Fully Automated Luxury Social Democracy?

David Dahlborn reviews Fully Automated Luxury Communism, by Aaron Bastani:

The meme that became a book has arrived as a manifesto with a grand theory of history. But is this a history where humans are put in the back seat by technological progress? If Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A manifesto wants to do for the 21st century what The Communist Manifesto did for the 19th, we must see how the stories we tell matter. Who the heroes of our stories are shapes what action they inspire.

Falling marginal costs of technology, Bastani argues, will make life’s necessities and luxuries abundant. Lab-grown meat and high-efficiency solar panels cancel carbon emissions. Cancer-curing gene editing and workerless space mines assure health and happiness. 

Star Trek communism” echoes 1960s’ imagined futures, where commercial space travel and free energy were considered imminent. This followed the 1940s optimism of sci-fi-writing modernist technocrats, like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. These writers, furthermore, recalled 1920s’ Bolshevik and Stalinist futurisms.

Richard Barbrook, author of Imaginary Futures, explains this point exquisitely, making him an ideally challenging interlocutor for Bastani at a recent panel event at Shoreditch’s Newspeak House. Barbrook’s sharpest queries to the Novara Media co-founder asked precisely who makes history happen. “The book sees technology as the subject of history,” he said. Where’s the humans-led class struggle in a tech-made world?

Is the future what it used to be?

In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, capitalism is outgrowing itself. Consequently, the book skirts crucial steps for guaranteeing that postcapitalism will benefit “the many”, not “the few”. Anyone looking for “worker’s control of the means of production” is left pondering. The book proposes worker-owned businesses funded by locally-oriented banks. But these banks remain controlled by the state, for which Bastani wishes “a much larger role”. “The state,” Barbrook interjected, “is also capitalist.”

State-centred economic nationalism characterised the 20th century. Historian David Edgerton argues that, following WW2, Labour and the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) were economic nationalists. They asserted the new British nation-state, in opposition to the British Empire. Briefly, during decolonisation, Edgerton proposes, Britain approached self-sufficiency in energy and food. This ended soon after joining Europe’s common market. This process strengthened an elitist state technocrat class, who Bastani opposes. But would he replace one set of technocratic for another?

Understanding Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism as returning these post-war positions helps me consider why class struggle – central to Marx’s manifesto – is absent in Bastani’s story. 

Who’s in charge of taking charge?

Removing the proletariat from history’s driving seat is another old idea, as Barbrook’s The Class of the New details. CPGB ideologue Martin Jacques gave up on workers’ unions defending economic nationalism in the 1980s. Instead, he argued, Britain needed a “new middle class” to transform society. The “new class” turned out as New Labour spin doctors. They redistributed income, but not wealth.

Paul Mason’s rhetorical appeal in Postcapitalism came from pitching something similar to his core audience – urban activists and graduates. Mason dropped proletarians as history’s protagonists, in favour of “networked individuals” – activists with smartphones. The people reading Postcapitalism became ideally placed to decide humanity’s destiny.

Has Bastani joined Mason’s take? He proposes returning “‘the people’ as the main political actor.” But, I’d argue, he speaks of “the people”, not to them. His book addresses an undefined “we”. It’s “our” task to create “luxury populism” and a “workers’ party against work”. Elections are this party’s highway to state power, and it’ll decentralise banks to fund a bright tomorrow. “Vote Corbyn!”

Is Bastani suggesting Automated Luxury Corbynism, brought to birth by tech-savvy politicos and socialist bank managers? An audience member at the Newspeak House event asked if the intended audience is Momentum activists. Bastani added he also wants “young smart graduates in STEM” to join the luxury communism coalition. Genuinely good outreach, but the working class is larger than university-educated activists.

History’s advice

However, Bastani’s altered Marx quotes reveal more. His book ends echoing Marx’s quotable phrase: “They have a world to win.” But the “they” – referring to workers – is substituted for the passive voice: “There is a world to win.” He drops Marx’s closing slogan altogether: “Working Men [sic] of All Countries, Unite!”

Here, tech overshadows even professional activists. Take another poignant Marx quote: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, “men” (had Marx been accurate; “persons”) is replaced by “technology makes history”. This carries no ringing endorsement of human agency in class struggle.

As social democratic movements – including both parties and unions – confronted capital to gain power in pre-war Europe, the self-help friendly associations that formed their base, were incorporated into welfare states. This happened through decades of workers’ contesting elections, and direct action (blockades, self-help, boycotts etc.). Conservatives, from Bismarck to Nevil Chamberlain, parried with benign working class safety nets. States changed through conflicts with organised labour, not primarily populists winning elections.

Walter Benjamin’s lamentation over German social democracy from 1940, as Europe plummeted through war, comes to mind. For Benjamin, nothing

“corrupted the German working-class as much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. … From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labour set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement.”

Overreliance on future progress, rather than furious desire for righting historic injustices, Benjamin believed, made labour complacent. Instead of joining Rosa Luxembourg in 1918, when social democracy could’ve defeated authoritarian bolshevism, its representatives protected the establishment.

Benjamin reminds me how to bring everyone along in the social quantum leap required to solve the present ecological catastrophe. I need a story that lets me tell others: “You can shape our collective future by joining our epic task.”

The future will be kind to us, because we intend to write it

Returning to Star Trek: in the show, a time-travelling Mark Twain visits the 24th century. Unimpressed by teleportation and starships, the 19th century trade union friendly society supporter remarks: “All this technology only serves to take away life’s simple pleasures.” Luxury is subjective.

Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism rightly emphasises that the future should offer freedom to do and be what we like. Nevertheless, if work becomes voluntary, we must somehow resolve people’s anxieties that everything they once valued has become mundane, or that “others” freeride on their labour. Luxury is also the belonging in joining collective efforts that requires sweat and sacrifice but rewards us with the joy of our fellow humans.

Bastani isn’t a technological determinist. Furthermore, he’s staggeringly correct to make us confident and optimistic about the future. Benjamin’s diagnosis doesn’t necessarily fit his vision. But we should beware it. A good start is clarity: defining “we” and specify their tasks. This should avert new technocrats from grabbing the steering wheel, especially considering historical state-centred economic nationalism. 

Call me old school; the conclusion that people who work (paid or unpaid) and consume in an economy have power holds up. The task is to democratically organise that collective power. This should support an understanding of history which teaches that, together, we’re masters of our destiny, not beholden to technology or enlightened elites.

I recommend Fully Automated Luxury Communism. It’s fun to read and tickles the imagination. But the very next book you read must be a hands-on manual for social change. For instance, class war union organiser Jane McAlevey’s Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell) or No Shortcuts, and Extinction Rebellion’s recent This is Not a Drill.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani is out now from Verso for £16.99.

Photo credit: David Dahlborn

Opinion Editor. Cambridge History PhD student.

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