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Deprogramming the Neoliberal Lock-In?

Good post by Cian O’Callaghan describing the frustrating size of the task before us  – and the Occupy movement in the irelandafternama blog. 

Lately, I find myself having a recurring conversation. The people and the places change but the basic premise stays the same. I meet friends whom I haven’t seen in some time, I ask them how they are, what they’ve been up to. They shrug. “Nothing” they say. They are either unemployed or working in an area divorced from that of their training, part-time in a bar perhaps. These are people from a wide variety of backgrounds; qualified carpenters and electricians, science and engineering graduates, graphic designers and academics. When I tell them I am working I suffer from a vague sense of embarrassment, as if I somehow cheated and escaped the recession that we are all embroiled in. I know in reality this is not the case. I am also caught up in the noxious landscape of austerity. I may not be as victimised as some others but I am not immune. I am the 99%…..

He compares the current neoliberal economic mindset to restricting early software architecture created by chance that establish lock-in…

The computer scientist Jaron Lanier in his book You Are Not a Gadget describes a process he terms ‘lock-in’.  Lock-in describes what happens when particular programmes, despite their limitations, become the standard, and because it proves impractical to change or dispose of all the software and hardware that has been developed using this programming, the technology remains stagnated through its basic underlying architecture.  Lanier uses the example of MIDI, a programme that represents musical notes.  When developed in the 1980s, MIDI offered a very crude way to represent music digitally – it could represent the rather static expressions of a keyboard but not the transient expressions of a saxophone for example.  What perhaps started as a first step towards digital musical expression became widely used and, thus, became locked-in.  Thirty years after its inception then, MIDI remains the standard scheme to represent music in software, to the ultimate detriment of musical expression.  This occurs, Lanier suggests, because while it is easy to build small programmes from scratch, it is extraordinarily difficult to change existing larger programmes.

I think that lock-in offers a good metaphor for role of the state in terms of the current crisis.  For the past thirty years, nation states have been programmed into a mode of neoliberal thinking.  This mode of thinking is now to a large extent locked-in.  We can see this in the response of nation states to the financial crisis.  This crisis was brought about by an excess of neoliberalism – an all too optimistic faith in markets and the retraction of state oversight and regulation – but the solutions being proposed use the same neoliberal architecture as their foundation.  Like MIDI does to the musical note, these solutions diminish democracy so as to make it compatible with the limitations of the neoliberal programme.  Moreover, nation states do not stand in isolation, but are routed into global political and financial systems.  Thus, the ‘big’ programme gets bigger.

If the neoliberal project is the cumbersome ‘big’ programme, Occupy is the ‘small’ programme.  For the participants, it is a joy no doubt to watch it grow and flourish.  But the greater challenge for the group is to influence the architecture of the ‘big’ programme.  This is no small feat.  There is a lot at stake in the status-quo.  This is partly, as Marxists rightly suggest, because powerful interests exert political influence in order to retain or enhance their position in the system.  But it is also, I think partly down to a lack of political imagination.  The system stays the same because our leaders can’t imagine what it would be like to create something different.  There is a broad consensus calling for reform, but the programme is so big and so many interests are involved that these reforms become more and more inconsequential and we are left with lock-in.  Leaders are interested in fixing the bugs in the programme, not changing the underlying architecture.  (link to full article)



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