When I was growing up a significant number of people on the left were intent on destroying capitalism. They loathed its focus on the individual and extolled the virtue of the collective. They were suspicious of new technology, worried that it would take away jobs. They were protective of their own and were intent on battling the bosses. Some looked to Russia for inspiration.
It has fascinated me for sometime how a significant number of contemporary leftists far from wanting to destroy capitalism seem to want to reshape society in its image. Instead of capitalism making the proletariat who are ready to bring down the bourgeoisie the ‘nouveau leftist’ seems content to throw in their lot with global capitalism; they love the tech companies many of which originated in ‘silicon valley’. Instead of finding common collective ground to resist the Californian dream they want to alter our world to fit in with the silicon vision. For many this seems to begin in our schools, where the technophile leftist believes in individualisation, choice, preparing children for a world of uncertainty and having to follow an uberfication of the workforce, neatly summed up as jobs that haven’t been invented yet and twenty first century skills. The only thing that some of our nouveau technophile leftists have in common with their more luddite comrades from the past is that they still look fondly upon Russia.
How can this be?
The leftist technophile leader in a school who introduces iPads to every classroom or insists on a ‘google has changed everything approach’ might not know it but she has connections to Ayn Rand, Lenin, Julian Assange, Trump, Putin, Steve Bannon and others. Arguably she is the unwitting agent of unfettered capitalism and companies which sometimes seem to belong in the pages of 1984 and Brave New World. Far from wanting to bring down these ‘neo-liberal’ global conglomerates, she has been kite marked as an apple and pears educator, a micro-hard missionary or a googley grandee.
Our technophile seems full of contradictions yet if we go back a few years into pre-Russian revolution times we find the roots of this contradiction and how some leftists of today can extol the virtues of global capitalist brands and insist our entire education system should be disrupted to serve a techno capitalist future. Just like some of the old leftists our nouveau leftist is drawn to the works of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin but also, more surprisingly, it is the thinking of the controversial capitalist thinker Ayn Rand who has influenced many of those who argue for new ways of teaching and learning in our classrooms.
Inspired by the book: What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Lenin intended to destroy things as they were and to replace them with a Soviet ‘scientific utopia’ which was to be run by rational ‘technical experts’.
That Leninism was inspired by Chernyshevsky’s book is one thing, for it also to inspire Ayn Rand is another… the arch communist and arch selfish capitalist make, at first sight, a bizarre couple, but what united both, apart from their motherland, is Chernyshevsky’s main character, Rakhmetov a revolutionary who believed in ‘rational egoism’. According to Adam Weiner:
Rational egoism, though actually built on an immovable foundation of determinism, indulged its followers with the idea of endless personal freedom, depicting again and again an almost miraculous process of transformation by which socially inept people became like aristocrats, prostitutes became honest workers, hack writers became literary giants.
Dostoevsky wrote ‘Notes from the Underground’ as an attack on rational egoism:
“who was it who first proclaimed that man does nasty things only because he does not know his true interests, and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his true, normal interests, then man would immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness, and it’s well known that there is not one man who can act knowingly against his own personal gain, ergo, so to speak, he would be compelled to do good deeds? O, the babe! O, the pure, innocent child!”
Lenin also named his first major publication “What is to be Done?” And Rand seemed to borrow from the same source, her heroes in the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged share many traits with Rakhmetov and rational egoism had many features in common with her philosophy of ‘objectivism.’
In 1967 Herman Kahn, a foremost nuclear thinker from the Rand corporation, predicted a world in which ‘pocket phones’ and home computers were commonplace in which each user would have a private file space in a central computer and, according to Thomas Rid in his fascinating book the Rise of the Machines: ‘Computer access would be used to reduce crime, as police can check immediately the record of any person stopped for questioning’. He predicted a rise of bionic machines with creative capacities and ‘as the distinction between man and lesser creatures and machines begins to shade off, the uniqueness of man and the rights that are attributed to this uniqueness may begin to attenuate.’
The writer Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian about how Rand influenced the Silicon valley entrepreneurs:
Rand… might just be “the most influential figure in the industry”. When the CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick, had to choose an avatar for his Twitter account in 2015, he opted for the cover of The Fountainhead. Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first major investor and a rare example of a man who straddles both Silicon Valley and Trumpworld, is a Randian. Meanwhile, Steve Jobs is said by his Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, to have regarded Atlas Shrugged as one of his “guides in life”
Among these new masters of the universe, the Rand influence is manifest less in party political libertarianism than in a single-minded determination to follow a personal vision, regardless of the impact. No wonder the tech companies don’t mind destroying, say, the taxi business or the traditional news media. Such concerns are beneath the young, powerful men at the top: even to listen to such concerns would be to betray the singularity of their own pure vision. It would be to break Rand’s golden rule, by which the visionary must never sacrifice himself to others.
Seemingly, we find the west coast libertarian children of Rand as the fellow travellers of those who seek to disrupt traditional education with a rational, technical utopia where children are educated by brand new machines.
According to Andrew G Kirk in his extremely interesting book ‘CounterCulture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism’, ‘Cyber-libertarianism’ as a philosophy is a hybrid fusion of left and right, it blends:
the individualism and liberal social values of the counterculture with a traditionally western distrust of big government and centralised authority… [it embraces the] technology unique to their generation while rejecting the national orientation and emphasised on collective achievement that characterised the Right and Left… [They value] individual agency over communal action and [champion] the free flow of information and access to tools as the best means of empowerment and change.
The great American technical companies: Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and others have managed to unite libertarian philosophy, green ideology, hippy idealism, into a utopian message of uniting the youth into a sub ‘brave new world’ utopianism where we all choose to indulge our egos in social media bubbles. That they are doing their best to shape schooling around this ego driven individualism should come as no surprise. Technology and schools is a huge market. This market intends to disrupt schools in the same way as UBER disrupt taxi firms.
Perhaps the best example of rational egoism we have today is Julian Assange, described by Hilary Clinton as a ‘kind of nihilistic opportunist’ he is, according to David Aaronovitch:
someone for whom the destruction of existing beliefs and institutions is more important than the question of what replaces them… one man’s disruptor is another man’s innovator…
Aaronovitch goes on to compare this tendency with that of Lenin who represents:
tearing the place up and putting something else there instead…
He adds that Steve Bannon described himself as a Leninist quoting him as having said that:
“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all today’s establishment.”
Of course Assange, it transpires, tried to angle a job allied with the Trump administration. Yet he is also a hero of many leftists – Chomsky, Ken Loach, Michael Moore, Pilger and others have all supported him. Despite Assange’s rational egoism seemingly to know of no boundaries – he maintains support from the left because he is seen as a disruptor of the tradition.
That Russia is accused of being in cahoots with the spreading of misinformation, alternative facts, and various methods of disruption on social media, the leaking of emails, and having connections to Assange and Trump might come as no surprise to students of how modern politics, beyond left and right, is conducted.
But for others ‘progressive cyber libertarianism’ seems to confuse. In a world where dichotomies between left and right, liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional, no longer seemed to sum up our politics this ‘new’ politics is difficult to come to terms with.
It disrupts us.
Yet if we go back to ‘What is to be Done?’ we can see how some on the left and the right, have come together through a philosophy imbued with a ‘rational’ use of technology, rampant individualism and a Leninist disruption of much that many held dear. Trumpism and Brexit have been mentioned as symptoms of this desire to disrupt, as have new technologies and the global capitalists who make it all possible.
And it is this reach into the political world that has made some people edgy, yet, at the same time, it is this philosophy that reaches into our classrooms.
In today’s education landscape there are many echoes with the idea of rational egoism and disruption in the work of libertarian individualists and technophile lefties who seem to want to achieve many of the aims articulated in the book ‘What is to be Done?’
The rational argument is steeped in language of the workplace and twenty-first century skills. Personalisation of the curriculum is the lead in for the individual focused ‘egoism’ around which all else must be built. These two pursuits seem to require that the school as currently realised is disrupted. Instead of classrooms looking like they do (the (wrong) argument suggests they are based on a 19th century factory model) these classrooms should be replaced by children roaming in a much freer way – though harnessed to the ‘objective’ machine – wired for google… so rational, so technical… so egocentric… And, with it’s connections to the Californian ideology conversant with Randian objectivism and the countercultural thesis born from publications like the Whole Earth Catalog it is the thinking of technophile ex hippies that has become so mainstream for many who extol the uses of technology and regularly use it shape their world view.
At first sight it seemed bizarre that Alison Peacock the CEO of the College of Teaching found herself talking to a leftist disruptor with an interest in technology, Graham Brown Martin, who works for technology company Pi Top, about the need to disrupt traditional western education models on a programme called ‘Are the Kids Alright?’ ,made by ‘Renegade Inc’. and broadcast on Russia Today, the programme asked:
‘Western education curriculums are still preparing pupils for a standardised world as rising inequality, an ageing population, exploding levels of individual and government debt begin to bite, how does a stagnating education system reinvent itself to equip students to solve these problems and prepare them for a workplace that doesn’t yet exist?’
Our ‘stagnating education system’ needs to be disrupted in the name of future oriented workplaces that don’t yet exist.
Renegade Inc describe themselves as:
…an independent knowledge platform for people who think differently. We find thinkers, writers, leaders and creators in search of the best new ideas, businesses and policies. Many more people are now questioning the conventional wisdom of modern life and asking a simple question: How do I live well during the age of uncertainty? Renegade Inc. was founded to answer some of those questions.
Renegade Inc was co-founded by Megan and Ross Ashcroft, award-winning film producers and co-founders of the advisory and investment business Motherlode.
Megan – was previously the Associate Director of UBS Investment Bank and consultant at Lloyds TSB.
Ross is a strategic advisor to businesses in different sectors and currently advises Asymmetric Return Capital.
Renegade Inc broadcast their programmes on Russia Today.
This is the new politics, in which, in Marx’s well worn phrase: ‘All that is solid melts into air” takes centre stage. With the need to question the conventional wisdom of modern life disruption is the order of the day, technical expertise is needed for the soon to come scientific, pragmatic, free individuals who will be connected to ‘the singular cloud’ in some sort of blissful utopia in which all will have their eyes opened to their true interests and man will ‘immediately stop doing nasty things, would immediately become good and noble, because being enlightened and understanding where his true interest lies, he would see that his own interest lies in goodness’ . That many try to propagate this technological individualism in our schools should come as no surprise, imbued with the ‘neutral’ ‘pragmatic’ language of ‘what our businesses need’ and ‘creativity’ allied to ‘whose knowledge?’ ‘who says what is truth?’ the attempt to disrupt the western education, tradition, is clearly within their remit.
Whether you approve of this political turn or not it is interesting to trace its roots back to Rational Egoism and a Russian book which enabled West to meet East and the ‘Leninist’ Left to find itself in cahoots with the Libertarian, ‘Randian’ Right.