Goodbye delusionsby Brian Eno / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in August 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
All societies seem to pass through phases of delusion, where almost the entire population comes to accept as irrefutable truth a belief-system which to any rational outsider would appear insane. These bubbles of madness are the psychological equivalent of Ponzi schemes: as long as people continue to believe in them, they look reasonable. Those few who probe the foundations of the pyramid are dismissed as irrelevant, crazy, Luddites, Utopianists, or whatever term of abuse currently means “wrong.”
John Lanchester’s great book Whoops!: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (Allen Lane) hilariously autopsies this process in the financial markets over the last two decades. Reading it, you wonder: “How on earth could so many clever people have been so stupid?”
When humans pack complex experience into language, we do so by suppressing detail. Take the term “free market,” which distinguishes between an economy that is autonomously organised and one that is government-controlled.
These two opposites bookend a whole range of possibilities. No large society has ever actually sustained a market system at either extreme: all “command economies” have been lubricated by private trading, and “free markets” have been protected from oligopoly by government intervention.
It was by appealing to the “free market” abstraction that financial players were able to dismantle any controls on their increasingly abstracted behaviour. Now we’ve realised our mistake, the good news is that we can perhaps enjoy a few refreshing years of realism, where those who called it right get rewarded and we are free to encounter the world pragmatically, in all its gloriously inconvenient complexity. Dealing with the real requires experience of the real, not just abstractions.