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  • Writer's pictureAlan Stevens - AWAH - Libertarianism, Freedom.

‘The Machine Stops’ and Inevitable Socialist Failure

A century of dystopian literature assumes Socialism is soulless but workable. Actually, even with the Holy Grail of AI, it is still unworkable. And it is miserable too.

A century of dystopian literature assumes Socialism is soulless but workable. Actually, even with the Holy Grail of AI, it is still unworkable. And it is miserable too.

I recently read 'The Machine Stops' written by EM Forster in 1909. The Machine in the story is a global centrally controlled economic system run entirely by machines, or aspects of a single great machine. It must in effect be a huge, mechanical Artificial Intelligence (AI). Humans are the pampered and spoilt beneficiaries of the Machine’s solicitous attentions.

Unfortunately, the machine does not stop in Forster’s story. This is a pity. It is evidently turning people into isolated, fearful, lobotomised zombies. Which is the danger that EM Forster is warning against. The message for humanity is use it or lose it - because an AI controlled world will make us useless, dependent and eventually surplus to requirements. Let us not get cut off from each other too.

The damaged and ineffectual heroine of ‘The Machine Stops’ is reminiscent of isolated and damaged people from similar stories, including the film Wall-E with the nearly useless human blobs on the space ship who have to be redeemed by the eponymous AI robot. There is also Asimov's book 'The Naked Sun' featuring a man-like AI (again) robot and some psychologically and physically isolated human beings.


These are chilling and dystopian views of the future, currently echoed by the position that Europeans have been placed in as a result of the coronavirus lockdowns which are being repeatedly imposed by clueless (or venal) ‘follow the science’ politicians.

The loss and stress experienced by most of the population – but not (yet) state employees - is simply par for the course in a totalitarian technocratic state. For one thing so called experts are no better than anybody else at taking other people’s interests into account and not just their own. Members of the UK’s SAGE ‘scientific’ advisory group are just now finally being taken to task publicly for not having considered the harm their lockdowns would do.

This is rather a depressing juncture. The World Economic Forum and the EU are proposing to impose a technocratic, totalitarian state on the wrecked societies created by repeated, unnecessary lockdowns. The US Democrats are trying to do the same.

We need to remember that any such technocratic paradises are as unviable now as they were in 1909. If we are unlucky the attempt will be made once again in the West, but it will eventually fail, after causing more suffering and loss – like every socialist revolution.

A look at the underlying assumptions in these stories, and the similar ones in 'Brave New World' and even '1984' shows why this is. These are all collectivised state dominated societies. They are not the more libertarian ones that are likely to emerge, eventually, from the breakdown of the unviable big government states. The stories are based on the sinister use of new technologies to achieve total surveillance and repression, with a big dose of Eugenicist genetic engineering and mass sedation (Brave New World).

They are Marxist or Fascist set-ups, complete with broken down 'post-bourgeois' family structures and a pervasive fear of individual flourishing. Fascism is just the evolved version of Marxism where you are the frog that gets boiled slowly as they take everything away from you - coronavirus lock down rules being a handy, current example. (See my post 'Regulation, Fascism & Crony Capitalism, June 23rd.)


As Hermione Granger says when the Weasley twins try to deceive the Goblet of Fire in Harry Potter IV, 'it's not going to work!' In the Austrian Economics canon, free (well ‘free enough’) societies work because people are able to establish productive networks of voluntary cooperation. They exchange rights to each other's property, including their labour time, on the basis of prices freely negotiated between all parties. The state is nothing but a drag on the efforts of productive people pulling everybody back towards poverty.

The result of freely agreed agreements is to set prices for the use of other people’s resources, above all, their time. Resources are always ‘scarce’ relative to wants and desires, especially time. The price mechanism enables participants in a free society to direct their efforts to producing the best outcomes from their point of view. The best outcomes can be moral or material, or more usually a mixture.

The job of entrepreneurs is to work in accordance with prices set by ‘the market’, in reality set by productive human beings’ best guesses of what works for them, to undertake activities which add value. And to eliminate ones that don’t.

Only market-based mechanisms can create the abundant resources needed not only for most people to live well, but also for them to save enough to meet the cost of maintaining societies' stocks of productive physical capital. Without a productive economy it is impossible to prevent productive capital, machines, airships (in the story), factories, vehicles etc. wearing out and not being replaced.

The writers of these various works of fiction, from EM Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’ onwards, had no concept of how demanding and vital the task of generating and allocating productive physical capital actually is. To some extent it is because they belonged to the progressive pro-state mindset of the times. They were, perhaps unreflectingly, anti-capitalist and anti-liberty at heart.

There is no way that people like the woman in 'The Machine Stops' could be part of an economic system that could maintain the extravagant capital stock depicted in that story. That whole shooting match of that 'planned' economy would have fallen apart years previously, just like all other centrally planned economy that has ever been tried. (For more on the unworkability of socialism see my post 'The Impossibility of Socialist Calculation', posted appropriately enough on May 1st.)

There seem to be many on the left who now look to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to make technocratic socialism work after all. But they misunderstand the problem. They think that no government has yet been able to acquire and process the mass of information needed to make a market economy work. They think that AI could solve this problem.

But it’s not an information processing problem in the first place. Market economies work because people can subjectively decide what outcomes from co-operation with others they would most value, and because people own property rights in their own bodies and in their justly acquired property – with which they can bargain to set true prices.

No machine can know people’s subjective wishes and desires. Without private property rights there is no possibility of decentralised bargaining. Are computers supposed to bargain on everybody’s behalf? What are they going to bargain about if there is no private property to exchange? How’s that going to work? Without such bargaining, there can be no true prices. Therefore, there cannot be a price mechanism. Therefore, there can be no basis for knowing what to produce. Therefore, Socialist Economic Calculation will still be impossible with AI.

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