Thursday, 2 June 2011

Telly to get your teeth into

I’ve really enjoyed the first two episodes of Adam Curtis’s documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Whether Curtis’ conclusions are correct or not, there’s so much interesting stuff to chew over that you actually have to start thinking. That's a novelty in itself; the level of most political debate on TV is so anodyne and simplistic that engaging with it is a consciousness-lowering experience.

On balance, I agree with one of Curtis’s main arguments; that we live in an age of ideology and hierarchical power, but the dominant ideology has borrowed ideas from science and technology to give subjective political choices and the self-interested exercise of power the spurious legitimacy of objective necessity.

In episode one, Curtis fingered Ayn Rand as a one of the first proponents of this intellectual sleight-of-hand. Up to a point, you know where you are with Rand’s philosophy that individuals should act exclusively in their own self-interest, be self-reliant and never act collectively or for the common good. Her stroke of genius was to label her political programme “Objectivism.” The implication was that Rand’s philosophy, was objective and rational (of course it’s objective – it’s called “Objectivism”, dummy!), unlike rival philosophies, which were weak, muddle-headed and subjective, (as defined by Rand).

Having made it an article of faith that her own preferences were driven by pure rational objectivity, Rand and her followers were on their way to creating what Michael Shermer called ‘the unlikeliest cult in history.’ By pronouncing itself objective and rational, the Randian cult attracted a lot of bright people who should have known better (such as Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs) as well as, more recently, a bunch of simple-minded, selfish Tea Party chimps. That much I knew. What I didn't realise, until watching the documentary, was that long-time US Federal Reserve chief, Alan Greenspan, was a major acolyte.

In episode two, we were shown another historical precedent - General Smuts's quaint idea of "Holism" an "objective" philosophy based on the perceived ecological balance of nature (an idea which, conveniently for Smuts, supported the status quo of the white-run British Empire):

It had very much in common with his philosophy of life as subsequently developed and embodied in his Holism and Evolution. Small units must needs develop into bigger wholes, and they in their turn again must grow into larger and ever-larger structures without cessation. Advancement lay along that path. Thus the unification of the four provinces in the Union of South Africa, the idea of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and, finally, the great whole resulting from the combination of the peoples of the earth in a great league of nations were but a logical progression consistent with his philosophical tenets.

It's a new variation on an old theme. It's presumably more or less how organised religions started. One chief is a mere human being whose orders can be questioned (at the risk of a beating), so priesthoods emerged to tell the plebs that power isn't being exercised in the interests of the guy who'd have you killed if you didn't do what he wanted, but is ordained by a higher power. Challenging unfairness and rocking the boat wasn't just risky, it was evil. And, by the way, if you trespass against the norms of the tribe and go upsetting the priests and the strong man who looks after them on earth, you'll burn for all eternity, peasant.

In a  scientific, (largely) post-religious age, hellfire is an insufficient threat. Now we're kept in line with the lie that the existing order is the natural order, the only possible order, objective, rational and beyond criticism. In the past, the self-interest of the tribal elite was dressed up as God's will. In a managerialist age, it's dressed up as the inescapable conclusion of objective, rational thought, sanctified by spreadsheet. Dissent is routinely dismissed as 'politically motivated' (what the hell else would it be?), or 'inappropriate' (another weasel word intended to convey faux objectivity by people who don't take responsibility for their own beliefs). There is, they say, no alternative. Life is unfair - now just grow up and used to it. Which is a great message for those interested in comforting the comfortable and making sure the afflicted don't bother them with their problems. It's also a lie - ecosystems change and evolve, the political certainties of one generation are consigned to the dustbin of history by the next. People have changed the political facts of life, challenged the divine right of kings, slavery, apartheid and shoving little kids up chimneys and they can do it again.

This is only one strand in the web of ideas in Curtis's documentary. Some of them may be proved duds - on computers, networks and market instability, for example, this guy, coming from a libertarian viewpoint, thinks that Curtis got it wrong. From an opposing camp, there are mutterings that he focused too much on the role of computer networks in market instability, ignoring more obvious triggers such as the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act. I've heard rumours that, presumably in episode three, Curtis will have a go at Dawkins and the idea of the selfish gene, citing these as ideas that encourage a mechanistic views of humans as mindless component parts of a system (if so he's obviously not read Dawkins carefully enough, because Dawkins has been explicitly saying for well over thirty years that the selfish gene is a metaphor which illuminates the mechanism of evolution and doesn't dictate the principles of morality or how society should be organised).

But, right or wrong, there's plenty to get your teeth into and I'd urge everybody to listen up – it’s a great antidote to the torpor and hopelessness induced by the endlessly repeated mantra that ‘there is no alternative.’ There's an interesting article about the documentaries on The Register here, a link to the programme website and BBC iPlayer here, and I'm guessing if you miss it on iPlayer (or don't get the content in your region), somebody will be posting these somewhere on the Internet sometime soon.

As a bonus, the programme's title referenced a wonderfully mad poem by Richard Brautigan about mammals and computers living together in mutually programming harmony. Did anybody else notice the (presumably coincidental) echo in George W Bush's alleged statement that 'I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully'? Wonderful stuff.