Exeter, Devon UK • Jun 25, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features Fully Automated Luxury Communism: An Interview With Aaron Bastani

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: An Interview With Aaron Bastani

An interview with Aaron Bastani about his new book Fully Automated Luxury Communism.
5 mins read
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An automated robot on an assembly line. Image: avramc

Fully Automated Luxury Communism. It’s a phrase you might have heard if you’re on left Twitter, or perhaps at a pride event you’ve seen signs promoting it’s astro-queer cousin; Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism. It’s not, as some suggest, just an irony-drenched slogan designed to appeal to young socialists that are all heart and no head (to paraphrase Churchill), but a politics aiming to liberate us from the planet-burning drudgery of neoliberal capitalism through the disruptive power of technology. Its most prominent advocate is Aaron Bastani, the co-founder of the radical outlet Novara Media, whose debut book Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto has just come out with Verso.

Bastani’s thesis is that capitalism is producing major crises; climate breakdown and resource scarcity, demographic aging, a new global poor without the skills to enter the workplace and an impending wave of automation that is going to eliminate human labour from vast swathes of the economy. These crises make up what he calls ‘The Great Disorder’. This dovetails with another neologism, borrowed from Silicon Valley, ‘The Third Disruption’ which describes the way that digital technology is revolutionising society, in the way that mechanical technology did in the Industrial Revolution (the second disruption) and the advent of farming did in the Agricultural Revolution (the first disruption). The revolution brought about by digital technology, according to Bastani, means that information – which has a reproduction cost of zero or thereabouts – is increasingly the central factor of production rather than land or labour. This, to grossly oversimplify his thesis, means huge areas of production will be able to operate at the cost of pressing ctrl C + ctrl V. This tendency towards ever cheaper and more powerful information technology is present in cellular agriculture, solar power and lithium-ion batteries, gene editing through Krisper-Cas9 and minerals through the technology needed to mine asteroids. Bastani argues that this creates an “extreme supply” of vital goods which is undermining the capitalist mode of production, a system that relies on scarcity to sell things for a profit. He believes that with the right politics we can prevent capitalism from enforcing artificial scarcity and enjoy lives of low cost, zero carbon, communal luxury in which we work less, relax more and our basic needs are always cared for. We spoke to Aaron Bastani about the big, radical and often unbelievable ideas contained in the glossy hardback.

Aaron Bastani at The World Transformed festival. Image: Jwslubbock

One of the most contentious ideas in his book is asteroid mining which has provoked many accusations of FALC being a flight of fancy. Bastani pushes back against the people making these criticisms stating: “I think there is a habit for technologists, science writers, to underestimate change in the long term and to overestimate it in the short term”. He points out that “people have been predicting a general artificial intelligence since the 1950s and the number they always give is twenty years, because twenty years is just long enough for you to no longer be an authority and for people to say no, you’re wrong”. He maintains that asteroid mining is an inevitability, arguing that the hardest part, escaping the earth’s gravity using hydrocarbons, has already happened so the confluence of ever-cheaper renewable energy (which is occurring year on year), first-stage rocket boosters which can autonomously land (we’ve had those since 2015) and robotics with fine motor coordination, mean that the level of human intervention will be minimal. He points to the Japanese Hayabusa mission which brought back metals from an asteroid and argues “it’s a question of when rather than if”.

unless it contravenes the laws of physics, I don’t see how someone can write off anything

Many of FALC’s technological observations are based on Moore’s Law, a theory of exponential change which states that the number of transistors (and therefore processing power) per square inch of the integrated circuit has doubled (and will for the near future continue to double) every year since the integrated circuit was invented. Moore’s law has been accompanied by a dramatic fall in the price per unit of chips with transistors on, which adds to Bastani’s argument about extreme supply. However, not everyone is so optimistic, another book out with Verso last year, New Dark Age by James Bridle, is very pessimistic about technology and focuses on Eroom’s law – the exponential diminishing of returns on investment in the pharmaceutical industry. When faced with the comparison Aaron responds quickly arguing that it is economics rather than anything inherent in the technology that is inhibiting progress in pharmaceuticals; “the reason why we see diminishing returns in pharmaceuticals is because the incentives are wrong. That [concerns] patents, with marketing rights. That’s to do with false scarcity under capitalism… my book talks about information increasingly becoming the central factor of production. We already have that with pharmaceuticals. The value that comes out of pharmaceuticals is not labour, it’s not land, it’s the information and if you want to see a very strong example of scarcity constraining abundance, it is the patenting regime around pharmaceuticals”. Bastani’s rhetoric on human ingenuity mirrors free marketeers in Silicon Valley when he states that “unless it contravenes the laws of physics, I don’t see how someone can write off anything”, with the crucial difference that he thinks “capitalism is restraining ingenuity” rather than the state.

Bastani is not the first person on the left to make these kind of claims, FALC expands on the ideas in Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future which also argue for a left that accepts technology and suggest that a zero marginal cost revolution and the emerging digital commons are undermining capitalism from within. I asked Aaron whether or not he thought he was part of a new left canon. “[They’re] two great books” he enthuses “I wouldn’t say that canon embraces technology, I would say it’s a hopeful left which understands that human ingenuity is limited by technology under capitalism… It’s calling for a break not just with neoliberalism, it’s also calling for a break with deep green thinking and with the sort of anarchist forms of activism that have prevailed since the late 1980s. The two vibrant strains of left thinking, really after Seattle, after 2001 through to 2008/9 were deep green… and anarchist forms of organising. When you look at anarchist thinking [it] prioritises social relations above everything else, when you look at deep green thinking [it] prioritises relations to nature over everything else, I think what Paul, Alex and Nick and I have in common is that we say; actually if you want to create revolutionary change it has to be social relations, it has to be relations to nature, it has to be technology, class struggle, production processes etc. so I do think we’re a break with that yes. It’s not because we’re cleverer” he adds quickly. “I just think the crisis of 2008 and the political movements that followed in its wake were always liable to create more empirically embedded, practically oriented work”.

Marx is right about why capitalism can never lead to abundance

The ‘hopeful left’ of which Bastani is part tends to be criticised as placing too much faith in technology. In recent years the slogan “tech won’t save us” has arisen in response to this kind of thinking. FALC the book, has split opinion, as Bastani himself often does and he has been told this is technologically determinist as well as facing the charge from parts of the orthodox left that this is not real communism. He counters by pointing to the first chapter of his book which paints a bleak picture of the near future. “If we carry on in our present direction… our destination is species wipe-out potentially. I’m obviously not a technological determinist, if I was… I don’t see how I’d square that with the crises I talk about under the great disorder; climate change, demographic ageing, what automation does to development etc. To create a new destination and deviate from our current path we need a new set of politics. I don’t really get the technological determinist argument” he adds “I think it’s just confirmation bias”. On the subject of whether or not FALC is real communism he concedes “that’s a more valid question I suppose because… over time we’ve had a range of people with different expectations and ideas claiming they were speaking on behalf of communism. I’ve tried my best really to recapitulate a form of communism that Marx talks about in the Grundrisse and [Das] Kapital and I’ve cited a wide range of sources to really say how I think the tradition he embodies can be applied to the 21st century. People are gonna disagree with readings… that’s fine but I’ve backed it up with a range of sources and not just that, I’ve then put it within empirical cases of the present day and said; look Marx is right about why capitalism can never lead to abundance because we can see what’s happening in pharmaceuticals, we can see what’s happening in synthetic biology and gene editing and we can see what happened with streaming of music and film in the early 21st century so I think my reading of Marx is a pretty decent one, both theoretically and empirically”.

Aaron has been described in the New Statesman as a “millennial socialist” and his book compared to Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto. They share a tone that makes grand ideas accessible. Bastani’s opening chapter pastiches Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search Of An Author to highlight the crossroads we are at under capitalism and includes a vignette in which cops confiscate someone’s illegally gene edited daschund named Noodle. Sunkara’s first chapter ‘A day in the life of a socialist citizen is similarly tongue in cheek and describes a worker at a pasta sauce factory run by Jon Bon Jovi’s dad. Is this accessibility key to the success of Novara and Jacobin? “That’s clearly been a big ingredient and I’d say it’s probably the same ingredient with the success of Owen Jones and my colleague Ash [Sarkar]”. He recalls a time as a twenty-year-old when an older, prominent leftist shot him down after asking a question about the Iranian Revolution and says that kind of response is “so odd”. “Whenever I speak to young people now, even if I disagree with them, if they’re saying something which they’ve researched and is a salient question, you answer them generously and I think before the left didn’t care about that stuff”. Aaron argues that before, the left probably didn’t think that there was an audience for their ideas, but with the rise of Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos and the various social movements they’ve realised the audience is there and it has become much more normal to talk in everyday language. Bastani’s hope shines through even when considering the present state of politics, “I think it’s a really good thing. Even if in other areas the left fails to achieve what it what wants over the next couple of years, I don’t think it will [fail], but the fact that we’ve made these arguments quite clear and common sense is a really big achievement because the left hasn’t done that in the English speaking world for a very long time”.

Whenever I speak to young people now, even if I disagree with them, if they’re saying something which they’ve researched and is a salient question, you answer them generously and I think before the left didn’t care about that stuff

Bastani clearly lives and breathes technology. At the moment he’s reading SuperIntelligence by Nick Bostrom about the dangers of AI, Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark about what life will be like under AI and the The Fourth Revolution by Luciano Floridi about how infotech is reshaping reality. FALC is an idea here to stay, the book is Bastani’s priority for the next couple of months and it is currently being translated into Polish, Swedish, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean and Japanese and there are a few other languages being considered. His plan is to travel to these places and try and make these ideas as common sense for the left as possible. He stresses that he’s not blindly convinced of his own correctness, but he would like the ideas to spread so there can be a response to the protracted crisis of the present moment. These crises are not going away and neither is Aaron Bastani.

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