Modern day Rasputins

In 2010, the Sydney-based firm BBY was ranked fourth largest stockbroker in Australia. On average, it traded $150 million per day. Five years later, the company went into voluntary liquidation, owing clients about $61 million. An investigation into BBY has discovered that its insolvency went back years.

The investigation also discovered that Glenn Rosewall, the company’s executive chairman and majority owner, had been relying on the advice of professional psychic, astrologist and feng shui consultant Nevine Rottinger.

Rottinger describes herself as “a professional intuitive and an energy healer”. She made predictions about stock prices “purely intuitively”. Sometimes she also looked out a window. “I just get an image in my mind that tells me what a price may be”, she said.

Rottinger met Rosewall on 9 June 2009, at about 9am, later noting, “There’s a lot of nines in that”. In an email to Rosewall, she told him, “When I met you, [the] spirit asked me to hold you in the light”.

According to court testimony, Rottinger also assisted Rosewall with his chakras, giving him incantations to recite. Rosewall, for his part, hoped that Rottinger would practise “mind over matter” in order to help the firm escape insolvency.

We might well ask how a character from Game of Thrones came to influence such large sums of money. But this question misses the point.

In his 1923 masterpiece, History and Class Consciousness, Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács explained that capitalism is a rationalistic and calculable economic system produced by humans, but which is divorced from our control and understanding. He called this reification.

If you think about it, the market is really a series of (exploitative) human relationships. Yet, because it is out of our control, it dominates us. Lukács argued that economists try to comprehend rationally the laws of these institutions in the same way that scientists try to comprehend the laws of nature. However, because no individual capitalist, group of capitalists, or even nation can control the market, ultimately these attempts are doomed to failure.

This is why economists are powerless to prevent (or even predict) economic crisis. Capitalism – the most rationalistic system in human history – harbours deep irrationality. Wherever reason breaks down, irrational, mystical and magical world views can get a hearing.

This isn’t uncommon in history. As revolution approached and as he ran out of options, Tsar Nicholas II famously turned to the advice of Rasputin – an alcoholic, womanising monk. Irrationalism can also coexist comfortably with cold rationalism. In addition to presidents Nixon and Reagan (who weren’t famed for their solid grasp on reality – Reagan believed in astrology), Henry Kissinger is one of the highest profile members of the “Bohemian Club”, a secretive and highly selective club that organises regular country escapes that are reported to include bacchanals and bizarre rituals.

Today, the Burning Man festival has become a Mecca for ultra-wealthy Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who want to discover the joys of “radical self-expression” (read: get off their tits and dress like extras from Mad Max III).

A little while ago, a visiting academic at La Trobe University gave a lecture describing a system of supercomputers owned by the biggest financial firms in the US. These computers make millions of automated trades per day, transacting hundreds of billions of dollars in tiny spaces of time. The algorithms that govern these computers are so complex and performed so rapidly that each company employs someone to keep an eye on things. This person’s job isn’t to guide the computers, but to pull the plug whenever they spiral out of control.

This is probably the purest embodiment of reification I have ever heard of. Explaining why her psychic approach works, Nevine Rottinger said: “We’re made up of electromagnetic energy. We can manipulate that field … to create better outcomes”.

She wasn’t too far off the truth. She just wasn’t as good at manipulating electromagnetic fields as a supercomputer. So, the fact that BBY traded stocks based on psychic advice isn’t an anomaly. Rather, it demonstrates that irrationalism is the truth of capitalist rationality.