Beyond the Bi-Polar Economy

bears in the woodThe market is bipolar. Wild-eyed entrepreneurs and innovators,  crazy as any laudanum quaffing poet, are in the business of selling visions  and they create havoc with stocks and shares. Elsewhere venture capitalists running down a juicy deal are like hormonally challenged teenagers. Whooping it up after winning, their hysteria inflames the market. We are told repeatedly that risk-taking and psychopathology are rewarded; they create opportunities otherwise business stagnates. It would seem that the unbalanced visionary riding a destructive but seductive manic high is a basic economic unit.  Now the economy has turned sour; the once manic basic unit is tucked under the duvet with the blinds down, sleeping all day, bewildered, apparently lacking in desires.

magic mushroom

Hence the nostalgia for the robot state and a belief in a feeling-free economy. Hundreds of sci-fi films set their dystopias on some impoverished planet where human emotional intelligence has been disregarded. Feeling is the problem and the robot state carefully remove all things that help develop emotional intelligence. The robot police break up families, discourage lovers by firstly removing all literature and music so they have no reference points for their feelings, and then force the population into controlled breeding programmes. With feeling removed, the fantasy of machine excellence takes over until a digruntled state worker, forgetting his anti-libido medication, accidentally stumbles across an old Charlie Parker saxophone solo or a book of Durer’s woodcuts and the robots short circuit.

But these dystopian fantasies of a regulated humanity, with clear rational responses, despite the totalitarian overtones, nonetheless suggest a strong desire.  Are they desirable and can they ever be achieved? Visions are more about meaning than feeling. As long as the discussion is focused on feelings alone, we’ve already gone wrong — we’re then stuck in the bipolar states. Mania offers a simulacrum of meaning through very real feeling; it gives way to depression when the illusion is broken. The focus on feeling invites bipolarity because it tries to dispense with meaning – with what the feeling is about.

I wonder.  Our emotional states certainly spill into every other activity. Humanity’s physical problems have a sad record of influence in history ( think of Napoleon’s fistula which put him in such a foul, conquering mood,  or even Alexander the Great’s IBS which forced him to seek release in the distraction of battle). But are the booms and busts of bi-polar markets built into all human endeavours? Is capitalism’s creative destruction the projection onto society of a basic human model?

My own father with his good-natured pessimism (“after a certain age you have to be an imbecile to think life’s got any meaning”) has influenced me more than I realize. His  grey roof garden, concrete vision and joy of sweeping crumbs off a cold kitchen floor are all now pleasures  I share. I’ve tried to riot among floral displays, throw caution to the wind, take drugs to muffle that internal authoritarian voice but unsuccessfully.

Now, though,  I can almost share his vision of  humans of the future inhabiting cubicles in a ‘pellet society.’ Every food combination has been reduced to brown floating sticks (the sort one feeds Koi carp) and we sit, quietly, within our cubicles, with one tube  bringing pellets and another removing waste.  This is my father’s vision of a well-regulated meaning-free economy, insulated from the shocks of human life.

William_Blake_-_Dante_running_from_the_three_beastsBut this social state merely offers another type of analogy with humanity: this is a world order where all the transactions are governed by depression. Even if we are condemned to express our economics through our emotions, understanding the pathologies behind our social states might show us a way out of reckless bi-polarity. To find a different analogy for our government and economic interests is  to discover a previously unknown organ. Where will it be? Keynes’ animal spirits inhabit us all, not just the markets. To grow a new, liberating limb which has the versatility of an elephant’s trunk or a new gland that harnesses for good our boom and bust mood-swings—this is what we must hope for: a change in consciousness where a new mental state moulds a different reality.

(This piece first appeared on Open Democracy when Dominique Strauss-Kahn or more importantly Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s erection seemed to have  penetrated every newspaper editor and brought down the IMF.  The first time I know of such a well-documented erection causing monetary chaos.)

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