Embracing automation and zero employment is one way to clean up the inefficiency and waste of capitalism without abandoning technology. What happens to the people, on the other hand, depends on whether this giant economic leap is implemented under capitalism or communism, as I examined in my previous piece. Under capitalism, there’s either an apocalypse (the newly superfluous people are eliminated) or a dystopia (Manna, the Matrix, etc.) Under communism, full automation and the abolition of wage labor yields something described as “fully automated luxury communism,” which countless reactionary thinkers over the years have derided as a utopian fantasy.
For years, capitalists have pursued automation because it increases efficiency, which enriches the capitalist. Vertical integration is another thing that increases efficiency, but attempts to vertically integrate tend to be fought under anti-trust. The reason for anti-trust legislation and breaking up of monopolies has less to do with fairness for “consumers” than it does with protecting the profits of other capitalists. This is why nationalization was popular in wartime. It generally allowed for increased efficiency with some tradeoffs.
But there is a major difference between capitalist monopoly or state nationalization, and fully automated luxury communism. Under fully automated luxury communism, the goal is meeting the needs of all with minimum waste. Capitalist monopoly turns the gains of efficiency into personal gain, while state nationalization turns it toward an advantage in war/trade. Capitalists love to make fun of Soviet Russia for its lack of choice in consumer goods, but really, do we need 18 brands of deodorant? Branding is not about choice; it’s about manipulating the psyche to create the illusion of choice. You can still have choice with a single supplier, if different products are required. This isn’t hard.
The land usage footprint for decentralized capitalist manufacturing and commerce is staggering, too. For instance, Los Angeles: 12% – 1/8th – of the city is either industrial or commercial, while 31% is suburbs to house the rich and petit-bourgeoisie and only 7% is medium to high density housing for the working classes.
Of course the greater Los Angeles area is much larger than the city, and includes cities like Irwindale, which have almost no residents. The land usage of this and other San Gabriel Valley cities is listed in the following table:
Almost all of this industrial usage was created between WWII and the Cold War to meet military demand. Much of it is horribly contaminated. Here’s the EPA’s list of Superfund sites in California, of which a good chunk are in the LA area. This pattern basically repeats itself when looking at any other city that was considered strategically important to wartime industry. Similar patterns emerge in other countries, including Russia. And in China, but primarily driven by capitalist demand rather than military. This is where the “Iron Triangle” comes into play. Of the three attributes (fast, good, or cheap), you can only pick two.
The military is only interested in having kit that works, delivered yesterday. Environmental safety is the usual victim. Likewise, the capitalist marketplace is only interested in having marketable goods delivered as cheap and fast as possible. In other words, the environment always takes a back seat to “necessity” or “profit.”
This is why Russell Means offered a scathing critique of Marxism as he saw it in 1980:
Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.
But before we attack him for misunderstanding Communism, the historical context of communism in 1980 bears mentioning. The most powerful, most well-known communist nation in 1980 was, of course, the USSR. The only problem with this understanding is that the economy of the USSR, as this four-part series of articles from Aufheben concludes, was more proto-capitalist than it was communist:
We have argued that in order to break out of its backwardness and subordinate position within the world division of labour the state bureaucracy, which had formed after the Russian Revolution, sought to make the transition to capitalism through the transitional form of state capitalism. In its efforts to industrialise the Russian state sought the forced development of productive-capital that required the suppression of the more cosmopolitan and crisis ridden forms of money and commodity capital. However, while such forced capitalist development allowed an initial rapid industrialisation the distortions it produced within the political economy of the USSR eventual became a barrier to the complete transition to capitalism in Russia.
As such we have argued that the USSR was essentially based on capitalist commodity-production. However as a consequence of the historical form of forced transition to capitalism there was dislocation between the capitalist nature of production and its appearance as a society based on commodity-exchange. This dislocation led to the deformation of value and the defective content of use-values that both provided the basis for the persistence of the distinctly non-capitalist features of the USSR and led to the ultimate decline and disintegration of the USSR.
Even if one disagrees with the above conclusion, it should be worth noting that the economy of the USSR evolved accidentally from the specific circumstances of the Russian Civil War, when the Bolsheviks were forced to adopt a policy of “war communism” in response to capitalist systems breaking down. By the time Lenin began to enact reforms to the bureaucracy post-war with the New Economic Policy, his health was failing and the reforms were unfinished at his death in 1924. The Five-Year Plans that followed starting in 1928 effectively marked a permanent return to war communism. The bitter fight against fascist Germany during World War II, and the subsequent “cold” war with the imperialist United States that followed, offered no room for Lenin’s bureaucratic reforms to ever be realized.
A similar struggle for economic and bureaucratic reform took place in China. As Chairman Mao wrote in 1967,
If our country does not build up a socialist economy, what is it going to be? It will be like Yugoslavia, a capitalist country in fact. The proletarian dictatorship will be transformed into a bourgeois dictatorship, worse still, a reactionary and fascist dictatorship. This problem deserves our fullest attention and [I] hope our comrades will give it their thought.
This was his justification for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Following its failure, we subsequently witnessed China’s gradual transformation to capitalism through the reforms of Deng Xiaoping and those who followed after him. A former Red Guard had this to say about his part in the revolution:
When I see privileges being given back to the old bourgeoisie, even the former capitalists, and how privileges are also being given to this new class of party cadres and officials, I am really outraged. When the rest of us are really having problems with housing, with jobs, with education, even with getting enough food to eat, these people are establishing a sort of neo-feudalism assuring themselves comfortable lives…. I do not want another Cultural Revolution – 10 years of turmoil did enough damage – but I think we were right in trying to smash the old system.
If Lenin and Mao, two of the most influential theorists in Marxism since Marx himself, were both concerned about the burgeoning bureaucracies of their respective states, what does that leave us with? We are presented with the odd situation of “actually existing communism,” composed of half-measures in times of desperation, functioning as a strawman for the attacks of vocal critics of communism on both the left and right.
Perhaps, then, a better state to discuss critically is Cuba. While Cuba embraced many of the Soviet models, its leaders were not so dogmatic as to apply them rigidly. As discussed in my last post, Cuba only needs to import around 16% of its total food, making it largely self-sufficient. Its people have adapted to limited resources forced by the US embargo, meaning that the excesses that we associate with capitalism simply do not exist there. This is represented starkly in the following chart of energy use per capita:
One other interesting point from this chart is the relationship between Cuba and China. Until 2002, China’s per-capita energy usage was incredibly low, if slowly trending upward: this was partly due to its largely undeveloped rural nature until then, but also because it mostly produced goods for domestic use. US trade with China was “normalized” in 2000, and capitalists quickly rushed to exploit China’s resources and labor. Since the passage of PNTR, China’s industrial output has skyrocketed, and with it, energy usage.
We can therefore see from the preceding graph and other information that Russell Means’ generalization is more true of capitalists than Marxists:
Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available.
Efficiency, at its most basic, is using the minimum amount of resources for a given task. If we are starting with an extremely inefficient capitalist economy, it only makes sense to start by cutting out the most wasteful parts of the system. Depending on how much of the “economy” we could thus eviscerate, it is therefore entirely possible that existing renewable and nuclear sources would be sufficient to power global communism for many years to come simply by evening out the imbalance between rich and poor regions, shown in the below data:
Now before anyone claims this will mean reducing Americans to “third world” levels of poverty (ignoring that extreme poverty already exists in our fine capitalist dystopia), we should take a look at the distribution of US energy consumption.
Based on the first figure above, transportation, industrial, and commercial use accounts for nearly 80% of US energy consumption. Of that 32% of industrial usage, nearly a third of it goes toward refining petroleum for – you guessed it – transportation.
What happens in a world that views commuting long distances to work pointless jobs 8 hours a day, 5 days a week an archaic anachronism? From this paper we find that (in Belgium, anyway) commutes account for 30% of trips and 45% of distance traveled:
Among all the residential commuting within the Walloon region of Belgium, home-to-work and home-to-school trips account, respectively, for 30% and 17% of trips and for 45% and 9% of the total distance travelled (Hubert, 2004).
Given the sprawling nature of US cities, it’s not inconceivable that those numbers could be as high as 80% here. With commutes out of the picture, the remaining trips could be easily replaced by a mix of automated public transit, bicycles, and walking.
Perhaps “never have to sit in traffic again” should be used as a slogan by communists. Other potential slogans follow: “never have to flip burgers again,” “never have to deal with bosses again,” etc.
Going back to Russell Means once again, he makes this point:
Being is a spiritual proposition. Gaining is a material act. Traditionally, American Indians have always attempted to be the best people they could. Part of that spiritual process was and is to give away wealth, to discard wealth in order not to gain. Material gain is an indicator of false status among traditional people, while it is “proof that the system works” to Europeans. Clearly, there are two completely opposing views at issue here, and Marxism is very far over to the other side from the American Indian view. But let’s look at a major implication of this; it is not merely an intellectual debate.
Communism, in its simplest form, is the abolition of private property and the collective sharing of resources. That, however, does not preclude the community from itself accumulating excessive resources, no matter the reason. That accumulation may even be for a good reason: in order to better resist imperialism, as was the case with Russia and China.
Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Program, presented this slogan: “To each according to his needs.” If we relate this slogan to the spirituality Russell Means described, then it goes without saying that Communists should shun wealth. The remaining material difference between Communists and American Indians therefore comes down to what is meant by “need.”
Here it is worth considering the status of the Americas as occupied native land, which ties into land usage mentioned before. We tend to talk about the land as if it is our birthright, which might have been true for the Russian peasants, but not American settlers. As settlers and descendants of settlers, our connection to the land here is tenuous at best and written in the blood of natives. The very least we could do as communists, after abolishing the current bourgeoisie system of property rights, would be to talk with the indigenous nations–with the understanding that, as heirs to a settler empire, we have nothing to offer them that was not stolen from them in the first place.
However, the overly simplistic solution of returning 300 million descendants of settlers back to their ancestral lands is an obvious non-starter. For one, it’s a self-inflicted form of ethnic cleansing, and it’s certainly not fair to descendants of slaves brought here involuntarily. Second, somebody has to clean up the mess we and our ancestors made. That’s really what reparations boils down to, once you abolish property and money: it’s about trying to heal past wrongs.
In the next part, I plan to examine what food and housing might look like under fully automated luxury communism.
Link to the Twitter thread that spawned this post