From scarcity to abundance and beyond – Will fully automated luxury communism save us from the climate breakdown?

The first great disruption in subsistence communities happened 12 000 years ago with the emergence of agriculture. Before that, roaming bands of hunter-gatherers were bound to the whims of scarce nature and its bounty. This all changed with the technology of crop cultivation and the new abilities of transforming the soil for food production. The blessed political problem of relative abundance and surplus produce defined the new mode of existence. Small concentrations of proto-urban populations with distinct social structures had their own solutions of kinship and customs for managing the surplus problem. Almost 12 000 years later, in 1776, James Watt greatly improved the design of the steam engine making it more cost-effective. This was the beginning of the second disruption, the age of the fossil fuel. The unleashing of coal and oil in the form of the combustion engine. With the aid of cheap fuel, newly ossified capitalist social relations expanded across the globe. Capital wreaked havoc, but it also produced material wealth for the few not yet seen in the history of mankind. Now, we live amid the third great disruption. The information revolution, the silicon transistor and the ever-increasing computing power. Abundance is ready to burst out of the seams of the capitalist machine it is chained to.

Thus ruminates Aaron Bastani in his new book “Fully automated luxury communism: A manifesto” (hereafter FALC) published by Verso. Bastani is a political commentator and one of the founders of the left-wing alternative media organisation Novara Media. He holds a doctorate from the University of London in the field of political communications. FALC is a popularized post-capitalist manifesto envisioning a new economy and society in the face of secular crises of capitalism; a rallying cry of “You can have it all!” against violent neoliberal austerity and depressing red-green scarcity ecology. Regarding climate change however, it fails to deliver a convincing agenda. This boils down to the inability to properly interrogate the ways in which fossil capitalism shapes our relationship to nature and resources, and how subsequently luxury communism would suture this fracture in the age of climate breakdown. Instead, FALC is grounded on Promethean promises of the coming techno-utopia emerging in the horizon. On visions of capitalism turbo-charged and fine-tuned to its very peak, thus, transcending itself to the realm of luxury communism.

Many of the current trajectories that Bastani recognizes are correct and topical: The breakdown of the neoliberal model following the 2008 financial crisis, models of municipal socialism, capitalist automation and the Green New Deal. All these should be at the forefront of discussion in the public sphere regarding the future of society and the planet. Because of this, the ecological shortcomings of the project grow ever more frustrating and poignant. The crucial question of the resource base of the economy in a warming world is the one that every visionary societal project must answer. Climate change is a material crisis of how we consume nature and relate to it. A crisis of the fossil way of life that challenges all existing societal theories to rethink the fundamentals. FALC’s vision of the god-like technological and industrial capabilities of humanity seem out of place in the current predicament as we are blasting through every conceivable ecological barrier.

Reading Marx with blinders, or, the poverty of luxury communism

The underlying theoretical framework that Bastani employs in the book is a mixture of classical Marxism combined with the revolutionary potential of information and the tendency of “extreme supply” (p. 37). Extreme supply is the phenomenon that defines the Third Disruption and it encompasses all aspects of the economy and the society. Not just information, but labour, energy, resources, even life itself – in the form of life saving drugs and medical procedures – is becoming ever more abundant. The problem is that the current mode of capitalist economy is predicated on the management of scarcity for profit. Bastani correctly recognizes the current forms of rentiership and platform capitalism as the imposition of artificial scarcity for further capital accumulation. By extension, any kind of scarcity is a discursive limitation produced by capitalist ideology. Instead of fossil fuels we have the sun that provides limitless, clean and free energy (p. 100). Planetary resources are becoming scarce? No matter, “… the limits of the earth won’t matter anymore – we’ll mine the sky instead” (p. 119). Clearly, we haven’t been thinking big enough.

The interpretation of Marx is the basis of the theoretical and ecological dead end of the book. The picture painted of his intellectual project is that of – by and large – a technological determinist and a crude base-superstructure theorist for whom the economic laws of development guide the progression of history towards communism. Bastani bases this interpretation on a rather selective reading of Grundrisse and Capital. Thus, he can easily join the chorus of Marx and Engels in praising the innovative capabilities of capitalism to constantly revolutionize the instruments and forces of production (p. 34–36). The power of fossil capitalism has been the power of progression and abundance. A necessary step before the final historical stage of luxury communism, “… a society in which work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another” (p. 50). Bastani does not spare any words in describing our Promethean technological and industrial capabilities in getting there:

Our ambitions must be Promethean because our technology is already making us gods – so we might as well get good at it. (p. 189)

Even the most technophilic reader is starting to blush. And the techno-ambivalent one left to wonder how the quantitative acceleration of the productive forces that have brought us climate change is meant to produce a sustainable and livable future.

One cannot expect a manifesto to intricately develop niche academic theories, but it would be expected still not to run into theoretical dead ends. Within Marx-scholarship the interpretation of Marx as a “Promethean” (Saito 2016: 38) industrialist celebrating the powers of capitalism in subduing the natural forces is called into question. For example, Kohei Saito (2017) presents convincingly that his emphasis shifted later in his life more towards the inherent contradictions between nature, technology and economic development. Marx saw the effects of capitalisms ecological destruction in the soil degradation and deforestation processes of the time. His answer to selective breeding of English sheep to produce more meat with minimal bone structure was disdain:

Characterized by precocity, in entirety of sickliness, want of bone, a lot of development of fat and flesh etc. All these are artificial products. Disgusting! (Marx quoted in Saito 2016: 39)

Seemingly a far cry from Bastani’s praise of the techonological wonders of gene-editing (p. 138–158).

The recent interest in Marx’s ecological thinking has spurred quite fervent academic debates around the idea of the disruption of “metabolic interaction” between nature and society (Foster, 2000). The metabolic rift theory has been a major subject of interest and discussion within political ecology (for example Malm, 2017; Moore, 2013). Now, these would not be topical if Bastani were not explicitly invoking Marx in defense of FALC. After all, the point of envisioning a new and sustainable future is not to endlessly ruminate on philosophers of the past, but to respectfully steal their best ideas and put them to work in the current conjuncture. The problem comes from the fact that the recent strand of ecological Marxist debates would quite effectively undermine many of the tenets of luxury communism. Especially its fundamental notion of technological development being the silver bullet for climate change and ecological devastation instead of an integral part of the fossil capitalist system. Thus, if the visionary project of luxury communism must be grounded on writings of Marx, it would do well to address the aspects of his thought that run counter to FALC’s principles. The irony of invoking the ghost of Marx in defense of hyper-accelerated capitalism and SpaceX-inspired asteroid mining seems to be lost.

Blast off – an accelerationist escape fantasy

FALC is fundamentally a left-accelerationist project. Bastani lays it out clearly:

There is no doubt about it – man-made climate change is a crisis whose magnitude is without precedent in human history. Equally true, however, is that we now stand on the brink of an energy revolution set to take us beyond the fuels which have so rapidly warmed our planet. To mitigate the worst excesses of climate change, that revolution must now be accelerated. (p. 155)

He acknowledges that the current mode of fossil capitalism is based on the exploitation of cheap nature and rampant degradation of the ecosphere. Nevertheless, acceleration is what we need since we are on the brink of an energy revolution. That acceleration should be in the hands of a democratically run welfare state instead of individual capitalists looking to make a profit. Otherwise the direction is good. Earth is dosed every moment with fantastically abundant solar energy enough to satisfy all the needs of luxury. What is needed is just a little boost in the development of solar panels to make them more efficient. But the problem is, again, material:

While the sun may furnish us with more energy than we can possibly use, minerals like lithium and cobalt – needed to store solar energy in any post-carbon system – are ultimately limited. Which means that for any comparative advantages renewable energy does possess, it ultimately suffers the same problem as fossil fuels: ours is a finite world and we are fast approaching its limits. (p. 117)

But fear not, because FALC has a solution: asteroid mining (p. 119–137). Asteroid Psyche 16 located between Mars and Jupiter contains minerals and ore with an estimated market value of 10 000 quadrillion dollars. Capitalists like Elon Musk and Peter Diamandis are already gearing up an arms race for the spoils of space. However, the space race should be conducted by a welfare state to redistribute the acquired wealth to all citizens, and to outsource the material base of the renewable energy system out of the planet. In the face of rapidly deteriorating planetary ecosystems, asteroid mining is an intellectual sleight of hand. The last ideological maneuver left to do is to claim the sky as the next resource frontier. When the soil beneath our feet is becoming toxic, it is easier to look up than down. The logic is expansionist, as with capitalism. It becomes abundantly clear that FALC, in its current iteration, is constrained within the same logic.

The supposed laws and tendencies of historic and economic development force humanity to a situation of running the clock down with climate breakdown. If there is no “looking back”, the only question left is: Will we develop the necessary technologies fast enough to blast to Psyche 16 and mine all the precious minerals and ore before Earth’s ecosystems collapse? This is at best a coin flip based on rumblings of corporate CEO’s. What would be the material and ecological cost in transferring the resource base of the economy to asteroid mining while at the same time trying to constrain fossil fuel consumption on the planet’s surface? It would not be nil, and at the same time we would need to be fighting the ever-growing humanitarian costs of the rapidly developing climate breakdown.

Bastani’s framework of technological progress starts to form a straitjacket of history. Rather than human agency connected to specific structural situations, it is the abstract laws and tendencies of the development of productive forces and technologies that guide history. Whether it be the principle of “information wanting to be free” (p. 63), tendency of extreme supply, Moore’s law of exponential growth in computing power (p. 42–43) or the experience curve of diminishing production costs (p. 46–47). Is fossil capitalism a historically contingent societal arrangement brought about by the emergence of specific social relations or just a carbon sidetrack in the progression of Technology? The analysis has a resemblance of planning a production guideline more than visionary utopia:

Here then lie the limits to capitalist planning. Even when it takes the form of programming or establishment of broad production guidelines, it is not so much real planning as a projection into the future of the general tendencies prevailing at a given moment in time. (Poulantzas 1978: 192; emphasis added)

The context of the quote of Nicos Poulantzas is wholly different, but it contains a kernel of relevancy. FALC’s form is that of capitalist planning which outlines the developments we need to accelerate to tackle climate change: Solar energy, laboratory meat, gene-editing, robotization of the work force and information technology. Solutions to climate change are here (p. 115). The explosiveness suggested by the title of the book boils down to a social democratic management of technological progress. This would be preferable to the current situation, but in terms of solving the climate crisis, it is not enough. The decarbonization of the economy cannot be based on the limitless expansion of productive forces and hopes of absolute decoupling of economic growth from energy and material consumption (p. 99–100). For example, the Finnish BIOS -research group has estimated that a successful decoupling of the Finnish economy would be highly risky and unrealistic in terms of ecological sustainability. Decoupling on a global scale is likely an even more precarious strategy.

In terms of projecting current trends into the future, the notion of space exploration and asteroid mining in FALC functions as the last grand spatial fix of capitalism. Capitalism has been immensely efficient in managing its emerging contradictions by reallocating them spatially. With the looming climate breakdown, however, it is quickly reaching the limits of shifting the crisis in space and time. Only direction to shift is up, and the spatial fix becomes “the space fix”. The empty void functioning as a relief valve where the endless expansion of the luxury economy’s resource base can be outsourced to. Only difference between space capitalism and luxury communism seems to be question of who’s doing the exploration: The public state or the private capitalists?

Forwards, backwards, sideways

The space of nature in FALC’s techno-utopia seems to be quite limited. Luxury communism has not much to say about nature besides arguing for its unlimited abundance. As such, it has been externalized from the picture and thus relegated to the margins. Totally subdued under the rubric of society and particular type of progress. The external and material limits of life are only figments of our imaginations. Prometheanism promises a vision of humanity severed from its roots to the planet and the ecosphere, from the last remnant of “necessity” in our liberation. However, the relationship between the two should be looked at dialectically. Not of the social bowing down to the natural or vice versa, but of the two seamed together in inseverable metabolic interaction. In the face of climate breakdown, it is nature – in the form of a storm, a drought and a rising sea – that is endlessly coming back from the margins to remind us of its existence (Malm, 2017: 77).

Can the project of luxury communism presented in this book be improved upon from the perspective of the critique laid out here? Probably not, since its proponents would argue that the critique is eco-socialist, thus, being fundamentally irreconcilable with FALC’s hostility to “ecological austerity”. However, it could be made intellectually more rigorous with the addition of certain aspects:

1) If Marx needs to be the godfather of luxury communism, present his thought in its proper complexity and different emphases throughout his writings. One can find plenty of material for a modernist interpretation of Marx, but that interpretation is not the exclusive one as different aspects of his thought might sometimes be internally contradictory.

2) FALC views nature through the same extractivist lens as capitalism. The debate whether the conditions of nature are those of abundance or scarcity can be distracting. It is both, abundant and scarce, depending on the society’s specific historical-geographical relation to nature’s resources. Solar energy is potentially abundant and limitless, but as Bastani recognizes, we must employ scarcity – resources and matter needed in the construction of photovoltaic cells – in order to create abundance – limitless solar energy. One could rightly ask whether this is genuine abundance and how it would solve the current predicament. After all, the fossil economy itself is based on employing types of scarcity to create abundance for the few. To contemporaries of James Watt, fossil fuels probably seemed infinitely abundant with little damaging side effects, but only now the historical layers of CO2 emissions are biting back. The asteroid mining scheme is based on the employment of scarcity on Earth to reach for abundance in the sky, whether it is done by private capitalists or a social democratic welfare state.

3) A conception of linear history seems to afflict FALC. All the way from the First Disruption humanity has been set on a path of historic progression guided by laws and tendencies of development. History is a straight line and you can either progress forward or regress backward. Forwards to space or backwards to dirt huts. But, history and progress have no linearity nor are they binary. History does not know the direction of steps nor the steps it takes. To tackle climate change, it is abundantly clear that we need to take steps forward, backward and sideways. Go backward by decelerating the consumption of resources and matter and turning off the fossil economy wreaking havoc on the planet. Go sideways by reconfiguring our current nihilistic and extractivist relationship to nature and recognizing that we are fundamentally tied in with the metabolism of nature. Go forward by democratically defining vital sectors in which human life can be improved within the limits of sustainability. And center human agency, action and responsibility in creating and resolving the climate predicament.

To go forward is to recognize the fundamental irrationality of much of the fossil capitalist production and consumption patterns. As much as it can be argued to have been beneficial in the genuine satisfaction of human needs, it was also an imposition of a particular kind of stupidity on the planet. The economized rationalism of still growing fossil fuel consumption as we accelerate towards a brick wall. The power fantasy of breaking the chains of nature and overcoming the “nasty, brutish and short” character of the natural condition (which amounts to a tree’s ambition of “liberating” itself from the soil it grows). In this conjuncture, FALC claims to offer a future of hope, but it is a hope based on a succession of technological coinflips.

Works Cited

Foster JB (2000) Marx’s ecology: Materialism and nature. Monthly Review Press, pp. 200.
Hausfather Z (2018) Analysis: Fossil-fuel emissions in 2018 increasing at fastest rate for seven years. CarbonBrief. 5.12.2018
Malm A (2017) The progress of this storm: Nature and society in a warming world. Verso Books, pp. 256.
Moore J (2013) Capitalism in the web of life: Ecology and the accumulation of capital. Verso Books, pp. 316.
Poulantzas N (1978) State, power, socialism. Verso Books, pp. 269.
Saito K (2016) Marx’s ecological notebooks. Monthly Review, February 2016.
Saito K (2017) Karl Marx’s ecosocialism: Capital, nature, and the unfinished critique of political economy. Monthly Review Press, pp. 368.
Vaden T, Lähde V, Majava A, Toivanen T, Eronen J and Järvensivu P (2019) Successful decoupling in Finland? Alue ja ympäristö 48: 3–13.