This is Part Six of an ongoing thought-stream. Here are links to Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, and Part Five. A new month-long writing workshop starts this Weds via Zoom. Please join us. 25 people max. More info at the bottom of this email.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In recent years, a number of authors on the Left have tried to define a new utopian vision and pragmatic program for the future. Relevant manifestos include Fully Automated Luxury Capitalism by Aaron Bastani, Post-Capitalism by Paul Mason, Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek, and Four Futures by Peter Phrase. Similar ideas and proposals repeat in all of these books. Inventing the Future boils it down to a lucid four-point program:
Institute Full Automation
Distribute a Universal Basic Income
Reduce Working Hours to the Minimum
Establish the Right to Be Lazy / Diminish the Work Ethic
To this list, I propose adding:
Remove Restrictive Intellectual Property Rights
To accomplish these objectives, Srnicek believes the Left must reinvent itself, rediscover its power to reach the multitude, and become a unifying force. Such a large-scale transformation won’t happen naturally. It requires purpose, intention, and large-scale mobilization: “There is no technocratic solution, and there is no necessary progression into a post-work world. The struggles for full automation, a shorter working week, the end of the work ethic and a universal basic income are primarily political struggles.” He then looks at what it would take to build a “counter-hegemonic” movement to bring about these goals, which I will explore later.
I admire Aaron Bustani for rehabilitating the term “Communism” in his provocative manifesto, Fully Automated Luxury Communism. He writes:
‘Communism’ is used here for the benefit of precision; the intention being to denote a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another. … With the emergence of extreme supply in information, labour, energy and resources, it should be viewed not only as an idea adequate to our time but impossible before now.
I find Bastani justified in reviving Karl Marx, who is one of the most powerful thinkers of the modern age and whose actual ideas have been subject to extravagant distortions in order to marginalize and nullify him. Marx projected communism as the collective realization of human freedom, overcoming drudgery and servitude via mechanization. “The arrival of communism would herald the end of any distinction between labour and leisure,” Bastani writes. “More fundamentally, it would signal humanity’s exit from what [Marx] called the ‘realm of necessity’ and entrance into the ‘realm of freedom”
Along with Bustani, many post-capitalist theorists note that, in some areas, we are moving to a “zero marginal cost” form of post-industrial production. This is already the case when it comes to all virtual products, ranging from software to books to genetic sequences. They can be replicated and distributed infintely, at no added cost. The value and scarcity of virtual products (IP) has to be protected artificially, via elaborate intellectual property laws, leading to the current — morally and aesthetically bankrupt — situation of endless walled silos and paywalls.
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Liberating the knowledge commons was once the great promise of the Internet, but we have strayed very far from that ideal due to the internal logic of capitalism. The fortunes of tycoons like Gates, Bezos, and Zuckerberg are entirely based on control of software, IP laws, and data capture. It may be the case, as Stewart Brand once put it, “Information wants to be free.” But everywhere, now, it is in chains. In theory, robotics and technologies such as three-dimensional printing can liberate human labor, and thus time, in a way that was never possible before. This could bring about the emancipated human society envisioned by Marx (as well as, surprisingly, the economist John Maynard Keanes).
The propositions offered in Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism are less inspiring, but worth reviewing for context:
Rapidly reduce carbon emissions so that the world has warmed by only two degrees Celsius by 2050, prevent an energy crisis and mitigate the chaos caused by climate events.
Stabilize the finance system between now and 2050 by socializing it, so that ageing populations, climate change and the debt overhang do not combine to detonate a new boom-bust cycle and destroy the world economy.
Deliver high levels of material prosperity and wellbeing to the majority of people, primarily by prioritizing information-rich technologies towards solving major social challenges, such as ill health, welfare dependency, sexual exploitation and poor education.
Gear technology towards the reduction of necessary work to promote the rapid transition towards an automated economy. Eventually, work becomes voluntary, basic commodities and public services are free, and economic management becomes primarily an issue of energy and resources, not capital and labour.
Mason’s last point correlates with Bastani and Srnicek. His first point bring up the most essential subject lying beyond the threshold of what today seems imaginable: How to address the climate emergency? How to somehow integrate the necessary collective response to it into a utopian program that will convince and excite the working and middle classes, instead of alienating them (as, for instance, Extinction Rebellion has done)? I will return to that question at a later date.
Frase’s Four Futures outlines four possible outcomes from where we are now, which he identifies as:
Communism (“equality and abundance”)
Rentism (“hierarchy and abundance”)
Socialism (“equality and scarcity”)
Exterminism (“hierarchy and scarcity”).
One question brought up in all of these books is, as Frase puts it: “Will new technologies of production lead to greater free time for all, or will we remain locked into a cycle in which productivity gains only benefit the few, while the rest of us work longer than ever?” The deeper question that casts a shadow across any utopian prospect is that of the climate crisis, which Phrase explores:
The key question surrounding climate change is not whether climate change is occurring, but rather who will survive the change. Even in the worst-case scenarios, scientists are not arguing that the Earth will become totally uninhabitable. What will happen—and is happening—is that struggles over space and resources will intensify as habitats degrade. … It may be possible for a small elite to continue to pollute the planet, protecting their own comfort while condemning most of the world’s population to misery. It is that agenda, not any serious engagement with climate science, that drives corporate titans in the direction of denialism.
I won’t go through the details of Phrase’s four models here. I do want to touch upon Exterminism however. Unfortunately, it presents itself as a plausible outcome. As more aspects of labor can be performed by robots or computers, more of the population becomes desperate and destitute. The ruling elite may decide that maintaining such a large population threatens their continued domination of the Earth and its resources. Frase writes:
In a world of hyperinequality and mass unemployment, you can try to buy off the masses for a while, and then you can try to repress them by force. But so long as immiserated hordes exist, there is the danger that one day it may become impossible to hold them at bay. When mass labor has been rendered superfluous, a final solution lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor. The specter of automation rises once again, but in a very different way… An exterminist society can automate and mechanize the process of suppression and extermination, allowing the rulers and their minions to distance themselves from the consequences of their actions.
That we are being prepared for extermination is one possibility — however unlikely or distant it is, in reality — motivating the conspiratorial edge of the anti-vaccination movement. To liberals and progressives who accept the mainstream narrative, this seems preposterous and irrational. Others may find it the stuff of nightmares. Yet the unleashing of nightmares has been as much a part of human history as the realization of dreams.
Ongoing investigations of the “lab leak” hypothesis are leading into very murky waters. It is certainly possible that Covid-19 was the result of a program seeking to develop bioweapons rather than cures. “We can already see how our political and economic elites manage to justify ever-higher levels of misery and death while remaining convinced that they are great humanitarians,” Frase notes.
The possibility of some kind of “Exterminism” becoming realized — through intentional malevolence or benign neglect — is another reason that we should build a counter-hegemonic movement toward a utopian redesign of society, a post-work or luxury communist ideal, as quickly as possible. To do this, the “Left” needs to define an outcome that is far more desirable than the corporate vision of the technological Singularity, as we will explore next time.