Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Ayn Rand, Computers and Capitalism.

The first in the series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace was brilliant and marked with the intellectual characteristics of Adam Curtis. The focus of the series is the way in which machines have risen and led us to believe that we could create a stable world that would last forever. Admittedly it is a strange story, it all began with an even stranger woman called Ayn Rand and a philosophy she called Objectivism. The philosophy might be described simply as a highly rigorous form of individualism, essentially meaning that man should put his own happiness first and spend his time improving himself to his utmost potential. He should use common sense and reason in every instance, whilst finding motivation in his own existence. There is no room for altruism and charity in this philosophy. The ideological procedure of Objectivism is an identification with capitalism which is so stringent that it actually undermines the ruling ideology. So we must understand Ayn Rand as part of the tradition of over-conformist authors.

Rand's masterpiece was Atlas Shrugged (1957) was trashed by the critics, even conservatives like William F Buckley called it "ideological fabulism" and distinguished it from The Fountainhead (1943) which he considered to be an engaging book. In spite of this Atlas Shrugged became the bestseller of the century and the most influential book in America second only to the Bible. In the book Rand attacks the idea of altruism head on, she depicts an America in which all aspects of life are controlled and regulated by the government. But then all of the creative individuals who have made America great go on strike and hideout in a remote valley whilst American society collapses. The creative geniuses only emerge to rebuild society after political power has collapsed and the country has descended into an apocalyptic hellhole. The new world which would be born from this would be built without politics and would be based upon the virtue of selfishness.

For the book Ayn Rand returned to a moment from her childhood, when her father went on strike to protest against the Bolsheviks and she imagined the super-rich in America going on strike against the rate of taxation in the US on high-earners. At the time it was 91% on incomes over $400,000 and would be chiseled down to 70% within Rand's lifetime. Though she would not live to see it chopped down to 28% under Ronald Reagan. In her lifetime she saw the rise of social democracy in the US and Bolshevism in Russia, the latter of which left her in an almost permanent state of post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact it could be said that as an intellectual Rand developed in the footprint of the Bolsheviks and only to oppose the fundamental ideals of socialism in order to defend the status quo. Thus, the thorough rejection of equality and descriptions of the masses as "refuse". The influence of Ayn Rand runs deep in American society, her writing has shaped the politics of people like Rand Paul, Glenn Beck and Jimmy Wales. Many of the nouveau riche of Silicon Valley see themselves as Randian heroes and some even name their children after Rand.

In California the idea emerged that political power was no longer needed, instead with the help of computer technology we could all become heroic individuals and an order could be maintained through the networks established by computers. With each individual totally free to follow their desires and each a component in a intricate system. The feedback of information between all individuals connected through computer networks could lead to a system which can stabilise and regulate itself. The experiment by Loren Carpenter supported the thesis that stability and order could be maintained without hierarchy and interference. This meshed well with the Californian ideology which is a combination of the anti-authoritarianism of the Hippie counter-culture with Yuppie techno-utopianism. Nation-states were rendered meaningless as the world had become an interconnected system of individuals and governments should leave the system to spawn a new kind of democracy.

In the first episode it appeared that Adam Curtis is taking a good hard look at fundamental aspects of capitalism, as he has in previous films like The Trap in which he examined freedom in the negative and positive conception. In this series the partial focus is on the idea of a stable system which is self-regulating and has no need for government. The notions of stability and perpetuity are fundamental to capitalism, for it requires 3% compound growth forever and it requires a way of managing crises as it is crisis-prone. Similarly important is the theoretical equilibrium between supply and demand as a direct result of the inherent efficiency of markets. Though supply and demand are actually in a state of perpetual flux. So even if the economists could initiate a change in aggregate supply to balance with aggregate demand it would never meet a perfect balance because demand would have already changed by the time supply had been altered. There is always a disequilibrium in the system.

The future chairman of the Federal Reserve Alan Greenspan was a devotee of Ayn Rand and a loyal member of the Collective - a carefully policed group of intellectuals which had grown around Rand. Years later as chairman of the FED Greenspan met with Bill Clinton and told the President that his election promises of social reform could not be carried out without increasing the deficit, which would lead to higher interest rates and lower rates of growth. Greenspan advised the Clinton administration to slash spending in order to lower interest rates and leave the markets to boom. A boom began in the 1990s and it was believed that it would not end because the rise of computers enabled banks to predict the risk of particular investments and loans. The chaos of the markets might finally be brought to a stable and instantaneous order characterised by unending increase in the rates of productivity and economic growth.

By 1996 it appeared that the US economy had lapsed into irrational exuberance, there was no increase in productivity but profits continued to increase and it appeared that a speculative bubble had been created. But Greenspan buckled to political pressure and argued that the computers were increasing productivity in ways that were so innovative that the data was not picking it up. Around the same time, under pressure from the US countries like South Korea and Thailand jettisoned all constraints on the flow of capital. From the flood of Western capital that followed a huge speculative bubble in property emerged and the capital would flee as the crisis began, leaving the countries devastated. Just as the bubble burst in 1997 and the 'Asian miracle' came to an end the sex scandal engulfed the White House. Here the forces of power and love converged, the dream of a stable world was assaulted. The IMF flew in to the affected countries and stipulated market reforms in the economies in exchange for loans.

After 9/11 and the Enron debacle Alan Greenspan took action to stabilise the economy by repeatedly slashing interest rates to bolster consumption. The consumers would be the mechanism by which the system would be stabilised. In the past such an influx of cheap money into the economy had led to inflation, but it did not in this case and there was a boom over the next several years. The illusory boom gave Western leaders reason to believe that the system can stabilise itself without state-intervention. The Chinese Politburo had come up with a way to manage America, the Politburo deliberately held the exchange rate at a low level to ensure that exports would remain cheap. America was flooded with Chinese goods whilst dollars flooded into China, which were then lent back to the US by buying American bonds. The flow of cheap goods and cheap money created a false stability in America, whilst an orgy of lending and speculation spiraled out of control. The vast property bubble which emerged in the US as a result led to the Crash of '08 and in doing so the dream of perpetual stability were revealed to be totally deluded.

Faith in computers had led the politicians and bankers to believe that the boom would just go on and on no matter what. The machines had brought stability to the system, risk had been removed entirely. The fantasies of Alan Greenspan were exposed as just that in 2008, fantasies predicated on a wave of speculation. The market democracy had not emerged from financialisation and stability had not actually emerged. The banks mobilised political power to receive bailouts and the price for the boom would be paid by the Americans who were least capable of doing so. This also generalises to the austerity measures in Britain and other countries. The total wealth of Britain adds up to around £9 trillion, with the majority of that wealth concentrated in the top 20% of the population and the richest 10% holding £4 trillion in wealth. The cuts will hit the affect of forcing the bottom of 50% of the population, who hold less than 10% of the total wealth, to pay for it. The bottom 10% have less than nothing, negative wealth in the form of debt.

In the midst of the crisis we found ourselves incapable of imagining a better world or even a different system, instead we have opted to recreate the system as it was before the Crash and we have handed our public services the bill to do so. Capitalist realism is the only phrase to describe this state of affairs in which we are embedded. Capitalism is the only realistic system for us and all we can do is adjust to it. A business ontology has become all pervasive, so all areas of social reality are to be reorganised along corporate lines and this extends to everything from forests to health-care. This might help us understand the reawakened fascination in Ayn Rand as the crisis hit in 2008 which, as Slavoj Žižek has noted, came about around the same time that social democratic thought was partially unearthed. We can't even begin to imagine a better world so we merely reinvent the current order in a more radical way, perhaps this is the only message Rand offers to us.

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