Socialism, Technology, and Ideologies of Misery

Matías Maiello

January 3, 2021

Why is it that postcapitalists cannot dream of a future, but revolutionary socialists can?

At a global level, capitalism increasingly functions as an unstoppable machine for producing inequality. The most recent compendium of this evolution was made by a mainstream economist, Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. He continued with the topic in his more recent Capital and Ideology.1Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020).

Assessing the economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Bank finds that by 2021 there will be 150 million more people living in extreme poverty. This amounts to nearly one in 10 of the planet’s inhabitants living on less than US$1.90  a day; one in four on less than US$3.20; and 40 percent of the earth’s population — nearly 3.3 billion people — on less than US$5.50. But the crisis isn’t all bad news. The number of billionaires worldwide has increased to a record 2,189 individuals. The 400 richest people in the United States have increased their fortunes by 8 percent, and for 15 of them the increase has exceeded 40 percent. At the top of the list, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX increased his fortune by 242 percent. Poor Jeff Bezos, owner of Amazon, made it only to 57 percent.

MIT economist Daron Acemoglu, writing in Foreign Affairs, concludes that Trump will not be the last American populist. Far from it, given that the very foundation of his existence as such lies in growing inequality — a phenomenon for which Acemogulu seems to have no explanation.

The root causes of these inequalities have proved surprisingly difficult to pin down. The rise of new, “skill biased” wunder technologies, such as computers and artificial intelligence, has coincided with a period of singularly low growth in productivity, and analysts have not convincingly explained why these technologies have benefited capital owners rather than workers.

The answer is not much of a secret. Capitalism has the rare virtue of transforming advances in science, technology, and labor productivity, which could increase free time and the well-being of humanity, into their opposite: misery, which capitalism creates and reproduces while adding to the immeasurable fortunes of a handful of billionaires who accumulate wealth equivalent to that owned by half of all the world’s people. The secret that Acemoglu wonders about could be defined by paraphrasing Bill Clinton: “It’s private property, stupid.” Yet in recent times it has become a kind of taboo to question private ownership of the means of production and of the fruits of labor. Meanwhile, we have seen the rise of such concepts as “grassroots economy” and “universal basic income,” praise of the “commons,” and calls to fight for “digital socialism.” What’s going on?

Biotechnology and Artificial Intelligence as Motor Forces of History

A recent book by Alejandro Galliano asks, in its title, Why can capitalism dream and we cannot? In it, he admonishes us not to “give away the future to a bunch of crazy millionaires. Let us recapture some idea of the future, or someone else will do it for us.”2Alejandro Galliano, ¿Por qué el capitalismo puede soñar y nosotros no? [Why can capitalism dream and we cannot?] (Buenos Aires: XXI Century/Crisis, 2020). British journalist Aaron Bastani seeks to do just that with his idea of “fully automated luxury communism.”3Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto (London: Verso Books, 2019). He proposes, like so many other “postcapitalist” authors, that we are living through the first moments of a great technological disruption that will bring about the end of work and relentlessly shrink the production costs of just about everything, thanks to automation through artificial intelligence and the transformation of biotechnology.4For a critique, see Esteban Mercatante, “La perspectiva comunista en tiempos de inteligencia artificial y biotech” [The communist perspective in times of artificial intelligence and biotech], Ideas de Izquierda, August 4, 2019.

Bastani offers a number of different examples. For instance, information-management capacity has grown exponentially. In 1996, the U.S. government built a tennis-court-sized supercomputer at a cost of $55 million; it had half the processing capacity of a $400 PlayStation 4. There have been similar advances in biotechnology — such as the sequencing of human DNA and the production of synthetic animal proteins. Bastani also mentions the progressive lowering of the cost of solar energy, which could make it a viable alternative in the energy grid on a global scale. He even anticipates a promising future for mining in space, which could allow unlimited access to many resources.

Given these developments, Bastani proposes a communism of abundance in which we enjoy leisure while machines take care of all the rest. Some of Bastani’s examples are more current, and others are in the pipeline, but scientific and technological progress is nonetheless a fact. But between the situation today and the full automation of labor (and the propaganda about the end of work), two small problems stand in the way: capitalist profit and the state, which guarantees that profit. Many potential technological developments — especially those related to the health and welfare of the great majority of people — require huge capital investments and clash with the prerogatives of profitability. It is thus no coincidence that “grassroots” technological advances — beginning with computers and the Internet — have military origins.

Beyond the propaganda around the “end of work,” the development of technology would indeed allow the same commodities to be produced with less and less work, but capital needs more and more precarious workers to increase its profits: on the one hand, underemployment, unemployment, and “marginalized masses”; on the other hand, overwork, exhausting workdays, and “broken” workers. It is one thing for technology to create use values that satisfy needs (e.g., a car for mobility) and produce them in less time — that is, with a lower expenditure of (socially necessary) labor time. It is another thing altogether for technology to create exchange values (the value an object has in the market). It is the latter that is really “useful” to capital, which does not care about a thing’s utility for satisfying a need, but sees the thing as a necessary vehicle for realizing profit. And that profit does not come from the machines, which do not create any new value, but from the unpaid labor time that the capitalist steals from the worker.

Therefore, the labor force is a “cost” for the capitalist, but he cannot do without it because it is his only source of genuine profit.5For a development of this argument in the debate on the end of work, see Paula Bach, “¿Fin del trabajo o fetichismo de la robótica?”[The end of work or the fetishism of robotics?], Ideas de Izquierda, July 11, 2017.

As Marx put it in Grundrisse,

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth. Hence it diminishes labor time in the necessary form so as to increase it in the superfluous form; hence posits the superfluous in growing measure as a condition — question of life or death — for the necessary.6Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857–61), Notebook VII — The Chapter on Capital.

On the other hand, Bastani’s idea is that the development of technology and the productive forces — rather than the class struggle, as Marx indicated — will be the motor force of history that lifts us to communism. This sets us back a century. He concludes his book by reminding us that “Isaac Deutscher once wrote ‘socialism is not evolution’s last and perfect product or the end of history, but in a sense only the beginning.’ This is how FALC [Fully Automated Luxury Communism] is best conceived.”7Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, 243. Indeed, Deutscher was a leading representative of these illusions about the development of the productive forces, which he depicted as a kind of demiurge of history that, in his estimation, would lead the Stalinism-dominated Soviet Union to socialism.

Russia went from being a European example of misery and backwardness in 1917 to putting Sputnik, the first satellite in history, into orbit in 1957. By then, workers were guaranteed wages and employment, education, health care, and seven-hour workdays, but this was happening at the same time that the regime was demoralizing the working class under the boot of a totalitarian dictatorship that would soon also stifle the economy. Visions such as Deutscher’s that bet on a sort of “workers’ developmentalism” led to sugarcoating the Stalinist bureaucracy, which, at the end of the 1980s, ended up becoming a direct agent of the capitalist restoration and the International Monetary Fund.

In Bastani’s case, it is a matter of embellishing a positive idea of an administrative and “socially sensitive” capitalist state. Clarifying that luxury communism “must instruct its users about immediate next steps,” he tells us that while we wait for “technological disruption” to develop, we should demand a break with neoliberalism, a state-funded transition to renewable energy, “universal basic services,” and so on. The dream of the future ends up vindicating a kind of welfare state, updated for the times. It should be remembered that the original version of “welfarism” was not only a counterattack against the rising Soviet Union but was also based on the “Thirty Glorious Years” — the decades of growth that followed the massive destruction of productive forces caused by World War II and that, incidentally, ended catastrophically with the world crisis of 1973–74. In short, Bastani’s thesis is a blueprint for the future that reeks of the past, but that omits from the story nothing less than crisis, war, and revolution.

Postapocalyptic and Integrated

In his aforementioned book, Galliano tells us,

Today, in the face of the painful rise of capitalism 4.0, apocalyptic images are crowded into the most diverse cultural products, from series and films to uninspired analyses of the situation. … It would be better to begin to understand that capitalism as an experience consists of living the end of the world every day. … Thinking about the future today requires thinking beyond the end of the world, because the apocalypse has already arrived and we are still here.8Galliano, op. cit.

This is an elegant way of denying the crises and catastrophes imposed by capitalism, portraying them as an exaggeration of Marxists, and responding to a certain trend. Galliano’s concept would be, to paraphrase a popular songwriter, “blessed are those who are at the bottom of the well because from there, there is only room for improvement.” Of course, it is much more edifying to think about the apocalypse than about crises. In the face of the apocalypse we can do nothing; we can only wait for the fulminating blow of destiny, and in any case prepare ourselves for divine salvation. The crises are more complicated.

This position is, however, about 120 years older than the British television series Black Mirror, which presents a dystopian picture of the unintended consequences of new technologies in modern society. Less bound to worship pessimism, the social democratic leader Eduard Bernstein back in the late 19th century optimistically concluded that Marx had been wrong to predict capitalist crises. According to Bernstein, crises were not sharpening and therefore would not lead to the collapse of capitalism. Counteracting tendencies were emerging in the credit system and in the world market, trusts were developing, and the state was intervening more in the economy. Thus, he asserted that

through legislation and a series of economic policy measures organized society is intervening more and more, from various angles, in the domain of capital, and therefore the tendency toward collapse cannot materialize in the way that was previously foreseen.9Eduard Bernstein, Der Sozialismus einst und jetzt (1922) [Socialism past and present].

The prognosis was clearly wrong, and World War I broke out in 1914 — becoming the worst massacre in human history up until that time. But unlike the apocalypse, it led to the triumph of the Russian Revolution. It should be remembered that the Bernsteinian idea persisted, and the social democracy it supported played a fundamental role defeating the successive revolutionary uprisings that took place in Germany in 1918–19 and 1923, and it reappeared later during the 1930s capitalist crisis. Hitler’s victory was the result. No wonder, as Walter Benjamin wrote, that

the concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time. A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself.10Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” [also known as “On the Concept of History”] (1940).

While some certainly reject (or guiltily accept) the idea of progress in today’s “postapocalyptic” visions, they definitely owe a great debt to the idea of just continuing on in empty, homogenous time. Those who dare to think about war, such as Wolfgang Streeck, imagine that “with improved technology, even collateral damage can be limited.” He tells us that, “if in the not so distant future, robots were pitted against robots — Tesla drones against Huawei drones, for example — the battle would no doubt be screened as entertainment.” It sounds like Netflix has rotted our brains, but that’s the way it is. Meanwhile, warships and militarized artificial islands are steadily proliferating in the China Sea.

Galliano tells us that in this warm postapocalypse, capitalism can dream. This is shown by the fact that Elon Musk — while making the drones Streeck mentions and increasing his fortune by 242 percent during the pandemic — is pushing the idea of colonizing Mars. But the reality is that today, if capitalism lacks anything, it is a vision of the future; this lack has been dubbed “secular stagnation,”11Translator’s note: The term “secular stagnation” originates with economist Alvin Hansen of Harvard University, who in 1938 described a theory under which there is negligible or no economic growth in a market-based economy. More recently, it has been used primarily by Lawrence H. Summers, former secretary of the Treasury in the Clinton administration and former president of Harvard University, where he is a professor of economics. Summers uses the theory to explain why U.S. growth is insufficient to reach full employment. See, for example, Lawrence H. Summers, “The Age of Secular Stagnation: What It Is and What to Do About It,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 2 (2016): 2–9. but this postapocalyptic idea of mainstream economics is haunted by a history of crises, such as those of the 1930s, 1973–74, 2008, and the present. As Paula Bach noted in a recent article, Paul Krugman — referring to capitalism’s “lack of engine” and imagining some kind of impulse comparable to that of World War II — ironically stated that there needs to be an “alien invasion” of the United States. Perhaps Musk can take the message to Mars to get the Martians to come. Or maybe the “aliens” will end up coming from the East. But we can rest assured that the apocalypse has obviously passed.

Dreaming inside the Matrix

According to World Bank data, the booming world of artificial intelligence and biotech — the evolutionary development that Bastani expects to bring the advent of communism — has left behind some 3.3 billion people. About 40 percent of the world population cannot, to a greater or lesser degree, meet its basic needs and is subjected to precarity in work and life. It is a social gap that has its own particularities in each country. The political scientist and sociologist José Nun was one of the pioneers in analyzing this type of social gap in the semicolonial world. Back in 1969, starting from a reading of Marx’s Grundrisse, he coined the term marginal mass to make

a double reference to the system that, on the one hand, generates this surplus [population] and, on the other, does not need it to continue functioning. When Trotsky analyzed the unemployment of the 1930s in the advanced capitalist countries, he concluded, “The present army of unemployed can no longer be regarded as a ‘reserve army,’ because its basic mass can no longer have any hope of returning to employment: on the contrary, it is bound to be swelled by a constant flow of additional unemployed.”12José Nun, “Sobrepoblación relativa, ejército industrial de reserva y masa marginal” [Relative overpopulation, industrial reserve army, and marginal mass], Centro Latinoamericano de Demografía (CELADE) Internal Bulletin, series D, no. 76, August 1971. Translator’s note: The Trotsky quote is from Leon Trotsky, “Marxism in Our Time” (April 1939).

On the basis of Trotsky’s observation, Nun clarified that although this “basic mass” will not find work again, not everyone experiences this, and further that the “marginal mass” does not have as its only component the unemployed but also the less-productive sectors of industry and services. At present, the first place is occupied by the huge contingents of the precarious and underemployed. In turn, in the semicolonial world, subordination to imperialism is a key and distinctive element in the scheme of backwardness and dependence that reproduces that “marginal mass.”

The neoliberal right in general assumes this social gap as a starting point. The question is to define who is on one side and who is on the other. The index of salvation would be “meritocratic,” beginning with those who have the “merit” to be owners and/or heirs to the ownership of the means of production and exchange. Neoreformism, or “leftist populism,” according to Chantal Mouffe’s definition, also accepts this situation.13Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (London: Verso Books, 2018). Such reformists do not explore how to overcome the social gap, but they do consider what attitude one should have toward those who are “naturally” left out. Kirchnerism in Argentina was a good example: its greatest “achievement” was to reduce poverty to (only) 25 percent and labor “informality” to (only) 40 percent at the peak of a favorable economic cycle for the country. Aware of the destabilizing potential of that “marginal mass,” the “present state” makes guarantees while condemning large portions of the population to mere survival under conditions of poverty or indigence. In times of prosperity, this can be a quarter of the population; in times of crisis, it can exceed 50 percent.

Up to this point, it is a question of “public management” (of misery), but there is an ideology aimed at sugarcoating it all: the “social” or “popular” economy. Specifically,

a set of generally low-intensity economic activities … developed by the popular sectors with a view toward guaranteeing or sustaining the meeting of basic needs, through the majority of their workforce using available resources and state subsidies.14Francisco Longa, Historia del Movimiento Evita: La organización social que entró al Estado sin abondanar la calle [History of the Evita Movement: The social organization that entered the state without leaving the street] (Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2019). See also Grace López Eguía, “A propósito del Movimiento Evita: ¿resistir con resignación? [About the Evita Movement: Resistance with resignation?], Ideas de Izquierda, August 4, 2019.

Precariousness and the social or popular economy become a supposed “natural” destiny of half the population. A subsociety in which aspirations cannot overcome the “satisfaction of basic needs” — excluding housing, of course — is not going to be a place they want occupy, as they did in Guernica, Argentina, on land destined for a golf course. Obviously, countries are for the rich; for the poor, there is the “planet of slums,” as Mike Davis called it — which is home to about one in six of the world’s inhabitants.15Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (London: Verso Books, 2006).

It is certainly unsurprising that Pope Francis is an enthusiastic spiritual promoter of the “social economy.” What is strange are visions like those of Galliano, who calls on the left to “dream,” is deluded by an inevitable expansion of the “marginal mass,” and sees a desirable future in some sort of improved reproduction of misery. Returning to Argentina, Galliano reminds us:

Kirchnerism broke with part of the organized labor movement and opted to lean more and more on social organizations of the “popular economy,” even after leaving the government in 2015. Even so, it was a non-systematic, improvised transformation full of contradictions, which, with the change of government in 2015, turned into a model of mere containment.16Galliano, op. cit.

He concludes,

Today, one way out may be to accelerate this process toward full integration of the marginal masses with a broad and negotiable basic civic income, moving from mere reproductive containment to civic integration, with institutions guaranteeing to negotiate it.17Galliano, op. cit.

All these proposals leave out that the miserabilist ideal of the “popular economy” — even in a hypothetical “broad and negotiable” version — is the flip side of the parasitic “productive country” of ownership (big and medium capitalists, managers, and a growing affluent middle class). As much as this equation may seem a “win-win” to some, it is not. Continuing with the example of Kirchnerism: under the agreement not to challenge the essence of Argentina’s backward and dependent semicolonial structure, Kirchnerism opposed right-wing proclamations against the “lazy people who rely on the state” as a “cultural battle.” Against meritocracy, Kirchnerists raised solidarity — a noble gesture indeed, were it not for their understanding of “solidarity” as the distribution of misery while the big bourgeoisie and the multinationals raked it in. Paying $10 billion in cash to the IMF was an act of “sovereignty,” but working people’s demand that the state cover basic family needs instead of taxing their wages was an act of “privileged” and “selfish” people who did not want to show solidarity with the neediest. If that is not “playing to the right wing,” what is?

Of course, along with the “popular economy,” there is a whole other set of justifications for why private ownership of the capitalists’ means of production should not be touched. Toni Negri, for example, has long been developing the idea of “the common as a mode of production.” According to this, we are now “in the era of cognitive and cooperative work … the age of General Intellect.” In this era,

capitalist appropriation is presented in a completely transformed figure and … the appropriation of surplus labor is not exercised through the direct exploitation of labor and its consequent abstraction, but rather through a new mechanism of appropriation, which is characterized by the extraction of the common as the constitution of total social production.

So the question would not be to appropriate obsolete means of production such as factories, machines, and such trifles. The key would be issues such as, for example, “democratic practices of ownership and management of the ‘commons,’” or, of course, the demand for a “guaranteed income.”

The different variations of this are more or less attractive from an intellectual point of view. The common idea is that of a “universal basic income” or “citizen’s wage,” by which the state would grant an income to each person — regardless of employment status. Beyond the diverse intentions of its defenders, this proposal is really nothing more than another version (expanded and/or improved) of the policy of subsidies and social plans that the World Bank has traditionally recommended for the semicolonial world to “contain” the “marginal mass” and convert large contingents of the population into state “clients.”

Alternative Futures and Socialist Strategy

At the present moment, workers and the impoverished sectors must not miss opportunities to exact this or that partial concession from the capitalists and their state — especially during crises such as today’s. In Argentina, there is a long tradition of struggle among the unemployed, as well as in factories — such as Zanon, Madygraf, and many others — that are closed, taken over, and put under workers’ control. Guernica and other land occupations throughout the country represent the struggle for housing. Meanwhile, unions and other “social” bureaucracies, together with official ideologies (from corporate unionism to the miserabilism of the “social economy”):  these function precisely to keep working people divided, because their convergence is what scares the bourgeoisie the most. We saw some of that, for example, on November 12, 2019, in Chile, in what was the most important strike since the fall of Pinochet. We saw it to a lesser extent on December 18, 2017, in Argentina, in the fightback against the attack on pensions.

In the same analyses by Trotsky on the 1930s crisis in the United States, which José Nun took up when he elaborated his concept of “marginal mass,” the founder of the Fourth International went further and posed the programmatic and strategic consequences of the problem. The working class can tolerate neither the exponential proliferation of precarious, underemployed, and chronically unemployed workers in its ranks, nor the dependence on the state’s “good will” subjected to them by capitalism. Demoralization and reformism in general, Trotsky said, are psychological preparation for fascism and lesser right-wing evils. The only way for the working class to preserve itself in the face of the decadence and ruin that capitalism seeks to impose on it is to link immediate demands to the struggle to end all forms of labor precarization, for the reduction of the workday, and distribution of working hours among the employed and unemployed without reducing wages (that is, at the expense of the capitalists), for ending the pillage of debt, for the nationalization of foreign trade, for the banks to protect small depositors, and for the expropriation of the main landowners — among other measures that aim to reverse the dependence and backwardness that in the semicolonial world are a fundamental factor in making the existence of such a “marginal mass” seem “natural.”

Why do postcapitalists seem unable to dream? Because the development of the productive forces under capital not only fails to translate into more free time for everyone, but it also gives rise to enormous advances in different fields — telecommunications, robotics, aerospace, weapons technology, entertainment — while despoiling nature (agro-toxins, fracking, etc.). All this is oriented toward maximizing profits (and social control), but is quite removed from creating a more dignified and comfortable life for the great majority. If, then, our dreams lack an intention to end the private appropriation of the means of production and exchange, they remain in the hands of billionaires like Elon Musk. Of course, there is the consolation of virtual reality, of repeating the programmed dreams of new and old reformisms, and making more or less sophisticated, miserabilist bets while continuing to reproduce polarization and enjoying the postapocalypse.

We, though, can dream. Why is that? It is because working time as a measure of wealth, which produces and reproduces that “marginal mass,” is a miserable imposition sustained only by the persistence of capitalism. Because, as Marx put it, “the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labor time and on the amount of labor employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labor time.”18Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (1857–61), Notebook VII — The Chapter on Capital. This has never been posed so sharply given the current state of science, technology, and the development of the “general intellect.” Marx means that advances in science, technology, and cooperative work, if wrenched from the control of capital, would allow this capacity to produce the same things in less time. Humanity would then have to use less and less energy to produce what it needs to survive — until the amount of time imposed on each individual to engage in labor becomes negligible. It would mean we could truly unfurl all human creativity, productivity, and capabilities.

If we were freed from capitalism, and if labor productivity were further developed, it would make no sense for us to measure the wealth of our societies by the hours we invest in producing and reproducing our conditions of existence. Rather, we would measure it by the free time we have left to devote to everything else — to the creative leisure of science, art, and culture, and to establishing a more harmonious relationship with nature. It would be the true meaning of a communism of abundance. This is what gives currency to the internationalist perspective of socialist revolution, and to building workers’ own power to take the means of production and exchange out of the hands of the capitalists and place them at the service of the great majority — with the goal of reducing labor to a minimum.

As Trotsky wrote, it would mean freeing forever the creative faculties of humanity from all obstacles, limitations, and humiliating dependencies. Personal relationships, science, and art would need not suffer any shadow of obligation.

First published in Spanish on November 15 in Ideas de Izquierda.

Translation by Scott Cooper


Matías is a sociologist at the University of Buenos Aires and a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (PTS) in Argentina. He is co-author, together with Emilio Albamonte, of the book Estrategia socialista y arte militar (Buenos Aires: Ediciones IPS, 2018).