Opinion Dec08 2017, London

Working for a World without Work

‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’

I came across the phrase ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ after watching a video from Novara Media’s YouTube channel, discussed by writer and political activist Aaron Bastani (his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism is out June 2018). Bastani explains the fundamentals of automation today, its uses and their contradictions under a capitalist state. Firstly, he discusses ‘fixed capital’, meaning machinery used repeatedly in the production of goods such as the automation of supermarket checkouts and the proposal for driverless trains. This means profit is made without having to pay waged labour, instead, technological software is used continuously with just the initial payment of the investment. Of course, this puts ‘variable capital’, i.e. labour conducted by a person, at a loss because machinery undermines the value of human skills. This is the reason why a lot of people lack faith in what automation can provide, because of the fear that ‘machines are taking our jobs’. We should let them. As Bastani suggests, automation and the current need for more jobs is highly contradictory. Here lies the crux of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’: the ability to see that there is life beyond work for humanity. With a decreased working week and a national living wage, life could become more humanistic and we could leave robotic monotony to machinery. There is a possibility of living more than one life.

“Utopias give us something to aim for – something beyond the stale repetition of the same offered by the eternal present of capitalism”. – Nick Srnicek, ‘A New Common Sense’, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work.

The book, written by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, demonstrates how the left has ‘gone wrong’ over the last few decades. Srnicek suggests the left has given up on an image of the future and what a better world could potentially look like. Instead of looking to the future, Srnicek accuses the left of looking to the past, back to the social democracy of the 1970s and 80s.

Now, before I move on to describe the ways in which Srnicek suggests the left could progress, I would just like to highlight how a current of cynicism can be seen within our everyday lives, in particular on our social media. I scroll through Twitter daily, I see people tweeting, retweeting and liking hilarious memes about the vulgarity of Theresa May, or a recent favourite of mine, a collection of outrageous advertisements captioned ‘late capitalism sure is fun’. A lot can be said about the importance of memes in terms of taking larger issues and reducing them to become accessible to a wider audience; however, my point, for the time being, is that this feeling of stagnation, both politically and imaginatively that Srnicek describes, creeps into our sense of humour as we mock our current situation instead of taking action. I think the circulation of mocking invites a certain attitude of powerlessness over our own future. Without the image of ‘utopia’ that Srnicek talks about, I can only see the images of cynicism continuing to make loops around our consciousness.

Moving on, Srnicek states that all technology is politicized; therefore the repurposing of technology calls for a radical political change. So, if a capitalist market prioritises short-term, profit-oriented applications of technology, then a post-capitalist, forward-thinking government must support ‘mission oriented’ projects such as the full automation of work. One of the examples that Srnicek uses to demonstrate a ‘mission oriented’ project is the Lucas Plan of 1976. The Lucas Plan took action when the company Lucas Aerospace (UK) was faced with structural unemployment, and so, jobs were created by workers to repurpose armament manufacture into the production of useful, societal goods. As the company was publicly funded, they decided the public would have a say in what was created. Ultimately, the plan did not reach its goal due to the ‘stagnation of the Labour Party and the national trade unions’. With this example in mind, I am inclined to agree with Srnicek that if we desire ‘popular control over the direction of technological creation’ then we need to develop new ‘institutional mechanisms’. A visionary utopia is key to this change if the creators and managers of new technology are ‘building the terrain of future politics’.