Another Utopian Vision: ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’

June 19, 2019 Updated: June 20, 2019


A young man named Aaron Bastani has written a book titled “Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto.” Ever-sympathetic to leftist fantasies, The New York Times gave Bastani space on its “Opinion” page to introduce his vision.

Here is the quick review: Bastani’s ideas are trite, unoriginal, and utopian. His prose is riddled with tiresome, clichéd regurgitations of a “progressive” world view into which he has been indoctrinated. He includes the obligatory rejection of capitalism—rather, of his warped caricature of a system he so obviously doesn’t understand.

Overall, the article is fuzzy—both in the warm, cuddly, feel-good sense of “Gee whiz, how wonderful everything will be in our fantasy communist world” and in the negative sense of being vague and evasive about explaining his actual plan for achieving utopia. That’s it in a nutshell; if you want details, read on.

Screenshot of The New York Times homepage on June 11, 2019, featuring an op-ed titled ” The World Is a Mess. We Need Fully Automated Luxury Communism.”

A Collectivist Future

Bastani starts by describing some technological breakthroughs that could transform the production of various foods and beverages, as costs plunge over time. Capitalist economics and technical advances have reproduced that phenomenon countless times over the past two-plus centuries.

Examples: When I was at Oxford in 1974, I knew of only two people in the world who had a digital watch—James Bond on the silver screen and a super-rich Canadian student. Not many years later, you could buy digital watches at K-Mart for less than $10. IBM, the alpha producer of computers, sold its personal computer manufacturing business to Lenovo due to the oft-repeated capitalist phenomenon of commoditization. Under capitalism, yesterday’s luxury is tomorrow’s commonplace.

Because of this pattern of falling costs and ongoing technological progress, Bastani foresees “a better, freer, more affluent world, a world where we provide for the needs of everyone—in style.” Unfortunately, he never gets around to explaining what he means by “freer,” nor does he identify “we.” However, the use of “we” epitomizes his collectivistic perspective.

Later, he faults our society for “an absence of collective imagination.” Why? It wasn’t “collective imagination” that led to discoveries and breakthroughs such as the polio vaccine, airplanes, personal computers, or the food of the future that Bastani discussed at the beginning of his article. These breakthroughs are driven by the imagination of a few individuals, not “society.”

In a strange inconsistency bordering on mystical nonsense, Bastani declares that the present generation (collectively speaking, again) is paralyzed by a psychological impotence keeping us from changing our world—even as he salutes examples of potentially transformative technological change produced by individual (not collective) imagination and intelligence. Apparently, he can’t see the trees of individual creativity for the forest of his collective viewpoint.

Indeed, Bastani’s view of the present is as dim as his view of the future is bright. (His article’s title starts with the glib pronouncement, “The World Is a Mess.”) He lapses into a combination of hyperbole and a cheesy use of the “straw man” device when he suggests that the world’s present “crisis” may be not as dire as the Black Death or the fictional dystopias of Orwell and Huxley, but his assessment is still quite grim: “Low wages”; “climate breakdown”; “a world where billions … live in poverty”; and “a world defined by inequality.”

To the contrary, hours of labor needed to purchase various items have plunged in recent decades, thereby raising standards of living. And we can’t really fault him for viewing the perennial, inescapable reality of climate change as something out of the ordinary, since he is young enough to have had schools program catastrophist scenarios into his memory banks.

His assessment of the number of those living in poverty utilizes badly outdated data that ignores the billions who have been lifted out of poverty in the past 25 years, and he fails to acknowledge that the remaining pockets of extreme poverty are all in places yet untouched by capitalist development.

Lastly, inequality is the natural order of things and is benign, except when those with political power impose unnatural inequalities, as was the case under feudalism and is the case under socialism, where society is divided into the ruling elite and the impoverished masses—see Venezuela, North Korea, Cuba, etc.

Economic Misunderstanding

Unfortunately, as with so many people of all ages today, Bastani’s argument suffers from woeful economic ignorance. For example, he laments the emphasis that capitalism places on profits. Actually, capitalism is based on profit and loss. Enterprises that add value to society by taking inputs worth X and converting them into goods and services valued at X-plus enrich society; enterprises that take inputs worth X and convert them into something worth X-minus lose money, reduce wealth, and make society poorer.

Bastani’s desire to replace capitalism with communism is economically irrational and destructive. He fails to grasp that in a market system, enterprises operating at a loss are driven out of business and so cease to diminish society’s stock of wealth.

Under socialism (the path to pure communism), by contrast, the absence of private property blocks the discovery of economically intelligible prices based on supply and demand. The artificial prices set by socialist planners renders the calculation of profit and loss impossible, and so socialist (communist) systems are economically blind. Thus, the rulers and their bureaucratic minions who decree who produces how much of what at such and such a price have no way of gauging whether any given enterprise is adding to or subtracting from society’s total wealth.

Bastani foresees a wonderful world with the potential for all human beings to live long, healthy lives with machines doing all the “grunt” work. This glorious scenario will be brought about, in part, by such welcome developments as “the plummeting cost of information,” “advances in technology,” “automation,” and potentially spectacular health benefits from “gene editing and sequencing” (in other words, by the kind of developments that occur regularly in our capitalist economy). Alas, after that cheery peek into the future, he turns gloomy again with neo-Malthusian fears about resource depletion.

One defining position of the left is their pessimism about humans running out of resources. This gloominess comes from their fixation on the part of the glass that is still empty, instead of celebrating the ever-increasing abundance of wealth created by profit-seeking individuals and businesses.

Bastani should familiarize himself with the famous bet between the late economist Julian Simon and the environmentalist figurehead Paul Ehrlich. Simon was the optimist, believing that resources will become more abundant (and therefore real prices will fall) in a state of freedom. Ehrlich was the pessimist, convinced that real prices would rise as a growing population increased consumption and (supposedly) would deplete the world’s finite resources. Simon won the bet. Capitalism, combined with improving technology, keeps finding ways to find and develop more resources, pushing the specter of resource depletion ever farther beyond the horizon.

Bastani just doesn’t perceive that it’s capitalist economics that has brought the world’s population abundance instead of lack, prosperity instead of poverty, and that capitalism’s profit-and-loss calculus is precisely what makes capitalism so much better at raising standards of living than socialism. Having ignored or denied capitalism’s benefits, he trots out a couple of socialists’ anti-capitalist canards to make his case for abandoning capitalism. Under capitalism, he wrote, “Just like today’s, companies of the future will form monopolies and seek rents.”

Monopolies? What monopolies? Capitalism includes freedom of entry into any industry, and is inherently competitive, not monopolistic. The rare monopolies in a capitalist society are either transitory (e.g., Alcoa, which was the sole producer of aluminum in the United States for some years, until other firms figured out how to match or exceed their efficiency) or mandated by government (e.g., the post office, and AT&T during the time it enjoyed a government-granted monopoly on long-distance telephony). If you fear monopolies, the last thing you should do is call for socialism, for socialism is an entire system of monopolies—wasteful, inefficient, and unresponsive to consumer preferences.

As for businesses seeking “rents” (money received from government-bestowed favors), indeed they do so with dismaying regularity. The widespread practice of cronyism needs to be uprooted and ended. What eludes Bastani (and leftists in general) is that cronyism is not capitalism, but the antithesis of capitalism.

Capitalism is a system of private property in which the government maintains law and order, while staying out of the competitive marketplace and refraining from picking economic winners and losers through policies that confer unfair advantages upon favored firms. Socialism, on the other hand, is a system where the government essentially picks all the winners and losers. Socialism is the ultimate cronyism. Since he objects to “rents” (as I do), Bastani should be calling for more capitalism, not less.

Replacing Capitalism

Bastani’s multiple errors and misunderstandings lead to his conclusion that the brighter future that we all long for will happen only if capitalism gives way to communism. He wants us to jettison capitalism—the private property, free-market order that is based on our cherished individual rights of life, liberty, and property—and replace it with communism—the system that, in the 20th century alone, caused the deaths of millions, the enslavement of millions, and confiscation of property on a scale that history’s most rapacious tyrants would have envied.

When reading about Bastani’s dissatisfaction with capitalism and yearning for communism to replace it, one may be excused for wondering whether the old adage that some people can’t stand prosperity has more than a little validity to it. To use another old maxim: What explains this desire to bite the hand that feeds us? I’ll leave that to the psychologists to explain.

It’s worth noting, however, an observation made decades ago by the late philosopher and political economist Bertrand de Jouvenel. De Jouvenel noted that in each succeeding generation since the dawn of the Age of Capitalism (c. 1800), each generation grew more prosperous (after millennia of stagnation for the masses), and that the more prosperous capitalist societies became, the more intense and venomous the critiques of capitalism became.

I’m glad for capitalism’s sake that capitalism isn’t a sentient being. Can you imagine the hurt and disappointment of being despised with such harsh ingratitude for having provided unprecedented economic benefits? What a curse to be condemned for the supposed sin of not having lifted every human being simultaneously and instantly into affluence, but instead “only” lifting more people into higher degrees of affluence than any alternative system ever had.

Marxist Utopia

Bastani places himself firmly in the intellectual tradition of the godfather of communism, Karl Marx. So, let me make an observation that he might find complimentary. In at least two key ways, he is replicating Marxian strategies. First, like Marx, he seeks to beguile his readers with utopian visions. Yes, Marx claimed to be preaching “scientific socialism” while he derided other socialist proponents for alleged utopianism.

But what could be more utopian than Marx’s own statement, “[Communist] society … makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic”?

Unlike Marx, Bastani candidly admits his utopianism, but his dream world of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” rivals Marx for sheer fantasy.

Bastani also follows Marx’s lead in not explaining in his manifesto how communism will be achieved. In the original “Communist Manifesto,” Marx predicted that democracy would lead to socialism, and that once full socialism was attained, the state would wither away of its own accord and leave as its residue universal communist bliss. Marx didn’t even attempt to explain how giving all power to the state would make the state disappear, but left it as a mystical truth to be accepted unquestioningly.

Following Marx’s judicious decision to avoid attempting to explain the inexplicable, Bastani declines to give us any hint in his article about how the transition from today’s compromised capitalism to “luxury communism” will come about. Will it require a murderous Stalin willing to break millions of individual eggs in order to make his collectivist communist omelet? Does he think that there are some human genius-saints waiting in the wings to wisely lead us into utopia? Will our fractured society miraculously all adopt the same worldview and voluntarily adopt communism peacefully? Who knows? Like Marx, Bastani apparently expects us all to accept his vision for the future on faith.

Maybe there are some specifics about the fundamental transformation of our society in his book-length manifesto, but based on his New York Times article, it appears that Bastani’s manifesto manifests little more than a rehashed, mangled misunderstanding of the present and some hopelessly wishful thinking about the future.

As an idle daydream, it might prove diverting; as a road map for public policy, it leads nowhere.

Mark Hendrickson, an economist, recently retired from the faculty of Grove City College, where he remains a fellow for economic and social policy at the Institute for Faith & Freedom.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.