Machines of Loving Grace #1

30 05 2011

Adam Curtisnew series is currently showing on BBC2, with the second episode airing tonight, and the third and final part next Monday. I’ll come around to the tonight’s episode at a later date, for now I’m going to concentrate on the first one. As always, it’s beautifully produced, with original interviews linked and contextualised by the judicious use of archive footage. The soundtrack is terrific as well, from Pizzacato 5’s dreamy J-Pop over the opening credits through Nine Inch Nails and Morricone to Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne as theme to the Clinton/Lewinski affair.

Aesthetics aside, the thrust of the first instalment, “Love and Power”, is that, during the 1990s, an emergent combination of radical individualism, exemplified by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, combined with a faith in the ability of computer technology to facilitate a new, global, network-based economic model, served to obscure the role of old-fashioned political power; with the corollary that the model of a network of rational, self-interested agents cannot satisfactorily account for “irrational” human behaviours such as love, lust and altruism.

Much internet commentary that I’ve come upon to date has treated the episode as a critique of Rand, with many bloggers leaping to the defence of a lady wronged. Personally, Rand has always struck me as a tin-pot Nietzsche, whose writings are basically an unreadable mess. Admittedly, this may come down to a question of my own ideological biases, but, in any event, I think such criticisms fail to engage with the show’s more concrete conclusions.

Of particular note, from an Irish perspective, are the eerie parallels between our current predicament and that of the Asian economies in the late 90s. Just as in the Asian context, our government stood back and looked on with glee as the New Economy worked its magic, producing, in the words of interviewee Steven Roach, “manna from heaven, that candy that politicians only dream of”: permanent and dramatic growth based on the new technologies and connectivities of the global markets. In the process, they dismantled the regulatory restraints that might have curbed the worst excesses of “irrational exuberance“.

Of course, as we now know, the rising tide may have been lifting any and all boats, but there was no water in the ocean. Once the bubble burst, the IMF arrived in Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea, bearing massive loans, offers not to be refused. This strategy managed to stabilise the economies for only a short time, before the the speculators took this same money and ran, leading to dramatic collapses. I think Curtis’ narration understates the case slightly in saying that, “part of [the loans’] real function was to rescue the Western investors, not the countries”.

All of this was facilitated by the role, per Joseph Stiglitz, of “agents of the financial world embedded in the heart of government”. With Clinton already having willingly ceded much of his authority to the markets, and floundering in the wake of the Lewinski affair, Robert Rubin and the treasury were, by Rubin’s own admission, effectively running foreign policy.

From a selfish point of view, of which Rand would no doubt have approved, the critical point of the programme is that this process was repeated in the last decade, only in mirror image. For Curtis, in the past decade, Chinese political power has been the key catalyst in maintaining the stability of the world economic system, rather than the ability of self-directing networks to spontaneously attain equilibrium.

Thus, the consumer boom and attendant property bubble were the result of a conscious decision by the Chinese Politburo to hold down their exchange rate, flooding America with cheap goods and immediately re-investing the profits in American Government Bonds, as a system to “manage America”. This, in turn, allowed Rand’s accolyte, Alan Greenspan, to inundate the global system with cheap money.

Part of me chuckles at the image of a gnomic Greenspan sitting in his bath every morning, poring over page after page of data looking for the emperor’s new clothes, failing to see the real increases in productivity that would be expected given the state of the markets, but ultimately deciding, under political pressure, that the mysteries of the New Economy must be so profound that they are indecipherable by conventional means; and at the supreme irony of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe, the ultimate Randian Heroes, being beholden to their authoritarian, communitarian antithesis.

Any smile turns bitter when it’s borne in mind that the overheating and eventual collapse of this fantasy has again seen the financial sector mobilising political power to preserve themselves, with “the price … being paid by the ordinary people of the countries”. Such as myself.

I’m a massive admirer of Curtis’ ability to pull back the curtain on the ideas that drive (or perhaps are used to justify the behaviour of) powerful elites. Of course, there is an element of polemics at play, but I think his visual style represents a tacit acknowledgement of the fact, and the constraints of a few hours of television mean that his programmes can only represent a springboard for the exploration of ideas rather than authoritative treatises. To his credit, I’ve invariably found that digging deeper into his sources reveals his exposition of ideas to be a balanced one.

So, I’ve always regarded Curtis as the acceptable face of the polemicist – one who encourages the exploration and consideration of the big ideas of our times, posing questions more than suggestion answers. The most important thing, love him or hate him, is that he’s got an unrivalled ability to initiate debate on important, complex ideas for a mass audience. This first episode, more than any of his previous work, represents a call to arms:

We know that the idea of market stability and market democracy has failed, but we cannot imagine any alternative. This task of the imagination is the imperative of our times, and we should be grateful to Curtis for posing it in a relatively accessible and entertaining form.

The first episode is available on the BBC iPlayer now, the second should be up shortly. If that doesn’t work for you, it can be streamed here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 or, for the time being, at the top of this post.