Cybernetic Gardens of Earthly Delights
In the Latin, luxury can mean two things: either ‘luxus’, meaning ‘excess’, or ‘luxuria’, meaning ‘offensiveness’. Therefore luxury could be defined as something crass, excessive, fundamentally unnecessary. In French the word transformed into ‘luxe’, which came to be associated with wealth and thus of status, whereas in Elizabethan England the word became ‘lechery’ and ‘lust’. Here we see that in the English context the word luxury has historically been associated with debauchery, treachery and sin: ‘adultery’, for instance, was synonymous with ‘luxury’.
In contemporary England the word is most commonly associated with things such as gentrification, the luxury flat, and with a product range from Lidl, the ‘deluxe’ range. The word luxury to most people would be synonymous with ‘fancy’ or ‘posh’, a word to denote those people and products belonging to a higher social class, or at least appearing to. We have, in short, adopted the french usage of the term and, in common parlance, done away with our own (English) usage.
Originating from the Latin word ‘communis’, meaning common, or of the community — denotes things belonging to all, as well as denoting the familiar, the common, i.e. having character traits in common, or being a commoner. Originally the word communism meant a political philosophy which held true to the notion that all things should be owned in common, by all the people, for the use of all the people: the primary assertion of communism is that society should move towards the eradication of distinctions between the people as they relate to ownership, meaning that despite assumed differences in character, world perspective, skillset, etc., our ‘common’ status as human beings should be reason enough to allow ‘common’ ownership of the entirety of creation.
So what, then, is a Luxury Communist? Often written as ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ or ‘FALC’, this contradictory phrase (as I hope is apparent from the above definitions) is associated with a niche yet overplatformed political tendency arguing for a radical, transformative political economy based on notions of universal income and automation of production to achieve a luxurious post-scarcity world. Essentially, Luxury Communists argue that capitalism’s inherent problem of the alienation of labour (and all the subsequent arising issues of reification, mental illness, etc.) can be remedied by an adaptation to the technological apparatus presented to us and which we inhabit already, that with small adjustments to the emergent, self-constructing & self-complexifying cybernetic system we can create a society of abundance, that our productive forces are so developed that only a little push can fundamentally transform us into a post-capitalist, post-scarcity arrangement — think Norbert Wiener by way of Jeremy Corbyn. Luxury Communism’s most prominent advocate, Aaron Bastani, posits that because of the unique crises of our day, namely the decline of globalisation, impending climate catastrophe and automation, a unique response must be generated from within the pre-existing technologies, and that a liberation of those technologies and their systems from the constraints of private control of information, data protection, copyright, etc., our societal relations will radically change and we will live in an emergent communism. Simply put, Bastani shifts the program of communism from a change primarily in the relations of production to a change in the relations of information. He furthers this argument by stating the advancement of General Artificial Intelligence, machine learning and renewable energy are by their nature post-capitalist technologies that have been hampered by a legal apparatus built for and by the capitalists of our prior industrial-revolutionary era, of productivity, of real relations to real products which, he argues (and we would partially concur) no longer exist, or rather are in the process of withering away. Thus, he and the Luxury Communists argue, there is a communist inevitability arising from the move away from relations between physical commodities, and productivity, towards the illusory, the speculative: information and data.
The problem we have with this neat formula is as follows: This account of transformation takes it as given that the socialist, “communist” society that our current techno-industrial system is, as they say, anticipating will necessarily follow on from our current social outlook and methods of quantifying value. By this we mean that Luxury Communists take it as read that utilitarian ethical codes and their related managerial, technocratic administrative logic, by which we mean an organisation of society based on efficiency mediated by metrics of human satisfaction/happiness, are true and should be — or at least will inevitably be — the basis of a communist society. Bastani argues in a lecture given to the Institute of Art and Ideas that such technological advancements as genome editing(!) could, and ought to be, used to improve “quality of life”, measured (of course) by the minimization of unhappiness and the maximisation of happiness and comfort. What this argument makes apparent is that the Luxury Communist program favours the removal of negativity, of aberrations, from the human experience over human dignity (putting aside the eugenic implications of such a policy). Liberating the social practise of human beings from “unnecessary” suffering placed alongside the liberation of information from “unnecessary” constraints, this algorithmic managerialism seeks to manipulate human beings’ internal biology and quantify human beings according to external affect, backsliding into a cognitive behaviouralism wherein the dog is happy because he wags his tail. The constraints currently placed on human beings by misery, unhappiness, pain, sorrow are absolutely essential to our existence, just as constraints on capital, information and technology by law and state power are certainly preferable to their total unleashing. Imagine the human being having every barrier to the satisfaction of desire torn down, the opening of a limitless horizon of desire unhindered by guilt, shame, social pressure, or responsibility. For what function could you possibly serve in yourself that has value when every basic need is met by universal basic income, every whim granted, every fantasy digitally realised? And in a scenario where all wants are met in such a fashion, why would the inevitable legal constraints on information and technology established by the Luxury Communist managerial apparatus be allowed to persist? If satisfaction of desire and maximisation of happiness is maintained as a cherished liberty in these advanced and ever advancing technological conditions, how can we possibly remain human?
Another concerning element of the Luxury Communist concept is their devotion to artificial intelligence and data, operating under the impression that data can be liberated from its capitalist logic by seizing the means of information. We ask, why does data exist, what function does it serve, and why do human beings perform such actions “to-be-liberated”? Why should information technologies, data, exist at all? Does the obvious utility of such technologies not distract from the psycho-spiritual effects of such technologies? Byung-Chul Han in his 2017 book ‘Psycho-Politics’ argues that information technologies have brought about a kind of ‘smart power’, as distinct from older disciplinarian forms of domination. He elaborates his point thusly:
Inasmuch as it expends a great deal of energy to force people into the straightjacket of commandments and prohibitions, disciplinary power proves inefficient. A significantly more efficient technology of power makes sure that people subordinate themselves to power relations on their own. Such a dynamic seeks to activate, motivate and optimize — not to inhibit or repress. It proves so effective because it does not operate by means of forbidding and depriving, but by pleasing and fulfilling. Instead of making people compliant, it seeks to make them dependent.
Here Byung-Chul Han makes it clear that the new system of domination elicits in us feelings of freedom and desire, it operates “seductively… [and calls] forth positive emotions” in order to exploit them. He argues that “Accelerated communication also promotes its emotionalization… Thus, the pressure of acceleration now is leading to a dictatorship of emotion.” We argue that it is exactly this “dictatorship of emotion” which commands the Luxury Communist impulse and is exactly that which they wish to “liberate” from the “constraints” of the old legal, disciplinarian order of copyright and private ownership. We say this because neither Bastani nor any other adherent to the Luxury Communist program seem to detach themselves from the practices that perpetuate and intensify emotional dictatorship and the growth of data-based control society — indeed, this movement is sustained only by a non-physical “base” of online supporters who flitter to and fro the ideological poles of fashionable meme-politics (lucky for us, they’ll never gain a foothold), enamoured by the e-movements engaging in ‘culture-war’ activity — a smokescreen for advertising, following its logic outright (something I will write about in future). The Luxury Communist assumption that data is in itself neutral and all that must be transformed is the relation of the people to data, to bring data under some form of socialist state apparatus, misses that data is, in itself, an anti-historical, inhuman means of quantifying the world and ourselves, our history, our society, which would prove disastrous as the basis of building and operating socialism: “Big Data is purely additive; it never comes to an end, to a conclusion. In contrast to the correlations and additions that Big Data generates, theoretical thinking represents a narrative form of knowledge.” Here we see that data follows the logic of capital inherently, comprising of limitless sets of flows rather than a definable, strict teleology. Without narrative, without history, we lose the human quality of life and render all activity inhuman and fundamentally dislocated from human (discursive, narrative) control.
Boris Groys argues that, with the inception of Google, a radical shift has taken place in the relation of human beings to language, with revolutionary consequences therefore for our relation to history, philosophy, theory and social activity. To Groys, “Google dissolves all discourses by turning them into word clouds that function as collections of words beyond grammar”, and in so doing makes man “linguistically homeless” (Groys, 2012). Although words themselves have been liberated from the context of grammar, something Groys likens to the near-completion of the post-structuralist project, they have taken on a new meaning as marketing triggers, the human, communicative aspect of language has been replaced by the words as voids, without-Logos, reduced to their sets of associations which, when typed in certain combinations, are recorded and sold to advertisers. Even removing the data-selling from the equation, the result of this new kind of language — the language of data — necessarily involves the recording of user interaction and the modelling of ideal subjects and group identity categories as is currently done by advertisers, because this is the logic of data: fundamentally, to maintain data in a “post-capitalist” scenario is to leave the backdoor open to a re-emergence of capital and capital-dictatorship. To return to Psycho-Politics:
Big Data is supposed to be freeing knowledge from subjective arbitrariness. By this logic, intuition does not represent a higher form of knowing; instead, it represents something merely subjective — a stopgap compensating for the shortage of objective data. In complex situations, the argument goes, intuition is blind. The mistrust even extends to theory, which is suspected of being an ideology: if enough data are available, it should prove superfluous as well. The second Enlightenment is the age of purely data-driven knowledge. Anderson’s visionary rhetoric goes: ‘Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves
Nick Land asserts that capital emerges in societies acting “competently”. A self-proclaimed “post-capitalist”, Luxury Communist society administered by a healthy mix of technocratic managerialists and a General Artificial Intelligence, a data-driven society run for the maximisation of human happiness and the limiting of constraints on both human desire and information-technology, would certainly describe a ‘competent’ society. Thank God that it will never happen.