One of the big trends in certain sections of the British left over the last few years has been the emergence of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ (FALC for short). Particularly pressed by young ex-anarchists, autonomists, and left-communists, FALC essentially posits that developments in automation and AI will make (and already are making) the old question of socialism or barbarism one that has to be answered by society during this century, if not within the next few decades. The collapse of the biosphere and environment along with the destruction of most jobs through a revolution in robotics and computerisation will press us into two choices. One is a free market dystopia on a dying planet that would see the majority of humanity exist in the worst living conditions for centuries (and, it seems increasingly likely, mass deaths through starvation, disease and war). The other is a utopian outcome made possible, of course, by the very technologies that also threaten this immiseration: a highly automated economy, where human labour is minimised as far as possible, a social premium is placed on securing global subsistence as the first priority before a global flourishing, where liberated from work humans can devote themselves to science, culture, self-fulfilment, and so on. A necessary aspect of all of this would be ending the carbon economy and ensuring the habitability of the planet, hopefully through the reversal of climate change and not just the management of it.
In many respects there is little new about FALC. This faith in technology as a potential source of super-abundance is, after all, the basis of the Communist Manifesto’s mockery of the periodic ‘crises’ of the bourgeoisie, ‘the epidemic of overproduction’ caused by ‘too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce’, as well as its desire that ‘in place of the old Bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. But FALC also has an older and much clearer ancestor than even the abstract futurism that was implicit in the Communist Manifesto, and I want to discuss it as a sort of cautionary tale for how we conceptualise FALC.
Probably the first explicit outlining of FALC occurred earlier in the 1840s, and centred on the Tropical Emigration Society (TES) and the literature and inventions of Johann Etzler. Etzler was born in Germany around 1796, and was educated in Berlin where he was influenced by Hegel. He emigrated to America in the 1830s, where he travelled seeking to gain enough support to establish a commune, whilst also seeking patronage for the inventions that he had been working on at least since 1833. In 1840 he met another German emigre, C.F. Stollmeyer, at a meeting of the New York Fourier Society. Stollmeyer then agreed to fund and help patent Etzler’s inventions, as well as help him establish a co-operative community which would utilise them.
The first page of Etzler’s Paradise within Reach of all Men, without labour, by powers of nature and machinery was written in Pittsburgh in 1833 and repeatedly republished in Britain in the 1840s, but other than its gendered language it could easily fit with a lot that is written on FALC today:
I promise to show the means of creating a paradise within ten years, where every thing desirable for human life may be had for every man in superabundance, without labour, without pay; where the whole face of nature is changed into the most beautiful form of which it be capable; where man may live in the most magnificent palaces, in all imaginable refinements of luxury, in the most delightful gardens; where he may accomplish, without his labour, in one year more than hitherto could be done in thousands of years; he may level mountains, sink valleys, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, intersect every where the land with beautiful canals, with roads for transporting heavy loads of many thousand tons, and for travelling 1000 miles in twenty-four hours; he may cover the ocean with floating islands moveable in any desired direction with immense power and celerity, in perfect security and in all comforts and luxury, bearing gardens, palaces, with thousands of families, provided with rivulets of sweet water; he may explore the interior of the globe, travel from pole to pole in a fortnight; he may provide himself with means unheard of yet, for increasing his knowledge of the world, and so his intelligence; he may lead a life of continual happiness, of enjoyments unknown yet; he may free himself from almost all the evils that afflict mankind, except death, and even put death far beyond the common period of human life, and finally, render it less afflicting: mankind may thus live in, and enjoy a new world far superior to our present, and raise themselves to a far higher scale of beings.
Etzler’s machines can be categorised according to their power sources, all of which we would now call renewable: the wind, the sun, and the waves. Huge windmills would produce the same energy as hundreds of thousands of people, the coast would be covered with tidal machinery, and floating islands would be covered in cities and propelled by the energy of the waves themselves. The sun would be directly magnified to heat water, thus producing endless steam power without the need for coal. On the land, ‘satellites’ powered by this machinery would chop wood, plant crops or fertilise soil. Etzler went on to show his calculations and cite real world examples; the Dutch experience with windmills, for instance, proved that it would not take much revision to produce enormous ones capable of powering huge industrial projects. He also acknowledged that these innovations would be socially deleterious if used only by individuals within the competitive economic system, as the ‘price of workers labours would sink almost to nothing’. Instead these machines would have to be introduced collectively and nation-wide, a socialisation of industry that could only be accomplished by a Republican government, like that of the United States:
‘a proper object for the Government to make the arrangement for the execution of these proposals; but as the Government of our nation is the organ of the people’s will, the subject must first be popular ; but it cannot become popular before it is generally known and understood.’
He went on to acknowledge that this would result in the end the competitive market – essentially, the end of capitalism.
Etzler’s plans had enormous appeal in Britain. The Owenite socialists similarly wanted to end the system of competition in favour of one of co-operation, although they were less clear on the point of seizing political power; nevertheless almost immediately the Owenite socialists begun discussing and praising Two Visions in their journals. It also had a big impact amongst a number of influential democrats who drew from Owenite socialism. The Chartist Bronterre O’Brien, in his translation of Bounarroti’s History of Babeuf’s Conspiracy for Equality (probably one of the earliest expressions in Britain of political communism) praised Etzler’s general scheme, if not its exaggerations. The Chartist leader and publisher John Cleave, who essentially controlled the movement’s print culture after 1840, published Etzler’s works and praised him in his newspapers. Whereas the Owenites are often depicted as non-political, the Chartists have generally been presented and remembered – especially in the last few decades- as a primarily anti-aristocratic political movement that was not in any respect socialist. In fact, Etzler spoke to a demand repeatedly articulated within Chartism, that machinery was wasted when utilised to produce wealth for ‘cotton lords’, the ‘moneyocracy’, and so on. In 1833 O’Brien wrote that:
If, instead of working to enrich a few avaricious task- masters at the expense of their slaves, machinery were made to work for the general good by being employed as an auxiliary to, instead of as the antagonist of, human labour, there is no fixing a limit to the blessings that might be derived from it.
In his Life of Robespierre he argued that workers should only produce their share of the common stock of society, ‘and this would hardly require the labour of three hours a day at his hands’. Such claims were repeated in speeches by other leaders, including one who announced that the passing of the People’s Charter – i.e., the supremacy of the working-class within Parliament – would result in ‘plenty of roast beef, strong beer, and plum pudding by working three hours a day’. In 1843 Chartism began to take a much more conservative turn, with utopianism marginalised by self-improvement and its aristocratic leader Feargus O’Connor pressing forward the ‘Land Plan’ – an attempt to move industrial workers onto rural smallholdings, and therefore destroy industrial capitalism by reviving a mythical petit-bourgeois agrarian capitalism. A core aspect of this was a veneration of hard work, with the Land Plan settlements being cultivated by spade husbandry and the tightly-controlled family labouring under patriarchal control. Resisting this, Stollmeyer was wrote in the main Chartist journal that ‘the people do not want work. Work is not the end. It is only the means at present, for want of knowing better means. The end is provisions, happiness, the satisfation of all our rational desires.’
It is therefore not a surprise that Etzler received an enthusiastic reception amongst Owenites and those Chartists who were ‘Chartist-socialists’. In 1844, the TES was founded in London, with a view to establishing colonies that would implement Etzler’s machines and thereby entice public opinion into supporting him. It was a Tropical Emigration Society for a number of reasons, all of which drew from the commonplace assumptions amongst European radicals that the ‘new’ world was a land of opportunity and equality (beliefs that conflicted sharply with the reality of capitalism, slavery and racism, to the disappointment of many who actually emigrated). Etzler believed that Europe was full of people but, more importantly, restricted by conservative and selfish elites who sought to exploit them and would never implement a rational economic system such as his. He therefore encouraged migration to the southern hemisphere, which was considered less populated, possessed cheaper land and lower taxes, and was held by Etzler to be super-fecund compared to Europe and north America. Aiding in this was the fact that young South American republics were actively encouraging European migration. With the effort of a number of seasoned Owenite and Chartist activists, and with the backing of important sections of the Chartist press, the TES quickly found adherents and managed to gain 1,600 subscribers (which amounted to 7,000 people when their families were included), enough to begin the colonisation project.
In 1845 and 1846 two voyages set out with over 200 men, women and children of the TES onboard. When they arrived in Venezuela the colonists quickly succumbed to a number of problems. Most pressingly, the super-abundance Etzler had outlined did not match with reality. There was little food and only dirty water, while over a dozen died from tropical diseases. Most fled back to the TES’s temporary base on Trinidad, while some others attempted to set up co-operatives in the US. A second voyage to Venezuela in 1846 ended up the same way as the first, and the venture was finally abandoned. Etzler’s machinery – which was probably the single biggest draw of the TES and the reason for a decade of positive publicity in the Radical, Owenite and Chartist press – was never actually implemented. The colonists lived in a hut and within the hull of a wrecked ship, and did what little work they could do with their hands. Even if they had built Etzler’s machines, they would not have worked anyway. Etzler’s designs were based on the perpetual motion of the machinery due to the renewable nature of their energy sources, but did not take account of fundamental things like friction. Their impracticable nature should have been obvious from the fact that Etzler’s prototype of his self-powered boat the ‘Automaton’ sank in the Thames in 1842, which almost drowned his patron, Stollmeyer.
It is worth talking about the TES in the context of FALC for a couple of reasons. One is that FALC is not bracingly new or novel, but is actually as old as modern socialism itself. This has a number of implications, some critical of FALC and others which defend of it. On the one hand, it demonstrates why we need to be much more cautious about the way we talk about technology, automation, robotics, and the way we pitch the future. If Etzler had been born a little later, he would perhaps have been one of our most famous founding science fiction authors, but as it is his amateur inventions caused a tragicomic footnote to the history of communism. Simply, there is a very clear danger that we do not know what we’re talking about, and it may well be the case that the innovations that excite activists and ‘entrepreneurs’ alike will not have the impact we expect: recall, for instance, the notion a few years ago that 3D printing would somehow fundamentally change the nature of capitalism and perhaps even fatally undermine it, rather than fit in nicely with the artisinal, cottage and workshop forms of production that are more representative of capitalism’s history than mass-production.Similarly in Post-Capitalism, one of the books closely associated with FALC, Paul Mason’s attitude towards the ‘networked youth’ who are the vanguard of current social change gives off a distinct dad-at-the-disco vibe. When he describes Wikipedia as an example of valueless, co-operative production he fetishes it, as Owen Hatherley points out, by ignoring the amount of academic labour that this process relies on.
The millenarian aspect of the TES is also a danger with FALC. As with both Owenism and Chartism, the TES was part of a broader working-class faith in the perfectibility of mankind and the inability of the populace to resist any concept or plan that was proven to be rational. While for these radicals it was ‘natural law’and a Godwinite belief in education leading to individual and thereby social improvement, FALC often invokes a sense of impending technology-driven crisis, either explicitly or implicitly. In Post-Capitalism, for instance, the vanguard role of the ‘networked youth’ is accompanied by the assertion that we are currently in one of a number of regular ‘waves’ of capitalist development – where innovation and new forms of marketisation or industrialisation lead to enormous growth, then a devastating crash, before then being resolved in a form that leads to more growth, etc. Our current wave is crashing – but this time, it cannot be saved by capitalist innovation, because of its basis in the ‘sharing’ and ‘knowledge’ economies, and the fact that much of the value we currently produce contains as a fundamental element digital and electronic material which is infinitely reproducible and thereby valueless.
Determinism is harder to level against Nick Snircek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, since they make it clear that we have a choice about how we implement new technologies, and such social questions are a fundamental aspect of what those technologies will mean and what they will be able to do. However, a sense of an impending, inevitable and cataclysmic crisis – driven in part by automation – is evident in their 2013 ‘Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics’, and a similar tone permeates the book of a coming crisis driven particularly by technology. Inventing the Future is well-researched and well-argued, but it is problematic that within FALC its argument for a (primarily) robot driven crisis are presented as a sign that a period particularly viable for communism is just around the corner. For instance, there’s little to fault when Aaron Bastani talks to The Guardian about what we should do with Uber:
“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?”
The problem is instead with these assertions:
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.”
Elsewhere, Bastani makes the point that (as with Inventing the Future) he’s highlighting not technological determinism but instead the choice that we humans have to make – socialism or barbarism. The rejoinder to this is that there is actually little new about the ‘new’ wave of automation, or FALC’s response to it. It was nearly two-hundred years ago that the early critics of industrial capitalism argued that the relative post-scarcity afforded by mechanisation should be used to reduce labour rather than increase it, and equalise wealth rather than concentrate it. For them, steam-power, electrolysis, railways, mechanical looms and threshing machines all suggested an end to ‘competition’ and the beginning of a ‘rational’ society, based on co-operation. This also existed from the outset of Marxism. As Engels wrote in 1847, the aim of the Communists was to:
…organise society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society…By the elimination of private property and its replacement by community of property.
This community of property was to be based on:
Firstly, on the mass of productive forces and means of subsistence resulting from the development of industry, agriculture, trade and colonisation, and on the possibility inherent in machinery, chemical and other resources of their infinite extension.
Secondly, on the fact that in the consciousness or feeling of every individual there exist certain irrefutable basic principles which, being the result of the whole of historical development, require no proof…every individual strives to be happy. The happiness of the individual is inseparable from the happiness of all, etc.
The industrial revolution led instead to horrendous exploitation and surplus labour. Capitalists fought hard to retain their profits rather than create a New Moral World. Steam displaced and immiserated millions of workers, but also created an industrial economy that developed new forms of production and wage labour while working out how to integrate old forms of labour and production. This may well end up being repeated. As some state, the wave of automation may actually be slow and uneven, with components of individual jobs automated rather than entire jobs replaced outright, and new types of work created. There are structural reasons why capitalists may well be reluctant to automate. While Inventing the Future suggests that low-skilled service jobs will be automated, in many cases it will likely be more effective to retain humans. As Snircek and Williams concede (somewhat sniffily) even in a post-work society there will probably be moral objections to automating care work. What’s more, robots are notoriously bad at very basic functions. Any job that involves manual dexterity – think cleaning or plumbing – would be difficult to replace outright. The dangers of automation and the rolling out of AI may not be massive unemployment, but instead their utilitisation by capitalists to increase the pace of work or the surveillance of the workforce. This occurred in many industries in the C19th, and is currently happening in logistics. As the head of Daimler Trucks North America said, self-driving trucks will not lead to the replacement of drivers, but their conversion into ‘logistics managers‘.
There is a very clear danger of linking emancipatory politics to a promised event we are constantly on the cusp of, and it is therefore worth questioning why p2p, 3D printing and robotics are being heralded as inaugurating an age when Communism is more viable, whereas existing technologies like steam power and electricity are not. Does FALC rest on a belief that, for technological reasons, a Communist society actually is not and was not feasible, and will not be possible until some point in the near future? Just as Owenite optimism was crushed, what if FALC’s predictions of dystopia are slowly denied? What if robots and automation very promptly created new jobs and new industries? What if automation occurs slowly and unevenly enough that there is a general degradation of working conditions but no revolutionising shock? What if capitalists deliberately withhold or withdraw automation’s potential to increase productivity by replacing humans, and instead use it to increase productivity by keeping them in work and disciplining them? What if capitalism does mine the asteroids and colonise Mars? In short, what if we predicted a disaster and one didn’t happen?
Hatherley concludes his review with a salient point about the vague nature of the phrase ‘post-capitalism’, the title of Mason’s book and a word that recurs throughout Inventing the Future:
Socialism, however much its meaning may have been clouded by overuse, still means something social, communism something communal, anarchism something anarchic. Each is something you might want to fight for because you believe in it. Postcapitalism tells you that the forces of production make something possible, then suggests either that you demand it, or that you’re already doing it.
In some ways FALC is better than this, its title pointing directly to Communism. Yet FALC wasn’t always FALC. Before it became ‘Fully Automated’ it was simply Luxury Communism. The deliberate oxymoron was designed to provoke in two directions: both the austerity and ascetics that dominated the left, who would immediately moralistically react against the invocation of ‘luxury’, and the unthinking popular anti-communism that associates the terms with military parades, gulags, and bread lines (and of course, those ‘communists’ who celebrate those things). The point of it was not to predict a coming crisis, but to point out the possibility within industrial capitalism, in the past, present and future, to create an egalitarian, anti-work society. With this, it sought to show that utopianism and futurism were integral parts of the socialist tradition, as implicit in Marxism as anything else. The addition of Fully Automated has morphed the concept from a somewhat abstract affirmation of communism’s utopianism, futurism and belief in abundance, to one based in technology, but explicitly the groundbreaking machinery of today and the near-future. Whereas Luxury Communism could describe a society run by steam power, Fully Automated Luxury Communism is only used to describe a society run by robots and AI. The addition of this sense of historical exception and inevitability is not useful.
The provocation of Luxury Communism is that communism is the pursuit of freedom and abundance. The case of the TES, and the early socialists generally, illustrates that these fundamental aspirations – that the future should be better, that labour is bad and that technology should be used to both minimise it and distribute wealth – have long been part of communism and the labour and democratic movements. The TES was popular because it corresponded with a genuine hedonic anti-work sentiment that existed in the socialist and Radical movements in the 1830s and 1840s. The left should be proud of this history and embrace it much more closely, and what Luxury Communism has revealed and possibly also encouraged is that this sentiment still very much exists. Yet Fully Automated Luxury Communism’s deferring of this to the future, and saying that this impulse can only be realised by a technology-induced crisis, falls back into the Orthodox Marxist teleology: “don’t worry comrades, the final crisis is coming”. If we think like this, we will not do the work we need to do in organising and planning – or ‘fighting for something because we believe in it’. On this matter, the Chartists were generally better than the socialist sects: political power was a necessary precondition for having any command over industrialisation, and that belief resulted in the first mass-member political party in the world. That sort of energy doesn’t exist now, and it won’t if our salvation is out of our hands and just around the corner.
How, then, should a Luxury Communist party and programme look? In a repeated criticism of FALC ‘luxury’ is seen as a relative term that in its current form means crass consumerism, usually revolving around scarce items (or items that are kept artificially scarce). Interpreting the phrase as literally as possible, these critics see Luxury Communists as merely wanting a proliferation of such things as watches, sports cars, and yachts. For Etzler – as for Inventing the Future – the point of full automation was to create a society where people could do whatever they wanted. ‘Luxury Communism’ that posits sports cars or Cartier watches for all is completely missing the point (and I think requires a deliberate misreading of one tongue in cheek line of Bastani’s). Luxury Communism means creating the material and cultural conditions for a society that values well-being, pleasure and human advancement -in other words, ‘the elimination of private property and its replacement by community of property’. Its first tasks after this would therefore have to be the ending of poverty, the abolition of dangerous and destructive work and its replacement with automation, the de-gendering of labour, and the assault on climate change. This process would then open up the world to intellectual advance and the explorations of pleasure. Explaining what fun would look like under communism is an invitation for pedantry and miserabilism in the current left, but the ‘Luxury’ is an assertion that ‘Communism’ does not mean a decline in living standards, but instead their boundless improvement, an improvement that only communism can guarantee – as excellently outlined in Kristin Ross’s study of the Paris Communards’ aspirations for ‘Communal Luxury’. Regardless, the crass materialist interpretation of the ‘Luxury’ in FALC is nonsensical. Why would anyone want a Cartier watch when its symbolism is based entirely on the forms of stratification in a society that doesn’t exist anymore? Why would anyone want such an ugly watch when a watchmaker, whose labour is not alienated, is assisted wherever possible by technology, and is a watchmaker for the pleasure of it, can make them a genuinely unique one?
The story of the TES is a cautionary tale for FALC, and one worth remembering lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, and start building impossible projects based on impossible machines. It highlights some of FALCs worse tendencies: a millenarianism that is redolent of the worst forms of Marxism and utopian socialism, a faith in technology that is perhaps premature and undeserved, and the constant danger of slipping into determinism of either a hard variety or a softer one. At the same time, the ‘Luxury Communism’ of FALC is a discernible feature in the history of communism from its very origins. For us now, as for the workers of the 1830s, it presents something incredibly liberating and life-affirming: a wholly positive presentation of communism as a system of abundance; the human race and its achievements and abilities as something genuinely wondrous and potentially limitless; a sense that not only can material needs be met but we can endlessly pursue our interests and invent ourselves. The cannibalism and sadism of the left can only be replaced by a resurrection of this utopianism.