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The folly of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’

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The New York Times has obfuscated about the reality of Communism since the days of Walter Duranty. An op-ed published on Tuesday titled, “The World Is a Mess. We Need Fully Automated Luxury Communism” adds another chapter to this decades-long trend.

The article is a lengthy excerpt from Aaron Bastani’s forthcoming book, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto.

The phrase “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” is another example of the Left’s ongoing campaign to affiliate socialism with … anything except real-life socialist societies. Bastani’s attempt to associate Marxism, which dug the graves of 100 million people in less than a century, with a cognitively positive term echoes British viral celebrity Ash Sarkar’s efforts to brand her ideology “fun Communism” – or even the young Fr. Robert Sirico’s naïve belief that, under socialism, “We’ll all shop at Gucci.” Yet linking socialism, which decimated the economy and physical environment of numerous nations by eliminating the price mechanism, with “luxury” borders on the Orwellian.

Bastani begins with the tale of the “cultured beef” burger, a lab-grown vegetarian food that tastes like meat without requiring as many greenhouse gas emissions or the death of any animal. The first patty, underwritten by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, cost $325,000. But the meat subistitute currently costs $50 a burger and, Bastani predicts, “[w]ithin a decade they will probably be more affordable than even the cheapest barbecue staples of today.”

Bastani’s assertion is almost certainly correct. Most people would see this as a triumph of the free market: A capitalist tycoon financed a socially beneficial product whose price will fall through mass production and supply-and-demand.

This is the story of capitalism. As Marian L. Tupy noted at HumanProgress.org, between 1979 and 2015, the number of hours the average person had to work to purchase household appliances, exercise equipment, and televisions fell between 52 and 96 percent each. This market reality caused Stephen Moore and Julian Simon of the Cato Institute to call the twentieth century “the greatest century that ever was.”

The economist Joseph Schumpeter described the modus operandi of prosperity. “The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses,” he wrote. “The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.”

Bastani sees successive waves of economic advancement curing “technological unemployment, global poverty, societal aging, climate change, resource scarcity,” and other social ills. He sees this embedded in “the very essence of humanity,” which is “to constantly build new worlds.”

He’s right: From mastering agriculture, to forging tools out of bronze and iron, to revolutionizing life through industrial and information technology, the human race has continually developed new ways to provide for an ever-growing population with fewer resources and less conflict. In our day, this has evolved into a harmonious process: The financial industry loans money to budding entrepreneuers who lack the capital to bring their dreams to life. They, in turn, provide jobs for their local communities. All beneficiaries use the profits to care for their families, where they raise the next generation of funders, dreamers, and doers.

Yet Bastani pivots, claiming that this system has plunged the world into a “crisis” only somewhat less pressing than the Black Death, Brave New World, or “[H]ell in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch”:

We inhabit a world of low growth, low productivity and low wages, of climate breakdown and the collapse of democratic politics. A world where billions, mostly in the global south, live in poverty. A world defined by inequality.

Whoever wrote these words lives in a world of fantasy.

In the real world, candidates for UK prime minister hail America’s roaring GDP growth, made possible by tax cuts and deregulation; inequality has flattened (thanks in part to a global recession); the number of democracies is at a postwar high; and billions, mostly in the global south, have escaped poverty – thanks to adopting elements of a market economy. “[O]ver the last 25 years, total global inequality … declined for the first time since the Industrial Revolution,” noted Ana Revenga and Meagan Dooley of the Brookings Institution, “as poor countries became richer.” Again, another smashing success for the free market.

While Bastani admits capitalism “created the newly emerging abundance,” he somehow believes free enterprise artificially restricts access:

A system where things are produced only for profit, capitalism seeks to ration resources to ensure returns. Just like today’s, companies of the future will form monopolies and seek rents. The result will be imposed scarcity — where there’s not enough food, health care or energy to go around.

If Bastani’s diagnosis is flawed, his prescription is worse: “we have to go beyond capitalism,” a prospect he admits some may consider “unwholesome.”

The details of his vision are scarce in this op-ed. He lists merely reducing the global carbon footprint, increasing automation, and establishing “socialized care.” (One may note, it is precisely national health systems that “ration resources.”) In these terms, his philosophy sounds little more revolutionary than that of Silicon Valley titans, who propose a universal basic income to cure the allegedly imminent waves of automation-fueled unemployment.

Bastani’s “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” innovates only in its rhetorical excess. And he admits his FALC is “utopian in horizon.”

Utopian visions are the one product Communist societies never lacked. Bread, justice, and inalienable rights were in shorter supply.

According to Bastani’s own op-ed, the system that brought the human race from handfuls of ignorant tribes huddling in caves to the most technologically advanced point in world history is the free market. This process – capitalism, free enterprise, call it what you will – maximized human freedom and human well-being. It generated the “emerging abundance” that allows for the voluntary redistribution of wealth, especially in societies informed by religious principles like the Golden Rule and human dignity.

It is this system, and these principles, that galvanized human flourishing, and it is among them that Bastani and others should seek the answers for humanity’s future – not in an atheistic economic philosophy whose greatest technological innovations related to imprisonment, internal surveillance, and industrial-scale extermination at home and abroad.

But such an inversion of reality will always find a ready publisher in the New York Times.

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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