fully automated amazon.communism

One of the recurring critiques against socialism and communism is the reliance on centrally planned economies, as if a socialized monopoly is somehow far worse than privately-owned, exploitative capitalist monopolies. The same bourgeois economists who gush over how capitalist mergers create economies of scale through vertical integration also talk about how central planning will never work, ignoring that central planning is simply the vertical integration of an entire economy with the economies of scale that result. Either these economists are simpletons, or there is a far more sinister motive at play.

Of course, early attempts at central planning tended to include spectacular failures. Some of these were due to sheer hubris on the part of the planners, who have on occasion been criticized for trying to bend reality to their will, but more often it was mundane: miscommunication, delays, war, etc. Over-reporting yields and under-estimating demand tends to be shrugged off under capitalism as a market failure, but those same capitalists shriek in delight when they hear that the Soviets were not, in fact, infallible.

Looking forward to a future in which capitalism has collapsed, we may then wonder what to do next. Do we go back to backbreaking, labor-intensive organic farming and dissolve the cities, as it seems some on the environmentalist left wish to do? Or will we expropriate the tools of automation that led to the downfall of the capitalists, and put them to use for the common good? Let us assume for a moment that we do the latter, in which case we should ask what those tools might look like.

As it turns out, in Amazon.com’s relentless drive to expand to all sectors of the economy, they have in fact produced one possible roadmap to fully automated luxury communism. Setting aside the fact that most of the goods they supply are made with barely sufficient wage labor in the global south today, over the last twenty or so years they have put together a remarkable supply chain with automation, as seen in this video:

Even though they rely on robots to shuffle pallets around the warehouse, they still employ thousands of people to pick goods. Of course, those jobs are far from safe from automation – stock picking is a mundane, repetitive task that is an ideal target for robots like Baxter:

But even this is rather boring compared to some of Amazon’s newer forays into automation, such as delivery by drone and floating distribution centers.

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Of course, in true capitalist fashion, Amazon’s patent suggests absurdly luxurious uses for this technology, as described in the previously linked CNN piece:

The patent cites sporting events as a place where the aerial warehouse would be especially useful. The drones could deliver items such as team paraphernalia or food to large crowds in a small area.

A more critical look at this delivery technology might suggest its usefulness in, for instance, disaster relief: imagine being able to move a fleet of fully automated delivery centers loaded with supplies into a region devastated by an earthquake.

However, all of this pales next to their latest concept: an automated grocery store.

Setting aside the obvious problems of wastefulness and packaging – which could perhaps be partly solved with ubiquitous automated recycling, but I digress – this concept store more than anything I have ever seen reflects the potential future of fully automated communism, and it wouldn’t even require the smartphone app! If goods are freely available at no cost to all, then the “store” would be more like a virtual quartermaster. As people pick up what they need, when they need it, the store’s computer system merely needs to request restocking through the automated supply chain. It neatly sidesteps the common grocery store problem of 2-5 different competing brands for each category, minimizing wasted space, and the compact size of the stores means that they can be sited within urban communities rather than in the suburban hinterlands.

This is not to say that these stores should carry everything: trying to package fresh produce tends to be excessive, like these individually-wrapped bell peppers or plastic trays of pre-sliced apple bags. Community gardens, farmer’s markets (which, without money, would probably look more like tiny fairs than markets) and automated urban hydroponic vertical gardens could all be ways to supply cities with fresh, local produce on demand.

Even so, if the need for precise payment is eliminated, then it becomes possible for the automated grocery store to simply bring in boxes of produce, which people pick through, and cycle the boxes as they empty out. Large-scale automated farming, of course adapted for better ecological sustainability, will still be a necessary and important part of a post-capitalist food distribution system. And without the capitalist drive for ever-greater profits, care can be taken to ensure that the global system will continue to function for generations to come.

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