Colin Wilson reviews Aaron Bastani’s much-anticipated account of the potential for a future society of equality and abundance.
Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2019). 288 pp.
We face serious challenges, among them climate crisis and the worldwide growth of the far right. But we’re also seeing reasons for hope, such as the growth of left social democracy internationally – headed in the US by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and in Britain by Jeremy Corbyn. Extinction Rebellion has developed quickly to lead mobilisations involving thousands of people. Protests about the climate emergency by school students are unprecedented and inspiring.
We need to debate what kind of socialism we are fighting for, and what strategies can take that struggle forwards. Aaron Bastani, a leading figure in Novara Media, has written a book which seeks to paint that big picture. It’s been endorsed by other well-known left authors including Owen Jones, Paul Mason and Bhaskar Sunkara. We are to treat this, then, as a serious contribution to the development of left-wing strategy. Unfortunately, the plain fact is that it’s seriously flawed.
Bastani’s general assertion is that human society has passed through two major transformations in its history: the development of agriculture, and the development of technologies associated with industrialisation in the eighteenth century, in particular the steam engine. The next few decades, he argues, will see a third transformation, equal in significance to the first two in bringing about a qualitative increase in humans’ ability to control our lives. Solar technology, mining asteroids, individualised gene therapies and other developments will mean an end to the scarcity which is a precondition of capitalism. As evidence for these claims he repeatedly offers little more than enthusiastic statements from the entrepreneurs involved, which he uncritically repeats in every case.
Bastani quotes Marx in support of his overall analysis, but his account leaves out a good deal of what Marx actually had to say about the development of human society, much of which is relevant to our current situation. It’s true, as Bastani points out, that in the Communist Manifesto Marx begins by stressing the productive capacity of capitalism and its ability to dissolve social structures which have existed for centuries – ‘all that is solid melts into air’, as the memorable phrase has it. But Marx’s analysis includes other elements which don’t appear in this book. Capitalism is a class society – as most human societies have been since the development of agriculture – so that the wealth it generates disproportionately benefits a few. That technical developments can increase class divides is a point Bastani repeatedly neglects. He reports with enthusiasm that to use new Amazon stores you don’t need cash. But this misses the fact that cashless stores exclude people without bank accounts, with the most recently opened one, in New York, conceding that it will accept cash for just this reason.
Domination in capitalist societies isn’t just about class, but about the subordination of groups on the basis of, for example, race and gender. Marx points out that the ‘initial accumulation’ with which capitalism began involved the theft of vast quantities of gold and silver from Latin America – where Europeans forced local people to mine these metals – and the enslavement of millions of Africans. It’s because capitalism has always involved this kind of oppression that visions of the socialist future typically depict societies which are not only technically advanced, but quite different from our own in terms of how society is organised. The utopian socialist Robert Owen expected to see marriage die out in a socialist society. Charles Fourier, also a utopian socialist, foresaw an end to marriage, the family and urbanisation – as well as making the bizarre claim that the oceans would come to taste like lemonade.
The fascination of the accounts of utopias presented in novels like Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Marge Piercey’s Woman on the Edge of Time and Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels is that they depict societies where the most basic assumptions of our own are challenged. Banks’ characters change sex at will, and living your whole life as a woman or man is thought eccentric. Piercy’s future village initially seems low-tech, but babies develop outside the body in artificial wombs. In the anarchist society portrayed by Le Guin, money and prisons are obscenities. In all these societies, same-sex desire is accepted and unremarkable.
Bastani suggests that we are about to enter a utopia, a society beyond scarcity. But he has nothing to say about how this will affect oppression on the basis on sex, race or sexuality. One of the oddest things about his utopia is that much of society will stay pretty much the same. For example, there’s the issue of eating meat. Some people argue that doing so uses resources very inefficiently, so we should move to a plant-based diet. That would involve some social change, but lots of vegetarian and vegan foods and cuisines are available. Bastani accepts the argument for plant-based food, but then comes up with a technological fix – rather than eating meat from animals, we can eat meat grown more efficiently in tanks. He even considers one problem with this to be that you can’t get streaky bacon this way. Perhaps, he suggests, 3D printers could help. The failure to imagine a different kind of society, of this is only one little example, is really remarkable.
It’s also worth considering another aspect of Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Not only is it a class society, it’s based on competition. From the beginning it has been unplanned, and that has meant it takes no account of the effect it has on the environment. Marx’s collaborator Engels, as early as the 1840s, was writing about the effects of uncontrolled technology in northern industrial towns – the polluted rivers, the air full of coal smoke, the lack of clean drinking water. The absence of coordination, the dominance of competition, has always meant that new technologies are introduced under capitalism in a chaotic way. Rather than rational assessment, you see wild swings between hype and then demoralisation after the resulting bubbles burst, even in the case of technologies which are genuinely important. In the 1840s, for example, the success of the first railways led to an outburst of speculation. Plans were made to build over 9,000 miles of railways, far more than would have been used. About a third of the total were never built – companies failed as the bubble burst, and middle-class families, who had invested their entire savings in the hope of becoming rich, lost everything. The dot-com bubble of the 1990s worked in a similar way. The website boo.com, for example, spent a cool $135 million of venture capital – $25 million went on advertising – failed to make a profit and then collapsed.
So, capitalism’s track record as regards new technology is clear. Remarkable innovations come along. I can remember watching TV as a child in the 1960s, when it was impressed on us that we were watching images ‘live from America via the satellite’ – and now Facebook Live means any of us can broadcast to people throughout the world using our phone. But if social media allows millions of us to communicate, it also reflects some of the most repulsive aspects of contemporary capitalism. Mark Zuckerberg’s personal wealth exceeds $60 billion. Google and Facebook keep tabs on our online activities so that our every interest can be converted into targeted adverts. Abuse – often sexist and racist – is rife. New technologies leave unchanged the basic nature of capitalist society, because capitalism isn’t centrally about technology, be it Bastani’s steam engine or anything else. Capitalism is a system of social relations. As Marx puts it in Wage Labour and Capital, ‘A cotton-spinning machine is a machine for spinning cotton. Only under certain conditions does it become capital. Torn away from these conditions, it is as little capital as gold is itself money, or sugar is the price of sugar.’ The cotton-spinning machine only makes profits for the capitalist once it is set in motion by a worker, who has no choice but to work for wages to avoid utter poverty. Ending capitalism is a matter of ending this exploitative social relationship, as well as ending systems of domination like sexism and racism.
We don’t know for certain how capitalism can be ended, since no attempt so far has been successful for any length of time. But one thing had become clear by the middle of the nineteenth century. It didn’t work to draw up a blueprint for the new, better, more rational society and simply expect it to catch on. Various Owenite and Fourierite communities – in America in the 1840s, in particular – tried to put the plans of their favoured authors into practice. One basic problem was that such an approach was fundamentally undemocratic. Mister Owen or Monsieur Fourier had laid down how things were to be in the new society – Fourier had designed the furniture for the children’s nurseries, the ground plans of the community buildings and much else – so all that was left for the community members to do was to follow the rules. Owen explained, for example, to a young woman who wanted to wear a pretty dress on her wedding day that in the New Moral World people would ideally not marry at all, and if they did, would do so in their everyday clothes. She complied, but none of these communities lasted long.
The point here is that socialism has to be achieved in a deeply democratic way, has to involve the mass of the population in active debate about how to shape society. Such an outburst of debate and involvement is central to every genuine radical movement. During the English Revolution, despite the lower literacy levels of the seventeenth century, over 700 cheap newspapers were in publication and pamphlets were published, as the historian Christopher Hill notes, ‘on every subject under the sun, at an average rate of three a day for twenty years.’ Angela Davis has recalled working as part of the 60s black liberation movement with young African American men who had had little education but persevered in their efforts to read and understand texts by Lenin. Such debate is part and parcel of mass activity, as people who have never felt they can change things come to believe they have a stake in the future.
This brings us to the most disappointing part of Bastani’s book – its final section, which explains how Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) is to be brought about. ‘You can only live your best life under FALC and nothing else,’ urges Bastani, ‘so fight for it and refuse the yoke of an economic system which belongs in the past.’ Indeed, in the new society, ‘luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic of history as the feudal peasant and medieval knight.’ So, assuming I’m persuaded, that lots of us are persuaded, how do we get involved? It turns out that, for the most part, we don’t. ‘The majority of people,’ we’re told, ‘are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time… Which is all the more reason why FALC… must engage in mainstream, electoral politics.’
There’s a rather uneasy transition in these pages, as we shift from an end to scarcity – a classless society, more or less – to local government financial strategies as carried out in Preston. But this isn’t the biggest problem – you could argue that you have to start somewhere, so why not Preston? The problem is that a monumental obstacle stands in the path that leads from running local government in one city to FALC. In Bastani’s account that path leads through the creation of local banks and credit unions, combined with the development of ‘universal basic services‘ which will make transport, education, housing and so forth free to all. Moving to a global scale, national energy investment banks, meanwhile, will invest in sustainable buildings, heating and lighting, so that by 2030 ‘the world’s wealthier countries would see their CO2 emissions fall to virtually zero’.
All this is perfectly possible. But consider our current position. Oil has been the key commodity for capitalism for around a hundred years. Capitalism is based on competition, so the United States, the world’s one superpower, is keen to control the global oil supply – not because it needs to import oil, but because countries including China do. And so the American state works hand-in-glove with the oil companies. The last thing the oil companies want is that we should move away from fossil fuels. Most governments accept to some extent that the crisis is happening, but refuse to take adequate action. The threat to short-term profitability is of more concern to them than the survival of the planet. The people who run businesses will oppose the massive shift of resources to the public sector that local investment banks would involve. So the only way to begin to move towards FALC, towards a social transformation on such a scale, is to win mass popular support for it. It seems implausible that anything less than a radical and democratic mass movement can bring it about – but that would be just the sort of movement which can check out how good these technologies really are, and make creative decisions about how to use them. And this, really, is my problem with Fully Automated Luxury Communism – the classless world beyond scarcity it depicts is a genuine possibility, but if we’re to take that possibility seriously, as something more than a provocation, we need better plans about how to move towards it.