Automated for the people?

A recent book by left-wing author Aaron Bastani is the latest to proclaim that new technology has the power to transform society, offering up fixes for global warming, poverty and much more. But how could such a change take place when the world economic and political system is in the hands of a rich, capitalist elite? HANNAH SELL writes.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism: a manifesto

By Aaron Bastani

Published by Verso, 2019, £16.99

Aaron Bastani is a Jeremy Corbyn supporter and one of the central figures in Novara Media, the left-wing social media platform. Fully Automated Luxury Communism outlines his vision for the future. Its publication is a symptom of the growing interest in socialist ideas. Unlike many anti-capitalist books it does not focus on the misery capitalism offers today but on the potential for new technology to lay the basis for a new society “as distinct from our own as that of the twentieth century to feudalism, or urban civilisation from the life of the hunter gatherer”.

Bastani lists the seemingly insurmountable problems of this society – including climate change and mass underemployment – and points to technological solutions. In a world where we are constantly told we have no choice but to accept the status quo his confidence in the possibility of change is refreshing.

Nonetheless, the book is not what it claims to be – a manifesto – because it does not give a path by which its goal can be achieved. Instead, it emphasises how objective processes currently developing are leading to “capitalism, at least as we know it”, being “about to end”. The active and conscious intervention of humankind, above all the working class, is downplayed in this process and, where it is referred to, it is in a nebulous way. ‘Old’ ways of fighting back are dismissed as outdated without any coherent explanation of what the new means to struggle should be.

Far more emphasis is given to the power of technology to transform society. While Bastani can envision a world with a limitless supply of rare metals farmed on foreign planets and the end of work as we know it, he cannot see the possibility of people becoming active to fight for change. On the contrary, he states that “the majority of people are only able to be politically active for brief periods of time”. He considers this “regrettable”, to an “extent”, and hopes that “the act of voting – even if viewed as devoid of much power in itself can catalyse a shift to deeper forms of participation and activism”. He does not indicate what these forms should or could be.

Bastani states that human society has passed through two major ‘disruptions’ that transformed it. First, the development of agriculture, then the industrial revolution. He argues that we are on the eve of a third disruption, with new technology ending want and transforming our lives. He says that this is “uneven and intermittent”, but “we must grasp the opportunities of the new world, rather than dwell on those technologies and social mores which are falling into the slipstream of history”.

He largely ignores, however, what is necessary to bring such a world into being. Bastani would describe himself as a Marxist – and, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels said in the Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”. Of course, they explained that the economic base of society ultimately determines its social structure and that, therefore – as Engels put it in Socialism Utopian and Scientific – “the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought”, not in people’s brains or “better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange”.

The first two transformations Bastani describes did not take place smoothly or automatically, without human intervention. Their development was intertwined with huge revolutionary upheavals – class wars – that transformed the structure of society as a new class became dominant and drove society forward. Bastani ignores or dismisses the reality of, and lessons from, the previous ‘great disruptions’ that apply to the next one he so glibly predicts. He emphasises, for example, the transformative role of the steam engine but does not recognise that a prerequisite for this was the capitalist class overthrowing feudalism by revolutionary means to become the dominant class.

Today, Bastani appears to assume that capitalism will be able to fully develop and utilise new technology in a way that will transform society. He says of capitalism that its “tendency to perpetually innovate as a result of competition, to constantly supplant work performed by humans and maximise productivity, would ultimately lead to a Third Disruption, one whose fullest conclusions are no less dizzying than the two which proceeded it”.

Today’s parasitic capitalism

Is capitalism currently innovating on a parallel with the industrial revolution? Clearly not. Capitalist innovation is not driven by improving society, or stopping climate change, but by maximising profits. The sclerotic character of capitalism today means that it no longer invests to develop the means of production in the way it once did. Even some of those new technologies that have been widely adopted in recent decades did not develop through capitalist investment. The basis for smart phones, for instance, was developed by the US state as an adjunct to military technology.

Nor is it automatic that the technology that has been developed will be adopted, if doing so fails to increase short-term profits. Many modern plastics, for example, were discovered in the early twentieth century. It was only in the dramatically changed conditions for capitalism after the second world war that their widespread adoption became profitable.

Today, global capitalism has not recovered from the devastating crisis that began in 2007/08. There has been a return to growth but none of the underlying problems have been overcome and a new phase of crisis is back on the agenda. The levels of global debt in the world economy are even higher than they were before 2007 – $173 trillion at the time of the crash, but an unprecedented $246.5 trillion now.

At the same time, the policies used by global institutions to ameliorate the effects of the last crisis – low interest rates and ‘socialism for the rich’ via quantitative easing – pumped huge amounts of money into the economy. Yet, in a condemnation of modern capitalism, the vast sums sloshing around have resulted in high profits but not in an increase in investment in research, development and capital to improve productivity. On the contrary, levels of investment remain at a historic low, while finance capital is ever more dominant. This is not a new phenomenon.

Since the end of the post-war upswing (1945-73), capitalists have found it increasingly difficult to find profitable fields of investment in production. Despite the growth of new products, in many sectors of the economy there is overcapacity in relation to money-backed demand. Billions of people lack basic necessities, let alone luxury products. But they also lack the income, and therefore the purchasing power, to buy the goods and services available within the framework of the capitalist economy. This was true prior to the 2007 crisis and is even more the case today, after a decade of austerity.

In contradiction with the hyperbole of Bastani, productivity gains remain at a historically low level in much of the world. This is completely different to the last great disruption that Bastani points to – the industrial revolution – where high levels of capital investment led to exponential increases in productivity. In textile manufacturing, for example, mechanised cotton spinning powered by steam or water increased the output of a worker by a factor of about one thousand.

A stranglehold on the neo-colonial world

Today, capitalism is increasingly incapable of carrying out its historic mission: the development of the productive forces. If this is true in the imperialist countries it is many times truer in the neo-colonial world. Bastani uses Nigeria as an example of the exciting possibilities created by new technology. He makes the point that, in “the most populous country in Africa, half of its 180 million citizens presently lack access to electricity”. He goes on to explain: “By the middle of this century it could have a population of more than 400 million people. What is more, tomorrow’s Nigerians will rightly expect a higher standard of living than their forebears of today. But with fossil fuels that wouldn’t just prove catastrophic, it likely isn’t possible”.

Bastani then points to solar power as a solution: “Such a transition offers the opportunity to leapfrog some of the world’s wealthier countries, with barely any of the sunk costs associated with extensive national grids”. He draws a comparison with the dramatic growth in mobile phone use that has taken place in Nigeria. In reality, however, this is an illustration of how no new technology can overcome the nightmare faced by the peoples of the neo-colonial world on the basis of capitalism.

Leon Trotsky, in his History of the Russian Revolution, described a process of ‘combined and uneven development’ in pre-revolutionary Russia, where elements of advanced capitalism – a greater concentration of industry in huge factories than the US at the time, for example – existed alongside feudal land relations at the level of the seventeenth century. The Russian capitalist class was so weak, reliant on both the Russian feudal aristocracy and the major global capitalist powers, and so terrified of revolt from below, that it was incapable of taking society forward. The tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution, therefore, fell on the shoulders of the Russian working class as part of the struggle for socialism.

Nigeria does have widespread mobile phone coverage, and this has improved the lives of millions. There has also been, as Bastani points out, a modest increase in the number of people buying small solar-power systems for their homes. But, at this stage, this is very small scale. Even the Nigerian government’s targets are only for a minute percentage of the population – 100,000 people – to have access to a solar mini-grid by 2020. At present, electricity from these grids is five times more expensive than that provided nationally. The national grid, however, is incredibly unreliable, providing most homes and workplaces for only a small minority of the time. For most Nigerians, the only way to get reliable electricity is to pay for a generator and the fuel to run it. Bastani is probably right that use of solar power will rise and that would be a step forward for those who can afford to access it.

Yet this would not overcome the completely dysfunctional and parasitic character of Nigerian capitalism. The largest economy in Africa, and a country enormously rich in natural and human resources, it languishes at 156 out of 187 in the Human Development Index, which measures life expectancy, education and per capita income. Ninety-four million Nigerians live on less than $1.90 a day. Meanwhile, the main source of the elite’s vast wealth is selling oil to the imperialist countries – accounting for over 90% of export earnings and around two thirds of government income. Nonetheless, the vast majority of fuel is imported due to the lack of working refineries in Nigeria.

It is not a coincidence that Bastani points to the growth of individual and small-scale solar panel use as the way forward. The idea that the capitalist elite would introduce it on a societal level is too far-fetched even for the most optimistic of commentators! While the elite cream off huge wealth for themselves, the majority of Nigerians are left to cope with a society with virtually no working infrastructure. Households have to provide their own electricity and water. Even so, they cannot provide their own roads and railways and, instead, spend endless hours trying to travel even short distances. No individual solutions can overcome this. The only force capable of transforming the situation, by taking power from the elite, is the powerful and heroic Nigerian working class, which held more than ten general strikes in the first decade of the century.

A politically organised working class

It is not only in Nigeria but globally that the working class has the key role to play in transforming society. A recent study in the Washington Post looked at a century of protest in 150 countries. It concluded that the common factor in movements being successful was the active involvement of the working class, especially the industrial working class. This is not outdated. Look at the role of the Chilean copper miners in the current struggle engulfing the country, or of the Ecuadorian general strike. The working class remains the only force in society capable of overthrowing capitalism and building a new world.

Bastani dismisses this on the grounds that we live in a world “whose ideas and technologies are hugely changed from those of the early twentieth century”. Yet the unpaid labour of the working class remains the source of the capitalists’ profits. Yes, industrial workers make up a smaller section of the working class in Europe and the US than in most of the last century, but the highly productive character of their work means that they still have enormous potential power. At the same time, other sections of society, such as junior doctors in Britain who were previously part of the middle class, are seeing their living conditions driven down and increasingly adopt working-class methods of struggle.

We would add to the Washington Post’s conclusions that the working class has been most effective when organised in a mass party determined to struggle for power. It was the existence of such a party that was the fundamental difference between the Russian revolution in 1917 – when the working class succeeded in overthrowing capitalism, for the first time – and unsuccessful revolutions.

Bastani, however, casually jettisons the lessons of the Russian revolution. Fully automated luxury communism, he says, “is not the communism of the early twentieth century”. Why? Because, “until the opening decades of the third disruption, communism was as impossible as surplus before the first disruption or electricity before the second. Instead it was socialism, still defined by scarcity and jobs, which became the North Star for hope across the world”. It is true that the poverty and isolation of the Soviet Union was key to its degeneration, although that would not have been the case had it been followed by successful revolutions in other, richer countries.

And, yes, capitalism today has clearly created the possibility to create a communist society in the sense Marx meant it: a society of superabundance where the needs of all humanity can be met. The prerequisite for starting to create such a society, however, remains – as in the twentieth century – the overthrow of capitalism. As Bastani points out, when he talks about the way the capitalists use robotics to throw workers on the scrapheap, in a capitalist society scarcity and lack of decent jobs remain the norm for the majority. 

So how does Bastani propose to change that? Not, apparently, via the “party-form” which “makes increasingly little sense”. Nor “forms of worker organising, which are erroneously premised on work enduring forever”. For most workers, only able to make end meets by working long hours well past when their parents retired, work does indeed seem to endure forever. The only road by which the working class can begin to change that is by getting organised and using its collective power to fight back against the bosses’ exploitation.

Preston v Liverpool

What replaces such supposedly outmoded ideas in Bastani’s manifesto? He argues for ‘luxury’ populism. There are few concrete suggestions of what that might actually mean. He correctly says that it is necessary to take part in electoral politics and that a “first step to fully automated luxury communism” is a break with neoliberalism. This has already started, he argues, on a local level. The example he gives is the ‘triumph’ of the ‘Preston model’. There, the Labour council approached local institutions and asked them to direct as much of their spending as possible into the local economy. Six, including the council and the university, agreed to do so. The result was that the companies went from spending £38 million in Preston in 2013 to £111 million in 2017. Reports suggest this has had some positive effect on the wages and employment in the town.

Nonetheless, there are glaring limits to this model, which is also held up by shadow chancellor John McDonnell and other figures on the Labour left. Firstly, the council’s innovation started from the premise that it has no choice but to cut local services and so to find some other means to bring money into the town – its central government grant has been cut by around £20 million a year since 2010. Preston council has used some of its reserves to try and save local services but has made devastating cuts, nonetheless. As Martyn Rawlinson, the councillor in charge of finance, put it in an interview with Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty, the Preston model is about trying to build something new after a decade of cuts which mean, among many other things, that “an aged couple with rats in their house will be waiting weeks for the city’s pest control to come out”.

This raises the question why Preston council didn’t at least react to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader by refusing to carry out any further cuts, using its remaining reserves and prudential borrowing powers to fund local services. It could then have campaigned for support from the local population and nationally, demanding a Corbyn-led government replenish its funds on coming to power. If any Labour council had been prepared to do that it would have inspired enormous enthusiasm from workers nationwide facing cuts to local services in jobs.

Today, in a desperate attempt to win the general election, even Boris Johnson is claiming that ‘austerity is over’. Yet the likes of Bastani – notwithstanding all their claims to radicalism – see the way forward in terms of persuading local institutions to behave better, rather than organising a serious struggle to defeat the brutal austerity that has been implemented at local level.

As the Militant (now the Socialist Party) demonstrated when we played a leading role in Liverpool city council in the 1980s, electoral politics can act as a springboard for Bastani’s ‘deeper forms of participation and action’. That is only possible, however, provided elected positions are used to organise a serious struggle in the interests of the working-class majority. In Liverpool, that included a city-wide, public-sector general strike and 50,000-strong demonstrations in support of the council, as part of a struggle that took on and defeated Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.

The Preston model does not show a way forward for councils nationwide. Many other local authorities have fewer institutions – such as universities – that might be willing to spend money locally, and even greater poverty. In 2015, for example, neighbouring Blackpool had seven of the 20 most-deprived neighbourhoods in the country. Preston had none. And, ultimately, institutions that are spending money in their local community are not spending it somewhere else. The Preston model is, in fact, a form of protectionism which cannot increase the number of jobs on a national basis, but only in a limited number of local areas.

Capitalist class opposition

In the final section of his book, Bastani lists three initial steps to fully automated luxury communism. Starting with introducing the Preston model on a national basis, he goes on to “socialising finance and creating a network of local and regional banks”. He makes clear that he does not mean what the Socialist Party demands: nationalisation of the existing banking and finance companies, under the democratic control of workers and users. He means additional local banks partly funded by trade union pension funds. Incidentally, this is one of the only positive roles he refers to trade unions playing!  

His proposal leaves the enormous power of the banking and finance capitalists intact. Perhaps he hopes that his third disruption will lead to the collapse of capitalism – at least, in its current form – allowing local banks to step into the vacuum. If so, this is wishful thinking. No matter how rotten and incapable of developing society capitalism becomes, the capitalist class will fight tooth and nail to defend its system – and the capitalists’ profits. There is no doubt that all sections of the ruling class – not least the bankers – would use every tool at their disposal to sabotage a left-wing government that attempted to introduce, for example, Bastani’s final proposal: for universal basic services which would make “education, democracy and legal services, shelter, food, transport and information” free at the point of use.

Perhaps because he is aware of this opposition, Bastani immediately starts to water it down, adding that not all the elements are “necessary in the transition to fully automated luxury communism – at least not initially”. Clearly, to make even some of these necessities of life free would be a huge step forward for society. However, a piecemeal approach would not prevent the trenchant opposition of the capitalist class. Look at the outrage at Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to nationalise BT’s Openreach and provide free broadband.

If he wins the election and attempts to implement the policy this opposition will be stepped up, probably involving legal action combined with demands that the government pays an extortionate price to shareholders. Even if a Corbyn-led government succeeded in carrying out nationalisation of the areas Bastani proposes, control of the economy as a whole would remain in the hands of the major capitalists who would be able to set the framework within which publicly-owned industry would have to operate.

To really begin to harness the industry, science and technique created by capitalism, so that ‘fully automated luxury communism’ could be developed, would require taking power out of the hands of the capitalist class. That would mean nationalising, under democratic workers’ control and management, the 150 or so major corporations and banks that dominate the economy – with compensation paid only to small shareholders based on proven need. Combined with a state monopoly of foreign trade this would create the basis for a democratic plan of production run by elected representatives of the workers and the wider community, while aiming to protect our environment.

Any government carrying out such a policy would need to mobilise the working class in support of its policies and to have an international perspective, collaborating with the workers’ movement in other countries to develop socialist planning at an international level. In our globalised world, the enormous similarities between the struggles facing the working class in different countries mean that such a government would have a very immediate and widespread resonance.

Bastani’s manifesto is enthusiastic. But, by jettisoning lessons from the struggles to end capitalism over the last century, on the spurious grounds that new technology has transformed the world beyond recognition, he ends up disarming the struggle for a new world.