by Rob Harding
Let’s leave the sordid world of Earth behind for a bit, and explore the potential of a concept that’s kind of easy to dismiss out of hand.
In his venerable Culture series, Iain M Banks describes a future society based around Minds, unimaginably super-intelligent AIs that control vast ships and space-going habitats, on which a massive collection of alternately hedonistic and depressed lesser-biological beings (assumed to be human, although it’s never made explicit) live pampered and comfortable lives. The Culture is semi-utopian, although, if it resembles any society, it resembles the US in its relations with other civilisations, The books frequently focus on both the skulduggery necessary to keep the civilisation running and the injustice of being born outside it. Nonetheless, it is a portrait of a society in which humans (probably) are protected, cared for and treated equally through advanced technology.
Because utopias aren’t easy or fun to write, few societies like the Culture have appeared in fiction before or since. There is one notable version, however, in the form of an oddly idealistic leftie meme: Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism.
FALGSC (Sometimes just called FALC, because ‘space’ is admittedly unlikely and gays apparently aren’t allowed to be involved in these things) is often an expression of frustration, tempered (especially recently) with a fatalistic sense of humour and understanding that we’ll never get there. In a world that sees Trumps and Assads, Dutertes and Al-Baghdadis, in a world where petty fascist shitheads are coming out of the walls on every continent and fundamentalists grow louder with every day, something as optimistic is impossible. More knowledgeable people scoff that Communism is a flawed system vulnerable to human nature, they delicately refuse to engage with the ‘Gay’ part and make accusatory comments about entitlement because of the ‘Luxury’ bit.
However you parse it, FALC and FALGSC are envisaged as post-capitalist utopias.
However you parse it, FALC and FALGSC are envisaged as post-capitalist utopias. As is pointed out in this video, capitalism as a civilisational operating system is starting to run into serious and systemic problems. As such, it’s time to start planning what society could evolve into, because there are some nasty failure stakes. Traditional extinction is on the table, of course. But, worse, we could end up with a capitalist kleptocracy, like that envisioned in William Gibson’s The Peripheral, where only the rich survive the near-apocalypse, or else either a hideous famine-stricken fascist dystopia ruling the starving masses, or a segregated post-oil nightmare.
FALGSC provides an alternative to all this. It’s not going to be easy to get to – vested interests, human nature and conservatism all stand in the way
Bots are getting smarter and more numerous every day, and, in recent years, even self-taught neural networks have started development – a huge step on the road to a self-sustaining AI. Capitalist systems almost always automate to improve efficiency – from the stone-age woodcutter assembling an axe to cut more wood, to the self-service checkout in Tescos, there’s always a machine to help fewer people do more work. Under a capitalist system, this process is focused on profit. This is a problem – our unemployment crises worldwide are bad enough, and in many countries birth rates are still increasing. People are living and working longer, making it harder for the generations after them to get jobs, even without the economic inequality that’s developed alongside that. Unemployed people can create big problems even if you’re the kind of heartless Tory bastard who doesn’t care about humans being starving to death– the Arab Spring is partly attributable to massive unemployment rates and stunted labour markets in many Middle Eastern countries.
Traditional capitalist automation only makes this much worse – robots and bots are much cheaper to run than humans, so even businesses that want to reject them and hire only humans are dooming themselves to obsolescence and rapid undercutting. Automation hasn’t started to bite properly yet, and already it’s predicted that one in three jobs are at risk within the next twenty years. Within my lifetime, we could be looking at a society where it’s no longer economical to hire human workers for 90% of the jobs out there.
Universal Basic Income is a potential patch to this problem, but it’s a limited one and it’s unaffordable for many of the economies where mass automation will bite hardest – the manufacturing-heavy developing countries and the industrialising third world. What happens when a third of a billion Chinese workers are out of a job thanks to automation? What happens to India’s already high unemployment rate when the robots come for everyone’s jobs?
Worse still, under a capitalist system, those that own the machines (free of the constraints of having to support a workforce) will be able to become extremely wealthy. With the natural tendency of the wealthy to want to pay as little tax as possible, and with nearly everyone else relying on universal basic income to survive (assuming a fully functional semi-universal UBI system can be implemented at all, against heavy ideological opposition from hidebound conservatives the world over), taxation becomes almost useless. We then end up in a situation where governments can’t pay for themselves, or the potentially billions of unemployed, because no-one’s hiring any more and the hyper-efficient automated industrial base can’t sell its products because no-one can afford them. (Or maybe the new auto-industrialists will consent to paying 95% taxes and somehow keep the whole system afloat by themselves – which would raise a dozen ethical questions if it wasn’t blatantly unrealistic.)
FALGSC provides an alternative to all this. It’s not going to be easy to get to – vested interests, human nature and conservatism all stand in the way (and what the hell’s their plan for this? I suspect it runs along the lines of ‘fuck you, got mine’, like it usually is.). Join me next week to explore some of the winding, difficult roads that might lead to the promised land of Fully Automated Luxury Gay (Space) Communism. It’s more practical than you’d think.
Featured image credit: James Vaughan, Flickr. Text reads ‘Soviet anthem is our triumph in space!’
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