“The Anxious Triumph – a global history of capitalism”, by Donald Sassoon, Allen Lane
“Fully Automated Luxury Communism – a manifesto”, Aaron Bastani, Verso.
Following the Great Recession, the longest period of wage stagnation since the Napoleonic Wars (and now the Covid pandemic), people are wondering, not for the first time, if capitalism has a future. Is the system collapsing under its own contradictions? Are countries like Britain stuck in a low growth/low productivity spiral?
Or, with AI and automation, could we be on the brink of a new age of abundance, in which work becomes superfluous as the cost of living tends to zero. A transition to what some optimists, like Aaron Bastani, call Fully Automated Luxury Communism (FALC)?
As always with capitalism, whose last rites have been read repeatedly over the last century, no one really knows. But Donald Sassoon is sure that capitalism is here to stay, though he is no apologist. His comprehensive account of the origins of modern capitalism make clear the human cost of a system of institutionalised greed: colonialism, neo-colonialism, wage slavery, inequality, and insecurity. Especially insecurity.
The book is called“The Anxious Triumph” because Sassoon believes insecurity is written into the DNA of capitalism. It is a system founded on what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”, and is as liable to destroy the capitalist, through competition, as the worker.
Capitalism is replete with these contradictions, or paradoxes, as Karl Marx observed, though he never appreciated its capacity to overcome them. It needs well-paid workers to buy its products. But by relentlessly increasing productivity, capitalist enterprises require ever fewer workers to make those commodities. This leads to periodic recessions caused by what used to be called “underconsumptionism” by socialist economists.
On its own, capitalism could never have created the consumer society of the latter half of the 20th Century. By electing social democratic governments, which redistributed some wealth, the organised working class, which Karl Marx believed would be the agents of capitalist destruction, actually saved capitalism from itself. “The socialists wanted the abolition of capitalism”,says Sassoon, “but the reforms they advocated tended to strengthen it”.
This ability to reinvent itself, generally through crises and restructuring, is the reason why capitalism, in Sassoon’s view at least, is now unchallengeable. Communism was discredited by the excesses of the bureaucratic and authoritarian Soviet Union, and Sassoon sees little sign of any new socialism getting a look in. Capitalism is here to stay; get over it.
On the contrary, says Aaron Bastani, a devout supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. Capitalism’s contradictions have finally reached the point at which the forces of production shatter the capitalist relations of production, just as Karl Marx predicted. He believes that capitalism is well on the way to creating an economy in which automation makes workers unnecessary, and thus makes capitalism impossible.
“Technological advance”, he argues,” will reduce the value of commodities – food, housing energy health care – to zero”. We are in the midst, he says, of “the Third Disruption” (the first was the agricultural revolution and the second was the industrial revolution). This is the end of “the age of necessity”. In future, leisure and work will be indistinguishable, and no one will be a wage slave.
One is tempted to say: tell that to the quarter of Scottish children living in poverty. Or old people selling their houses to pay for their care. If everything is becoming free, why do we need food banks? On what planet is Mr Bastani living in where no one needs to work for a living?
Bastani is easy to make fun of, with his talk of mining asteroids. But he makes an important point. Automation and artificial intelligence are making jobs redundant at an increasing rate. Self-driving cars and trucks alone will kill thousands of jobs. AI will destroy many routine white collar jobs in law, estate agencies, accountancy, management.
Bastani is right to say that this should be a good thing. The benefits of automation should be spread more widely. We should be working less, and living a green and pleasant lifestyle, free from arduous toil. The death of work should be the birth of creativity.
But it’s not clear from Mr Bastani’s book how this luxury communism is to be brought about. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is not calling for the nationalisation of the means of production. As Sassoon says, “there has never been an armed revolution in an advanced capitalist state”.
I suspect that what Mr Bastani has intuited is that the Left is once again about to save capitalism from itself. By radically reducing the working week, introducing what he calls “Universal Basic Services” – including transport, housing, energy – in a Green New Deal, socialist governments will find ways to recycle the profits of the new digital capitalism and allow people to live well for less. It will be capitalism, but not as we know it.
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