Saturday 15 June 2019

Communism as Public Luxury

Growing up in the 1980s, communism didn't have a lot going for it. The taming of Siberia and the stellar achievements of the Soviet space programme were never talked about, and its depression-busting economic performance was long forgotten. The crushing conformity of Soviet life, its concrete vistas and secret police, and the queues in Moscow supermarkets for a single loaf of bread did a better job of queering the pitch for communism than voluminous anti-communist polemic and occasional speeches from Margaret Thatcher. Communism was poverty stricken, dictatorial, and backward - so much so the good people of the Eastern bloc countries wanted a piece of the capitalist action, and duly got it as the so-called "people's democracies" and the USSR came tumbling down. Capitalism, at least in the advanced West and Japan was dynamic, modern, raising living standards and appeared the wave of the future (or, if you like, the end of history). Communism was dead. Its presence as a really existing movement had, as far as the political mainstream were concerned, gone down the tubes and taken with it old-style social democracy and labour movement-based radicalism.

30 years on from capital's triumph over its ideological nemesis and communism is back. The global crash was slow in pushing the contradictions and tensions it stirred up into politics, but we're there. Nationalism and populism surges as some sections of the populace cling to old certainties in a world they do not like, multiple crises of political illegitimacy rock up and up end conventions, rules and expectations, and out of the maelstrom falls a few glimmers of hope. In the UK and US first the Scottish Yes campaign raised eyes toward a different political horizon, while later Corbynism and Bernie Sanders' campaign blew open the old uncertainties. Far from being dead, old school social democracy had arguments and answers thought long buried under decades of Thatcherite and Blairite dogma. And as soon as you start asking questions about whether one kind of capitalism is better than another, it isn't long before a more profound query makes its appearance: need we bother with capitalism at all? And so, once again, we find communism in the moment and haunting the world with rumours of something better.

Helping power up this reboot of communism, we find Aaron Bastani's Fully Automated Luxury Communism, a work that is less crude propaganda and more a celebration of human ingenuity, and what might be if it is allowed to flourish. Speaking at the Derby Social Club a week last Thursday about his book, he argued that capitalism is gripped by a great disorder, which he suggests are a confluence on multiple crises which, taken together, imperil civilisation. The first of these is the ecological crisis. This encompasses climate change and rising carbon emissions, species loss, deforestation, challenges to agriculture, the retreat of glaciers and particularly the dwindling fresh water supplies from Himalayan meltwater in south and south east Asia.

The second great crisis is economic breakdown and its exacerbation by demographic trends. Since 2001 food stamp use in the US, the world's largest and wealthiest economy, had almost tripled by 2013, declining slightly since then. Four million UK households have used a food bank since 2010, wages remain stagnant and GDP per capita stands £11k lower than it did in 2007, and productivity is stuck. Pouring salt into the economy's wounds is the demography crisis, of the old outnumbering the young, the driving up of health costs, the falling of birth rates below replacement levels and the necessity of migration to plug these gaps - a move which merely delays and displaces this crisis elsewhere.

The third is what Aaron calls the crisis of the 'unnecessariat'. In other words, the social consequences of the coming crisis of automation. While 80% of jobs now existed in some form in 1900, automation poses a series of threats to white collar jobs and professions. Looking at the US, which economists and politicians like to hail as a job generation machine, what is being created are care jobs and jobs working in renewables, not in what Americans normally code "middle class" jobs. Driverless vehicles, pattern recognition software, the move to high-tech agriculture like meat culturing, automated checkouts, these are harbingers of the possibility of even more massive, even more permanent unemployment.

Nevertheless, as crises they are pregnant with opportunities. For example, only capitalism could turn the abolition of (some) labour into a crisis. Rather than a nemesis, new technologies offer opportunities for social uses - the use of AI, big data and advanced medicine could drive down the cost of health care, improve morbidity rates and offer the possibilities of personalised medicines based on genome sequencing. The use of data along with advanced 3D printing is set to drive down the costs of manufacturing even further, which makes public infrastructure not just easier to establish but cheaper to maintain over time. The problem capital has is as manufacturing becomes more productive and therefore cheaper, profit margins get tighter which, in turn, poses poses problems for capital accumulation. Hence the nature of competition between firms has changed: instead of market share, the competition is around the establishment and monopolising of markets. Business models at the data-driven end of capitalist production are only really viable if they are the sole provider of a service or a good and therefore not subject to the rigours of price competition. In other words, social relations - capitalist relations - are becoming barriers to the dissemination and use of new technologies and practices. And as using these capacities are key to meeting the challenge of climate change, then capitalism itself is nudging civilisation and our species to the precipice of existential crisis.

In the questions, Aaron was asked about the luxury aspect of the new communism, which doesn't ordinarily sit well with green politics and people taking to the streets to demand less. What might his message be to environmentalist activists? Responding, Aaron said his idea of luxury is the communal luxury of universal basic services. In other words, if big data, 3D printing, AI and automation were subordinate to social justice then shared luxury could be the consequence. But, asked the questioner, where then does the communism come in? Riffing off Marx who saw communism as a real tendency gestating within capitalism's womb, Aaron suggested it was coming out into the open. Capitalism, for instance, has long been dependent on public spending not just for the infrastructure on which business depends but also for innovation. Between 1944 and 2007, for example, rocketry and space travel was led by states. They did the investing, set the priorities, and innovated. Far from breaking new ground, companies like SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin have built their products on and looking to monetise technologies developed from the pubic purse. Their emergent space market is only possible because states innovated, capitalists didn't. We see it elsewhere as well. For the on trend Silicon Valley bourgeoisie their support for policies like a universal basic income, cheap renewable energy for everyone, and a truly global internet supported by dedicated satellites is about extending a communistic foundation that can support new markets and, therefore, capital accumulation. Our job is to extend this foundation while resisting its capitalisation.

Given Corbynism has helped open the door to a new communism, I asked what Aaron thought about the relationship between the two - is Corbynism a necessary transitional politics that can help usher in a luxurious future? For Aaron, the project's programme is oriented toward providing crucial infrastructure, some of which is a precursor to universal basic services. Additionally, Corbynism can use its control of the state and other anchor institutions to support certain objectives, along the lines of a scaled up Preston model. It can also pursue an aggressive cooperatisation of the economy and use the state to repress the power of finance. It will also involve renationalising some companies, particularly those responsible for critical infrastructure, and introducing socially informed targets for the Bank of England. But crucial for this programme to even stand a chance is making sure Labour moves to mandatory reselection of its MPs.

In all, very interesting and, rare for a left meeting, it had a tone of optimism about it. Obviously, this topic will get revisited when I've read the book. There's a few criticisms drifting about the ether imputing positions to Fully Automated Luxury Communism that Aaron has either responded to publicly or aren't argued in the book. Such as claiming it offers a whiggish view of history, or is a technologically determinist tract. I'm looking forward to coming back to this soon.


mikenotts said...

"In all, very interesting and, rare for a left meeting, it had a tone of optimism about it. Obviously, this topic will get revisited when I've read the book. " Indeed. Top class (and very amusing) equivocation there, and rightly so - I think Bastani is a very good thing who has written a very bad book.

Phil said...

I'd be interested in hearing your reasoning why you think the book is bad.

Boffy said...

How does it differ from Paul Mason's "Postcapitalism"?

Does it deal with the deficiencies in Paul's book that I have previously detailed.

WhiteDwarfStar said...

Worth a read:

mikenotts said...

I'll admit I haven't read it: i read this review:
and it read as pretty pants. And my initial response to your post was based on a rather comedic reading that you had been invited to an unveiling of a book by an author you were in fundamental sympathy with (quite rightly) but had written a rather silly book, which you weren't (in fundamental sympathy with) - (tech will save us all - guardian reviews positively) which you wanted to soft-pedal. sorry - I love you both and contribute to tribune /momentum etc - was meant to tease. please ignore.

PlebJames said...

the review in the Guardian doesn't say "this is pretty pants". It is fairly even handed in outlining the book's contribution as well as its limitations / some criticisms.

Anonymous said...

Bastani hasn’t really got to the principal problem with capitalism, which can be neatly summed up in the post modern phrase, consumerism. Capitalism is a dehumanised system that that places people as simply automons who produce for the ‘system’, and these automons are then subjected to a myriad of PR and advertising messages, images etc in order to create the ultimate passive consumer with an ethos of hard work.

I was watching a quite brilliant documentary on RT, which incidentally make some pretty fantastic documentaries, where it showed how pet food manufactuers used all sorts of imagery, food labelling, messaging techniques to convince the automons that their less than nutritious pet snacks would make their pets bound and leap like a Kangaroo on hot embers.

It was a relatively trivial (maybe) but pertinent reminder of the absurdity and insanity at the heart of Western values! And more to the point what communism has to overcome!