Kelvin Flats, Hillsborough, 1987, via Tower Block project
Is a socialist luxury possible? The fact that this question keeps coming up on social media seemingly twice a week, in new and ever more confused guises, suggests both that there’s a kernel of genuine and necessary investment there—a knotted complex of problems around socialised need, desire, and the relationship between existing social forms and their dissolution in any far-reaching social transformation—and that it’s the wrong question to ask. I won’t go into the latest instance of it on Twitter (except perhaps to link the tweet that lit the blue touchpaper), not least because the tendency to relentless bad faith, zero reading comprehension and using any unrelated topic as a chance to mount one’s personal soapbox have gotten, bizarrely, worse since the pandemic was declared over. The nature of the medium necessarily means, even in the longest thread, the leap from abstract individual claims to general or universal inference can never happen dialectically, or vice versa, instead becoming a binary referendum on (moral) topics unembedded in the global networks of production, consciousness and social practice that form their conditions of possibility. Which is fine: posting is just the agitation and satisfaction of the individual’s need for self-generated drama, the self-splitting and friction that Nietzsche identified as the great revolution of morality; though the ubermensch that could rise above it hasn’t been invented yet. (The alternative—hopping over to Substack or your local online left-wing magazine to generate a longer, more considered take on the same dull material, that will spend its opening paragraph discussing the content of tweets—is arguably worse. And yet.)
As it happens I published a fairly long essay on exactly this topic in New Socialist’s last issue on ‘Ecologies’. The first half deals in a rather digressive and technical way with the conceptual confusions surrounding the notion of “luxury” in the manifestos of Aaron Bastani (the originator of FALC as slogan) and Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek (the moulders of left accelerationism in its most recognisable guise as steroided Gramscianism). I suggest, basically, that whilst they claim to build on premises from Marx—passages in the Grundrisse and Capital Vol III on the tendencies in capitalist societies that tend, in their contradictory unfolding, to gestate the conditions for a superceding form of social organisation that realises concrete freedom and the abolition of private property—the way they conceive of the abundance of the socialism they project and demand deviates in important ways from Marxism. Their conception of that material abundance—what it means and how it would be achieved—derives rather from antagonism to forms of asceticism rooted in the image of nature as limit to human flourishing: not just neoliberal austerity, but old socialist disdain for non-necessities and mainstream environmentalism’s criticism of luxury as waste. While this critique is fairly narrow, and inconclusive because of the sheer muddle of the Bastani/Williams-Srnicek account, they’ve been perhaps those most responsible for foregrounding “luxury” as a keyword aligned with socialist arguments designed to advance greater economic and social equality as not just plausible but more realistic than the current settlement, which was plunging into secular crisis even before the pandemic. The final third of the essay traces the general issues that arise from this quandary and looks at William Morris’s design theories as an instance where the contradictions in the demand for “communal luxury” come to a potentially more useful resolution, one that takes “the tiger’s leap into history”, from the everyday facts of fashion, unemployment, hunger and work to the abstraction of “the good life” and back. As I say in the essay, I don’t suggest News From Nowhere as a template for what a “luxury communism” would look like now. Indeed, I quite deliberately don’t turn from an inconsistent theory of a future communism to my supposedly more accurate predictions, but back, as it were, to the Ur-phänomen of the 19th century socialist movement.
What I think is a more productive and interesting question to ask than exactly what a future socialist society will look like is why no-one can produce a satisfying account of the relationship between the needs and desires of the current conjuncture and their realisation in future freedom. There is the obvious fact that, properly organised, the resources and skills within global production networks can support everyone in decent levels of comfort—or, at least, that there is no natural necessity to the poverty, hunger and stress that besets the working classes in advanced capitalist societies. There are the mental Playmobil dioramas of Bastani, in which future happy tech workers relax in socialist condominiums. There are the claims—quite just but ever more shrilly articulated on social media as a natural right—of ordinary people to the treats capital doles out with ever less affordable price tags, and the values for which they’ve come to stand: glamour, ease, taste, convenience. Each of these things remains discrete from the other, frozen and reified in their iteration. (There’s something to be written about the successful, but increasingly dull, deployment of excessive aesthetics in pop culture, especially electronic music, where such maximalism worked precisely where it was allied to a sense of temporal implosion, of ‘No Future’.) There are fairly banal and legitimate reasons why this should be: the social texture of a different mode of production will be as unthinkable to us as 19th century industrialism was late-feudal peasants; no reforming state or social movement currently exists to make these demands real or gestate a new organisation of society. The reversible connection—fairly clear in Marx’s time: the tendency of a society constitutively split against itself, around property, survival and labour, to create its own gravediggers—has disappeared, and has to be conjured into the semblance of existence from the phantoms that remain. (Yadda yadda yadda.)
You could object—which I sort of do in the essay—that these are different things: luxury as a hegemonic tactic to make “socialism” seem like common sense versus the aimless, churning discontent of those forced into the subject-position of being workers while the wage-system that once sustained them collapses. Expansionism (as I call it in the essay) may distinguish between them in theory, but identifies them in practice, with the difference between the two being resolved by their “remarkably elastic conception of ‘need’”. Contemporary socialists seem all too ready to (strategically) abandon any philosophy of history for what the immediate good of their base, who can no longer afford the Beyond Meat tendies that make their sub-20k jobs bearable, and do so in the face of a concept—luxury—that seem more than perhaps any other to demand such a philosophy. The values of immutable hierarchy sedimented in “luxury” can’t be gotten rid of by the positivist wishful thinking that dogged the resurgent electoral left. The dissonances involved may for the moment be resolved, but they always return, and not just through the mouths of hairshirt online Third Worldists, but also “in the static form of debates about whether a socialist society would continue to have Apple Watches, Prada, air travel, etc” that seem to constitute many online leftists’ major hobby.
A different approach, finally, may be to turn the question over with an “evil laugh”, as Nietzsche had it. Is a socialist luxury necessary? In a sense, yes. A socialism of mere subsistence is still, despite the damage to the biosphere, not the necessary corollary of current struggles. There’s no reason to think that, even if an ecological socialist lifeworld would mean a decrease in individual consumption, this would mean simply deprivation and shoddy goods. Given how thoroughly sutured most subjects are into the addictive structures of capitalist modernity, some supply of treats on the old model would be necessary (as the Soviet Union discovered); given how gross average Western overconsumption is and how cheap and defective most goods are, overall consumption could be reduced and goods improved while still maintaining a far greater quality of life than now. (So we find ourselves back in the villages of News From Nowhere.) But this necessity is accompanied by a necessary transformation. What values, after all, do people think are being protected by an idea of socialism that is merely the defence of material entitlement? The necessity that would follow from a different perspective—one of freedom, even of Williams and Srnicek’s “synthetic” variety—would transform the contents of the category “luxury” into something unrecognisable to us. “Communal luxury”, as the dissonance between its two halves should imply, can only be lived out dialectically, with destructive consequences for the rigid conceptual shells of both. Necessary, then: yes; but does it follow from this that it’s possible? The answer can only be, likewise, yes (in a sense). It could be realised only in its dissolution, as the collective sating of need and desire change and clarify both. If “luxury” is the production of an order of material culture that exceeds mere need and functionality, as dictated by the compulsions of survival attendant on humanity’s existence as natural beings, then the qualitative transformation of humanity’s socialised “second nature” would transform the categories. (As Agnes Heller notes in The Theory of Need in Marx, the relationship between “need”, natural necessity and “luxury needs” in Marx’s work is quite ambiguous. Viewed from the economic standpoint, in The Poverty of Philosophy, luxury remains not a prescriptive term but “the counterpart of the descriptive sociological concept of ‘necessary needs’”, and is determined to a great extent by “‘moral’ and ‘historical’ elements” in the struggle over labour. By the time of Capital Vol II, this has become more workable: “No specific product or need possesses the quality of being a luxury product or a luxury need. … This ambiguity in the concepts of ‘luxury products’ and ‘luxury needs’ is not at variance with Marx’s general conception, by which the whole population can enjoy such ‘luxury needs’ only in exceptional and brief periods.” As there is no fixed content or quality to “luxury needs” and “luxury products”, they can be changed to such an extent that, as Heller argues, under “the society of associated producers” such needs would “cease to exist” as necessity’s transformation opens “the way for the development of individual ‘free needs’”. I’m not entirely convinced of this last claim, but it at least highlights how arbitrary many of the values and concepts are that many socialists prioritise defending.)
One thing I wanted to include in the essay but didn’t find room for in its already overstuffed and unwieldy structure: we ask these questions because we exist on the far side of the failure of the last attempt to construct a genuinely democratic luxury. The force of the modern workers’ movement realised, in the 70 years between the Commune and the post-war European welfare states, an enormous redistribution of access to things previously considered luxuries. This was of course—I say, looking cautiously at the few ultra-left readers of this newsletter—a compromise to buy off the working class, one achievable only at the height of monopoly capitalism’s profitability, made through the capture of bureaucratic layers of unions and mass parties (against which the mythic figure of the revolutionary council is always struggling), in the aftermath of 30 years of continent-spanning bloodshed, under—in the case of the Soviet Union—intense political repression. Of course. And yet, there was a poetic truth to the conservative view of Park Hill or the Finsbury Health Centre as forward operating bases of Communist subversion. “Mass democracy” may have taken the form of more and cheaper goods—supermarkets and Penguin paperbacks of Homer, Interflug and Shampanskoye—but the interwar high-culture panic about “the masses” swallowing and destroying the products of cultural distinction, turning art and myth into objects of mere use, had a dialectical moment of qualitative transformation, one that threatened to “declare privilege a human right”. This was one of the aspects of the political imaginary of “a world that could be free” that the last 40 years of politics have been expressly designed to destroy. This would be the major philosophical implication of Big Bill Haywood’s claim that “nothing is too good for the working class”: it isn’t a matter of deserving (as the source of social wealth) the luxuries currently distributed unequally as a result of wage inequality, nor yet of class resentment breaking the shop window that marks certain objects (fine dining, indoor plumbing, higher education, Ubers, upmarket party dresses, the cover charge at Mood Ring) as “too good” for ordinary people; rather, the political action of the class that abolishes classes would swallow and reconstruct all existing social forms as the basis of a life conducted in real freedom. In that sense, the future of luxury—here comes my prognostication—would depend on the relation between the “socialist” dimension of democratic luxury (as seen in its ruins) and the communist claim on everything for everyone. The 20th century saw that relation fall apart; we never left it.
god i was hoping beyond hope that you’d weigh in on this and, as i imagined, you’ve articulated it all so perfectly.