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.
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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.
This was, for all intents and purposes, a second Brexit referendum and, guess what, the Leavers easily won the day, despite the so-called “youth quake” and every bit of “Momentum” they could muster.
Labour took a big hit but what is equally interesting is that the Liberal Democrats, pro-Remain and proud of it, were also swept from the electoral board. Take that, all you Labourites who insisted Jeremy Corbyn should have more aggressively stumped for the European Union while out on the hustings.
Ah, Jeremy Corbyn.
He’s finished, of course, and so is the Left wing of the Labour Party. Now Tony Blair and his minions will have all the ammunition they need to gut the party and return it to the golden days when they hugged the middle of the road like a near-sighted motorist. No more of this shite about “the many vs. the few” and shaking up the ruling hegemony. There are many affluent Labour members and supporters who were never comfortable with Corbyn’s intentions to redistribute wealth and shore up the “nanny state”. Cradle to grave medical coverage, free tuition, reinvesting in social services? Fuck that. The wealthy are happy to claim a progressive mantle as long as their interests aren’t threatened. Once that happens, they lose all trappings of liberalism and socialism, siding with their economic equals and peers. Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg called it over a hundred years ago and little has changed since.
It’s a class thing and nothing else matters once privilege is called into question.
Going to get very, very ugly, very, very fast in the U.K. but here are a few predictions for what lies ahead, and one doesn’t have to be a swami or mentalist to see this coming:
Boris Johnson’s star won’t be long in ascent. At heart, he’s a creep and compulsive liar and his true colors will be revealed in very short order.
The U.K. will sign a final Brexit deal…but will never escape the economic reach and power of the European Union. The final draft will be a huge eye-opener to the rabid Leave folks, Brussels setting the agenda and calling the shots, including a free movement of people across borders and many other clauses that kinda, sorta resemble the old agreement.
Scotland is gone. Independence, baby. The Scots are a wise people who know which way the wind is blowing. While the rest of the U.K. limps along, its power and influence much diminished, Scotland will cut a new deal with the E.U. and before long will be out-performing their Brit, northern Irish and Welsh counterparts.
The powers that be will double down on their control of the “free press”, learning to better manage the message. Despite a heavily biased news media (including the once-vaunted BBC), Labour was able to starkly depict the plight of the poor, disenfranchised, youth and precariously employed, exposing the underlying anger people are experiencing while suffering under the yolk of neo-liberal capitalism. That must be checked—can’t allow reality to defeat the carefully maintained illusion of a united, contented populace.
I’m in grieving mode today, distraught that ordinary, hard-working people had an opportunity to take a sober, second look at Brexit and remake their society into a fairer, more sustainable and democratic dominion where everyone is treated equally.
This was a chance for real, generational change, a revolution from below.
It’s over and won’t come again in my life time.
The good guys have lost and now the U.K. is at the mercy of a black-hearted bunch of bastards who are going to loot the public purse, secret the proceeds of their crimes in tax havens, while having a bloody good laugh at the expense of the stupid proles who put them in power, voting (yet again) against their own interests, deserving of nothing but contempt.
“The worst slavery is that of heavily indoctrinated happy morons who adore their chains and cannot wait to thank their masters for the joy of their subservience.”
“Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”
Decided to check out the Telus “World of Science” when we were in Edmonton recently.
Unfortunately, the price of admission—$35, including a surcharge for the ridiculous Marvel Comics feature exhibit (and that has what to do with science, exactly?)—was a complete ripoff so I decided to wait in the foyer while the folks I was with ponied up the necessary coin.
To add insult to injury, the Telus folks have created a scale model of a new building they’d like to construct, with the help of public donations. Folks, Telus are the arseholes who are over-charging you for your cell phone service and making billions at your expense. They could easily fund the entire facility, while asking only a nominal fee for admission, but that is not part of their mentality.
These corporate sponsorships are a joke, advertising for companies that are socially irresponsible, capitalistic, greedy and self-serving. They pay low taxes, while earning all the benefits of the infrastructure we’ve paid for out of our pockets.
Here’s what I wrote as I waited for the group I was with to finish their tour:
When you commodify the sciences and arts, charge a fee to access records of our shared achievements, whose agenda is served and whose interests ignored?
The corporate mindset is not generous or benevolent, it exacts a price for its puny tithes and refuses to acknowledge the public ownership of knowledge or the common good served by true acts of charity.
“Peasants were never permitted within the gardens of Versailles
their presence an affront to the beauty residing there;
Only the wealthy could produce the price of admission,
only they had license to piss on its manicured grounds.”
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.
“If this isn’t the end of the Republican Party, it’ll be a shame. They dominated American political life for 50 years and were never anything but monsters. They bred in their voters the incredible attitude that Republicans were the only people within our borders who raised children, loved their country, died in battle or paid their taxes. They even sullied the word ‘American’ by insisting they were the only real ones. They preferred Lubbock to Paris, and their idea of an intellectual was Newt Gingrich. Their leaders, from Ralph Reed to Bill Frist to Tom DeLay to Rick Santorum to Romney and Ryan, were an interminable assembly line of shrieking, witch-hunting celibates, all with the same haircut—the kind of people who thought Iran-Contra was nothing, but would grind the affairs of state to a halt over a blow job or Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube.
A century ago, the small-town American was Gary Cooper: tough, silent, upright and confident. The modern Republican Party changed that person into a haranguing neurotic who couldn’t make it through a dinner without quizzing you about your politics. They destroyed the American character. No hell is hot enough for them. And when Trump came along, they rolled over like the weaklings they’ve always been, bowing more or less instantly to his parodic show of strength.”
Matt Taibbi, Insane Clown President (2017)
I’ve posted my views on Donald Trump’s election on social media, Tweeting and Facebooking…but then I started hearing from folks that while my little quotes and snippets were nice, some deeper analysis was necessary. There were some not-so-subtle hints that I was shirking my duties as resident curmudgeon and unrepentant Leftie. Surely I had something more substantial to say…
And so, to make amends, I offer a longer response, a piece that makes the shocking assertion that the Donald’s occupancy of the White House might be the best thing that could have happened to the political Left.
That made you sit up and take notice, didn’t it?
Read this…and feel free to offer your own opinions and reactions:
Over the past couple of years, I’ve increased my readings of history, economics and politics, and I think that comes from my determination to better understand the world as it is unfolding, and gain at least a few hints into what the future might hold for those of us who are left vulnerable to larger forces because of our class/caste, income, race, etc.
I’ve kept track of relevant quotes, statistics and observations by jotting them down in a black notebook, filling it to the margins. Recently I came to the last few pages of the notebook and decided to try and distill what I had gleaned from my readings into a mini-essay.
I’ve polished it some, clarified my thoughts in a few places, but tried to retain the surge of inspiration and anger that provoked its composition:
“Now and then I see the truth above the lies…”
Paul Banks, “The Base”
The uneasy truce between capitalism and democracy is breaking down.
At some point—if it hasn’t happened already—we’re going to have to choose between those two opposing ideologies and that choice will define (and haunt) our species for generations to come. Which will it be: a smoothly running corporate machine or our personal freedom?
Slavoj Zizek (among others) insists we’re living in a “late capitalist” world.
Capitalism is in the process of transforming into a more autocratic version of itself—something like China or Singapore, where individual rights, many of the privileges we enjoy as a western society, either do not exist or are drastically scaled back. Doled out in increments by an unholy alliance between state and industry.
It has gotten to the point where capitalism can no longer tolerate the constraints of democracy. Anything that slows or inhibits growth/profit, must be neutered, rendered harmless. And that can be accomplished, for example, through trade pacts that supersede or nullify a country’s legal codes and charters, fatally undermining national social institutions and standards.
Environmental laws, legislation restricting monopolies or policing the financial industry, are anathema to the one-percenters and business elite. They still exist in a magical land where growth is limitless, the stock market their personal Ponzi scheme and there are sufficient resources to sustain their extravagant lifestyles indefinitely.
Their narrative simply does not allow for maintaining a more modest standard of living, conservation, thrift, environmental stewardship…
All their talk of GNP and GDP and TTIP, but they persist in refusing to factor in the short and long term consequences of ruinous, wasteful industrial practices, mindsets that more properly belong to the notorious robber barons of the 19th Century, rather than enlightened and highly educated men and women (okay, mainly men) of today. And the toll continues to mount: pollution and ecological devastation on an unimaginable scale, with all the attendant health problems; a growing disparity between rich and poor; human populations becoming more fearful and anxiety-wracked as they face a future that no longer guarantees food security, let alone the safety and sanctity of their homes and persons.
Clean air, safe food, pure water, human dignity and basic, inalienable rights…these things are non-negotiable. In fact, they are the basis for life itself.
Why would we cede responsibility over such crucial issues to petty bureaucrats and corrupt apparatchiks?
Have we become so lazy and stupid, such sheep, that we would willingly hand the keys of liberty to our warders and bare our throats to ravenous wolves?
“We are only able to continue our ravaging of the planet under the cover of pretense. How is it that we as a society take no action, when the awful artifacts of our way of life on this planet lay strewn all around us? How is it that we continue to hurtle toward an obvious abyss? It is only because we have been rendered blind and insensate. Underneath their numbers games, the banks and hedge funds are stripping wealth away from the masses and the planet. Behind every profit statement, behind every executive bonus, is a trail of wreckage: strip mines, debt slaves, pension cuts, hungry children, ruined lives, and ruined places. We all participate in this system, but can do so willingly only to the extent we do not feel, see, or know. To conduct a revolution of love, we must reconnect with the reality of our system and its victims. When we tear away the ideologies, the labels, and the rationalizations, we show ourselves the truth of what we are doing, and conscience awakens.”
-Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
“Only by interposing ideological and systemic blinders between ourselves and the victims of industrial civilization can we bear to carry on. Few of us would personally rob a hungry three-year-old of his last crust or abduct his mother at gunpoint to work in a textile factory, but simply through our consumption habits and our participation in the economy, we do the equivalent every day.”
-Charles Eisenstein, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible