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Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Invisible Hand's middle finger

While shopping for a Libertarian dystopian novel, I ran across a recommendation for Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, a work familiar to a number of you. Much of it seems rather too weird for my tastes. Still, this passage from the opening made me smile:
This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it — talking trade balances here — once we’ve brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they’re making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here — once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel — once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity — y’know what? There’s only four things we do better than anyone else:



microcode (software)

high-speed pizza delivery
Stephenson wrote those words a little more than a decade ago. They now seem outdated only in that one can no longer state with much confidence that we exceed the world in those four realms. As Tony Wikrent wrote in Corrente today:
What have been the actual results - the fruit - of neo-liberal policies over the past forty plus years? Industry in both the U.S. and Britain has been systematically looted by the financial sector; income inequality has grown to be the worst in human history according to some; the working class in both countries has been destroyed, with a male in his thirties today making near ten percent less than a working class male in the 1970s; real rates of illiteracy - if honestly measured - approaching forty percent; the worst financial crash since the First Great Depression; and an inability to simply maintain our physical infrastructure in good working order.

Yet despite this clear record of failure, elites of all types are unwilling or unable to admit the clear policy mistakes of the past four decades.
These results were predictable. And now, as Tea Party maniacs vie for the honor of holding the sledgehammer that will demolish what remains of the United States, Snow Crash (judging from the summaries) isn't dystopian enough.

In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory dream of finding a "cop-less" town. That's the Libertarian utopia. The entire Libertarian argument comes down to this: "Let us do whatever the fuck we want." Libertarians pretend that the result will be a fair and decent society -- but deep down, they know full well that a cop-less town will soon give way to a Social Darwinist competition between thug enclaves. Think Yojimbo or Fistful of Dollars or Last Man Standing. If your name is Ayn Rand, that prospect gets you wet.

Lose Social Security, sayeth the Randroids; invest the money in Wall Street. And if the money goes into crappy financial instruments falsely rated AAA, then tough titty. The market has spoken. Any legal authority holding enough power to reign in the theft or to punish the thieves constitutes socialism. Can't have that.

Libertarians have finally given up the argument that the free market will, in each and every case, operate more efficiently than will a government-regulated or government-run alternative. During the health care debate, a lot of guys like me asked: "Why not allow a public option? According to neo-liberal ideology, a gummint alternative can never be cheaper or better than a privately-run insurance scheme. So pretty soon, the public option should fade away for lack of takers." At that moment, Libertarians pretty much admitted that their argument was a scam. In the realm of health insurance, the free market could never hope to compete with gummint.

Nevertheless, a public option was considered unthinkable. The problem had nothing to do with efficiency or cost. Only ideology counts. Any solution involving the gummint is ideologically incorrect.

Libertarians scoff at the traditional argument that laissez faire reaches its limit when monopoly begins. They want a world of monopolists. In a world-wide cop-less town, capital-P Power will dwindle into an ever-shrinking number of bosses. Soon, a predictable endgame will come into sight.

Think back to Caesar versus Pompey -- except Future Caesar and Future Pompey will command corporations, not armies. The last two remaining Big Corporate Bastards will have their war, which will be very bloody, and only one will emerge victorious.

Soon thereafter, the Republic comes to an end. Caligula is free to name his horse to the Senate and Tiberius frolics with his little fishes all day long.

Unfettered laissez faire ultimately means the end of democracy -- and, paradoxically enough, the end of laissez faire. Granting absolute freedom to corporate actors will inevitably lead to the end of freedom and the end of all corporate actors -- save one. He will be the new global Caesar. He will be God.

The only force opposing this process is democracy. But even when defined in broad terms, democracy can exist only within the realm of government. To erode government is to erode the space where democracy does its business. Milton Friedman's grandson understood this when he pronounced democracy incompatible with the free market. Sharron Angle said pretty much the same thing, although few took her seriously.
Oh, read it JC! I've read it 3 times over the last decade. At this point, it is somewhat outdated, but it's well-written, creative, and imaginative.
We are in a race here (I think we lost) that pits the Libertarian/Tea Party propaganda against what Joe and Jane Six-pack see with their own eyes without the filter of the corrupt print and broadcast media.

When they, their children, or their neighbors lose everything they have due to the failing economy they may wake up to the damage done by the free marketeers. Up to now Wall Street excesses haven't had too much of an impact on their lives.

How many of them knew anybody that worked for Enron and lost it all and now depend on Social Security?
Its a shitty book that falls apart on the authour's attempt to replicate the best parts of Gibson's sprawl stories in his own light.

Instead, you're treated to a novel showing you just how terribly clever Stephanson must be.
It's not a middle finger, Joe. It's a fist.

As a young adolescent, I read a book that I thought was incredible - it spoke to me. I looked for books of a similar genre and appeal and repeatedly came across "Snow Crash." I wanted MOAR.

I never read the book, but I got about 20 pages into it. It seemed a pale imitation of what I had just read, the thing that had awoken the cultural desire I wanted to hear spoken to - culturally derivative, poorly written, and the fact that it was a cyber-punk novel about pizza delivery - which is what I worked at the time - stretched the limits of my "suspension of disbelief."

What I'm trying to say is: Forget about "Snow Crash" - what everyone should read, if you're in this mood, is "Neuromancer" by William Gibson. It's the seed of what became "Snow Crash." "Neuromancer" is ~200 hardcover pages of non-stop anti-hero, drug-addict heist action in a futuristic, neo-corporatist, feudal-istic world. I gather that Joe's not the biggest fiction-hound, but this is like the original "Dune" from Herbert - larger than the sum of it's parts. It's not only prescient in it's corporatist philosophy, it's also a hell of a ride.

Any doubts? GOOGLE IT. Basically, wherever you go, every single review will spooge all over this book. Yes, it is that good - and not just for fanboys.

Grab it and spend an afternoon with it - give it 25 pages, if that (at leat 10). You'll be surprised - it flows.

If you get hungry for more, it's the first of a trilogy - but books two and three never match the original (and the original can stand alone).
"The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth isn't incredibly well written but the story kept me interested. It was written in the early 1950s and set in a world that has been taken over by corporations and is run by ad agencies. Needless to say, this situation does not produce prosperity. It certainly qualifies as dystopian, and it's not very long. Frederik Pohl wrote a sequel many years later, "The Merchants' War", that was also worth reading.
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