4 July 2019

Machine Learning, AI and What it Means For Inequality is the Most Ignored Crisis of the 21st Century. Here’s Why.

by Aaron Bastani

Whenever discussing my book with a wider audience I often start with an attempt to find common ground. Almost always that is the admission that we are living through an era of heightened crisis, something which unsurprisingly meets with little disagreement. In FALC I refer to this as ‘The Great Disorder’, as climate systems breakdown, an eroding neoliberal order, demographic ageing and various other challenges converge. My own diagnosis is that, taken together, these present an existential threat to capitalism. The critical question being whether it is replaced by something better or worse.

Alongside these more frequently-cited crises are the economic implications of robotics, automation and AI. While technological change is often thought of as a physical, materially-embodied process, over the coming years it won’t be underpinned by advances immediately obvious as such, and as deep and machine learning diffuse across the economy the outward appearance of daily life will remain much the same. While films like Terminator, Blade Runner and Ex Machina haveshaped the popular imagination as to what the future might bring, for now it is far easier (and more profitable) to build deep learning solutions than advanced robotics. Although that is a long way short of human-like machines, or human-like machine intelligence, that doesn’t mean its effects won’t be transformational.

Machine learning is a sub-branch of AI concerned with the creation of computer systems able to perform tasks based on patterns and inference rather than preset instructions. Over the next two decades its application in an increasing number of fields will particularly impact middle class professions like law, accountancy and aspects of healthcare and education. Machine learning will do to these industries what the tractor and combine harvester did to agriculture, leading to a historic increase in productivity and simultaneous reduction in the need for human labour. In FALC I refer to this prior transition in agriculture as ‘peak horse’, with the Industrial Revolution heralding a shift from a world where 50% of the labour force was agrarian to one where it was little as 1% (like the United States today). Similar changes with machine learning, although a long way from the sci-fi predictions of ‘the singularity’, will lead to peak human. While this will not eliminate human labour from most industries, it will reduce it in a manner analogous to agriculture over the last two centuries. Importantly, machine learning solutions – unlike expensive agricultural equipment – takes little time to diffuse.

But while it is the middle class professions of the Global North which are set to confront the greatest problems, the biggest challenge of all may be the implications AI has for inequality not within, but between, nations. For more than half a century the global economic model has offered poorer countries one advantage: their young, cheap workforces could be leveraged for export-led growth. That powered the rise of China, South Korea and Malaysia as they first manufactured goods, grew industrial expertise and gradually climbed up value chains. When I was a child ‘Made in China’ was associated with shoddy plastic toys. Today it is the world leader in fields as diverse as synthetic biology, mobile payment systems and high speed rail. More importantly, it is one of only two ‘AI superpowers’. It’s been the most rapid and remarkable national transformation in history.

Until recently the presumption was that the same dynamic, albeit on a smaller scale, would apply to countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Nigeria. These nations would benefit from Chinese wages rising just as East Asia did after the 1970s at the cost of Western European and North American workers.

Except we now know that won’t happen with higher automation altering the trajectory of development. Rather than capital pursuing the ‘spatial fix’, seeking cheaper labour elsewhere to ensure a higher rate of return, it is turning to technology instead. Goods produced in China today will either be made there tomorrow, only with lower levels of human labour, or ‘re-shored’ closer to their home markets. Some countries will continue to benefit from the old trajectory, like Bangladesh with labour-intensive textiles, but it’s no longer the default and will be significantly limited.

For poorer countries with growing populations this presents a problem. Take Nigeria: with a population of 201 million, expected to double by 2050, such changes – allied to issues of water scarcity and declining crop yields as a result of climate change – could herald economic and social breakdown. Contrary to the claims of today’s techno-optimists I doubt several hundred million people will see rising living standards as they join the ranks of service workers in personal training and interior design.

Attendant with the end of development based on cheap manufactured exports, there is also the problem of just how limited the rewards of artificial intelligence will be shared. PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicts AI will add $15.7 trillion to the global economy by 2030, 70% of which will go to China and the United States. While the extent to which such technologies could eliminate jobs is contested (FALC cites estimates ranging from the extreme to the conservative) even if there is little net disturbance regarding jobs it will exercise profound implications for uneven development. In this world the United States, China, and to a lesser extent the EU and Japan, would leave the rest of the world behind in a manner similar to that of the industrialising countries after the early 19th century. If anything it would likely be worse.

With manufacturing and services increasingly performed by businesses whose intelligent machines are based in the AI superpowers of the United States and China, it will be the case that Silicon Valley and Zhongguancun aren’t just be responsible for building social media platforms, but payment systems, accountancy and legal services, health diagnostics and autonomous vehicles. While it is plausible that Europe could at least attempt to catch up, while protecting its domestic market for foreign competition, for the world’s poorest poor it will be a very different story. Unlike with the manufactured exports of yesteryear, much of sub-saharan Africa, Central and South Asia, the Middle East and Latin America will be effectively closed off – the dependency and under-development of the Global South not only extended but exacerbated. 

This is already in evidence with what Kai-Fu Lee describes as the ‘7 Giants’ of AI research: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Baidu, AliBaba and Tencent. The four US companies are worth north of $3 trillion – far larger than the UK economy, while their Chinese counter-parts have a cumulative value of more than a £1 trillion. While these companies are already among the most valuable in the world, their respective advantages means they stand to become far larger still, making life difficult for legacy businesses in industries they wish to enter: Amazon with offline shopping; Alphabet with autonomous vehicles and smart home products; Tencent, Facebook and AliBaba with payment systems and banking (1.7 billion people worldwide don’t have a bank account). The march of machine learning likely means that these already huge corporations will play an ever expanding role in our lives, with US firms dominating markets in Europe and India, and China in East Asia and the rest of the Global South. Any business or public institution wishing to benefit from machine learning over the next two decades may come to depend on technology from one of these countries with the cost of entry, in terms of data and resources, simply too high for anyone else. 

Alongside a new divide between wealthy and poorer countries, or more specifically the AI superpowers versus the rest, there is also the issue of inequality within nations. While it is true that new jobs will be created, these will be in areas which retain ‘uniquely human skills’ – think anything which requires motor-sensory coordination like cleaning, care work or repairs and maintenance. Because of demographic ageing the care sector is already creating millions of new jobs, with 8 of the 10 fastest growing positions in America to be found in the care industry.

But given the average worker in the sector already earns as little as $22,000, the possibility of large numbers entering it will only serve to suppress wages further and increase in-work poverty. It is particularly difficult to see how such a dynamic might be managed within the AI superpowers, as an ever larger mass of working poor see the dividend of AI redounding almost exclusively to a tiny elite, making the America of The Great Gatsby an exercise in egalitarian restraint. The idea that progressives can offer incremental solutions in the face of this is absurd. As with so much else it necessitates a systemic response. If the left doesn’t offer it, the nativist right will.

Indeed this process is already underway, despite machine learning having barely arrived. The last two decades, and with it the emergence of a true digital economy, has seen a massive concentration of wealth and power, with the platform model inevitably tending to monopoly. In the United States 75% of venture capital funding goes to just three states: California, New York and Massachusetts, with 50% alone going to the Sunshine State. Four of the world’s ten richest people are involved in the 7 AI Giants, with Jeff Bezos personally worth $159 billion. By the same token regional inequality is intensifying in places as different as Britain, China, Germany and Mexico. That is not to say the digital economy is to blame, local factors are to be considered as well as the asset values of large cities and younger workers preferring the metropolis, but the diffusion of machine learning applications will only exacerbate this. The fact that one of the world’s most innovative car manufacturers, Tesla, is based in Silicon Valley – as is much of the new wave of space transportation companies, is an omen of the future. As information becomes an increasingly central factor of production, areas with AI as their comparative advantage will pull away from the rest. It will be the equivalent of offering electricity with your products when nobody else can.

The diffusion of AI, and thereafter robotics, will intensify the status quo of ‘winner-takes-all’ . It will create unprecedented global inequalities and lead to a progressively larger ‘unnecessariat’, primarily located in the Global South. And that’s all before touching upon the existential risks more widely discussed in the media. AI, even unfolding in a ‘business as usual’ manner, could be on a par with demographic ageing over the next 25 years as a social and economic challenge. Rather than creating solutions policy-makers, especially those beyond China and the United States, are unlikely to even be aware of the problem.

24 June 2019

The Case For a ‘People’s Uber’

by Aaron Bastani

I’ve previously written about how local bus services should be a universal basic service – which is to say free at the point of consumption and available to all citizens. Far from being an outlandish demand, such a policy has already been adopted by the likes of Estonia and Luxembourg. Closer to home Scottish Labour committed to it earlier this year. For an additional £5 billion, according to research undertaken by UCL, we could pay for free bus services for everyone in Britain while accommodating a 260% increase in use. And because of extreme supply – as I outline in Fully Automated Luxury Communism – the costs will only fall, with the inputs into running bus services: from the manufacture of the vehicles to the energy, and ultimately even much of the labour too (specifically with deep learning and robotics) declining every year. The question of the extent we choose to automate such a service – and in whose benefit – is a political one.

The dividend from free bus services would be immediate and impressive: it would relieve congestion and parking issues – the bread and butter of local politics; it would address issues of air pollution, which presently accounts for as many as 30,000 deaths a year in the UK; it would be a boon to isolated and low-income households; and would help revive high streets (along with a raft of measures I write about in the book and will blog about another time).

But while such a policy would be transformational, and easier to rapidly introduce than low-cost, frequent trains (also to be pursued), it shouldn’t stop there. That’s because free, local transport should also eventually include cars – which will remain an important mode of transport. Societal ageing means we’ll need transport systems capable of meeting the needs of the elderly and disabled; if we look to the coming decades ever more of us will suffer from age-related health conditions. Then there is the fact certain people prefer to travel alone, even if it is slightly less convenient – women later at night being one example. And have you have ever tried moving house using anything smaller than a Luton van? On top of all that is traditional logistics and distribution. Simply put, private vehicles aren’t going anywhere. We need them.

But more than accepting cars as an essential feature of modern life, integrating them into the broader UBS of transport could serve to undermine car ownership as a social presumption. Right now the average car is stationary and unused for around 95% of the time – a huge waste when you consider the successor vehicles of today will have the ability to autonomously pilot themselves. Why shouldn’t this surplus be deployed? It’s that question which makes me convinced that the argument for public ownership of cars – something equivalent to a municipal Uber – isn’t just ecologically preferable but common sense. It’s a superior alternative to a world of unfettered automotive ownership where we drive around in subterranean tunnels, spend hours in traffic jams and sometimes fail the MOT. You have the advantage of car ownership without the downsides.

Uber’s strategy regarding automation is well-documented. Until recently the company had been explicit in disclosing its longer term ambition: to gain a massive customer base before a shift to self-driving vehicles. In 2016 the company signed a $300 million deal with Volvo to develop an autonomous road-ready car by 2021. That August the company’s then CEO, Travis Kalanick, spoke candidly about the scale of the upstart’s ambitions, “It starts with understanding that the world is going to go self-driving and autonomous,” he told Business Insider, “so if that’s happening, what would happen if we weren’t a part of that future? If we weren’t part of the autonomy thing? Then the future passes us by basically”. Importantly for Uber, its platform would give the company access to massive amounts of data – a resource of critical importance for the development of ‘deep learning’ algorithms. If AI is the engine of the coming era, data is the oil. The larger Uber’s datasets are ahead of the ‘autonomy thing’ being technically indistinguishable from a human driver, and the more it invests in the relevant technology, the greater its first mover advantage. Which also explains the span of the company’s intentions, with Uber extending beyond just taxis and aiming to provide food delivery services and even electric bikes. It’s a plan which made a great deal of sense when Kalanick spilled the beans in 2016 – and still does.

But if it is the data which is increasingly the source of such value, and the ambition is to establish a monopoly and eliminate (or massively minimise) human labour, then why should that benefit Uber’s shareholders rather than the public? And what about the workers? Given approximately four million people drive for a living in the United States the consequences of such a shift will be profound. What is more, wholesale transition to electric cars will require gargantuan mineral resources – something recently highlighted in a letter authored by Professor Richard Herrington and fellow expert members of ‘SoS MinErals’. While that letter was irrationally pessimistic in some areas – such as the fact the UK would need to generate 20% more electricity if all vehicles were electric (that’s the point, the source just needs to be renewable) – it was entirely right to highlight the demand this would create for scarce resources like cobalt, lithium and neodymium when it comes to storage. As the letter itself makes clear:

“…to replace all UK-based vehicles today with electric vehicles (not including the LGV and HGV fleets), assuming they use the most resource-frugal next-generation NMC 811 batteries, would take 207,900 tonnes cobalt, 264,600 tonnes of lithium carbonate (LCE), at least 7,200 tonnes of neodymium and dysprosium, in addition to 2,362,500 tonnes copper. This represents, just under two times the total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production during 2018. Even ensuring the annual supply of electric vehicles only, from 2035 as pledged, will require the UK to annually import the equivalent of the entire annual cobalt needs of European industry.”

Of course such a transition would take place over multiple decades, and further innovations will lead to greater energy efficiency and less waste. What is more, it’s important to highlight that known reserves of all the minerals listed above are sufficient to meet present global energy demand in the event of it doubling and, unlike extracted hydrocarbons, they can be recycled. But the critical point still stands: the ambition should not simply be a like-for-like replacement of renewables for fossil fuels, consumption patterns need to change as well.

Part of the answer is to massively improve existing transport infrastructure – including buses as a UBS – but another is to transform the relationship of the individual to the car. Here a presumption of acquisition and ownership needs to be replaced with ‘right of access’. 

It’s been widely recognised that the emergence of the ‘sharing economy’ reflects a distorted form of collaboration which, if re-wired, could be the basis of a 21st century socialism. Here access matters more than ownership: if you could use a car whenever you liked, but had to wait a short while (maybe not that long once the algorithm had enough data) what would the point be of owning a vehicle? For a long time the answer was price: constantly using a taxi is more expensive than owning a car, principally because of the added labour costs. But once automation kicks in, alongside the constantly falling cost of energy and optimal efficiency as a result of big data, that becomes less of an issue. Much less.

One response might be that self-driving cars are unsafe and will never happen. As I outline in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, the truth is rather different. Although it’s fair to say the ride will be a bumpy one – Uber suspended its autonomous efforts when a pedestrian was killed in 2018 – it’s important to remember that around 30,000 people die every year in the US as a result of road accidents. Worldwide that figure stands at more than a million. What is more it is important to recall that previous disruptions in transport endured similar setbacks: in 1830 William Huskisson, at the time a leading British politician, died in an accident at the opening of the world’s first railway line between Manchester and Liverpool. That death, like Elaine Herzberg’s in 2018, was a tragedy, but I’d argue such logic will capsize once it becomes clear autonomous vehicles will mean a reduction in road-related deaths. By 2030 anyone who has lost a loved one in a traffic collision or suffers as a result of drink-driving could be asking why politicians haven’t addressed the issue by accelerating the shift to autonomous vehicles. 

The next question is how far away this new world is: despite misgivings the technology has advanced rapidly. As recently as the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge the best performing vehicle could only complete 11 kilometres of a 150 kilometre course. By 2010 Google announced its test vehicles had crossed the United States, with 99% of the journey performed with no human intervention. The U.S. Department of Transportation has six levels to classify autonomous vehicles, starting from entirely human operated, Level 0, to fully autonomous – Level 5. While there are presently no Level 5 cars on the market, nor the regulatory framework that would allow them to be used, a number of vehicles already operate at Level 3 autonomy – what is called ‘conditional autonomy’, where cars can pilot themselves but only under certain conditions. One example of this is the Audi A8. In certain contexts autonomous vehicles are already here, most likely is this will gradually creep until the technology is perfected, likely within a decade.

What would placing all this within the project of modern socialism and Universal Basic Services look like? A start would be the integration of ZipCar like services into local transport provision. One can see this initially operating most plausibly in London with Transport for London. That would provide a base to grow but also begin to give TFL that most important resource as they begin to include autonomous vehicles within their network: user data. Furthermore these vehicles would be electric, say from 2020, providing further incentives to create more charging stations around the city and offering Londoners a green option for the occasional car journey. These vehicles would be accessed using a mobile payment system, either that of a third party in cooperation with TFL or, preferably, a new mobile payment system connected to use of all UBS and connected to a state-controlled bank, something which could emerge from the launch of ‘PostBanks’ – something recently touted by the Labour party. The payment system being publicly owned is important, because the resource of value to deep learning as it is applied to Universal Basic Services is data – preferably as much as possible from consumer habits to driving scenarios. What is more, such data could be anonymised and subject to far greater levels of security than is presently the case with apps such as Uber. As a 2018 report by IPPR makes clear, public ownership of data is critical to building a ‘digital commonwealth’. Providing Universal Basic Services which build on innovations in AI, energy efficiency and the Internet of Things depend on it.

Such a payment system could be rolled out nationally alongside a variant of Oyster – not only capable of being used for buses across the country but train journeys too (although these would not be free, at least not for a while). As extreme supply began to kick in, and electric vehicles begin to first hit price parity with fossil fuel vehicles before getting cheaper, other municipalities could adopt similar measures by growing native electric fleets resembling the Zipcar model. As autonomous vehicles become the norm, probably by the late 2020s, such vehicles would be at the cutting edge of the self-driving revolution, and would only be available to those without cars of their own – creating further incentives to ditch private ownership. Alongside cars this would also apply to electric bikes, another area where the sharp fall in the cost of energy storage is meaning rapid change. Indeed Uber launched their ‘JUMP’ electric bikes in Islington this May. The reason? To keep Londoners on their app and keep collecting that invaluable data. But extreme supply in information and energy shouldn’t mean value capture for Uber, it should mean free electric bikes, and car journeys, for everyone. 

While what is needed is a revolution in energy production and ownership, consumption patterns must also significantly change. At the heart of that is the notion that access to transport will matter more than ownership for a 21st century socialism built around Universal Basic Services. 

13 June 2019

Five ‘Must Read’ Texts to Understand Automation and the Future of Work

by Aaron Bastani

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is what I’m reading. One of the advantages of writing a book, particularly one that took far longer than originally anticipated, is that I was compelled to reduce my use of Twitter – something I am generally incapable of doing – and engage in several extensive literatures. In the case of Fully Automated Luxury Communism this was relatively wide-ranging with my year-long reading lists including renewable energy, synthetic biology, the digital revolution and more besides.

Scoping out from daily news, increasingly metabolised through social media, and freed from the frenetic mindset that induces – proved incredibly useful. It allowed me to refine long-held ideas into more specific hypotheses about what technological change means in a world of climate systems breakdown, rising inequality and demographic ageing. More importantly, I grappled with what the left should try and do about it.

One of the more rewarding areas for this was in automation. That was primarily the result of a number of outstanding books published in the years leading up to my research. Indeed the field was so advanced that by 2016, when I began to gather as much information as I could, several generalist books on the topic were being widely lauded by the media – with two of the five texts I suggest making it to the New York Times bestseller list.

While my five recommendations – three books and two excerpts – all offer slightly different conclusions, they are all invaluable. If you spend the time reading them you will, in my opinion, have a better grasp on the automation debate than many policy-makers and much of the media. That each text offers a different prognosis is useful. Our interest here isn’t to arrive at a sacred interpretation of what will inevitably happen, but rather a contested overview that can, at a minimum, provide a broader set of parameters about changes ahead and how people people can craft them in a socially just direction. Fully Automated Luxury Communism holds its own diagnosis and prescription, and does so drawing upon all five, but this reading list certainly doesn’t mean you’ll end up agreeing with me. At the very least, however, I hope you’ll understand my workings.

What I know for certain is that topics such as automation, climate change and ageing are simply too big for the staccato and often disjointed analysis of the typical information diet: blogs, twitter threads and comment pieces. David Wallace-Wells’ utterly brilliant The Uninhabitable Earth is one example of this, the thread of its argument more useful than a thousand viral videos in conveying the scale of climate systems breakdown – the complexity of the issue necessitating an appropriate genre to convey its holistic nature. 

But while the book-form remains much needed, life is too short to read stuff which doesn’t teach you something or move you. So here are my top five reads on automation, what it means for workers in the modern economy and what comes next – if we want it.

While I find its policy recommendations weak, the first book is an immense feat of scholarship. The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, is a superb overview that responds to the challenges presented by digitisation, automation and artificial intelligence. The idea of a ‘Second Machine Age’ coined by the authors, the first one being the Industrial Revolution, inspired what I term the ‘Third Disruption’. Just as the early 19th century witnessed the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, built as it was around the steam engine, the energy paradigm of fossil fuels and oriented around the social relations of market capitalism and the factory-system, the 21st century is giving rise to something else. For McAfee and Brynjolfsson the present moment is one where changes in cognitive labour, principally as a result of machine learning and big data, resemble the transformations to physical labour after the First Machine Age. It is a neat categorisation that I find analytically strong and fits with changes we can observe, particularly what technological change means for white collar professions such as law, accounting and even medicine. Their analysis of exponential change is also excellent, providing important insights about what Moore’s Law, even if it continues to decelerate, might mean a half century from now.

Perhaps the key finding of the book, and of relevance to those otherwise unpersuaded that technological change spells mass unemployment, is that automation and AI will inevitably serve to further exacerbate inequality. That is the consequence of the market for ‘uniquely human skills’ getting ever smaller, meaning most of us experience a downward pressure on wages while a tiny elite earn massive sums. This small group, who would be wealthy as a result of the high price they command for their labour, would sit alongside a larger social substrate whose affluence results from asset ownership and rents. McAfee and Brynjolfsson refer to this as ‘The Spread’. You don’t have to think that capitalism has a successor system – and I do – to take such arguments seriously. Such a forecast spells major problems for political and social stability under market capitalism, but also increasingly common crises of under-consumption.

The second recommendation is Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford. The Financial Times’ Business Book of the Year for 2015, it is in a league with the Second Machine Age as a work of scholarship – although it more urgently engages with technological change not only meaning inequality but also mass unemployment. So while Ford’s prognosis is somewhat similar to McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s the diagnosis is more radical – and in its own way closer to that of my own. Ford concludes, “The greatest risk is that we could face a “perfect storm” – a situation where technological unemployment and environmental impact unfold roughly in parallel, reinforcing and perhaps even amplifying each other. If, however, we can fully leverage advancing technology as a solution – while recognising and adapting to its implications for employment and distribution of income  – then the outcome is likely to be far more optimistic. Negotiating a path through these entangled forces…may prove to be the greatest challenge for our time”. 

Surprisingly it is Ford’s book, with a keener eye to a potentially-crisis ridden future, that became Forbes top business book of 2015. McAfee and Brynjolfsson, by contrast, offer suggestions for individuals to ‘get ahead’ (no bad thing in itself but a tacit admission of the impossibility of structural transformation), and conclusions that a world of 10 billion – wracked by a panoply of ecological and social crises – will mean more of us become landscape gardeners and interior decorators. Somehow I don’t think so.

Next is The Economic Singularity by Callum Chase. Offering an even pithier style than the first two, Chace’s book has a greater sense of certainty about what’s next. If Ford goes further than McAfee and Brynjolfsson then Chace goes beyond Ford, with only around half the book given to observing technological change as it unfolds in the present. Indeed much of the book is intentionally oriented to the future, with Chace offering digestible forecasts for 2021, 2031 and 2041 (a task which he admits can easily come undone). While policy-makers may have heard of the first two books The Economic Singularity is of arguably greater use, offering the bullet-point analysis and suggestions one normally associates with a think-tank report. Fundamentally Chace believes humanity will have to adapt to a radically different world over the next century – regardless of what happens with climate change or ageing. Indeed it will likely be so different that it is difficult to speculate about the kind of technologies, social relations and forms of production that the continuation of Moore’s Law, albeit proceeding at a diminished rate, might mean a half century from now.

4) The fourth book is the Grundrisse by Karl Marx, specifically the Fragment on Machines. A small sub-section of the book, no more than twenty-two pages in length, it is here where Marx not only isolates what technological change under capitalism means for working people, but how such transformation carries an immanent alternative for the ‘emancipation’ of labour. You can read the Fragment here. While the older Marx would go on to repudiate his early work, including the Grundrisse (German for outline or sketch), the last century has proven it a prescient account on the possibilities of technology. 

Perhaps most interesting about the Grundrisse, and of considerable consequence for Marxist politics over the course of the 20th century, is how it remained unpublished in German until 1939. Worse still for the anglophone world, it was unavailable in English until as recently as 1971. Antonio Negri notes how it was the Grundrisse, not the Communist Manifesto or Capital, which was the ‘livre de chevet’ (bedside reading) of every Italian radical towards the end of the 1960s (it first appeared in Italian after 1968). Whenever someone says ‘these ideas have been tried before’ they are not only wrong about the political applications of Marx generally, but also ignore that it wasn’t until the end of the Cold War that a rich vein of his thinking, particularly the 1844 Manuscripts and Grundrisse, received any sustained attention. That is not to create a tension between the early and late Marx, a periodisation offered by Louis Althusser, but simply to recognise that Marxist thinking – for nearly the entire 20th century – failed to integrate some of his most powerful and original insights. One line in the Grundrisse stands out about all others, “The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools”. That, in brief, tells the story of how technological change has failed to save labour time or liberate humans for the best part of fifty years. For Marx the explanation as to why is capitalism.

The final recommendation, in a different vein to Marx, is a short essay by John Maynard Keynes titled Letter on the Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Written just a year after the Wall Street Crash in 1929, its optimism couldn’t have been more at odds with the zeitgeist of the decade that followed. Three years before Hitler’s ascent to Fuhrer, and as the economies of Europe and North America entered a historic slump, Keynes predicted that within just a hundred years material scarcity, or as he called it ‘the economic problem’, would be, “within sight of solution”. As a result Keynes predicted that the, “economic problem is not-if we look into the future-the permanent problem of the human race” but rather how to “live wisely and agreeably and well”.

We now know that Keynes was wrong and, at least when it comes to technology redounding to the benefit of greater leisure over time, Marx was right. Indeed these two short essays, Marx’s ‘fragment’ and Keynes’ ‘letter’, are best read side-by-side. Such a comparative reading will leave you better placed to engage with the first three books. If you want to know why liberals generally don’t grasp the politics of technology, then Keynes is the best place to start. He was the protean techno-optimist and was proven completely wrong. And yet his central claim was that the development of capitalism could mean a social system at odds with it, one which he suspected would make the human self accustomed to millennia of toil short-circuit, “…yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy.” Marx and Keynes agreed about the ends, the former called it the cultivation of ‘species-being’, while Keynes waxed lyrical about how, “we shall once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful” under conditions of near spontaneous abundance.

Once you’ve read the two greats side by side it makes sense to proceed through the more recent books I recommend. At the very least it’ll help you understand why I arrived at the conclusions I have. Perhaps, more than that, you might even be inclined to agree. 

8 June 2019

Why Modern Conservatism is a Dead Ideology. A Response to Lord Finkelstein.

by Aaron Bastani

Sometimes you read a fragment of text, or catch a moment on television – an interview or a speech by a prominent politician or one of their media bag-carriers – and it hits you: conservatism is a dead ideology. It’s such a profound realisation that it’s almost physiological, akin to walking out of an air-conditioned Spanish airport in mid-August and thinking, “fuck it’s actually really hot.” You knew this already, and you feel stupid for having the internal monologue – after all your phone said it was 35 degrees as you touched down, but the bodily confirmation of those abstract numbers is a different plain of understanding. I’ve repeatedly felt like that in the last few months watching the Conservative party – and the gut response matters, because the head has been told since time immemorial that the Tories will never die.

Some of the outstanding examples of the genre include Liz Truss eulogising the British cheese industry in 2014, Dominic Raab’s dawning realisation that Britain is indeed an island and James Delingpole not really knowing why he wants a hard Brexit.

But a recent review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism in the Times, penned by Lord Finkelstein, was perhaps even more illustrative of the phenomenon. As I read it I could almost hear Liz Truss whisper in my ear, “we sell tea to China…Yorkshire tea!”. No I told myself as I read on, this can’t be right. There must be more to repudiate the book than this. After all, unlike those listed above Finkelstein is regarded within the establishment as one of the more intellectually astute individuals on the right. He has been a leading figure in the worlds of politics and media for the best part of two decades. I entirely expected criticism of the book from him, after all we undoubtedly disagree about a great many things, as well as personal invective – just so long as it’s accompanied by a measure of rigour. 

But instead I found a shallow response which failed to engage with my central arguments – choosing instead to resort to pedestrian cliches that make little sense to anyone under 50. Furthermore Finkelstein, somebody who you might imagine is well placed to formulate a variation of the status quo while responding to the onset of major crises such as climate breakdown, demographic ageing and automation, failed to do any of that. Indeed his review, word for word, could have been written fifteen years ago. It were as if the 2008 crisis had never happened (which in a sense for people such as himself it hasn’t) nor the subsequent decade of flat-lining wages and productivity and virtually zero interest rates. One might choose to call Fully Automated Luxury Communism utopian, but a great deal more utopianism, I would argue, has been necessary in keeping neoliberalism on life support since the the bailout of some of the world’s leading banks.

And yet Finkelstein talks about none of this, asking instead how socialism can make Twix bars (answer: by using a national investment bank to finance those who work for the company to become the owners of it.) He genuinely appears to think this is a gotcha. More than making mediocre chocolate, socialism – whatever your misgivings of it – has a strong historic record, having created the modern welfare state. Public funding more generally, and this most certainly isn’t resource allocation under capitalism, has bottom-lined pretty much every major technology of the modern era, from the jet engine and internet to the satellite, solar cell and lithium ion battery. This is not a wacky, marginal perspective, it’s the kind of measured observation offered by the likes of Mariana Mazzucato. Does Finkelstein know this? After reading his review I suspect he doesn’t. 

Things go off-piste almost immediately when, just a few paragraphs in, he writes, “the use of the c-word (communism) being a sassy attempt to shock, but also a way of emphasising that they are not simply left liberals”

Except that isn’t true. As the book details at great length socialism and communism are distinct: the former aims at changing the relationship of working people to the means of production – in other words ensuring they own it or at the very least enjoy political control over its ownership. The latter – communism – is more nebulous and historically contested, but as I endeavour to make clear in the book my decision to use it is a consequence of drawing on Marx, particularly in the Grundrisse, the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital III. Across all three texts he suggested that unlike socialism, which is merely an intermediary stage to something else, communism is a different mode of production, much as capitalism was to the feudalism which preceded it. A new mode of production means a paradigm shift in technologies and the economic basis of society, meaning in time a transformation in the ‘superstructure’ – such as forms of consciousness, how we relate to nature, one another and so on. As Marx pithily puts it in the Poverty of Philosophy, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.”

Indeed I try to make this distinction clear at the earliest possible opportunity, with one chapter titled ‘What is ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism?’ It’s opening words are as follows, “Why fully automated luxury communism? Why those words in that sequence?” As I go on to outline, my use of the word communism is not ‘ironic’ or borne of a desire to ‘provoke’, rather I argue that the technologies of what I term the Third Disruption (yes very Silicon Valley I know, I want them to read it too) will ultimately mean a systems change every bit as significant as that to industrial capitalism over 250 years ago. As Marx writes in the preface to his Introduction on the Critique of Political Economy, “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production…From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” He later goes on to say, “No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.” You might disagree with my conclusions but there is an intellectual framework for the argument. It is an old one at that, seeking to integrate Marx with John Maynard Keynes, Peter Drucker and former World Bank chief economist Paul Romer. This is a bit more, might I suggest, than a “sassy attempt to shock”.

Finkelstein goes on to write, “Three quarters of Bastani’s book is devoted to an explanation of how capitalism is going to eat itself. It is going to be so successful at solving social problems that eventually everything — labour, mineral resources, goods of all kind — will be so plentiful that its price will fall to nothing, making capitalism impossible. This is presented as a crisis, although it seems an odd crisis, and as a reason for replacing capitalism before it all happens, although it seems an odd reason.” Sadly this is not what I have written, otherwise the path to post-scarcity would be voting for Lord Finkelstein’s Conservative party (you know, the ones overseeing falling wages and home ownership despite massive technological innovation). The tendency of technological change under capitalism is precisely as Marx foresaw, but because of capitalism’s social relations new fields of potential abundance are constantly constrained in order to comply with its central, determining logic: profit.

As Marx writes in the Grundrisse about technological change under capitalism, “It is therefore a highly absurd bourgeois assertion that the worker shares with the capitalist…Capital employs machinery, rather, only to the extent that it enables the worker to work a larger part of his time for capital, to relate to a larger part of his time as time which does not belong to him, to work longer for another. Through this process, the amount of labour necessary for the production of a given object is indeed reduced to a minimum, but only in order to realise a maximum of labour in the maximum number of such objects. The first aspect is important, because capital here – quite unintentionally – reduces human labour, expenditure of energy, to a minimum. This will redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation.” 

What Marx is saying here is that immanent within technological development under capitalism is the possibility of something else, but that this is obstructed by the social relations which structure what is increasingly a legacy system. As he writes more succinctly elsewhere, “The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools.” If you care to look at most data regarding working hours and overtime in recent decades, it turns out Marx was right. Capitalism, because of competition and the necessity of constant labour saving, must reduce the component of human labour to a minimum – and yet, despite what John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 about an every larger amount of time given over to leisure (discussed in FALC but ignored by Finkelstein), that has not come to pass. Liberal political economy was wrong, Marx was right. Despite technological advances in recent decades living standards have stagnated and we work as much, if not more, than before. 

Back to Finkelstein, “So what is his argument? The central problem of economics is how to allocate scarce resources, a problem Marx said would soon no longer exist — under socialism scarcity would be abolished. Essentially Marx waved a magic wand over the problem of scarcity before suggesting to his audience that it had disappeared. The problem is that we could all see that it hadn’t. Bastani argues that Marx’s only mistake is that he jumped the gun.” While this reads like a first year undergraduate who has plagiarised a friend’s Facebook post, it is in fact an intellectual for the British establishment. Marx in fact said that it wasn’t his role to write “recipes for the bookshops of the future” (Finkelstein, like so many on the right, tell us what Marx said without ever actually quoting him).

He proceeds to say, “Scarcity had not been abolished yet and that meant that all attempts to describe or institute socialism were doomed to failure. Bastani does not review the repeated disasters that resulted from this intellectual error. There is no discussion of the history of socialism. Bastani’s argument, of course, implies that all the socialists before him have been mistaken and that if he had been around then he wouldn’t have been on their side, instead patiently explaining to them that they should stick with capitalism for the time being. Would it be ungenerous to say that I doubt this?

Again this reads like a member of the Oxford Tory society after their third G and T at the monthly ‘Port and Policy’ meet up. Marx stated that the variables determining history are an ensemble, including social relations, mental conceptions, relations to nature, technological change and class struggle (to name a few). In FALC I write about how the Protestant Reformation was a cultural and social impossibility until the technological innovation of the printing press, and that something similar applies for any politics aiming at post-scarcity and post-work in the absence of abundant renewable energies, high levels of automation, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. I cite a great range of sources highlighting such changes as they unfold all around us, from studies by the University of Oxford to the United States House of Congress, the United Nations and leading consultancies. 

In reality two-thirds of the book doesn’t talk about the cost of most inputs to production falling to zero, which they are, but rather what this already means for actually-existing technological change. That isn’t an analytical framework for why I think I’m right, but simply the reality of where the 21st century economy is headed. Lord Finklelstein, for whatever reason, thinks that the politics of the Russian Civil War (1917-21) are more relevant in discussing how we address existential threats to market capitalism such as climate change and demographic ageing.

Finkelstein goes on, “Bastani’s theory is that capitalism will abolish scarcity, but it is clear this is some way into the future”, as I outline above I obviously don’t say that, “…indeed, the idea that everybody in the world will have as much as they want of everything seems extremely unlikely to be true for a very long time indeed, if ever.” In the book I point to the emergence, for the very first time in production (although fresh air is one example) of non-rivalrous, non-excludable goods in the early years of the 21st century. Wikipedia is one example, me consuming more wikipedia articles doesn’t mean you have less of it to use. So far these are peculiar to digital technologies, but as I outline in the book that was merely the leading edge of a hurricane rather than an outlier. Right now everyone can have as many films and songs as they like (if we had retained peer-to-peer file-sharing sites like Napster). What inhibits that isn’t natural scarcity (historically presumed by political economy to be inevitable) but the legal framework overseeing the distribution for such goods, not to mention the basic incentives for why anything is made under capitalism: profit. Here the basic premise of production for exchange is that price, at the very least, equal marginal cost. P2P and Wikipedia ended that rule as an iron law, which is why it was partially met (in music and film at least) with tighter regulation, legal enforcement and a move from ‘owning’ songs and films to renting them via streaming services. That model, of monopoly and a turn to income from rents, is the future of capitalism. The coming abundance in healthcare presented by synthetic biology, or in food with cellular agriculture, will experience the exact same switch as the entertainment industries over the last twenty years with revenue generation increasingly deriving from monopoly, intellectual property and rents (we already see the first as the explicit business model of tech giants such as Uber, Amazon, Facebook and Google). Finkelstein doesn’t explicitly engage with this argument, presumably, because he doesn’t have an answer. 

Again these aren’t far-fetched, marginal points. As far back as 2001 mainstream economists like Larry Summers and Bradford De Long were writing of peer-to-peer file sharing and the challenge it presented to economic rationality, “temporary monopoly power and profits are the reward needed to spur private enterprise…the right way to think about this complex set of issues is not clear, but it is clear that the competitive paradigm cannot be fully appropriate…we do not yet know what the replacement paradigm will be”. Two decades later and that conclusion remains much the same: the response to things increasingly resembling information goods is, amid conditions of potential abundance, to impose artificial scarcity. These are problems the economics establishment has been discussing for twenty years – Paul Romer was engaging with issues of technological change and information as an increasingly central factor of production in 1990. Peter Drucker, the management guru par excellence did the same in 1994 with his seminal PostCapitalist Society. Yet the Times of London still don’t appear to be at the races.

Finkelstein proceeds, “This leaves three problems with fully automated luxury communism. The first is that Bastani appears to require capitalism to create luxury and full automation, yet he is completely opposed to it. He seems to assume that capitalism will abolish itself, while simultaneously arguing that it needs to be abolished by him before it gets to that point.”

For clarity, I am not proposing that I, or indeed any one individual ‘abolish’ capitalism – moving from one mode of production doesn’t work like that. As I have already explained, history is an ensemble of variables that move in dynamic tension with another: social relations, technologies, relations to nature and so on. All adapt and influence one another constantly and together determine what Marx called the historic process. A major part of the process, and potentially the catalyst for change, is the working class made conscious of its own agency. That is clearly bigger than any one person or retinue, but again I suppose that’s how individuals disposed to establishment politics think. Furthermore I don’t think capitalism will ‘abolish itself’, rather its internal contradictions as it develops over time means either something much better will emerge – class war social democracy followed by Fully Automated Luxury Communism – or something far worse. It is likely the latter will resemble what Peter Frase calls ‘scarcism’, where the enforced scarcity of market rationing meets climate breakdown and a panoply of other crises. This is a world, as Rosa Luxemburg described it, where we are presented with a choice between socialism or barbarism. 

Finkelstein ends with, “while it is clear what full automation and luxury are, it isn’t remotely clear from this book what communism is. It isn’t only the Twix problem that doesn’t get answered. It’s pretty much every problem. It’s assumed that scarcity will disappear and with it every social conflict, restriction and allocation problem. Really?

Suffice to say I explicitly say the precise opposite. This is from the final chapter, “FALC is not a blueprint for a steady state Eden – those always prove disappointing anyway. Nor is it a place beyond sadness and pain, where conflict and vulnerability are confined to the past. Pride, greed and envy will abide as long as we do, the management of discord between humans  – the essence of politics – an inevitable feature of any society we share with one another. Instead FALC is a figurehead of possibility forged for a world changing so rapidly that new utopias are needed – because the old ones no longer make sense. Isaac Deutscher once wrote ‘socialism is not evolution’s last and perfect product or the end of history, but only the beginning’. This is how FALC is perhaps best conceived. It is a map by which we escape the labyrinth of of scarcity and a society built on jobs; the platform from which, as Keynes once put it, ‘to live wisely and agreeably and well.

And that kind of sums it up. A leftist engaging with Paul Romer, John Maynard Keynes and Peter Drucker goes straight over the head of a prominent thought-leader within British conservatism. As recently as 2015 The Economist asked its readers, “What happens when labour becomes capital?” The most worrying thing for the establishment is that it is those on the left, rather than the right, who are trying to formulate not only an answer but an appropriate political strategy. 

Reading Lord Finkelstein’s piece I was more convinced than ever that conservatism is a dead ideology. If the best its thinkers can do in a world of economic inertia, climate systems breakdown and artificial intelligence is mutter”…but 1917” then they are even more screwed than I realised. 

5 June 2019

Global 5G Internet. The World’s First ‘Universal Basic Service’?

by Aaron Bastani

Last month SpaceX, the market leader in private space transportation, oversaw the launch of an altogether different cargo. Rather than carrying a payload for a national space agency or a private client, it launched prototypes for its own ‘Starlink’: a project which aims to provide global 5G internet through a constellation of 12,000 satellites.

That project, which by itself represents more than double the number of satellites presently in the Earth’s orbit, illustrates how far the space industry has come. Until eleven years ago no private company had successfully launched a first stage booster into space – something achieved by the Nazis in 1944, the Soviet Union and the US in the 1950s and, since then, a handful of other countries.

That elite set of nations was joined in 2008, however, when SpaceX successfully launched its Falcon 1 rocket at the fourth time of asking, successfully completing an orbit of the Earth. Since then the company has enjoyed a litany of breakthroughs, most memorably landing an orbital first-stage rocket that was subsequently re-used. Coming in late 2015 such a development meant one thing: the space industry was about to get cheaper, with reusable rockets reducing overheads by an order of magnitude. 

Once upon a time it was the rocket which was the expensive part of putting something into orbit. Now the opposite is the case with larger satellites sometimes costing three times as much to build as the price SpaceX demands to launch them. That will only continue with the emergence of a new range of actors, led by the likes of RocketLab and Relativity Space. Twenty years ago informed opinion believed a private space industry might never happen. Now the sector’s parvenues are looking  to provide low cost launches on a weekly basis.

More competition means the field is becoming saturated, so SpaceX must innovate if it wants to grow its already healthy revenues. Starlink, whose satellite infrastructure it intends to build and launch with its own technology, will be the world’s first globally available internet. While SpaceX may have comparative advantages over their rivals in creating a space-based 5G internet, they are not alone with competitors including Amazon, Samsung and OneWeb.

The fact so many companies are intent on building something which, until recently, belonged to the world of science fiction, is because cost of entry is collapsing. Last year SpaceX publicly stated that Starlink would cost somewhere between $10 and $20 billion. While that might sound a great deal its roughly half the amount the UK government received after auctioning its 3G spectrum in 2000 ($35 billion).

Meanwhile for whoever wins the rewards are staggering, with even the possibility of success already reflected in SpaceX’s rising value last week as it overtook Teslafor the first time. Now valued at $33 billion it, unlike the automotive upstart, is not publicly listed, with founder Elon Musk owning around half the company’s equity. Musk himself estimates that Starlink could generate as much as ten times SpaceX’s present revenues, built as they are on launching payloads into space. Presently such revenue is thought to be around $2 billion. While its order book is growing Musk expects a ceiling of around $3 billion. Starlink – by comparison – could generate annual revenues closer to $30 billion

The South African’s hyperbole with facts and dates, is well known. And yet, despite often failing to keep to schedule, he gets the bigger calls right. It’s perfectly possible that Starlink, just a few years from now, would be his most successful venture yet. Musk, not yet 50, is presently worth $20 billion – the success of any enterprise on such a promethean scale could see that dramatically change.

But while a space-based internet may indeed offer a better service at reduced cost – not to mention that much of the Global South won’t need to bother with the expensive infrastructure that more advanced economies adopted – a few questions merit consideration.

Firstly, how is it right that a single company, half of which belongs to just one billionaire, should own something of such critical importance? Secondly, what sense is there in multiple businesses attempting to provide the same infrastructure? Amazon are planning to launch 3,200 satellites for their system, while OneWeb is aiming for as many as 1900. This is the equivalent of building multiple toll bridges next to one another at the same part of a river.

Thirdly, given the technology underpinning all of this has been publicly-funded, from Sputnik to SpaceX’s own NASA contracts, not to mention the investment which made the internet possible at all, it seems strange that further innovation is set to make billionaires richer still. Public funding of the International Space Station alone totals some $150 billion, with a similar figure holding for the Apollo Missions in today’s prices.

Yet now SpaceX, a private company, aims to create infrastructure – only possible because of those prior investments – over which it has a monopoly and rents out, including to the US consumer, for an extraordinary rate of return. This represents a major step, as I outline in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, in applying the logic of neoliberalism to resources and value beyond our planet. Here the imperative is much the same as on Earth: socialise costs and losses, and privatise the gains.

Perhaps surprisingly for an industry which is the definition of a future-oriented modernity, the past offers an alternative. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that the use of outer space is the ‘province of all mankind’, a theme touched on by President Eisenhower in a 1960 speech when he proposed that the world ‘press forward with a program of international cooperation for constructive, peaceful uses of outer space under the United Nations’. 

The tendency to what I call ‘extreme supply’ – where the key inputs to everything, from labour to information and energy, get cheaper every year – explains how an industry which didn’t exist two decades ago is on its way to creating a space-based internet. Once it has done so, it will constrain such abundance within a system of rationing, monopoly and rents, this being symptomatic of how contemporary capitalism generates returns – through the constraint of plenty rather than the production of it. 

And yet as FALC makes clear, there is an alternative with extreme supply, one where it underpins universal basic services (UBS) like healthcare, education, transport and housing made freely available to all. While these will be administered at the level of the nation-state, it makes sense that the internet – increasingly the backbone of global society – becomes the first internationally guaranteed UBS, paid for by the wealthier countries of the Global North and administered, as Eisenhower might have suggested, by the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). 

Such a proposal isn’t an effort to turn back the clock or wishful naivety. A decade ago it was no less likely than the idea that a single company would administer such vital infrastructure  – which is what is now unfolding. It’s time socialists began dreaming as big as the oligarchs. If we don’t they will determine the 21st century, and with catastrophic consequences.

(Originally posted on Verso Books).

2 June 2019

Free Buses For Everyone

by Aaron Bastani

Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have once said, “a man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”

Even if apocryphal, those words have sustained in the popular imagination for a reason – they captured the zeitgeist of Thatcher’s premiership: divisive and brutal, but also conjoined to a popular sense that success really did mean going it alone. Growing up in Bournemouth such thinking was certainly part of an everyday common sense, a set of mental presumptions about the world which included buses being primarily for schoolchildren, students and pensioners. In a 20th century town principally designed around the suburb, a young adult learning to drive was as natural a progression in life as leaving school, getting a job and having children.

That idea, of the automobile as emblematic of personal freedom, is an old one. The basis for mid-century urban modernity, you still see it reflected in car advertisements where a handsome individual or family elegantly sit inside a luxury vehicle, the comfortable  interior juxtaposed against the perilous urban jungle or unforgiving landscape. The symbolism is obvious: not only is the car a means by which to expand the autonomy of the individual, but a totem of humanity’s collective mastery over the environment.

It is this conception of nature, and the presumed domination over it, which clouds much discussion around climate change, preventing it from percolating into the language of the everyday: kitchen tables, work places, the family Christmas lunch. We know there is a correlation between living in a poor country and being concerned by global warming. So while the likes of Extinction Rebellion might be making the news, and the success of Green parties in this month’s European elections reflects a psychological shift, it’s simply a fact that wealthier countries care less about the planet’s increasingly chaotic systems. On closer inspection that makes sense: it is more rational to feel your species controls its surroundings when you are working in an air-conditioned Texas call centre than on a fishing boat in Senegal. In the 21st century even the illusion of our mastery is unevenly distributed.

It’s been debated for decades how the car engenders negative social relations. These include the aforementioned (and misguided) view of our relationship to nature; a sense of ‘freedom’ based on atomisation and the absence of social connection; and the notion that an individual’s worth can be measured by symbols of consumption. What is more the projected image of driving as an experience – from the sublime Alpine scene to the identikit ‘European’ city bereft of actual traffic – is entirely at odds with the lived experience of driving, replete as it is with traffic jams, speed cameras and failing the MOT. Karl Marx had a name for when we don’t experience social phenomena and relations as they really are: ideology. 

But if the car was the primary symbol of autonomy for the second half of the 20th century, what is its contemporary equivalent? Believe it or not, it’s the mobile phone.

A 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre found more than half of Americans ‘couldn’t live without their phone’, while 70 percent associate their device with the word “freedom” more than “leash”, and 72 percent think their phone is “connecting” rather than “distracting”. Just like the car, the mobile internet connects us over space – its by-now mundane ascent often disconnecting us from time altogether. This reproduces the logic of post-modernity where, as Frederic Jameson put it, we see the “predominance of space over time” as we inhabit a world where there is nothing but the ‘realtime’ present. This isn’t a historical point – things will still happen like climate collapse and rising income inequality  – but the human psyche is increasingly situated within a frenetic and yet exhausted now. If silent reading was the new mode of human action which emerged from the printing press revolution, as Elizabeth Eisenstein claims, the analogue for today’s touchscreens is seamless scrolling and swiping.

Of course like any innovation, it’s not all bad – and it’s important to remember that how we choose to deploy technologies, as both societies and individuals, is political. Nobody could deny that the car had, and retains, positive aspects. And so too with phones and the mobile internet with survey data showing that the technology does indeed bring an expanded sense of freedom: whether it’s with children entering young adulthood, or parents who want the ability to contact them, or spatially isolated pensioners who want to stay connected to friends and loved ones in a meaningful way. 

But more even than conferring the ability to communicate, the personal phone increasingly functions as the world’s most ubiquitous computing device, providing access to a panoply of services – from banking and project management to planning journeys by car, bike, bus or rail. 

Indeed the principal device I rely on for transport isn’t a car – or even my bike – but my phone, specifically Google Maps, CityMapper, Trainline and the payment system ApplePay. Without it my autonomy would be significantly limited, my ability to plan and coordinate journeys within and between places close to impossible. This matters, because virtually everyone already has the infrastructure for integrated transport solutions which are yet to arrive. What is more, we aren’t just receiving data but also creating a socially valuable trail of it. If there is an emancipatory aspect to my phone, where it saves me time and effort, and augments my experiences of the non-digital world, this is it. In counter-point to Twitter or Facebook, its default is to re-open physical space as a place for the extension of the self.

Which brings us to buses. The idea of having a single device to plan, coordinate and pay for public transport two decades ago would have seemed absurd. The pinnacle of my experience with the Sony Ericsson I treasured in 2003 remained, despite the 0.1 megapixel camera, text messaging. Meanwhile I would buy a weekly bus pas (paper, this was pre-Oyster) and listen to my iPod when travelling. The likes of Youtube and Facebook, let alone WhatsApp and Instagram, were yet to exist. If the film ‘The Social Network’ is to be believed, Mark Zuckerburg was just another highly talented arsehole.

But while the technology in our pockets has changed, our means of transport have stayed the same. Right now the breakneck improvements of the digital revolution mean greater convenience, and often pointless distractions, rather than a paradigm shift in how we travel. Importantly even this remains particularly concentrated in metropolitan areas, especially London. While bus use has increased by 52 per cent in London over the last 25 years, it has fallen by 40 per cent in other British cities – all while the process has become more convenient and ‘frictionless’ from a technical perspective. 

The focus of Britain’s Labour Party on local bus services is routinely derided by a media elite primarily based in the country’s capital. Yet their chagrin is a million miles away from the lived experience of people paying more money for deteriorating services. This particularly impacts those who live in rural areas, those who are, for whatever reason, socially isolated, and the poor.

But what if public transport was to change as profoundly over the next twenty years as payment systems and accessing real time information had over the last twenty? While self-driving cars, and even autonomous drones, might be alluring, for now they are the speculative visions of the elite – shaped by their material interests and assumptions about the world. Elon Musk recently revealed what his latest venture, the Boring Company, has built in California. A paved tunnel for cars. The London underground, built with vastly inferior technologies more than 150 years ago, was a far more effective solution to urban sprawl, despite the razzmatazz that accompanies the South African billionaire. Today in the British capital more than ten times as many people use underground rail every day as in Los Angeles, the location of Musk’s tunnel and a city globally synonymous with traffic jams.

Despite the high resolution videos that Musk tweets, the future of transit in the era of digital technologies – not to mention renewable energy – is bus services. Cheap, regular, semi-automated buses that produce no greenhouse gas emissions.

What is more, because of the trend I label ‘extreme supply’ in Fully Automated Luxury Communism, the inputs to making and running bus services – from the construction of the chassis to the energy that powers them – will fall every year for the rest of your life. The consultancy Deloitte estimates that by the early 2020s electric vehicles will hit price parity with those running on petrol, this being a consequence of the experience curve holding true not only for wind turbine and solar cell technology, but also lithium-ion batteries. Once such a point is reached things will only get worse for the gas-guzzlers of today, because in contrast to them renewables will keep getting cheaper, creating a permanently-deflationary trend in energy. A decade from now the tipping point will have long been passed.

It’s the same with the manufacture of buses, where 3D printing and modular construction will mean they are ever easier to make and repair. The leading edge of the new wave of technologies that allows this to happen can be found in the manufacture of first stage rockets: while NASA’s space shuttle had around 2.5 million parts, and today’s SpaceX machines around 100,000, newer companies like Relativity Space are building their rockets to have a thousand parts or less. Such a level of manufacturing simplicity, combined with the substitution of internal combustion engines for electric batteries and motors, will mean a dramatic fall in the cost of production. This isn’t the stuff of science fiction, it’s already happening. Compared to 3D printing much of RocketLab’s ‘Rutherford’ engine, a double decker bus is rather basic – albeit much larger. Indeed Relativity Space, presently aims to build the entire body of their first stage rocket using the technology.

Then there is driving. While self-driving cars are by no means imminent, as I make clear in FALC they are inevitable. To those who say they will never be safe enough the response is simple: 30,000 people die as a result of road accidents every year in the US. If autonomous vehicles can even halve that, which is a highly conservative forecast, the question of whether we should have them moves from curious quandary to moral imperative.

What this all means is quite clear: the primary inputs into something as mundane and old as bus services – the vehicle, the energy and the labour – are all falling in price and will continue to do so for the rest of this century. In the case of renewable energy this is by a double digit percentage each year. In the age of renewables, energy, as Stewart Brand once famously said of information, wants to be free. 

Virtually free information, or rather data, is also a variable. Big data means that planning for town and city-wide public transport has never been easier. Traditionally, and with some justification, neoliberal economics has claimed there are limits to central planning because no amount of it can ever hope to imitate the resource allocation immanent within the price system. Their argument is that this is why substantial state intervention is always destined to fail. While such a position always had a number of shortcomings – for one it outright ignores the role of the firm as a centralised and hierarchical actor within ‘free markets’ – it also had a point: no central planner can act with perfect information. Favoured by leading Austrian School economists like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Von Hayek, this was referred to as the ‘socialist calculation debate’.

And yet the predictive power of big data is such that retail outlets can know when a young woman is pregnant before her family does. Such modelling need not necessarily be limited to the world of sci-fi dystopia conjoined to market capitalism. Equally plausible is its application to create forms of public infrastructure whose efficiency was previously impossible. Where buses need to go and when, and with what capacity, would suddenly become predictive and based on the patterns of huge amounts of citizens. Those with special needs, from the elderly to those with disabilities, would be similarly treated with higher automation not meaning they are left unattended but allowed to receive tailor-made and just-in-time services. Again, this is the liberatory side of a technology which, for now, is primarily about selling you junk as you watch videos of cats on YouTube. Why one is happening and the other is not is political – a consequence of technology merely reproducing a system which prioritises commodification, profit and consumer attention.

The question about how workers would be affected by these shifts is an important one – indeed FALC was partly written to help them get ahead of potential layoffs and transformations in a range of industries. Technological change should benefit them and citizens, not the shareholders of outsourced companies who want taxpayer-funded dividends while overseeing declining services and precarious working conditions. Personally I envisage the same labour force being needed in the medium term, only they would be used less intensely over a far greater number of journeys. And why would there be more bus journeys? Because they’d be free. To everyone. All of the time. Here buses would be a free public good, or more precisely a ‘Universal Basic Service’.

Modelling done by UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity, even with a major increase in projected journeys, puts the figure for how to do that at a surprisingly cheap £5 billion for the whole of the UK. Such a calculation was made on the basis of expanding London’s Freedom Pass, presently available exclusively to over-60s, while anticipating increased demand of 260%. Even if rising use transpired to be double that, and one can foresee the policy being very popular, it remains comparatively cheap given the potentially massive implications. That is before, as I have already laid out, public transport becomes the ground zero of extreme supply, where ever-cheaper energy, labour and information converge to create an increasingly abundant public good. It turns out the audacious policy of free buses is actually rather cheap and will only get cheaper. This should benefit citizens and workers, not shore up the profits of companies who will just choose to spend less for an inferior service, which is what will otherwise happen. The idea that privatisation and market competition works with buses – a natural monopoly – is absurd. People will always get on the first available vehicle not their favourite ‘brand’. This is how people actually think and act, and is very much at odds with the account of human nature provided by neoliberal economists like Gary Becker.

Free bus services would help to achieve a number of key objectives, from rapidly lowering greenhouse gas emissions, to accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles, and reducing air pollution which kills tens of thousands in Britain every year. From a socio-economic perspective it would especially benefit those in isolated areas and on low incomes, and would encourage greater social connection outside the home, contributing to the revival of the UK high street and communities across the country.

Given the costs of HS2 have been put at £56 billion (at a minimum) offering bus services as a UBS offers superb value. While Britain undoubtedly requires a low-carbon, high-speed rail network, the left should champion that within major regions (think Bournemouth-Southampton-Portsmouth, or Liverpool-Manchester-Leeds) rather than further compound the over-centralised emphasis of London in the country’s economic and cultural life.

One day soon it is perfectly possible that using a free bus will feel as intuitive as accessing a free email account. Yes, that will require state funding but the price will only decrease over time and the benefits only stack up. Far from inevitable, however, that will require political pressure. Without it, from the labour movement to political parties, technological change only benefits the elite.

Smaller countries like Estonia and Luxembourg are already embarking on free public transport for citizens in 2019 and 2020 respectively. It is only a matter of time, given the tendency of extreme supply, for the same measure to make sense in large cities and countries across the world. For the left in the UK and the United States, free bus services should be one of several ‘moonshots’ in building a more just, abundant and ecologically sustainable society. 

31 May 2019

Is Labour Institutionally Anti-Semitic?

by Aaron Bastani

(Originally posted at Le Monde Diplomatique)

Of all the charges levelled against Jeremy Corbyn since becoming Labour leader – that he is affable but ineffective, that he cares more for protest than power, that he has a history of proximity to unsavoury individuals – the greatest impact has come from the allegation of anti-semitism. Slowly that claim has percolated out, first to the assertion that much of the party’s membership are guilty of it and, more recently, that anti-capitalism itself invariably tends towards hatred of Jewish people.

While the last claim is absurd – it is hard to see how Ralph Miliband, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Marx were anti-semitic – there is historic context for the idea that anti-semitism has a peculiar expression among the left.

While often attributed to August Bebel the phrase ‘anti-semitism is the socialism of fools’ was a common one among 19th century socialists. The reason being it was a widely held view among elements of the emerging workers movement and society at large. For the former it proved unique, however, in binding itself to an otherwise avowedly egalitarian worldview. Here Jews were maligned as the Other – not because they were inept but because they were in control.

Corbyn’s critics claim this is now a mainstream tendency in Labour. Since 2015 the party’s membership has tripled. Among newer members, so it is argued, critique of Israel is so vehement that racism towards Jewish people has become permissible.

There is little doubt the majority of Britain’s Jews consider Corbyn himself to be an anti-semite. Last year the Board of Deputies, the primary organisation of British Jewry, claimed the Labour leader possessed, “a far left worldview that is instinctively hostile to mainstream Jewish communities”. Evidence suggests such sentiments are widely felt. A 2018 poll by the Jewish Chronicle found 85 percent of British Jews think the Labour leader is anti-semitic, while a poll by Survation the previous year found 69 percent of British Jews believed there were “high” to “very high” levels of antisemitism in Labour. While such figures are much lower among the general public the label has stuck. Even if you disagree with the conclusion, how could anyone claiming to be a ‘lifelong anti-racist’ be viewed in such a way by a minority community?

Any meaningful answer has to separate claims regarding Corbyn and Labour. While the ascent of the Islington North MP is proving a decisive event in British politics, the wider shift that has catalysed will have a legacy long after he departs public life. What is more, it is easier to examine claims of ‘institutional anti-semitism’ in an analytical way than allegations regarding an individual. 

So does the Labour Party have a problem with anti-semitism? In terms of negative perceptions by the Jewish community such a conclusion is inescapable. In their 2017 letter to the Times writers Howard Jacobson, Simon Schama, and Simon Sebag Montefiore condemned Labour on the issue, their words capturing more general misgivings: ”We are alarmed that during the past few years, constructive criticism of Israeli governments has morphed into something closer to antisemitism under the cloak of so-called anti-Zionism”. 

The following Summer sixty-eight rabbis signed a letter condemning antisemitism in the party. A week later, in an unprecedented move, the country’s three leading Jewish papers – the Jewish Telegraph, Chronicle and News – shared an editorial and front page dedicated to Corbyn, collectively declaring that his potential rise to Prime Minister would represent an ‘existential threat’ to Britain’s Jews.

Given the party now has more than half a million members it is reasonable to presume it will inevitably include people with troubling opinions – on trans rights, racism and misogyny to name a few. The key question, then, is this: when it comes to anti-semitism are these any more pronounced than British society?

A 2017 poll commissioned by the Campaign Against Anti-semitism (CAA) would indicate not. It found Labour supporters were less likely to hold antisemitic views than those of the Conservatives or UKIP. Here 32 percent of Labour supporters endorsed at least one “antisemitic attitude”as defined by the CAA – coming second to Liberal Democrats, with the figure being 40 percent among Tory voters.

Equally important is how such findings relate to polling conducted by the CAA two years earlier. Comparing the two sets of data revealed a slight decline in anti-semitism among supporters of both Labour and the Tories, particularly the former. While 22 percent of Labour voters agreed with the statement ‘Jews chase money more than other people’ in 2015, this had fallen to 14 percent in 2017. On one of the more pernicious anti-semitic tropes regarding media ownership, the more recent poll found 11 percent of Labour voters agreed with the statement, ‘Jews hold too much power in the media’ down six per cent from 2015.

Such findings are positive for Labour when placed within a national context. A 2015 poll by YouGov concluded 45 percent of Britons hold an antisemitic view of some kind, with one in four believing Jews chase money more than others. While even a small fraction supporting such a statement is troubling, the evidence indicates that rather than Labour voters being more likely to hold anti-semitic views the opposite is true.

Regarding the membership itself, where accusations of anti-semitism are increasingly aimed, the numbers are equally revealing. In February Jennie Formby, Labour’s General Secretary, informed MPs that the party had received 673 allegations of anti-Semitism by members over the preceding ten months – approximately 0.1 percent of the membership. In addition to that, 433 complaints were made regarding individuals who were not members.

Of the claims against members, 96 were immediately suspended and a further 211 were subject to investigation. At present there have been 12 expulsions. The idea such numbers illustrate ‘institutional anti-semitism’ appears hard to square. Which is why the low figure was deemed inadequate by a sceptical parliamentary party, who in turn demanded a new process overseen by an independent figure. In recent weeks it seemed Lord Falconer, a former room-mate of Tony Blair, would be given such a role. No ally of Corbyn, even his appointment has now been called into question.

The reality of complaints against Labour members is congruent with the anti-semitism suffered by former Labour MP Luciana Berger. Berger, who recently left the party with eight colleagues to start the Independent Group, spoke of being subject to sustained anti-semitic attack by party members, including in her constituency of Wavertree. Shortly before her departure she was almost subject to a vote of no-confidence by local members. While there is little doubt Ms Berger has endured appalling threats it is worth noting that a number of other MPs had been subject to similar censure by constituency parties including Chris Leslie, Joan Ryan and Kate Hoey. What is more, while four men have been sent to prison in connection with threats to Berger all have been on the far-right. 

That a potential motion of no confidence receives more media attention than the political sympathies of four incarcerated individuals is deeply troubling. That is not to say local members treated Berger in exemplary fashion – the local party’s chair, himself Jewish, referred to her as a ‘disruptive Zionist’. But in a moment of rising political tension, imprudent language is not equivalent to death threats.

Berger, to her credit, has been impressively consistent on the issue. In 2005 she resigned from the executive of the National Union of Students in protest at the union “turning a blind eye” to anti-Semitism. While doing so she claimed the “insensitivity surrounding all parties’ approach to asylum and immigration has a lot to say for the rise in not only anti-Semitism but any form of racism.” Such candour is at odds with the idea that anti-semitism uniquely affects Labour  – and entirely as a consequence of new members.

Indeed the same year Berger resigned from the NUS, Labour humoured anti-semitic tropes. Their campaign materials for the 2005 election were set to depict Michael Howard, the Conservative leader of Jewish heritage, as a Fagin-style character hypnotising the electorate. Another image would have seen his head photo-shopped onto a flying pig. While Labour’s campaign manager, Alan Milburn, refused to apologise, the materials were withdrawn. Alistair Campbell, the New Labour spin doctor, recently said Labour is “drowning in a sewer of anti-semitism”. And yet his reported response to one journalist at the time, “Fuck off and cover something important you twats”, revealed a clear disinterest on the topic.

While the statistics show no evidence of substantial anti-semitism within Labour, it is true members often care deeply about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Here the claim is such views slip too readily into anti-semitism. Yet Labour’s loss of support among British Jews, particularly over Israel, is not a recent phenomenon. Indeed it started with Corbyn’s predecessor.

Despite the prospect of electing the first Jewish Prime Minister since Disraeli, Labour’s backing among Jewish communities collapsed in the final years of Ed Miliband’s leadership. The catalyst was his criticism of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when he said he could not “explain, justify, or defend the horrifying deaths of hundreds of Palestinians”. In responseKate Bearman, a former director of Labour Friends of Israel, quit the party in protest.  A few months later in October, Miliband whipped party MPs in a backbench motion on the recognition of Palestine. While a symbolic gesture with no legislative weight he paid a severe price for that, with one MP warning Miliband now had a “huge if not insurmountable challenge” to maintain support from a Jewish community so integral in helping both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Towards the end of 2014 much-loved actress Maureen Lipman publicly announced she would vote for “almost any other” party than Labour at the forthcoming election. Her reason? Miliband’s support for recognising the Palestinian state at the very moment Israel was under attack.

Lipman wasn’t alone. Ahead of the 2015 election one poll found that 69 percent of British Jews preferred the Conservatives with only 22 percent favouring Labour – a shift from the Blair years. While that polling was off, Labour would ultimately win 30% of the British Jewish vote, they finished very much second best. Two years later with Corbyn, despite a whirlwind of alleged anti-semitism, this had little impact on electoral performance, with Labour hitting the mid-20s. While one Survation poll ahead of  that election found only 13 percent of Jews were planning to vote for Labour, it had only been a single point higher for Ed Miliband according to the same company two years earlier.

The confrontation between Corbyn’s Labour and British Jews has not emerged from a vacuum. It reflects a long-term decline in Jewish support for the party, something partly to do with changing social and economic demographics, partly foreign policy. That is not to say anti-semitism does not exist in Labour – it does – but it is inaccurate to say there has been a massive drop-off in Jewish support as a result of Jeremy Corbyn. Hostility towards Corbyn should therefore be understood as partly a consequence of a heightened sense of insecurity among British Jews which predates him, and the sense Labour is no longer a reliable ally in uncertain times.

The former misgiving is well-placed. In 2017 the Community Security Trust found that anti-semitic hate incidents were at an all-time high, this continuing a trend which has seen attacks increase almost every year since the millennium. This partly helps explain why 54% of Jewish respondents felt they had no future in Britain when replying to a 2015 poll – with a quarter claiming to have recently considered emigrating.

Such strong emotions are the result of justified anxiety. Attacks against Jews in recent years, from the appalling episodes of violence in France in 2015 to the Pittsburgh shooting last year have propelled anti-semitism to the forefront of the public consciousness. 2017 saw a 34% rise in violent assaults against Jewish people in Britain while France, home to Europe’s largest disapora, saw anti-Semitic attacks increase by 74% last year. Germany, meanwhile, has seen physical violence against Jewish people increase by 60%. It may only be Spring, but 2019 has already witnessed repeated vandalism at the grave of Karl Marx and attacks on Jewish cemeteries both sides of the Channel.

This change in political temperature, also reflected in the rise of the US alt-right, is often met with a tone-deaf response from people who might otherwise be progressive. A major reason why is that the primary expressions of British racism since 1945 have targeted groups other than Jews – South Asian and West Indian immigrants and more recently Muslims – leaving the left ill-prepared for understanding and addressing anti-semitism. Far from ready to engage Jewish people about collective identity at a time of political volatility, some of the left wishes to exclusively discuss Israel. At best that is insufficient. At worst, and coupled with often frenetic use of social media and thousands of newly politicised people joining Labour, it can appear like something far more sinister. 

So what next? Even if the numbers indicate Labour is a force for good in combatting anti-semitism, appearances matter. It is inadequate for party members or representatives to continually repeat that the Jewish community is mistaken in their diagnosis. Labour must be clear that foreign policy is democratically determined but also grasp that Britain’s Jews feel an increasing sense of distance to the country they love. It is incumbent on Labour to demonstrate they are part of the solution to an issue decades in the making – not the problem.

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