Political pragmatism and utopian anticipation: A review of Fully Automated Luxury Communism

Thomas Connolly reviews Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism (London: Verso, 2019), x + 278 pp, ISBN 978-1-78663-262-3.

9781786632623The term “fully automated luxury communism” (or FALC) first began circulating among far-left internet commentators in the mid-2010s as a name given to one potential form of post-scarcity economy. Alongside a number of variations (such as “fully automated luxury gay space communism”, or FALGSC, which inflects the term with post-gender and post-sexuality connotations),

FALC gained wider recognition following a Guardian write-up in March 2015 that discussed the origins and significance of the term. Aaron Bastani—a British political commentator and co-founder of Novaro Media, an independent left-wing media outlet—was interviewed as part of that article, and has since become the key intellectual figure associated with FALC. The current work is Bastani’s attempt to unpack the meaning and implications of FALC.

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Reciprocal babymaking is the future: a review of Full Surrogacy Now

Katie Stone reviews Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (Verso, 2019).

Sophie Lewis’s Full Surrogacy Now (Verso, 2019) is, like all good science fiction, “a book about an impossibility.”[1] In this provocative and carefully-argued work, Lewis clearly demonstrates that the boundaries of possibility not only can, but must, be contested. Lewis moves from a consideration of the impossible, yet actually existing, working conditions of professional surrogates — those who carry and give birth to ‘someone else’s’ infant — to the similarly impossible premise under which all gestational labour is undertaken. In Lewis’ analysis, the reason that “bearing an infant ‘for someone else’ is always a fantasy, a shaky construction” is not because of the uniquely fantastic conditions of commercial surrogacy. Rather, it is attributable to the fact that “infants don’t belong to anyone, ever” (19).

Full Surrogacy Now includes astute readings of prominent science-fictional texts, such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Octavia Butler’s ‘Bloodchild’ (1984) and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). However, Lewis’ work also provides a striking example of the power of science-fictional thought in its own right. Here the strangeness of cyborgs and surrogates is explored, not to establish surrogacy as an embattled, economically-compromised alternative to ‘normal’ pregnancy, but rather as a way of reflecting on the compromising, violent realities of gestation as such. Full Surrogacy Now extends us a science-fictional invitation to understand deeply familiar words — nature, work, mother, create — in radically new and unfamiliar ways. By asking over and over again—“why accept Nature as natural[?]” (7)—Full Surrogacy Now proves itself the “disloyal, monstrous, chimerical daughter” (27) of Donna Haraway’s classic ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ (1985), and of the tradition of feminist science fiction from which that seminal text was—and continues to be—partially, laboriously, and reciprocally birthed.

To begin with, we must remember that pregnancy is work, and it is often difficult and dangerous work. It is also often work in which the body is “working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all” (59). However, Lewis reminds us that the working conditions of gestational labourers vary hugely:

Pregnancy has long been substantially techno-fixed already, when it comes to those whose lives really ‘matter.’ Under capitalism and imperialism, safer (or, at least, medically supported) gestation has typically been the privilege of the upper classes. And the high-end care historically afforded to the rich when they gestate their own young has lately been supplemented by a ‘technology’ that absorbs 100 percent of the damage from the consumer’s point of view: the human labor of a ‘gestational surrogate.’

(3)

Since its publication, Full Surrogacy Now has drawn fierce attacks from ‘readers’ who — having read the title, but not the book itself — assume that Lewis is arguing that such commercial gestational surrogacy is utterly unproblematic, and that we should welcome the expansion of the commercial surrogacy industry. This, of course, is to entirely miss the point. Lewis carefully outlines the exploitative realities of commercial gestational surrogacy, a booming business that is rife with wage theft, deception, brutally inadequate health-care, a lack of informed consent, and extreme power imbalances. She also carefully picks apart the neoliberal, faux-feminist rhetoric used to justify such practices. Instead, Lewis places the lives and voices of actual surrogates, particularly those from the Global South, at the heart of her analysis.

Nevertheless, within commercial gestational surrogacy, Lewis also discovers the traces of a wider revolutionary agenda. Thinking about the experience of gestational workers becomes a way of thinking more generally about pregnancy, child-care, the organisation of our society, and the labour we undertake to reproduce society from one day to the next. Lewis writes, “We are the makers of one another. And we could learn collectively to act like it. It is those truths that I wish to call real surrogacy, full surrogacy” (19-20). Ultimately, for Lewis, “surrogacy politics aren’t just a concern for an infinitesimal, niche sliver of the proletariat” (56), any more than the anarchism of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Anarres, or the lesbian feminism of Joanna Russ’ Whileaway is ‘just’ a concern for the inhabitants of those imagined regions.[2]

Lewis draws upon a long history of socialist feminist thought—Silvia Federici’s ‘Wages Against Housework’ (1974) is a particular influence—to reframe the discourse around pregnancy. By using surrogacy as her lens, she can reveal the inconsistencies in what passes for ‘common sense’ about pregnancy. “Pregnancy is not something society as a whole tends to question. Surrogacy, on the other hand, is hotly contested. Yet we can readily perceive that all that really separates the two is the possibility of a wage” (44). Refusing to position gestational work as a sacred maternal sphere, determined by a naturalised biology, Lewis instead asks: “What if we really felt the politics of uterine work to be comparable to other labors[?]” (129).

In this way, Full Surrogacy Now is part of a larger, pressing, political project. This is the project that challenges the white, liberal, trans-exclusionary, whorephobic, ‘feminist’ discourse which is currently dominating conversations around sex work and gestational labour. Just as infants do not belong to their parents as property, workers do not belong to their clients or employers. In advocating for the rights of workers whose labour is so often delegitimised, exploited, and criminalised, Full Surrogacy Now joins texts as Juno Mac and Molly Smith’s Revolting Prostitutes (2018). Here, Lewis argues for the recognition of surrogacy as work, while simultaneously taking up a fundamentally anti-work position. For Lewis, gestational labour’s “articulation as work in the first instance will be key to abolishing [it] (as work) in the long run” (42).

Although Full Surrogacy Now always keeps these wider goals in sight, a substantial part of Lewis’ writing takes the form of an analysis of the material conditions of gestational workers currently labouring within the commercial surrogacy industry. The study which Lewis provides of the Akanksha Hospital, and in particular of the charismatic representative of neoliberalism Dr. Nayana Patel, is detailed, wide-ranging and politically and theoretically rigorous. Lewis notes that

[…] most prominent white feminists, no matter how queer they are at home, no matter how critical of the family as the primary site of patriarchal and queerphobic abuse, are remarkably prone to forgetting this antipathy when it comes to legislating lives in sufficiently “other” (proletarian) neighborhoods.

(41)

In contrast, Lewis’s approach provides a welcome alternative to this ideologically-driven amnesia. Even for those for whom commercial surrogacy is not (yet) a particular area of interest, Lewis’s determined focus on the material conditions of these particular labourers should be noted.

The emphasis on the working conditions of surrogates is also of particular relevance to those SF critics who study so-called “pregnancy dystopias” (10), given that, as Lewis argues, “in order to paint the neat picture of surrogacy-as-dystopia that First World feminists so often seem to want to paint, actually existing gestational workers have to be ignored almost by definition” (16). Lewis reintroduces the voices of those workers who are actively seeking out these supposedly-dystopic surrogate pregnancies into the conversation around dystopian pregnancy narratives. In this way, she demonstrates that a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist critique of an industry in which “living humans have become the sexless ‘technology’ component of the euphemism Assisted Reproductive Technology” (24) need not take a Eurocentric perspective which erases the agency and desires of those same “living humans.”

One prime example of a ‘pregnancy dystopia’ is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Lewis joins scholars such as Kate Meakin in critiquing “Atwood’s sterility apocalypse” (11) for its deification of white motherhood, its race-blindness, and the “stylized pleasure” it takes in its “chastity cos-play” (13): something which has become increasingly prominent in the recent HBO adaptation of Atwood’s writing.

Borrowing the historical experience of forced surrogacy from the American plantation, Atwood had […] clearly adapted its emotiveness for the purposes of a color-blind — white — feminism. […] At least the original novel had referred to Gilead’s eugenic purging of the tacitly African ‘Children of Ham,’ thereby demonstrating some recognition of the racial character of reproductive stratification as elaborated through the Middle Passage [slave ships crossing from Africa to the Americas]. In 2017, Hulu series director Bruce Miller took blithe erasure of black women’s historic connection with surrogacy to the next level. Announcing that he had ‘simplified’ the story, Miller presented an image of a society with no race, class, or history: a society in which ‘fertility trumps all.’

Lewis further argues: “the pleasures of an extremist misogyny, defined as womb-farming, risks concealing from us what are simply slower and less photogenic forms of violence, such as race, class, and binary gender itself” (14). She is certainly not dismissive of those for whom, as she puts it, “a personal encounter with this particular text has been the moment of feminist coming-to-consciousness” (14). But nor does she accept that the popularity of The Handmaid’s Tale in feminist circles ought to absolve it of all its many failings. In this she provides a model for those feminist SF critics who are hesitant about demanding a rigorously intersectional, trans-inclusive feminism from texts which are often hailed as feminist masterpieces simply because they champion the rights of (cis, straight, white) women.

Lewis also offers readings of Butler’s and Piercy’s writing: framing their surrogate-focused works as texts which either engage in surrogacy as terrifying and alien (Butler) or as a utopian alternative to the ‘problem’ of human gestation (Piercy). By returning frequently to these texts as part of her wider theorisation of surrogacy, Lewis joins the great tradition of feminist writers such as Haraway, Susan Stryker, and adrienne maree brown, who weave science fiction into their theoretical analyses—once again challenging the boundaries of possibility. From a SF studies perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Lewis’ coverage of these texts is relatively brief, and highly focused. I feel that there is more room here for SF scholars to explore the implications of what Lewis calls “full surrogacy” (20) within feminist SF. Feminist SF is a field which is deeply invested in the ethics of reproductive technology, and thus in the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “we are the makers of one another” (19). In Piercy’s lactating fathers and Butler’s multi-generational, multi-species communities where — just as in the contemporary commercial surrogacy industry — gestational labour is coercively but consensually entered into, I see more than the oscillation between “the alienated misery of the status quo” and “the silver absolutism of their techno-fix” (28). I see a gesture towards the “horizon of gestational communism” (21) that Lewis locates in the science-fictional sculptures of artist Patricia Piccinini. Lewis argues that the question to be gleaned from Piccinini’s sculptures is “not whether surrogates will intimately produce us one day,” but “rather, how we should respond to them and hold them—since they’re already here” (158).

It is this utopian turn in her writing which, I argue, transforms Lewis’ work from insightful critique into transformative critical apparatus. This is not a book which is merely about impossibility; rather, it demands impossibility.[3] The fact that we cannot necessarily explain every detail of what Lewis calls the “gestational commune” (29) must not prevent us from desiring it, nor from creating it. Moreover, this is not an impossibility which lies in a distant future, beyond the utopian horizon. As Lewis rightly notes: “Despite capitalism’s worldwide hegemony, many people on earth are putting something like ‘full surrogacy’ into practice every day, cultivating non-oedipal kinship and sharing reciprocal mothering labors between many individuals and generations” (147). Reciprocal baby-making is the stuff of impossibility. It is also happening right now. We can only hope that, as Sun Ra might put it, “when you’ve achieved one impossible the others / Come together to be with their brother” … or, in this case, with their multiply-parented surro-sibling.[4]

Patricia Piccinini, ‘Surrogate’

Katie Stone is a PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London. Her thesis explores childhood and utopianism as imagined in science fiction. Katie is co-director of the London Science Fiction Research Community and co-founder of the research network ‘Utopian Acts’. She recently co-edited a special issue of Studies in Arts and Humanities Journal and she has written for Foundation, Fantastika and SFRA Review. She is on Twitter @cyborg_feminist.

[1] Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family (New York, NY: Verson, 2019) p. 19. All subsequent references are to this edition and are given within the text.

[2] See Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (London: Gollancz, 2002; first published 1974) and Joanna Russ, The Female Man (London: Gollancz, 2010; first published 1975).

[3] See Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (York: Methuen, 1986)

[4] Sun Ra, ‘Reality has touched against myth’, Esquire (July, 1969) 53-141.

N.B. This review was slightly updated in September 2019.

Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018

UA-poster-med

By Sasha Myerson

Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.

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Out of this World: Five Days Left / More’s Utopia

What I love most about Thomas More’s Lucian-inspired (among other sources) text Utopia isn’t the descriptive text, the building of a somewhat egalitarian community, the observations on crafts, the framing narrative, or its dual-purpose as satire. It’s all of the visual world-building which it, in turn, inspired.

There are earlier maps of imaginary places, although I love the ones made for Utopia, this one from 1516this one from 1518 edition, or these later ones. (The 1518 Ambrosius Holbein edition is available online for browsing in its entirety. See also this selection of eighteenth-century illustrations of Utopia.)

But I know of no earlier instance of an alphabet being developed for a fictional world. Either More, or his friend Peter Giles, developed it for the book. You can see the full version of his Utopian alphabet and a sample use of it on the British Library’s website. And, if you really like fictional languages, the alphabet is even available to download as a True Type Font.

Utopia is on display currently at the British Library as part of its Out of this World: Science Fiction But Not As You Know It show which is available, for free, until this Sunday. The library is open until 18:00 today.

Bold as Love: IV

Bold as Love cover

(Previously.)

A confession: I actually came to the Bold as Love series backwards. As part of my Clarke judge duties I had to read the final volume, Rainbow Bridge (2006), and at the time I had no experience of its predecessors. Truth to tell I don’t remember all that much about it, and that which I do remember I should not speak of, but what does seem worth mentioning here is the lingering elegiac impression the book left, crystallised in a self-description by one of the triumverate, that they are “veterans of utopia.”

And so I came to Bold as Love on the lookout for the possibility of utopia, and was a little surprised by the novel’s darkness. Not the darkness in the stories of its characters — I’d read “The Salt Box” in Interzone — but in its ambience and events. Bold as Love opens in a period of near-crisis, with the authorities struggling to maintain an orderly dissolution against a backdrop of economic and ecological collapse, and the trials don’t let up: an influx of migrants, a failing electronic infrastructure, a small war in Yorkshire. It seems astonishing that this world will ever progress far enough to look back on utopia.

But there is a utopian desire present in Bold as Love, refracted by the triumverate, and in particular by Ax and Fiorinda. The latter is profoundly pessimistic — the combination of youth and experience, perhaps — and sees no good in the way the world is turning. More than once she comments that everything is going up in smoke, that it’s the end of the world. And on the role of Ax himself, when pestered, she says:

“I think he’s the Lord’s anointed. I think he has the mandate of heaven. I think he is rightwise king born over all England. But still–”
“But still you are the cat who walks by herself, green-eyed Fiorinda–”
“But still nothing’s changed.”

What does that “nothing” denote? Manifestly things are changing through the novel, dramatically so. But we know what Fiorinda means, of course, we kow she means that there are still winners and losers and — in the novel’s terms — suits with power. Sage, similarly, is a sceptic. For him, the cross-demographic appeal of the triumverate, as evidenced by the diversity of their gig audiences, does not seem like a compliment; it seems “like a deeply, deeply mistaken confidence” (243).

It’s left to Ax to lead: the only character to deliberately articulate any vision of utopia. In the aftermath of the coup, he rallies his countercultural comrades to that vision, speaking of the potential for something new in history, “a genuine human civilisation. For everyone”, enabled by technology. His goal is “To make this turning point the beginning of civilisation, instead of a fall into the dark ages”; but it’s tempered with pragmatism:

And yeah, before anyone says it, I know it won’t work. If I succeed beyond my wildest dreams, it’ll be partial, fucked-up and temporary. Partial, fucked-up and temporary will be fine. If we can get that going, for just a few years, just here in England, we’ll have made our mark. Something will survive. (82)

The grandest of visions an the most modest of terms: that’s the tension that defines Ax, seen later as dedicated to the art of the possible over the good, and seen from inside his head as one who endures. In the warzone, he recognises “a reason for Fiorinda’s mourning, the end of a world, an unbearable loss”, but “he had to bear it. Accept” (118); or, later, more than once, he thinks, “If we can just get through this part …” (I started to think of the catchphrase of Kim Stanley Robinson’s much sunnier Phil Chase: “I’ll see what I can do!”) The fragility of it all, the provisionality, is exhausting for Ax, and we sometimes feel that exhaustion. But between the three leads we also scent the elusive spirit of change, the muscular belief that things can get better, slowly.

All of which leads to the curious ending note. Superficially Bold as Love closes on a not entirely unexpected moment of grace, a pause that sees the triumverate together and comfortable. Stubborn stuff, this world; hard not to retreat from it sometimes. At the same time, Ax’s thoughts, on the final page — “I was not perfectly happy, but now I am, and if I had the power this is where I would make time stop, this is where I’d stay forever. This is it, this moment. This, now” (307-8) — make it seem coldly plausible that this is the utopia of which they become veterans: a limited, individual utopia, an impression of the world around them shaped entirely by their personal emotional circumstances. But on reflection, it’s hard to imagine another ending for this quixotic, thorny book.

Whither the super-reader?

I’m still slowly working my way through Peter Barry’s Beginning Theory, and have reached postcolonial criticism. In true textbook fashion, each chapter includes a “STOP and THINK” section, and this one actually made me do both:

Postcolonial criticism draws attention to issues of cultural difference in literary texts and is one of several critical approaches we have considered which focus on specific issues, including issues of gender (feminist criticism), of class (Marxist criticism), and of sexual orientation (lesbian/gay criticism).

This raises the possibility of a kind of ‘super-reader’ able to respond equally and adequately to a text in all these ways. In practice, for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest.
[…]
Should we, in general, try to become super-readers, with multiple layers of sympathy and awareness, or will trying to do so merely produce blandness and superficiality?

Obviously, it is impossible for anybody to answer this question for anybody else. My own feeling is that while an even spread of awareness across all these issues is theoretically possible, in practice aiming for this, merely in the interests of political correctness, is almost bound to produce superficiality. A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance. These perspectives cannot be put on and off like a suit — they have to emerge and declare themselves with some urgency. (198-9)

Now, Barry’s bias shows through before he declares it — the very term “super-reader” carries connotations of the unattainable, even childish. And when he does declare his bias, he still loads his dice, with that clause about “merely in the interests of political correctness”: yes, obviously aiming to do something merely in the interests of political correctness is doomed to failure.

But leaving that aside, I’m still struck by a number of things. To start with: “for most readers one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest”. I’m sceptical of that most (many, I could get behind; but I’m not sure about most), but more than that, this doesn’t seem to leave much room for the idea that a text might shape the way people who read it respond. Surely it is also the case that for most texts, one of these issues tends to eclipse all the rest, in either a positive or a negative way. There is a threshold, I think, beyond which reading a text from any particular perspective becomes an act of creation in itself, rather than a useful response to the text; where any given person draws that threshold will vary, but it seems an inevitable limitation of single-perspective criticism.

So I think that limitation has to be put on the other side of the scales to a super-reader’s presumed blandness and superficiality — except, I’m not sure what Barry actually means by those terms, here. The most sensible reading I can come up with is that it comes from what he discusses in his personal opinion paragraph, namely motivation: it’s impossible for anyone to truly care about all these different perspectives at the same time, says Barry, so attempts to accomodate them will of necessity be artificial. There is an extent to which I agree with this (or at least am anxious about it; see below), but I think I disagree with it much more. If nothing else, it’s a position that presumes these different perspectives are indeed separable, and it seems to me that’s only possible in an — pardon me — academic sense. In the real world, and by extension in sufficiently complex texts, they’re going to be interlinked. Parsing them separately has value, but taking that so far as to declare them islands seems damaging.

And then we come down to the nub of it, which is to say Barry’s argument for his position. “A genuine interest in one of these issues can really only arise from aspects of your own circumstance.” What is genuine, here? This gets personal: for each of the four perspectives Barry lists in his first paragraph, I fall at the “privilege” end of the spectrum (as, indeed, I do for just about any axis of privilege you care to define). That establishes the terms of my engagement with any of them and, clearly, those terms are never going to be the same as they are for individuals at the other ends. In a real sense, that’s going to limit the depth of my understanding. By the same token, however, the implication is that whenever I do try to adopt one of these perspectives, I will, precisely, be putting it on like a suit; and that my interest can never be “genuine”. Which rather leads you to wonder, why bother?

And the inevitable answer to that is, because I like to think I care. That no one of these critical perspectives seems to declare itself to me with particular urgency — or, put another way, that it costs me nothing to see them as all urgent — is certainly a luxury. I’d like to think it’s a luxury I can take advantage of, though. “Multiple layers of sympathy and awareness” doesn’t seem like a bad thing for me to aspire to, nor does it seem inherently unattainable (though a perfectly even spread of concern surely is). I’d go so far as to say, acknowledging this is as biased a way of putting it as “super-reader”, that to me, right now, it seems the responsible thing to do.

Vector #130

As writers we have the ability to create perfection, however: which may be another good reason for writing science fiction. From the biological standpoint we have a choice of two kinds of perfection: expanding or stable. The expanding kind postulates a dominant race, usually human, colonizing an ever-increasing number of worlds. There can be no end to the process of expansion because, like economic growth rates and the Roman Empire, the only alternative is collapse. Conflict is provided by the opposition of other races and such stories tend to be technological in content. An undeniable attraction lies in the headlong progression towards a vast Unknown, but the drawback is an uncomfortable similarity to our present situation on Earth.

I chose the second alternative for my recent novels because of its inherent optimism: it is theoretically possible to reach and sustain a stable perfection. The end product is a planet which a perfect ecology with a diversity of plants and animals dovetailing into a balanced whole. Conflict is provided by the arising of an occasional imbalance, either internally or externally inflicted. There is little room for technology in this kind of story because it would eventually be defeated by the finite nature of global resources, despite recycling and solar power. British SF often uses this introspective approach, although not always stating openly that life will go on after the difficult period that it often describes. Perhaps here there is an over-preoccupation with human life. The fact that the story is set at a point well before ecological stability is achieved sometimes brands it as ‘pessimistic’ in American eyes. This rather shortsighted view ignores the optimism inherent in the struggle for a stable perfection – as well as the practical impossibility of achieving an expanding perfection.

Michael Coney

Vector #90

New Worlds (re the comments in your interview) was not aiming to take sf into the mainstream or move towards ‘personal’ (subjective technique as opposed to objective) fiction. We were hoping to borrow sf’s interest in the objective world and use that impulse in subtler ways. The U.S. ‘new wave’ was primarily a move towards subjective romanticism a la Pynchon, and I for one found this move depressing. Personal images are one thing. Writing about the self is another. VORTEX didn’t fail through lack of money – it failed through lack of faith and lack of professionalism. I heartily agree with you that new names are worthless in themselves unless they are connected with fresh ideas and talent. Asimov’s is building up a stable of hacks. It’s disappointing.

Michael Moorcock