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.
The future is nothing like I expected.
In 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gambolling about on the surface of the moon, I honestly believed that before long there would be monthly shuttles to Mars and, for the super-rich, luxury holiday excursions to the outer planets and far reaches of our solar system…
That future never arrived.
Instead we have: cell phones, laptops and social media. Not quite the same thing as faster-than-light travel and flying cars, is it?
I wanted something grander, something worthy of a curious, ambitious species with big brains and clever hands. Fleets of silver, finned rockets, navigating between the nine planets as easily as my dad’s old Ford got us to town and back. Intelligent robots. Permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. What a letdown when I look around today and realize ordinary citizens are far more interested in cyberspace than outer space. Ambitious schemes to leave our safe cradle and challenge that “final frontier” have devolved into, let’s face it, a sparsely manned space station parked only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth, serviced by a private, for-profit company because NASA can no longer afford to maintain a shuttle to supply it.
A human footprint on Mars? Unlikely, at least during my lifetime.
Which makes me feel cheated. That six-year-old boy, glued to a black-and-white TV, witnessing history, men on the freakin’ moon, wouldn’t have believed me if I told him that’s it, that’s the absolute high-water mark in terms of our presence in space. Sorry, kid, after this it’s robot probes and science on the cheap.
My younger self would be outraged to see his dreams dashed by the cowardice and stupidity of those who make policy and manipulate the levers of power.
A smart lad, he would have recognized a failure of nerve when he saw it. And he would have been the first to point out: a computer is not a robot.
Some might contend there’s no difference but, I assure you, there is.
Those who think otherwise are operating on an entirely different wavelength than me. They likely see nothing wrong with the way the world has turned out and wouldn’t change anything if they could.
I, on the other hand, am appalled by the reality that has been presented to me as a fait accompli and since childhood have made it my mission, my calling to reimagine the whole thing so it conforms to the better tomorrow we were all promised back in those heady, halcyon days when everything seemed possible, the universe ours to explore, the stars our destination.
I don’t intend to forsake those youthful fancies, surrender my dreams, lose my sensawunda because of other people’s temerity and lack of vision.
It’s a major reason why I started reading science fiction almost fifty years ago…and why (for better or worse) I’m the writer I am today.
“How do we change the world? By changing the story.”
A local arts collective, Feed the Artist, distributed blank postcards and asked folks to write themselves a “message from the future”.
I really like the people behind the group so I was happy to contribute. Here’s my offering—you can see all the postcards by dropping by Crandleberry’s (coffehouse & cyber cafe) and viewing the display. And a reminder that the second issue of the Feed the Artist magazine, featuring many fine artists, will be launched at Crandleberry’s Friday, March 15th, 7:00 p.m.
Hope to see you there.
(Click on images to enlarge)