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Pathfinders: Keep It Simple, Stupid

What’s been happening lately with the people from Occupy, UK Uncut and the rest of the rebellious ‘noughties’ crowd? Whatever activity there is has sunk below the media horizon and therefore dropped off the political agenda, while the restless radical pool continues to evolve into new forms and outgrowths, clustering, merging and diffusing in ways that seem more organic than organised. The big splashes in the morning papers have given way to a grey drizzly afternoon of self-doubt, boredom and endless questions.

What is one to do with a world ‘absolutely in thrall to capitalism’, where most radical groups ‘coalesce around a hollow capitalist meliorism’ or else focus on the bogus rhetoric of having no leaders at the expense of any real strategy, democratic oversight or ability to adapt to changing circumstances?

Thus speaks Novara Media, an ‘outgrowth’ of this very milieu and a sort of alternative online news service cum political analysis show aimed at the young radical, non-state anticapitalist sector. Its founders are a likeable and highly articulate pair of young postgrads/postdocs by the name of Aaron Bastani and James Butler, and five minutes of their quick-fire patter is enough to make your head spin.

What does Bastani say about non-state communist strategy in the 21st century? That the 20th century of mass one-way communication was the great outlier and that today’s pathways of communication through disparate and affinity-based back-channels is more akin to the 18th century. What does Butler say about the activist’s disavowal of theory? He explains that doers are always suspicious of thinkers: ‘there’s a history of people thinking that thinking means that one should be in charge of things and lead things, and movements led by thinkers and intellectuals is [sic] always a bad thing and tends to lead to paranoia and narcissism and overidentification’. They observe that protest should be offensive not defensive because defensive strategies become conservative and ‘fail to stake a claim on the future’, and they make clear that ‘people argue about political power needing to be purified, but it doesn’t, it needs to be overthrown’. Butler adds poignantly ‘we have been losing for so long that we’ve forgotten to ask how do we win, and what would winning look like?’

Well, what would winning look like for Novara Media? It would look like something called fully automated luxury communism (FALC). The argument is simple enough. Machines are taking all the jobs, so the future should be one of luxury and leisure. People have said this before but Messrs B&B don’t make the elementary mistake of thinking that this will happen without a revolution to overthrow the powerful elites. What’s appealing about their argument is that it emphasises what you can have tomorrow rather than what you have to put up with today. Communism for them is a glittering prize and an orgy of abundance, not an exercise in hair-shirt asceticism.

Do they mean non-state communism the same way we do? Oddly, Bastani mentions a ‘living wage’, which doesn’t fit the picture. Wages and money presuppose property relations and markets, which inevitably give rise to states. Leaving that to one side, are they anyway overegging the pudding? When talking about post-scarcity socialism we tend to talk about sufficiencies, not luxury. We do sometimes speculate about shortages in the short term as farmers switch from cash crops to subsistence, the ‘bottom billion’ are prioritised for food and healthcare, and the world productive system learns to readjust. Is it realistic and in fact responsible to promise luxury as standard?

As is common with future-gazers, Novara may have been seduced by their own vision. One only has to recall the utopian predictions of early advocates of nuclear power to remember that technology is always rosiest at dawn.

When considering anything to do with automation, indeed any machinery, one shouldn’t ignore that unwritten rule of the universe, Sod’s Law. If it can go wrong, it probably will, and just when you least expect it.

People who can only afford to drive old cars will have noticed that the more sophisticated the technology, the more unfixable and often disastrous it is when it ages and breaks down. It may be that the rate of development of complex systems always outstrips our ability to diagnose failures within those systems or, in the vernacular, we’re too clever for our own good. Why might this be so? Because as you add new features, sensors, cruise controllers, drop-down displays and so forth in arithmetical fashion into a closed network, the number of potential failures and multiple-node failures tends to increase in geometrical fashion.

In the immaculate world of the futuretopians, nothing ever goes wrong and everything always works at its optimum. If you ask what happens when the system breaks you get the response given out about the Titanic and Chernobyl: ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got a system to cover that’. There is just now a debate in airline circles about whether to develop fully-automated planes without pilots, controlled just by their on-board computers. This is how capitalism drives technology - the purpose is simply that the airlines would save a pilot’s wage. Would socialists be interested in this too? Opponents will point out that a driverless car which fails can just stop, whereas a driverless plane that fails has no good outcome.

How much complexity is too much? What is so endearing about clunky, old-fashioned, non-electronic cars is that there’s not so much to go wrong, and not much you couldn’t fix yourself given a shed, a few tools and a basic grounding in car maintenance. Socialism would have production plants and factories for the sake of economy of scale, but not to the exclusion of local, small-scale production and maintenance.

Socialist production, being non-market and not for profit, would work quite differently from the capitalist market process. If you’re giving up your time to build a bus, a power station or a piano, you don’t want to have to put in further work repairing it, nor create work for others by making it difficult to repair. You would use standardised and recyclable parts which could be swapped out easily. You would not bother adding features which looked impressive but didn’t do anything. You would only use quality components, not cheap ones intended to fail. And you’d keep it simple. But simple doesn’t have to mean plain, or plain ugly. Taking a cue from William Morris we could stipulate that beautiful things should be useful, and useful things should be beautiful.

Fully automated luxury communism is a vision based on two assumptions, that people want luxury and that they hate work. We suggest that neither of these is correct. Sufficiency is sufficient for security, and security is what people really want, not to live like Roman emperors, even if today capitalism makes people fantasise about getting stuff for the sake of having stuff. Second, there is the obvious fact that labour, even quite hard manual labour, can be a huge pleasure when freely and cooperatively engaged in. If that were not so there would be no art, no hobbies, and no sport. Full automation, where machines do everything, is probably more a fantasy of capitalism’s stressed-out wage-slaves than a healthy aspiration of free people. And let’s remember to ask, what if it breaks down?

Novara is keen to stress that their ideas are negotiable and do not come fully formed and fixed. It is a fact to gladden the hearts of socialists that people like Butler and Bastani are out there keeping revolutionary ideas alive and fresh, but when concocting revolutionary recipes we would always counsel a pinch of salt.