Artificial Stupidity

By Jason BarkerJune 28, 2019

Artificial Stupidity

Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani

A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway […] This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny.

— Paul Lafargue, The Right to Be Lazy


THE AUTHOR OF these lines, Paul Lafargue, who happened to be Karl Marx’s son-in-law, was certainly speaking from experience. He and his wife, Laura, sponged a living from Friedrich Engels, who earned his money from Manchester cotton manufacturing.

In his polemic The Right to Be Lazy, published in 1883, Lafargue laments: “They [i.e. factory workers] have never known the pleasure of a healthful passion, nor would they be capable of telling of it merrily! And the children? Twelve hours of work for children! O, misery.”

Arguably much of the social and digital infrastructure for creating a society without work exists today. Given that so many of the goods we buy and sell rely on capital-intensive industries and assembly-line production, how long will it be before the machines that have instrumentalized us as mere units of production finally submit to our needs?

In Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Aaron Bastani sketches what he calls “the three disruptions,” or the evolutionary tipping points that have brought humans to the brink of this work-free utopia. Following the Neolithic Revolution, which enabled agriculture and human settlements to establish themselves at the end of the last ice age, humankind embarked upon the Industrial Revolution and “technological innovation.” As for the third disruption, that of digital information and artificial systems, we are already there. The challenge is to harness them toward the common good.

Bastani’s case for the technological revolution that will not only “eliminate” work but also revolutionize all social and economic relations hinges on “abundance.” He notes: “While rising global demand for energy might seem daunting, it is nothing compared to what the giant nuclear reactor approximately 149 million kilometres away can provide.”

Bastani certainly likes his figures. Between 2004 and 2014, he informs us, global solar energy capacity “increased by a factor of one hundred”; “a virtuous cycle between increased capacity and ever-falling prices has been established.” While impossible to predict the extent of the fall, the price trend is inexorably downward. The same abundance in resources and synthetic food, along with revolutionary benefits in health care — low-cost gene-editing could soon make inherited diseases a thing of the past — is all technically feasible. The question is: Do we have the political will to complete the technological revolution that was set in motion — some might say botched — by the first capitalist innovators, and roll out its products and services on a universal scale?

Andreas Malm’s pioneering work on energy poses serious problems for Bastani’s argument. In Fossil Capital, which Bastani cites, Malm describes how, remarkably, in the early half of the 19th century the British cotton industry resisted the introduction of hydraulic energy from water mills despite their cost and ecological advantages over steam. Why reject abundant free-flowing water in favor of dirty and expensive coal? Leaving aside the intricate detail of Malm’s thesis, the fact that we are being haunted by this question almost two hundred years later does rather suggest that as far as any “technological” revolution in energy is concerned, it’s all a case of history repeating.

“[T]he politics of energy transition,” Bastani maintains, “must also articulate its ambition of bringing limitless energy to the world’s rich and poor alike.” But why this insistence on abundance? As Alexander Dunlap has argued, renewable energy in all forms fails to provide a social or environmental solution to the fossil fuels lock-in, which is to say the world bequeathed to us by capitalism and its military-industrial complex of “limitless” resource depletion. In this respect, argues Dunlap, there are no green alternatives to capitalism, only what he terms Fossil Fuel+.

Consider the devastating environmental fallouts of the “energy transition” that Bastani endorses, where, for instance, the explosive demand for lithium batteries has been wreaking havoc with ecosystems on almost every continent from the Americas to Australia to East Asia. According to a 2018 report in Wired, “In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water” — the result being that water is in such short supply that it has to be delivered to farmers by truck.

Wherever “abundance” is concerned the sky is quite literally the limit. In the coming decade, SpaceX and rival off-world prospectors will be gearing up to exploit the mineral wealth of the solar system. “The asteroid belt,” Bastani tells us, “likely contains some 825 quintillion tonnes of iron with 140 pounds of nickel for every tonne of iron. According to one estimate, the mineral wealth of [near-Earth asteroids] if equally divided among every person on Earth, would add up to more than $100 billion each.”

Luxury communism indeed. Ever more reason to think that the commercial exploitation of space will unleash as much ecological mayhem — think of the 500,000 pieces of space junk littering our planet’s atmosphere — as the fossil fuel industry manages to achieve on earth.

“Nothing is certain about where these technologies will end,” Bastani admits, seemingly unaware of the irony, “nor whose benefit they will serve. What is discernible, however, is that a disposition can be drawn from them — if only they are allied to a political project of collective solidarity and individual happiness.”

Technically speaking, Bastani has no real axe to grind with capitalism; it’s the latter’s social ills that need combating. What this argument exposes is the profound delusion that has been afflicting the left ever since Thatcher and Reagan came to power 40 years ago. Namely, that if only the socialists could wrest economic control from the neoliberals then everything else in life will magically fall into place.

In energy, the problem is not that we lack the socialist initiatives to phase out fossil fuels and switch to renewables. Although down in 2018, global investment in clean energy has been growing year on year. The far more intractable problem is that, globally, the total demand for energy is currently outstripping the supply of clean energy. Moreover we have known for some time that global energy consumption, whether it be from renewable or nonrenewable sources, is unsustainable. Why does Bastani insist that the slogan of a democratic energy policy should be “cheap and abundant energy for all” without so much as reflecting on why it’s so unthinkable to imagine a world in which people might actually be willing to consume less?

Having devoted the second part of his manifesto to cutting-edge technological innovations, in the third and final part the author considers how they might be implemented. Bastani’s statist politics — municipal protectionism, credit unions, universal basic income and services — sit starkly at odds with his disruptive power of technology argument.

Less disruption in the field of electronics would be a welcome development, given the 50 million tons of e-waste generated every year across the world. What about industrial armies dedicated to recovering this material and recycling it into new products? Not only would this address environmental pollution, but it would also reduce the exploitation of the world’s mineral wealth.

Apart from displaying a naïve faith in Ricardian economics — shifting relative prices as drivers of technological change — Bastani’s repeated conviction that “the tendency to extreme supply means that everything will become permanently cheaper” runs completely at odds with Marx. For the latter, supply and demand were expressions of temporary fluctuations of market prices, not of value. For example, between 2009 and 2017 the price of solar energy per watt decreased by 75 percent. And yet in Germany, where between 2006 and 2016 there was significant expansion in the solar sector, electricity prices actually increased by 51 percent. Large increases also occurred in California and Denmark; such is capitalism’s in-built tendency to “oversupply” a commodity that people need but which they cannot afford to buy.

The glaringly absent variable from Bastani’s technological revolution is class struggle. It wasn’t the “imperative to compete” that drove capitalists “to perpetually innovate.” As Marx — Bastani cites him regularly — explains in Capital, the tendency toward automation in the English factories of the 19th century results from the struggles between workers and capitalists over the length of the working day, wages, and working conditions. Where profits are threatened by an unruly workforce the capitalist may introduce labor-saving machinery into his factory in order to eliminate an unwanted “variable” from his balance sheet. As for Bastani’s belief that automation will deliver a “world beyond jobs,” Marx dispels the idea in Chapter 15 of Capital by explaining how “machinery is the surest means of lengthening the working day.”

Following the struggles of the 19th century between cotton mill owners and their exhausted “hands,” today we are used to hearing about the “lean,” “smart,” and “intelligent” platform capitalists and their precarious “data providers.” Given the historical tendency toward automation and mass precarity the key question is why one should accept that it’s socially progressive or compatible with any variety of communism. Nowhere does Marx ever contend that the aim of communism is to eliminate work. The idea of communism, in Bastani’s words, as a society of “leisure” and “play,” or “where labour and leisure [are] dissolved into each other,” is a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx.

Marx’s central ambitions for communism include, in the short term, improving working conditions, making workers more versatile (workers should ideally not be tied to any single profession), and affording them more free time; and, in the long term, eliminating the division of labor and professions altogether — not to mention unequal pay — and the class-based nature of work (eliminating the tyranny of managers and making work a spontaneous, even joyful activity). Such a radical social transformation would no doubt lead to a reappraisal of how individuals respond to and experience work, and redress the unnatural separation between work and leisure that exists under capitalism. But by no stretch of the imagination would this involve the “elimination” of work.

The idea of a fully automated society recalls the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “scientific and technological revolution” of the early 1960s, or speeches by the North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung of the same period setting out his ambitions for the country’s modernization. But the fully automated society, whether in Bastani’s luxury version or in the austere version of Khrushchev and Kim Il-Sung, has nothing whatever to do with communism.

The historical tendency toward digital integration is of course staring us all in the face. Bastani’s mistake is to imagine this “disruption” as being 1) novel or revolutionary and 2) tied to an evolutionary sequence. There’s nothing intrinsically “novel” about a technological innovation, be it digital, cybernetic, synthetic, artificial, or what have you. As Bernard Stiegler has argued recently, “[W]hat we today refer to as artificial intelligence is a continuation of the process of the exosomatization of noesis itself.” Moreover this “noetic intelligence” dates back approximately three million years, and is discernible in the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of the Lascaux civilization.

The long march of artificial intelligence puts Bastani’s timeframe for communist transition in the shade. But there is a further problem with his vision, which strikes at the core of any proposal for full automation and the introduction of universal social services, as commendable as it may be. This is the possibility that capitalism might not be intelligent after all. Indeed, what if capitalism, on whose technological revolution Bastani’s FALC depends, were stupid? What if capitalism were to prove substantially deaf, dumb, and blind to sound appeals to common sense or rational thinking in the face of ongoing climate breakdown and its related miseries? What would communism or any form of “post-capitalism” look like from this perspective?

High among the threats to democracy that citizens of every political persuasion should be attending to today is the one that artificial intelligence, or AI, is serving to aggravate. For in eliminating “human error” — or what capitalists understand simply as “costs” and their corresponding “efficiency savings” — from every aspect of human behavior, one also eliminates stupidity. Not simply stupidity as it might be “objectively” defined; but the very possibility of stupidity, and its occurrence to a mind, however we choose to define the latter, be it intelligent, super-intelligent — or just plain human.


Jason Barker is professor of English at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is author of the novel Marx Returns.

LARB Contributor

Jason Barker is professor of English at Kyung Hee University, South Korea. He is the writer-director of the German documentary Marx Reloaded and author of the novel Marx Returns. He is the editor of LARB's forums on Louis Althusser and Karl Marx.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!