2010s >> 2019 >> no-1382-october-2019

Cooking the Books II: Not applying technology

In his book Fully Automated Luxury Communism Aaron Bastani quotes the US economist Paul Romer’s definition of technological change as ‘an improvement in the instructions for mixing together raw materials’ (he meant physical materials). He summarises Romer’s conclusion as that ‘over time, as technology develops, the value increasingly arises from the instructions for materials as opposed to the materials themselves’.

This is similar to what Marx, in ‘The Fragment on Machines’ in the Grundrisse, had said would eventually happen, with general scientific knowledge becoming a more important factor in production than direct labour. As this knowledge is a social product it’s an additional argument for socialism.

According to Bastani, Romer made the further point that ‘once the cost of creating a new set of instructions has been incurred the instructions can be used over and over again at no additional cost’. In other words, these instructions, once developed, could be available to be used for free in much the same way as digitised articles, books, films and music can be.

But there is a snag, as Bastani noted. This knowledge is privately owned and only made available by the developers to others at a cost – the royalty payments for the use of the patent. Some is even kept as a ‘trade secret’. Patents and other so-called ‘intellectual property’ rights are merely a legal fiction, applicable solely because they are entirely the product of a legal enactment, enforced by the courts and, ultimately, by the coercive power of the state.

Property rights over material goods are also a legal fiction, though not as blatant, as people can imagine more easily material goods being possessed in the absence of legal backing. On analysis, however, property in land, factories and other means for producing material things is not the same as physically possessing them. The owner of a landed estate does not physically possess the land in the same way that they possess their clothes or their car; nor does a capitalist shareholder. Their property rights have also been created and are enforced by the state.

The fact that scientific and technological knowledge has developed to the point where it could be applied to produce enough for everybody to be able to satisfy their material needs strengthens the case for socialism. It confirms that, whereas capitalism has developed the potential for this, it is incapable of activating it for the benefit of all. Capitalism has solved the problem of producing enough for all, but cannot distribute it. Only socialism can do this, on the basis of production directly for use, not profit, and distribution according to needs, not rationing through the wages system.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, as a description of socialism, is a deliberate exaggeration to dissociate the idea of communism from what happened in Russia with its shortages and queues. But it risks another misunderstanding – that socialism only becomes possible if there is ‘full’ automation. This would mean that it is still not really possible. This in fact is the justification that Bastani (and his fellow FALC advocate, Ash Sarkar) give for supporting the gradualism of the left-wing of the Labour Party. A better term, though admittedly not quite as snappy, might be ‘Highly Automated, Non-Austerity Communism’.