Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2019

Aaron Bastani and the empty promise of utopian futurism

Filed under: utopian thought — louisproyect @ 6:34 pm

Most of my readers probably had the same reaction to Aaron Bastani’s NY Times op-ed piece last week titled “The World Is a Mess. We Need Fully Automated Luxury Communism” that I had. Like the countless articles in the bourgeois press hyping the DSA and Jacobin, this was just another attempt to defend a toothless version of Marxism.

Bastani’s op-ed was tied to the release of his Verso book of the same title that is a compendium of futurist wet-dreams about how mining asteroids, gene editing, synthetic meat and other technological fixes can create “automated luxury”. Bastani sees himself as a prophet of an information technology based economy that will be the third “disruption” that was preceded by two other “disruptions”: the agricultural revolution that pushed aside hunting and gathering societies and the industrial revolution that laid the groundwork for the material basis for communism. Essentially, Bastani’s book is a mixture of the Communist Manifesto’s breathless embrace of capitalist productivity and all the contemporary Wired Magazine type articles about information technology-based advances that will make communism feasible. Since I haven’t read the book, you might wonder how I can sum it up in this fashion. The answer is that I watched the YouTube interview with the author above and it was all I need to know. I should add that it was one of the longest hour and twenty-four minutes I have sat through in many a moon.

My reaction to Bastani was about the same I had to Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski’s “People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundation for Socialism”, another Verso book that made an amalgam between leading-edge informatics and a classless society. Unlike Phillips (I am not sure about Rozworski), Bastani is not an ecomodernist touting atomic energy, GMO and the like. For example, Bastani believes that meat consumption is a waste of land and water whereas Phillips is a Green Revolution groupie. Bastani favors synthetic meat and milk using laboratory techniques that apparently have produced goods close to the real thing. Who knows? Maybe nuclear power could be an answer to our energy needs under communism. But you will search in vain for anything in books by Bastani or Phillips about  overcoming capitalist rule. They are futurists, not now-ists.

There is something deeply utopian about such futurist projects. Rather than constructing utopian socialist settlements like Robert Owen, Phillips and Bastani hearken back to Edward Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”, a utopian novel written in 1888 that has the same starry-eyed vision of a classless society of the future based on technological breakthroughs. Oddly enough, Bellamy was fixated on department stores just like Phillips and Rozworski. Like Rip Van Winkle, the novel’s main character falls asleep but for a much longer time. 113 years to be exact. Like Woody Allen in “Sleeper”, he is astonished by all the changes that have taken place but favorably so. His guide is a young woman named Edith who clues him on all the new-fangled ways of doing things:

I suppose so,” said Edith, “but of course we have never known any other way. But, Mr. West, you must not fail to ask father to take you to the central warehouse some day, where they receive the orders from the different sample houses all over the city and parcel out and send the goods to their destinations. He took me there not long ago, and it was a wonderful sight. The system is certainly perfect; for example, over yonder in that sort of cage is the dispatching clerk. The orders, as they are taken by the different departments in the store, are sent by transmitters to him. His assistants sort them and enclose each class in a carrier-box by itself. The dispatching clerk has a dozen pneumatic transmitters before him answering to the general classes of goods, each communicating with the corresponding department at the warehouse. He drops the box of orders into the tube it calls for, and in a few moments later it drops on the proper desk in the warehouse, together with all the orders of the same sort from the other sample stores. The orders are read off, recorded, and sent to be filled, like lightning. The filling I thought the most interesting part. Bales of cloth are placed on spindles and turned by machinery, and the cutter, who also has a machine, works right through one bale after another till exhausted, when another man takes his place; and it is the same with those who fill the orders in any other staple. The packages are then delivered by larger tubes to the city districts, and thence distributed to the houses. You may understand how quickly it is all done when I tell you that my order will probably be at home sooner than I could have carried it from here.”

It is likely that Bellamy got his ideas from utopian or semi-utopian experiments of his age. Wikipedia reports that the novel’s hero “is taken to a store which (with its descriptions of cutting out the middleman to cut down on waste in a similar way to the consumers’ cooperatives of his own day based on the Rochdale Principles of 1844) somewhat resembles a modern warehouse club like BJ’s, Costco, or Sam’s Club.” Or Phillips/Rozworski’s Wal-Mart for that matter. Interestingly enough, my little village in the Borscht Belt that PM newspaper described as a ‘Utopia in the Catskills” back in 1947 was founded on Rochdale Principles. It was about as close as you got to Rojava in the USA at the time, and about as connected to the task of socialist revolution for that matter. The Catskill Jews, like the Syrian Kurds, had an egalitarian spirit but little understanding of how that might be generalized in a brutal capitalist society. That has always been the Achilles Heel of utopianism, I should add.

The more I dig into this Marxist futurism stuff, the more it seems like an avoidance of the far more dicey challenges we face as revolutionary activists and thinkers. It doesn’t take much more than a knowledge of information technology, biology and chemistry to write a book about Future World. But what good is that when you are faced with wrenching issues such as Brexit and Corbynism? Despite all the assurances Bastani gives us about a feasible automated luxury communism of the future, his political orientation today is simply one of supporting Jeremy Corbyn. While I would likely do so myself if I were in England, I would also be trying to help create a revolutionary organization that avoids SWP type sectarianism. To move toward communism, it is essential to create a working-class vanguard party that is rooted in the lived experience of Americans, British, French or workers wherever they live. Writing books about mining asteroids strikes me as an empty exercise that might make money for the author but have little impact on society. (Bastani’s book is rated #11 in Communism & Socialism, according to Amazon.)

Other leftists have weighed in with the same kind of futuristic scenarios. Paul Mason, a well-known British journalist who was in a Trotskyist sect when young, came out with a book titled “PostCapitalism: A Guide to Our Future” in 2015, one that largely escaped my attention. According to Wikipedia, Mason “builds on Marx’s Fragment on Machines, supporting the labour theory of value over the marginal utility theory, and drawing particularly on Jeremy Rifkin’s The Zero Marginal Cost Society, Peter Drucker’s Post-Capitalist Society.” I don’t want to accuse Bastani of plagiarism but this is exactly the same sort of thing you can hear from him in the YouTube video above. He shares Mason’s fondness for Peter Drucker and Jeremy Rifkin, quite a bit. An acquired taste, I guess.

Google Books has a capsule description of Rifkin’s book that is virtually identical to the arguments made in Bastani’s interview, where you can hear the term “marginal cost” at least 25 times:

Rifkin uncovers a paradox at the heart of capitalism that has propelled it to greatness but is now taking it to its death—the inherent entrepreneurial dynamism of competitive markets that drives productivity up and marginal costs down, enabling businesses to reduce the price of their goods and services in order to win over consumers and market share. (Marginal cost is the cost of producing additional units of a good or service, if fixed costs are not counted.) While economists have always welcomed a reduction in marginal cost, they never anticipated the possibility of a technological revolution that might bring marginal costs to near zero, making goods and services priceless, nearly free, and abundant, and no longer subject to market forces.

Now, a formidable new technology infrastructure—the Internet of things (IoT)—is emerging with the potential of pushing large segments of economic life to near zero marginal cost in the years ahead. Rifkin describes how the Communication Internet is converging with a nascent Energy Internet and Logistics Internet to create a new technology platform that connects everything and everyone. Billions of sensors are being attached to natural resources, production lines, the electricity grid, logistics networks, recycling flows, and implanted in homes, offices, stores, vehicles, and even human beings, feeding Big Data into an IoT global neural network. Prosumers can connect to the network and use Big Data, analytics, and algorithms to accelerate efficiency, dramatically increase productivity, and lower the marginal cost of producing and sharing a wide range of products and services to near zero, just like they now do with information goods.

I probably couldn’t persuade Bastani to lay off an intellectual lightweight like Rifkin if I tried. According to Wikipedia, Rifkin has taught at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania since 1995, where he “instructs CEOs and senior management on transitioning their business operations into sustainable economies.” Who knows? With Bastani having the clout to get an op-ed in the NY Times, maybe he’ll end up giving the same kind of advice to CEO’s down the road.

Then, there is Peter Frase, a Jacobin editor who came out with a Jacobin book in 2016 titled “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism”, a book that Bastani hailed in his interview—surprise, surprise. (It looks like Verso and Jacobin have cornered the futurist market.) Frase was into crystal-ball gazing five years before the book was published. In 2011, he wrote an article for Jacobin titled “Four Futures” that sounds a lot like Rifkin’s. Frase views automation as freeing us from labor for the first time in history:

What possible society could be so productive that humans are entirely liberated from having to perform some kind of involuntary and unfulfilling labor? Yet the promise of widespread automation is that it could enact just such a liberation, or at least approach it—if, that is, we find a way to deal with the need to generate power and secure resources.

Like Bastani, Frase is gung-ho on 3D printers:

But recent technological advances suggest the possibility of returning to a less centralized structure, without drastically lowering material standards of living: the proliferation of 3-D printers and small scale ‘fabrication laboratories’ is making it increasingly possible to reduce the scale of at least some manufacturing without completely sacrificing productivity. Thus, insofar as some human labor is still required in production in our imagined communist future, it could take the form of small collectives rather than capitalist or state run firms.

He also riffs on Star Trek, computer games and other free-floating popular culture signifiers. The article is worth reading because it will give you an idea of how these futuristic themes have become so endemic in a leftist milieu that operates in two radically disjointed spheres: “democratic socialist” electoralism of the here-and-now and science fiction-like excursions into the future.

I have a completely different idea on how the political awakening of American or British workers will take place. It will not be the result of a book like “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” being passed from worker to worker at an auto plant in Tennessee or in a meatpacking house in Nebraska. Most workers are conservative, atomized and family-oriented. Their life revolves around the children and their pastimes like watching sports on TV, bowling, going to church, hunting, fishing and the like.

In the same way, I was conservative back in 1965. Not in the sense of being a William F. Buckley fan (although that was true when I was in high school, mostly to annoy other students who worshipped JFK.) I hardly expected in my senior year of Bard to be facing the draft a year later. That was an intrusion into my quotidian existence that consisted of smoking pot, listening to records, reading fiction and trying to find a girlfriend. The idea of going into the army to kill or be killed was such an attack on my personal safe space that I was forced to try to understand why this intrusion was happening. This meant reading the NY Times carefully on Vietnam (an unproductive exercise in 1966) and listening to what my classmates at the New School were saying, including a member of the SWP.

The same thing will happen in the USA as the contradictions of capitalism continue to mount. At some point there will be an assault on Social Security and/or Medicare that will force the conservative and atomized American working class to investigate the source of their pain. The last thing on their mind will be mining asteroids or eating synthetic hamburgers. Instead, it will be how to remove the knife that has been plunged into their back. You saw something like this happening in France with the gas tax fomenting the Yellow Vest movement that appears to have petered out.

The historical dynamics are unmistakable. Capitalism has entered an irreversible crisis that has to this point generated reactionary populist tendencies. As long as the bourgeoisie is careful not to go too far, the situation will not favor the growth of revolutionary parties. However, there will come a time when people become so desperate about the misery that is being forced on them that they will feel the need of challenging the system in the same way workers did when Debs was a presidential candidate. When this period develops, there will be a profound struggle on the left about reform versus revolution. You see the beginnings of this debate being foreshadowed in the exchanges on “neo-Kautskyism”, the sterile formula so popular among the Jacobin cadre. Like the 1960s, the next radicalization will be a fertile seedbed for the kind of revolutionary organizing we need to be successful in the final struggle for socialism. In the here and now, the most important thing is to adhere to uncompromising class principles and avoid utopian thinking like the plague.

12 Comments »

  1. I think the Bastani/Bastante phenomenon is regrettable. B. uses the language of advertising to promote his vision of utopian products on some kind of socialist marketplace–something that is bound to drag with it all the neoliberal and faux transcendental individualist bullshit that has rendered poliitical discourse in the United States (at least) powerless for decades.

    I’m reminded of the christian revisers of Beowulf and the like who used the old pagan stories to draw converts into churches.

    But I wish I could believe that the ongoing assault on Social Security would spark a revolution. Most of the young people I meet at work think Social Security is unnecessary and take if for granted that it won’t be available. Many of them rather relish the idea that this will fail–more of a challenge to their individualism and false sense of autonomy, like riding one of those insanely dangerous de facto sidewalk scooters at 15 mph without a helmet (I tried this on Sunday and was terrified).

    There’s something in the idea that if you get to be a socialist you will be entitled to good stuff. Americans can’t believe that anyone has a right to anything not seized through force and bluster. The promise of getting stuff shouldn’t be considered entirely unworthy–i.e., the idea that the 99% are entitled to the fruits of the economy because it belongs to everyone.

    But this is predictable bullshit.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 18, 2019 @ 2:01 pm

  2. “This is predictable bullshit”–cheap shot artists will have a field day if not too bored to bother. I meant Bastani.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 18, 2019 @ 2:26 pm

  3. These technological developments may or may not take off and they may or may not be of environmental benefit. But if they’re already being started by capitalists, under capitalism, then they’re completely compatible with capitalism. Things that are environmentally beneficial should happen but they won’t ever be the solution. Any plan to “sell” socialism by promoting capitalist innovations is simply bizarre.

    Comment by John Edmundson — June 20, 2019 @ 8:21 am

  4. No harm no foul in explaining how communism could be materially possible I think. Like you say, workers aren’t going to read it anyway. So who cares?

    I agree with your thoughts about how the next revolutionary opportunity will happen. But let’s not forget that the last one brought us nothing but stalinist dictatorships and the equally bad petty bourgeois left groups in the US like SDS and French Maoists!

    Comment by Carlin — June 20, 2019 @ 12:47 pm

  5. “But if they’re already being started by capitalists, under capitalism, then they’re completely compatible with capitalism”

    You might have missed the part where Marx wrote about means of production and mode of production coming into conflict being the beginning of the end of each historical epoch.

    The cotton gin freed the slaves.

    Comment by Carlin — June 20, 2019 @ 12:49 pm

  6. Any plan to “sell” socialism by promoting capitalist innovation is simply bizarre.

    I think Bastani is a bullshit artist. But I also think that a major point for socialism is that it is the only way to preserve the benefits of capitalism which capitalism itself is bound to destroy uncreatively. If you are proposing to destroy everything connected with capitalism throughout history to the point where there are no mines, wells, pipelines, computer networks, plastics, mechanized farms, or factories left, they you are IMO not talking Marxism. I’d say you were a Luddite, but Ludd gets a bad press that he doesn’t deserve.

    We can’t destroy everything “started by capitalists” without destroying everything. What the hell–Engels was a capitalist and he and the petty bourgeois Marx started Marxism.

    Perhaps the problem is the ambiguity of the term. What is it to be “started by capitalists?” Capitalists per se are not technological innovators but people who exploit technological innovation in an ultimately (and now alarmingly short-term) destructive way. It is the relations of production that must be revolutionized first, not the catalog of stuff you can get under this or that system. Which is not to say that the appeal of getting great stuff–if you are going without–is an altogether bad appeal. That’s another subject.

    Smashing the machines, planting nine bean rows, and living in mud huts wearing handwoven hempen skirts won’t save anyone. Furthermore, I suspect anyone who thinks this way (if anyone actually does–yes, I’m exaggerating) has a false sense of autonomy fostered by advertising and the commercial Internet. That fake feeling of autonomy–in the end, however obfuscated, the feeling of being a free actor on the endless neutral playing field of the Free Market–is one of our biggest enemies.

    Bastani is full of shit but that doesn’t mean you can just put a minus wherever he puts a plus and be right.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 20, 2019 @ 2:15 pm

  7. After the invention of the cotton gin, the yield of raw cotton doubled each decade after 1800. Demand was fueled by other inventions of the Industrial Revolution, such as the machines to spin and weave it and the steamboat to transport it. By midcentury America was growing three-quarters of the world’s supply of cotton, most of it shipped to England or New England where it was manufactured into cloth. During this time tobacco fell in value, rice exports at best stayed steady, and sugar began to thrive, but only in Louisiana. At midcentury the South provided three-fifths of America’s exports — most of it in cotton.

    However, like many inventors, Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.

    https://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/cotton-gin-patent

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2019 @ 2:48 pm

  8. “By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.”

    And by 1865 exactly none were.

    Comment by Carlin — June 21, 2019 @ 11:36 am

  9. I think the point is that you have to differentiate between things “started by capitalists” with the expectation of finding contradictions. Inventors seldom actually solely invent their inventions and, under capitalism, their inventiveness is influenced by and deeply involved with capitalist business practices and relations of production–viz. the heavily capitalistic Thomas Edison. Furthermore, the myth of “Thomas a Ediford” (Hart Crane) –heavily influenced by the transcendentalist individualism of Emerson–leads to the myth of the hero entrepreneur who crafts innovation in some makeshift laboratory and then brings it forward for the benefit of mankind through the magic of the Free Market. This is a load of nauseating neoliberal ideological fucking horseshit–which among other things reflects onto the marketplace alone relations of production that go far beyond that, which are thereby obscured and rendered invisible and unmentionable.Nevertheless, the invention of invented things, even when in some sense “started by capitalism,” is different from the broad capitalist deployment of “technology,” whatever that really means when you look at it critically.

    IN reality, some form of cotton “ginning” mechanism can be found in India as far back as the sixth century. Whitney invented specific functionality to permit the rapid cleaning of short-staple cotton in massive quantities. His profit-seeking invention was exploited by other profit-seekers in the 19th century in a way that caused slavery to become dramatically more widespread than it had previously been. Some, like Charles Post, might contend that because slavery was involved (note–not saying Post actually said this), you can’t call this development capitalistic; but it seems fairly clear that in the bigger picture it was. I have no idea what Whitney thought about slavery, but even if he was for it, and even granted the falsity of the hero inventor/transcendental individualist etc. myth, the technical innovation of the cotton gin as such although “started by capitalism” has no essential connection to the catastrophic spread of slavery that it permitted to happen.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — June 21, 2019 @ 6:37 pm

  10. I certainly at no point suggested smashing machines. Obviously when we live in a capitalist world, all things, including beneficial things, are developed through that particular mode of production. And yes, the development of means of production, to the point of making the cost of the reproduction of labour power less time consuming is critical to Marx’ work. But simply making something that is “greener” and cheaper, like synthetic meat, is not incompatible with a continuation of capitalism. It is no more a step toward socialism than any other technological innovation. I don’t know enough about the science of producing this “meat” to know if it will be socially beneficial, carcinogenic, a complete dead end or a great social boon. What I do know is that it will be the conscious organisation of the working class, not the invention of Frankenfoods, that will herald the transformation of society to socialism.

    Comment by John Edmundson — June 21, 2019 @ 11:20 pm

  11. More arguments about 3D printers: https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/3D_Printing_as_an_Agent_of_Socio-Political_Change

    Comment by SP — August 23, 2019 @ 9:25 am

  12. “To move toward communism, it is essential to create a working-class vanguard party that is rooted in the lived experience of Americans, British, French or workers wherever they live.”

    This is a crucial issue. The lack of workers’ movement combined with the revolutionary socialist party has led to futurist utopianism based on the vulgar apology of technological development. Politically, this new form of utopian socialism without serious analysis of the material conditions of the capitalist society (not to confuse with the new-old futurist dreams of linear development of the productive forces towards ‘fully automated and luxury communism’) unapologetically supports the contemporary wave of neo-reformism, and will ceased when this wave stops at the necessary of the capitalist reproduction. The thing is that this neo-reformism couldn’t answer the strategic question of this reproduction (of the new mode of production) and bases its analysis of the long development of “better” capitalism. But world capitalism could not reproduce itself without financialization, the military-industrial complex, more and more cheap labour, extractivism, and monopoly competition between the transnational firms. Only the working class could create an alternative to such a system combined with planning and social needs of various societies – the new social relations of production have to materialise in the worker-controlled labour process. Not the “luxury” from the 3D technology and the technological determinism based on the productive forces created by the transnational monopoly competition itself which would decline without its capitalist ground.

    Comment by Paweł Szelegieniec — September 6, 2019 @ 6:59 pm


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