Tuesday, 24 May 2011

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

"As much as government can become corrupt when invested with absolute power, markets can also become corrupt when equally absolutely powerful. We are seeing the effect of that absolute power today - the impoverishment and misery of millions of people and their eventual slavery." (Dr Mahathir Mohamad)

"Freedom (n.): To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing." Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead)

The latest Adam Curtis documentary "All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace" was as bursting with ideas as previous ones; it didn't fail to interest. He traced links between Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and the pernicious influence of that in Silicon Valley, and then in the financial markets, until it fell to pieces in the credit crunch. In fact, more than fifty years after it was published, Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged" still maintains a devout following, especially among business leaders.

"My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute." -Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

"Why do they always teach us that it's easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It's the hardest thing in the world--to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want." Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand's Objectivism, as expressed in novels like "Atlas Shrugged", resonated very strongly with the idea of the heroic entrepreneur, who carves out their own destiny, and who uses rational technologies such as computer models to control the world.

It was fascinating to see how far her influence spread, especially with respect to her disciple Alan Greenspan, who became hugely influential in the Clinton administration, and who decided, when the evidence appeared to show that factories and business were not producing the vast profits that the market suggested they were, that the market was correct, and the evidence on the factory floor must be flawed.

It also fed into the money men, who fueled the Asian economic boom, and when it collapsed, got the IMF to bail it out. This appeared to be altruistic, but the countries in question - Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea - then all had a stable market for a short time, and then a much more complete and devastating economic collapse, with currencies in freefall. What the IMF loans had done, as Curtis explained, was to provide enough money for these countries for investors to withdraw, without getting themselves burnt.. After that, their economies sank.

Much the same situation was to repeat itself, but this time in the West, where the hubris of thinking as the Bush and Brown governments did, that the market had broken free of the cycle of boom and bust, came tumbling down into ruins. And once more, as in Asia, the money men called for the governments to bail them out, and proceeded with impunity to behave as if nothing had happened. And the taxpayer, as in Asia, has to suffer the consequences.

Power has not become more democratic in the computer age, argued Curtis, it has shifted to a new elite, who like the Randian hero, can behave without any thought for those who suffer from their actions. And as Rand preached, the philosophy of the free market, though fatally flawed, has infused our culture unchallenged and uncriticised; Rand said what the money men wanted to hear, and she gave them the justification that it was "rational" to do so, and government interference was most dangerous. As she said: "A government is the most dangerous threat to man's rights: it holds a legal monopoly on the use of physical force against legally disarmed victims.". Her philosophy is that of the bankers bonus:

"Let me give you a tip on a clue to men's characters: the man who damns money has obtained it dishonorably; the man who respects it has earned it."
(Ayn Rand)

"Run for your life from any man who tells you that money is evil. That sentence is the leper's bell of an approaching looter."
- Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged)

But what made Rand's thinking so compelling, and why it was not simply a charter for greed, was that she tied this in with the notion that this is how human beings should behave if they are to behave rationality. In fact, pretty much all of the claims of her philosophy for rationality are in fact rationalisms; she decides that a particular mode of living is good, and uses the term "rationality" to convey a spurious objectivity. The blindness in her view of the world can be seen in her claims that the United States was the epitome to freedom prior to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and governments and unions are the enemy of visionary entrepreneurs - but this is a purely economic perspective. For instance, it conveniently ignores the history of slavery in America; that is outside of Rand's blinkered view.

Her theme of "rationality" can be seen most clearly in her personal life; she decided to have an affair with one of her coterie of disciples, whom she called "The Collective", and argued with the man concerned that it was supremely rational decision to do so! Eventually he rejected her, realising the affair was a mistake, and she retreated to an almost recluse like existence.

Reading much of what she has to say, and how she glosses over everything that does not fit the Procrustean bed of what she considers to be "rational", I was much struck by what one blogger quoted on Chesterton about this kind of remorseless pseudo-logical approach to life:

Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason. (G.K. Chesterton)

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