As we discussed last week, billionaires’ visions of the future, where we change very little about how we live, aren’t designed to serve anyone but themselves. Those on the left must challenge their visions and critically assess what a future that serves the working class might look like. Unfortunately, some on the left do get caught up in billionaire ideas.
Novara Media co-founder Aaron Bastani’s 2019 book Fully Automated Luxury Communism is a prime example of this. Rather than challenging the ideas of tech billionaires, he tries to sell leftists a science-fiction future that wouldn’t serve their interests anyway.
Bastani asserts that technology will allow everyone to “lead lives equivalent — if we so wish — to those of today’s billionaires.” He claims labour automation will allow us to slash working hours, that solar and other renewables will enable limitless power, that gene editing and genome sequencing could “spell the end of age-related and inherited illness altogether,” and that asteroid mines will provide the unlimited supply of resources to make all this new tech possible.
But there are massive blind spots in Bastani’s analysis because he seems to largely accept the claims and timelines offered by tech CEOs, and repeats the techno-determinism not only of the tech industry, but of post-capitalists such as Paul Mason, which emphasizes the role of technology in social change and downplays the importance of politics. The flaws are particularly evident in his perspectives on automation, transportation and resource extraction.
Even before the book was published, there was already doubt about the techno-determinist narratives he chose to repeat. The big claim from five years ago that automation was going to wipe out millions of jobs has not come to pass. Instead, we see that automated management — whether in warehouses, call centres or through the apps that mediate labour in the gig economy — are making jobs more stressful and precarious. And automation isn’t a force in itself, as Bastani and the tech industry present it — it’s driven by and benefits the bosses.
Autonomous vehicles are a good example of this, and one Bastani specifically cites. A few years ago, the tech and automotive industries were promising us they’d be ready for large-scale deployment by now. But after one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles killed a pedestrian on a test run in March 2018, the whole industry started to admit they’re much further away than initially predicted. Similarly, the automation of trucks was going to eliminate millions of jobs — but that was based on a simplistic understanding of the work truckers actually do.
Bastani’s claim that automobiles will be “the fulcrum of the transition to renewables in its earliest stages and the leading edge of the clean, autonomous economy” is wrong, and doesn’t even align with his own near-future political program. “Luxury communism” is the core of his book, but at the end he also advocates an agenda in line with the politics of the British Labour Party under former leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Part of that agenda is a universal basic services program that would include free and improved public transit, which would serve to get people out of automobiles. So, in the near future we’re supposed to build collective transport solutions that get people out of automobiles, but further in the future we’ll place them at the centre of our transport system again? These two futures don’t align, and in fact contradict one another.
Bastani professes to care about climate change — and I believe him — but his vision of sustainability, like that of Musk, relies on a massive increase in energy, technology and consumption so we can all live like billionaires. That not only makes sustainability harder to achieve, but will require a massive increase in resource extraction to provide the minerals to create the batteries and sensors in all that tech.
Rather than focus on the harm that would cause in the Global South, Bastani brushes off such concerns and says the resource wealth to enable luxury communism will come from asteroid mining — the architecture for which he says could be in place by 2030. That’s simply not going to happen.
Scientists say we need to cut emissions in half by 2030. That means emissions reductions need to start now, not whenever we can start mining asteroids. The harms of resource extraction to fuel the consumption Bastani and the tech billionaires want us to engage in is already wreaking havoc in the Global South. The last thing we need is someone on the left selling us a false future to distract from real, collective solutions we should be pursuing.
A lot of my thinking about the future revolves around what writer George Monbiot has called “public luxuries.” Rather than focusing on growing private consumption so everyone has their own car, suburban home, swimming pool and other individual private amenities, we refocus on public wealth.
That means ensuring there are fantastic public parks so people without yards can relax outdoors. That means focusing on having incredible public transportation systems, both within communities and connecting them to one another, which are supplemented with infrastructure for walking, cycling and occasional car trips for seniors or people with disabilities who might need them.
At its core, it’s about investing in collective solutions that benefit everyone, rather than ensuring people can individually consume something.
One of the institutions with a lot of potential to be utilized in an effort to enhance public wealth and solutions to our problems is the post office. That’s what we’ll be looking at next week.
Perspectives from around the world
The contributors to a new book on financialization, Handbook of Financialization, explore nine ways the pandemic could transform capitalism — for better or worse.
Alex Nguyen, a Vancouver-based journalist, speaks to people with disabilities about the need for an inclusive post-pandemic reconstruction.
Urooba Jamal, a journalist writing for The Baffler, explains how Canada’s mining interests in Latin America put it on the wrong side of people fighting repression.
Patrick Condon, a professor at the University of British Columbia, argues Vancouver should stop chasing global tech jobs and boost the ‘foundational economy’
Josh Lepawsky, a geography professor at Memorial University, imagines a post-oil future for Newfoundland and Labrador.
Glenn Greenwald, co-founding editor of The Intercept, breaks down a recent New York Times report finding that the Organization of American States’ claim of fraud in Bolivia’s 2019 presidential election was based on a “flawed” analysis.
Asher Wolf, an Australian digital rights advocate, writes about the “political cruelty” of Australia’s automated welfare debt system, dubbed “robodebt,” which caused immense social harm after issuing 470,000 unlawful welfare debts the government now admits it will have to refund. As the Liberals propose punishments for CERB ‘fraud’, it’s a cautionary tale we should be familiar with.
This week on Tech Won’t Save Us, I spoke to Edward Ongweso Jr., a staff writer at Vice, about tech’s response to the Black Live Matter protests, how tech companies exploit Black lives and why we need to abolish the police. I also wrote about pedestrianizing downtown St. John’s for CBC, and about space billionaires for Jacobin.
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