After the first five installments of our series “Under Communism”, several readers have asked us our opinion on “Fully Automated Luxury Communism“, the title of a book by Aaron Bastani which, although it has had few translations and media coverage outside of the English-speaking world, seems to have succeeded in coining the term.
Table of Contents
- “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” claims a benevolent capitalism that would still deliver progress
- “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”: Communism without class struggle?
- “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” and the “extinction of labor” by capital
- The economic logic and “socialism” of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”
- “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” as “social capitalism”
- The politics of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”
- The subject, the individual and the demagoguery of Fully Automated Luxury Communism
“Fully Automated Luxury Communism” claims a benevolent capitalism that would still deliver progress
There’s no shortage of Marx quotes in Fully Automated Luxury Communism… and it’s no innocent thing. Bastani’s operation is to reinterpret Marx as a visionary of capitalist technological development, leaving out the core of his work as a class militant. According to Bastani, Marx got it absolutely right in stressing the capacity of capitalism to revolutionize the productive capacities of our species.
First alarms: no mention of the difference between physical productivity (how much is produced with an average hour of work) and productivity in terms of profit (how much profit an average hour of work generates), as if they were indistinguishable or as if the driver of capital’s behavior were the former and not the latter.
And of course, no reference either to the fact that the Manifesto excerpts he shows describe rising capitalism, where both productivities were relatively aligned, and not the decadent capitalism of today in which capitalist growth and human development become disassociated and antagonistic.
Curiously, at the end of the book in a cursory consideration of GDP, he will let some of this glimmer through, though limited to a critique of the indicator, not the reality reflected by the indicator.
But, according to Bastani, capitalism remains, fundamentally, a mode of production in historical ascent. so much and so fast… that it could lead us by itself, if we add a certain dose of “political will”, to a “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.”
At this point in Bastani’s central thesis we hesitate as to whether his interest is just to show that capitalist technological development has created the real, material possibility of abundance or whether he is going to go a step further, denaturalize Marx and sell us some form of capitalism.
Early on, he clears up any doubts. In between pouting about “capitalist realism”, he embraces the main idea of the ideology he pretends to criticize. According to him “Marx was wrong” because capitalism can overcome all its crises while the working class has shown itself incapable of triumphing in its revolution:
There was never a workers’ revolution that overthrew the system – at least not on a global scale. The reason why was that contrary to Marx’s predictions capitalism could ‘fix’ – both spatially and technologically – the very problems it generated.
Spatially and technologically? Insulin, antibiotics, vaccines, chips, chemical industry, food… there is no sector in which, on a daily basis, the fact that the concentration of capital and concentrated industrial production are a hindrance to human development becomes painfully obvious, that torture and deform technological development itself and which are expressed on a territorial space as an aberrant relationship with space and Nature from the global transportation networks to the more modest housing to urban planning.
“Fully Automated Luxury Communism”: Communism without class struggle?
In “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” the only contradiction Bastani acknowledges is that between the possibility of the socialization of knowledge, which unfolds with the Internet and “digitalization”, and the system’s ability to translate the extension of that new technology into capital accumulation.
Extrapolating – in some cases with little scientific basis and always without real critique – Bastani concludes that the pricces of energy (through renewables), health care (thanks to genomics) and industrial production (because of robotization) tend to approach zero. And that for some mysterious reason never specified, creating scarcity artificially -which is capital’s first reflex- is not going to work.
From there he constructs the theory that a revolutionary movement would not be necessary to overcome capitalism since, at the end of the day, the system, in its infinite adaptability, would be overcoming itself. It would suffice to shore up these tendencies with state policies and “municipal protectionism” for it to evolve on its own into a “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.”
Here is where the mystification under Bastani’s “post-Marxism” becomes evident.
As he notes, Marx pointed to the ability of the bourgeoisie to coordinate human labor on a large scale and drive the increase in the capacity of labor to transform the environment. This is what made capitalism progressive in its day. But what Bastani does not want to see is that Marx also made it clear that the real aim of this coordination is to exploit wage labor, not to satisfy human needs. The permanent and growing contradiction between exploitation of labor and human needs is what makes the system decadent today.
But this permanent and ever-growing contradiction between capital accumulation and human needs is not a mere more or less abstract economic contradiction. It has a subject. And a dynamic result: the class struggle between the class that organizes the accumulation of capital – the bourgeoisie – and the one whose interests align themselves with universal human needs, the proletariat.
Thus communism is not exclusively a future mode of production. Nor is it, by any means, a mere “project”, nor a utopia to be imposed on reality. It is a real movement that through class struggle aims at the overcoming of capitalism.
Communism is not a state to be implanted, an ideal to which reality must be subjected. We call communism the real movement that overrides and surpasses the present state of affairs.Marx and Engels. The German Ideology, 1846
In view of the history of Humanity, it would be strange if it were not so. Only the class struggle is capable of confronting and transforming the dominant social relations in a society. Invisibilizing it causes Bastani his own contradictions.
“Fully Automated Luxury Communism” and the “extinction of labor” by capital
The first, that capitalism would abolish by itself wage labor (which he confusingly calls “work” while calling work in general “labor”), that is, with its fundamental and defining institution. His idea is that robotization and automation –a real trend – render workers unnecessary, and would extinguish “work.”
In reality, contrary to what “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” says, robotization does not eliminate workers, much less wage labor.
To begin with capitalism is a system of exploitation of one class by another. It is not the sum total of exploitation in individual enterprises.
Under the guise of a complex system of voluntary exchanges, capitalism conceals in reality the appropriation of unpaid labor of the workers as a whole by capital as a whole.
It is not the sum of the result of exploitation one company at a time, it is a system: it requires an institutional framework that dominates the whole society, turns human labor power into a commodity, forces the vast majority to sell it freely in the market of goods and services to survive and finally allows capital to organize itself in a parallel capital market which distributes the profits. That is, there is no capitalism in a single enterprise. And there is no capitalism without a capitalist state.ABC of Communism Today
And furthermore, over the last century capital has become extraordinarily “socialized”, which makes even clearer the meaning of the supposed “total automation” in some products.
The finance capital, the big capital that gives shape and tune to all production, is now a set of funds of immense size that move continuously speculating with the results of any application of capital and its consequences. Companies, factories, have been reduced to “applications” to which capital turns to, or from which it withdraws, with astonishing speed at any change in expectations of results. […]
“Business”, when capitals move so fast and at the stroke of expectations that vary with every piece of news, depends directly on the general conditions of exploitation.Understanding capital to confront challenges ahead, 2/6/2020
The incorporation of robots and AIs to a high degree in some industries and services does not mean, at all, that capitalism is preparing to stop exploiting wage labor. It simply, like all technological improvement, increases the productivity of those left in the workforce in terms of profit and, sometimes, their physical productivity.
As Bastani himself acknowledges, it is nothing essentially different from the replacement of animal traction by the automobile. Only unlike what is advocated in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, the end of the horse did not anticipate the end of the worker.
Horses, whatever Bastani believes, were not part of the exploited class. The manufacturing workers who made wagons and stagecoaches were. They became unemployed. Some were reemployed in the new automobile industry or in other nascent industries. For the system it just meant being able to profitably place more capital and relocate some of the existing capital, with higher average labor productivity in terms of profit.
The difference between our times of decadent capitalism and those of rising capitalism is not that the reduction of labor needed for a certain amount of production is more or less drastic. It is that progressive capitalism had the capacity to exploit surplus labor because it immediately opened up new markets – until then outside the circuit of accumulation – in which to place an enlarged production, within and outside the borders of the states in which it developed.
Today, in a globally capitalist world with gigantic accumulated capitals, that capacity simply does not exist. Increasing productive capacities ultimately clashes with the absence of solvent new markets in which to place expanded production. Which translates into chronic unemployment, precarization and pauperization of workers. .. and a constant tension towards war, not in the first steps of a “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.”
The economic logic and “socialism” of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”
Before entering into the politics of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”, his Economic Theory, without which his proposals would be incomprehensible, is striking. .
In the importance he gives to genome sequencing and the use of AIs dedicated to early genetic diagnosis, in order to reduce health costs we might see, and there is, a Protestant-Puritan religious element. It is not for nothing that the chapter in which he discusses it is entitled “Editing Fate”. But what is important is not the particular technology he chooses but the kind of “solution” he depicts.”
Bastani’s direction becomes clear in the next chapter. As a solution for food he has no other idea than the manufacture of milk, eggs, meat and even wine in the laboratory with combined genetic and chemical engineering techniques. The moral and disciplinary thrust of a dietary policy could not be missing. But what does it really mean? Increasing capitalization and industrial concentration at all costs and without responding to any universal and direct human needs.
Exactly the opposite of what universal human needs point to, exactly the same as what capitals need, that’s why they are already investing in these. And exactly the same combination of vegan immorality and false ecological discourse in the service of the same eagerness to make capital profitable that the Green Deal is sowing.
This is why Bastani insists again and again that the technologies of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” have been here since the 1960s. Not because of utopianism, but because it responds to the needs of capital. From a communist point of view, the approach to the new technologies is very different.
It is not a matter of demonstrating whether all the technologies that we will use in communism already exist. They don’t. Moreover, many of them, even if they exist today will not be used or developed if we do not get rid of this system.
What the inventions and technologies we discuss show is that capitalism has already created the conditions for an automation and socialization of production and its forms, guided by universal human needs, to produce abundance without irreversibly destroying the natural environment.Under communism… Who will take care of agriculture?, 2/27/2021
“Fully Automated Luxury Communism” as “social capitalism”
Everything becomes even clearer when, after reducing the Russian Revolution to an “illiberal coup” and vindicating stalinism by claiming that “its seven-decade survival remains one of the great political achievements of the last century,” he defines “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”
“Fully Automated Luxury Communism” would be a “market socialism” with a strong sector of state-subsidized local worker cooperatives (Lassalle) and controlled by municipal “anchor” companies (following the Cleveland model), financed through public non-profit banks (Proudhon) in which a series of “Universal Basic Services” (UBS) would be guaranteed.
The UBS are also curious: information (internet connection and university fees), urban transport and railroads, public health on the model of the British NHS and social housing. All organized in “UBS Zones” in which, in principle, a mass of unemployed people would live. And he remarks: “it is important to emphasize that UBS should be presented as an expanded set of entitlements.”
That is, under the “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” model lies the cream of yesterday’s and today’s “petty-bourgeois socialism”, with elements of the old British Labour ghettoization policy. In other words: “social capitalism” which does not even consider touching basic sectors in which capital has long been a heavy burden, such as agriculture and food, as long as the possibility of concentration and recapitalization is imaginable.
The politics of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”
With that aim and those prospects, “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” looms suspiciously close to Corbyn’s Labour election manifesto. For example, it proposes to nationalize sectors where subsidies to private companies are more expensive than what a public monopoly would cost (rail and soon electricity). A proposal that Corbyn already made back in the day.
Nor does he spare the reader moments of real horror when, after rejecting “globalism”, he speaks in the first person plural of the British bourgeoisie giving it as an example of… internationalism, which would be nothing other than a national “policy of prototypes” that would transfer the virtues of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” to other ruling classes by mimicry based on its results.
When we wanted to connect the world through trains, cable and roads, it was through example and imitation. When we desired universal literacy and sanitation, the same applied.
It is also shocking, to say the least, that after arguing for the almost immediate extinction of wage labor, he tells us that there will nevertheless be workers left for quite some time. According to him just as horses survived the automobile until after WWI.
For a dying class and at best a minor part of the political subject of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”, it is striking how afraid he is of it. Fear he tries to quell, of course, with an old corporate recipe: strong unions and institutionally well linked to the state. We will not be subjects, but we must remain subject, apparently.
With this outlook it is not surprising that the practical policies he proposes focus on changing central bank targets, variants of the Tobin tax and on a green agenda remarkably similar to the EU’s “Fit for 55” although extended to the “Global South” from 2030 onwards.
Icing on the cake: a “One World Tax” with which taxes on workers -not capital- in what it calls the “Global North” would ensure the profitability of international investment funds that would transform the energy structure of the semi-colonial countries.
The subject, the individual and the demagoguery of Fully Automated Luxury Communism
Bastani defines the politics of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” as a “populism”. That is, its subject is the people. But the “people” is a heterogeneous and contradictory amalgam of classes around proposals that express the values and the absence of perspectives of the petty bourgeoisie. That is why, as Bastani himself says in “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” the entire scope of a given populism is given in its definition of “people.”
The interesting thing about “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” is that it doesn’t really provide any definition. Unlike its referents in Podemos and Syriza it does not invoke feminism and the college petty bourgeoisie, nor, like the Green Deal campaigns, the “youth”. Its nationalism on the other hand, though obvious, chauvinistic and sometimes with the typical flashes of “polite racism” of the British ruling classes, falls short of threading a classic national discourse.
No. “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” addresses itself to the most reactionary category of bourgeois ideology of all: the individual.
You can only live your best life under FALC [Fully Automated Luxury Communism] and nothing else, so fight for it and refuse the yoke of an economic system which belongs in the past.
Capitalism has obviously been anti-historical and anti-human for far too long. But the “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” theory will neither fix it – as it pretends – nor overcome it. On the contrary, it is further proof of the absolute incapacity it exudes to even think of a future.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism
After the first five installments of our series "Under Communism", several readers have asked us our opinion on "Fully Automated Luxury Communism", the title of a book by Aaron Bastani which, although it has had few translations and media coverage outside of the English-speaking world, seems to have succeeded in coining the term.
Author: Aaron Bastani