9 April 2020

6 Things Labour’s Left Should Now Do If It’s Serious About Winning Power (And Yes, It Really Can)

by Aaron Bastani

From the perspective of policy the Corbyn years shifted the Labour party significantly to the left. Politicians previously committed to cuts ‘harder than Thatcher’ now recognise they must, at the very least, re-write history in presenting the party from 2008 to 2015 as being opposed to austerity (it wasn’t). In addition to that, as Ellie Mae O’Hagan has astutely observed, an ascendant left gave the party’s ‘soft left’ more intellectual coherence, and a policy platform which is both popular and radical

But while Labour has just completed a tortuously long leadership race, culminating in triumph for Keir Starmer, from the perspective of the party’s left the next three months matter more than the last three. Why? Because the legacy of the last five years, in terms of socialist organisation, will be decided as the pieces are put back together. How that happens, and what choices are now made, are vitally important.

So here are six recommendations for what the Labour left should now do if it’s serious about not just consolidating the gains of recent years but going further, and taking them into power. For supporters of Keir Starmer, who might view the below as somehow antithetical to his interests or those of the party more generally, I have a simple response: Keir Starmer can not win a general election without a strong, well-organised left. Despite the prevailing common sense in the media this same left will work infinitely harder to make his leadership work than the centre ever did with Corbyn. Recognising that should be the first step to effective coordination. 

So, what is to be done?

  1. Fragmentation and Enmity Must Be Avoided At All Costs. Serious mistakes were made over recent years – by all sides. And while productive, congenial criticism is welcome, those mistakes are now in the past. What matters going forward is that a historic opportunity for the left, which, yes, remains with us, isn’t missed because of rancour, bitterness and blame. See this for what it is: the anger at a project failing – in part because one’s enemies were much stronger – projected on to the very people who tried to make it work.
  2. Accept That The Long Bailey Campaign Was Bad. Given my previous point this might seem strange – but it shouldn’t. As I say, offering constructive criticism and feedback does not require rancour. But an inescapable fact is that the Long Bailey campaign gaining just 27% of the vote was incredibly poor – and the ultra low end of what was expected. Could any candidate from the left have won? I doubt it, although a hypothetical run by John McDonnell would have had a more than decent chance. Realistically, however, Long Bailey should have been gaining around 40% of the popular vote. Why didn’t she? Because there was no previous succession plan – which certainly wasn’t her fault – the campaign was poor, and she in no way sought to distinguish herself from her rivals. Yes, this can be done while being positive, and it shows an absence of political strategy to think otherwise. Claiming 27% was a good result is counter-productive because (a) it means the right lessons can’t be learned and (b) it denigrates the political legacy of a leader who, whatever you think of him, is the most admired among Labour’s party membership. Long Bailey’s campaign felt like a triangulated NGO-style effort with no real vitality. This turned off core voters to campaign for her while aiming to win over those who weren’t in the least bit interested. As ever, and just like the December general election, that should be on the candidate and nobody else – especially her team. But there are lessons there for all of us.
  3. Accept Momentum Needs Fundamental Change. As it is presently comprised Momentum is very close to the end. One of the more bizarre aspects of the recent NEC elections was that a director and member of its NCG ran against the Momentum slate. Whenever I’ve raised this it has often been interpreted as an attack on that individual. It is not, but is simply recognising the situation for what it is: supremely dysfunctional and, from the outside, a result of increasingly poor organisational management. Again, this is not a personal or a moral failure on the behalf of anyone involved: Momentum has achieved quite remarkable things in recent years. But where it has succeeded, in supporting an under-fire party leadership, makes little sense in the newly changed environment. That switch will require new political leadership and an adapted mission. Calls for unity – needed more than ever – can’t be used to disarm and neuter the now self-evident need for reform. The basic question every Momentum member can and will ask is this: what am I getting for my membership? Agency, voice, influence, capacity to build power nationally? Right now they are getting none of these things. That needs to change.
  4. Accept that Momentum Should Be THE Home For Socialists in Labour.  The recent launch of ‘Forward Momentum’ has catalysed an interesting debate – and confirms widespread recognition of the veracity of point 3. Where there is disagreement, however, is about what happens next. Here there are two competing views: one is that Momentum needs to engage in more grassroots activism; the other that it needs to focus on Labour as an electoral organisation. These are ideal types it should be added and, rhetorically at least, there is significantly more agreement on the scale of the problem than any cursory glance at social media might suggest. But there is a tension nevertheless, and one that goes to the very heart of Labour and the left’s historic relationship to it. To those that say ‘let’s have both’ I would respond that the kinds of resources and processes required for an effective organisation aiming at parliamentary politics differ to extra-parliamentary politics. Does Momentum want to engage in social reproduction, or does it want to be a transmission line for ideas, accountability and people that runs from nationwide local organisations, through the trade unions and into the left of the parliamentary Labour party? This isn’t meant to minimise the role of community organising, or engaging around issue of social reproduction, both of which are of immense value, but I would add two points. Clearly the need for both is obvious, but why Momentum? After all membership of it requires having to become a Labour member anyway. Secondly, why couldn’t something else be created? Here The World Transformed (TWT) offers a powerful example. The organisation that is being described by some clearly needs to be built, but why should it be Momentum? Meanwhile socialist Labour members – in communities, workplaces and in Westminster – need a place to organise their collective power for elections, to refine their politics, and to create a national pole of political attraction. In my view, this should be Momentum.
  5. Understand That Not Everything Is a ‘Social Movement’. As someone who studied social movements as part of a PhD I can say with a reasonably high degree of certainty that whenever anyone says ‘x should be a social movement’ this is, more often than not, a substitute for a worked-out strategy with specific objectives. There is not a binary between organisations and movements, and the latter need the former: the black civil rights movement looks very different without the NAACP; and Italian autonomism, which fetishes spontaneity, can’t happen without the Italian PCI (at that time Europe’s biggest party). There is no such thing as ‘organising without organisations’, at least not if you are serious about doing it for the long term. This discourse, of preferring networks over organisations, is often a substitute for the hard work of building coalitions with people you may not always agree with, and always views collective action in the short-term. Whether it’s migrant rights, Britain becoming a republic or unionising workplace, none of this happens without the steady and often dull business of building organisations. On both sides of the Atlantic the left now needs to build them, centring sustainable collection action in a post-Corbyn, post-Sanders environment. Those two individuals were the beginning of a process, not its culmination.
  6. Insist That ‘Normal Politics’ Isn’t Coming Back. This is something supporters of Keir Starmer will quickly find out. Not only do we have a broken economic model, but challenges like climate change and demographic ageing, which pose fundamental threats to market capitalism (which will respond by squeezing living standards) aren’t going away. On top of that we now have the Coronavirus, which will see the return of massive state deficits, could sound the death knell for the high street and will, in all certainty, paralyse entire industries from aviation to print media. The centre-left’s response to all of this is one of the critical questions which will define the next few years. Fundamentally I suspect the left, through intellectual production and campaigns responding to specific issues (age, climate, austerity, housing) will still exert leadership – albeit informally – within Labour. If Starmer takes Labour right at the very moment these crises intensify he will, I think, receive fewer votes than Jeremy Corbyn did in December. 
18 March 2020

20 Books To Read While in Self-Isolation

by Aaron Bastani

With the Covid-19 pandemic here it’s likely that many of us will be subject to an extended period of self-isolation. Even for those fortunate enough to escape any symptoms, or to come into contact with someone who does, it now seems inevitable that the economy will grind to a halt. If you have a desk-based job that will mean remote working. More generally it will herald reduced hours and even layoffs – which is what governments now need to address through sustained state-led intervention far beyond what we are presently seeing.

In the coming weeks and months we’ll continue to ensure Novara Media is a source of news, information and analysis. But there are only so many Youtube videos you can watch, podcasts you can listen to, and articles you might wish to read on a laptop screen or smartphone. 

So here are twenty books I recommend that you read over the coming months. It’s often been said that in the attention economy of the 21st century nobody has the time, or cognitive bandwidth, to read as they wish. Well, for many of us that simply won’t be true for the foreseeable future. Happy reading.

The Must Reads (from small to big).

The recommendations go from easy(ish) to hard, brief to long. 

 1) Historical Capitalism, Immanuel Wallerstein. What is capitalism? What is a commodity? And how does this relate to modernity and the scientific method? Wallerstein explains the emergence of capitalism, and what it means for us today, in a little more than 100 pages. Come on, that’s one day of intense reading –  what are you waiting for?!

 2)  Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher. Is the end of the world more conceivable than the end of capitalism? And how have alternative futures become so universally foreclosed? For Mark Fisher such a ‘realist’ worldview is critical in how capitalism reproduces itself, with an increasingly dysfunctional system only able to undermine dissent through an ideology of anti-utopianism – which inhibits even the slightest (necessary) modifications to it. This has devastating consequences, leaving us unable to deal with our greatest challenges as a civilisation.

3) Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Paul Kennedy. One of the few works of political scholarship to be actually read by policy-makers. Despite its size and fact-laden density, it’s an accessible read and a good primer on the  nexus of economics, war and geopolitics. Kennedy’s primary observation, made through the case studies of the Spanish, British and Dutch Empires, and later the United States and Soviet Union, is that a great power’s military capability can only extend beyond its economic and industrial base for a limited period of time. That’s a hypothesis the United States, in particular, seems intent on testing to its limit.

4) Capital Volume 1 (First two chapters), Karl Marx. You didn’t think I’d expect you to read all of it, surely? Though of course you should. In any case, if you find Capital verbose and long-winded (it isn’t, but fine) you can start by getting hold of the Penguin edition and reading Ernest Mandel’s excellent introduction and chapters one and two. Captured in these 250 pages is the basis for much of the rest of the book, and it is here where Marx identifies what he sees as the ‘metaphysics’ of capitalism. Try to read just this, make notes and promise yourself you’ll come back to it. You can also watch David Harvey’s video lectures here – a great accompaniment which makes the book even more digestible.

5) History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, Raj Patel & Jason Moore. After reading Wallerstein and Marx this book is a brilliant overview of the global economy over the last six centuries. Its originality resides in how it examines capitalism through the prism of ‘cheapness’ – cheap nature, money, work, care, food, energy and lives. Doing this it takes the reader on a gripping journey, from the sugar plantations of Madeira to a world of climate systems breakdown and an imminent resource crunch. The crises we presently face have been a long time in the making.

The Crisis of 21st Century Democracy & Economics

These are the books I’d recommend to better grasp the extent to which a political project – neoliberalism – intersects as an intellectual tradition, economic rationale and model of media production.

6) Democracy in Chains, Nancy Maclean. An outstanding book combining political insight and original research. Maclean, who secures access to the archive of the economist James Buchanan, reveals how the Nobel-prize winning economist played a central role in an economic and political revolution. That was neoliberalism, and its core assumption – that the state is always bad and the market will always do a better job – is presently in freefall. A key insight of the book, and one you rarely find elsewhere in histories of neoliberalism, is to connect market fundamentalism to white supremacy in the American south – something Maclean highlights through the policy proposal of school vouchers being generated in response to desegregation and the end of Jim Crow.

7) Full Disclosure, Andrew Neil. Whatever you make of him, Andrew Neil has had an intriguing life. From the perspective of any historical analysis his biography provides a snapshot of the Thatcherite Revolution, and how the ideas of Buchanan – as well as Hayek and Friedman – re-shaped Britain. He worked at The Economist from the late 1970s, and is honest about his formation there as an ideologue on the newly emerging ‘radical right’. By the early 1980s one Rupert Murdoch would recruit him as editor for The Sunday Times. It was there that Neil oversaw, among other things, the paper’s re-location to Wapping as it defeated striking print workers and broke the paper’s ties with Fleet Street. Neil is a proud class warrior, despite his self-perception as being against the establishment. After reading this you’ll be even more surprised he is the BBC’s leading interviewer. The equivalent from the left is inconceivable.

8) Stolen, Grace Blakeley.The way the modern economy is run is relatively new and, as already highlighted, the outcome of a political revolution which made strategic choices to achieve certain ends. This is particularly true with the role of finance which, rather than an addendum to the ‘real’ economy, has tied itself into almost every transaction – whether it’s securities based on future mortgage payments or company buy-outs leveraged by debt. While this shift in how capitalism works, and where much profit is located, was a result of the neoliberal revolution after the 1970s, Blakeley is clear that such changes resulted from a crisis of the preceding Keynesian model – which came unstuck amid the Oil Crisis, high inflation and low rates of corporate profit. This necessitated a shift to a different kind of capitalism, one based around rent extraction and value capture rather than creation. While Blakeley is a trenchant critic of the contemporary model, her perspective is refreshing in that she freely admits there is no going back to the previous settlement.

Crisis of 21st Century Media

And these are the books I’d recommend to understand the scale and historic nature of an unfolding crisis in Britain’s media. Elites representing their interests through media capture is nothing new, but changes in the economics of information in the digital era, a clear political program driving particular media owners, and the demise of organised labour in the industry, has created a set of conditions where many journalists simply give up on searching for the truth.

9) Stick it Up Your Punter, Chris Horrie and Pete Chippendale. Forget the title for a minute and just remember that this is one of the best books to cover the internal politics at The Sun newspaper under Rupert Murdoch’s ownership.

While the authors don’t express it in such terms, the book makes clear how the neoliberal revolution didn’t just operate at the level of policy (Buchanan, Friedman, Hayek), elected politicians (Thatcher, Reagan), or thought-leaders who straddled journalism and activism (Andrew Neil). No, its real power came through the transformation of working class consciousness and everyday common sense. This was a world where industrial solidarity gave way to charity telethons; where unionised work places were soon marked by precarity and hyper-individualism; and where any sense of broader collective purpose was eroded. The role of The Sun in all of this, purchased by Rupert Murdoch in 1969 – and with the promise to only ever endorse Labour in a general election – is critical. Stick it Up Your Punter is an insider tour-de-force, revealing just how important a supplicant media was, and is, to an economic orthodoxy which commands little organic consent. The details, from former editor Larry Lamb apparently helping write Thatcher’s speeches ahead of the 1979 election (Lamb was knighted in the 1980 New Year’s Honours List), to the allegedly racist screeds of his successor Kelvin McKenzie, are glimpses of just how corrupt Britain’s media has been – and for longer than we think.

10) Dial M For Murdoch, Martin Hickman and Tom Watson. As both the Neil autobiography and early years of The Sun make clear, the media played a critical role in the political transformation of Britain after the mid-1970s. But this wasn’t limited to a few bad apples and their immorality. As Martin Hickman makes painfully clear such corruption, and illegality, went to the very heart of the News International empire.

11) Flat Earth News, Nick Davies. If I could pick one book to highlight how ineffective our media is in holding power accountable, it would be this. While a decade old Davies stumbles upon a term which only gained mass salience after 2016, namely ‘fake news’. Yet for him this is nothing new, with untruths regularly invented, and disseminated, by legacy media. Rather than a moral critique, however, Davies has a materialist understanding of why that is, with declining revenues, staff cuts and a growing PR industry collectively eroding the quest for that thing journalists are meant to pursue: the truth. 

East and West

A slight shift away with a few suggestions which reflect on the treatment of the subaltern in Europe and America, how the colonial imaginary still inflects the primary conflict of West Asia, and how our intuitive sense of collective solidarity can be a force for better and worse.

12) The Muslims are Coming! Arun Kudnani. What a sensational book. If you want to understand islamophobia as both a conceptual framework, and a set of documented life experiences, then read The Muslims are Coming. Kudnani’s gift is his ability to weave case studies, from London to Minneapolis, within a broader historical and geopolitical context, illustrating how foreign policy and the criminalisation of domestic citizens intersects in often outlandish ways. Some books in this list are harder to read than others. This isn’t one of them.

13) Orientalism, Edward Said. Here’s a tip – skip the long and frankly dull introduction. Said later thought it necessary to compose a comprehensive lead-in to his masterpiece, especially given criticisms from those like Bernard Lewis. Unlike the introduction, however, the prose of the book itself is fluent and enjoyable. Along with Culture and Imperialism this is a centre-piece of 20th century post-colonial literature. It is sharp, exuberant and liberating. Easily one of the most important books of the last hundred years by an intellectual of truly global stature.

14) The 100 Years War on Palestine, Rashid Khalidi. The most authoritative history I’ve read on the dispossession of the Palestinian people – although it has the advantage of being the most recent (it was published in January). Khalidi brings together a stunning array of events which defined modern Israel and occupied Palestine. There is a pithy explanation of the early years of the 20th century, particularly the Balfour Declaration of 1921; the settlement of Palestine by European zionists in the 1930s; the creation of the state of Israel following the end of World War Two; the 1967 war, the 1982 war, and the First and Second Intifadas. Most people would accept they don’t know enough about the conflict. Khalidi, a professor at Columbia University, is an outstanding guide. The more you read the more you realise how, if anything, domestic publics in Europe and North America are not doing nearly enough for one of our time’s great tragedies.

15) Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson. Nations don’t exist – as sections of the radical left will frequently tell you. And yet nationalisms do – and the real political fantasy is to wish that away. By the early 20th century this previously European form of togetherness had created a vehicle to usurp colonial tyranny in the countries of the Global South. More recently, particularly after the 2008 crisis, reactionary nationalisms are returning with avengence – whether it’s India, the United States, Turkey or Britain. More often than not such forces capture anti-establishment pressures which progressive forces are unable to navigate. One of the outstanding works on nationalism – it is a handbook for the 2020s, despite being first published in 1983.

16) Going Dark, Julia Ebner. There are two social movements with the most coherent response to Coronavirus, as with so much else in the 21st century. One is on the left, demanding new forms of ownership based on solidarity and cooperation – not to mention tolerance and internationalism – while another is on the right. The default of the latter is to blame migrants and foreigners for society’s challenges rather than economic elites or the system itself.

In this remarkable work of participant-observation Julia Ebner goes undercover with, among others, the alt-right, ‘trad wives’ and neo-nazis. It’s a timely investigation of the identities and rhetoric of these groups – but also highlights their often sophisticated approach to technology as well as a concerning proximity to the ‘mainstream’ right.

The Next Economy

Several books which are key when thinking about the kind of economy we should be looking to build in the 21st century.

17) AI Superpowers, Kai-Fu Lee.Whether it’s AI, digital payment systems or all-pervasive consumer surveillance the future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed. In AI Superpowers Kai-Fu Lee examines one of the great technological, and potentially geopolitical, standoffs which will shape the coming century – namely the United States and China in the realm of AI. Artificial intelligence could lead to a further concentration of wealth, jobs and power, intensifying trends already observable with Silicon Valley for a generation. This poses challenges as well as opportunities, with AI not only liable to lead to worker layoffs but rising inequality between countries, regions and individuals. This is a particularly important read for anyone not from the two ‘superpowers’, as an industrial advantage equivalent to the steam engine may redound almost entirely to them alone. For those who care about the Global South, not to mention Europe, that asks major questions. 

18) Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, Cory Doctorow. The only work of fiction I’ve included, which is a shame given novels can create a cognitive shift offering not only entertainment and narrative, but permitting the reader to think about a specific issue in more creative ways. Down and Out, a post-scarcity utopia set in 22nd Century Disney Land, certainly does that. In the novel ‘whuffie’ has replaced money as the means of exchange for the few things that remain scarce – like a house in a prime location or the best spot in a cinema. A world where people still compete over rivalrous, positional goods – rather than the means to live like shelter, food or healthcare – still has a surprising number of problems, especially around status anxiety. ’Whuffie’ raises questions about currencies which could be based on good behaviour or social capital. While today such a debate might be academic, a society where something like China’s social credit system could play an important role is ever more plausible. A world beyond scarcity and money would, the book seems to imply, still have personal forms of domination and exploitation. 

19) People’s Republic of Walmart,  Leigh Phillips and Michal Rozworski. One of the most important debates of 20th century economics is that of the ‘calculation debate’. This states that markets and the price mechanism will always internalise better information regarding the aggregate mass of society’s preferences than a centrally planned economy. Such an argument became central to the post-war school of neoliberals, finding its first popular expression in Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom published in 1944 (although it was initially formulated by Von Mises in 1920).

Philips and Rozworksi claim that even if Hayek was once right, this was a historically contingent claim and is no longer the case. The arrival of big data in particular means that the production of just about anything can be done more efficiently by centralised actors. To make their point the authors isolate giant firms like Amazon and Walmart – emblems of the market economy for Hayek’s inheritors – which increasingly resemble the nation-state of old with their centralised planning and distributed, and yet top-down, control. 

The contradiction of the firm within markets, as an expression of hierarchy among horizontal transactions, is nothing new and was first noted by neoliberal economist Ronald Coase in the 1930s. If markets are so efficient then why do we have firms at all? For a long time the best explanation was that, for a number of things, it made sense to internalise costs – the aim being to find the sweet spot. The Republic of Walmart takes this further, however, arguing that those who care about abundance and social justice in the 21st century should look again at central planning. Rather than a thing of the past, so they claim, it’s how we should run the economies of the future. 

20) Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani. I couldn’t write this list without including FALC! The book’s starting point is simple: the 21st century will throw several crises at market capitalism which, in combination, it won’t survive. These include climate change and demographic ageing, but also automation and continuing problems of inequality and under-consumption. At the same time as we confront these problems, however, we also see the emergence of a new ‘mode of production’, one which could create a society as distinct from capitalism as capitalism was to feudalism. This won’t happen without politics, and despite accusations of techno-determinism FALC insists that the new abundance can only happen if we overthrow the political and economic status quo. The Covid-19 pandemic likely offers a major opportunity to do precisely that, illustrating how economic life could be run in a far more rational, productive way.

The last decade has seen political elites increasingly accept the nature of the challenges we collectively face. But any doom-mongering should be tempered with a rational optimism: we have the tools at hand to build more prosperous, happy societies than ever before. But to do that we will have to change the operating system of politics.

3 February 2020

After Brexit: Fukuyama’s Lost Children & Death of The English Ideology

by Aaron Bastani

Last Friday night, at 11pm, Britain formally left the European Union. While TV camera crews were encamped in Parliament Square, talking to booze-sodden Brexiteers for the voyeurism of remainers on Twitter, fireworks were rocketing upwards across the country. Small affairs accompanied by a few drinks, these were more an expression of that hardy perennial of British culture – the ‘any excuse for a piss up on Friday night’ – than an outpouring of political consciousness. Nevertheless such get-togethers distill the social base of Brexit: this was achieved by England outside the cities, by people beyond the gaze of the broadcasters before 2016.

Despite being a Eurosceptic, and accepting the result in 2016, I woke up on Friday filled with sadness: the last several years witnessed the surprise re-emergence, and deflation, of class politics in Britain – simultaneous with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. Where everything seemed possible after the result of 2017, now the left faces defeat on a par with the 1980s. Of course some things are different this time round: unlike 35 years ago younger people are far more inclined to vote Labour rather than Tory, and Johnson’s majority is 80 rather than the 144 seats Thatcher enjoyed after 1983. While the Prime Minister has a large enough mandate to push through whatever he wants, Labour still have more seats than the Conservatives did after 2005. Five years later they led a coalition government.  

Nevertheless the defeat remains historic, and for reasons more cultural than electoral. An ever growing chunk of the public finds the very notion of socialist politics strange, is exasperated by its intellectuals and speaks a different language to the would-be technocrats in the think tanks and universities. This explains, I think, how you end up with a situation where many agree with Labour’s policies but don’t view them as possible. There is a destination, and an appealing one, but no map or compass by which to get there. If there is a lesson from 2019 it is this: social democratic policies without class politics is a dead end. In the absence of the latter nativism will win.

Just because it isn’t economic class which is the primary frame by which many people, particularly middle class liberals, understand history, that isn’t to say there is an absence of frames altogether. Indeed it is the ongoing disintegration of one of them which came to mind while surveying the wreckage of the second referendum campaign on Friday night.

It is clear that the anger felt by many remainers (not all remain voters, most of which accept the result, but a significant minority) extends well beyond any decision to leave a political union. And while there is the issue of identity – ‘European’ often being a substitute for those of an internationalist, progressive bent – it goes deeper than that as well.

That is because Brexit represents a rupture with the single greatest ideological commitment of British liberalism – one so strong it has infused a broader folk common sense, making an indelible mark on the nation’s psyche and sense of destiny. This is the ‘Whig’ interpretation of history: a retrospective understanding of the past as representing an inevitable sequence of events towards ever greater freedom, happiness and enlightenment. Such an exceptionalist view of Britain is congruent, to some extent, with historical events and dovetails with the idea its affairs are uniquely determined by ‘common sense’ rather than utopian schemes. Almost uniquely in world affairs this has meant it avoided revolution, its democratic institutions incrementally evolving instead. “Reform so that you may preserve”, as Macaulay memorably put it ahead of the 1832 Reform Act. Let’s call this ‘The English Ideology’.

 From such a starting point matters like empire and conflict in Ireland only a century ago (and more recently too) are helpfully omitted – not to mention that Britain did have a revolution (only it’s called a civil war).

For such people Brexit looks like something beyond the event horizon, a glitch in the matrix and at odds with the laws governing the universe. Such an event, for many, is clearly akin to a trauma – the world turned upside down, the routine rendered senseless.

That is because instead of viewing things like the weekend, 8 hour day and NHS as the result of contingency and struggle they assumed, instead, progress in all these fields to be natural – and that there was therefore no need for a politics capable of defending them. 

It’s easy to see how such a perspective worked to the advantage of Thatcher and, more recently, austerity. How could things like income inequality  – and later wages, home ownership and even life expectancy – be getting worse if things inevitably improve? How could the elite allow millions to be using food banks when they invariably govern in their own rational self-interest – which maps more generally over the common good? It was the prevalence of such a view of politics, and conflict, which meant those liable  to care most deeply about the European Union – which we now know is a significant minority – were less likely to become politically mobilised. Until it was too late. Simply put, they had no account of politics as competing interests, nor any room for ideology or historic setbacks.

This is also why remain-ultras paint those who voted for Brexit as ‘thick’, even though – politically speaking – voting to leave before June 2016 was no more absurd a proposition than demanding a second referendum after it. Such sentiments easily lapse into outright hostility to democracy, and many of the arguments first deployed against expanding the franchise in the early 20th century are seen again here: maybe voters don’t know what’s really best for them, perhaps democracy is government by an uneducated mass, maybe ‘the people’ shouldn’t be sovereign after all.

If there is a single realisation that Brexit should make clear to the liberal middle class it is this: politics and history are contested, and the Whig view of history was, is and always will be wrong – no matter how many black cab drivers James O’Brien ritualistically humiliates. In its place they must grasp that democratic politics requires building a majority around the values you hold and the things you want. And if you don’t, someone else will.

What is more politics, in this instance, doesn’t mean rallies in central London (which are fine), stunts in central London (also fine, I love a stunt), the occasional talking head on the telly (guilty as charged), or even an impressive canvassing operation in a general election. It means all of these things, of course, but much more too. Fundamentally it is about building significant counter-power to the ultra-wealthy and the billionaire-owned press. This should happen through workplace organising and the formulation of a different culture: through cafes, bars, publishing houses, media outlets, worker-owned and ethically-centred businesses, club nights and so on. It requires demonstrating, to the majority of the public, not only the superiority of social democratic and socialist policies but also their plausibility – and that this can only happen through collective power rather than getting the right person in at the top or the next astro-turf campaign. On this subject there is much I agree with in this new article by Marcus Barnett for Tribune. All of this should spur many remain-ultras into greater political engagement, catalysing a mind-shift away from the mental furniture of whig history and things getting better without building a politics fit for the task.

For now, and perhaps quite understandably, it seems a certain fatalism is instead the default response: mocking leave voters, equating our departure from the EU to fascism (it isn’t although it is a historic opportunity for the ultra-nationalist right) or, even worse, that the campaign to re-join the EU should begin immediately. The fatalism verging into classist misanthropy of the first position helps nobody, while ‘rejoin’ is the definition of a political dead end. Anyone with an ounce of common sense, or that simply doesn’t wish to waste the next decade of their lives, should entirely ignore it.

In recent years the most widely known expression of  Whig history was the work of the American academic Francis Fukuyama. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War it was Fukuyama who memorably declared that history was over:

‘What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ 

Fukuyama’s contention was that, while clocks would still tick and years would continue to roll by, no new ideas would emerge, at least none capable of challenging the status quo. In making this extraordinary claim, he referenced the unlikely sources of Karl Marx and Georg Wilhelm Hegel. In their different ways both had claimed that history had a final destination. Now, with the end of the Cold War, they were proven right – only rather than the Prussian state or the downfall of capitalism, the twilight of ideology was Big Macs and Coca-Cola.

If there was a political entity in global affairs that signified the end of history it was the EU – post-sovereignty and post-ideology. What should be clear by now is that the Whig interpretation of history is wholly inadequate for anyone who might wish to defend or enhance it.

By extension, Britain’s departure from the EU – which finally happened last week – is perhaps the most obvious expression to date that Fukuyama was wrong: history isn’t over and all that is good, from political and economic rights to a society comfortable with multiple cultures, must be fought for. As I write in Fully Automated Luxury Communism while it was the crisis of 2008 which marked the return of history, it was the election of Trump and Brexit, some eight years later, which were its first political overheads. The 31st January, when Britain formally departed, was another seismic moment.

And if history isn’t over, and the Whig view of history is mistaken, then the liberal middle class must recognise they can’t ignore politics any longer. Similarly they must also understand that the neoliberal settlement – all-powerful a few short years ago, and which they still near universally defer to, is rapidly disintegrating. Critically they must understand that they can never hope to exercise political power without working alongside the labour movement and accepting the return of class politics. Of course some will not – these will be the remainers who more closely resemble Amber Rudd and the Best for Britain astro-turf campaigns, or the rump of Blairites in the Labour Party – but many will. 

From this perspective the collective breakdown we are seeing among remainers is entirely predictable. Indeed, if anything, they are coping with the obliteration of how they view the world rather well. But history has returned, as has ideology. The comfortable nostrum that ‘things can only get better’, that platitude belted out by every Blair-loving hack at Labour’s annual party conference, couldn’t be more wrong. Things can get much, much worse – and only a politics of solidarity can stop it. Fukuyama’s lost children need to find their compass – fast.

28 January 2020

ANNOUNCED: Launch of Fully Automated Luxury Communism in Paperback, June 2020

by Aaron Bastani

After excellent sales in hardback since Summer 2019, June 16 sees the publication of the first paperback edition of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Six months after first publication foreign rights have been sold in Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Brazil and Spain. You can pre-order the paperback edition here.

2 September 2019

Yes, Socialism is Infinity Pools For Everyone.

by Aaron Bastani

I’ll abolish second class trains…I think all people are first class, don’t you?” – Harry Perkins, A Very British Coup

While recently on holiday in Malta I took a picture of an infinity pool overlooking the Mediterranean. Proceeding to post it on both Twitter and Instagram I added the words: “I’m often asked to describe socialism in a sentence: Free infinity pools for everyone.” While partially flippant that comment was meant. Before elaborating why let’s start with first principles. 

Formally speaking socialism is an economic system which redistributes resources and wealth so that everyone has the ability to lead a decent and happy life. In order to do that it necessitates a rupture with private property as the ordering principle of society, a situation which means some people must work to live while others do not. This is a world where, as Karl Marx put it, resources are distributed “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

Personally, I don’t just view socialism as a superior way of ordering society – but also as the intermediary stage between capitalism and the ‘mode of production’ which comes after it: communism. That higher form of social organisation, as distinct from capitalism as it was to feudalism, is a society where scarcity would vanish from view, labour and leisure blend into one, and where any distinction between manual and cognitive work would disappear. This is a world where, as Marx memorably put it in the German Ideology, one is free to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner”. While socialism is a transformation in the relationship of workers to the means of production, and the value they create, communism is a new ‘mode of production’.

But such abstractions must be comprehensible. Which is why, when talking about socialism, we tend to highlight concrete expressions of it: a National Health Service where provision is based on need rather than ability to pay, or council housing – where homes are provided as a means to lead a good life rather than a commodity where someone is making a profit.

But while healthcare and housing are necessities – which explains their inclusion as Universal Basic Services in my book, not to mention their place in the 20th century welfare state, infinity pools are not. So what am I talking about?

The tweet, like the title of my book, intended to provoke but also make a serious point. Ideas of ‘communal luxury’, out of fashion on the left in recent decades, have been prominent in socialist thinking since at least the Paris Commune. In British culture the ideal was most memorably phrased by Labour’s Harry Perkins in Chris Mullins A Very British Coup,when the fictional Prime Minister is asked whether he will abolish first class on public trains. “No”, replies Perkins to the journalist who poses the question, “I’ll abolish second class…I think all people are first class, don’t you?” Mullins, himself a former Labour MP, almost certainly had Bill Heywood in mind when he wrote those words – the founding member of the IWW famously liked to say how “nothing is too good for the working class”.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris Commune Marx wrote how its greatest accomplishment, rather than the laws it passed or manifestos it published, was “its own working existence”. Because its daily life “inverted entrenched hierarchies and divisions” among the Communards its primary power came in prefiguration, offering a glimpse of the world that was still to come. One powerful expression of that was the creation of day nurseries – liberating women, albeit temporarily, from their caring responsibilities. Another was how the distinction between manual and intellectual labour was undermined, most emblematic of which was how Gustave Courbet, the acclaimed realist painter, wasn’t just a prominent Communard but also a delegate to the Commission on Public Instruction. Thus he was very much an artist in the manner Marx defines it in the German Ideology: an individual who, among other things, paints.

This was a revolution in everyday life because, as Kristin Ross puts it, under capitalism the world is divided between “those who can and those who cannot afford the luxury of playing with words or images.” Through re-structuring not only the economy but shifting social presumptions and identities, the Commune sought to dissolve such a binary – influencing generations of artists thereafter. It was this sense of individual liberation, coupled with a desire to take art into the everyday, which so inspired William Morris across the channel – a man whose defence of events in Paris would have been scandalous to many of his contemporaries. “We honour them as the foundation-stone of the world that is to be” Morris would later write in Commonweal. Elsewhere, in his poem ‘The Pilgrims of Hope’, Morris writes about the Commune offering a ‘Glimpse of the Coming Day’, appealing to that same prefiguration which Marx viewed as the insurrection’s most impressive feature. Here, as in the world that would replace capitalism, leisure and labour were progressively integrated, with the artisan, artist and worker no longer distinct social functions, but various aspects of human creativity into which any person could step.

While such practice stood in defiant contrast to the status quo, it also went beyond just that. Writing almost a decade earlier in 1864 Dostoyevsky wrote a pastiche aimed at the Russian nihilists which included the line, “A pair of boots is worth more than all the works of Shakespeare.” While aimed at a very different political tendency those words capture a sensibility within the modern left which was alien to Morris, Marx, Courbet and the Communards. What is more it stands at odds with the politics of socialism for much of the first half of the 20th century: the Attlee government, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, ploughed ahead with the Festival of Britain, the legacy of which was the Royal Festival Hall and London’s South Bank – which remains the most welcoming public space in the capital today. Meanwhile in the Eastern Bloc social life revolved around ‘cultural palaces’ – an excellent account of which was provided by John Dewey in his Impressions of Soviet Russia and the Revolutionary World

“Here was a fine new building in the factory quarter, surrounded by recreation grounds, provided with one large theatre, four smaller assembly halls, fifty rooms for club meetings, recreation and games, headquarters for trade unions, costing two million dollars, frequented daily—or rather, nightly—by five thousand persons as a daily average.”

Dewey goes on to say:

“It is true that this House…has no intrinsic and necessary connection with communistic theory and practice. The like of it might exist in any large modern industrial centre. But there is the fact that the like of it does not exist in the other and more highly developed industrial centres. There it is in Leningrad, as it is not there in Chicago or New York”.

While certainly not embodying the ‘DIY’ practices of the culture palaces, perhaps the most audacious symbol of communal luxury in the Soviet Union was the Moscow Underground. Far from the utilitarian aesthetic often associated with 20th century socialism, here was a critical piece of public infrastructure – built in a still under-developed country – whose interiors more closely resembled aristocratic salons than an everyday mode of transport. One may like or dislike such decoration, but the point still stands – just as with Harry Perkins the aim was a socialism where everyone was ‘first class’.

Less ostentatious and explicitly political, but more relevant for the British context, was the program of lido-building that took place in the 1930s. Far from drab affairs these outdoor pools were often exercises in communal luxury with Tinside pool in Plymouth, Salt Dean in Sussex and Jubilee Pool in Penzance offering stunning examples. Each location provides views one would now associate with luxury living rather than an everyday leisure activity for working class people. This mindset endured after the post-war period and well into the 1950s. While it is the Barbican, built from the mid-1960s, that is commonly viewed as the outstanding piece of utopian urban design from the period, it is the near-by Golden Lane Estate – built from 1952 – which offers a better example of ‘luxury for all’. Complete with nursery, tennis courts, gardens and a swimming pool it was constructed as social housing for working class Londoners. Today renting a room on the estate costs £950 a month, with 50% of its properties in private ownership.

It is the revival of precisely such a vision, and the claim we all deserve those things which are increasingly the preserve of the rich – from spacious city flats to clean, beautiful modes of transport –  that is critical in building a wider hegemony for socialist ideas. A break with market orthodoxy must not only mean our most basic of needs are met but our higher ones as well. It is this secondary aspect which means that socialism is the only politics which permits the fullest realisation of the individual. As Oscar Wilde put it in the final decade of the 19th century: “Pleasure is nature’s test, her sign of approval. When man is happy, he is in harmony with himself and his environment…It (socialism) will be what the Greeks sought for, but could not, except in thought, because they had slaves, and fed them; it will be what the Renaissance sought for, but could not realise completely, except in art, because they had slaves and starved them.” Here socialist politics isn’t just the pursuit of improved economic conditions, but pleasure and spiritual nourishment. As James Oppenheim famously wrote in 1911, “Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses.” Indeed it is this phrase which inspired the logo for the Democratic Socialists of America – an organisation which has seen a significant revival in recent years.

The response of some to the tweet also provided an important reminder of the role of ideology. This was utopian, magical thinking – as if a pool of water in a nice location, available for all to enjoy, was impossible in a society capable of sequencing the human genome and creating space-based 5G internet. Of course that is absurd, or as one might choose to say ‘pure ideology’. If Britain could build such stunning outdoor spaces open to everyone in the 1930s surely it can do so now? Indeed given advances in technology surely they could be built to a much higher standard and at far lower cost? One particularly revealing response was that the provocation – as welcome as it was – hinted at a possibility which remained centuries away.

Such desiccated reasoning is what Mark Fisher highlighted so expertly in his book Capitalist Realism. As Simon Hammond writes in a recent article for the New Left Review examining Fisher’s legacy, its central claim was that an “effective challenge (to capitalism) had to start by showing that capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ was nothing of the sort.” Drawing on the work of Slavoj Žižek and Alenka Zupančič, Fisher made clear how capitalism’s defining mode of consent was to confuse political contingency – concrete choices that serve elite interests – for inevitability. Here the ‘reality principle’ expresses what it is in fact the highest form of ideology where, as Zupančič writes, we have “ideology that presents itself as empirical fact’. In other words it is precisely the ‘common sense’ we tend to perceive as being at odds with ideologically-driven thinking which is its highest form.

An adjacent to capitalist realism, especially on parts of the left but particularly ‘deep green’ thinking, is what might be called austerity ontology, where anything beyond the most basic of amenities is frivolous, unnecessary and of little interest to socialist politics. In part this is shaped by a set of reasonable presumptions: the present and near-future will be shaped by dramatic challenges, from demographic ageing to climate change and the continued breakdown of our economic model. But it proceeds from this to make mistaken conclusions, where solution-oriented thinking, of any kind, even that aiming at minimal mitigation, is framed as irrationally optimistic. What is naturalised here, instead of business philosophy, is a dull apocalypse, with the awareness of impending disaster, and accepting one’s own impotence within it, elevated as the noblest form of political action.

For Fisher the role for the left in the early 21st century was to “reveal the contingencies concealed by the appearance of business as a natural order”, this applying to our applications of technology as much as anything else. But since he wrote those words ten years ago that is beginning to change – we must now also resist that unreasoned pessimism which seeks to adorn itself in the cloak of sagacity.

Intriguingly, such voices will generally defend the idea of free museums and galleries – a policy introduced by New Labour. While that measure has, to some extent, widened access to the arts, it is also undoubtedly a ‘middle class subsidy’ benefitting the economies of metropolitan areas at the expense of elsewhere. So why shouldn’t precisely the same logic apply to national teams being broadcast on free-to-view television? Or the fan ownership of local football clubs? Why shouldn’t it apply to public swimming pools and gyms, five-a-side pitches and dance classes? The easiest answer, and probably the most compelling, is that some forms of culture take priority and that in defending some things and not others one is simply expressing personal taste rather a set of political commitments. That’s why you can watch the Proms on the BBC and gawp at Bocconi’s ‘Unique Forms of Continuity in Space’ at the top of Tate Modern (much recommended) for nothing, but will struggle to watch a football match on television or find a gym which isn’t a corporate, privatised experience. Why shouldn’t these activities too – extraordinarily social ones at that – be available for people to enjoy for either nothing or at very low cost? The answer is politics. To say it is otherwise, with appeals to ‘necessity’ or ‘outlandish Utopianism’, is again a form of consciousness which defaults to capitalist realism.

Carving a radical modernity for the left will involve undermining such a mistaken instinct, one that is partly the result of decades of defeat, and partly an austerity ontology which takes the exigencies of late capitalism at its word. This same ontology  – almost intriguingly – also internalises market fundamentalism’s public relations, viewing the fruits of human ingenuity as in fact the accomplishments of capital. Thus any discussion, even about actually existing technologies which are already here, is described as ‘science fiction’ and the realm of speculation. Compare that once more to the socialists of the early 20th century, for whom being on the cutting edge of technological development was also a matter of political urgency. 

I want to watch England win the next Football World Cup in a free, council-owned infinity pool where everything is entirely run on renewable energy. Why not? These things already exist – the political question is who accesses them, how and why? 

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).

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