Tim Nailsea reviews Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Aaron Bastani, Verso, 2020, 288pp, £9.99
Last year Aaron Bastani, commissioning editor of Novara Media, released a manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, in which he outlined how he believes new technologies can be harnessed to build a new kind of society. For Bastani, innovations in communications and science have made possible a new world of plenty, which could be achieved if they were harnessed for the benefit of all rather than, as they are now, for the enrichment of a few individuals.
There is much to be recommended in Bastani’s vision. He correctly points out how humanity’s productive capacity, if its main aim were providing for all, rather than for private profit, could sustain us all. His vision is also truly internationalist in scope, in that he sees such a society only being possible if implemented on a global scale. Unfortunately, however, there are several fundamental flaws in his understanding of history, political economy and society, which fatally undermine his arguments.
Bastani believes that humanity is now undergoing what he refers to as the “Third Disruption”. The First Disruption having been the introduction of agriculture, the Second Disruption was the Industrial Revolution. The Third Disruption is being brought about by innovations in technology, such as digital communication and robotics, which threaten to alter the entire fabric of society.
Similarly, according to Bastani, the Industrial Revolution was brought about by technological innovation, “as much by a transformation in energy as it was by production.” This is simply incorrect. While the Industrial Revolution was marked by a huge expansion in the use of fossil fuels, and in the invention and utilisation of new sorts of machinery, this was all made possible by innovations in the mode of production – the creation of the factory worker.
The technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution in fact came late in the process of social change. The Industrial Revolution is usually dated to the creation of first canals in Britain and the technology for them was shovels and wheelbarrows, not factories and steam power. Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution itself was the end of a long process of social change. The bourgeoisie who initiated the Industrial Revolution were the heirs to those who fought and won the English Revolution and Civil War and then accumulated more wealth by driving the peasantry off the land, plundering Latin America and controlling the slave trade. Only once they controlled the state did they have the means to do all that, and only as a result of the primitive accumulation through colonialism and slavery could they have the capital to kickstart the process of the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the steam engine and the cotton gin, while an important part of the process, were hardly foundational.
This basic error runs throughout this work and is the foundation of all Bastani’s subsequent mistakes. He sees change as being brought about by innovations in technology, rather than by changes in relations between people. However, as Frederick Engels pointed out,
The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent on what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange [my italics].
Bastani quotes Marx liberally throughout his manifesto, but unfortunately seems to have failed to grasp one of the most elementary points of Marxist thought. The Industrial Revolution came about as a result of a new class, the bourgeoisie, whose wealth was based upon private commerce; hiring wage workers to produce goods which could then be sold on the market.
The entire basis of the capitalist system rests upon workers adding value to products through their labour. Marx and Engels certainly agreed that technology was harnessed to better facilitate this, however, the need for technology was predicated upon the existence of the bourgeoisie as a class and its need to revolutionise the mode of production,
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations if production, and with them the whole relations of society.
Marx and Engels recognised the importance of technology in increasing humanity’s productive capacity, and believed, like Bastani, that if technology could be harnessed for public good, rather than private profit, it would be crucial to building a new society. However, they believed that this could only be achieved after a fundamental change in human relations. Technology on its own could not liberate the working class. Only the working class itself could achieve that.
As a result of his technological determinism, Bastani argues that the world had not been ready to create communism before now, as the technology was not there to ensure the level of production required. This shows a basic lack of understanding in economics. Workers have always produced a surplus – it is on this that capitalism as an economic system rests. That surplus is expropriated by capitalists for profit. Workers have therefore always had the productive capacity to sustain themselves many times over. Technological advances make this even easier, but it was always possible.
Throughout his manifesto, Bastani misattributes his own ideas to Marx in what appears to be a genuine lack of comprehension rather than wilful misinterpretation on his part. For example, he claims that Marx viewed the shift to a communist society as “contingent on technological change”, and, to prove this, proceeds to quote Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, in which he says,
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
In this passage, Marx is very clearly describing a new society in which the division between mental and physical labour is abolished. This is not achieved simply by automation, which Marx does not mention here at all, but by a revolution in social and productive relations. This mistake is not highlighted to be pedantic; it is crucial to a Marxist understanding of social change which Bastani claims to share. It is also worth understanding, given Bastani’s explanation for how social change occurs, that the reference to the “higher phase of communism” in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, assumes that this is quite some time after the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalists, something, as we shall see, that Bastani does not argue for in his manifesto.
In divorcing change in society, and how society is structured, from its basis in productive relations, Bastani makes the mistake of what used to be referred to as “utopian socialism”. The unfortunate aspect of this error, in Bastani’s case, is that he appears to believe that he is being consistent with Marxism when doing so despite Marx and, especially, Engels, devoting a large amount of energy to debunking utopian socialist ideas. Engels wrote a widely distributed pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, dedicated to pointing out the utopian socialists’ mistakes. The utopian socialists’ error, according to Engels, was that they did not base their socialist vision on a materialist understanding of history, that social change could only be brought about on the basis of class struggle and changes to material relations. Instead, for the utopians,
Socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.
Socialism as an idea, divorced from the material conditions of society, and social change contingent on ideas rather than social forces, was the basic error of utopian socialism. Engels argued instead for scientific socialism, which “had first to be placed upon a real basis” – the material understanding of history and society.
For utopian socialists, the problem of capitalism lay in its “conclusions” – the end result of the production process. They correctly pointed out, as Marxists do, that it is workers that add value to products through their labour, and it is capitalists who profit from this, by expropriating the surplus. A more equitable distribution of this surplus, therefore, would end the injustices of capitalism. They therefore focussed upon attempts to create fairer methods of distribution, often by setting up their own economic projects and experiments. Robert Owen in England, for example, attempted to set up cooperatives where workers shared equally the fruits of their labour. Pierre Proudhon in France set up “people’s banks” with free credit, and a new “organisation of exchange”, hoping to create a community of independent small businesses. Such methods left the capitalist system untouched, and capitalist methods of production would continue.
Both Owen’s and Proudhon’s worthy projects ultimately failed because they attempted to set up new systems within the capitalist economy and compete with it on its own terms. As we will see, Bastani similarly argues for the creation of workers’ cooperatives and “people’s banks”. Also, he almost entirely focusses upon the need to change how resources are distributed. Production would largely be carried out by automation, and as a result we will enter a period of “extreme supply”. If only distribution were more equitable, society’s wrongs will be righted,
[T]here is more than enough technology for everyone on Earth to live healthy, happy, fulfilling lives. What stands in the way isn’t the inevitable scarcity of nature, but the artificial scarcity of market rationing and ensuring that everything, at all costs, is produced for profit.
The problem with this approach is that it ignores the foundation of capitalist inequality – the ownership and control of the means of production. We live in a capitalist society because the means of production, the factories, mines, distribution networks, power plants, etc. – are owned by the capitalists, making them the ruling class. The working class, which produces the wealth, is dispossessed because it does not own the means of production. It therefore has no control over the distribution of products. For this to be changed, the means of productionneed to change hands. It is the recognition of this class antagonism -between the workers, who produce wealth, but have none due to their lack of control over the means of production; and the capitalists, who have all the wealth because they do control them – which is the essence of Marxism.
The working class
The working class, who for Marxists are the agency for bringing about communism – the revolutionary class – barely warrants a mention in Bastani’s manifesto. Once technology becomes the main engine for change, the working class ceases to be the source of its own liberation. It instead becomes a mere passive recipient of the largess brought about by redistribution. In perhaps one of the most wildly inaccurate readings of Marx, Bastani says that according to him,
Technology transformed work, and could improve people’s lives, but only if it was coupled with an appropriate politics.
Marx never said this. For him, socialism was not brought about by the correct application of technology by the politically enlightened. It was to be achieved through the expropriation of the means of production by the working class. To bring about a fair distribution of resources and ultimately a classless society – communism – the working class would first have to overthrow the current ruling class, the bourgeoisie, and seize power for itself.
The strength of the working class was, because of the ultimate contradiction of the capitalist system, also the source of its own exploitation – its role in the mode of production. Workers’ ability to organise at the point of production and seize control of society as a result is what gave them the latent potential to bring about an overturn in social relations and instigate socialism. Just as capitalist society’s foundation was laid by the creation of a new form of productive relationship, so it created its own gravedigger – the working class.
As a result, any strategy for revolutionary change and the creation of communism must start with the working class. It is therefore telling that they scarcely get a mention from Bastani, whose strategy, outlined towards the end of his manifesto, is underwhelming. He suggests a three-pronged approach,
[T]he relocalisation of economies through progressive procurement and municipal protectionism; socialising finance and creating a network of local and regional banks, and, finally, the introduction of a set of universal basic services (UBS) which take much of the economy into public ownership.
This amounts to, once Bastani has explained the detail, a programme of incremental reforms which leave the capitalist economic system largely untouched. The model he gives for the “relocalisation of economies” is Preston Council, which has to its credit implemented a number of progressive reforms in recent years, taking many of its services back into public ownership and encouraging worker-based cooperatives. Bastani envisages this approach being implemented everywhere, with local councils giving favourable treatment to “worker-owned” businesses. “People’s banks” will provide cheap credit for such businesses. Finally, housing, transport, education, health care and information will all be made Universal Basic Services. This will be made possible by “extreme supply” with advances in technology allowing the state to undercut the private sector.
All these measures are marked by the same utopianism on display throughout the manifesto. Rather than overturn the system, Bastani hopes by ensuring “extreme supply” of commodities and money to essentially phase capitalism out. The municipal reforms, the people’s banks and universal basic services would all use the system of capitalist competition against itself. The capitalist mode of production would largely remain untouched.
The problem with this reformist aspect of utopian socialism is that it fundamentally misunderstands the aggressive nature of the capitalist system, which will not allow competing economic models to reside peacefully within it. The capitalists are the ruling class by virtue of their control of the means of production and as such dominate society’s economic and political institutions. Time and again, attempts at municipal socialism – socialist policies implemented at a local level – have failed precisely because they leave both the national state and the wider capitalist system unchallenged. Similarly, workers’ cooperatives and people’s banks are, at best, limited in that they compete on capitalist terms, rather than attempting to overturn them.
Bastani describes throughout his manifesto a utopia where the needs of all are met and scarcity comes to an end. It is hard to believe that he really thinks this could be brought about by limited reforms such as those carried out by Preston Council, or that such measures could simply be rolled out internationally, without challenging, and defeating, capitalism directly. It seems unlikely that he really thinks incremental reforms such as local governments taking swimming pools and schools back into public ownership will seriously challenge corporations such as General Motors, Apple, Glaxo Smith Kline or the four corporations that control about 80 percent of all agricultural trade. The gulf between his stated end goal and the methods he argues for to achieve them is staggering.
Automation and alienation
As discussed, Bastani’s fundamental mistake is to see technology as the instigator of social change. His future society is one where automation allows “extreme supply”, which in turn ensures that all can indulge in luxury, free of concerns brought about by scarcity in commodities and resources. There is, however, a deeper problem with this analysis. Automation plays a key role the creation of many of our ills under capitalism – alienation.
The act of labour, consciously shaping our own environment through work, separates humanity from other animals. What is alien about labour under capitalism is that the worker is separated from the product of this labour. They do not own the materials, or the finished product produced from them.
The division of labour, where tasks at different stages in the process are divided between different individuals, isolates, and atomises workers even more, from the product and from each other. The creative intellectual element, the artistic part of the labour process, is removed. Furthermore, this entire process is mediated through machines that further separate the worker from the process, despite their labour being the integral element in transformation. This leaves labour under capitalism unfulfilling. As Raya Dunayevskaya argues,
When the division of labour, characteristic of all class societies, has reached the monstrous proportions where all science, all intellect, all skill goes into the machine, while the labour of man becomes a simple, monotonous grind, then the labour of man can produce nothing but its opposite, capital. All concrete labours have been reduced to one abstract, congealed mass. Dead, accumulated, materialised labour now turns to oppress the living labourer.
While Bastani is almost certainly correct that automation will play a key role in ensuring adequate supply in a communist society, the end of alienated labour and of the division of mental and manual labour is necessary to ensure that the worker is no longer subject to the degradation of capitalist production. The effects of alienated labour upon the consciousness of the worker are attempts to fill the void created by a lack of fulfilment in work and an inability to develop. This can often lead to indulging in excess, which drives much of the consumption in capitalist society.
While simply living according to necessity would be no-one’s idea of a free communist society, the need to consume would surely wane along with the sense of alienation. Capitalism actively encourages unnecessary consumption as businesses need workers to purchase their goods. Hyper-consumerism in capitalist society is manufactured by the capitalists’ need to create demand where there is none, and in doing so they play upon the very impulse for fulfilment or distraction created by their own system. Once again, by an overturning of capitalist relations at the point of production, a new society can be formed in which “extreme supply”, far from being achieved, may not be needed at all.
In speculating about what work in a future communist society would look like, William Morris, a socialist who emerged from the utopian tradition and was won to Marxism, acknowledged that machines may be used,
Again, if the necessary reasonable work be of a mechanical kind, I must be helped to do it by a machine, not to cheapen my labour, but so that as little time as possible may be spent upon it, and that I may be able to think of other things while I am tending the machine.
For Morris, therefore, use of automation was not, as Bastani argues, the realisation of the abolition of the division of mental and physical labour, but a necessary evil. However, true liberation would come from unalienated labour which unlocked the creativity of the worker,
The hope of pleasure in the work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers–to most of them! Yet I think that to all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong. But a man at work, making something which he feels will exist because he is working at it and wills it, is exercising the energies of his mind and soul as well as of his body. Memory and imagination help him as he works. Not only his own thoughts, but the thoughts of the men of past ages guide his hands; and, as a part of the human race, he creates. If we work thus we shall be men, and our days will be happy and eventful.
Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of the pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.
All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work–mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.
Automation used to produce luxury, therefore, is not enough for us to truly be free. Certainly, it can free our time from dangerous an exhausting labour and from processes which destroy our natural environment. But the reduction of labour time alone does not, in itself, liberate us as long as the capitalist owns all the means of production. Alienation cannot be ended until that class which alienates (expropriates) our work and its product are themselves “alienated” from their ownership and control. But only a social revolution can accomplish this. Only then will the very nature of labour be changed, so that the worker is not subordinated to it, but instead it becomes the very foundation of their creative freedom.
Aaron Bastani should be praised at least for expressing a vision of a future communist society beyond the stale reformism found on much of the Labour left. He is attempting to argue for an international socialist project and a strategy for bringing this about. The problem, however, is not that Fully Automated Luxury Communism is utopian in the sense that it is an overambitious view of the future, but that he fails to comprehend the true nature of the capitalist system, rooted in its mode of production, and this, in turn, leads him to grossly underestimate both the possibilities for social change and the tasks necessary to achieve it. Therefore, from an inspiring vision of fully automated luxury, we are brought down to a strategy of low-interest loans and free bus vouchers. We are promised a world of plenty, but one in which the fundamental relations of the capitalist system remain untouched.
Bastani’s entire approach is a diversion from what is necessary and, as such, dangerous. Far from inspiring people with a clear view of what needs to be done and galvanising them for the struggle to achieve it, he is comforting them with dreams and a lullaby telling them that in the distant future, almost inevitably, we will reach utopia. All that we need to do to achieve this is conduct incremental reforms and allow the miracle of science to do the rest.
We should look forward to a future communist society and develop a strategy for achieving it. That strategy, unfortunately, will not be found by reading this book.
 Friedrich Engels, Anti-Duhring.
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.
 Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme.
 Friedrich Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.
 Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom
 William Morris, Signs of Change.