Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Reviewed by Lewis Hodder

Photo of a Cuban cow, provided by Alberto Bayo

Photo of a Cuban cow, provided by Alberto Bayo

Waking up under mosquito nets each morning, we would use plastic jugs to fill the cisterns of the toilets and hose ourselves down with cold water in the showers. For breakfast there’d be bread and eggs again, so I’d just grab a banana and bag of peanuts before I got on with hand-washing my clothes to get rid of the red dirt that stuck to our trousers while we worked. But looking out over the Cuban landscape as I brushed my teeth each morning, watching the cattle in the next field as the sun rose, any notions of luxury were entirely forgotten. Outside Caimito, on a small camp, we worked with farmers who used old tools that were fixed with rusted nails and sheer force – bent back into shape again and again until they were broken beyond repair. Had I got my hands on Aaron Bastani's Fully Automated Luxury Communism sooner, I’d have quoted to the farmers, ‘Communism is luxurious – or it isn’t communism’, and we all would have laughed.

Now, sat in England, turning to my tattered review copy, it’s difficult to muster the same sense of humour. It’s hard to not see this book as a vanity project. Not in the sense of social media personality writes a book, but in how Bastani places himself in relation to Marx and his audience. ‘The reason you’ve likely never heard of either before’, he writes, either being the Grundrisse itself and the small section ‘Fragment on Machines’, ‘is that the Grundrisse never extended beyond a series of incomplete manuscripts remaining unpublished in Germany until 1939.’ And although we should be thankful that Bastani has uncovered the Penguin Classics edition of the Grundrisse, it is here that Bastani’s use of Marx both abruptly begins and ends.

The book itself is a slog to get through, and it feels like you’re reading pages among pages of PR directly from Silicon Valley. After a certain point Horkheimer’s throwaway line in Towards a New Manifesto, ‘I couldn’t care less about sending spacecraft to the moon’, begins to resonate on a personal level. FALC works as a catchphrase that attempts to fulfil the negative function of criticism; it contradicts the caricatures of communism as a mass of faceless workers bound to the fate of being able to buy one type of cola. Yet at the same time FALC takes these caricatures at face value and readily agrees with them. In an attempt to distance himself from these caricatures of communism he even goes so far as to say that, under FALC, ‘when you’re relaxing, it will look like a music video.’ Showing someone photographs of East Berlin fashion would more constructively fulfil this function of criticism, or even recalling Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment which reminds us that ‘the actual working conditions in society compel conformism’ – that the material conditions of capitalism can only offer the bright individuality central to its promise to one class.

Continuing along this line, Bastani entirely ignores the actual gains of communism while attempting to do-battle with capitalism over consumer culture; rather than looking to the countless people raised out of poverty, instead Bastani looks to Silicon Valley, space, and music videos. These concessions bring to mind an instance from Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, if only to demonstrate the contrast between the conception of communism in imperialist countries against the conception of communism in communist countries. When Snow asked a Chinese peasant whether they liked the Red Army, he ‘looked at me in genuinely amazement.’ The peasant replied, ‘The Red Army has taught me to read and write… Here I have learned to operate a radio, and how to aim a rifle straight. The Red Army helps the poor.’ Another peasant joined in, adding, ‘Here everybody is the same. It is not like the White districts, where poor people are slaves of the landlords and the Kuomintang. Here everybody fights to help the poor, and to save China. The Red Army fights the landlords and the White bandits and the Red Army is anti-Japanese. Why should anyone not like such an army as this?’

It is getting increasingly tiresome that leftists in the imperialist core turn their nose up at communist countries because they have had to develop and struggle against attacks from those same imperialist countries. As the memory of Soviet Russia and communism is increasingly weaponised by NATO and the US to bolster their crumbling corpses, FALC cedes this ground entirely as an extension of the ultra-leftism that says, ‘communism has never existed’, that the USSR, People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and Cuba were never really communist, they’re all bastardised attempts. This is a position that’s infinitely played out, but it appears again here – almost word-for-word: ‘While it is true that a number of political projects labelled themselves as communist over the last century…’ After reading that I seriously considered putting the book down for good. While I would agree with Bastani that that there are technically no communist countries, only socialist countries working towards communism, the purpose of this technicality isn’t in staying true to Marx’s definition but only in ignoring those countries who are closest to achieving that goal. This is clear when he writes, ‘There was never a workers’ revolution that overthrew the system – at least not on a global scale.’ At least is doing a lot of work here.

Reading the book, it soon becomes necessary to seriously reconsider the purpose of communism. Is it a political theory that we must use to liberate the working class and the Global South? To lift people out of poverty? Raise literacy? Decrease infant mortality? To save the planet? Or is it a rhetorical device to do-battle over consumer culture? It is incredible to see just how far leftist thought has been taken in by the machinations of imperialism that someone who endorses Marx shies away from the gains of his philosophy, and instead writes that ‘Marx considered the working class to be the key to a future society, but only because its revolution was uniquely able to eliminate work’, or that FALC is not ‘substituting one class for another’ as other communist projects hope to – reducing Marx to an infantile anarchism, ignoring the essential role of resolving class struggle. Bastani goes on to emphasise that FALC will not ‘be delivered by storming the Winter Palace’, and even that communism was impossible until the beginning of the ‘Third Disruption’ – since the advent of information technologies. But, after all of this, how does Bastani hope to achieve this communist vision? He takes Labour’s electoral strategy as its blueprint:

In isolation electoral politics will not give us the world we want, but allied with a constant movement to make the potential of the Third Disruption clear to everyone – along with the necessity for a collective political response – it shapes the parameters of what is possible.

I almost did a double take when I read this. This is exactly Corbyn’s and Momentum’s strategy. ‘After all,’ Bastani concludes in his own way, ‘it is often only around elections when large sections of society – particularly the most exploited – are open to new possibilities in how society works and able to perceive how previously distinct issues share both common cause and prospective solutions.’ And once a Corbyn government is in power? Government spending, co-ops, and free buses.

We can be confident that FALC isn’t an attempt to raise people out of poverty, or to resolve the contradictions of capitalism and imperialism, yet it can’t even be said that it’s an attempt to pry hegemony away from the bourgeoisie; it’s a catchphrase raised into a principle, that someone has then had to laboriously work backwards into a contrived set of political positions. Bastani criticises ‘capitalist realism’ for the poverty of its imagination, yet FALC demonstrates the worst in the imagination and scope of leftist thought. It takes every piece of PR and propaganda at face-value, parades around empty phrases like populism and globalism, and can’t even conceive of imperialism on a basic level; instead it talks about the ‘outsourcing economy’, or the ‘spacial fix’ which ‘underpins contemporary globalisation’, even British manufacturing ‘going elsewhere.’ And when discussing the Global South’s capacity for solar energy as a natural resource, Bastani writes – without a hint of irony – that ‘nature’s gift becomes an economic blessing.’

I miss Cuba, and brushing my teeth in the morning sun. I’m starting to think that the real luxury is being thousands of miles away from these people. But, if I have to, the most positive thing I can say about the book is that I don’t doubt that it will be Elon Musk’s favourite book of 2019 – and he’ll tweet about it as he prevents his workers from unionising. No one else – whether those farmers in Cuba, the literal hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty in China, or even communists organising in the imperialist core – will pay attention.

Lewis Hodder is an editor of Ebb Magazine and writes on the Frankfurt School, philosophy, and Marxism.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani

Verso, 2019

Ebb Magazine