Friday, March 27, 2020

The Strange World of FALC: Consumer Fantasy? (2019)

Book Review from the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The conquest of scarcity

Aaron Bastani, co-founder and senior editor at the alternative media organisation Novara Media, argues in his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism (published by Verso this month) that current technological advances are on the way toward overcoming scarcity and making ‘luxury communism’ – a society of abundance for all – possible for the first time. What Marx foresaw as the hypothetical result of further development of the productive forces is now rapidly turning into reality. On this basic point, the author is in full agreement with the World Socialist Movement, although there is scope for debate over exactly when a society of abundance became or will become possible.

In Section I of the book Bastani provides an overview of social development, with an emphasis on three great turning points or ‘disruptions’ – the first associated with the birth of agriculture, the second with the emergence of machine industry, and the third with the new information-based technologies whose inherent tendency (because ‘information wants to be free’) is to give rise to ‘fully automated luxury communism’, or FALC.

Section II is by far the best argued and most valuable part of the book. Its five chapters are devoted to each of the spheres of technology that are playing major roles in the ‘third disruption’:
  • automation – not only of manual labour but also of many intellectual activities;
  • renewable energy (mainly solar);
  • ‘mining the sky’ – that is, extracting resources from heavenly bodies (initially, the moon and near-earth asteroids);
  • genetic engineering to ‘edit’ disease-related segments out of the human genome;
  • genetic engineering of organic tissues to brew ‘food without animals’ (substitutes for meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, etc).

Developments in these spheres are set to create ‘extreme supply’ and thereby banish scarcity in labour, energy, resources, healthcare and nutrition, respectively. At the same time, they point the way toward improving the environment, mitigating global warming, coping with demographic trends like an aging population and ending cruelty to animals.

More attention might have been given to the potential risks as well as benefits of the new technologies. One wonders about plans to pull a passing mineral-rich asteroid into earth orbit for ease of access, and whether a miscalculation might send it hurtling down and crashing into the Earth. One wonders about proposals to remove disease-related segments from the human genome, and whether the ‘editors’ might inadvertently remove genetic material that performs essential functions for the organism.

Bastani acknowledges that the emergence of the technological preconditions for communism will not be enough in itself to bring the new society into existence. The political preconditions are just as essential. In the absence of a vast popular movement for communism, some at least of the new technologies are indeed likely to widen social inequalities. For instance, automation could well generate mass unemployment on a scale hitherto unknown, while benefits to health and longevity from human genetic engineering will accrue mostly to the wealthy.

Thus Section III of the book focuses on how to build up a popular movement for FALC. Like most left-wing writers, the author aims to achieve revolutionary change by promoting reforms rather than by directly spreading revolutionary ideas, his unspoken expectation being that ordinary people will not be receptive to such ideas. However, some of his reform proposals do have the merit of prefiguring the new society. In particular, he is critical of the demand for a Universal Basic Income, preferring to campaign instead for the expansion of Universal Basic Services – that is, freely available public services like healthcare, transport, education and information.

Especially from the point of view of readers in other countries, the singular focus on British politics is unfortunate. It is unclear whether he fully appreciates the need to organise for communism at the global level – a need dictated by the global nature of capitalism itself.

Perhaps the author’s concept of communism is a little simplistic. The new society will not necessarily be fully automated. Even if near-complete automation is technically possible, people may well prefer not to implement it. They may choose to automate only work that is boring and unpleasant while preserving human activities that are – or can be made to be – interesting and satisfying. Partial automation (PALC not FALC) may be accompanied by a revival of handicrafts, assisted as convenient by high-tech gadgets.

There are also reasons to be less sanguine than Bastani concerning the  impact of climate chaos and the prospects for rapidly restoring the planet’s ecosphere. No doubt the falling price of solar energy facilitates the transition away from fossil fuels, but the oil, gas and coal bosses are still able to hold back this process by various means, such as using their political clout to block or eliminate state subsidies for renewables while maximising state subsidies for fossil fuel companies. And how much more damage will terrestrial mining do to our environment by the time mining is moved off-planet? Even when we do achieve communism the ‘paradise’ promised in the title of Section III may not be within reach any time soon.

Prosecuting Capitalism: The Case For and Against (2019)

From the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard
We look at some arguments that might be presented in defence of capitalism and provide answers to them.
* Capitalism has had an overwhelmingly positive influence on the world. Three hundred years ago, before the development of capitalism, most people lived lives of unremitting toil, in near-destitution. They suffered poor health and had far shorter lifespans than today. They enjoyed none of the conveniences of modern times, hardly travelled to other places and had little by way of entertainment or relaxation. Capitalism is not perfect, but it has undoubtedly transformed people’s lives massively for the better.

– There is no denying capitalism’s impact on people and the world we inhabit, but this needs to be put into context. The development of capitalism involved wars and genocide, as colonialism led to the conquest of most of the world and rival states fought each other. Slavery and the slave trade caused untold misery and were an integral part of the rise of capitalism. There has been huge environmental damage, and the conditions of famine and starvation that affect hundreds of millions now are human-made, not natural. Even in developed countries, there is widespread poverty, as shown by the increase in food banks. Moreover, pre-capitalist societies were by no means as dreadful as claimed, with hunter-gatherer economies having been described as ‘the original affluent society’, since they could satisfy their material wants through a few hours’ labour each day.

* Capitalism emphasises personal responsibility and ensures that rewards depend on a person’s own contributions. Lazy people who take no responsibility for their actions and lifestyle do not deserve to do well.

– Capitalism absolutely does not mean that people are rewarded on the basis of their own efforts. For one thing, capitalism stops many from working, as they cannot be employed in such a way as to create profits for an employer. For another, plenty of people work hard throughout their lives and end up with next to nothing. Lastly, those who really benefit, in terms of both wealth and power, do not do so on the basis of their own work but by exploiting others. Nobody becomes a billionaire by working ten thousand times harder than the average worker.

* Capitalism offers equality of opportunity. Everyone has the same chance to make a success of their life. It is not a rigid society ruled by an aristocratic elite that nobody else can join.

– There is simply no equality of opportunity under capitalism. Some people inherit fortunes and benefit from expensive educations, while others are born in poverty and suffer from their youngest days from ill health and dreadful living conditions, and racism and sexism also prevent many from realising their potential. A very few people start out poor and become extremely rich, but that does not alter the fact that capitalism is in no way a ‘level playing field’, and that it necessarily involves massive inequalities of outcome.

* All attempts to replace capitalism with an alternative have ended in disaster. Look at Russia after 1917 and China after 1949: vicious dictatorships with reigns of terror that led to millions of deaths.

– Despite the rhetoric surrounding them, these were not in fact alternatives to capitalism at all. In Russia and China, far more people were forced to become wage workers, and the system of commodities, where goods and services are produced for sale, was greatly expanded. The state-owned the main means of production (land, factories, offices, etc) and the minority who controlled the state effectively became the capitalist class. This was a system of state capitalism, which differed in some ways from private capitalism, but still retained the main features of all varieties of capitalism.

* Some impractical dreamers do talk about a world without capitalism and the wages system, where there would supposedly be free access to what has been produced. But this would never function in the way envisaged, as most people would simply not perform any work and would just leave that to a few keen types while doing nothing themselves.

– Even under capitalism, there are many many examples of people doing voluntary work, from charities and sports clubs to lifeboats and mountain rescue. They perform this work because they know it is useful and for the companionship it offers. Moreover, it has been shown that volunteering is good for volunteers, in terms of their health and their social contacts. In a society without wages and employment, steps would be taken to make work as enjoyable and rewarding as possible, including shorter working hours.

* In any case, there is simply no prospect of a system like that ever coming into existence. While they grumble and want small changes here and there, the vast majority of people are – quite rightly – content with capitalism and do not wish to see it replaced.

– But ideas do change over time. No one believes any longer in the divine right of kings; nobody in a developed capitalist country nowadays would argue that women should not have the vote; cremation was once looked on as completely unacceptable; ideas relating to gay and lesbian relationships have changed enormously over the last half-century or so; racist views, while still influential, are far less prevalent than they were a couple of generations ago; religion no longer plays the central role in almost everyone’s life that it once did; awareness of environmental issues has increased enormously in recent years. Ideas and opinions do alter, if not always as quickly as some of us would like. Currently, most people are indeed content with capitalism, but people’s ideas are not set in stone, and the examples above and the shift away from allegiance to traditional parties show that they can certainly change.
Paul Bennett