Postmodernism and the Neoliberal Failure

Milton Friedman: Bean Counter

“So aren’t computers just better at everything?” I asked.

“When a 90-year old woman is trapped in a collapsed and dangerous building, we choose to send several healthy young men in there to save her. It makes no sense. An AI wouldn’t do it. But we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t.”

My work on the politics of automation has led me to some fascinating conversations, not least that observation on pervasive automation. It highlights a humanity that rests beyond mere calculus, markets and rationality. In the same way as a creationist invites the physicist to explain what came before the Big Bang, we all have this nagging sense that there is a whole lot more that we don’t know; about consciousness, being, and society; about what it means to be human.

Chris Hables-Gray has written eloquently on the concept of the cyborg, and of identity. What does it mean to be whole? If we have no arms or legs, or eyes, or ears, are we any less human? If we have no ability to communicate – as people with locked-in syndrome – are we still people, like Antonio Damasio has discussed? We certainly retain consciousness, and that – the concept of self – is as amorphous as the predecessor of the Big Bang, and that desire to save the old woman.

Postmodernism is a twentieth century creation, perhaps, and one that defies definition; but at its core is a deconstructive imperative, a need to understand the smallest and the largest things, from strings to nebulae, such that we can exert control. It is about counting, and science, and an ascendant humanity. It is about measuring, controlling and ultimately dominating everything including the body, and identity. It is not even clear who should have that dominion; just that it be achieved by our civilisation. Lewis Mumford called it ‘the will to dominate the environment. To dominate, not to cultivate; to seize power, not to achieve form.’ (Technics and Civilization, 1934, p. 43).

Neoliberalism became the political realisation of the postmodern ethic. Everything would be counted, measured, and submitted to the abstraction of human desire embodied in the market. Neoliberalism was the postmodern philosophy made real, and manifested itself in enormous economic growth, accelerating and egregious inequality, resource gorging and hoarding, and globalized aggregations of social form including state, religion and even food production. It may be failing, though it has proved resilient; it may have been oversold, but isn’t in the nature of something so wedded to the concept of market that the profit concept would, inevitably, ultimately split the movement? It relies on inequality to succeed, on differences in power, and status. Differences between rich and poor, men and women, tall and short.

So irrespective of the vagaries of the neoliberal hegemony, we will continue to send young men into dangerous buildings to rescue old women. The point is that there is a line that we draw, there is an awareness of who we are as people, that will not allow everything that is counted to result in an inevitability. For something to make sense, it simply doesn’t need to be rational.


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