Aaron Bastani’s ‘luxury communism’ is a false future

  • Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto

    Aaron Bastani

    Verso, 2019

Fully Automated Luxury Communism is Novara Media co-founder Aaron Bastani’s attempt to turn a popular meme into a political manifesto. Back in 2014, he uploaded a video positioning ‘luxury communism’ as a real left political persuasion, which he continued in interviews and articles in the years that followed. The book has surely sold plenty of copies for publisher Verso, but a critical reading shows it probably should have remained an internet gag.

When Bastani uploaded his initial video thesis, an online techno-determinist automation hysteria was in full swing. Every few months brought a new report about the high percentage of jobs that would be soon lost to automation. That prompted a new wave of political thought on the trend, including Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society and Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism. Both books looked at how automation might be harnessed by a progressive or socialist political project, and the arguments made by those authors form part of the basis of Bastani’s thesis, including the use of allegorical tropes such as the ‘wheat and chessboard problem’.

However, Bastani combines an emerging post-scarcity notion with a largely uncritical admiration for billionaire futurism: the visions of the future championed by elite figures like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. That’s where Luxury Communism feels like it hasn’t learned the lessons of the past five years. The left doesn’t need a false future that only differs from the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley, by switching capitalist property relations for communist ones, without considering how that might change the path of human development.

Techno-determinism of the left

In Bastani’s ideal future, everyone will “lead lives equivalent — if we so wish — to those of today’s billionaires” because “our technology is already making us gods — so we might as well get good at it.” Positioning billionaire lifestyles as the goal at a time when taxing the super-rich into oblivion is becoming a rallying cry makes Luxury Communism feel out of touch.

The basic argument for how this will occur comes from works of those earlier post-scarcity thinkers: “extreme supply” in information, labor, energy, and resources made possible by a suite of new technologies will force down the prices of basic goods as the marginal cost of production falls close to zero. This will, the thinking goes, break the capitalist system, ushering us into a post-scarcity future where seemingly anything is possible. Yet, the technologies making this future possible come directly out of Silicon Valley.

Although Bastani chides the tech industry for succumbing to capitalist realism — being unable to imagine a future beyond capitalism — he makes an oversight of his own in repeating their visions as a definitive account of the future. In failing to account for how the capitalist orientations and elite positions of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and other tech figures affect the way they imagine the future, Bastani fails to grapple with Silicon Valley’s techno-deteminism, nor does he critically interrogate whether a break with capitalism might put humanity on a different trajectory.

Further, Bastani repeats outdated, techno-determinist alarmism about mass unemployment resulting from automation, when it is no longer clear that this at all guaranteed. The mass robotization scenario is premised on capitalists remaining in control of the means of production, when Bastani himself acknowledges that a resurgent electoral left in the United Kingdom and United States wants greater power for workers.

As Brian Merchant puts it, “‘robots’ are not ‘coming for your job’, management is,” and if workers take control, they could make different decisions.

What’s more, we have seen ample evidence that the claims of technologists about the rapid improvements they could deliver in artificial intelligence have proven to be significantly exaggerated. Bastani acknowledges that Elon Musk “is notoriously late in delivery,” but asserts “his predictions are often right” — a debatable claim that reveals Bastani’s uncritical approach to billionaire futurism.

The contradictions of ‘ethical extractivism’

Two of the key aspects of billionaire futurism that Bastani integrates into his Luxury Communism vision are autonomous vehicles and space mining. Autonomous vehicles were all the rage in Silicon Valley for about a half-decade, but the enthusiasm came to a grinding halt when an Uber test vehicle went rogue in March 2018, killing a woman in Tempe, Arizona. Now the industry admits the technology is much farther away than they led people to believe. Waymo’s CEO says autonomous vehicles won’t ever be able to drive in any weather or time of year, while MIT researcher Bryan Reimer says the timeline for driverless vehicles that will change how we live is “in the order of several decades, if not further away.”

The only person pushing the fantasy that self-driving cars are still only a year or two away is the notoriously dishonest Musk, but that doesn’t stop Bastani from claiming autonomous vehicles will solve “as many problems as the automobile did when it replaced the horse.” This is quite a statement, considering how automobiles kill 1.35 million people every year while fueling the climate crisis — but at least there’s no more horse manure in the streets.

To Bastani’s credit, he does propose transit as a free public service after refocusing on the near future, but whenever he talks about transportation in the future tense, it is all about autonomous vehicles. We already know, however, that driverless cars are not enough to address the transport emissions problem on their own, will continue to produce excess pollution from wear to car tires and brakes, and will require a significant increase in mineral production for batteries, effectively swapping one extractivism for another. To the latter point, Bastani does have a solution — just not a very good one.

Instead of relying on child labour and workers with few rights and protections, Bastani proposes that we get all the metals and minerals needed for the ubiquitous autonomous vehicle future from outer space. He comes across as an admirer of the private space industry and repeats the bold predictions of space mining companies that the great wealth for minerals in near-Earth asteroids — generating more than $100 billion per person! — could be within our reach “perhaps as soon as 2030.”

Scientists say we have until 2030 to slash global emissions by 45 percent. Given this, does it really make sense to bet our future on autonomous electric vehicles, which require such a significant increase in mining that they could create a series of humanitarian disasters in the Global South unless, by some miracle, private space companies start mining asteroids within a decade?

The alternative is to rely on existing technologies like buses and bikes, by reorienting cities around people, and getting rid of cars altogether — but that doesn’t fetishize technology, so it’s not on the table for Bastani.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Against billionaire futurism

In a 1978 speech, Murray Bookchin criticized futurism as “the present as it exists today, projected, one hundred years from now. […] All they do is they make everything either bigger, or they change the size—you’ll live in thirty story buildings, you’ll live in sixty-story buildings.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. He continued:

We have to change the present so that the future looks very, very different from what it is today. This is a terribly important notion to convey. So a lot of people are walking around today who sound very idealistic. And what do they want to do? They want multinational corporations to become multi-cosmic corporations—literally!

That is exactly what we hear from billionaires. Elon Musk cannot imagine a future of transportation that does not rely on automobiles, and believes humans must become a multiplanetary species. Similarly, Jeff Bezos thinks humans should live in space habitats, but it is not hard to see this vision as a product of billionaire futurism. Under a capitalist logic, the economy will need to keep growing, requiring more resources than the planet can produce, and many more people to keep consuming. Thus, Bezos predicts a trillion people in “O’Neill colonies” supplied by space mining corporations. They project their dependence on consumption and capitalism into the future.

Billionaire futurism is tied to a technological utopianism that Future Histories author Lizzie O’Shea describes as being divorced from politics while seeing “technological progress as the means to bring about a perfect society.” In the process, it “blinds us to the ways in which it is possible to build a new world from political materials available in the present.” Instead of being so focused on the musings of billionaires, O’Shea suggests considering how movements from below can force a fundamental break with the present, setting society on a very different course and spawning some of the most interesting ideas for what alternative futures might look like.

Bastani is not blind to the politics. He outlines a series of proposals for the near-future in the final chapters of Luxury Communism that are largely in line with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, but they don’t align with his longer term future.

Whether Bastani is truly a techno-determinist is irrelevant; what matters is that the future he presents is premised on the fetishization of the techno-utopian musings of billionaires. It is a projection of the present, not a consideration of how the Corbyn project might open up new futures that are more democratic, emancipatory, and, frankly, plausible than the one Bastani lays out.

If workers seize power and abolish the capitalist system, will the future they collectively pursue be the same as that imagined by billionaires who don’t give a second thought to the conditions of the working class?

A true communist future requires a break with billionaire futurism, and that means not being blinded by the sleek, bankrupt visions of Silicon Valley that present technology as the solution to all our problems on vastly overoptimistic timelines. Bastani should have left ‘fully automated luxury communism’ to massively online meme lords, but instead he has tainted any real left vision of the future by falling prey to the billionaire futurist version. Technology alone will not save us, but that does not mean we cannot have a socialist destiny in which we all thrive.

Paris Marx is a writer and graduate student at McGill University. They are the editor of Radical Urbanist and have previously written for NBC News, Toronto Star, and Jacobin.