Fully Automated Luxury Socialism: The Case for a New Public Sector

Fully Automated Luxury Socialism: The Case for a New Public Sector

Poster for a production by the Federal Dance Theatre, a division of the Federal Art Project, Works Progress Administration, c. 1937 (Library of Congress)

There is a little-remembered scene in Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” published fifty years ago last August, where the writer, sleuthing through the menagerie of San Francisco’s counterculture, finds herself in the fleeting company of semi-professional political organizers. Didion, after talking to the groupies at a Grateful Dead rehearsal in Sausalito, feeding hamburgers to a runaway teen couple, and listening to hippies romanticize living “organically” off the land, eating “roots and things,” ends up at the apartment of Arthur Lisch, who is on the payroll of the American Friends Service Committee. When she arrives, Lisch is phoning VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), one of the agencies created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, to secure government funding for his group and their activities. The influx of teenage homelessness, he says, is creating a social crisis verging on riot. As he coaxes and counsels, a hippie sits in their living room in a psychedelic daze. Mrs. Lisch feeds their children while two Diggers cut up pounds of meat for “the daily Digger feed in the park.” But Lisch, it seems, is driven by a vision beyond bohemia. He “does not seem to notice any of this,” Didion writes. “He just keeps talking about cybernated societies and the guaranteed annual wage and riot on the Street, unless.”

The scene is worth remembering, not only for its portrayal of the diligent and tenuous work of movement building, but for its vision of the future. Today cybernation and the guaranteed annual wage—rebranded as the universal basic income—are having their renaissance. In March 2016 General Motors bought a self-driving-vehicle startup for $1 billion; in October, Qualcomm spent $47 billion on an automobile-chip company, one of several multibillion dollar deals over the past couple of years that saw semiconductor and software companies absorb leading firms in the auto-parts market. “This is almost something that should be a mission of the human species, instead of a company,” says one software executive of driverless cars. In the Harvard Business Review, MIT techno-evangelists Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson coo over the falling price of “industrial-grade ML [machine learning] deployments,” in everything from audio and visual recognition to accounting and financial services.

To be a player in tech today means selling policy as well as product. And so the public relations and political lobbying efforts in Silicon Valley have warmed up to what once seemed like a radical idea: the universal basic income. “There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income . . . due to automation,” Elon Musk told CNBC in November 2016. “I am not sure what else one would do.” In a widely circulated speech to Harvard graduates last May, Mark Zuckerberg joined the chorus, ...