Fully Automated Luxury Communism: Post-Work Utopia or Machine Envy?
“I will be working alongside humans to provide assistance and support and will not be replacing any existing jobs.”
“Are you sure about that, Grace?”
Grace is a nurse robot talking at a UN summit in Geneva on the future of AI in June 2023. The occasion appears light-hearted, yet the question posed by the journalist naturally corresponds to all the anxieties surrounding AI and the future of work.
Tellingly, Grace was designed to provide a degree of emotional care expected from human nurses, a type of work previously considered exempt from automation.
Are we asleep at the wheel - albeit in self-driving cars - damned to a future of joblessness and machine-dominated dystopia? Or, could these technologies be used to create a fairer, greener, and ultimately more enjoyable life for all?
Enter Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC), a radical political manifesto set to navigate humanity beyond deepening inequality and resource scarcity. According to Bastani, the end of labour-exploitation is within sight.
Drawing on some of Marx's lesser-known assumptions on the growth of machines in capitalist development, he creates a powerful case for optimism in the face of rapidly advancing technologies.
Indeed, Bastani stresses the world was ill-prepared for communism in the 20th century, contending that it has only become possible to realise Marx’s vision at our present technological conjuncture.
Whilst rich in economical, political, cultural, and, above all, technological insights, he structures the book logically and uses engaging stories to make FALC a compelling read. Most satisfying is his ability to make Karl Marx’s complex ideas accessible for readers.
He outlines how the exponential development of technologies - AI, machine learning, robotics, but also in renewable energy, and even spaceships to mine asteroids for valuable minerals - provide an exciting opportunity. For the first time in history humans can live in a world of resource abundance. As these technologies become cheaper and cheaper, societies are set to become consumed by a free and extreme supply of information, automated labour, energy, and resources. In turn, the current technological revolution holds the potential to free us from the drudgery of work and social inequality. The missing ingredient, Bastani stresses, is political will.
Instead of the labour intensive model of the Soviet era, this communism will be luxurious. Powered by free renewable energy, robots and AI would do the work, allowing us to work less and less. Free from having to sell our labour in order to survive, the politics of FALC would redistribute wealth back to the people in the form of Universal Basic Services (UBS). In this world, free education, housing, transport, healthcare, and access to information would liberate us to pursue whatever we choose. For humans, “labour and leisure blend into one another”, whilst machines become the cogs that drive the entire system.
Impressively, FALC is both an optimistic futurism and a convincing strategy to solve the contradictions of our time. Bastani roots FALC to Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, which discusses Western society’s impotence since the end of the Cold War to envision, let alone work towards, an alternative system to late-stage capitalism.
Whereas Fisher suggested that we ought to rediscover the psychological liberation of the counterculture movements from the 1960s and 1970s, Bastani provides hard solutions, with a radical yet feasible pathway towards FALC. Inspired by the “Preston Model'', he argues that we can progress from neoliberalism to FALC through wealth creation at the local level. This would involve empowering local worker-owned businesses over transnational corporations, buttressed by policies of municipal protectionism and new local development banks. At the state level, Central Banks will fund the exponential growth of technologies and manage the redistribution of UBS.
Worker-owned businesses are the key to consolidating an equitable evolution to an automated society. In a system which politically empowers the workers, attempts by elites to monopolise the information underpinning the technological revolution are thwarted. Information wants to be free, Bastani asserts throughout the book, and attempts by capitalists to make it scarce will only hinder human progress.
Notably, some sectors and jobs will automate faster than others. Paradoxically, it is “harder to build a machine that can wash the dishes than one that can solve complex mathematical problems”. Non-repetitive physical labour, such as construction or fruit-picking, will automate at a slower rate, meaning a system that protects workers still in work from labour exploitation is essential.
Under neoliberalism, it has been proven that precarious, low-wage physical tasks will remain vulnerable in light of automating processes. In concealed Amazon warehouses, automated decision-making systems have removed middle management, leaving staff at the mercy of orders set by machines. AI camera systems keep workers under a constant state of stress, enforcing “mind-numbing” productivity maintained by the continual threat of disciplinary action. Most worryingly, arbitrary quotas set by robots to increase production have driven a significant increase in injury rates, because “humans can’t keep up without hurting themselves”.
If Amazon Fresh stores masquerade as the poster-boy of automated services, Amazon warehouses present a dismal reality of automation under market deregulation. As Alessandro Delfanti summarises: Amazon warehouse automation reflects an “augmented despotism” of the workplace. Amazon is far from unique in this regard, with algorithmic management becoming commonplace across warehousing and other low-wage industries.
Left unchecked, technological development under neoliberalism could worsen working conditions in those jobs lagging behind in the transition to full automation. If advancing human welfare is within our best interest, Bastani’s argument for strengthening worker-owned businesses is a sound one. It is also unique amongst a prevailing consensus that a Universal Basic Income is the only option as automation leads to job loss, a policy proposal Bastani critiques well in the book.
What is unclear, however, is how many will find personal fulfilment in this new world of bourgeois luxury for all. Bastani declares that FALC will provide humans all the resources “needed to make us happy”. Correct, the stresses of long-working hours and inadequate wages are significant obstacles to personal contentment. But there is a complexity unique to humans that goes beyond the rational purpose of having all of our needs met.
Consequently, Bastani’s claim that FALC will provide everyone with a “sense of common purpose” is an unconvincing prediction, particularly as it is designed to energise the individualist impulse.
FALC, if it were to exist, may drive a profound emotional state of individual emptiness across society, despite its abundances. As anthropologist David Graber argues in his ground-breaking Bullshit Jobs: Humans “find pleasure in being the cause”. Without the agency to have a meaningful impact on the world, a human “ceases to exist”. The symptoms: depression, aggression, listlessness. Marx himself argued that overcoming obstacles in one’s work is “in itself a liberating process” and drives the self-realisation of the individual.
You would struggle to meet a doctor or a nurse who confesses, even privately, that their sole motivation for work is money. Many feel pride in delivering a valuable service to their society. Admittedly, it is unlikely that healthcare will become fully automated in our lifetimes.
Yet, Bastani enthuses that less and less humans will be required to perform key tasks. Even whole professions –radiology, for example– may become entirely automated.
Under FALC, Grace might actually steal your job. Poverty and insecure employment won't concern you, but envy might.
Graber, David. (2019) Bullshit jobs: the rise of pointless work, and what we can do about it. London: Penguin.
Upchurch, Tom. (2018) Forget fears of automation, your job is probably bullshit anyway. Available at: https://www.wired.co.uk/article/bullshit-jobs-david-graeber-review
Kelly, Lauren. (2022) ‘Re-politicising the future of work: Automation anxieties, universal basic income, and the end of techno-optimism’, Special Issue: A Basic Income for a Complex Society, pp.1-16. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/14407833221128999
Wartenberg, Thomas E. (1982) ‘“Species-Being” and “Human Nature” in Marx’, Human Studies, 5(2), pp.77-95.
Alex recently completed an MA at Kings College London in Conflict, Security and Development. He also holds a BA from the University of Sussex in International Relations and Geography. Recently, in light of our present technological revolution, he’s become engrossed by the future of work and politics.