A critique of the Fully Automated Luxury Communism argument, suggesting that it doesn't go far enough in envisioning a utopian transformation of social relations.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) has gained increasing traction amongst the libertarian/anarchist communist currents in recent years. Originally a slogan or meme circulating predominantly London based communists, it has since been further theorised and developed by people and groups such as the Novara host Aaron Bastani1 and the fully automated luxury communism tumblr collective.2
It draws on a notion of technological development found in Marxist writings and on the optimism of the futurist tradition, resonating with desires for a utopian vision of a post-capitalist future that avoids either the veneration of hard work and industrial discipline or the exaltation of frugal living that has been found in past social democratic and communist visions.
However, I will argue that it fails to deal with various very real limitations on automation, increased consumption and the fulfilment of desires. Furthermore, in attempting to think in a utopian manner about possible post-capitalist societies it is necessary to consider questions of changing social relations and relations between humanity and nature that the luxury communism vision avoids.
The starting point of the fully automated luxury communism argument, familiar in the Marxist tradition, is to observe the technological and knowledge innovations under late capitalism that make possible the production of ever greater quantities of goods with less and less human labour. New developments such as the use of robots in production, innovations such as 3D printing, driverless vehicles and the virtually instant transfer of information and entertainment via the internet all reduce the amount of human labour power required to produce the goods we consume. Indeed in some sectors this has already developed to the point where it may reasonably be argued that human labour could be totally unnecessary within a short space of time.
Given the reduced demand for labour, this should imply a reduction in the amount of time people spend working. However the demands of capitalism and the extraction of value means that workers globally have seen a worsening of their working conditions. The neoliberal development of the capitalist system over the last 40 years has led to the intensification of workloads, demands for ever greater ‘flexibility’ (in the form of zero hours contracts, ‘self employed’ status and unpaid overtime) and wages that have stagnated or fallen in the West following their post-war rise.
Simultaneously there has been an increase in the numbers of those unemployed or in insecure employment; demonised and stigmatised, reliant on ever eroding social welfare provisions or incarcerated as part of the rapidly expanding prison population. Thus there is a paradox in our current situation, as technologies that could lead to greater prosperity for all instead lead to greater insecurity and suffering.
Yet why must it be this way? Proponents of fully automated luxury communism argue that a communist reordering of society in which these new technologies are held in common would allow for greater consumption and a much reduced workload for everyone. Luxury goods that are currently withheld from the vast majority of people would be available to all in society. Meanwhile, greater automation and reduced working hours would allow for increased leisure time, the pursuit of individual interests and a much improved quality of life.
As Aaron Bastani describes it, ‘if we embraced work-saving technologies rather than feared them, and organized our society around their potential, it could mean being able to live a good life with a ten-hour working week... Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses and Chloe for all.’3
The Invisible Committee: ‘Gains in productivity, outsourcing, mechanization, automated and digital production have so progressed that they have almost reduced to zero the quantity of living labor necessary in the manufacture of any product.’4
Fully automated luxury communism thus rests on a highly optimistic vision of the potential of technology to meet our desires with a minimum of human labour. But is this a practical vision? One point that challenges the luxury communist notion is the way in which conceptions of goods as luxurious are often tied up with exclusivity. For example, a Cartier watch isn’t valued for its superior timekeeping abilities as compared to other watches or for its staggering beauty (they are often quite ugly) so much as that they are known for being expensive and thus owning one confers the status of being able to buy something other people cannot afford. ‘Cartier for everyone’ would thus make it meaningless as a status symbol and destroy the very reason it was viewed as a luxury in the first place.
Beyond this, the well established problems of limited natural resources and the damage done to the environment by production raises questions about the possibilities for the growth in production that luxury communism must be predicated upon. Our reliance on maintaining the earth’s environment for our very survival means that sustainability is a key concern to any future vision whilst the new technologies of late capitalism, including technologies such as the internet that rely on vast banks of mainframes consuming large quantities of electricity, have a major impact on the environment, the effects of which we are already seeing. There may well be technological developments that can attenuate or even go some way to reversing these effects, however it would be foolhardy to assume that technology will pull through and avert disaster in the end.
In addition, the limited quantities of materials available for production must inevitably act as a limitation on productive expansion. Thus environmental concerns must limit this promise of ‘luxury for all.’ Older limitations of scarcity may have been overcome, but the problem of environmental scarcity is more pressing than ever before.
Finally, by focusing on work as the production of goods, fully automated luxury communism risks overlooking other forms of labour such as those involved in social reproduction and care. Care work, such as the raising of children, looking after the sick, disabled and the elderly and the everyday tasks required for staying alive remains a large (and proportionately growing) burden of labour time, one for there seems no easy technological fix. Sure, care robots and other forms of automation have been suggested and implemented in part, but these are ill suited to accommodate the complex needs, requirement for human interaction and demands for dignity and agency which must surely be a key part of the provision of care in any future communist society.
As Sylvia Federici argues ‘while production has been restructured through a technological leap in key areas of the world economy, no technological leap has occurred in the sphere of domestic work significantly reducing the labour socially necessary for the reproduction of the workforce.’5
Here we should also take into account the gendered aspect of the conceptions of work that is being used. What is being focused on is the abolition of work in terms of privileged ‘male’ forms of industrial and ‘productive’ work, whilst the female dominated ‘private’ work of care and social reproduction which is harder to eliminate is largely overlooked insofar as it is even acknowledged as work at all. Thus in taking its technological underpinnings directly from the late capitalist present luxury communism seems in danger of also continuing its basis in gender oppression.
The film Robot and Frank portrays one possibility for the automation of care work, but can it really fulfil the complex needs, desire for human interaction and dignity that are part of care?
If production isn’t infinitely expandable and the scope for the technological replacement of labour power is limited then we will need to rethink what we mean by ‘luxury’, and indeed what we mean by ‘communism’. Here it is necessary to think more generally of a transformation of social relations and relations between humanity and nature, looking towards the creation of a ‘public affluence’ rather than the ‘private luxury’ of capitalist desires.
Luxury communism focuses on the fulfilment of privatised, materialistic desires as they exist now through technologically created plenty. This approach has the benefit of clearly resonating with popular demands without telling people what they ‘should’ want, however if this plenty is limited then we need to look more carefully at the transformation of social relations and how desires are constructed.
For example, the promise of a work free society resonates with people’s unhappiness in work; work is something we do to survive and given the choice we would prefer to not do it. However, if it isn’t possible to replace all these tasks with machines what should the alternative be? Aaron Bastani touches on this with the promise of a 10 hour week, and certainly this would be preferable to working 40+ hours. However, this would still mean 10 hours a week in the same miserable, unsatisfying labour.
One alternative is the form of organisation of production suggested by William Morris. Morris considered the history of guild production as well as the technological developments of his time in order to consider how to produce objects that are beautiful as well as useful. His 1884 essay The Factory as it Might Be envisions a society of four hour work days, but in which those short days are made as pleasurable and rewarding as possible.6 Factories are located within landscaped gardens, ornately adorned and produce no pollution. Technology is only used where it is time saving, and the time workers spend tending to machines is limited in order to ensure everyone can develop practical and craft skills to produce well made, beautiful items. Thus Morris imagines a technology, work structure and social relations not based on profit or speed of production per se but satisfaction in work and the creation of beauty.7
Morris’s vision, however, does not touch on the issues of care that we raised earlier. For an alternative vision that engages more clearly with this we can look to Marge Piercy’s novel Woman on the Edge of Time.8 The novel portrays a (possible) communistic future society in which children are raised by three parents (with responsibilities shared by others in the community) and given much greater autonomy than in current society. Indeed, they are able to leave their parents and strike out as early as age 12, this early autonomy balanced by the interdependence of all within the community. Thus childcare relations have been transformed in order to remove the reliance on a single ‘mother’ figure.
Social relations have transformed healthcare as well. For example mental healthcare is treated without stigma, with some taking time for rest and recovery before rejoining the social activities rather than being institutionalised and brutally written off as the novel painfully points out often happens in the present. Finally, there is the character of Sappho, an elder figure in the community who remains active and engaged until shortly before her death surrounded by her friends and loved ones. What is interesting here is the questions that are not asked: could her life have been sustained in some form for years, even decades longer? In the book it would seem having a good life and even a good death are more important than the numerical longevity of life.
Both Morris and Piercy look to address the issue of pollution and our relationship with nature. Both envision societies in which in which pollution is eradicated or limited and production is geared up around producing well rather than production by quantity. Here it is also useful to consider Mike Davis’s notion of ‘public affluence’, by which he means that our current ecological crises need not necessarily demand some reactionary ‘return to nature’ or austere living. Instead an ecologically sustainable life can be pleasant, even luxurious, through access to shared amenities, spaces and objects rather than the fulfilment of materialistic private desires.
As Davis puts it ‘public affluence – represented by great urban parks, free museums, libraries and infinite possibilities for human interaction – represents an alternative route to a rich standard of life based on Earth-friendly sociality.’9
I do not wish to suggest that these arguments provide a complete, unproblematic utopian vision by themselves. Morris’s vision suffers from an overly romanticised notion of craft guilds and doesn’t consider other forms of work, whilst Piercey’s emphasis on community runs the risk of ignoring the ways in which communities can also be oppressive in demanding conformity10 and Davis isn’t completely convincing in arguing that ‘public affluence’ would be sufficient to abate the looming environmental catastrophe. Nonetheless, what I want to show is that utopian thought allows for the consideration of social relations and relations between humanity and nature in a manner far wider than that attempted by fully automated luxury communism.
New York Public Library. Mike Davis: ‘Only a return to explicitly utopian thinking can clarify the minimal conditions for the preservation of human solidarity in the face of convergent planetary crises.’11
It could be argued that I am expecting too much from fully automated luxury communism, that it is a fragment, one way in which the world could be better rather than a full utopian vision in itself. Indeed, like concepts such as universal income, it could be argued that whatever truth there is to the more theoretical arguments against it the fact remains that it would be far preferable to the status quo of benefit sanctions and 40+ hour weeks for low wages.
However, I believe that it is correct to view luxury communism from a utopian perspective, not in the sense of something that is impossible but in the sense of something that attempts to open up the sense of future possibilities as opposed to a mere repetition of present conditions. Partially this is to act as a critique of the present, partially to act as a spur towards an open future. Indeed, the use of the term ‘communism’ implies a radical alternative future vision, one that is subversive of the present and, yes, even utopian.
It is here that I think that fully automated luxury communism, by putting too much faith in capitalist technology overcoming scarcity and the need for labour, fails to imagine a more general transformation of social relations. To avoid this tendency, and to encourage thinking about the overcoming of the paradoxes and miseries of capitalism, we need to seriously engage in utopian experimentation in future possibilities.
My thanks to everyone who provided help and feedback.
- 1Bastani, Aaron, ‘IMO Bastani: Luxury Communism’, Novara Media, 10/11/14,https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmQ-BZ3eWxM
- 2Fully Automated Luxury Communism Tumblr, http://luxurycommunism.tumblr.com/
- 3Bastani, Aaron, ‘Britain Doesn’t Need More Austerity, it Needs Luxury Communism’, Vice, 12/6/2015, http://www.vice.com/read/luxury-communism-933
- 4Quoted by the Fully Automated Luxury Communism Tumblr, ‘Here Lies the Present Paradox’, http://luxurycommunism.tumblr.com/post/33892882494/notes-from-below-here-lies-the-present-paradox, Photo from the Fully Automated Luxury Communism
- 5Federici, Sylvia, A Feminist Critique of Marx, http://endofcapitalism.com/2013/05/29/a-feminist-critique-of-marx-by-silvia-federici/
- 6Morris, William, The Factory as it Might Be, http://infed.org/archives/e-texts/william_morris_a_factory_as_it_might_be_1884.htm
- 7Kristin Ross argues that Morris’s vision of the erasure of distinctions between art and work, as well as between work and pleasure is similar to the efforts of the communards during the brief life of the Paris commune to transform the nature of work and education. The name the communards used for this social transformation, coincidently, was communal luxury. (Ross, Kristin, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune)
- 8Piercey, Marge, Woman on the Edge of Time
- 9Davis, Mike ‘Who will Build the Ark’, New Left Review, 61 (January-February 2010), http://irows.ucr.edu/cd/courses/10/reader/New%20Left%20Review%20-%20Mike%20Davis%20%20Who%20Will%20Build%20the%20Ark.htm
- 10Ursulas LeGuin’s The Dispossessed is interesting here in depicting a communistic society in which problems of scarcity lead to the community making conformist demands of its members (LeGuin, Ursula, The Dispossessed).
- 11Davis, Mike, ‘Who Will Build the Ark’