Alan Turing, anarcho-communism, Bit Logic, Computer Science, Digital Socialism, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Gidget, Gig Economy, Karl Marx, Marxism, New Left Review, Wiliam Rapaport
21st century socialism must recognize that one of the most earth shattering, horizon expanding, revolutionary developments in human history is hidden in plain view: money, once the great elixir of progress, the indispensable lubricant of trade, the sine qua non of exchange, the sinew of capitalism, the lifeblood of state socialism, is now an impediment to progress. The question of money is no longer that of more or less, public or private, sovereign or dependent, supply or demand, ‘classical’, ‘Keynesian’, or ‘modern monetary theory’, but how soon we can get rid of it, how quickly we can usher in a world where there is no longer a need for it.
Consider that it is entirely possible to measure, weigh, track, render, monitor, surveil, coordinate, network, and evaluate in real time any unit of capital or labor, all manner of goods and services, such that one knows their precise physical state everywhere and at every moment of existence, from production to distribution, consumption to disposal and/or recycling. If that is the case, we need only establish the use value of a commodity (its utility) and forego the fictitious accounting associated with its ‘stored value’ such that a commodity can be truly ‘decommodified’, becoming the ‘thing for us’. If time and space has been so utterly transformed that trust and risk (competition) no longer provide an organizing principle for our economy, what is the purpose of money? Without a need for storing value, why do we need money? Why must we store value when its use can be determined by and immediately available to all? What would be the purpose of wage labor? Of private property? Of banks? Of insurance? Of advertising? Isn’t this the whole point of a truly communist economy–to do away with these things? Isn’t this what we anarchists and communists all agree we want to rid ourselves of? For the first time in human history it may be possible to achieve this, but it won’t happen because of some inexorable law of economics, or because capitalism will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. It will only happen if we will it to happen.
Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.
The above was popularized by the philosopher William Rapaport in the early 1970s. The period is there at the end because it is a grammatically correct sentence. Deceptively simple, Rapaport’s word-play requires a key to unlock the logic at work. The word ‘buffalo’ conveys three distinct meanings: as a proper noun it is a city, as a common noun it is an animal (aka bison) and as a verb it means to bamboozle. These nouns and verbs conspire with one another to transform an absurd list into an entirely reasonable thought. The sentence diagram above helps, if you are into that sort of thing, or just substitute the word ‘bamboozle’ for the verb ‘buffalo’ and the sentence can be understood as ‘buffalo from the city of Buffalo are bamboozled by other buffalo from Buffalo and in turn bamboozle still other buffalo from the city of Buffalo’.
That’s a lot of crafty buffalo.
Much later Rapaport, in his book Great Insights of Computer Science, makes another observation about a seemingly mundane matter, yet one that he shows has complex and far reaching implications. The first great leap in the theory of computer science was “Gottfired Wilhelm Leibniz’s, George Boole’s, Alan Turing’s, Claude Shannon’s, and Samuel Morse’s insight: there are only two objects that a computer has to deal with in order to represent ‘anything.’ All information about any computable problem can be represented using only 0 and 1 (or any other bistable pair that can flip-flop between two easily distinguishable states, such as ‘on/off’, ‘magnetized/de-magnetized’, ‘high-voltage/low-voltage’, etc.).”
Huh. All of the most spectacular advances in computer science can be reduced to such humble origins–the binary digit, or Bit. What a relief! For someone who is mathematics illiterate, such as myself, this is comforting. All that rarified knowledge has been constructed upon a foundation that is so simple an eight-year-old can understand it. Cool. What can we do with that?
To answer this question Rapaport identifies a second great insight that belongs to Turing alone:
“…there are only five actions that a computer has to perform in order to do ‘anything’. Every algorithm can be expressed in a language for a computer consisting of only five basic instructions:
- move left one location;
- move right one location;
- read symbol at current location;
- print 0 at current location;
- print 1 at current location.”
From this the modern electronic computer was born.
Turing, a gay man in mid-twentieth century England, is also largely credited with solving the cipher to the Enigma machine that encrypted and thereby safeguarded Germany’s most secret communications during WWII. Cracking the code facilitated an Allied victory. But what of Turing, the man? How was this singularly brilliant individual treated by the British state? He was hounded and incarcerated then subjected to chemical castration and psychological torture so as to ‘cure’ him of homosexuality. His signature contribution to solving Enigma was kept a state secret until long after his death, itself perhaps directly at the hands of that state.
The British state (as all states) pillaged the insights and innovations of its brightest ‘deviants’ then wrapped them up in the Union Jack and called it progress. The contrast between Turing’s contributions to science and the manner in which he was treated is emblematic of the difference between those insights and the political and economic system that claims them for itself. The film The Imitation Game acknowledges the injustices suffered Turing, but upholds the right of the state to pillage that which belongs to it by sovereign right. Anarchists and communists refuse to uphold that right, because all capital and labor, and the science and technology that drives inventions and innovations, belong to us, not bureaucrats or capitalists, innovators or influencers. They steal it from us. Our task, as always, is to take it back.
From the two insights above the Information Age has evolved. There are, of course, other insights and innovations, but few, it seems, are as fundamental as these two. The scaling up of Bit logic, and its service to capitalist political economy is reshaping the biosphere we call earth and our relationship to it. The so-called ‘Information Age’ with its computerized networking power, artificial intelligence and machine learning, genetic engineering, robotics and automation, are ‘disrupting’ concepts once considered fundamental to capitalist and state-socialist economics, such as trust and risk, space and time. However one assesses what are undeniably monumental, deep, broad and fast changes one thing should be crystal clear: In the hands of bosses and bureaucrats such power will only further our collective immiseration. There is no ‘progress’ here without attendant forms of domination. We must find a way to create a rupture with this process.
Marx wrote something about ‘value’ that might be of some use here (pardon the pun).
Capitalism has always been characterized by an effort to instrumentalize the trust and risk intrinsic to trade so as to guarantee profits for the property owner. This presupposes the prior existence of private property owners and workers–the former with the power to compel the latter to sell the only thing that ensures their continued mutual existence: the labor power of the worker. That labor power is the basis for all value. Yet for those economists who believe that something other than labor produces value, its easy to formulate trade in an abstract, ‘pure’ form and construct what I call the Santa Claus theory of economics: Someone needs something they don’t have, so they trade something in order to obtain it. Goods and services intermingle through the magic of competition and pricing and everyone is happy. Everyone gets what they deserve in the form of presents under the tree; only the lazy and undeserving get a lump of coal in their stocking. In this way inequality is justified and reproduced.
“But ‘profit-making’ is just capitalist exploitation. Its secret gave rise to the study of political economy; and since Marx disclosed it orthodox economics has been devoted to covering it up again…Capitalism is unique in hiding its method of exploitation behind the process of exchange, thus making the study of the economic process of society a requirement for its transcendence.” (A Dictionary of Marxist Thought. Tom Bottomore, Eds., 1983).
In order to overcome great distances and long periods of time associated with much trade, money served as a fungible representation of the value such goods and services contained. While this now seems natural, and no doubt was in many ways superior to other forms of storing value associated with earlier modes of production, it was never, and can never be, a definitive and accurate accounting of that value; it can only ever be a social construction of that value. Stamp that coin with a number, print currency with heads of state and corresponding digits, watch the stock market hit 26,000, it is still constructed by human beings in relation with one another. It does not have an existence independent of that social reality. Marx wrote that money in each of its moments mediates a social relation and has a dual nature:
“Commodities come into the world in the shape of use values, articles, or goods, such as iron, linen, corn, &c. This is their plain, homely, bodily form. They are, however, commodities, only because they are something two-fold, both objects of utility, and, at the same time, depositories of value. They manifest themselves therefore as commodities, or have the form of commodities, only in so far as they have two forms, a physical or natural form, and a value form.” (Capital. Volume 1. Part 1. Section 3).
Neither the physical form nor the value form can ever be captured through a number, only approximated. Such “depositories of value” are encoded in money, be it precious metal, fiat or digital. Here, I think, a conceit is indulged, or if you prefer, a sleight of hand is performed. This sleight of hand has proven more efficient, more powerful and most of all more fungible than competing forms of valuation. Private property, capital accumulation and markets organize trade–rationalize it–and facilitate the speeding up and expansion of the forms of monetary endcoding of exchange value necessary to overcome the long periods of time and often great distances involved in buying and selling labor and capital in the form of goods and services. But, regardless of its ability to outperform competitors, it was still an imprecise and arbitrary operation that also codified relations of exploitation and domination that are intrinsic to it. This operation appears to us as naturalized, by which I mean represented as an authentic and eternal, just and good, embodiment of the value of that good or service. When economists employ mathematical formulas and assert ‘laws’, it is as though the realm of capitalism is eternal. While some of these formulas can be helpful in understanding the nature of capitalism, such as Thomas Picketty’s R > G, they are only applicable within the narrow field of economics. However many econometricians may don white lab coats to assert their empirical knowledge, what they practice is still, at best, numerical anthropology or mathematical sociology. Value in a Marxist sense is always, everywhere and throughout all of history, something human beings determine. These laws and the numbers that make them appear so solid do not stand outside of time, outside of history. This misrepresentation, (conceit, sleight of hand) lies at the heart of capitalist, and much socialist, political economy: that part of the value of a good or service can be ‘stored’ and rendered as an amount expressed by the numerical symbols of whatever currency is deemed legitimate.
Non Marxist economists believe that ‘stored’ or ‘deposited’ value can be calculated one way, through pricing signals and monetary mechanisms toward that ever elusive market equilibrium, or the cosmic balance between supply and demand; Marxist economists, through the labor theory of value, another. Both economic theories, on paper and in practice, rely on a pricing mechanism and a monetary system together with banks, private or public, as institutions necessary to facilitate trade and the meeting of human needs, however imperfect. Socialist states sought to quantify the exchange value of labor and capital in monetary forms–every socialist state has had a currency, banks, an insurance industry, etc.,–no less than capitalist states.
With the public realm of the state it was possible to socialize (usually ‘nationalize’) values, to one degree or another; with the private the goal was, and is, to privatize them. Both approaches sought to expand and speed up economic growth and thereby social development. Socializing surplus value, on the one hand, or lifting all boats by expanding the pie, on the other. Private property and ‘free’ markets have proven to be more adept at this. All things being equal the military and economic might to command large armies of labor from which super profits and surplus value can be extracted, especially from the global South, has been a constant advantage throughout the recent history of capitalism. But how that growth and development is distributed is, of course, its Achilles heal. With the public and private, everyone is fixated on monetizing labor and capital, then dividing the fruits according to the logic of either system. Both only considered communism as an economic system free from private property and wage labor, money and exploitation, as a distant utopia or an ever present threatening dystopia but not, in any case, realizable in the here and now.
Bit Logic and a Communist Future
The explosion in computing power that Bit logic has unleashed threatens to upend this by potentially making the public/private binary obsolete because it is rapidly transforming the space and time involved in trade. It is simultaneously opening up a heretofore impossible communist future while also enabling a more exploitive and domineering state and corporate nexus. The gig economy and Bitcoin are responses to this change in the fundamentals of classical economics–both represent an intensification of private capital accumulation and control. That intensification is proceeding at a frenetic pace. Well meaning politicians who bemoan workers having to live ‘paycheck to paycheck’ are missing the fact that in our increasingly informal and digitized economy workers live from gig to gig, which is to say hour to hour, in their cars or cars they rent, while corporations continue to slough off the social costs of doing business onto the backs of those workers. As the gig economy grows–and it will grow unless we strangle it–other better paying, more secure, safe and fulfilling jobs disappear. But the freedom to set a work schedule of our own desire, or to take breaks when we need them, or not have a boss up in our face is greatly diminished when we must work 12-14 hour days and the only other options to this digital treadmill are prison or homelessness. Fully half of Google’s workers are now gidgets (my word, which is a portmanteau of widget and gig), i.e., contract workers with all the flexibility of someone unemployed but none of the benefits of an employee. Dismissing or applauding the growth of the gig economy ignores the inescapable logic inherent to its spread: capital is able to massively socialize costs while increasing accumulation. What allows for this is the increase in digital networking power, the massive disenfranchisement of the masses that accompanies the privatization of electoral politics and the general speeding up of the circulation of money. Workers have no choice but to work these jobs because, as a comrade once noted, labor always follows capital, as it doesn’t wish to starve or be imprisoned. The key here, much like the key to Rapaport’s sentence above, is understanding that this power belongs to us and must be returned to us and in order to bring that about we must fight for all of it. We must wrest that power from them, not enable it. No half-measures such as increased taxes, higher wages, a reclassification of workers or more democrats in office will do. Nothing less than everything will do.
Did you know that bluetooth beacons in grocery stores track cell phones to within centimeters and can send push notifications to nearby ‘shoppers’? These changes are not coming; they are already here. The good news is that many of them prefigure an anarcho-communist future. That future will not come about by its own volition; it must be won.
Developments in Bit logic and networking power, especially during the past 10 years, expose the increasingly unnecessary and wasteful aspects of capitalism while laying the groundwork to make it possible to forego these operations altogether. Some untethered radicals and discombobulated libertarians believe that ‘data’ will supplant ‘pricing’ in the near future, a signature development of a ‘post-capitalist’ future. Call it what you may, it will be worthless without a massive redistribution of wealth.
What is different today, or at least since 2010 is that whereas at one time such advances in technology facilitated trade and the meeting of human needs, now they hamper them. This is what continues to be misunderstood about the Great Recession of 2007-09: The upheaval was less about housing bubbles or asset overvaluations per se than about a balance that needed to be re-calibrated. An explosion of value was being unleashed through technological changes and that value had to be captured–privatized–by corporations and the state. But the velocity and breadth of these changes are outstripping the ability of the modern nation state to corral it. Bitcoin and the gig economy are efforts to intensify the privatization of these advances.
Instant and Inevitable Communism
Two recent articles, one a fluff piece the other more serious fare, address something similar. Aaron Bastani’s concept of “Fully Automated Luxury Communism” first made the pages of the New York Times on June 11, 2019, but it has been around for awhile. The nut of his argument, which is equal parts preposterous and loathsome, not least because it serves as a bridge between the affluent and entitled left and the soulless libertarian right, is as follows: “The case of cultured food and drink, far from a curiosity, is a template for a better, freer and more affluent world, a world where we provide for the needs of everyone–in style.” The article reads as if it was written by a 40-something neurotic boy-man channeling Lenin as a ‘salesman’, rather than he who gave the order to put the Romanovs in the ground. The breathless prose comes off as a promotional pitch for an inevitable technological revolution–no molotov cocktails or general strikes needed. As despicable as his article is and forthcoming book will be, Bastani highlights something of importance: automation, robotics, artificial intelligence and other advances in science are transforming the world, in particular the nature of work and workers. Most radicals know this, but it is an open question as to whether our theory has changed accordingly. The problem, which most radicals also understand, and that is left entirely unaddressed by Bastani, is in whose hands this transformational power resides. The answer, of course, is theirs. The struggle to reclaim that power will not be a cake walk. It will be brutal, and of necessity lightening fast and global, while hopefully successful. But it will not come about because Sergey Brin has decided to fund another vanity tech start up that produces genetically engineered meat. The significance of the article is in the fact that intellectual elites have taken notice of such changes and are planning accordingly. Some, full of dystopian dread, are buying land in New Zealand while others believe the Bolsheviks will never come for their Doggy Hotels because the rough edges of capitalism will be smoothed over through the invention of a better mousetrap delivered to their door by a drone.
The other article of interest, with more heft to it, is that by Evgeny Morozov in New Left Review (No. 116. June 2019). “Digital Socialism? The Calculation Debate in the Age of Big Data” is concerned with similar developments in science and technology. But where Bastani laps up genetically engineered hamburgers made of petri dish grown cellular matter with squirts of commodity fetishism to sweeten the taste, Morozov is more concerned with whether Silicon Valley can cough up fresh “legitimating narratives” and “regenerative mythologies” to buttress actually existing capitalism. The most important aspect of this requires revisiting the “socialist calculation debate” and something called the “New Deal on Data” a concept that derives from a paper presented to the 2009 Davos forum. Morozov writes:
“I will go on to suggest ways in which the development of digital ‘feedback infrastructure’ offers opportunities for the left to propose better processes of discovery, better solutions for the hyper-complexity of social organization in fast-changing environments, and better matches of production and consumption than Hayek’s solution—market competition and the price system—could provide.”
Here is the whole weight of the material determining our political possibilities–sort of a reiteration of the base and superstructure debate. Mozorov is essentially arguing for a more sophisticated ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’ with a tweak from Picketty and perhaps Hayek. Both articles are largely non-starters because of where they begin. For Morozov a compelling argument has been made by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger through his works Big Data and Reinventing Capitalism in the Era of Big Data (or, provocatively titled in the original German Das Digital) that data will replace the pricing mechanism as the guarantee of the internal logic of capitalism.
“Das Kapital, they argue, is out of date: once it is efficiently utilized throughout the economy, Big Data will not just reinvent capitalism—the English title is too modest on this point—but end it. ‘It may be time to close the door on history and officially eliminate the term “capitalism”’, they proclaim. In place of finance capital and firms, data-rich markets will empower humans to work directly with each other. More dramatically, data will supplant the price system as the economy’s chief organizing principle.”
While Morozov does not buy this argument, he does seem to relax his critical faculties when it comes to the proliferation of feedback mechanisms associated with the big data of Amazon and related Gig economy ‘disrupters’. His casual mention of Bla Bla Car, a rideshare startup in France that allows a rider to set a ‘chattiness’ level of a driver neglects to note that this is a form of labor discipline exercised by capitalists. This feature of new data as it intersects with the gig economy is left unexplored, which is a shame because it is the nexus for the anti-labor, anti-human character of this emerging economy. Morozov forgets that the very notion of a ‘consumer’ is bound up with enforcing labor discipline as much as it is about limiting rat feces in bologna. For Marxists, there is no such thing as a consumer, only my labor power and the assholes who steal the surplus value from it. Mozorov evinces no recognition of this fact about the new gig economy.
Whether it be pricing or data, there is no way to definitively quantify the value of capital and labor, goods and services through money, although this is precisely what capitalist and socialist states and their theorists have argued over for the past two hundred years–not if it could or should be done, only how it could or should be done. That’s what the great ‘Calculation Debate’ should have been about. To suggest that it needn’t have taken place at all is not necessarily a fools errand that romanticizes ‘primitive’ modes of production, such as bartering, ‘pre-capitalist’ economies or those such as that practiced by the Zapatistas for more than twenty years throughout the region of Chiapas. We must relentlessly interrogate the notion that there are ironclad stages of development that define and constrain our ability to realize a communist future, aka the stage theory of socialism. We are constantly told that we can eventually overcome this, but to push for too much too soon is to court disaster because it is impossible. The elimination of work, of money, of private property and the state is something that must come about, but can only come about in the distant future. So we have been told. But if capitalism is experiencing a crisis of confidence, so too is the guiding logic of state socialism. Something is different from then and now. Why? Big data, with or without flexible and recursive mechanisms for ‘bringing people together’, will always trend toward monopoly and dictatorship because the dna of the modern corporation is that of domination and exploitation. They are by definition totalitarian regimes. This is not addressed by Mozorov. Small or large, if the corporation remains, our future is bleak. Right now the modern corporation is in almost complete control of all the most important advances in science and technology, not to mention the erasure of politics and culture. To theorize the state as a vector of opposition to ‘globalization’ is to miss the fact that it has been largely captured by capitalists, be they national or ‘international’ in outlook. It just doesn’t make much of a difference.
What is fundamentally different about our situation today is that if we wait, it will be too late. We court disaster by not pushing for everything now, because only everything will stave off total disaster of one type or another. Whether that imminent threat be climate change, fascism, species collapse and pandemics, or just the continuation of neoliberal digital dictatorships wobbling about as a hollowed out and emaciated liberal democracy, is irrelevant. Any one or more of these threats will end the dream of an equalitarian and democratic future. Organized human societies and the democracy and equality that give them meaning are increasingly at risk of collapse. While one could argue that making a leap toward an anarcho-communist future risks destabilizing liberal democratic alternatives, it is becoming more apparent than ever that the risks associated with not making such a leap outweigh those of attempting it.
All Accounting is Fictitious.
All ‘costs’ could be socialized without a monetary system, banks, loans, insurance, or any type of symbolic semiotic absurdity mediating the lifespan and use of a given good or service. Strip from that rutabaga plant or taxi ride, domicile or space shuttle every aspect of pricing and markets, money, buying and selling, wages and ownership, advertising and insurance–what do you have? The thing in itself which we make the thing for us, that which belongs to the commons. If we weren’t spending our time and energy fixated on monetizing exchange value, what could we spend our energy and ‘cognitive capital’ doing? All of those things above that define a good or service sans the elaborate and wasteful exercise in fictitious accounting. In other words, all accounting is fictitious. The operation, while undoubtedly surreal, is not without real world consequences, but it is and can only ever be a misrepresentation of the value it is said to embody. We arrive at that value through our collective control of the process, or it is imposed on us.
Another way of looking at this: What an extraordinary waste of human energy! If there is no longer a need for assurances of trust necessary for the taking of risk, because that trust and risk has been socialized in the commons, for what does one need money? If those great distances and long periods of time have been effectively overcome, what is the point of money? The answer is to maintain inequality. Today it is increasingly only that. It is a system that has lost its ability to project a future worth projecting so it resorts to the doctrine of TINA–There Is No Alternative. The very forces it has unleashed have become fetters on further development, as someone once said, so it forecloses on any future other than that of its continued domination.
Bit Logic ≠ Money
Consider the difference between Bit logic and money. Bit logic is perfectly logical, its operations by definition must solve an equation, complete an algorithm. It’s an arrangement of zeros and ones. This is behind that annoying statement that coders and software engineers are fond of quipping: a computer program can never be wrong; it can only be programmed (by a human) incorrectly. Exchange value, on the other hand, is not strictly logical in the above sense; it is a social construction that employs a certain logic in its execution, but can only ape bit logic. It always reflects whatever values a ruling class is able to impose on subordinated classes, something decidedly social in nature. That value is mediated by the class struggle, not independent from it. There is no ‘value’ apart from this. In this sense the value of money lies in the ability of a ruling class to live in a manse, impose a border, enforce a regime of labor, and organize all of this from its computerized citadels. It has no existence independent from this.
Try and imagine a world without finance, debt, deficits and loans, without corporations and governments, without advertising and without wage labor, without work. It is difficult because it cannot be done without an understanding of the functional and structural basis of capitalism and the state together with a theory of what can replace them, and how to bring that about. It’s also the case that such a dream of the future cannot be piecemeal, because it is always subject to the death of a thousand cuts. You want open borders? What about the chaos that would ensue? And so on. Additionally there is a dynamic to capitalism such that whatever we are able to wrest from one hand they will take back (and more) with the other. This is what we radicals mean by a ‘systemic’ analysis, or “the system”. Bit technology can help facilitate this transformation–it can be used to help us replace capitalism because it is different from it.
Now, it should be clear that I am not a Luddite. But I am also not a futurist nor a technological determinist. This technology which exists on a world-changing scale must be controlled and shaped by the commons for the common good. We ought not hide from, organize around, ignore or destroy it. We must make it serve the common good. We can only accomplish this through political struggle. Left in their hands it will bring us nothing but more misery. What we yearn for, the prize that we must always keep our eyes on, is what is meant by this quote from Marx, altered for gender clarity:
“For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each woman has a particular exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon her and from which she cannot escape. She is a hunter, a fisherwoman, a shepherd, or a critical critic and must remain so if she does not wish to lose her means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch she wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherwoman, shepherd or critic.” (The German Ideology).
This year the British state will adorn a 50 pound note with a visage of Alan Turing. Such a conflation of the scientific genius of Turing with that of the unscientific power of money is obscene, and perfectly in keeping with the odious nature of the United Kingdom.
This is not our future, much less the only possible future; it’s no fucking future at all. I will have none of it. Let’s bring something different into existence. Let’s take a leap toward a 21st Century socialism, in a word Anarcho-Communism.