A Thousand Mozarts

Divining the Machine, part three

At the time of writing, the petition to keep Jeff Bezos in space forever has 144,000 signatures, and is still growing. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, is the richest man in the world, which also makes him the richest man in human history. His personal fortune stands at an estimated $200 billion, and he has channelled much of this into his own ‘human spaceflight startup’, Blue Origin. Bezos, like his fellow Silicon Valley Overlord Elon Musk, believes that inefficient governments have been too slow to expand human civilisation into space, and that nimble little companies like his can do it better. His own personal spaceflight, scheduled for next month, is intended to be just one small step - as it were - towards much more ambitious goals.

What are those goals? In essence, the next stage of the human project of colonisation and control. Having discovered, conquered, mapped, named or otherwise quantified every thing, people and place on the planet, there is nowhere else for us to go here on Earth. Furthermore, our ongoing quest for more ‘resources’ to fuel the kind of always-on lifestyle that Bezos has so effectively accelerated, means that we can’t find enough fuel here to power our greed (sorry, ‘progress’). Laying claim to space is thus a necessary next step on the human path, as Bezos explained to an interviewer in 2018:

We have ever-improving lives in large part because we use ever-expanding amounts of energy … But in just a few hundred years, we will have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells if we want to continue to grow our energy usage. And keep in mind, this covers all the things that you like: hospitals, air travel, all these things, modern childbirth, where children don’t die.

We use a lot of energy to do these things. We’ve been getting more efficient at using energy with every passing decade, and still we use more. Our metabolic rate as an animal is 100 watts. That’s how much the human body needs … But our civilizational metabolic rate as members of the developed world is 11,000 watts. Do we want that to continue, or do we want to freeze that in time? If we freeze it, by the way, there are millions of people who don’t get to enjoy the 11,000 watts that the people in this room enjoy.

So, we will have to leave this planet, and we’re going to leave it, and it’s going to make this planet better.

Put like this, there is a certain clear-eyed appeal to Bezos’s logic. This is the Machine speaking, and if you accept the parameters of the conversation there is a kind of naive purity to the argument. But there is also a broken, autistic, clinical edge:

There are a lot of other problems with planetary surfaces. But the main one is that they’re not big enough. We have the resources to build room for a trillion humans in this solar system, and when we have a trillion humans, we’ll have a thousand Einsteins and a thousand Mozarts. It will be a way more interesting place to live.

The alternative, if we stay on this planet, is not necessarily extinction. We can defend this planet, but the alternative is stasis. We will have to stop growing, which I think is a very bad future. It’s not the future that I want for my grandchildren or my grandchildren’s grandchildren.

It’s always worth spending time with the unquestioned assumptions in passages like this. Here, for example, we see that our lives are ‘ever improving’; that there is a universal ‘we’ in the ‘developed world’ that can be ‘improved’ with more ‘growing'; that the entire world wants to ‘enjoy’ the American liberal-capitalist lifestyle; that ‘we’ can trust people like Jeff to ‘make this planet better’; that a trillion people is more ‘interesting’ than seven billion; that a thousand Mozarts is a good target to aim for. Jeff doesn’t say what we would do with all these extra Mozarts. Do we need that much classical music? Maybe the Mozarts could take turns: composing symphonies one day and doing charity work the next. I expect Amazon’s Digital Assistant will be able to work it out when the time comes.

Anyone who has paid attention to the Silicon Valley Mindset over the last decade or two will recognise this kind of progress-obsessed, tech-fuelled optimism. We know these people by now. They are our new global ruling class, and their way of seeing and understanding the world is changing that world daily. Every time you search for something on Google, an algorithm is subtly shifting your attention towards something it wants you to see, and setting out the form within which you will comprehend it. The Satnavs and Google maps and drone deliveries and Alexas and AI personal assistants are re-engineering our relationship to each other, and to the wider landscape. Companies like Amazon and Google do not just have phenomenal economic heft, granted to them every time we use their services: they also design the parameters of the culture in which we live.

At some level we know this. As the space petition demonstrates, the degree of power and wealth held by people like Bezos naturally stirs up resistance and reaction. This was most starkly illustrated last year, when a bunch of activists set up a guillotine outside his multi-million dollar mansion, in a protest against the terrible pay and conditions that Amazon offers to its workers while its owner spends billions on castles in the sky. As a symbolic warning to plutocrats, a guillotine is hard to beat, but its symbolism goes beyond the obvious. If a version of the French Revolution were to erupt today, Bezos would certainly be likely to find himself in a tumbrel, perhaps with Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin for company. But he is also, paradoxically, both a beneficiary and a manifestation of the chasm that opened beneath eighteenth century France. The French Revolution took aim at people like Bezos - but, with some irony, it also paved the way for their triumph.

Two essays ago I tried to pin down some of the the values of the Machine which is locking in around us. Many of those values - progress, openness, universalism, futurism, technologism - are on full display in Bezos’s interview. But there is one value I missed, and I want to focus on it in this essay, because it underpins so much of the matrix of measurement and control that the Machine is laying out across the Earth: a deep faith in rational organisation, underpinned by a commitment to ‘Reason’.

The eighteenth century brought two revolutions to the West, and thus later to the world. In my last essay I wrote about the Industrial Revolution and its discontents. The enclosure of land and the concentration of economic and political power in Britain allowed an unleashing of technological creativity, which could be transmuted via the newly-created proletariat into burgeoning economic growth. The liberalisation of the economy, the rise of the bourgeoisie and the growth of empire all supercharged this technological revolution in ways which were entirely world-changing.

Across the English Channel, at more or less the same time, another revolution was playing out. In France, the oldest of the West’s old regimes, a complex interplay of corruption, poverty, political agitation, new philosophies of human origins, radical notions of ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, an indecisive King and a series of unfortunate events led to an explosion of such force that Europe was permanently transformed. Asked in 1971 what he thought of the French Revolution, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is supposed to have cryptically replied, ‘it is too soon to tell.’ This example of Timeless Eastern Wisdom actually turned out to have been a mistranslation: Zhou thought he had been asked about the student riots in Paris three years previously. Which is a shame, because both of these eighteenth century revolutions are still shaping the world, and it is too soon to tell what the endgame quite is.

But we can see with hindsight that both of these transformations - and, indeed, the American revolution which inspired the French intellectuals who drove Liberté forward - acted as grand ground-clearing exercises. If the Machine is a monster that grows in deserts, then the two revolutions were instrumental in creating the desert that is modernity. Industrialism’s physical clearances - enclosures of land and destruction of the artisans and the peasantry - was mirrored by the French earthquake, in which monarchy, aristocracy, church and customs of all kinds were to be swept away and replaced by a new world, designed along rational lines, to promote Virtue through the rigorous application of that most vital of Enlightenment values: Reason.

It is almost impossible now to imagine the thrilling upheaval that the early days of the French Revolution must have represented to the intellectuals and radical aristocrats who were its progenitors. Like all revolutions of its kind, notably those which followed in Russia and China, the French Revolution was not the product of ‘the people’ but of a disaffected elite, inspired in this case by the ideas of philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, who scorned ancient hierarchies and structures and promoted instead notions of individual liberty, radical patriotism, virtuous living, intellectual inquiry and market economics.

The historian Simon Schama, in his gripping and exhaustive book on the revolution, Citizens, emphasises several times that the forces which led to the end of the monarchy in France were led by a ‘liberal nobility’ rather than a starving peasantry:

… the working committees that drafted the constitution and provided France with the shape of its new institutions were monopolised by a small intellectual elite, many of whom had known each other before the Revolution and a striking number of whom had been officers of the old monarchy in either the army, judiciary, government or church.

As with the Industrial Revolution in neighbouring England, the centre of society was violently wrenched into a new shape by an elite which claimed to be working on behalf of its people. The actual people, meanwhile, according to Schama, when they supported the Revolution, often did so not because they wanted to institute a new dawn of Reason and Virtue, but because the old regime, led by King Louis XVI, had in their view been too modern.

Two years before the Revolution broke out, for example, Louis’s regime had embraced the newfangled Enlightenment notion of ‘free trade’, sweeping away the old protections that had ensured affordable bread for the poor and fair prices for farmers. This eighteenth century equivalent of NAFTA inflamed an eighteenth century populism amongst the people. But what those people wanted from the uprising against the King was not what the intellectual vanguard had in mind:

While the cahiers of the liberal nobility offered an alluring picture of a briskly modernising France that would consummate the great alterations of the 1770s and 1780s by shaking off restrictions like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, those of the Third Estate [the general population] wanted, very often, a return to the cocoon. By implication they suggested a mythical France, governed by an all-seeing, just and benign monarch, cared for by a humble and responsible clergy.

The liberalism and individualism which fired the minds of the Revolutionary elite were more repulsive to many French people than the corruptions of the Ancien Regime. The ‘people’ in whose name the execution of the monarch would be carried out didn’t want more modernity, but less:

Many of those whose violence … allowed the revolution to succeed had never been much enamoured of economic liberalism or individualism. Much of their anger had been a reaction against the unpredictable and impersonal operation of the market … They were not only indifferent, then, but actually hostile to much of the modernising and reformist enterprise embarked on, first by the monarchy and then by successive revolutionary inheritor regimes.

Here again we see a manifestation of the ‘reactionary radicalism’ I wrote about in my last essay: people at the grassroots who want justice from their rulers, rather than their beheading, and whose aim is to make customary ways work better for them. The elite Revolutionaries, though, had other ideas: those ‘customary ways’ were obstacles to be swept away, and once that was achieved, a new world would triumph. It’s an old story now, and it usually leads to the same destination: the mass liquidation of those who don’t fit the model.

But before the Revolution descended into Robespierre’s Terror, there was a brief period in which that new world seemed to be possible. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive’, wrote Wordsworth, who was in Paris as the old regime fell. The Romanticism that fuelled Wordsworth’s poetic project fuelled many of the revolutionaries too. Inspired by the ‘natural philosophy’ of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, they hoped to recreate the ‘State of Nature’ in which humanity was said to have been born before being placed ‘in chains’ by social conditions and unjust structures. In this State of Nature, the individual, untrammelled by cultural expectations, would live instinctively by ‘uncorrupted morals’. Rousseau’s philosophy, in some respects, would certainly have met with the approval of the Fen Tigers:

The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine', and found people naïve enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society. From how many crimes, wars, and murders, from how many horrors and misfortunes might not any one have saved mankind, by pulling up the stakes, or filling up the ditch, and crying to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.

Restoring this ‘State of Nature’ through ‘true principles, rationally determined’ was one of the aims of the French Revolution, and Reason - which would naturally flourish once the chains of society were removed - was to be its guide. The new systems designed to replace the baroque structures of the Ancien Régime would, in Schama’s telling:

… strip away those ‘Gothic’ accretions of history - arbitrary divisions of custom, habit and jurisdiction that were the products of ancient conquests. They would be replaced with rational, equalising institutions that would put men into relations with one another as citizens, bound by the same laws and subject to the same sovereignty: their own.

Reason, rationalism, individualism, market values, the rejection of the past, the framing of custom and history as obstacles, the idealisation of progress and perpetual renewal: Jeff Bezos would recognise all of this, and doubtless nod in vigorous assent. In the turmoil of the early 1790s, the new French elite were laying the foundations of the world we inhabit today.

But the bliss of the new dawn was short-lived, and not just because of the appearance of the guillotine in public squares across the country, where Enemies Of The People would be led by the thousand to ‘shake the hot hand’: my personal favourite euphemism for mass beheading. The bigger problem was that the new notions of the philosopher-Revolutionaries didn’t actually work. Removing the old customs and strictures did not lead to a flowering of virtue but to mass outbreaks of revenge. Ideas which seemed intriguing in the intellectual salons of Paris - ideas like dividing the whole country up into 81 perfectly equally squares, each administered as a unit of local government - turned out to be ridiculously unworkable when actually tried.

Most of all, Reason was no replacement for the religion - Catholicism - which the Revolution had ruthlessly downgraded and in many cases actively tried to eliminate, through the mass murder of priests and the iconoclastic destruction of churches. For all the corruption and collaboration of the Ancien Régime church, the faith of the French people was not easily replaced by the ideas of philosophers and intellectuals. Many of the most extreme Revolutionaries, like their Marxist heirs in the twentieth century (Lenin and Trotsky consciously modelled their revolution on that of the Jacobins), saw religion as an irrational control mechanism which stood in the way of the people’s liberation. The people themselves though, would often defend their churches and priests against the secular replacements sent to them by the new regimes in Paris, and would later fight back, often in huge numbers, against attacks on religion itself.

As so often in radical history, the actual people were not behaving as the philosophy of the Revolutionaries suggested they ought to. What was to be done? One solution arrived at during the Revolution’s final and most fanatical phase, the revolutionary dictatorship of the Jacobin Republic, was to set up Reason itself as a deity. In 1793, the first (and, in the event, only) annual ‘Festival of Reason’ was inaugurated. Churches across the country were transformed by decree into ‘temples of reason,’ with the most spectacular ceremony being reserved for Notre-Dame in Paris, during which an actress dressed as Liberty bowed to a flame representing Reason.

The Cult of Reason lasted little more than a year before Robespierre, now ensconced as France’s new tyrannical dictator, replaced it with his own ‘Cult of the Supreme Being’. Robespierre despised Catholicism, but he despised atheism almost as much. The people, he believed, needed something divine to look up to, but it needed to be something with ‘social utility.’ His ‘Supreme Being’ was God remade in the image of patriotic, Revolutionary France. Like its predecessor, the new, rational religion lasted only a few months, disappearing when its creator was guillotined by the Terror he had helped to create.

But the notion that humans were, or could be, rational animals survived, for it was fundamental not just to the French Revolution but to the wider age of Enlightenment. It is easy for us, still swimming in its backwash, to see the attraction, because it’s the same attraction that Jeff Bezos is caught by when he talks about building a space civilisation for a trillion people. Reason is appealing, because it implies that humans can use their faculties to order the universe, and that the universe will respond in kind. We want desperately to believe this story; in a Godless age, it is perhaps the only story that can save us, because it tells us that we understand the world, or are capable of doing so, and that this understanding will allow us to control it. And because the story is at least partially true - we have modern medicine and the Internet and sort-of democracies and space flight as demonstrations that empiricism and rational enquiry can deliver at least some goods - we are able to keep telling it.

The problem, though, is that this story delivers other goods at the same time: climate change, nuclear weapons and the massed dead of the industrial wars and revolutions of the twentieth century are the products of the Age of Reason too. We want to believe, like good Western liberals, that horrors like Nazism or the mass famines and murders of the communist regimes were driven by irrational fanaticism: that they were in some ways reversions to a ‘barbaric’ past, the opposite of our 'reasonable’ and humane present. The truth, though, is the opposite. In his 1992 book Voltaire’s Bastards, a broadside against what he calls ‘the dictatorship of reason in the West’, John Ralston Saul puts it like this:

… a series of grandiose and dark events - religious bloodbaths in Europe, Napoleonic dictatorships and unlimited industrial competitions, to name three - overcame Western society, and seemed to do so thanks to rational methods. The original easy conviction that reason was a moral force was gradually converted into a desperate, protective assumption. The twentieth century, which has seen the final victory of pure reason in power, has also seen unprecedented unleashings of violence and of power deformed. It is hard, for example, to avoid noticing that the murder of six million Jews was a perfectly rational act.

That ‘perfectly rational act’, as Simon Schama pointed out, was a direct descendant of the murderous clarity of Robespierre and co: the guillotine, after all, was designed as a humane means of dealing with the enemies of the Revolution. Mass death, yes: but rational mass death.

The eighteenth century’s two Revolutions - the revolution of Reason, and the revolution of Technology - were supposed to walk us towards a universal paradise. Instead we live in a time of melting glaciers, mass extinction and cultural disintegration. This, says Saul, is a direct result of the flawed assumptions on which those revolutions were built. Both were, in the final analysis, set in motion by,

… optimistic rationalists, who imagined whole populations sliced free of their limiting past and present, then flipped over to fry in a new, clean future with all the inanimate passivity of a Big Mac. This was the reality that Burke groped for when attacking the French Revolution: the more complete the idealistic future proposed, the more certain it was to require some overriding dissolution … the effect would be to unleash a level of violence which in this clean, new world liberated from experience and common sense would be virtually unrestrainable.

This is the essence of Reason’s failure - and that failure in turn has happened because Reason, in and of itself, has always been little more than a fiction.

In his 1995 book Descartes’ Error, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio used the fruits of a lifetime’s work to demolish the notion that anything like an abstracted ‘reason’ existed. Reason, he showed, was intimately connected to emotion; one could not exist without the other. In fact, in many of Damasio’s own patients, damage to the emotional centres of the brain, which rendered them unable to feel but still able to think, rendered them effectively disabled. Reason, it turned out, was not a superior alternative to intuition, emotion or instinct, but a manifestation of it. There could be no mind without the body; no unprejudiced ‘concepts’ or unpolluted ‘models’ of reality. There could, in short, be no Reason without the messy world it was embedded in:

This is Descartes’ Error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizeable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgement, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and opreation of a biological organism.

But if Reason is nonexistent, then any culture built on its back must, in the end, fail. Awkwardly, this takes in not only Bezos’s Star Trek future, but most of the modern world, and pretty much the entirety of the modern West. It includes not only the great globe-spanning economic system which is currently eating the Earth alive, but also all of our rational, top-down clever-clever proposals for ‘saving’ it, including the Green New Deal to make the Machine ‘sustainable’, the World Economic Forum’s currently notorious Great Reset, and every abstract ideological proposition that modernity has produced, from Marxism to neoliberalism. The entirety of the system of global governance and the ‘laws’ of classical economics, based as they are on notions of humans as rational actors weighing up their enlightened self-interest and deciding accordingly between Pepsi and Coke, is also holed below the waterline. Liberal modernity, in short, is doomed.

If this is true, then another conclusion also suggests itself: that older ways of seeing and speaking - mythology, oral storytelling, folk cultures and the mystical underpinnings of religious faith - might have been onto something after all. What we are seeing now, I think, is that the standard choices presented to us - reason versus superstition; progress versus barbarism; past versus future; Earth versus space; growth versus stasis - were always chimeras. The choice is not between ‘going forward’ or ‘going back’, but between working with the complexity of human and natural realities, in all their organic messiness, or attempting to supersede them with abstractions which can never hope to contain them.

Perhaps this is why artists, saints, poets, mystics and storytellers often have a better handle on what reality actually looks like than those who sing the praises of Science or Reason. The English painter Cecil Collins, for example, explained his view on the matter in a beautiful mid-twentieth century passage which is worth quoting in full:

Rationalists are very fond of saying that without reason the universe would be a mad place; but of course it is a mad place even with reason. Any artist, or poet, or really alive person, knows it is mad. It is a horrible and terrifying place full of a bitter cruelty and obscenity. It is a place full of wonderful, profound beauty, and the tenderness of vast mysterious sacrifices. What it is not is a nice little rational puzzle that works out in the end.

No, the universe of experience is a different matter. It is a deep abyss, full of voices, some whispering, some shouting, the voices of frustration, the voices of unfulfilled longings, the voices of mysterious lusts, of mystical desires that can find no place in the world, the voices of deep, buried wrongs that cry out from an abyss of world desolation, the voices of misfits, neurotics, failures, the weak, an abyss full of the ecstasy of the poet, the glow of the praise of life, full of an incomprehensible love and an incomprehensible destructiveness.

All these voices are centred in man’s consciousness and in order to escape from them he builds in his mind a prison of rationality, and then tries by the aid of the official world, to shut them out.

The attempt to solve the ‘little rational puzzle’ of reality with the human mind, guided by Reason and using the tools of Science and its child Technology, has been our path since the eighteenth century. This process has levelled the old world of rooted communities and mutual obligations, of faith and place and story, and in doing so cleared a path for the money power of the Machine to triumph. As we continue to pursue the subjection of Earth and the conquest of space, longing for our own self-created immortality, desperate for a way out, that Machine will eat us alive at its leisure. It took another artist, D. H. Lawrence, to paint over a century ago the shape of our coming, final failure:

The universe is not a machine after all. It's alive and kicking. And in spite of the fact that man with all his cleverness has discovered some habits of our old earth, and so lured him into a trap; in spite of the fact that man has trapped the great forces, and they go round and round at his bidding like a donkey in a gin, the old demon isn't quite nabbed. We didn't quite catch him napping. He'll turn into a python, coiling, coiling, coiling anguish till we're nicely mashed. Then he'll bolt us.