I don’t review a lot of stuff these days (although I do keep a regular book journal). However, after reading Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism I felt compelled to respond, at length, to his vision of the bright, shining near future that awaits us thanks to new technologies, robots, and limitless leisure time.
* * * *
First of all, does anybody else have a problem with the words “luxury” and “communism” appearing in such close proximity? Aren’t they understood to be practically, y’know, oxymorons?
Not according to Aaron Bastani.
Looking through his rose-colored glasses, he sees the future as a time of abundance, thanks to the mining of asteroids in near earth orbit and virtually free services like health care and housing. It is technology that will finally liberate our species from the onerous yoke of work, robots doing most of our jobs, humans enjoying lives of leisure…
I consider myself something of a student of history and try as I might, I can’t recall a single human society, from pre-history to the present, where someone didn’t get a larger slice of the pie due to their size, strength, ferocity, intelligence, wealth, connections, etc. In times of abundance, the ruling clique simply takes more. In times of want, they give up the least.
I wouldn’t call Bastani’s book non-fiction, more like science fiction.
In describing a near future utopia brought about by technological advances, he is employing wishful thinking—I don’t trust machines (or billionaires) to save us and, frankly, we don’t need more luxury on this godforsaken planet, we need less.
In light of the most recent IPCC report on the climate (and its ominous-sounding references to “Code Red”), Fully Automated seems even more far-fetched and fanciful. It will be decades before we can mine asteroids or store limitless amounts of data on a strand of DNA. I see no political will anywhere for building affordable housing or offering free health care or university tuition—hell, we can’t even get our governments, liberal or conservative, to get behind a liveable minimum wage.
And, in the meantime, we’ll be dealing with a climate catastrophe: drought and severe weather phenomena, refugees in the hundreds of millions, flooding, famine, mass deaths from heat waves and newer and even more deadly pandemics as we continue to trespass in remote areas we don’t belong.
Under such stressful circumstances will workable societies and infrastructure still exist, will we have the capacity or, yes, luxury to conceive of space travel when the bonds that hold civilization together are loosening, the world coming apart at the seams?
We know that capitalism is eminently adaptable, able to contort itself into new configurations if it means justifying its survival, but even getting it to embrace a $15 minimum wage or support the notion of a Universal Basic Income is like trying to pry food away from a T-Rex.
It isn’t part of its mentality to throw around “free money” or have governments providing anything but the most basic services to citizens. Oligarchs and their cover organizations have spent billions in “dark money” to secure legislators who are hostile to “big” (i.e. effective) government, doing their best to discredit democratic institutions in the eyes of an increasingly cynical and disconnected electorate.
What major party or serious contender for power is out there agitating for Universal Basic Services for every citizen? Who is going to have the courage and chutzpah to “switch off the privatization and out-sourcing machine”, institute a “One Planet Tax” and impose the rest of Bastani’s progressive and expensive agenda in a world bought and paid for by minions of neoliberalism?
To be fair, the book does have its moments. For instance, Bastani is proficient at providing short, snappy definitions:
Capitalism is described as “a machine designed to extract maximum value to shareholders at the expense of workers and service users”.
Privatization: “is not about improving outcomes or services, but pursuing a political agenda which redistributes wealth from the majority of society to a small elite”.
Neoliberalism: “reduces the capacity of public bodies to spend money while simultaneously intensifying social problems like homelessness and poverty. This means the only options to respond…are increasingly market-oriented”.
And, finally: “A green politics of ecology without the red politics of shared wealth will fail to command popular support”.
I also agree with Bastani’s insistence that we should replace the GDP, not with an “Abundance Index”, as he suggests, but something that measures the physical, mental and spiritual health of our citizenry, a Happiness Scale (“decommodify happiness” should be a meme passed on like a secret password, embroidered on t-shirts, stamped on buttons).
But those occasional gems don’t detract from this book’s wrong-headedness and sheer hubris:
“Our technology is already making us gods, so we might as well get good at it.”
“Under Fully Automated Luxury Communism we can lead lives equivalent to today’s billionaires…”
It sings the praises of technology but expresses little interest in human nature and our somewhat spotty historical record when it comes to slavery, exploitation, genocide, conflicts over resource scarcity, etc. Even so-called “free societies” have been built on the fruits of cheap labor and menial servitude.
Bastani posits a positive, hopeful future based on the most specious evidence while blithely ignoring crises that represent an existential threat to our species and are far more present and pressing than he seems willing to acknowledge.
Humans have never lived “wisely and agreeably and well” (quoting John Maynard Keynes) and we’ve never existed in a jobless, leisure society where our basic needs are met and I don’t believe we ever will.
If there is wealth, the priest-kings and charismatic leaders will use dogma and jingoism to take more than their fair share. If we complain, they will employ lethal force to terrify and constrain us. What else is new?
Capitalism might be flexible and self-replicating, but it will also fight fiercely for its survival, its ability to continue exploiting the many in favor of the few, chewing up more and more of our precious ecosystem, its greed barely held in check by weak laws, compromised lawmakers and a distracted populace.
Bastani feels that through some magical influx of abundance, capitalism will become a victim of its own success and be transformed into an economic system that better serves the common good.
I wish that were the case but fear his timeline renders his solutions, fanciful or not, moot. Our plight as a species must take precedence over capitalist wet dreams. We need to act today to save our living, breathing planet, not wait decades for dubious technological fixes.
And I shouldn’t have to say this but the solution won’t come from without, but within.
It starts with us. Speaking and acting collectively. Reforming when possible, revolting when necessary. Putting aside our differences, shouting in one voice, a deafening, prolonged clamor that can’t be, won’t be ignored. Demanding a sustainable, equitable, ethical future, one worth the blood, sweat and tears that will undoubtedly be shed in the course of bringing it to fruition.
Moment of Truth
They say it’s not a class thing, it’s just common sense that the right to vote should be reserved for those who own property.
They say it’s not a class thing, but it isn’t society’s responsibility to look after the poor.
They say it’s not a class thing, it’s that higher education was never intended for everyone, just a select few.
They say it’s not a class thing, it’s because handicapped parking discriminates against the able-bodied.
They say it’s not a class thing, but shouldn’t those who make more get to keep more?
They say it’s not a class thing, but does their daughter have to sit next to her?
They say it’s not a class thing, but too much is made out of raising the minimum wage.
They say it’s not a class thing, but wouldn’t our neighbourhoods be a lot safer if we had more cops and prisons?
They say it’s not a class thing, but what’s all this nonsense about minority rights?
They say it’s not a class thing, but aren’t the best cleaners and maids from Central America—El Salvador and Honduras especially—because those people have the most to be thankful for.
They say it’s not a class thing, it’s just that offhand they don’t know the price of a quart of milk or carton of eggs.
They say it’s not a class thing, they really do need that great, big house all to themselves.
They say it’s not a class thing, they don’t mind shelling out seven bucks for a quality cup of coffee.
They say it’s not a class thing, but as a rule they never give to panhandlers.
They say it’s not a class thing, some people are natural leaders, while others are meant to serve.
They insist it’s not a class thing, then grin sheepishly and admit yeah, it probably is.
We’re witnessing a changing of the guard, of sorts, voters on the Left seeking leadership not from traditional, moribund political parties and personalities, but from voices that are usually consigned to the fringes. It’s a clear indication of how disenchanted people have become with mainstream politics when you see parties of the far Left and (more worrying) the far Right polling higher than usual, their gains coming at the expense of liberal and conservative mainstays.
In my home province of Saskatchewan, our Left-ish party, the New Democrats, are embarking on a leadership campaign. There’s a growing discussion among party members as to whether the new leader should be more electable and pragmatic or someone not afraid of showing their ideological roots.
As we see some of the familiar faces on the social-democratic scene either retiring or losing popularity, we must ask ourselves: what would it take to reinvigorate the Canadian Left, what policies could we emphasize that would reflect our socialist roots and values, distinguishing us from the candidates stubbornly hugging the middle of the road?
I recently sat down, wrote up my ideas and circulated the resulting mini-essay among progressive friends and associates. Their responses were encouraging so I’ll reproduce my “manifesto” here—needless to say, I welcome your comments and critiques.
* * * *
In light of the upcoming leadership campaign and the electoral vulnerability of the Sask. Party, the question arises: will New Democrats seize this opportunity and seek to renew the Party, embracing a bold, progressive legislative agenda…or will voices within the existing hierarchy and executive council encourage a safer, more prudent approach?
Will we sharply distinguish ourselves from the Brad Wall regime and their discredited policies or will we water down our platform, putting forward the kind of mild, middle of the road initiatives that British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn derisively dubs “Tory lite”?
Do we, as New Democrats, defend or condone a continuation of the status quo (with a few minor tweaks here and there), are we going to choose electability over idealism, pragmatism over passion? Are we willing to sell our principles down the road for a chance to sit in the Big Chair?
Many commentators speak of a “democratic disconnect”, a loss of belief in democracy among voters in Europe and America, and it’s clear a large portion of the blame rests with the major political parties. They have put in place command and control structures that limit policy debate and minimize the opinions and influence of ordinary party members. They’ve created a bureaucracy more interested in maintaining power, raising money and serving their corporate masters than it is enacting reform or making the system more humane and transparent.
Much has been made of rebuilding from the grassroots…but how is that possible without ceding them some genuine power, a say in Party decision-making? Annual political conventions are fine, it’s a great chance to mingle and meet old friends, but what practical purpose do they serve if none of the resolutions put forward by the membership are binding or carry any kind of clout? Rather, they are perceived by the executive and caucus as helpful suggestions, a chance for members to exercise their conscience on the issues of the day.
Surely any kind of talk for renewal must include allowing the Party general membership more input on direction and focus.
I suspect part of the problem is that the membership is much more progressive and socialistic than the Party poobahs would like. That’s why the Party leadership makes such profound efforts to derail or disallow potentially divisive or controversial motions and ensure that any that do pass have little or no impact on overall policy or strategy. I would love to see thresholds set so that when a motion achieves a certain amount of support from the general membership, it automatically becomes part of our platform—a process that would revitalize the grassroots and help address that democratic deficit I referred to earlier.
The Party hierarchy has made considerable efforts to address gender and racial disparity within the NDP governing councils, but they have yet to extend representation to those who are struggling in the “new economy”, working class men and women who have no benefits, no safety net; low income earners and “wage slaves” condemned to debt peonage, with little chance of improving their circumstances. Their kids won’t be going to college or trade schools. We pay lip service to representing and championing such people—but where are they in evidence within our councils of power?
Instead, we have a situation where a class of well-paid, well-educated professionals set policies and priorities for the Party, individuals who have little grasp of the day-to-day reality facing the working people and precariously employed of this province.
And what is the ideology of these affluent NDPers, a bloc that Marx called “bourgeois socialists”? Would they be willing to enact initiatives that harm their own interests, take coin from their purses? Will they support efforts to democratize the Party and, in so doing, lose power and influence?
For most Canadians, government isn’t the problem—but poor governance or governance that favors the wealthy elite certainly is. Government shouldn’t be perceived as an enemy of the people, but a body created to serve them, reflecting their collective aspirations.
We can address this point through ideology. We show the citizens of this province that an NDP administration would protect their interests and remove some of the anxieties and frustrations they must deal with on a daily basis. We offer the reassurance of cradle-to-grave health care and guarantee the highest possible educational standards and the opportunity for everyone, regardless of means, to improve their minds and enhance their future prospects.
The Sask. Party never shied away from ideology, why should we?
And we know from polling and discussions with our fellow citizens that there is strong support for socialistic policies like state ownership of critical resources and services. When Wall and his cronies floated the idea of dumping some of our Crown corporations, the message they received was loud and unequivocal: hands off.
I believe most people in this province would support progressive taxation—the Tories make much of the notion that the economic burden must be shared equally, but I disagree. Why should we speak of proportionality when some of us are living in the best neighborhoods, enjoying the best services, with all the requisite toys…while the rest of us are told we must pull up our socks, economically speaking? Those who have more, must pay more: in income tax, property tax and “luxury” taxes on their expensive vehicles, cabin cruisers, so-called “McMansions”, as well as the “rustic” cabins they own that are more like vacation homes. A levy applied to profligacy and conspicuous consumption—how many here would argue against that?
Finally, let us take back ownership of the vocabulary of the Left. The word “socialist” is not a bug bear, trotted out to scare the children—but that’s the way it’s treated by our counterparts on the Right and their hired media stooges. Even some of us fall prey to it: “Socialist? Nossir, not me…”
We must reclaim that word and numerous others as well, and do a better job at educating today’s work force about the history and tradition of socialism and the labour movement, the great gains made by courageous women and men who put their lives on the line so that ordinary people might live in freedom, security and dignity.
“For the many, not the few.”
Are we, as a Party, prepared to live up to that ideal?
Do we have the courage to act on our high-sounding moral principles and convictions?
* * * *
NDP Election Platform (2020):
1) Raise minimum wage and enact more legislation to protect worker rights and improve workplace safety.
2) Introduce progressive taxation, whereby those that have more, pay more: a higher proportion of their income and a “luxury tax” on high end goods (expensive cars, McMansions, vacation homes on the lake, cabin cruisers, etc.).
3) Dramatically reduce tuition costs so that post-secondary education is within the means of every resident of the province.
4) Ensure, through legislation or an amendment to our provincial constitution, that our Crown corporations and essential resources (like water) are owned in perpetuity by the people of this province and cannot be privatized.
5) Impose tough environmental standards that deter polluters through legislation, punitive fines and jail terms.
6) Begin the immediate transition out of the thrall of fossil fuels, investing in renewable/alternative energy to the extent that within 8-10 years we are national leaders in that field, our dependence on carbon-based fuels dramatically diminished.
(Phase I: Ban on fracking)
7) Improve relations with First Nations/Metis people through partnerships, shared initiatives; the failure to consult with Aboriginal leadership and treat them as equals devalued and marginalized them and we must make vigorous efforts to win back their trust and participation in the decisions affecting them.
8) Develop more subsidized or low-income housing—build quality homes for those in need…
9) …while pursuing and prosecuting slum landlords, anyone who knowingly provides sub-standard shelter to desperate people.
10) Work in partnership with the federal government to provide a “basic annual income” to every resident of the province/country, investing in our people rather than offering billions in subsidies to multi-national corporations that damage the environment, pay low royalties and taxes, while offering their employees as little as possible in terms of wages, benefits and job security.
Yesterday, after spending most of the afternoon cleaning and re-arranging our garage (onerous task), I settled myself on the back deck with a glass of scotch, a small cigar, my notebook and a volume of The Collected Poems of Zbigniew Herbert.
Herbert was a Polish writer who, despite growing up in an authoritarian environment, managed to compose magnificent, soul-rending verse.
As I was reading poems like “Mama” and “Chord”, I couldn’t help trying to imagine what it wold be like to live as an artist in a society where personal and aesthetic freedoms are strictly curtailed, the regime relentless in its pursuit of any kind of opposition, the smallest display of rebellion.
It was someone’s job to
scrutinize every syllable,
search each metaphor
and allusion for
significance, a deeper
meaning that might
subvert the apparatus,
throw a monkey
wrench into the works,
or cast the slightest
aspersion against the
omnipotence of the
…but artists like Herbert and Vasily Grossman and Andrei Tarkovsky managed, somehow, to frustrate their ideological masters, producing works of lasting genius. What was it that made them so strong, so immune to the powers of the state, when so many of their colleagues caved in to pressure, conformed, compromised their visions? Was it some form of faith? Pride? Strength of will?
My God, the courage it would take to stand your ground, refuse to dilute or skew your art. Would I be that strong under similar circumstances? Could I resist the blandishments and threats? Choose exile and disgrace over safety and security?
Which somehow led me around to:
I cannot see the
My faith is
not so simple,
I ask for proofs
and the universe
spasms of hilarity.
God is laughing
but I, stubborn
fail to crack
© 2017 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)