Last night (30 May) I watched the second part of Adam Curtis’ BBC2 series “All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace.”
The title is from a volume of poetry by Richard Brautigan. It’s about a world where the work is done by machines and all we need do is please ourselves. Just like nuclear power was going to be so cheap it wouldn’t be worth sending out the bills.
Brautigan’s name rang a bell and sure enough, I read one of his books in c. 1979/80 – “The Abortion: An Historical Romance.” The protagonist works in a library whose function is not to lend books, but to receive and store them for amateur authors. The works are unread except by the custodian, and affectionately positioned and preserved because of their value to their creators. (Sort of reminds me of blogging. “Fear not the struggle nought availeth”, I suppose.)
This episode was about the attempt to model human society on the supposed harmony of Nature. Turns out that Nature has no permanent equilibrium and cybermodelling that assumed it did was based on unscientific oversimplification.
But it also showed that the “natural order” concept was highly political, because it implied that groups of people should be kept in their “natural” place (and, of course, be governed by the wise elite – back to Plato again). An eye-opener was the fact that General Smuts wished to apply this principle to South Africa.
Yet rebelling against authority and aspiring to an Edenite dream-world of harmonious individualism doesn’t work, either. The program told us that hippie communes of the sixties and seventies generally failed within three years, often within months of starting. Set up on the basis that there were to be no power groupings, these new societies had no way of stopping the strong ragging the weak in half-hour-long “hazing” sessions of supposed sharing of feelings which were really psychological bullying. The Revolution cannot bring about the Millennium, because the seed of its destruction is in Man’s heart. As Donne said:
And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.
I’d like to see our modern libertarians work out a proper, pragmatic philosophy of freedom. I think freedom is not the rebellion of the individual against all social constraints, but some combination of:
- agreed and protected interstices in the web of rules about what you must do and may not do;
- methods and procedures whereby society may review and change its rules, without either suppressing all change or allowing itself to be totally overthrown by a tightly-organised clique or an impassioned mob-convulsion
In short, it seems that the alternative to a corrupted power structure is not some unattainable all-pals-forever non-system, but reform.