Adam Curtis, “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (Episode 1: Love and Power)” (2011)
A curious and challenging visual essay, the first in a series of documentaries about how humans have transferred power to their machines and how technology dominates and moulds our thinking and culture, this film posits the idea that eccentric Russian-American author and philosopher Ayn Rand (1905 – 1982) is the spiritual grandmother of our modern social and economic system and its global networks, and how her ideas and beliefs have indirectly destabilised global financial systems, wrecking economies and bringing on the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 through the so-called California Ideology adopted by the Silicon Valley IT community. A mix of voice-over narration, delivered by Curtis in a droll accent and sometimes feigning astonishment, with interviews and a soundtrack of songs selected for ironic comment on the narrative and the visual information, much of which is previous newsreels, old movie clips and Curtis’s own footage, makes for a distinctive and rather dream-like piece in which the documentary’s premise becomes more plausible than it actually is.
Through her novels “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged”, both of which maintain an on-again/off-again modest popularity with the general public, and other works, Rand espoused a philosophy that decried religion, philosophy and all other belief systems as forms of control by which elites kept the masses in psychological and physical slavery and which argued that individual pursuit of self-interest and happiness alone would result in stable societies and peace. Rand’s ideas attracted several followers, known as The Collective, of whom one was Alan Greenspan, the future US Chairman of the Federal Reserve and finance czar to the Clinton government in the 1990s. Rand’s philosophy appealed to people working in information technology, the finance industry, politics and economics, and the notion that computer networks could monitor and stabilise financial and economic systems and networks, bolstered by some dodgy human psychology experiments and other research in game theory, probability and risk management, caught on. With computers controlling and stabilising the global finance industry, people become free to follow their dreams and find happiness as Randian heroes.
The film hops between detailing Ayn Rand’s affair with one of her followers, Nathaniel Branden, and Greenspan’s advice to US President Bill Clinton to let the markets self-regulate. The New Economy so unleashed delivered mixed results and led to a financial crash across east and southeast Asia in 1997. Countries affected were forced to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund, prompting international investors to bail out which in turn led to economic collapse. This had very serious consequences: among others, rioting broke out in Indonesia and led to President Suharto’s downfall after over 30 years of corrupt authoritarian rule.
The last part of the film deals with China’s apparent undertaking to manage the US economy (and so stabilising the world economy and avoiding a repeat of the 1997 Asian financial crisis) by pegging the yuan at an artificially low exchange rate to the US dollar. Cheap Chinese-made goods flooded the US and other Western markets and the money earned was invested by the Chinese government in US government bonds. US banks were flush with money which they then lent out to individuals, businesses and corporations with no regard for borrowers’ credit worth. The result was a property bubble, a huge accumulation of private and public debt and the US government being able to conduct wars and proxy wars in several countries. Of course China’s attempt to tinker with the global economy was bound to end in tears as the offshoring of industry and jobs from the US to China led to households and businesses defaulting on loans across America.
Curtis’s argument looks very persuasive but this reviewer had the impression he was cherry-picking his information to make it all fit his film’s premise. He seems unaware that Rand’s ideas were attractive to business, political and science leaders in US society because that society already adhered to a set of values that privileged individual action over collective action and which defined freedom as the absence of restraint and external control over one’s destiny. This negative definition of freedom, often in alliance with escape and remaking one’s identity, is a very American idea arising in part from the nation’s revolutionary birth, its subsequent conquest of territory and the waves of immigration the US experienced over the 19th century. Rand’s emphasis on “rationality” and “objectivity” finds its parallel in capitalist economic theory that assumes consumers in a free market act rationally. As for the notion that people act in self-interest and try to maximise their happiness as measured in accumulation of money and material goods, this can be traced back to ideas and concepts developed by philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, all of whom lived before Rand and whose ideas may have been absorbed into capitalist economics as assumptions. Global financial crises were occurring as far back as the 1890s at least before Rand and Greenspan came along. Rand’s ideal human, free to pursue happiness and self-actualisation, is not different in essence from its equivalents in philosophy (think Friedrich Nietzsche’s Ubermensch concept and Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist idea that people must decide who or what they want to be) and in psychology (Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs); and we shouldn’t discount the possibility that her admirers have interpreted and changed her ideas to suit their self-serving agendas.
The film’s notion that China attempts to manage the US economy in the way suggested by Curtis is a laughable idea: there are many different reasons why China has deliberately pegged its currency at a low rate relative to the US dollar, not all of them to do with “regulating” the US economy. Some are more about making Chinese Communism look good while keeping potential problems under control. China needs industry and jobs to keep its restive population in check. The country has over 100 million unemployed people and there are an estimated 40 million men who will never marry due to a severe gender shortage caused by the one-child birth policy; these men are viewed by the government as a potential source of discontent and strife. Add to that the perception many Chinese have of their government as not trustworthy or ethical and it’s no wonder the Chinese government pegs all its faith in and throws all its effort behind relentless economic and material progress and advancement; should the economy falter, the fragile political contract between ruler and ruled will crumble.
At least Curtis aims very high, striving to explain the philosophical basis for the way various modern technological phenomena have developed and the role they may have played in the development of rolling economic crises throughout the world since the 1990s. Although the presentation is artistic and original, combining the kitsch with more serious matter and featuring a musical soundtrack that often comments ironically and light-heartedly on the images it plays over, Curtis’s structuring of the issues and ideas he wants to explore is hodge-podge and the connections between and across issues can be very tenuous. Given that Curtis’s focus is on technology and its role in shaping the global financial landscape of the past 30 years, I find it curious that he doesn’t pay attention to the rise of IT companies like Apple Inc and Microsoft and their corporate philosophies, whether these incorporate Ayn Rand’s beliefs and how such philosophies and the companies’ structures and culture might influence the structure of IT systems and networks. How these networks in their turn influence the thinking and actions of individuals and institutions who purchase Apple and Microsoft products might be a topic worth investigating.
Ironically, global political power is shown to pass from governments to the financial industry and its elite through blind trust in technology. This finds its parallel in the lives of Ayn Rand and US President Bill Clinton, both of whose love affairs with Nathanael Branden and Monica Lewinski respectively destroyed their integrity and leadership and dissipated power to others. It is a wonder Curtis doesn’t seize on these parallels and make more of them than he does.