Review essay – ‘Clear Bright Future’ and ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’

Two well-known voices on the British left, Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani, have outlined what they see as the revolutionary potential of technology. K. Biswas reviews their visions

December 17, 2019 · 11 min read
Project of an orbital colony Stanford torus, painted by Donald E. Davis. Public domain image.

The science fiction writer H G Wells, in his socialist blueprint A Modern Utopia (1905), envisaged the construction of a new world by a cadre of ‘chosen volunteers’ collaborating ‘in man’s struggle with the elements’ – ‘a thousand men at a thousand glowing desks’. Encouraged by the ‘development of technical science’ over the previous decade, Wells – whose other principal interests were Fabianism and philandering – prophesised the creation of a ‘fair and great and fruitful’ global state in which ‘women are to be as free as men’. It would be universalist in outlook with ‘a great number of common public services’, including energy and transport, in citizens’ hands.

In the 1922 and 1923 elections, Wells stood as the Labour candidate for the London University constituency, coming last on each occasion. He had to wait until the end of his life, with the United Nations Charter and the nationalisations of Clement Attlee’s post-war Labour government, to witness the first signs of his dream becoming reality.

Two descendants of Wells’ utopian tradition are Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani, whose respective books Clear Bright Future and Fully Automated Luxury Communism explore their wish to socialise technological advances as the basis of a flourishing society.

Both hold radical credentials: Mason, once a journalist at Computer Weekly and best known as the former economics editor for the BBC’s Newsnight, agitated in Trotskyist groupuscule Workers’ Power during the 1980s – a time when his future employers at the BBC were meticulously vetting Marxist sympathisers at the behest of MI5.

Bastani cut his teeth in the student protest movement around University College London in 2010, which was sparked by austerity policies implemented under the newly-elected Conservative-led government. The following year, he co-founded the insurgent comment and broadcast platform Novara Media, beginning on community radio before cultivating a devoted audience online.

High demand

Two of the most pugnacious public voices on the left, Mason and Bastani found themselves in high demand following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in 2015. British broadcasting, having spent years interrogating ever more triangulated, milquetoast political tendencies (Blue Labourism, Red Toryism), had missed the groundswell of support for socialist alternatives to yet more of the same. Casting aside a youthful disdain for staid parliamentarism, both figures became active in south London constituency Labour parties, their informal advice sought by Labour shadow ministers.

As commentators, they advocate the revolutionary potential of technology, championing the digital sphere as a possible agent of political change – Bastani’s Novara was sufficiently established by 2018 to offer Mason a continuation of his column after his contract with the Guardian newspaper was abruptly terminated. Aware that constant, dizzying advances in artificial intelligence can cause societal instability and existential malaise, they argue for citizens to check the rise of the machines and urgently take back control.

Mason believes that humanity may be hopeful for a ‘hi-tech, automation-driven, green future’ but ‘technological euphoria’ is tempered by ‘geopolitical despair’ – governments and corporations hold all the power, ‘exerting control over us via algorithms’. Though he thinks that somehow democratising ‘information technology… makes Utopian Socialism possible’, currently ‘our behavioural and intellectual defences’ are weak. This makes us easy prey for a nefarious (and rather broad) coalition incorporating ‘ethnic nationalists’ and ‘woman-haters’, not to mention the ‘Nietzscheans of Silicon Valley’, Vladimir Putin’s online troll army and the Chinese Communist Party. Their ‘single project: technologically empowered anti-humanism’ – which Mason claims has been ‘theorised in advance’ – must be ideologically defeated for us to ever reach a ‘clear bright future’ (the book title derives from Leon Trotsky).

Short on practical examples of how the reader should go about this, Mason promotes the creation of ‘clear safety codes’ around AI and ‘tiny acts of rebellion’ such as ‘refusing to use automated checkout machines’ thereby ‘forcing supermarkets to employ humans’.

A step further

Fully Automated Luxury Communism goes one step further, mapping out Bastani’s alternative ‘post-scarcity’ eventuality for a ‘finite world… fast approaching its limits’. The author believes that mankind, having enjoyed the bounteous benefits gifted by agriculture and industry, is now in the ‘opening decades of the Third Disruption’, marked by an ‘ever-greater abundance of information’ with machines performing ‘cognitive as well as physical tasks’.

He proposes the popular embrace of exclusive, datadriven technologies that have appeared in recent years – from ‘synthetic meat’ to devices mapping the human genome. As capitalism is ‘about to end’, FALC will sweep to the rescue, harnessing the mining potential of ‘near Earth asteroids’, renewable energy and bioengineering to counter the ‘civilisational’ threats of climate change, resource shortages and an ageing population. Chastising us for an ‘absence of collective imagination’, Bastani conceives a world where ‘work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and labour and leisure blend into one’.

Though evidently future-focused, Mason and Bastani argue for revisiting the 19th-century theories of Karl Marx. Indeed Marx’s spectre haunts both titles, with the authors mounting a spirited defence of his philosophy and its centrality to today’s challenges. Unsurprisingly given their subject matter, they are stimulated most by ‘The Fragment on Machines’ from the Grundrisse (Bastani adding, irritatingly, ‘you’ve likely never heard of either before’). Mason, mangling a mechanical metaphor, makes the case that Marx ‘cannot be “uninstalled” from western thinking’, his outlook boiled down to having believed that, ‘There is nobody coding the great computer of the world… nobody to press the start button.’

Mixed results

For British authors, writing with a global audience in mind produces mixed results. Mason’s scrutiny of Donald Trump’s election, though briefly acknowledging the ‘complacency’ of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, mostly emphasises the role played by tech giants. He implicates Google, Facebook and Twitter as forging an alliance with a ‘mob’ denigrated as ‘whey-faced Christian fundamentalists’ living in ‘deadbeat towns’, or ‘porn-addicted right-wing bigots’ spending time ‘leering at the waitresses in the Hooters fast-food chain’.

Extended passages on the influence of virtual communities composed of ‘technoliterate fascists’ – the Gamergate fringe and the digital realm of ‘Kekistan’ populated by alt-right ‘shitposters’ and Pepe the Frog avatars – suggest he has been spending too long in his own online bubbles. Both he and Bastani blunder on Europe, the latter claiming UKIP and France’s Front National made big gains in the continent-wide elections of 2009, when in fact they lost support on their previous showings in pre-crash 2004.

Bastani conceives a world in which ‘work is eliminated, scarcity replaced by abundance and where labour and leisure blend into one another’

Mason insists that hard right-led administrations in Hungary and Italy are ‘copycat’ projects ‘inspired’ by Trump, ignoring the fact that both Fidesz and Lega’s presence in government pre-date Trump’s win by a number of years, as does that of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), which first entered a government coalition two decades ago – hardly, as the author believes, occurring ‘overnight’. Brexit, the most pressing and paralysing issue their country has faced for a generation, is considered fleetingly – and only then coupled with Trump’s victory as, in Mason’s words, ‘tsunamis’ to ‘hit the liberal political centre’.

At least Bastani acknowledges initiatives in the global south, including meanderings around ‘East Asian rice production’ and mobile phone schemes in Africa. Mason’s inordinate focus on wealthy countries reduces analysis of developing nations to imagining what life might be like in a Rio favela : ‘Once you had bought your gun, looked after your family and paid for sex, what else was there to spend your money on but branded sports shoes and cheap jewellery?’

Falling flat

Attempts to bring together disparate events under a unifying historical narrative invariably fall flat. Era-defining moments offered up by our authors – Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’, the fashionable nonsense of postmodernism, Moore’s Law on the exponential growth rate of microprocessing capacity, the advent of the Anthropocene geological era – are well worn and pedestrian, more elegantly executed elsewhere. Clichés abound as they fail to agree whether the dawning of a new technological age was announced when a computer beat the world champion at chess in 1997 (Bastani) or an entirely different board game, Go, in 2016 (Mason).

Fleshing out their arguments, Bastani favours a pop-anthropologist style (‘during this period… the human animal asserted its mastery above all others,’ he says of neolithic times), while Mason makes do with bland film theory. A pound-shop Zizek, he declares that ‘almost all the ethical questions raised’ by the philosophy of post-humanism ‘were explored in Blade Runner ’ and at one point informs us of the existence of a 2010 Japanese movie called Big Tits Zombie.

Inspirational figures cited in Fully Automated Luxury Communism tend to be, surprisingly, CEOs of private companies or scientists, although in its closing chapter Bastani tries aligning himself with 14th-century English theologian John Wycliffe, whose bible translations were widely distributed ‘a century before Martin Luther was born’. (The author believes certain ‘visionaries have such powers of foresight that their ideas aren’t consonant with the times in which they live’.) Mason, too, concerns himself with the theories of long-dead thinkers, putting on trial everyone from Hannah Arendt (the ‘patron saint of liberal angst’) to Louis Althusser.

Though Clear Bright Future is pitched as a ‘radical defence of the human being’, only a handful of living humans are quoted. Figurative individuals abound – ‘the transgender activist in London, the female factory worker in Guangdong, the Kanak teenager fighting for independence on New Caledonia’ – though none is offered a direct voice. The reader is left unaware whether the author has encountered them in real life.

Fork in the road

Utopian tracts invariably see the present moment as a turning point or fork in the road. Bastani informs us, however, that fully automated luxury communism ‘will require decades to play out’. Rousing in its expression (‘You can only live your best life under FALC and nothing else, so fight for it’), his manifesto’s promise of a luxurious, technophoric future is tempered by its championing of the think tank-tested policy of ‘universal basic services’. This has been seriously considered by Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell. He may not agree with Bastani, however, that ‘UBS begins the work of communism in the present’.

For Mason, we cannot afford to wait for a radical administration to take the reins – our digital overlords in Moscow, Beijing or California are already preparing ‘software’ that will ultimately allow them ‘to exercise mind control’. To resist the looming threats, we are told to begin ‘at the level of the self’, not waste time ‘building grassroots alternatives’ to a world in crisis.

Whereas a global mass of downtrodden workers, exploited for hundreds of years, emerged as a political force to spearhead moves towards decolonisation, universal rights and benefits, Mason thinks their successors will be a scattered, social media-wielding precariat of ‘networked individuals’ – very much a millennial revolutionary subject. ‘I want to defend human beings against algorithms that predict and dictate our shopping choices, our voting patterns and our sexual preferences,’ he assures us, dignifying a popular platform whose time has yet to arrive.

Paul Mason’s Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being is published by Penguin; Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto by Verso.

K. Biswas is a member of the Red Pepper Editorial Collective.

Review – Asylum for Sale: Profit and Protest in the Migration Industry

Siobhán McGuirk and Adrienne Pine's edited volume is a powerful indictment of the modern migration complex writes Nico Vaccari

Review – Regicide or Revolution? What petitioners wanted, September 1648 – February 1649 by Nora Carlin

Norah Carlin's analysis of the Levellers' petitions reaffirms the radical nature of the English revolution, argues John Rees.

Review – I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and apocalypse communism by A M Gittlitz

Despite its outlandish reputation, A M Gittlitz's analysis of Posadism shows there is value in occasionally indulging in fanciful thinking, writes Dawn Foster.

Review – Terraformed: Young Black Lives in the Inner City by Joy White

White's book is both deeply personal and political, examining the other side of violence often left out of the mainstream conversation writes Angelica Udueni

Review – Skint Estate by Cash Carraway

Cash Carraway's memoir is a powerful recollection of working class struggle. Her story is a quiet call to arms, writes Jessica Andrews

Review – No Platform by Evan Smith

Smith's book demonstrates that the far-right has always played the victim card when it comes to free-speech, writes Houman Barekat