Why you should care
A growing number of leftist thinkers and academics argue that 21st-century tech revolutions could lead us to a classless political and economic model.
The founders of Napster probably weren’t thinking about communism in 1999 when they made peer-to-peer sharing of digital audio files possible. But in doing so, they undermined one of the core elements of capitalism: scarcity. Without scarcity, prices drop to zero and markets stop working. So when people started duplicating and sharing songs for free, they destroyed the business model of record companies, one download at a time.
Eventually, Napster was shut down by legal threats. But to British author and activist Aaron Bastani, it showed us a glimpse of our communist future. In his new book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, he argues that new technologies, from solar energy and asteroid mining to CRISPR/Cas9 and satellite internet, could massively lower prices for all kinds of goods and services. Bastani is among a growing number of left-leaning researchers, writers and academics who are eyeing technology not as the job-stealing threat — but instead as an ally.
They’re arguing that capitalism will ultimately not be able to face the explosion of technological change that the 21st century is bringing, which is pushing us to a post-scarcity world, one where markets no longer really work. The only way capitalism can survive, they say, is by using legal threats and patents to artificially restore scarcity.
This [technological] disruption creates unique conditions for the emergence of communism.
Aaron Bastani, author and activist
British business writer and journalist Paul Mason makes the post-scarcity argument in his 2015 best-seller Postcapitalism. In their 2015 book Inventing the Future, Canadian political theorist Nick Srnicek and British politics lecturer Alex Williams similarly talk about how technology could give us a high-tech world beyond capitalism and scarcity. On the other side of the Atlantic, Peter Frase, board member and contributor to Jacobin, in 2016 wrote Four Futures, a book where he projects a future with equality and abundance, which he calls communism. And Philadelphia-based writer and urban planning expert Adam Greenfield talks about the emancipatory effects of technology in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life.
“This [technological] disruption creates unique conditions for the emergence of communism,” says Bastani.
Think communism, and most imagine countries like the former Soviet Union or Maoist China with state control over everything. Yet Karl Marx described it simply as a stage after capitalism and socialism where we, through technological innovation, eliminated scarcity, and where we can work as much as we want and consume as many goods and services as we need. It’s a world similar to the one shown in Star Trek, where machines called replicators produce every good and service almost for free, and where we can just cruise around the galaxy investigating scientific mysteries. Or imagine an Amazon automated supermarket, one where you don’t need to pay when you leave. “Communism was a new mode of production for Marx,” says Bastani. “It’s the stage of human development after socialism. Under communism, you don’t have scarcity, and you don’t have to sell your labor for a wage.”
While the new leftist thinkers making these arguments believe technological innovation is making an emancipatory future possible, they’re not saying society will automatically turn communist. A socialist in-between period would still be necessary, they say. “Moving our system away from capitalism will still require politics, class struggle and new ideas,” says Bastani.
And that’s one of the many problems with the argument of these technology-loving leftist thinkers, says Kristian Niemietz, head of political economy at the British pro-free market Institute of Economic Affairs. From Maoist China to Venezuela today, every country that tried to accomplish such a socialist in-between period inevitably descended into totalitarianism, he says. “Of course socialists never start out with the intention of building a totalitarian system, it’s just that socialism ends up that way because it leads to a massive concentration of power,” says Niemietz.
Bastani acknowledges that “underdeveloped countries trying to industrialize in the name of communism has clearly not worked.” Instead, he cites a 21st-century version of post-World War II European social democracy as the model he seeks. “Today we would translate that to more bottom-up worker control and less top-down nationalization,” he says. That’s more like a high-tech version of the British NHS or Swedish social democracy, and less like having militias hoist the red flag over Whitehall or the White House.
But irrespective of whether they’re being prescient or puerile, these thinkers represent a dramatic break from the way many in the left have seen technology for several decades now. They have viewed high-tech capitalism as pushing us toward climate crisis and a dehumanized society of consumers. The solution was to get back in touch with the local, non-technological side of our preindustrial lives. “The post-1960 left often took the view that technology was intrinsically capitalistic, dehumanizing and anti-democratic,” says Williams, co-author of Inventing the Future.
Those within the left who disagreed about what technology could offer coalesced around a counterterm: accelerationism. Originally the word referred to a philosophical school that argued that capitalism needed to be sped up before we could have emancipation. “The term has a complex set of meanings, and people like to interpret it in the crudest possible way, like capitalism needs to get worse before we can have a revolution,” says Williams.
In their 2013 book #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics, Williams and co-author Srnicek tried to reclaim the term by arguing that it’s not technology itself but “what society does with it” that matters. Development of technology, now led by large corporations, should be brought under democratic control, Williams says. Bastani too concedes that part of the audience he hopes to convert is from within the left — “deep green” activists hostile to technology, although he, and Williams for that matter, don’t call themselves accelerationists.
Niemietz is convinced these neo-left thinkers have got it wrong. He points out how post-Napster, the music industry has been able to use technology to restore profitability through streaming services like Spotify. “The music industry has been able to overcome low prices,” he says. “It actually made capitalism work better. In terms of music, we actually got fully automated luxury capitalism.”
But to get there, Napster first had to be crushed. Bastani knows the left has predicted the demise of capitalism repeatedly, only to be proven wrong. But this time, he insists, it’s different. “I know Marxists were wrong about this in the past,” he says. “But it would really surprise me if capitalism could survive problems like climate change and post-scarcity.”