Fully Automated Luxury Communism
or Full Employment for the Creative Class?
A diverse selection of artists, designers and entrepreneurs spent two days in Weimar last week imagining how to use design, software and networks can permeate or alter existing political and social structures. For anyone unsure of the meaning of ‘luxury communism’: it is a vague concept introduced by a few sensationalist articles published in Vice last year. The provocative ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ functions as a stylish placeholder for a new school of thought that concatenates socialist fantasies such as a post-work society and universal basic income (UBI) within a landscape of technological accelerationism and hyper-capitalism. Fully automated luxury communism enables the left to vocalize a vision for the future that utilizes aspects of technological acceleration to bring about socialist values and anti-capitalist politics. A distinct reference for this movement is Alex Williams and Nick Srnieck’s book Inventing the Future (2015) in which the authors lay out a framework for the political left to create a socialist utopia that involves fully automated labor and universal basic income. The picturesque town of Weimar and the cultural history of Walter Gropius’s Bauhaus provided the perfect backdrop to discuss the prospect of a socialist technological revolution imagined and initiated through the arts and design.
Much of the first day of the Summit was spent discussing existing technological products and services, and presenting working alternatives. Trebor Scholz from The New School in New York highlighted some workers’ cooperative movements that are countering share economy companies with initiatives such as Peerby – a platform that facilitates borrowing and sharing of community resources or La’Zooz – the driver owned car share business. Within these initiatives there is a focus towards improving workers’ rights within the on-demand economy, as tech companies now manage an increasingly large portion of the labor market (1/3 of American workforce is an independent freelancer) the the need for legal rights and unionization becomes increasingly pertinent. Rather than wait for Governments to pass laws to protect independent contractors working in the share economy, many within the Platform Cooperativism movement are working to build services with added social awareness, with collective equity and workers’ rights built into the software design of the platform. This type of activism draws upon the managerial coordination of trade unionists, but pulls in the on-demand platform consumer as an honorable and equitable member. Although it is seems like familiar tactics for the left to unionize and protect workers’ rights in the face of expansive and exploitative capitalism, we have yet to see how models for trade unions can flourish alongside silicon valley enterprises. Will it be necessary for platform co-ops to scale, or collaborate with traditional unions, will they be able to compete in the on-demand market whilst still ensuring workers with stable and secure livelihoods?
Another concept that is fearlessly escalating into European-wide policy is Universal Basic Income (UBI). Johannes Ponader from Mein Grundeinkommen (My Basic Income) spoke of the rapid popularity of his self initiated basic income lottery, a collective crowdsourced UBI scheme that annually allocates €12,000 to one of its members. While these DIY schemes are directly implementing UBI, the national government of Switzerland just held their first public referendum on the matter, which showed just 23% of voters to be in favor of such a system. Like many within the Basic Income movement, Ponader appears unconcerned with achieving immediate mass appeal with UBI, rather he presents the prospect of UBI as the inevitable solution to mass automation of the labor market. Many within the Basic Income movement believe that the 23% in favor of UBI in Switzerland will increase over time and since the initial poll 69% of all the Swiss voters believe that there will be more referendums on the idea.
Throughout the two days the word ‘decentralized’ was regularly used to refer to more fair or equally distributed systems. However, as we have repeatedly seen with Bitcoin and more recently in consensus based systems such as ConsenSys, decentralized does not inherently mean more democratic. Although both platform co-ops and venture communist style approaches try to put human co-ownership at the center of their design, Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) and other de-centralized alternatives have regularly been exposed as biased, unequal and centralized concentrations of power and wealth. The cypto-currency bitcoin for example was been revealed to have over 70% of the wealth owned by 1% of the bitcoin community and more recently the democratic fairness of DAOs was challenged in an article on Hacking Distributed. With buzz-words such as de-centralized It is important not to automatically denote that this implies more democratic because there is lots of evidence to suggest that this is not the case.
Bruce Sterling took the stage on the second day to provide an extensive list of existing contexts and scenarios where some of the luxury communist values ideals are already put in practice. These ranged from pensioners (post-work society), cruise liners (machine designed for luxury) and the Amish community (no capitalism, collective workforce, no WiFi) and Christiania, the outlawed area of Copenhagen collectively governed by its artist and bohemian residents. Sterling ran through these existing social structures highlighting the qualities that they share with a luxury communist future, repeatedly asking himself (and the audience) if they sincerely wanted to live in one of these communities. It brought the make believe contradictory notion of luxury and communism firmly to ground. As Sterling presented his personal Pinterest account, in which he highlights his favorite interior designs within sqauts and communes, the values of counter culture movements such as squatting become little more than superficial style indicators, devoid of meaning or political value. Sterling did an excellent job at revealing this oversight, intentionally highlighting refugee camps as pertinent examples of post-work commune living outside of state or market governance. When some of the political values within the luxury communism vision are connected to places of extreme poverty such as refugee camps and homeless shelters, the demands for luxury communism appear short sighted and problematically naïve.
To put a stop to any further dreaming of post-work utopias Evgeny Morozov delivered a meticulous diagnosis of the political economy that left little space for designers to imagine alternative political or social orders. Morozov views ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ as an euphemism for ‘full employment for the creative class’ insisting that the audience don’t have the luxury to talk about communism’. Morozov propels the effects of neo-liberalism as the paralysis of ‘what is left of the political left’ and candidly presents an ideology so far ingrained into Western culture that any alternative is simply indulgent fantasy. Admittedly, his forecast for Luxury Communism is probably the most likely, he presents the intrusion of Silicon Valley into state-based welfare and highlights the interest of tech giants into schemes such as UBI. Silicon Valley’s research into UBI and Google’s recent acquisition of Metamind (used to diagnose patients in the UK’s National Health Service) all indicate a dwarfing of state run services to outsourced tech services that, in Morozov’s view, will give way to a Silicon Valley entrepreneurial welfare state. According to Morozov, digital tech companies are attempting to substitute state welfare in order to protect themselves from the instability of their current economic model that relies on the speculative advertising market and provide the freedom to manage citizens without the interventions of governments or as Silicon Valley often nicknames ‘The Paper Belt’. Morovoz claims that as Google and Facebook move towards neo-feudalism and cities become orientated around smart technology and openness, open data style hack labs are futile attempts to frantically prototype alternatives before the eventually engulfing of entrepreneurial welfare. For Morozov, the inevitable narrative for post-capitalism is entrepreneurial welfare, based on a feudalist monopoly that uses citizen data to produce commercial identities and post-border nationalities. This sobering diagnosis punctured much of the excitement towards socialist technological accelerationism and Morozov clearly sees any significant global change originating from within politics, not design. When asked directly for an example of transformative politics he half heartedly indicates support for the 5 Star Movement in Italy. This direct democratic movement is a bottom-up initiative to reform politics from the socialist left. However, as they gain increasing power and reach an electorate majority I wonder how Morozov will sustain his reductive separation between the bureaucrats and tech elites, when if his prediction of entrepreneurial welfare is correct, the two will no longer be distinguishable. His support for 15m movement as the only distinct movement from the left that can grasp the full scale of neo-liberalism is condescending and far from convincing. He seemingly neglects the work done by organisations such as D-cent who have developed digital tools for direct democratic parties (including 15M movement) across Europe. When Morovoz claims that the political right have been the only ones capable of harnessing networked technology to fuel their political ambition, he is referring to a historic trajectory rather than acknowledging recent technological activism. I would argue that there is an increasing movement showcased not only within this conference but in design communities throughout Europe that are attempting to challenge Morozov’s diagnosis with p2p collective organization, open source technology and political power.
In response, Vinay Gupta presented a pragmatic design-based schematic to solve the humanitarian crisis with open source and de-centralized technology. Gupta’s diagram presented 6 basic human needs that could be solved with relatively cheap p2p technology. Injury, illness, thirst, hunger, coldness, heat. Gupta ran through a bunch of technological solutions to most of these problems while insisting that these basic needs have to be met before we can begin discussing or designing post-work utopias for ourselves. Gupta presents all of this in a feasible way, incidentally avoiding political issues with logic, applied science & networked computing. By deploying an infrastructure suggested by Gupta, we would practically begin fighting battles we can actually win, such as micro water filters to prevent disease or 3D-printed homes that could provide shelter less than €500. He argues that part of the reasons this is not happening is that activists are still using an outdated paradigm to frame their approach; in his opinion ‘quoting Karl Marx wont cure some of the oppressive qualities of global capitalism’ but designing some innovative solutions with new technologies might.
It remains to be seen whether Luxury Communism will become more a vogue topic to discuss over dinner and indulge in the undeniably attractive potential for post-work lifestyles and basic incomes. Morozov can deflate this indulgence by arguing that global change will only originate from within politics. In doing so he overlooks the tremendous impact that design and technology have already had in the world, in so far that powerful tech companies are apparently now attempting to absorb and replace national services. Restoring socialist organizations such as co-ops and trade unions will provide shelter for a politically or socially aware elite whilst the tech giants get their teeth stuck into Governance 2.0. If Morozov’s prediction is accurate than Silicon Valley business ventures will attempt to turn state welfare into a on-demand service economy for everything. I think it’s quite conceivable that in 30 years we could be living in a post-work society and It is intriguing to see a political vision hoping to restore core social values, such as welfare states and labour unions, in the face of networked platform capitalism. Perhaps by envisioning this now we can begin to work out how the political left can strategically counter this imminent possibility, without retreating to local politics and small scale activism. Therefore spending a few days indulging in the potential implications of Fully automated Luxury Communism, as frivolous as it may sound, was a productive necessity, not just to identify a cohort of fellow ambitious futurists but also to get a sense of how the left will have to create something far more inclusive than basic luxury communism.