TOP 2016-08-14

Freedom and Abundance

Srnicek and Williams in Inventing the Future (chapter six):

Without full automation, postcapitalist futures must necessarily choose between abundance at the expense of freedom (echoing the work-centricity of Soviet Russia) or freedom at the expense of abundance, represented by primitivist dystopias.

This represents what I feel is a common misconception - that communism can only mean one of three things:

As my parenthetical paraphrasing shows, it’s very easy to discredit the idea of communism completely if it’s restricted to just these three things. In my view, Soviet-style socialism is not communism, and certainly not a ‘postcapitalist’ society of any kind: it’s just another flavour of capitalism. Primitivism, eco-communalism and Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC) definitely count as potential flavours of communism. But there is another one, which is all too often overlooked. Anarchists use the terms libertarian communism or anarcho-communism, and others speak of a commons-based or peer-to-peer society. I use the term ‘natural economy’ to cover all of these options.

This overlooked system isn’t capitalism or Soviet socialism because it is a moneyless, stateless society. It’s not primitivist because it embraces technology and could even have long, globalised supply chains. And it does not have to be fully automated. It accepts that there is still human labour to be done, and it just shares this labour out among the able participants. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, there is a whole spectrum of post-capitalist societies that fall into this category, which vary based on their institutional frameworks and on how they share out the labour. So we can indeed have both freedom and abundance in a postcapitalist society.

It is a dangerous view indeed that the combination “freedom + abundance” can only be achieved either with capitalism or with sci-fi levels of technology (or some combination of the two). It will take decades and probably centuries before we have automated agriculture, mining, construction, maintenance, surgery and plumbing, whilst some tasks, such as teaching, cooking, diagnosis, programming, research and care work, may never be fully automatable. Hence why communism is popularly considered to be either impossible or just a distant dream.

Twin Oaks community members mending clothes together at an outdoor mending party
A dystopian "mending party" at the Twin Oaks intentional community. One day, machines will do all this.

This is made worse by the characterisation of primitivism as “dystopian”, and I would assume that eco-communalism (a settled version of primitivism with agriculture) is included in this category. Calling these systems dystopian is nothing more than a value judgement or maybe just a personal preference. As far as the authors are concerned, the only options are capitalism or full automation; anything else is dystopia.

But I don’t really blame Srnicek and Williams. In fact, I’d sooner blame Karl Marx.

Karl Marx had a theory called historical materialism. In this theory, the focus is on how people relate to the means of production. As the productive forces develop technologically, these relations change, usually resulting in a revolution that heralds a new kind of society with a different type of economic relations. Marx believed that as the productive forces developed under capitalism, capitalist economic relations would become redundant, making communism an inevitability.

It would be easy to conclude from this that communism cannot possibly come into being until the stars have aligned and the new economic relations are ready to burst forth in violent revolution. This meshes with the view that “communism” and “fully automated luxury communism” are the same thing, and reinforces the mistaken notion that only capitalism, with its imperative of rampant economic growth, can develop technology to the point of full automation.

But as we saw, communism and FALC are not synonymous. Communism also includes the moneyless stateless system based on co-operation between producers supported by labour contributions. FALC is the limit of communism where those labour contributions are no longer required. As I have argued in a separate piece, it is quite feasible (in fact, it is more feasible) for an anarchist society to develop towards full automation. Communism/anarchism do not require any particular level of technology to be feasible[1].

I do agree, however, with the Marxist view that capitalism will undermine itself by introducing automation technology, and this is where the demands of Inventing the Future will meet their biggest problem. Srnicek and Williams argue that a reduction in the working week should accompany automation. Under capitalism, however, this is practically impossible.

As Marx argues, reducing human labour removes capitalism’s only source of surplus value, which will ultimately cause the system to collapse. Economists who are wedded to the status quo would point out that this can theoretically be overcome so long as the economy as a whole keeps on growing, faster than the rate of automation. But if that happens, then we certainly won’t be able to reduce the working week. More seriously, this route is simply not viable in the face of climate change and multiple looming resource crises.

Reducing the working week is conceivable, but only if people accept a reduction in their wages. That would be the only way to ensure that businesses still turn a profit, allowing them to repay their investment in automation technology. This reduction in wages would reduce demand across the rest of the economy and hence gradually undermine the system, unless it were countered by more growth. This growth could only be fuelled by more labour - not less. Incidentally, we cannot solve this problem just by expecting the state to guarantee people’s wages, like they did in the Soviet Union. The state could only do that if the economy were growing (or by causing hyper-inflation), so that just puts us back at square one.

Full automation and a reduction of our working time are unrealistic demands in a capitalist society. If we wanted to transition safely to a society of full automation we would have to abandon capitalism first.

  1. Marx recognised the existence of primitive communism. If we also recognise fully automated communism, it is hardly difficult to realise that there is an intermediate communism as well.  ↩