Books

Is The Global Left's Fantasy World One Worth Fighting For?

The appropriate politics for this world of technology, is according to Aaron Bastani, electoral, populist and Leftist.

In 1989, just before the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama published a controversial essay titled The End of History. Borrowing from thinkers like G.W.F. Hegel, Karl Marx and Alexandre Kojeve, Fukuyama argued that Western style liberal democracy was the culmination of human history. 

While the long decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union have absolutely invalidated Fukuyama’s placement of liberal democracy as the form which will bring about the end of history, the thesis in itself remains compelling.

What, then, will be at the end of history if not liberal democracy?

Aaron Bastani in his new book Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto says, quite surprisingly, that it will be communism. But this won’t be the communism of the 20th century at all; rather, it will be, as the book’s title suggests, fully automated luxury communism or FALC.

Aaron Bastani, ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto’,
Verso Books, May 2019.

As contemporary political movements across the world attempt to re-evaluate the communist hypothesis, they keep stumbling upon a very real obstacle. For Bastani, this does not lie in the fact that the communist regimes of the 20th century were both bureaucratic and undemocratic nightmares, but essentially takes the form of a branding problem.

Can we really look forward to the communist society of the future which might very well provide healthcare, economic equality and proper living conditions for everyone, when all of this is accompanied by the kind of drab dullness best portrayed in HBO’s TV series Chernobyl? Bastani’s book is an attempt to address this branding problem that plagues the communist society to come. His claim is that the communism of the future will be far from shabby — it will instead be luxurious beyond belief.

Also read: ‘Chernobyl’ Review | The Great Cost of Lies

Bastani’s core argument is that by using technology we can rid the world of all its major problems such as global warming, resource scarcity and wealth inequalities but only if it is supplemented by an appropriate politics.

In a tone reminiscent of a Silicon Valley tech evangelist, Bastani lists the marvels of technology that have the capacity to actually (and not just theoretically) solve all the world’s problems over the next few decades. But unlike the various Silicon Valley CEOs who are also spreading their technological gospel, Bastani knows that all the gadgets in the world cannot stop companies from profiteering. 

What is required is an appropriate politics, and that politics, for Bastani, is electoral, populist and Leftist.

Thus, in as many chapters, Bastani discusses the crises of labour, energy, resources, biology and food. All of these, as he demonstrates with immense statistical data and detailed analyses of technological developments, are potentially solvable problems: labour will become fully automated with the revolution in computing and artificial intelligence; solar power and other renewables will replace fossil fuels and thus counteract global warming; space mining will lead to a glut in resources; gene editing will solve health problems; lab-grown meat will help solve food scarcity. 

Bastani thinks of technology, a bit predictably, as a series of disruptions. The first disruption, of course, was the development of agriculture. The second disruption was the industrial revolution, and the third, the information revolution that we are living through. 

Marx’s idea of communism addresses the contradictions in capitalism rather than divorce itself entirely from it. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What makes the third disruption different from the second is that unlike industrial products, “information wants to be free”. Because information has a tendency to spread and to be free, it leads to a society where the means of production can no longer be held within the grasp of a small elite. What the third disruption does is qualitatively different from the other two. With the abundance of information comes a situation unprecedented in all of human history — that of post-scarcity.

Also read: Like It or Not, George Orwell Remains Relevant to the 21st Century

A major misconception about the communist hypothesis is that it is totally opposed to the capitalist system. What this misses out is that communism, as Marx conceived of it, is rather the result of the immanent contradictions within capitalism rather than a system completely separated from it. It is these immanent contradictions that Bastani zooms in on, the most prominent being capitalism’s dependence on technology. 

The capitalist system needs technology to increase productivity. It is thus a system of incessant technological innovation. However, this increase in automation leads to a situation where living labour finds itself marginalised. There are fewer workers in factories, and more machines (a Foxconn factory in China was in news in 2016 when it replaced sixty thousand workers with robots). It is when the capitalist system, in its bid to increase productivity, completely replaces the living worker with a robot that it comes upon its own immanent contradiction. 

As Michel Henry, a philosopher who wrote extensively on Marx, said, the factory now produces only use values instead of exchange values. This means that the very concept of profit, which can only be realised through the medium of exchange value, is negated. The very desire for endless profit leads to the end of profit.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a figurehead of contemporary populist communism. Photo: Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Utopian visions are common enough among writers of the Left, but Bastani’s book provides a blueprint for the realisation of his vision. As one of the young British thinkers supportive of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, he looks forward not to armed revolution but electoral populism.

Also read: Remembering Arun Kumar Roy, a True Leader of Workers 

However, he warns, “This requires participating in electoral politics and even government, but not being constrained by it”. A leftist-populist movement is required to keep the fruits of the third disruption from being appropriated by private companies and individuals.

The benefits of the third disruption have to be equally distributed, but not in monetary terms. Disregarding the conversation around universal basic income, Bastani proposes that FALC will bring with it an emphasis on universal basic services, where the citizen would be guaranteed education, healthcare, free transport and nutrition. This would seem just like a rebranding of the welfare state model for a post-scarcity world. However, Bastani does offer clear policy guidelines in the last section of the book, which supplements the more effusive tone of the introduction and the first few chapters.

Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism’s optimistic tone rivals that of projects brought out by massive corporations like Google, Facebook or Amazon. It is aptly subtitled A Manifesto and in many respects does read like a big rebranding project.

One would love to believe Bastani’s claim that the end of history is nigh, and look forward to a society which would make both Elon Musk and Karl Marx proud. 

However, a major conceptual problem is that FALC simply repeats the error of the end of history argument, which is basically the fantasy of a world without immanent contradictions. Bastani simply replaces Fukuyama’s liberal democracy with FALC but doesn’t challenge the logic behind the end of history thesis.

One can say that Bastani strengthens and perpetuates the structure of a fantasy, in a book which very often reads like an extended advertisement rather than a sustained conceptual attack on the way things currently are. Yet, perhaps we have had enough of ‘radical critiques’, and using the advertisement model against itself is a dialectical move perhaps even Marx would be proud of.

Over the last two decades, fantasy as a genre has reached a point of saturation in mainstream culture, with Hollywood studios investing big money in the production of spin-offs, sequels or prequels to established fantasy worlds like that of J.K. Rowling, J.R.R. Tolkien or even G.R.R. Martin.

Bastani provides the global Left with a fantasy world as hyped as the best Hollywood PR teams can offer but with one significant difference — it is at least a fantasy worth fighting for.

Huzaifa Omair Siddiqi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.