond a Marxist analysis, to try and interrogate the myriad dynamics at play means this text is destined to be forgotten. While it may have momentary value in expanding the overton window, in the long run, its failure to give us any new insight to the overwhelmingly complex challenges our species face means simplistic models are unlikely to survive. We do not lack for utopian visions, what we lack is systemic analysis of the paths forward and the dangers we face. This book delivers on the former, but fails when it comes to the latter.

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