What is Fully Automated Luxury Communism?

Brian Merchant | UK Guardian

At a time when robots crowd factory lines, algorithms steer cars and smart screens litter the checkout aisles, automation is the new spectre. The robots, they say, are coming for our jobs.

Let them, reply the luxury communists.

Cybernetic meadows and machines of loving grace

Located on the futurist left end of the political spectrum, fully automated luxury communism (FALC) aims to embrace automation to its fullest extent. The term may seem oxymoronic, but that’s part of the point: anything labeled luxury communism is going to be hard to ignore.

“There is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions,” says Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media. “In recognition of that, then the only utopian demand can be for the full automation of everything and common ownership of that which is automated.”

Bastani and fellow luxury communists believe that this era of rapid change is an opportunity to realise a post-work society, where machines do the heavy lifting not for profit but for the people.

“The demand would be a 10- or 12-hour working week, a guaranteed social wage, universally guaranteed housing, education, healthcare and so on,” he says. “There may be some work that will still need to be done by humans, like quality control, but it would be minimal.” Humanity would get its cybernetic meadow, tended to by machines of loving grace.

“Take Uber. Huge company,” Bastani says. “Its idea is that by 2030 it will have this huge global network of driverless cars. That doesn’t need to be performed by a private company. Why would you have that? In London, we have Boris bikes. Why couldn’t we have something like Uber with driverless cars provided at a municipal level without a profit motive?”

This is just the beginning

The ideology springs from a tangle of well-observed trends. Generally, the rate of technological progress and labour productivity is rising, but wages are stagnatingand factories are shedding jobs. Recent research indicates that 35% of jobs in the UK are “at risk” of being automated. And MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and James McAfee argue persuasively in their oft-cited Second Machine Age that the robots are just getting started.

Homer Simpson and Bender share a beer
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Humanity’s cybernetic meadows will be tended to by machines with loving grace. Photograph: HD Wallpaper

The automatons of this new age offer a number of advantages beyond automation that promise to make drudgery redundant, including 3D-printing and algorithms smart enough almost to pass for human. An age of machine-abetted plenty appears to loom around the corner.

“I’m not saying we’re there yet, though in certain areas we clearly are,” Bastani says. “Take video and audio content – we’ve reached post-scarcity with that. A Spotify or an iTunes or a Wikipedia-style model doesn’t feed people, obviously. But the claim could be that this is the leading edge of a set of trends for software, but also, soon, for hardware. Because that’s attendant with the rise of solid freeform fabrication, 3D-printing, synthetic biology.”

Bastani isn’t alone in evangelising an era of mass robo-luxury. Members of the leftwing group Plan C deploy the slogan “Luxury for all” in their agitations, and a sharply-designed Tumblr, Luxury Communism, trumpets sympathetic ideas. The maxim has been showing up at student protests.

Likewise, Brynjolfsson doesn’t find the idea of machine-generated populist luxury outlandish. On the contrary. “A world of increasing abundance, even luxury, is not only possible, but likely,” he says. “Many of things we consider necessities today – phone service, automobiles, Saturdays off – were luxuries in the past.”

Robot cooking food
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‘Fully automated luxury communism is about seizing the bakery rather than stealing the bread.’ Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis

“Technology can create enormous bounty,” Brynjolfsson wrote, “but the road to abundance may be very rocky as existing business models and ways of creating value are disrupted.”

British luxury communism

British luxury communism has its origins in the mid-00s protest movement, according to Plan C, when its members spotted the slogan “Luxury for All” at a demonstration in Berlin.

“It seemed to us that this demand neatly summed up the aims of a modern communist movement,” say Plan C members. They believe its tenets were initially inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars trilogy, wherein a socialist utopia is established on the Red Planet. A Pattern Language, a 1970s utopian tract written by three architects, was also an inspiration. Bastani says his conception of FALC is based on a modern reading of Marx’s Capital and Grundrisse.

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