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Imagining a future where machines have taken our jobs

Fully Automated Luxury Communism is the utopian idea that we’ll all fulfill our true human potential while robots do the work – but is it really going to be that simple?

TextJosh HallIllustrationMarianne Wilson

The economy is broken. Living standards have undergone their worst collapse in modern history. Underemployment is endemic. The jobs that are being created are massively underpaid – meanwhile self-employed people, the group who’ve seen the largest jump in members, are now earning less on average than they were in 1995.

But there is one area that’s seeing huge growth: automation. Self-service checkouts are the most visible example of this, but it’s happening everywhere: in manufacturing, in surgery, in war, in stock trading, even in journalism. Automation is a generation-defining trend – one towards the replacement of human labour with that of machines.

Aside from self-service machines, techniques of automation and their attendant languages are also creeping into areas of our lives that aren’t yet fully mechanised. Deliveroo, for example, still relies on human riders, but the company is based on an extrapolation of the ‘just in time’ systems developed by Toyota in the 1960s and ‘70s, which reduced wasted time in manufacture thanks in part to a new focus on automation, and which heralded a new era for streamlined production.

“We are now encouraged to augment ourselves with technologies that encourage greater optimisation with the minimum of human input”

Even closer to home, we are now encouraged to augment ourselves with technologies that encourage greater optimisation with the minimum of human input: wearables, for example, silently track our activities in order to help us reach our maximum possible fitness levels. Some automation is more sinister: Uber have been accused of automatically hiking prices when your phone battery is low.

For some, automation presents a problem – what will happen to the jobs that are being replaced? But for others, automation heralds a new era in which we leave the machines to do the work while we concentrate on the real business of living. Sounds good, right? In theory, yes – but in fact, the problem of automation is more complex than it might appear.

Most practically, automation carries risks for employment. Forrester, one of the world’s largest market research companies, believes that 9 per cent of American jobs will be automated away in 2018 alone, although they also say that a new “automation economy” will produce 2 per cent more, as new employees are required to look after the machines. In the UK, the Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane has famously predicted that automated technologies will replace 15 million employees – about half the total number currently in work. So what do those people do? What options do they have when their job suddenly vanishes?

This is where the beautiful-sounding Fully Automated Luxury Communism, or FALC, comes in. FALC recognises the speed of automation, and demands that its benefits be shared equally.  We could do all the things we haven't had the time for – learn to tango, write that novel, or read the classical poets. The theory suggests that automation can deliver us into a ‘post-work society’, in which goods are produced with minimal help from humans. FALC’s adherents want to see a restructuring of society such that these new technologies are put in the service of the people, rather than enriching shareholders. Under FALC, they say, we will all be working a 10- or 12-hour week, supported by a generous universal income, with the rest of the time devoted to fulfilling our true human potential – all while the machines toil away in the background.

“Fully Automated Luxury Communism says we’ll work a 10 or 12 hour week, with the rest of the time devoted to fulfilling our true human potential”

This all sounds good so far – but FALC has its critics. Those in the centre and on the right say FALC is a nonsense. And, maybe closer to home, there are also those on the left who have problems with the theory, and perhaps for reasons that will strike more of a chord with those who want to see a more equitable world.

To understand those criticisms, it's first worth looking at some of the other people who have supported ideas adjacent to FALC. One of those is venture capitalist Sam Altman, who has long insisted that we are heading for a post-work society. Altman is the president of Y Combinator, the controversial startup incubator that was forced last year to cut ties with Peter Thiel after it emerged that he had made a large donation to the Trump campaign. Altman is also publicly supported by VC rockstar Marc Andreessen who, in 2016, claimed in a tweet that “anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people.”

Elon Musk has also suggested that automation is likely to lead to UBI, although he seems to consider this a necessary evil rather than a utopian demand. Musk, of course, is no friend of workers’ rights: in a Daily Beast piece last November, Kelly Weill reported on the pressure being exerted by Tesla on their workforce not to unionise, with employees worried that if they organise, they will be fired. London’s Silicon Roundabout is similarly bubbling with post-work talk, but the CEOs who are excited about these ideas are interested in them not in order to bring about the end of the wage relation, but rather as a way of sweetening the pill of a further concentration of capital in a small number of hands.

With friends like those, does Fully Automated Luxury Communism really need enemies? Well, there are several other key criticisms of FALC to be made from the left, aside from the company that the theory keeps.

FALC is, of course, rooted in a deep technophilia. It is based on the assumption that complex problems of social relations can be fixed, at least in part, by technology. All that technology requires vast hordes of natural resources. If we want to achieve the levels of automation required for a 10-hour working week, we will need enormous available reserves of copper, zinc, lead, plastics, ruthenium, zirconium, and so on. Some of the materials we need are readily available, others less so. But the environmental impact of electronics manufacture is undeniable, and resource shortages will become one of the defining trends of the coming decades. How are we going to build the tools we need to replace humans in an environmentally sustainable way? And isn’t it exactly the obsessions that FALC has – with technology, speed, machines – that have contributed in great part to our impending climate catastrophe?

“What FALC hasn’t yet considered (at least publicly) are the ‘non-productive’ forms of work that underpin the economy – the work of social reproduction”

Just as important as how to get those materials, is where they are. The minerals required for things like computer production are generally mined in developing countries. The trade in “conflict minerals” such as tantalum, gold, and cobalt has contributed directly to brutal wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Africa has a huge wealth of some of the minerals required in the manufacture of technology, but it’s clear that the benefits of that wealth are often being enjoyed not by the people of those countries, but by Western mining companies. FALC’s theorists have not yet addressed the question of how we secure the materials required for massive automation without reproducing or deepening the colonial structures that currently define these supply chains. Remember that Marc Andreessen tweet?

It’s also worth thinking about the sorts of work that FALC thinks might be automated. In a piece for VICE back in 2015, FALC theorist Aaron Bastani wrote the oft-quoted line: “Cartier for everyone, MontBlanc for the masses, and Chloe for all.” Which sounds great, but it’s also revealing about the things that FALC privileges: commodities, objects, and luxuries. What FALC hasn’t yet considered (at least publicly) are the ‘non-productive’ forms of work that underpin the economy – the work of social reproduction. Is it possible to automate care work, for example? How do we replace the human connection that’s so necessary for this type of interaction? What about mental healthcare? Apps like WoeBot are shakily trying to automate cognitive behavioural therapy, but the thing they so dramatically lack is the humanity of a living professional. FALC is yet to explain what will happen to this work. A skeptical reading of these ideas would perhaps suggest that this is because FALC’s theorists either privilege the productive economy over social reproduction, or simply haven’t thought about the latter.

Fully Automated Luxury Communism is an appealing project. Who could possibly argue that the boons of technology should be shared, not concentrated amongst CEOs and shareholders? But if FALC is to really gain momentum, and if it is to be taken seriously on the radical left, it has some developing to do. FALC promises “luxury for all,” and that’s a compelling slogan. But there are unanswered questions about how we get there – and how we ensure that it really is for everyone.