Book Reviews Reviews

A Futurism without a Future: A Review of Aaron Bastani’s “Fully Automated Luxury Communism”

by Brant Roberts
“For Bastani, it is easier to imagine mining asteroids and a work-free utopia than to imagine unalienated labor and socialism.”

“Marx and Engels were enemies of Utopia for the sake of its realization.” – Theodor Adorno[1]

In the opening pages of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto the writer attempts to connect six made-up scenarios in order to make the conditions for his argument relevant; unfortunately much of what follows contains the same fictitious logic. Bastani’s new book argues that fully automated luxury communism (FALC) is an achievable goal thanks to the development of new technologies and the acceleration of capitalist development. However, he provides little evidence to back this hyper-economistic manifesto up, and it ultimately fails in multiple ways. The lack of footnotes throughout the book and the sloppy bibliography at the end, filled more with newspaper articles than book sources, are only at the tip of the iceberg. It appears that having a large social media following can guarantee a publication no matter how hollow and poorly researched the work is; one wonders what happened to the editorial standards at Verso Books.

The book fits neatly into the new genre of pop-socialism where redefining words and loosening them from their etymological foundations to fit into the broad politics of socialist parties in the West, has resulted in half-baked conversations around a future Left politics. Other titles within this genre have included the poorly written Mistaken Identity by Asad Haider, the more convincing Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism by Kristin Ghodsee, and the vast majority of books in Verso’s Jacobin Series. Published for a mass audience, these books tend to be underwhelming and reach an audience only recently introduced to socialist theory.

The book begins by outlining several historical junctures that Bastani refers to as “the three disruptions,” which pave the road for humanity to reach an automated utopia. The first disruption began with the development of agriculture in the Neolithic period, enabling people to live off the land and develop small surpluses of food; the second disruption was the industrial revolution and the development of mass production; and the third disruption represents the present period of technological revolution in both information and robotics. Why exactly these changes in production are referred to as disruptions is never explained, much less what they are actually disrupting. Given that he dedicates an entire chapter to space exploration and asteroid mining, it is surprising that he does not consider the first successful missions into space as a fourth disruption. 

Regarding the second disruption, Bastani gets so excited by the advent of steamships and railways that he bypasses how the industrial revolution was financed into being by colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.[2] That the great amount of destruction and terror used to build this second disruption, which apparently brought humanity one step closer to an automated society, is missing from his narrative is shocking to say the least – especially given the amount of literature on the subject. However, to address this issue would have forced him to grapple with the structural relationship between capitalism and white supremacy; as his economism indicates, he has no interest in this problem. Given the horrors that the second disruption built itself on, the Left should not invest in the narrative that the ends justified the means in building industrial capitalism.

Automation, Artificial Agriculture and Asteroids

For a book whose title is based on the seemingly imminent approach of automation, Bastani has very little to say that is new. Reaffirming a lot of existing knowledge on the rise of automated cars and self-checkout lines, there is not much that inspires in his prose, much less in his analysis. Clearly a very ‘serious’ scholar, Bastani encourages readers to “go to YouTube and type ‘PETMAN prototype’ into the search bar” in order to explain how robots are becoming more complex and athletic.[3]

Bastani’s naïve approach to a fully automated society leaves out a great deal of the labor, from care work to agriculture, that cannot be mechanized. Regarding agriculture, he spends an entire chapter promoting synthetic meats as an answer to global food production and does not interrogate any criticisms of the idea. He has no bone to pick with neither private property nor seed monopolies and does not pay heed to the many popular movements around the world struggling around land rights, agriculture, clean water, decolonization and the exploitative practices of agribusiness. Assuming that the world could one day be fed on synthetic meats and 3D printed food is far more utopian than achieving the goals of the world’s movements for food sovereignty.

For Bastani, it is easier to imagine mining asteroids and a work-free utopia than to imagine unalienated labor and socialism. Recognizing that the earth’s natural resources are far too limited to power lithium batteries and other technologies needed to transition to a green energy economy, he pushes for mining the resources of the solar system. Citing random studies and articles in order to construct his argument, Bastani praises the idea of asteroid mining as a new way for mankind to enjoy green technology without gutting the earth of natural resources. Aside from his praise for venture capitalists, he does not see the potential problem for imperial aggression in his scheme – why would the political classes of imperialist countries allow equal access to the mineral resources of asteroids when they could just form monopolies and corner the market by force? Moreover, why would mining companies invest billions of dollars into mining asteroids when they could just mine the planet with much cheaper labor in countries with low wages and fewer environmental regulations? In short, it’s not in the financial interest of the rich to invest in space exploration and asteroid mining for resources they can already get on earth.

Communism without Class Struggle

One of the more revealing features of the book is Bastani’s arrogant claim that, “while it is true that a number of political projects have labelled themselves communist over the last century, the aspiration was neither accurate nor – as we will go on to see – technologically possible.”[4] Bastani as the Pope of FALC attempts to excommunicate all heretics from the communist tradition for not following a definition of communism that no organization around the world shares. The whole point is for him to distance FALC from the long history of communist-led struggles and revolutions, even going so far as to label the Russian Revolution an “anti-liberal coup,” so as to repurpose the word ‘communism’ as a signifier for his particular definition.[5]

While on the surface Bastani’s book reaches for a different horizon, he clearly has no serious issue with capitalism and at no point takes issue with it as a mode of production; instead, he focuses more on the ‘challenges’ it has brought rather than seeing capitalism as the problem. Dedicating an entire chapter on the need to break with neoliberalism, he takes on social democratic solutions and negates any potentially revolutionary ones. The potential role of unions and politics outside of the electoral system in order to build the conditions in civil society for FALC is completely left out. Devoid of class struggle, Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism appears as misguided as Karl Kautsky’s Dictatorship of the Proletariat – as Lenin might have put it, Bastani has become “a mere sycophant of the bourgeoisie.”[6]

Bastani’s answer for how we will build enough political momentum to achieve FALC is through “luxury populism.”[7] He does not define what base of people will be appealed to in order to support these proposals but based on his desire to confront neither private property nor the large monopolies, it can be safely assumed that this will be a class collaborationist effort with the working classes left out of power.

Bastani’s writing throughout his chapter on “luxury populism” is filled with dramatic declarations that are meant to inspire but instead leave the reader wondering how such random statements could be made without any serious interrogation of their implications. Quotes such as, “under FALC we will see more of the world than ever before, eat varieties of food we have never heard of, and lead lives equivalent – if we so wish – to those of today’s billionaires” and “our ambitions must be Promethean because our technology is already making us gods – so we might as well get good at it,” fill the chapter.[8] Completely out of touch with the way people live, Bastani asks us to imagine a situation that the vast majority of humanity does not live in nor aspires to live in.

The underlying logic of Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto can be summed up in several points. First, Bastani assumes that his project is universal and that this technology would be for everyone’s benefit. The problem with this misconception is that the global architecture of world trade is set up so that technology transfers from industrialized nations do not go to the Global South. The intellectual property regime which was largely set up during the infamous Uruguay Round of negotiations, which forced the hand of many countries to sign on to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), devastated the ability for much of the world to reverse-engineer medicines, robotics and other commodity production processes.[9] If this same political class that set up GATT and financially benefits from this arrangement were to not be overthrown, a path of action Bastani avoids as much as possible, then they will have no interest in pursuing neither an FALC program nor automation more generally; after all, as Bastani puts it, “This is not 1917.”[10] In short, FALC is far from a universal project and clearly is not politically viable enough to take on the international institutions that govern how commodities are produced and under what conditions.

Secondly, Bastani’s sense of political rights under FALC is based on the rights of individuals rather than on the rights of social groups – on liberal rights rather than communist rights, as he writes, “Liberal ends, specifically the individual being uniquely placed to determine their path in life, are impossible without communist means.”[11] Continuing to reflexively uphold liberalism as his ideological trajectory, he does not consider how citizenship and rights were completely redefined and debated over the last 150 years of struggle; particularly in Revolutionary Russia and during the Paris Commune. As scholar Massimiliano Tomba writes regarding the Soviet Constitution of 1918, “Soviet political procedure replaced individual rights with those of groups: the soviets.”[12] Finally, the issue of who can actually enforce the rights of individuals under FALC is another problem that Bastani avoids. With the system of policing in the US being rooted in white supremacy and the protection of private property, does he assume that this can also be automated? Will Robocops be anti-racist, or will they continue to uphold the status quo?

Thirdly, throughout much of the book, Bastani is more favorable to Karl Marx’s writings that praised capitalist development and treats them as if Marx was a fan of capitalism. That Marx became critical of where communist revolution would begin by his later years is also not a factor for him: “it turns out that Marx’s early suspicion that the countries set to lead the revolution would be those at the cutting edge of capitalist modernity was right.”[13] The problem with this thesis is that by 1881 Marx was promoting the idea that the Russian Mir or Obshchina peasant communes could become the potential jumping off point for communism.[14] Other Marxists from Samir Amin[15] to Jose Carlos Mariategui[16] have also proposed similar points in order to build a socialism more fitted to the realities they were facing. All of this would be damning for Bastani as his book relies on the belief in the stages of development that must be reached prior to the establishment of communism.

The past nine months world politics has seen mass uprisings and protests in Haiti, Ecuador, Chile, Catalonia, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and in the United States. People around the world are fighting for their lives and against the imperialist stranglehold that dictates their conditions for them. No one is calling for access to ‘luxury.’ Indeed, these movements are giving rise to different political horizons and are engaged in popular forms of class struggle against the financial imperialism of the Triad and their allies in these countries.[17] Many of these people are already involved in building the world they wish to see. They deserve more than utopian pipe dreams.

About the Reviewer: Brant Roberts is based out of Houston and is a member of the editorial collective Houston Review of Books. His writings have appeared in Marx and Philosophy Review of Books, The Daily Cougar, and Threshold Magazine.

[1] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (New York: Continuum, 1983), 322.

[2] Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2019), 33.

[3] Ibid., 82.

[4] Ibid., 50.

[5] Ibid., 193.

[6] Vladimir Lenin, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), 63.

[7] Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2019), 185.

[8] Ibid., 189.

[9] Vijay Prashad, The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New York: Verso, 2012), 105.

[10] Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2019), 192.

[11] Ibid., 194.

[12] Massimiliano Tomba, Insurgent Universality: An Alternative Legacy of Modernity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 132.

[13] Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (New York: Verso, 2019), 193.

[14] Karl Marx, “Letter to Vera Zasulich” (March 8, 1881). Accessed October 30, 2019, Kevin Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 235.

[15] Samir Amin, Delinking: Towards a Polycentric World (London: Zed Books, 1990).

[16] Jose Carlos Mariategui, “Anniversary and Balance Sheet,” An Anthology. Edited by H. Vanden and M. Becker, (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), 130.

[17] ‘Triad’ refers to Marxist economist Samir Amin’s term for the colluding imperialist powers of the United States, Europe and Japan. Samir Amin, Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2016), 107.

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