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Fully Automated Luxury Communism

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This is the title of a book published five years ago by the young leftist British-Iranian writer Aaron Bastani. The title is supposed to be whimsical, and has been made more so on the Internet by a meme which adds the phrase “gay space” between luxury and communism.

Bastani, however, is serious about his thesis, which is one that deserves more attention than it has gotten in progressive/left circles in the USA (I can’t speak for the UK in this regard).

That thesis is:

The world is in an unprecedented crisis – environmental, economic, social, demographic. Yet the left and the green movement’s conventional solution to it – essentially to tame humanity through regulation and self-restraint – is the opposite of what’s needed, Bastani says. Technology, guided by activist leftwing governments, should be used to intensify our “mastery” of the planet, and to extend it to places beyond. The result will not just be our world’s survival, he promises, but the creation of a new world of social justice and limitless abundance, with goods produced at almost no cost, and then freely and equally distributed.

You don’t have to go nearly as far as Bastani does in embracing techno-utopianism to agree with the basic idea that something like a largely post-scarcity post-labor future is something that can be readily envisioned in economic and technological terms. As I’ve argued before, the main problems to realizing a world along such lines are primarily political, rather than scientific/economic.

A key inspiration for Bastani is Keynes’s now nearly 100-year-old argument that, 100 years in the future, what Keynes called “the economic problem” — the problem of producing enough output to to satisfy all absolute as opposed to relative economic needs — would be solved, or well on the way to being solved.

Keynes pointed out that one consequence of such a society ought to be that people will work far less. Bastani takes that insight to its logical conclusion, and envisions an imaginable world where, because the marginal cost of labor has fallen very close to zero, there will be almost no practical need for any human labor (hence the “automated” of his title).

Here I want to focus on a real curiosity about arguments regarding how technology may make labor largely obsolete, which is that such arguments almost always seem to assume that such a development would be bad. Bastani, to his credit, points out that this is in one way a very strange conclusion. Labor, after all, is defined in strict economic terms as what people do because they have to do it, rather than doing what they would prefer to to, i.e., “leisure.” So why is the elimination of labor considered bad?

Obviously because people take the connection between the performance of individual labor and the ability to fulfill individual economic needs/desires as automatic, as opposed to what it is, which is the purely political choice to organize society along such lines.

But in an even vaguely post-scarcity society, such a connection would be perversely tyrannical, as opposed to a natural order of things handed down to us by God and/or The Market ™.

A couple of other points:

(1) What Bastani and others who are making similar arguments are highlighting is that capitalism is extremely good at creating wealth, but extremely bad at distributing it. This is an incredibly obvious and basic point, but one that at least in the context of American politics still sounds like some sort of heresy. And again, managing that conundrum/paradox is a political, not an economic problem.

(2) It seems to me that it’s extremely unfortunate that we tend to treat the words “labor” and “work” as synonyms. A world without labor is desirable by definition. By contrast, a world without work — in the sense of striving to achieve and create things that can only be achieved and created through more or less intense individual and collective effort — would be a nightmare. The distinction is hinted at in this passage from Orwell’s essay on Charles Dickens:

With the doubtful exception of David Copperfield (merely Dickens himself), one cannot point to a single one of his central characters who is primarily interested in his job. His heroes work in order to make a living and to marry the heroine, not because they feel a passionate interest in one particular subject. Martin Chuzzlewit, for instance, is not burning with zeal to be an architect; he might just as well be a doctor or a barrister. In any case, in the typical Dickens novel, the deus ex machina enters with a bag of gold in the last chapter and the hero is absolved from further struggle. The feeling ‘This is what I came into the world to do. Everything else is uninteresting. I will do this even if it means starvation’, which turns men of differing temperaments into scientists, inventors, artists, priests, explorers and revolutionaries — this motif is almost entirely absent from Dickens’s books. He himself, as is well known, worked like a slave and believed in his work as few novelists have ever done. But there seems to be no calling except novel-writing (and perhaps acting) towards which he can imagine this kind of devotion. And, after all, it is natural enough, considering his rather negative attitude towards society. In the last resort there is nothing he admires except common decency. Science is uninteresting and machinery is cruel and ugly (the heads of the elephants). Business is only for ruffians like Bounderby. As for politics — leave that to the Tite Barnacles. Really there is no objective except to marry the heroine, settle down, live solvently and be kind. And you can do that much better in private life.

Here, perhaps, one gets a glimpse of Dickens’s secret imaginative background. What did he think of as the most desirable way to live? When Martin Chuzzlewit had made it up with his uncle, when Nicholas Nickleby had married money, when John Harman had been enriched by Boffin what did they do?

The answer evidently is that they did nothing. Nicholas Nickleby invested his wife’s money with the Cheerybles and ‘became a rich and prosperous merchant’, but as he immediately retired into Devonshire, we can assume that he did not work very hard. Mr. and Mrs. Snodgrass ‘purchased and cultivated a small farm, more for occupation than profit.’ That is the spirit in which most of Dickens’s books end — a sort of radiant idleness. Where he appears to disapprove of young men who do not work (Harthouse, Harry Gowan, Richard Carstone, Wrayburn before his reformation) it is because they are cynical and immoral or because they are a burden on somebody else; if you are ‘good’, and also self-supporting, there is no reason why you should not spend fifty years in simply drawing your dividends. Home life is always enough. And, after all, it was the general assumption of his age. The ‘genteel sufficiency’, the ‘competence’, the ‘gentleman of independent means’ (or ‘in easy circumstances’) — the very phrases tell one all about the strange, empty dream of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century middle bourgeoisie. 

Compare this with this passage from the Keynes essay that is one of Bastani’s key intellectual inspirations:

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of
economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller
perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able
to enjoy the abundance when it comes.


Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of
abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a
fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if
he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional
society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any
quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance
guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp
there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an
independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set
them.

All this, of course, echoes Marx’s claim, so momentarily out of fashion in a world where the realities of post-industrial capitalism and the fundamental nature of the world itself seem to have merged into a single entity, that only when what Keynes calls “the economic problem” has been solved can history really begin.

One need not sign up for anything as grandiose of an economic eschatology as that to still see the virtue of being reminded of the social vision that a new generation is now pursuing.

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