"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Flung back in time, to the year 2063, Captain Jean Luc Picard finds himself escorting a 21st century woman, Lily, through the starship Enterprise. As the year 2063 sees humanity still struggling to rebuild nearly a decade after WW3, Lily is understandably awed by the Enterprise. As Picard explains the size of ship to her, she asks: “how much did this thing cost?” To which Picard replies, “The economics of the future is somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century.” With mild shock, Lily retorts, “No money? You mean you don’t get paid?” And to this Picard answers that, in the 24th century from which he hales, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”
Granted, the conversation is cut short by Picard and Lily running into a group of cybernetic-zombies who are in the process of taking over the Enterprise.
Nevertheless, that exchange from Star Trek: First Contact neatly captures one of the things that makes many fans of the Star Trek franchise love it so: for Star Trek presents a positive vision of the future. It’s a post-scarcity future in which techno-scientific advances have allowed humanity to explore the universe, while simultaneously enjoying a very high standard of living. Star Trek isn’t just a future of starships and space battles – it’s also a future of replicators that can feed everyone, devices that make today’s medical woes obsolete, and in which self-actualization drives human endeavors. And though the installments of the series have tended to focus heavily on members of star fleet, those who choose not to join star fleet are portrayed as being able to enjoy the types of lives that no longer revolve around “the acquisition of money.” The world of Star Trek, thus presents itself as a shining utopia, in which magnificent achievements in techno-science are twinned with an altruistic ethos that ensures that the benefits of those achievements are enjoyed by all. It’s a vision of the future that has, at times, been referred to as “fully automated luxury communism” or as “fully automated luxury gay space communism.”
Yes, it’s a silly meme that has been circulating in online leftist circles for some time, but at its core is a sincere longing for the type of world seen in Star Trek. After all, a world of plenty in which disease and hunger have been eradicated, wherein people are free to pursue what they truly love…sounds pretty good.
It is also a set of ideas that is being taken increasingly seriously, and advocated for, by several writers and thinkers. For the contributors to this growing body of thought, a high-tech future of plenty and equity is not some far out fantasy, but a world for which we are already standing at the precipice. Sure, replicators may be far away but 3D-printers are not, tricorders may be far away but the promise of gene editing is not, the Gamma Quadrant is far away but we might be able to mine nearby asteroids. And though the memes are still bouncing around online, with his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism (Verso, 2019), Aaron Bastani seeks to argue that this is not a meme to be playfully laughed at, but a better world for which we should be fighting.
According to Bastani, human history can largely be divided into four segments: the long period of pre-history in which humanity was defined by a hunter gatherer lifestyle, the “first disruption” which occurred some twelve thousand years ago as humanity shifted towards agriculture, this was followed around two hundred and fifty years ago by a “second disruption” which is more commonly known as the industrial revolution, and today we find ourselves living in the midst of a “third disruption” that is defined by a raft of contemporary high-tech advances. Just as the previous two “disruptions” upended the social order, so too is the promise of the “third disruption” (indeed, it’s already happening). The “third disruption,” at its best, promises to usher in a new golden age as the techno-scientific advances on which it relies promises to rescue humanity from the scourge of scarcity. While it will be necessary to ensure that these technological shifts are twinned with a politics that claims their bounty for the many instead of the few, the (largely computer driven) progress of the “third disruption” offers the conditions necessary to guarantee all people a comfortable life of plentitude.
Granted, even as the “third disruption” shines brightly, so too is it occurring against the backdrop of several serious challenges facing humanity. These dangerous hurdles being: “climate change, resource scarcity, ever-larger surplus populations, ageing and technological unemployment as a result of unemployment” (48). These “five crises” represent “either an existential threat to humanity, or the birth pangs of something better” (59). But the core belief of Fully Automated Luxury Communism (the idea and the book – the idea will from here on be abbreviated as FALC), is that the very factors that helped to create these crises are also the tools by which these crises can be overcome. Bastani’s book is no dirge for a world that has been wrecked by humanity’s hubristic dance with techno-science, rather it is a celebration of what can occur once we stop worrying and learn to love the machines.
But what will the key technologies be that provide the foundation upon which this better world will be built? Rather than abstractly fantasize, Bastani provides specific examples. Though, it is important to remember that, for Bastani, the extent to which these technologies will lead to FALC is not reliant on the technologies alone, but entails these technologies plus certain political transformations. The formula is not “technology + status quo = FALC” but “technology + political change = FALC.”
The rate of automation seems set to continue, and as machine learning advances ever more seemingly safe white-collar fields will come to be steadily automated. Thus, much future work from manual drudgery to complex medical and legal work may well be done by machines – and this is a shift from which all can benefit. The sun provides humanity with far more energy than we presently use, the problem is that we are drilling down in search of limited energy when we orbit around a limitless source – solar panels (as well as other renewable energy technologies) alongside ever improving methods of storing energy will enable humanity to have more energy than it needs (and it will be clean energy). Of course, solar panels, lithium batteries, wind turbines, and factory robots all require metals and rare-earth minerals – how will we obtain these resources in the needed quantity? Once more by looking up instead of looking down: asteroids in our solar system boast mineral deposits that put Earth’s stockpiles to shame, and mining these will provide humanity with plenty of metal. FALC does not only insist on looking outward, but also promises that we will be able to look very much inward, as advances in genetic testing and gene-editing will allow humanity to protect and prolong life. And along with these other changes, techno-science will also permit dietary changes as lab-grown meats will become increasingly common, affordable, and (perhaps most importantly) delicious.
These scenarios may seem as though they are ripped out of science fiction (some more than others), but Bastani emphasizes that these are not the imaginings of a far off future – many of these things are already at hand (or close by). We can already shift our energy reliance towards renewables, we can already embrace automation, we can get over our concerns about gene-editing, we can stop buying ground beef and start buying Impossible Burgers, and so forth. Of course, the risk (one that Bastani is well aware of) is that such techno-scientific shifts may not be equitably shared, hence the need to ground these “head in the cloud” ideas” with politics anchored to the needs of all people.
Therefore, the route to FALC is based upon a populist politics wherein “the wider social benefits…must be seen running parallel to flourishing on a personal scale, rather than a sacrifice to some greater goods,” (186). FALC does not ask individuals to give anything up, but to instead embrace a vision where they (along with everyone else) receive even more. It is to embrace our Prometheanism, and Bastani reframes the words from Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog for a FALC version reading: “our technology is already making us gods – so we might as well get good at it” (189). Taking as its core mantra “liberty, luxury, and the pursuit of post-scarcity” (200), FALC seeks to break with the raining economic paradigm of neoliberalism – it seeks to do this through a revitalization of local communities, while also realizing that what’s needed isn’t to “bring the jobs back” but to put in place Universal Basic Income (UBI). Importantly FALC is internationalist in ambition – Bastani points out at several junctures that the current state of technology will allow countries in the global south to “leap frog” right into the abundance of the third disruption – and on top of this calls for a new body to be added to the World Bank specifically tasked with putting in place a “One World Tax” to help move resources (money and technology) from the wealthy countries most responsible for climate change to the less affluent nations that are bearing the brunt of climate change’s harm. For FALC the agenda is aimed at ensuring that the potential of new technologies is seized upon in such a way that the benefits redound to all people – which he highlights is only right when one considers the substantial public investments that are responsible for getting us to this present precipice.
The potential to remake the world into one of fully automated luxury communist is possible because of the technological means within our grasp (or those that should be graspable very soon). And yet “the direction we take next won’t be the result of a predictive algorithm or unicorn start-up – it will be the result of politics” (242); with FALC, Bastani is putting forth a vision of the future which he believes can win the political argument. It is an argument that does not tell people that they need to be anxious about the future, but rather it encourages them to embrace the future. Or, to put it slightly differently, FALC is presented as a model of the future that people will be willing to fight for, one premised on “liberty, luxury, and the pursuit of post-scarcity.”
FALC looks to the future, recognizes that “there is a world to win” (243), and boldly declares: forward!
Any assessment of Fully Automated Luxury Communism needs to understand that it is primarily an intervention in a political debate, on the left. It is not the first book to make this particular argument – it sits easily on a shelf next to Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Four Futures by Peter Frase, and Molecular Red by McKenzie Wark (all of which have also been published by Verso) – though it is the first to boldly stamp FALC unambiguously on its cover. More than anything, Fully Automated Luxury Communism represents something of a punchy manifesto for FALC – and it means that the next time someone is doing a web search for some FALC memes they may well come across this book that seeks to frame how that vision of the future is no joke. Fully Automated Luxury Communism is a brisk read, written in a clear and accessible style (as any good manifesto should be), and the book (as well as FALC more generally) is part of a long line of works of technological utopianism.
The political debate at the core of Fully Automated Luxury Communism revolves largely around the environmental crisis. For the left there is no debate about the fact that climate change is real and that it is happening (though there is some disagreement about just how dire things really are). Instead, the debate can be captured by the question: what is to be done? There is a spectrum of viewpoints, and it does injustice to the debate to reduce it to polar positions, but the poles that are aiming to shift the Overton window can be characterized as “degrowth” and FALC. The perspective of “degrowth” is popular primarily within the environmental (or green) left – it is a view that emphasizes that infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible, it looks askance at the mountains of rubbish produced by luxurious living, and envisions a better future as one that involves living within the limits of the planet. While degrowth may appear ascetic (or romantic) to its critics, degrowth argues that the high-tech capitalist world of plenty does not actually make people happy, and it suggests that the pursuit of less will allow people to be more. As the earlier description of Bastani’s book makes clear, FALC offers a significant juxtaposition in which earthly limits are to be countered by cosmic plenty, and in which machines are not viewed as the tools of the masters, but as keys for liberation. Degrowth and FALC are both critiques of modernity: but they have very different ideas as to what can be salvaged from it. Both views try to anticipate the future based on current trajectories, but where degrowth cries “hit the brakes!” FALC bellows “full speed ahead!”
As the book is an intervention in a heated political argument, it should not be a surprise that the way that one reacts to Fully Automated Luxury Communism will be, almost entirely, pre-determined by where one falls in terms of the political debate in which the book intervenes. Or, to put it bluntly, those who love the idea of FALC will think that book is their passport to the Kuiper Belt, and those who are dubious about FALC will think that you can drive a spaceship through the holes in this book’s arguments. Given this, it may seem most fair to engage with the book on a purely political level. And, to be clear, the debate on the left about the environment and technology is hardly a new debate (FALC versus degrowth is just its latest instance). Nevertheless, considering the degree to which the vision in FALC is built upon faith in techno-science, it may well be worthwhile to avoid the “is this really communism?” question in favor of an engagement with the technological aspect of FALC. Marx may have been a fully automated luxury communist (as Bastani claims), he might not have been, and there have been plenty of left-wing thinkers who have put forward visions regarding technology that are quite at odds with FALC. But ultimately FALC builds its claims upon a technological foundation, and therefore in assessing FALC’s claims it can be useful to move away from discussions of Marx in favor of a consideration of the technology itself.
Though it is not a work of history, Fully Automated Luxury Communism seeks to locate FALC within a historical trajectory wherein the world has gone through multiple “disruptions” that have largely been characterized by their technologies. While the “second disruption” is simultaneously blamed and credited for creating many of the “five crises” humanity is currently facing, it claims that the new technologies of the “third disruption” will turn those crises into wonderful opportunities. As was previously noted, these key “third disruption” technologies (automation, improvements in sustainable energy gathering, genetic technologies, asteroid mining, UBI, lab grown meat) are largely made possible by the increased power of computer technologies. These “third disruption” technologies that might make FALC possible are things that are already available to a greater or lesser extent – or at the very least are presented as quite plausible. What allows for Bastani (and other allied thinkers) to argue that FALC really is a possibility is their ability to point to recent headlines that allow them to counter accusations that the technologies about which they are talking are simply fantasies. And yet, excited coverage of a new technology, or figures claiming that a new technology is almost here, does not necessarily mean that this new technology is really that close or that it is going to live up to the hype.
The chapters devoted to particular technologies in Bastani’s book are filled with impressive descriptions of numerous “almost here” technologies. And yet, if a reader turns to the bibliography for these chapters they will find that the sources for much of this information are overwhelmingly drawn from the business press, from promotional materials, and from talks that come from these companies themselves. True, solar panels are not hypothetical and Impossible Burgers are becoming increasingly available – but there is ample reason to be skeptical of claims coming from the companies selling these things. Or to put it bluntly: asteroid mining sounds really cool, and it may one day be possible, but one needs to put a lot of faith in the companies seeking to cash in on asteroid mining in order to believe that we’ll be mining asteroids anytime soon. Similarly, it’s quite a jump to move from the fact that you can buy Impossible Burgers at Whole Foods, to the conclusion that McDondalds is about to stop serving beef.
A sober assessment of the tech industry (and a consideration of the history of technology) teaches that many tech company claims are fairly questionable – but the tech sector (with the assistance of an adoring press) loves to make very bold pronouncements that often fizzle out. Granted, the public tends to forget the cases of failed promises, focusing instead on the cases of success, all while being easily distracted by the bold new promises that have eclipsed the old (undelivered) promises. To give one very pertinent case in point, for years the tech companies bellowed that self-driving cars were right around the corner, and many tech companies dumped huge sums into the area, but recent reporting is revealing that these claims have been oversold. And self-driving cars are hardly the only area where this is true. The tech sector knows how to talk a good game, how to get people excited, how to keep the money flowing – but its follow through is often not quite as good. To be clear, this is not to discount technological achievements, but when assessing the claims of tech companies it is important to not to get overly excited. Especially, if one is trying to build a politics on the back of those technologies.
While there are many technologies discussed by Bastani, perhaps the one that most clearly illustrates this problem for FALC is asteroid mining – though there are certainly reasons to quibble with the description of other technologies. Much of FALC’s conception of post-scarcity is a high-tech house of cards built on the idea that the Earth’s limited resources can be overcome by moving beyond the Earth. The way that FALC can happily achieve “luxury” for all is reliant on being able to harness a nearly limited supply of minerals – but there is scant evidence that we are on the verge of being able to mine the heavens. Landing a couple of satellites on asteroids is an important achievement (certainly), but there is a significant difference between a relatively small satellite loaded up with scientific instruments and a much larger landing craft that can land, extract massive quantities of minerals, and return to the Earth with that payload. This is not to say that doing such a thing would be impossible – but your next smartphone isn’t going to include rare Earth minerals that come from an asteroid. The significance of this is that asteroid mining is one of the ways that FALC gets itself out of certain political problems. If you ask of FALC, where it will get all of the metals to make all those solar panels, wind turbines, robots, fantastical new consumer technologies, and the fleets of space fairing vehicles – the answer is “from asteroids.” But if that asteroid solution doesn’t work out, much of the rest of FALC quickly gets quite shaky.
There are plenty of books that provide excited descriptions of soon to come high-tech marvels, but Bastani’s book is not simply a catalog of the high-tech wonders to come, rather it presents itself as a fairly clear-eyed assessment of the technologies that are (more or less) already here. But there is plenty of scholarship in the history of technology, STS, and similar fields – which cast a fair amount of doubt on many of FALC’s core technologies. While FALC relies on rapid improvements in AI, recent works (such as Meredith Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence) has highlighted that much of what we hear about AI is still hype – and much of the work that is apparently done by AI turns out to actually be done by underpaid and unseen human workers. A growing body of work on the materiality of technology emphasizes the serious environmental toll of the extraction necessary to fuel high-tech gadgets, and of the cost from the “recycling” of such devices. Enthusiasm for the potential of genetic technologies is countered by scholars carefully attuned to race who warn of the ways in which these genetic technologies can easily give rise to a new eugenics (see Ruha Benjamin’s Race After Technology). Work on the way new technological systems are deployed (see Virginia Eubanks’s Automating Inequality) has highlighted how these systems are used to reify existing power dynamics. There is an ever growing body of literature that points to the unfortunate fact that high-tech abundance is not actually making people happy. A growing body of literature from scholars hailing from a range of fields seems to affirm the warning of early technology critics that high-tech societies are locking people into systems beyond their understanding and control (see, for instance: Pasquale’s Black Box Society; Chun’s Updating to Remain the Same). While media studies and the history of technology regularly see work highlighting how the starry eyed hopes that greet today’s new technologies are echoes of the starry eyed hopes that greeted yesterday’s new technologies (Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New is a classic for a reason).
Or, to put it another way, faith in FALC requires overlooking mountains of scholarly work that cast serious doubt on the core technological claims that are essential for making FALC’s fantasies into realities. And when one considers the looming “crises” that FALC seeks to address, it makes a significant difference whether these savior technologies are really five-years away or if they’re more like fifty years away.
Granted, a particular field that is worth considering when evaluating the technological hopes of FALC advocates would be studies that consider disaster and risk. Given its enthusiasm for racing forward it is no surprise that FALC is allergic to the precautionary principle, but considering the complex technologies it dreams of, it would be good for FALC to more carefully consider what could go wrong. In many of these cases the risks primarily have to do with FALC’s necessary technologies failing to live up to their hype (which is likely). But there are other serious risks at hand: can gene editing lead to a new eugenics, might asteroid mining result in an asteroid being pushed into a collision course with the earth, might the ecological cost of lab meat be greater than anticipated? And of course, the primary risk is that all of these technological advances will serve only to shore up the strength and dominance of the capitalist system which FALC wants to see crumble. This is probably the primary risk here, and one that is particularly noteworthy as “third disruption” sounds quite like a claim that could as easily be spoken by Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk as by an avowed communist. However, the largest risk hovering over all of FALC is simply that we might have far less time to combat climate change than we think, and that these starry eyed solutions never come to pass because climate change begins to seriously destabilize societies before they can start mining asteroids.
In fairness, Bastani does seem to be aware of the precariousness of the entire project. After discussing the potential of UBI, near the book’s conclusion, and the way that some thinkers have framed it, Bastani openly notes “the truth is we don’t really know because UBI has never before been tested at sufficient scale before” (225). You can swap out the word “UBI” from that sentence with pretty much any of the other technologies discussed in the book, and it would read just as truthfully. And yet, the thing about this line that really deserves to be pushed back on is the “we don’t really know” part. Certainly, when it comes to many of the things FALC discusses, “we don’t really know” – and yet there is an ample body of scholarship that can be pointed to that can help cut through some of that uncertainty. When one considers the very real threats posed by the “five crises” that Bastani (with good reason) focuses on, it seems like a proper politics for the moment would be one that is a little bit less reliant on technologies that have to be described with “we don’t really know.” And the most generous reading that one can make of FALC’s technological vision is to couch it in lots of “we don’t really know(s).”
This is ultimately a book about politics; however, it tends to largely overlook the politics that are inherent in certain technologies. Bastani approvingly quotes from Melvin Kranzberg’s laws of technology, that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral” (236). But FALC is not just talking about “technology” (as such) but about specific technologies – and there are ample numbers of theorists and activists who have emphasized that there really are some technologies that are good and there really are some technologies that are bad. It is tempting to shift the discourse to arguing that all that really matters if the way that a technological system is deployed, but complex technological systems wind up reifying certain political orders. And some of those political orders might be quite resistant to the types of change that FALC envisions. There is also a discomforting level of technological colonialism inherent in FALC which seeks to enforce a particular technological vision on all of the world. And this is a vision that sounds largely like the one we hear from the likes of Zuckerberg and Musk – though FALC tries to give it a more altruistic and equitable sheen. But those who have historically been victimized by technological advances (whether these have entailed ecological degradation, labor exploitation, surveillance, or other forms of violence) are justified in being skeptical of FALC’s blissed out high-tech euphoria.
Fully Automated Luxury Communism is stalwart in its commitment to presenting an optimistic view of the future. Certainly, it acknowledges that there are real challenges and crises facing humanity – but it treats these as opportunities not as dangers. As a work of technological utopianism, Fully Automated Luxury Communism sit within a lengthy tradition of utopian dreaming. Yet where FALC begins to falter is when it starts to insist that its utopia is almost at hand, and when it begins to take the tech companies at their words. As has been noted, Fully Automated Luxury Communism is primarily a political intervention. It is an argument that a politics of plenty will be more appealing to people than a politics of asceticism, and it is an argument that people love their smartphones and any politics that aims to make people feel guilty about them is bound to lose. A political critique of FALC would likely seek to contend with the ways in which “plenty” and “luxury” get defined, while seeking to explore the reasons why people really love their smartphones. And yet it seems like a more fundamental way to critique FALC is simply to question the degree to which its technological vision is really feasible. Alas, there is a long tradition of groups overly investing their hopes for social transformation in complex technological systems.
With Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Bastani has penned a readable and largely enjoyable political manifesto. It is a book in which Bastani asks the political left to stake a claim to technology, and to fight for a future in which all of the world’s people enjoy the benefits of high-tech systems. It is an argument that deserves to be taken seriously insofar as it recognizes the uncomfortable truth that most people won’t like being told that they need to give up their high-consumption lifestyles. And the vision of a post-scarcity future is in many ways an appealing vision. After all, it would be wonderful to be freed from unfulfilling jobs, to have limitless clean energy, to not have to worry about resource scarcity, to be able to eat without ethical qualms, and to be freed from worrying about diseases. It would be lovely to not have to worry about the five looming crises facing human civilization.
And yet many of these grave challenges facing humanity are the result of our unthinking embrace of complex technological systems. It seems unlikely that the solution is to put even more faith in even more complex technological systems.
Star Trek continues to provide us with the primary popular vision of a FALC future. But it’s important to remember that the plentitude and unity seen in Star Trek’s future is built upon the ruins of our era. It is an optimistic future set in the aftermath of a cataclysmic third world war, and its vision of the early part of the 21st century is fairly bleak (case in point the episode “Past Tense” from Deep Space Nine, which is set in San Francisco in 2024). The world of Star Trek involves a version of humanity that has learned a valuable lesson about the importance of working together, but it has learned this lesson not by overcoming the crises facing it – but largely by having to rebuild in the aftermath of collapse brought on by those crises. And of course, the really significant element in Star Trek’s vision of a FALC future is the arrival of highly-advanced benevolent aliens who are able to jump humanity forward in terms of technological developments. As it is a work of fiction, Star Trek is able to cheat. Faced with the puzzle of explaining its fantastical technologies, Star Trek can always retreat safely to the explanation “the Vulcans helped.” Yet anyone trying to genuinely articulate a politics based on FALC cannot make a similar move.
Who knows. Perhaps benevolent aliens will land tomorrow and help us achieve fully automated luxury communism.
But it would be unwise to base your hopes, or your politics, on such an unlikely possibility.