[iDC] Why Magic Stinks

Keith Hart keith at thememorybank.co.uk
Mon Oct 9 06:01:47 EDT 2006

I agree that it pays to learn to do some things so well that it becomes 
possible to adopt a scientific attitude towards them. But life is too 
short to bring that attitude to most things we do; and then magic is 
often a superior method to rationality or reason. The main problem we 
face is religion rather than either of these crutches for purposive 
action. Bring back Frazer...

I once spent several days on a boat with four retired engineers and 
their conversation was exhilarating. Like Jef, they had a realist 
approach to everything and some remarkable angles on most of them. But 
they knew nothing about money and had precious little of it. On the 
other hand, I have been fascinated by what it takes to 'make money' 
since I was a kid and started betting on the horsrs when I was 12. So I 
take my example of the relationship between magic, religion and science 
from money rather than machines.

In my early career as a boy gambler, I established four principles. What 
matters is:

1.     the size of your initial fund;

2.      the risk you will take of losing the lot;

3.      the speed with which you can place the bets; and

4.      beating the barriers imposed by those who control betting.

Gambling for most people is an opportunity to win a lot with a little 
occasionally. This means that they must normally lose. And in a way, 
they want to lose, treating the “flutter” as a form of consumption, a 
chance for a rare buzz of excitement. Betting under these circumstances 
is like taking a holiday. It is nice while it lasts, but real life 
consists of the daily grind. Scientific gambling depends on making the 
opportunity to win a little with a lot often. This means in most cases 
sacrificing the pleasure even of exercising judgement, following strict 
statistical rules. Nowadays, computers are programmed to invest money in 
equities and derivatives on a basis similar to the one I laboriously 
devised. I learned more about capitalism in this way than by any other 

For the formula for making money with money, “win a little with a lot 
often”, making as little contact as possible with events in the real 
world, is driving the latest phase of capitalist development. Surely 
making things and persuading people to part with their cash for them is 
much too onerous. Better to play the money markets at calculable odds. 
That is why capitalism in our day is a vast river of money flooding 
around the world at high speed. Markets for the goods that most people 
need are stagnant because they do not have the money to buy and 
capitalists have more reliable ways of increasing their money than by 
making them.

More recently, I have explored the potential of community currencies in 
today’s world. Given the cultural longevity of conventional money and 
the powers of indoctrination held by ruling institutions, it is not 
surprising that most people are initially reluctant to embrace these 
currencies; but the situation is psychologically complex. On the one 
hand, conventional money flatters our sense of self-determination: with 
some money, we can exert power over the world at will, moving from 
infinite potentiality to finite determination, back and forth. But there 
is also another kind of comfort in the notion that money, as presently 
constituted, is not in our control at all. The fact that it embodies an 
exogenous force of necessity serves, in a manner analogous to scientific 
calculation, to generate clarity of judgment and action where otherwise 
things might be frighteningly wide open. Similarly, with community 
currencies people are not only freer, but have greater responsibilities 

There is a strong parallel with slavery. People feel that the monopoly 
claimed by national money must be inevitable, since no-one would freely 
choose it. To be told there is an alternative that they could choose 
makes nonsense of a lifetime’s enslavement to an unrewarding system. So 
they cling to what they know as the only possibility. We often talk 
about wanting to be free, but we choose the illusion of freedom without 
its real responsibility. This is perhaps why we prefer money not to be 
of our own making. We spend it, but we never have enough of it because 
“they” keep it scarce. This is perhaps the underlying reason why 
eminently sensible schemes for do-it-yourself money get such a poor 
reception. It is not enough to develop a superb design for exchange 
circuits employing community currencies. People have to be sold the 
idea; and this involves engaging with their most cherished beliefs.

Searching for the source of money’s power over us is like asking how God 
gets us to believe in Him. Of course we made Him up, just as we made and 
make Money up. Since all we can ever know is the past, why would anyone 
accept a claim to guarantee the unknowable future? But we do, because we 
have to – and faith is the glue sticking past and future together in the 
present. Simmel made a good case, I think, for why money is able to make 
this spurious claim. Since all our ephemeral transactions are made in 
terms of it, it seems to be more stable than the rest, even though we 
know it isn’t really. The river bank seems to be solid and yet it is in 
reality just slower-moving deposits thrown up by the fast-moving water. 
But, if we are drowning, we settle for its presumptive stability. The 
physicist may have worked out what is going on at an abstract level, but 
for practical purposes we don’t need to know what he knows about the 
movement of particles.

Rationality is a lousy way of deciding what to do nine-tenths of the 
time. It takes too long to work things out, even if we knew how. And it 
works better backwards than forwards. Rationalization of the past is 
more effective than any rational prediction of the future. We can know 
the past, but we can never know the future. So what is the promise of 
science? To get right again what we know worked in the past, until it 
doesn't work any more and we have to think again. Newton's mechanics 
works for building bridges, but it can't get a vehicle to the moon. The 
new technologies we now work with reward precision, as Veblen always 
claimed a world made with machines should. I do my best to generate an 
island of limited stability in my routines for using my lap top. I am 
learning slowly. But it all seems like a bloody miracle to me, raised on 
Latin, Greek and algebra fifty years ago. I need viable techniques for 
getting by, even when I don't understand what is going on, which is most 
of the time. And that is when magic comes in handy, as a crutch for my 
ignorance, a way of moving forward rather than be paralysed by my 
ignorance. Let's hear two cheers for magic.

Keith Hart

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