Programmers, Prophets and Gurus

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The best laid schemes o’ mice and men Gang aft agley;
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, For promis’d joy!

~ Robert Burns (1759—1796)

George Monbiot, The Age of Consent — a Manifesto for a New World Order, Harper Collins, 2003

Ian Angell, The New Barbarian Manifesto — How to Survive the Information Age, Kogan Paul, 2000

Twenty years ago I taught myself how to write a computer program. That was in the new morning of personal computing, when innovative computers still carried u2018Made in England’ or u2018Made in USA’ tags. Their inventors were hailed as the gurus of the information age, ushering in a bright new future (if you were optimistic), or perhaps a brave new world (if you were pessimistic).

Ok, I wrote the program in the simplest of languages, BASIC, but it gave me and the firm I was working for the business information we needed, something the rudimentary off-the-shelf software of the day could not provide.

Writing a program is an object-lesson in forestalling and adjusting for the unintended consequences of one’s definitions, instructions and calculations: computer programs have to do what they set out to do, and do it in the background. Even then, as all computer users know to their cost, bugs and security loop-holes (literally) have a habit of appearing, long after the software has u2018gone gold’ (that’s the moment when software houses like Microsoft issue a supposedly final version for retail distribution).

Mantra-wielding manifesto-writers in search of the ultimate catchy sound-bite to describe our post-modern age and remedy its ills could well do with some of that discipline. Here are two interesting but quite different writers who both have a fondness for applying labels. For one, we are in an u2018age of coercion’ and need to move into an u2018age of consent.’ For the other, we are in the u2018information age,’ which is also u2018an age of rage’ and u2018an age of resentment,’ and we need techniques to survive it. They have both chosen the word u2018manifesto’ — a prescriptive programme of political action and reform — to describe their challenging, in-your-face books on the future of the world.

George Monbiot, sometimes described rather disparagingly as an eco-socialist, is a regular writer and weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper in the UK. Some of his excellent articles have been linked to from the daily page (one in connection with the anthrax scare in 2001, the other, in July 2003, entitled America is a Religion).

The media, and the politicians in power, have consistently portrayed the anti-globalization protests of the last few years as being u2018mindless’ and u2018pointless’ attempts to overthrow the present world financial system. With his new, far-reaching book The Age of Consent, Monbiot seeks radically to change that image, and give meaning and purpose to the u2018global justice movement’ (the new and more positive-sounding designation for the u2018anti-globalization’ protests and demonstrations).

He outlines specific institutional measures to bring about a global democratic revolution and thereby capture globalization for all the world’s people, rather than merely overthrow it. At the book’s close, he invites the reader who agrees with his prescriptions to act, and not get left behind by merely sitting back and agreeing with him.

Ian Angell, who sometimes describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist, is Professor of Information Systems at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and a management guru in great demand on the public speaking circuit, especially with major corporations when they want to shake up their personnel.

In apparent stark contrast to Monbiot, his book The New Barbarian Manifesto, first published 3 years ago, outlines a neo-Nietzschean future in which enlightened self-interest and technology-led personal and corporate security will ensure that the world belongs to the free-ranging u2018new barbarians’ and to the global corporations which employ them.

The new barbarians are an elite of highly mobile and affluent knowledge-workers able to flee not only the rage of anti-globalization protestors and others, but also to find hot-spots of dynamic innovation — smart regions or go-it-alone city-states — where they can escape the constraints of interference in their lives by any government or taxing authority anywhere. At the close of his book he urges his readers to become new barbarians, and not get left behind by remaining in place. Only the most savvy and nimble-footed will prosper. Those who remain in situ will be kept under surveillance, regulated, and taxed out of house and home.

What’s in a Manifesto?

A manifesto actually implies three things: an assumption that the status quo is faulty (producing u2018undesirable’ results), describing what is wrong, and outlining principles and policies for what has to be done to make things right. Predicting how they will be does not really come into the equation, except perhaps — and here’s the rub — through the intervention of wishful thinking.

Conventional wisdom has it that the easiest thing to do is to criticize and say what’s wrong, but doing so does not necessarily mean that the critics come up with the right solutions — if they come up with any at all.

In fact these three activities — extrapolation from history, describing the present situation and making prescriptions for the future — are very different and perhaps equally difficult arts, but they are often muddled up by the wishful thinking of those who would forcibly transform their plans and schemes for the world into reality, rather than create the conditions for the spontaneous or voluntary principles of human action, and then wait for those principles to make themselves felt — as in the operation of true free trade or a true free market.

Indeed those who, infused with a passionate indignation at the sufferings of others, have a programme to implement, will tend to argue that justice, or more often ideological goals masquerading as moral goals like justice — cannot wait for the normal operation of a humanity which is inherently fallible and originally sinful: they’ll say the future must be shaped to their mould, things must be done, and done now! And they, the philosopher-guardians, know best!

This is dangerous and unwise, and leads straight to fascism. For in their urgent desires as men and women with a missionary zeal to right every wrong, they will succeed only in committing different or even greater wrongs to others.

It is hardly surprising therefore that we the humans are almost always on the receiving end of two outcomes of ideological programmes and actions, both undesirable and inimical to freedom.

The first outcome is the unintended consequences of intervention. Objectively worse outcomes are achieved — in Burns’ inimitable words, grief and pain in place of the promised joy. What is even more tragic is that more often than not the grief and pain derive from humane people with good intentions (but this is not always so: in an age where consent is manufactured by increasingly sophisticated state propaganda, we need to be constantly on the look-out for the proverbial heifer dust, as u2018WMD,’ u201845 minutes,’ and u2018they hate our freedoms’ remind us).

The second outcome is the inevitable call for even greater intervention to deal with the problems caused by the earlier, unsuccessful intervention, which was never fully thought through in the first place.

New world order, or chaos? Utopia, or Dystopia?

At first sight u2018manifesto’ appears to be more appropriate as a label for Monbiot’s book, because it is more prescriptive. It is mainly an improvement scheme consisting of interlocking proposals for changing the way the world’s existing supra-national institutions (the IMF, the World Bank, the discredited World Trade Organization and the UN General Assembly and Security Council) are organized. As such it has a slightly old-fashioned air about it. It is also specifically designed to counter the charge that those who criticize the existing order of things have failed until now to suggest concrete alternatives.

His proposed system has been described as a utopia, based on the consent of all the governed, while Ian Angell’s vision has been seen as the opposite — a dystopia, based on the rage of all the ungovernable; rather than being a manifesto, Angell’s much more descriptive book is more accurately to be labelled a guide or handbook for would-be high-flyers, as implied by the subtitle on the dust-jacket: "How to survive the information age."

It has more of an air of futurology about it, and its racy exploration of the millennium spirit of the times and of the consequences of technological and economic change is highly entertaining, as well as at times seriously disturbing.

Yet neither of these two little summaries do full justice to either writer, and what is interesting is that they have so much in common: they both see and understand the structural problems and the increasingly severe, violence-inducing dissatisfaction with the existing order amongst ordinary people, which leads to societal breakdown. They both deal (Monbiot more implicitly, Angell more explicitly) with questions of wealth and wealth-creation. Both writers are genuinely nice guys concerned about the direction in which the world is going (despite the prophet-of-doom tone of his book, Angell has admitted in a BBC TV interview that he wrote it partly with tongue in cheek, to stir things up amongst his readers).

Both also express libertarian sentiments, implicitly criticising government intervention, both stress individual freedom over security for the herd (even if they see different ways of achieving it), and both imply awareness of biological and alchemical processes of mutation involving transformative moments when we collectively get the feeling that the whole world is somehow on the move (u2018Business is alchemy,’ writes Angell).

Lastly — a sign of how much Karl Marx has to answer for — they both owe a debt to the tradition of the manifesto or political programme going back at least to Marx’s Communist Manifesto of 1848, if not further. Consciously and subconsciously, both Monbiot and Angell draw on him, and find themselves obliged to bring Marx in to their arguments, even if only to demolish Marxist interpretations and viewpoints.

Hegel’s Dialectic is in there too, with philosophical contemplations on the dynamic interaction of opposites informing many of the arguments developed by both writers: winners/losers, reasonable/unreasonable, rich/poor, oppressors/oppressed, elected/unelected, order/chaos, knowledge/ignorance, dynamic/static — the list could go on ad infinitum.

Both writers are excellent at understanding the way in which good intentions backfire when converted into regulation. They even cover much of the same ground. Here for example is Monbiot on the effects of well-meaning campaigns in the developed world against child labour:

"A universal ban on child labour,.. which could be the effective result of punitive measures against poorer nations [to enforce labour standards], would be deeply resented by many families which are so poor that they have no option but to send their children to work. We are, yet again, pre-empting any decisions that the people of those nations might make, and punishing them if they make what we believe are the wrong ones." (Monbiot, The Age of Consent, p. 225).

Compare this with Angell, keeping in mind those Asian kids’ tiny fingers stitching soccer balls:

"Sentimentality has a habit of backfiring. When US senators passed the Child Labor Deterrence Bill blocking imports into the United States of any product made by children, the effects were unexpected. In Bangladesh children who earned a pittance in factories were thrown out of work, and reduced to scavenging and prostitution. u2018The road to hell is paved with good intentions’" (Angell, The New Barbarian Manifesto, p. 54)

Thus do humanitarian interventionists end up killing the targets of their good intentions if those targeted persist too long in u2018doing the wrong thing.’ And states with ostensibly humanitarian interventionist goals have no qualms in disposing of their own people according to the arbitrary will of those in power. Angell again:

"Citizens everywhere, from all social strata, are losing faith in the integrity of the nation state. They see a degenerate political class in an unseemly rush to satisfy vested interests, at a time when the state itself is becoming increasingly powerless. From their side of this unholy bargain, the leaders of the nation-state demand ownership of its citizens, body and soul. This is state-inspired slavery of its citizens. What is it but slavery when citizens are disposable, and leaders value individual freedoms far less than their own interests or, as they say, national interests? What is it but slavery, when leaders insist on the right to force young men (and now increasingly women) into military uniforms and demand that they kill and be killed for the good of the state? Over the past 200 years states have killed hundreds of millions of innocents. In comparison, the number of killings perpetrated by state-classified u2018criminals’ pales into insignificance." (Angell, The New Barbarian Manifesto, p. 140).

Spoken as a true libertarian, and I have no doubt George Monbiot would find little to quarrel with in this diagnosis.

The Attraction of Opposites

There is however, at least one point at which these two writers diverge, and for me that is at the old crossroads, long ago identified by Franz Oppenheimer and later taken up by the great libertarians Albert J. Nock and Murray Rothbard, between the only two means of creating wealth: the economic means (work, production and voluntary exchange) and the political means (forcible appropriation and compulsory exchange on terms laid down by the holder of the monopoly of force, usually the state).

This fundamental distinction lies at the heart of libertarian critical analysis: it ultimately defines whether you have an optimistic or a pessimistic view of human nature, and whether you hold hope for the future or tend to sink into the slough of despond. Of course, like me, you may do both from time to time — most of us have good and bad days.

Ian Angell focuses mainly on the economic means, and his book is in the final analysis an economic treatise with interesting sociological and political comments. It is the more entertaining of the two, but is also more depressing, and so is likely to turn your good day into a bad one.

Understandably, his book also owes a lot to managerial and information systems focus of his work: the cybernetic theory of management, originally developed by the late Professor Stafford Beer (1926—2002), which explains decision and control in terms of the idea of u2018requisite variety’ derived from operational research, is much in evidence.

In this theory opposing sets of human actions and events are judged to be in balance, and conditions reasonably stable, provided that enough u2018variety’ (opposing force or counter-force) is generated to keep them so. When too much or too little variety is generated, costs of all types increase, instability develops, and possible breakdown and revolution follow:

"Control doesn’t create order, quite the contrary. Order must be there first, and this order tolerates control. Order will have come about in the complexity of human actions, but not necessarily from human intent. Only by the concession of order does the consequent control impose structure and stability. All order is transitory regularity. Order allows controls to work, and then order fails. Consequently the certainty of structure and control collapses." (Angell, The New Barbarian Manifesto, p. 68)

George Monbiot is a knowledgeable, clear, courageous and sympathetic writer, who seems aware of the potential pitfalls of designing a political programme and prescribing how the world should be — but only in part. In my opinion he inclines too much towards a belief in the political means, despite some indications that he really has much better instincts lurking somewhere in the background. His book, the more earnest of the two, is full of such contradictions, but it is somehow less depressing, more full of hope. Whether that helps you to have a good day, only you can decide.

There are many thought-provoking comments in Monbiot’s book (and several interesting earlier reviews) which make me realize that there is a profound and realistic thinker — maybe even a compassionate libertarian — behind George Monbiot the campaigner for global social justice and purveyor of musty Marxist vocabulary like u2018the dictatorship of the vested interests.’ Likewise, behind Ian Angell’s pitiless quotes from Nietzsche and provocative sound-bites ("in the new order of things, social justice is an anachronism") there is not only a fascinating and innovative thinker, but a decent and compassionate fellow too.

Conclusion: back to the drawing board?

It is all too easy for us digital-age critical reviewers, sitting on our ergonomic chairs in front of our Internet-enabled Windows on the world, using our optical mouse/keyboard combinations (most likely now made in China, Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan or Thailand), to criticize Monbiot’s overall scheme as unrealistic and utopian: he does place too much faith in the practical effectiveness of moral authority, and in his favoured mantras: democracy and its global implementation (even if one is prepared to concede, as many libertarians are not, that it is the u2018least bad’ of political systems), social justice, and the redistribution of wealth — whether it is done coercively, as by governments, or through the supposed force of that same moral authority.

Likewise, it is also too easy to be cynical or doggedly paleo-conservative in relation Angell’s mantras, which are the corporate and social-scientific buzz-words: knowledge workers, u2018hot-spots’ of innovation, the end of a decayed liberal democracy, trust and the security of information systems. It’s true that he gets over-excited about the glories of technological and corporate capitalism, and over-apocalyptic about the depths of the pit into which the fixed-abode homesteaders will fall. Most of us, after all, are not technological nomads forever in search of new data pastures, but have in-built attachments to our family roots, even if those roots are increasingly multicultural and diverse. But this is part of the test: after all, Angell is paid to stir the pot, and to deliver insights to those who have to believe that they are at the leading edge.

Today there are plenty of knowledge workers who could develop a computer program faster, better and more efficiently than I ever could. Moreover, Microsoft Excel now enables me to get at all the information I needed in 1983 and more, and I have my work cut out just learning a fraction of what modern software can do. So I would not dream of again writing my own computer program. Yet the lessons I learned were valuable: when a design or a structure is rickety, achieves the wrong results, and provides as little protection as a house of cards, then it is time to tear it down and start all over again.

So I say to the programmers, manifesto-writers and all givers of gratuitous advice: in building anew, think laterally, learn from past mistakes and run your proposals by your most bitter critics in order to anticipate the unintended consequences, not by those who are already converted. And put not your trust in government: for angry Big Brother is not content just to pry into our lives and regulate them. He is on a slash-and-burn rampage, and he (or some disgruntled hacker, left behind and in Big Brother’s employ) could well be coming to take virtual bricks out of your garden wall and throw them in through your virtual Windows!

October 13, 2003

Selected References to Books and Articles

Links to Other Reviews

George Monbiot

Ian Angell

Richard Wall (send him mail) has a Master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics & Political Science, and lives in Estoril, Portugal, where he currently works as a freelance writer and translator.

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