Luxury Socialism and the Triumph of Desire
“Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit. Brave New World is our idea of heaven: genetic manipulation, sexual liberation, the war against aging, the leisure society. This is precisely the world that we have tried — and so far failed — to create.”
— Michel Houellebecq
Perhaps the most salient critique of the left is that leftists are largely liberals. As hallowed standard-bearers of the left like Noam Chomsky have emerged alongside Google, Harvard, and Michael Bloomberg to back Joe Biden in an existential election, the future of the left seems clearly to side with capital in order to defeat red America. This, however, should not be surprising. In many ways, the left has long been allied with liberal conceptions of desire, economics, and the purpose of human life. If ‘conservatives’ tend to be fraudulent allies of capital who conserve nothing, then leftists too are merely the opposite wing of the eternal liberal project.
In a 2017 article titled For a Luxury Leftism, the left-wing magazine Current Affairs made a peculiar argument concerning the rightful nature of wealth in future socialist societies. The socialist editorial board writes:
“The problem is not the existence of riches, but the failure to allow all to share equally in them… The problem with limousine liberalism, then, was not the limousines, but the liberals. Radicals should be chic, revolutionaries should drink excellent wine… The left’s suits must be well-tailored, its pastries must be fattening.”
While it is tempting to consider this sentiment a distortion of the socialist project, the history of left-wing anarchist thought contains similar ideas. In The Conquest of Bread, the 19th century anarcho-communist philosopher Peter Kropotkin wrote that in a society liberated by the left “what is now the privilege of an insignificant minority would be accessible to all. Luxury, ceasing to be a foolish and ostentatious display of the bourgeois class, would become an artistic pleasure.”
The reading here is simple: even the most radical left-wing thinkers among us still envision a world where human beings should strive to live in extreme wealth, enjoying luxury cars, mansions, expensive wine, and making art while living in high, gentrified places. The bourgeoisie lifestyle of so-called ‘late capitalism’ is still the goal of utopian socialists — for liberals and leftists alike, a wealthy artist living in Manhattan’s Upper East Side is indeed inhabiting the fullest life possible, a life that is so noble and fulfilling that it should be granted to everybody.
In his book, Kropotkin argued that “aims of life vary with each and every individual; and the more society is civilized, the more will individuality be developed, and the more will desires be varied.” Yet, the market economies posited to be the opposite of socialism have historically been the primary engines of satisfying the multifaceted desires of individuals who seek the lifestyles of millionaires. Kropotkin emphasizes the satisfaction of individual desire as the basis of his ideal civilization, sharing the end goal of a finely-tuned consumer society. Kropotkin only differs from capitalists on the question of the most effective mechanism for spreading luxurious consumer experiences to every single person on Earth.
Whether we call our economic systems socialist or capitalist, they both seek the same thing: the fulfillment of individual consumer desires, also known as Adam Smith’s maximization of happiness — the achievement of the utilitarian goal of spreading the most pleasure to the largest quantity of people. As Kropotkin writes: “Looking at society and its political organization… we start from a free individual to reach a free society… we study the needs of individuals, and the means by which they satisfy them, before discussing Production, Exchange, Taxation, Government, etc.”
The function of a market economy is to identify and satisfy the desires of free individuals. Manifold consumer products are created in order to gratify the birth pangs of individual desire, as people all the world over demand a better class of product. While savvy Marxists will contend that capitalists use advertising to generate false desires, and that in a socialist society people would live by a different value system which engineers a different set of desires altogether, these claims remain entirely theoretical. Any revolution emerging from the existing society would have to successfully revise the current human understanding of what ‘luxury’ means. As the socialists at Current Affairs have taken it to mean mansions, limousines, and high-class entertainment modules, it remains to be shown exactly how the individual desires of citizens in socialist countries would really break from capitalist precedent.
Socialists might contend that a democratic co-op version of any tech company would generate new products freed from parasitic capitalist incentives, but what’s stopping the previous generation of capitalists from generating addictive and efficient products which ultimately succeed due to the same market motives which make products such as iPhones and Facebook so ubiquitous today? A state-owned monopoly would have to be protected from competition by outlawing private alternatives, creating a scenario more reflective of a Soviet state economy than any kind of anarcho-communism.
This kind of true universality in product adoption is exactly what Jeff Bezos seeks. The only difference between Bezos’ vision and that of luxury socialism is the rate at which all people gain access to Amazon Prime entertainment and futurist products such as commercial spaceflight or virtual reality worlds for all. For the proponents of ‘Fully Automated Luxury Communism’, many tech firms are creating the correct products — they merely need to bring down prices to the point of universal accessibility in order to achieve true communism. And of course, the workers, not Bezos, would determine which products are made.
But how would a society of workers determine whether or not their products are successful? Here, socialist ideas again regress to the mean of already-existing systems. In socialism, as in capitalism, the foundational idea of the economy is to satisfy individual desires. If people are ‘happy’, or addicted, and continue to access and ‘enjoy’ the product according to metrics of use and the overall progress of the product in gaining users, then it will probably be considered successful.
This paradox exists because in both Austrian economics and in Marxist theory, material well-being is the only valid metric of assessment for the quality of human life. A utilitarian conception of human well-being is accepted as self-evident in both socialist and capitalist systems. The servicing of desire, after all, is the reason why homo economicus exists. All progress is made for the more perfect servicing of desire for the maximum number of humans. The universal maximization of happiness is the win condition of the Civilization game we call Earth.
And yet, the vision of ultimate leisure presented in films such as Wall-E is not a utopia, but a disaster. Great writers such as Dostoevsky foresaw the fulfillment of all human desire through markets and technology as a sham, and that bored, overstuffed human beings would flip the table and reset their living conditions just to feel the engaging torpor of a full, challenging life once more. One of the temptations of Christ in the Gospels is to create bread from stone, but this is presented as the command of the devil, and resisting that temptation to material gratification became a foundation of Western religious morality for two-thousand years. As we now know: “Man does not live on bread alone.”
But if Man does not live on bread alone, what does he live on? Today’s socialists remain enraptured in the spoils capital has given them. Marx and Smith have the same answer to the question of life — eat and be merry. Capitalism and communism both seek to satisfy the desires of free individuals to eat their fill and fill their cups to the brim. Despite mortal opposition, capitalism and socialism have still accepted that the satisfaction of individual desires is the basic foundation of all societal organization.
Inevitably, a socialist utopia modeled on the pursuit of luxury for all comes to resemble the dystopia of Disney’s Wall-E — only the all-inclusive floating entertainment stations are for everyone, rather than only for a wealthy elite. The goal of life for all people under a system of luxury socialism is to attain physical excess, financial and technological, along with top-flight service and entertainment. Fat, comfortable, and rich — this is the hopeful future envisioned even by those who wish to reimagine our civilization in a novel anti-capitalist framework. All the heaven and the earth, at root, is still conceived of as a machine to support the fickle tides of infinite human desire. In the end, even the fiercest of radicals just want a market that works better.