“Under Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” writes Aaron Bastani towards the conclusion of this short, dizzyingly confident book, “we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires. Luxury will pervade everything as society based on waged work becomes as much a relic as the feudal peasant …”
In the doomy world of 2019, to come across this forecast is quite a shock. Enormous optimism about humanity’s long-term future; faith in technology, and in our wise use of it; a guilt-free enthusiasm for material goods; and yet also a belief that an updated form of communism should be 21st-century society’s organising principle – these are Bastani’s main themes. The immediate temptation is to see the book as some sort of joke: a satire, or a political prank.
Bastani is a rising young leftwing provocateur, co-founder of Novara Media, the slickest of the guerrilla news and opinion operations that have sprung up in Britain, amid the struggles of mainstream journalism either to properly register the failures of austerity and modern capitalism or to explain the rise of their opponents such as Jeremy Corbyn. Bastani is an effective but slippery broadcaster and online presence: always fluent and flexible, able to switch from fierce defence of Corbynism to cheekier updates on the busy British left’s latest preoccupations, from post-work to the universal basic income. Fully Automated Luxury Communism is a typical Bastani catchphrase – attention-grabbing, armoured against attack with a sparkly coating of irony – and he has been deploying it shamelessly for years in the lead-up to this publication.
But is it much more than a catchphrase? In a surprisingly earnest and stiff opening section, he repeatedly lays out the book’s core argument. The world is in an unprecedented crisis – environmental, economic, social, demographic. Yet the left and the green movement’s conventional solution to it – essentially to tame humanity through regulation and self-restraint – is the opposite of what’s needed, Bastani says. Technology, guided by activist leftwing governments, should be used to intensify our “mastery” of the planet, and to extend it to places beyond. The result will not just be our world’s survival, he promises, but the creation of a new world of social justice and limitless abundance, with goods produced at almost no cost, and then freely and equally distributed.
Like many futurologists, he bases his predictions on a broad-brush reading of history. So far, he claims, human society has been transformed by two epic, upper-case “Disruptions”: “the domestication of animals and crops”, and the industrial revolution. Both made possible ways of life that were previously either fantasies or simply unimaginable. A “Third Disruption” is now imminent. Some of its supposed driving forces are familiar stuff – artificial intelligence, solar power – while others sound more far fetched: the mining of asteroids to replenish Earth’s dwindling supplies of minerals; the replacement of most edible meat with synthetic flesh. The latter process, Bastani writes, will be “likely” to include “using a 3D printer to ‘print’ steaks”. It certainly makes a change from his day job sticking up for British politics’ most famous vegetarian.
In fact, much of the book is light on politics, focusing instead on recent and impending technological breakthroughs, in a manner more familiar from upbeat technology magazines such as Wired than the rigorously pessimistic leftwing volumes Verso usually publishes. But Bastani writes with pace, economy and infectious enthusiasm, and he solidifies his most speculative chapters, to an extent, with some telling facts. “Global solar [power] capacity … increased by a factor of 100 between 2004 and 2014,” he points out. And later: “Luxembourg [has] already begun to create the legal frameworks for asteroid mining companies to base themselves in the Duchy.” The beginnings of the future he wants are already here.
There are practical challenges still, he admits, deploying phrases such as “once the technical barriers are surmounted”. But these cautions are rare and brief. Bastani doesn’t say so explicitly, but he is really an accelerationist, one of a small but influential line of thinkers, active in Britain since the 1990s, first mainly on the right, now increasingly on the left, who believe that the best path for humanity is to go faster, in all senses. “We must grasp the opportunities of the new world,” he writes, “rather than dwell on those … social mores which are quickly moving into the slipstream of history.” It’s easy to snort at, or feel unsettled by, such moments of Lenin-goes-to-Silicon-Valley rhetoric. Bastani’s vast proposals sometimes lack the relatively human scale and rootedness in history of the schemes, similar in optimism and intent, currently being promoted by other leftists as a Green New Deal.
Yet sometimes the nimbler Bastani persona lightens these pages. A clever passage uses the London “Horse Manure Crisis” of 1894, when the then huge number of horses being used in the capital led the Times to wonder whether it would become uninhabitable, to demonstrate that supposedly lethal threats to the environment can be overcome by technology with unexpected swiftness. Within a few years of the panic, motorised transport became common, the London horse population collapsed, and the threat of manure-buried streets evaporated. “A few short decades from now,” Bastani concludes, “the seemingly terminal [environmental] problems of today will appear as absurd.” You don’t have to share his confidence about that to agree with his suggestion that the apocalyptic is a mode that the media and many of its consumers slip into too easily – sometimes for commercial or psychological rather than rational reasons – and that episodes of mistaken doom-mongering are too easily forgotten.
But he does concede that there is a bigger obstacle than pessimism, or “technical barriers”, to the creation of a sustainable and fair world. The problem is political: the stranglehold of short-termist corporations over most economic life and governments. It’s a predictable bogeyman for a book of this sort, but a persuasive one. As long as such capitalists dominate the development and deployment of technology, he argues, its potential to achieve higher social and environmental goals will not be realised. Even the most adventurous space exploration firms, which he at first profiles with great enthusiasm, are ultimately too unambitious and profit-driven for his liking.
In his final chapters, Bastani sketches how governments and citizens could make companies act differently, and also expand the space for developing technology outside capitalism altogether. He suggests that Corbyn’s Labour party, and in particular the shadow chancellor John McDonnell and his technologically literate young advisers and proteges, are on the right path. But it’s a long haul from “growing the worker-owned economy” and establishing new British “regional investment bodies”, as the book slightly blandly summarises the McDonnell approach, to establishing the new global society Bastani envisages, with almost limitless public services and consumer commodities, all of them either free or affordable to all, and environmentally sustainable.
Some readers will finish this book exhilarated and energised. Others will be unconvinced, or utterly baffled. There are more ideas crammed in here than in a whole shelf of standard politics books. And in today’s fraught world, the time to read whole shelves of politics books may have passed.
• Fully Automated Luxury Communism is published by Verso (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian