Towards a Communist Futurism... But What Kind?

  From Twitter: @strawfordthomas

From Twitter: @strawfordthomas

There seems to be a small confluence of sorts taking place on the left right now. I say "seems" because it may very well just be a series of coincidences, but if the surrealists believed in ascribing deeper meaning to coincidences then I figure I can roll with it too so let's go ahead and call it a "confluence." Said confluence appears to be around issues of technology, specifically its role in constructing a fully emancipated communist society.

To be sure, this discussion is as old as the socialist ideal itself, and certainly played an important role for Marx. It was, after all, the productive forces thrust into existence along with capitalism that made abundance possible and communism along with it. And any web search of the phrase "communism and technology" will yield any number of ongoing discussions on the topic, from Reddit forums to videos of the legendary Ray Kurzweil stating that the goals of communism will be achieved through technology and the open source movement (in front of a screen overflowing with corporate logos, at which we might direct our ironic snickering).

Kurzweil is of course no serious radical, admirable though his idealism may be. What seems to be putting the discussion about technology and the radical transformation of society further toward center stage, however, is that large swathes of the young and growing radical left itself are engaging in serious and creative ways with it. Jacobin, undoubtedly the most important publication on the American socialist left right now, just published its technology issue (which I am very much looking forward to reading). And just this past Wednesday, The Guardian ran an article on "Fully automated luxury communism" from VICE's  Brian Merchant. 

Again, it could just be coincidence; one shouldn't ascribe too much meaning to a simple proliferation of articles, but nor should be ascribe too little. What the content of these articles points to is the ideological and material overlap of the oft-repeated "millennial" generation: that this young set of workers has not only been systematically screwed over the past six or seven years, but happens to be the most educated in history. They are also, significantly, the first generation to come fully of age in the midst of the palpable everywhere-ness of the internet. The older ones among them probably even remember the debates around peer-to-peer file sharing that came about in the late 90's and lasted through most of the 00's, along with the broader questions that such debates raised: whether culture should be free or considered "a right," why the entertainment industry was willing to bankrupt people out of sheer self interest, so on and so forth. We shouldn't beat around the bush here: an educated, tech-savvy populace that is systematically shut out from "the wonders of capitalism" is potentially a very dangerous one. That's been at least theoretically true for a while; the difference now is that growing segments are starting to realize this.

Merchant's piece in The Guardian is worth reading. The following segment distills its basic thrust:

Located on the futurist left end of the political spectrum, fully automated luxury communism (FALC) aims to embrace automation to its fullest extent. The term may seem oxymoronic, but that’s part of the point: anything labeled luxury communism is going to be hard to ignore.

“There is a tendency in capitalism to automate labor, to turn things previously done by humans into automated functions,” says Aaron Bastani, co-founder of Novara Media. “In recognition of that, then the only utopian demand can be for the full automation of everything and common ownership of that which is automated.”

Bastani and fellow luxury communists believe that this era of rapid change is an opportunity to realise a post-work society, where machines do the heavy lifting not for profit but for the people.

“The demand would be a 10- or 12-hour working week, a guaranteed social wage, universally guaranteed housing, education, healthcare and so on,” he says. “There may be some work that will still need to be done by humans, like quality control, but it would be minimal.” Humanity would get its cybernetic meadow, tended to by machines of loving grace.

Sounds absolutely great to me, and for a few reasons. The first is that any straightforward grappling with the notion of "future" on the part of the left has to be seen above all else as positive. It is certainly preferable to the neoliberalism's cultural non-choice between soporific nostalgia and apocalyptic dystopianism.

The second is that such speculation rescues socialism from the pernicious latter-day images of calloused throngs of deprived, gray-suited workers shuffling between sparse hovels and drab, dirty factories. It's not for nothing that these stereotypes have themselves been comfortably amalgamated into popular dystopia. That so much of the technology giving us easy access to movies, music, information and culture is manufactured in massive monuments to hyper-exploitation in the last economic superpower to dub itself "communist" (and laughably so) reveals how intertwined these two tropes are.

  Jacobin's technology issue

Jacobin's technology issue

All of these are among the reasons that we at Red Wedge have put such a premium lately on the importance of utopia in the radical imagination. It's why Ytasha Womack's commentary on the burgeoning Afrofuturist movement was an essential part of our Black History Month online issue, and why Jase Short has been so prolific in his blogging on sci-fi and speculative fiction. The desire to speculate is not an idle one; the ability to imagine is not just a side-effect of what it means to be human. Both are central to humanity and to our capability to have any kind of culture or society in the first place -- let alone a society worth living in. Technology can, will and should be a central part of this discussion. 

Merchant, Bastani and the British anti-capitalist group Plan C (also briefly profiled in the piece) all locate threads of FALC in radically imaginative works as varied as The Grundrisse, the books of sci-fi authors Iain Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and even Star Trek. But perhaps the best part of Merchant's piece is the closing, in which Bastani locates the urge for luxury in the materialism of Migos' "Versace":

Consider the Atlanta rapper Migos’ hit song, Versace, he says. “You get these music videos the kids love, where it’s completely outlandish, luxury everywhere. The story of capitalism is that if you work hard and play by the rules you can get this, which is obviously bullshit.

“But if you say, well look, if you want this, what you need to do is seize the means of production. We need to get automation and make it subordinate to human needs, not the profit motive. It’s about seizing the bakery rather than stealing the bread.” With robots presumably kneading the dough.

The point is notable because it doesn't resort to the tired and moralistic anti-materialism that many of us are used to hearing from liberals and austerians alike, but rather puts the focus on distribution of resources. Luxury as such is not the crux, but rather the question of why so few should have so much of it at the expense of everyone else. It's a point that runs parallel to some of the central foci of debates around technology and ethics: ideally, technological progress should liberate rather than emiserate, make people more independent rather than reliant, and transform their labor from an abstract mechanism of profit into something truly rewarding and artful. "Luxury for all" may not get at the most immediate needs of a contemporary workers' movement, but it absolutely ignites our imaginative urge for liberation. It is the 21st century version of "We Want Bread, and Roses Too."

* * *

There is a certain sense, however, in which Merchant's piece leaves me wondering.  There is no reason to think that Bastani and other FALC proponents are indifferent to ecological devastation; Merchant's article doesn't mention climate change, but that may be because it's on an altogether different topic.

Altogether different, but inextricably related and very urgent. Nothing animates dystopian anxiety nowadays quite like the specter of climate disaster. Animations are being created that reveal how many of our modern cities will be underwater should all the ice finally disappear. News that both ends of Antarctica may be disintegrating make such videos seem less like speculation and more like the long-term weather forecast. A liberated, communally controlled technology may be able to hedge against the worst effects of this (maybe constructing massive retaining walls around New York and Sydney, Johannesburg and Tokyo) but this would of course be an act of survival. Luxury doesn't factor into a sinking city -- or at least one that's aware of its sinking.

The idea of a communism characterized by massive skyscrapers and steel beams zig-zagging this way and that as flying cars dart through them with not a single green-space in sight doesn't seem so much pie-in-the-sky as straightforwardly unappealing to me. I have no interest in traipsing through a "cybernetic meadow." This is admittedly an aesthetic preference, but there is a political dimension to it as well: that of the need to bridge the metabolic rift that capitalism has created between humanity and ecology.

One need not counterpose a technologized "luxury communism" with a sustainable ecosocialism; this rejoinder isn't meant so much as an argument as a supplement. In fact one might say that neither can be fully realized without the other. Maybe that's why the relationship of Marxism to ecology is so often as misunderstood as its relationship to technology.

So much of the anti-capitalist imagination grapples with these twin misunderstandings. It is not for nothing that William Morris wrote his novel of quasi-pastoral utopianism News From Nowhere partially as a rebuke to Bellamy's Looking Backward. While both imagined a world in which labor was fully and creatively realized, it could be argued that neither were able to imagine past the apparent irreconcilability of industry and nature.  

  From Morris' News From Nowhere

From Morris' News From Nowhere

A reading of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed reveals how hard some have chewed over the concept in a more contemporary setting. On the one hand the reader is presented with a society as preoccupied with not living beyond the planet's means as it is with the shunning of private property: fully equal and apparently liberated on almost every level, but also forced to live incredibly simply and primitively. On the other is a "propertarian" society, rich in almost every material sense of the term, technologically advanced yet profoundly hierarchical and exploitative. That the planet of (relatively) primitive communism is in actuality a de facto colony of their advanced propertarian counterparts isn't due to Le Guin's lack of imagination so much as it is her acknowledgement of how many stumbling blocks stand in the way of resolving the contradiction.

Even in Womack's piece on Afrofuturism, the role of technology is treated with a great amount of suspicion, and understandably so: "While the futurist of the early 20th century hailed all technology as progressive, Afrofuturists do not. In fact, race is referred to as a technology. The creation of race -- an effort to justify the transatlantic Slave Trade and create a caste system defined by color and enacted through law and violence -- is explored as a technology in Afrofuturism. "

And yet, even as this same contradiction has never been fully overcome, its two sides cannot help but butt up against each other in radical history. Any serious reading of Marx yields its own examples. Those short years after the Russian Revolution, before it was squashed by civil war and Stalinism, saw an all-too-brief example, when the Soviets began to re-conceive the relationship between urban development and the preservation of large tracts of land. Concepts taken for granted in ecological science today -- such as that of the "biosphere" -- were first seriously theorized in this environment. This was in loose tandem to the futurist imagination of Mayakovsky, Burlyuk, Matyushin and others that was unleashed by the revolution. How the futurists' romanticized visions of technology might have dovetailed with the socialist order's attempt to live sustainably with nature is a question that can only be left to the imagination.

We must, however, at least attempt to imagine. Contemporary capitalism's boosters naturally pose today's order as being capable of sustainability (hoping as they do that we don't notice how destructive profit is to the planet) but in doing so it essentially betrays its stunted, nostalgic vision. Here's what Alyssa Battistoni says about it:

A “green economy” can’t just be one that makes “green” versions of the same stuff, or one that makes solar panels in addition to SUVs. Eco-Keynesianism in the form of public works projects can be temporarily helpful in building light rail systems and efficient infrastructure, weatherizing homes, and restoring ecosystems — and to be sure, there’s a lot of work to be done in those areas. But a spike in green jobs doesn’t tell us much about how to provide for everyone without creating jobs by perpetually expanding production. The problem isn’t that every detail of the green-jobs economy isn’t laid out in full — calls for green jobs are meant to recognize the fraught history of labor-environmentalist relations, and to signify a commitment to ensuring that sustainability doesn’t come at the expense of working communities. The problem is that the vision they call forth isn’t a projection of the future so much as a reflection of the past — most visions of a “new economy” look a whole lot like the same old one. Such visions reveal a hope that climate change will be our generation’s New Deal or World War II, vaulting us out of hard times into a new era of widespread prosperity.

The same goes for urban life itself as it does for economic development. Here's Battistoni again, this time in an article for Jacobin's previous issue on imagining the socialist city:

Just as the scope of the metropolis stretches beyond city limits, urban politics are bound up not only in struggles over zoning or development, but in the resources that fuel city life and definitions of property and ownership that have evolved in the context of corporate labs and factory farms.

The question before us in the twenty-first century is: how to extend the much-touted right to the city to everyone — human and nonhuman inhabitants alike? ... [T]he architecture of the future can’t do it alone. Reclaiming the city while simultaneously reinventing it will require challenges not only to the privatization of public space and rising real estate values, but to the privatization of life and protection of intellectual property rights.

  From the "Luxury Communism" Tumblr

From the "Luxury Communism" Tumblr

This invoking of Lefebvre's "right to the city" goes beyond mere prescience. David Harvey's description of the concept consciously links the reinvention of urban life with the process of collective reinvention of the human experience. What might such a reinvention look like? Would the removal of the profit motive from the urban experience also ease the tyranny of the clock over our lives and allow us to -- as we did prior to industrial capitalism -- sync our own rhythms with those of the earth itself? Would we want to? Would it even be a conscious decision? How would technology aid in this endeavor rather than hinder it?

What role would technology -- particularly biotechnology -- play in the reestablishment of the commons; not just in the urban sense but in a broader ecological framework? Would the ultimate realization of our right to the city mean the final dissolution of the divisions between town and country as well as humans and nature? To what degree does our estrangement from labor parallel our estrangement from what we produce? Must those boundaries be done away with before we can ultimately and in turn do away with the boundary between labor and leisure? Does the technological bridging of the metabolic rift hold the key to "work" simply becoming "art" and vice versa?

I have zero answers to these questions. Preferences? Sure, but they're little more than daydreaming and aren't really germane to the point at hand. What does seem relevant is that, even as Marxism's relationship with technology and ecology have each been historically tense, and even as the meta-relationship between each has itself been fraught, they are all nonetheless unavoidably crucial to a world where we are free to create what we are meant to create. 

If capitalism is performative, then the revolution will be a masterpiece. "Atonal Notes" is Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet's blog on music, poetry and performance. Follow: @UbuPamplemousse