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. 

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