June 12, 2019

There are three reasons why Aaron Bastani’s new book is unlikely to get a fair hearing.

Firstly, there’s the author. He’s a leading light of Novara Media – and thus a general in Jeremy Corbyn’s online army. He helped lead the social media insurgency that seized control of the Labour Party from the centre-Left establishment and that must rankle.

Secondly, there’s the title: Fully Automated Luxury Communism. It’s a huge, expansive, outrageous idea. Does it come with fully automated luxury gulags and fully automated luxury famines? The put-downs write themselves (appropriately enough).

Thirdly, there’s the subtitle: A manifesto. Yes, this is a polemical work, written in a breezy, accessible style. It is a work of pop political economy – full of sweeping statements and broad brush summaries. And why not? Why should big ideas be confined to dry and dusty tomes? Why should the cut-and-thrust of public debate be limited to small ideas – like Trump’s latest tweet or what a Tory leadership contender might have stuffed up his left nostril?

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Of course, the fact that I welcome this book doesn’t mean that I agree with it. To a large extent, I don’t. Bastani’s arguments are thought-provoking – and, often, the thought they provoked in my mind was “this is completely wrong”. He is, however, wrong in an interesting way – which is more than can be said for a lot of his critics.

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Let’s start with what makes up the bulk of the book: an exploration of the 21st-century technologies that are expanding the possibilities of human endeavour – and therefore politics, which is, of course, “the art of the possible”.

Bastani looks at AI, robotics, renewable energy, bio-tech, high-tech food production and, er, mining asteroids. Don’t expect too much caution here. He very much accentuates the positive – in support of his contention that we are moving towards an economic situation of “extreme supply” across a range of resources.

On some of these fronts (especially the asteroids) he’s far too optimistic about the pace of change. Overall, however, it’s a pretty good introduction to the potential of existing technology to bring about a “third disruption” (the first disruption being the agricultural revolution, starting 12,000 years ago; and the second the industrial revolution, starting 200 years ago).

The author is not a complete techno-Pollyanna: he acknowledges some of the pitfalls and setbacks of our age, such as the climate crisis and the faltering of Moore’s Law. But that still leaves a lot of complication unexamined.

For instance, Bastani quite rightly talks about the rapid progress being made on the renewable power front. Costs have come tumbling down. But when it comes to an “extreme supply” of energy, we had that decades ago. A seemingly inexhaustible supply of cheap and concentrated liquid energy – oil – made the modern world possible. Then, bit-by-bit, we lost it: OPEC embargoes, the exhaustion of oilfields, air pollution, the dawning reality of the greenhouse effect. The true costs of fossil fuels are mounting up – and if we’re lucky renewables might just get us back to where we thought we were 50 years ago.

It’s not the only example of our uncertain progress. Antibiotic resistance, collapsing biodiversity, the diminishing productivity of scientific research: if you look, there is plenty of evidence against the idea that “things can only better” (as an anti-Blairite like Bastani probably wouldn’t say).

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What he does say, however, is that the “rate of historical change is accelerating”. Whether that’s true rather depends on the timeframe. Zoom in on recent decades and a powerful case can be made for a technological slowdown. Economists such as Tyler Cowen write powerfully about a “great stagnation“. Even if one concentrates on digital tech, there’s a pretty good case that the development of the internet has been a lot less exciting over this decade than in the 1990s or 2000s.

However, these may be bumps in the road, not a dead-end – and it’s not unreasonable for Bastani to concentrate on where the road may be taking us.

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The non-fantastical prospect of an end to scarcity is what brings his two most important arguments into play. Firstly, that technological abundance will make communism possible for the first time in history; and, secondly, that while the “logic of market demand means that capitalists must produce goods and services as cheaply as they can”, there comes a point at which supply becomes so extreme that capitalism can’t work anymore.

Let’s take a look at these propositions in greater detail.

By “communism” Bastani doesn’t mean the communist regimes of the past (and present), but “a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another”. The excuse of the latter-day Marxist that ‘real communism hasn’t been tried yet’ has become something of a cliche. But going by Bastani’s definition, it’s clear that real communism hasn’t been possible so far and won’t be possible until work has been largely automated and shortages of key resources rendered a thing of the past.

Therefore this book is not a defence of totalitarianism. It could, however, have done without an aside like: the “seven-decade survival” of the USSR “remains one of the great political achievements of the last century”. When a regime doesn’t have to bother with democracy and can murder dissidents at will, it’s amazing how long it can survive.

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Still, let’s get back to the future. If we are indeed on the road to full automation and luxury, why do we need communism of any kind? Reviewing the catalogue of wonders that makes up the middle section of the book, one can’t help but notice that most are the achievement of capitalist companies and capitalist countries. Yes, the state does play a supporting role by funding basic research and shared infrastructure, but the change-makers are the innovators and entrepreneurs who define capitalism at its best.

Even Bastani admits that “capitalism has a number of useful features”.

But then comes the big claim that it can’t cope with extreme supply:

“…none of its shortcomings match its inability to accept natural abundance. Facing such conditions for resources – as with information, energy and labour – production for profit begins to malfunction.”

Even the briefest consideration of economic history shows this isn’t true. Across a vast range of commodities, goods and services, the unfolding of the industrial revolution turned extreme scarcity into extreme supply.

The classic example is lighting. In 1800, the cost of an hour of artificial light (equivalent in brightness to a 100 watt filament bulb) was prohibitively high – about $150 in today’s prices. That meant that even the rich couldn’t afford more than the dimmest candlelight (which was also smelly, dirty and dangerous). But with industrialisation and invention, costs plummeted to $5 in 1900 and, then, with the electric light bulb, all the way down to 5 cents by the end of the 20th century. CFL followed by LED technology means that it continues to get cheaper – and greener.

In the space of two centuries, lighting has became thousands of times cheaper. Compared to its original cost, it is very nearly free. (It is has become so abundant in our lives that we even speak of light pollution – an unwanted excess of light.) And yet ‘big light’ has coped – capitalist enterprises continue to manufacture lighting products at a profit and to reinvest some of those profits to make light even cheaper (with some prodding from the state in the form of efficiency standards).

It’s the same with just about anything else that’s become massively cheaper. Computer processing capacity, for instance. More than merely coping, capitalism thrives on extreme supply – using it to create previously undreamt of applications – and selling them to an eager public. Of course, abundance can be disruptive. Technological breakthroughs can render products, companies and entire industries obsolete. But capitalism as a whole adapts – there are new products, new companies, new industries.

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So why the contemporary crisis of capitalism? You don’t have to be a socialist to realise that there’s a deep rot in the system, especially its neoliberal incarnation. Bastani discusses various examples and you can consult the UnHerd archives for many more.

But when you look for the root cause of the corruption, it strikes me that the essential problem isn’t extreme supply at all – it’s that businesses are protected from disruption or allowed to exploit monopoly control over resources that remain scarce in an otherwise abundant economy (above all, land.) These are the twin evils of crony capitalism and rentier capitalism. They are real, they are powerful and they must be defeated. But what this requires is for government to take back control of naturally scarce resources, not the increasingly abundant ones.

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Ah, but what about when capitalism creates artificial scarcity by using intellectual property rights to constrain the supply of informational goods?

This is an age-old issue that predates the capitalist system. From the cook’s secret recipe to the playwright’s manuscript, access to original information has always been contested – and the right of the originators to profit from their creative efforts always asserted.

Over time, governments have come to recognise and protect intellectual property because it is in the common interest that people should be incentivised to create more of it. In this respect, the most relevant figure in Bastani’s book is the cover price. Presumably, the text could be made available for free online. But wouldn’t the author agree with me that he should see some return on his hard work?

Of course, IP rights can be exploited to the general detriment – for instance through the practice of patent trolling. But that can be reformed. Moreover, the state (which, after all, controls the law) always has the option of abolishing IP protections altogether – dealing with the issue through deregulation rather than assuming control of industries.

However, Bastani wants us to consider the future, not just the present. In the increasingly automated economy of the decades ahead, the means of production won’t so much be the robots, but the artificially intelligent systems that control them. The automated economy will therefore be an algorithmic economy – revolving around instructions that can be copied and made ubiquitous or protected and made artificially scarce

With so much power and control at stake, isn’t it incumbent on the state to take ownership in the name of the people? Well, if we were talking about the code behind an all-powerful general intelligence that directs all productive activity, then yes – nationalise the singularity!

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But it won’t be like that. AI systems will be specific and multiple, not general and singular. They will enhance, not replace, workers’ productivity – and the know-how that will make the most difference won’t be reducible to reproducible code, but uniquely (and unequally) embodied within living, breathing human beings.

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The economic system will be more complicated than ever before, and less centrally plannable. So, contra-Bastani, I believe that the conditions under which communism could actually work are further away than ever before.

Then again, anyone who thinks they can predict the course of a technological revolution – or how society will react to it – is bound to be confounded.

All we can do from the clouded vantage point of the present is envisage scenarios and debate the implications. Fully Automated Luxury Communism is a passionate contribution to that debate and I hope it provokes many others.

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Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A manifesto, Aaron Bastani, Verso, £16.99