Fully Automated Luxury Communism: book review

If capitalism is failing us, what comes after? Oli Mould finds much optimism – though a few gaps – in Aaron Bastani's new book.

Oli Mould
14 May 2019, 9.25am
Verso Books

When even James Corden – the cheeky English TV celebrity who became the darling of Middle America – is retweeting socialist rants, you know that capitalism’s time is up. The over-arching ideological epoch of the last century or so has brought us to the precipice of planetary catastrophe, and unless there is large-scale systemic change then surely we will go the same way as the dinosaurs. That capitalism needs to be replaced if we are to save the planet is almost mainstream thinking; even the UN seems to think so.

But what replaces it is far from certain, and the cause of much anxiety and hopelessness. There are of course many excellent local examples of societies, communities and cities that are experimenting with alternatives to capitalism. But the famous Marxist geographer David Harvey has always insisted that the biggest challenge to any anti-capitalist discourse is the ‘scale problem’. How can a localised eco-squat that has provided communal, green and equitable living for scores of people for decades ever become a blueprint for a planetary community? How does a city that has successfully kicked out politicians, the police and the mafia, and in so doing, massively increased the quality of life, become a model for an entire global region? A tangible and functional answer has always eluded even the most practical of utopian thinkers, and as such simply added to that feeling of hopelessness.

But in the midst of all this gloom, Aaron Bastani, with his new book, 'Fully Automated Luxury Communism' (or FALC) attempts to provide a hopeful answer. And – albeit with just a little leap of faith from the reader – he has been successful.

The book is full of hope. In the introduction, he sets how we are living in what he calls the ‘Third Disruption’, in which information is becoming evermore abundant. What is more, it is ushering in an age of post-scarcity in which everything we could ever need as human beings will be provided at next to no cost at all. Sounds fanciful? Well, as the first half of the book details in bold, unabashed detail, it is becoming a reality very quickly. Via automation, renewable energy, mining in space, gene editing and food engineering, the human race – every person on the planet – will soon have the means to live in abundance. The statistics Bastani offers are staggering: there is as much energy from the Sun hitting the Earth in 90 minutes as the entire planet uses in one year and we now have the economic capacity to harness it. An asteroid only a short journey beyond Mars contains over $100 trillion (yes, with a T) of precious metals (and there are over 16,000 of these asteroids within reachable distance). There is enough computing power to map the genome of every living organism on this planet. The list goes on. It is a quite incredible journey through just how creative the human race can be.

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Of course, the reason that we are not currently enjoying this abundance is because of capitalism. In the second half of the book, Bastani gives both barrels to a system that creates artificial scarcity through the price mechanism. If we allow capitalism to continue, then all the riches that the Third Disruption affords us will be locked behind corporate structures that will maintain and exacerbate the current inequalities and planetary destruction we currently experience.

The boundless utopianism of the book is infectious. The insistence upon the end of scarcity, for Bastani, means that the end of capitalism is inevitable. Hence, the latter chapters of the book are dedicated to illustrating how he sees FALC coming into being. Universal Basic Services that provide health care, education, transport and local financing for free, an internationalism (not globalism, a term he uses despite all the loading it carries) that redistributes the ill-gotten gains of the Global North, and progressive taxation of the ‘old’ practices of carbon-based energy production and casino-style banking. They all go towards a vision (he is quite rightly wary of the term ‘blueprint’) of what a more equitable, just, sustainable and beautiful world will look like.

Bastani paints a vivid and intoxicating picture of a luxurious and plentiful superstructure undergirded by a base of intergalactic automation and excess supply of everything. For that, he is to be applauded, and this book should be read by anyone who feels that capitalism has had its day (which given the current state of the world, should be everyone).

But the one thing I felt missing from this tangible utopianism was the agency of the people he is so keen to foreground. He has explored how FALC can come about in intricate detail (even down to the percentage tax levy of carbon-based fossil fuel companies). Yet throughout the narrative, there is a sense that the local people and their communities, with all their idiosyncrasies, variegated cultures, political hues and myriad worldviews, are missing from the discussion. This is down more to the direction of the book’s narrative; to start a discussion on how FALC will manifest in the infinitely various lives of the 7 billion people on this planet would have turned what is an expertly paced rhetoric on mainly structural issues into a verbose mess of anthropological posturing. Yet with such an important and timely message as this book brings, it is even more important to articulate how FALC would imprint itself upon everyday life.

Perhaps this is for another book project. If so, it would do well to articulate what local democratic processes such a project would entail. Bastani is keen to evoke populism as a means to move beyond the neoliberal order of technocratic governance, but does not delve further into how this can be mobilised as anything other than reactionary trope. There is clear parallel here with Chantal Mouffe’s recent work, which attempts to narrate a ‘left populism’ as a counterpoint to the very real concerns of the disaffected groups that have been hoodwinked by ultra-rich xenophobic demagogues hell-bent on maintaining the status quo. Yet, without mechanisms of democratic engagement at the community level, the populist ‘badge’ risks making the same mistakes. If there’s one thing the deeply textured sociological scholarship of recent decades has shown us, it’s that people don’t like being put in ideological boxes. The link between FALC and how communities engage with it politically (and indeed, technologically) will be important to detail. The good news is that this book provides us with the platform, and convincingly showcases the incentives to do just that.

Relatedly, the book leaves open the question of identity politics and what role that plays in FALC. This in part stems from the overly masculine tone of the book. This is a critique that can readily be levelled at my own work (as well as many others writing about anti-capitalism), but the underpinning intellectual history is overwhelming male and white. Marx, Keynes, Drucker, Lenin; I don’t think a female is cited until well into halfway through the book. If we are to successfully decolonise our work, particularly when trying to formulate a progressive agenda that seeks to dismantle capitalism, it is imperative that we bring in feminist, anti-racist, anti-ablist, and queer viewpoints, or what Cindi Katz calls ‘minor theory’. While Marx’s work is vital to the cause, minor theory is vital in providing the checks, balances, and important nuance that will see that agenda not fall foul of attempts to claim, co-opt or discredit it. As white male scholars raging against the machine, it is only right that we use our privileged platforms to bring others into the debate, as ultimately doing so will secure the debate’s longevity and shape a society that truly works for everyone. Like I say, this is a critique I level at myself too.

Despite these omissions, the book is an extremely timely interjection into what is a vital moment in human history. If (or as Bastani says throughout this excellent diatribe, when) capitalism falls, what happens next will be critical. And if it looks even as half as intoxicating as Fully Automated Luxury Communism, then perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani will be published on 11 June by Verso Books.

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