Sell your house to elude barbarians

The New Barbarian Manifesto
March 31, 2000

Thunderclouds and lightning seem to play about Ian Angell when he gives public lectures: the world he sees is full of Old Testament wrath and biblical collapse. Not that he mentions religion, or only rarely. It is just that where most of us plod along from day to day fussing over why some idiot just sent a 12Mb attached file by email, Angell views such activities as part of the ongoing drama of the collapse of society as we know it. Seeing Angell speak is infinitely more bizarre than reading him in print. He looks small and cuddly, like a teddy bear; his pronounced Welsh accent merely adds to the effect.

The New Barbarian Manifesto examines that collapse, which for Angell, a professor of information systems at the London School of Economics, is a given. Globalisation, the changing patterns of work, the widening gap between rich and poor are all symptoms to him, not causes. Information technology, he writes, is not driving any of this; instead it is magnifying all the existing problems of unemployment, overpopulation, starvation, disease, mass migration, drugs, bigotry of all types, mindless violence, and so on.

Natural optimists - the sort of people who have generally built the internet and populated it through its earliest years - will find little in common with this world view. But, says Angell, quoting Oscar Wilde, "The basis of optimism is... sheer terror."

To some extent, of course, antidotes are always needed to some of the stupider proselytising that has gone on in respect of the net. Claims that the net is the most important invention since the discovery of fire, or MIT Media Lab head Nicholas Negroponte's absurd insistence that the web will bring world peace by making information about other countries instantly accessible, cry out to be not only debunked but mocked. It is only a bit less silly to argue, as plenty of net folks have, that the net will bring universal and permanent prosperity. The net opens new opportunities for all kinds of people and even countries, but these are not evenly distributed. It is ludicrous to pretend that in the new networked era there will be no losers, even though a democratic society must do its best to ensure there are not.

For Angell, behind all these trends is his Marxist view (as he admits) that "economic forces drive social development". Information technology, in changing how goods are produced, is changing social development, though not in the way many net people think: Angell is assuredly not one of the people who imagines that disembodied contact will replace in-person human interchange.

Angell's "new barbarians" are the drivers and beneficiaries of these changes; the "old barbarians" are those whose past power leads them to imagine they will have power in the future. Neither group is really on ordinary people's side.

"The new barbarians will have to organise if they are to survive the fallout and not be left at the mercy of the throwback masses led by old barbarians who are intent on destroying the culture of the Enlightenment that has dominated western thought for the past 300 years."

Angell means his analysis of events to be disturbing. Just as disturbing, though, are the small factual errors in the examples he uses to support his analysis. He confuses, for example, First Direct (telephone banking) with Direct Line (telephone insurance). He cites Boris Becker as an example of a sports star who changed countries to avoid taxation and was still pursued by the authorities - but Becker gave up his self-imposed tax exile in Monaco and returned to Germany some time ago. Hillary Rodham Clinton's proposed health-care reforms were not defeated by the people but by intense lobbying on the part of health-care special interests.

In making the case that today's companies require far less staffing than yesterday's, Angell compares the number of workers to the market capitalisations of Microsoft, Intel and Cisco versus General Motors, Ford and Chrysler - without noting that the workings of the current technology stock bubble mean that the first three of those companies are selling at much higher multiples compared to their earnings and their market caps are accordingly volatile. It might have been better to compare the companies' growth rates, profit margins and revenue per employee.

Nonetheless, Angell rightly remarks on many trends. Much of the work force is being deskilled and/or replaced with computerised machines; rich people and businesses do have more options for avoiding tax than ever; 300 of the world's largest corporations do have far more control over finance than the world's national governments.

More controversial may be Angell's argument that morality is dying. Drawing on the work of people such as Jeremy Rifkin ( The End of Work ) and Walter Wriston ( The Twilight of Sovereignty ), and making an analogy with Lamarckian evolution, Angell concludes that the nation state is in a terminal state. As rich people and corporations relocate in their own best interests, we as individuals risk being enslaved by governments feeling their power slip away.

So: how do you save yourself? This is where Angell suddenly starts sounding less like a Marxist and more like a California libertarian. The easiest asset for a government to seize is property. Therefore, do not own property. Ensure, instead, that your assets are all in the most easily transportable, virtual form, so they can guarantee a soft landing in the world's "hot spots". But that is only in the short term. Long term, avoid the old barbarians' enslavement and mind control, defend our individual freedoms and invest in "elitist" training and education for ourselves and our families, preferably at universities that owe little to the state. If we cannot run to enlightened areas of self-interest (such as parts of the United States), we must hope to transform the area around us into a "smart region". Do we have the vision?

Wendy M. Grossman is the author of net.wars .

The New Barbarian Manifesto: How to Survive the Information Age

Author - Ian Angell
ISBN - 0 749 43151 2
Publisher - Kogan Page
Price - £17.99
Pages - 288

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