While Karl Marx insisted that workers “have nothing to lose but their chains” in the overthrow of capitalism, musician Grimes was more circumspect in a recent Tik Tok video, with the partner of Tesla billionaire Elon Musk concluding that even if egalitarian abundance is possible, “enforced farming is really not a vibe”.
How many lives would have been spared had the German philosopher only scribbled that down in the Communist Manifesto? “I am not here to write recipes for the cookshops of the future,” Marx might have said, “but try and avoid the enforced farming thing, it probably won’t work”. Things could have turned out very differently for the kulaks.
While Grimes’ intervention attracted equal parts mockery and befuddlement – not least because Musk is the third wealthiest person on Earth and appears to pay virtually no tax – it is not as outlandish as it sounds. Indeed one could contend that Grimes is engaging with one of the most important arguments in 20th-century economics: the socialist calculation debate.
First posed by economist Ludwig Von Mises – inspiration to later neoliberal gurus like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman – in 1920, the socialist calculation debate centres on a simple question: how would an economic system that dispenses with market forces decide what to produce?
Ignoring typical arguments against socialism, like how it erodes incentives to work, Von Mises focused instead on how socialist planners could ever deal with the extraordinary amounts of information they are confronted with. For him, the answer was obvious: there is simply too much data, for producers and consumers alike, for a planned economy to ever succeed. Consequently, economic planning in general and socialism in particular are destined to fail as a result of inevitable discrepancies between supply and demand.
It was an elegant argument – at least in abstraction – and would become the most powerful case against socialism during the 20th century. What was more, Von Mises and his subsequent acolytes had a ready-made rejoinder of their own: Only prices can accurately reflect the supply and demand of raw materials, and the vast array of inputs into goods and services, and only prices allow consumers to influence outcomes by choosing one product over another. What hope did planning boards have by comparison? Hayek would later capture the essence of his mentor’s thinking when he wrote: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” In other words: the market always knows best.
This brings us back to Grimes, who argued on TikTok that “AI could automate all the farming… weed out systematic corruption, thereby bringing us as close as possible to genuine equality”. Whether she meant to or not, Grimes was proposing a solution to the problem Von Mises claimed socialist planners face. Even if you accept that humans are incapable of coordinating entities as complex as markets (and many people do not accept this) new technology could do it for us. Indeed, predictive algorithms and machine learning are already deployed on a vast scale by firms like Amazon and Walmart, entities that are highly efficient while also being both planned and hierarchical. If AI can outperform markets in optimal distribution, Von Mises argument is moot. If he ever was right, which again is disputed – after all there is an immense amount of ‘planning’ in capitalist firms and for things like central banks – he isn’t anymore.
The idea that AI has wide-reaching economic implications isn’t new. In 2017 tech billionaire Mark Cuban declared the world’s first trillionaire would be “somebody who masters AI and all its derivatives”. This may sound like celebrity hyperbole, but it isn’t. Consider the unprecedented concentration of wealth that Silicon Valley has already overseen – whether it’s the first trillion-dollar companies, like Amazon and Apple, or Jeff Bezos enjoying personal wealth in excess of $100 billion (there are four such people worldwide, in 2017 there were none) – and Cuban’s prognostications read more like sober reflection than attention-seeking.
Cuban’s claim also aligns with a growing consensus on the topic: under our present economic model, AI will profoundly intensify individual and regional inequality. A self-conscious AI, something essentially like us, is not necessary for a major disruption and isn’t coming anytime soon. So think less sci-fi imaginaries, like The Matrix or Skynet in Terminator, and more recursive learning in self-driving cars or warehousing robots. That’s a lot of jobs lost.
Then there is the small matter of geopolitics, with the race between the US and China to master the commercial and military applications of AI increasingly compared to the space race. Unsurprisingly, then, the world’s most powerful AI corporations are found in those two countries – with Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft in the US, and Baidu, Alibaba and TenCent in China. Some argue such consolidation is analogous to the early 19th century, when Western Europe, and to a lesser extent the US, mastered the technologies of the Industrial Revolution before anyone else. What happened thereafter was the most rapid concentration of economic, political and military capabilities in world history.
If we accept that AI has the power to create trillionaires, why is it any less ‘serious’ to say AI could recast the world of work for the better? Why is Grimes’s claim more ridiculous than Cuban’s? My argument has always been that the left should think just as big as the leading lights of Silicon Valley and the ‘new economy’.
The sphere of artificial intelligence is going to change everything, dissolving ideas of fairness in the labour market – access to AI will massively distort the price of labour-power – while transforming conflict as fully autonomous machines start to take human life. Ignoring that is like pretending the internet didn’t exist after 1990, or steam power after the 1820s. That is why the left must formulate an appropriate programme of legislation, taxation and, ultimately, socialisation, in response (lethal autonomous weapons systems, LAWS, should simply be banned).
Which is where Grimes gets it wrong. Under the present economic system, AI will not lead to communism but rather exacerbate inequality and reduce the downside for powerful countries to wage war. Most frightening of all is the prospect of such technology, alongside advances in synthetic biology, meaning biological and cognitive inequalities map on to economic ones.
Grimes’ implicit claim that technological change can, isolated from politics, address social challenges, resembles those of Musk, who has previously called himself a socialist, an anarcho-syndicalist, and a utopian anarchist. He has done this while moving from California to Texas to pay less tax, after Tesla was found to have illegally fired a worker for organising, and after he asked employees to not join a union because it does not “share our mission”. Such a conflict between his words and actions can partly be explained by a desire to provoke, but it is also undoubtedly inflected by a certain ideology of technology that emerged after the 1960s. It maintains political struggle is over, being a worker is one of numerous, competing identities, and that – for the most part – technological innovation will solve humanity’s problems.
Yet ours is already a planet where almost one billion people are underfed while billionaires see their wealth increase by $5 trillion in 12 months; where 40 million Americans use food stamps (before Covid) while Bezos spends $42 million on a clock that ticks once a year. Indeed Space X completed its first-ever reusable rocket launch just three months after the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach amid a refugee crisis that saw hundreds of thousands displaced.
Technology can help humanity address its problems, from climate change to demographic ageing, in the process creating unprecedented abundance. Artificial intelligence, in particular, could play a major role in achieving that, meaning the efficient distribution of goods without recourse to markets, while societies pursue care, ecological sustainability and leisure over profit. But it is only part of the answer, because all that requires politics too – and no longer allowing billionaires to have everything their own way. AI will change the world, but in whose interests?
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.