The Invisible Hand of Market
Released April 2014
Russian electronic duo Cycloctimia's fascination for technology and sharemarkets has paid dividends – more than 10 satirical albums so far. Green Left Weekly's Mat Ward spoke to Max K, who describes his role as “keyboards, music, sampling and market rituals”.
Tell us a bit about your childhood in Russia.
Well, my parents were ordinary people. I was born in Moscow in 1977 and grew up there. I went to school, played sports, listened a lot to Western music from my early childhood: disco, new wave, metal and so on. I consider myself an “'80’s man” - I still love music, movies, aesthetics, computers, synthesizers and different stuff from that period. It had a romantic spirit, a positive perception of technology. Something changed for the worse in the 1990s!
What changes have you seen since the so-called collapse of Communism in Russia?
Well, the biggest change is that Russia became closer to so-called “Third World” countries in many aspects, which were absent in the USSR. In brief, I'd name a terrible increase in corruption, crime, drug addiction, cultural degradation, xenophobia, nationalism, religious - Christian, Islamic, denominational - radical obscurantism and terrorism. There was really high level of mass culture in the USSR – movies, music, arts. Now it’s total trash. Urban architecture lost its unified concept, the public space became more chaotic, dirty, a lot of bad taste, intrusive commercial advertisements on the streets. For example, near my house there is a beautiful Soviet-time fountain, one of the biggest in Moscow. Since the 1990s it’s been transformed into a scrap yard. Russia has become a kind of police state. The amount of police per capita has multiplied many times. When you go abroad and then come back to Moscow, the first thing your eye catches is the enormous amount of policemen. The saddest thing is that people have already become accustomed to this “Third World” reality. There’s a new generation who don't know that earlier, everything was different - they take it as the norm. As a whole, I would say people have become hugely more stupid and aggressive. Have there been any positive changes? Just a few. People now have the right to travel abroad, but in the USSR you had to get a so-called “exit visa”. The range of products in supermarkets has become better. People who are predisposed to run their own business are able to do so. I can’t think of anything more than that. Also, note that we’re talking about the richest ex-Soviet state, which is Russia. If we look at Asian republics like Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, Turkmenistan, the Caucasian countries, Ukraine or Moldova – all these states politically and economically have degraded many times more. The best situation is in Belarus, which is in many aspects a sort of “Soviet oasis”.
Your music ranges from extremely dark and minimal electronica to full-on dance tracks, such as the Orbital-like "Rich & Famous (Business edit)" from your album Styx. What's your favourite style to compose in?
There have been a few phases in our music. We started with an industrial-like style, but quickly moved on to more experimental territories. Our first album, Wasteland, was kind of a musical answer to Vangelis’s album The City. Later on, we incorporated some elements of mainstream genres into our style. My favorite style to compose in depends on the mood and specific period of time. Recently I’ve been writing string quartet music.
You've said in the past that you work in a financial company dealing with stocks and bonds. Do you still do that? For someone who is involved in the industry, you have an unusual irreverence for it. Where did your interest in financial markets stem from?
I don’t work for a company, though I’m still dealing with finance. I wouldn’t call it irreverence. On the contrary, importance of the subject found its reflection in our music - it's an element of the entire concept. I guess my interest in financial markets came from studying economics in university. A lot of inspiration came from works by Fernand Braudel about the history of capitalist economy; a crazy book, Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill; expressive texts and verses by Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, Emile Verhaeren. I should also mention sci-fi, utopian, conspiracy literature and movies – everything influenced me in its own way. John Carpenter’s movie They Live, which I saw in childhood, probably was the first influence - ha!
You do seem to have a fascination with space and science fiction, and it seems something you are most proud of is that you have had two of your albums taken into space, along with the cremated remains of people. Please tell us about that.
Yes, we created this music inspired by an American company called Space Services. They specialise in “space funerals”, which send the ashes of people to space. I wrote a letter to them and the guys offered to cooperate. As you probably know, we had a real space cult here during Soviet times. Almost every child dreamed of becoming a spaceman because of sci-fi books, movies, cartoons and so on. It was very nice of the guys from Space Services to send our CD to space during one of their missions from the cosmodrome in New Mexico. When the CD returned to Earth, they sent it to me as a present with a certificate.
The title of your track "Irrational Exuberance" from your album Music For Stockmarkets reminded me of a story about how stocks do better if they have stock ticker names that are easier to pronounce. Markets get even more irrational than that though, don't they?
Sure they do. Karl Marx showed the irrational nature of things becoming commodities in his Das Kapital chapter “The Fetishism of Commodities and The Secret Thereof”. Using the example of a table, he showed how the “mystical” character of a thing is born. In this sense, the irrational, “abstract matter” of stocks and bonds is far more advanced. I don’t have any favorite books on stocks and bonds, but if we're talking about the nature of the market itself, I would say the classics never die - Marx, David Ricardo and Adam Smith.
On your Timebank album, the track "Economic Meditation" features a sample of the year's top stockpickers being announced. It brings to mind the book Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Like Fred Schwed's book Where Are the Customers' Yachts: or A Good Hard Look at Wall Street it notes that if 1 million people flipped a coin, a handful would eventually end up having a string of unbroken winning "heads" with no losing "tails". On Wall Street, such people are feted as geniuses and gods, as in your sample, aren't they?
Well, yes! One thing, though - no doubt there are great professionals in all areas of human activity, but I wouldn’t call even the best stockbroker on this planet a “genius”. Why? My mentality's probably a bit old-school, but I think geniuses are a rare species and their talent “creates” something for society - to put it simply: giving instead of taking. There can be genius scientists, thinkers, artists, manufacturers - but a “genius stockbroker” sounds quite extravagant to my ears.
It also brings to mind Matthew McConaghey's line in the film The Wolf Of Wall Street: "Number one rule of Wall Street - nobody - and I don't care if you're Warren Buffet or Jimmy Buffet - nobody knows if a stock is going up, down, sideways or in fucking circles, least of all stockbrokers." What are your thoughts?
It’s a cool phrase and I'd like to agree with it, but it's probably a bit of a romantic perception of reality today. It seems that quite often there is “someone who knows in advance” how the market fluctuates. If we look from a “macroeconomic” point of view, there’s an objective process, which is forming kind of state-monopoly capitalism in every developed country all around the globe. As we know there are quite big segments of a “command economy” model being incorporated in the global “free-market” system: China, oil-producing counties, even Europe and the US. It is not the old “good” capitalism which existed in the time of Adam Smith, nor the capitalism which existed during the Cold War. Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc we’re getting right back to 19th century theories about the inevitable mutation of global capitalism in its final phase. We have dozens of powerful transnational corporations. We have state governments closely cooperating with international finance and political structures such as the WTO, IMF, EU, OPEC etc. All these things obviously reduce the spontaneous nature of the free market and increase the tendency for control and predictability.
The full title of your new album is The Invisible Hand of Market including Oil & Gas Colony. Is this how you see Russia now, as a resources colony?
If the main part of the country's GDP comes from oil and gas exports while its science and industry have been destroyed, I think it’s on a path to becoming a colony. Sure, there are still a few nuances. Russia still has some power left over from the USSR: the space industry, military and atomic technologies. The country has a huge nuclear missile potential, which guarantees a certain degree of sovereignty. But I’m sure the windfall from resource exports gives a false impression of wealth to the Russian elite, as well as to citizens. It’s a path to nowhere. If nothing changes, five, seven or 10 years from now, Russia will face big social and political problems.
An earlier track of yours from your album Algorithms was called "Leviathan (Sea Power)". It seems Russia certainly wields some political power over Europe through its ability to cut off its gas supply. Do you think this is one factor in stopping the country pursuing renewable energy?
Yes, there are several countries in Europe which have a big dependence on Russia’s resources. But Russian gas is only about a third of the European market. The European Union is Russia's main trade partner, so if Russia cuts off gas supply, there will be severe economic consequences for the country. Russia is not a self-sufficient state - it imports a lot of goods from the European Union. As far as renewable energy is concerned, Russia is controlled by oil and gas monopolies, which are not interested in any kind of innovation. They are not interested in anything except selling raw gas and oil. The “oil lobby” was the main factor in the Soviet Union's disintegration. The USSR started its resource exports to Western Europe in the late 1960s. As time went by, a significant part of the Soviet elite became interested in destroying the USSR because the main resources were in Russia anyway. The benefit was obvious: they “threw out” half of the population - all other Soviet republics; made peace with the Western Bloc with no more need for military expenses; got rid of the social system, plunging a large part of the population into poverty; and started gaining money from the unfairly privatised - that is, stolen - resources. Thus, the oil and gas factor lies at the very core of the ruling class in Russia. They cannot invent or modernise anything - all they can do is sell resources. That's why we have hundreds of billionaires.
Australia's resources should belong to its people, yet they are extracted and sold for huge profits by a tiny elite. The track "Oligarchy" from The Invisible Hand of Market notes: "There are now billions, hundreds of billions of dollars from Russia, sent by Russian oligarchs, deposited in the West." Such people hit the headlines only occasionally here. Do you want to tell us about some of them?
I think in comparison with modern Russia, Australia is in a much better social and economic situation. As far as I know, Australia is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In Russia, there is a huge social stratification. About 100 oligarchs own 80% of the national wealth. Russia is the third country with the most US dollar billionaires after the US and China, but its economy is something like 10 to 15 times smaller. I’m not really into oligarchs' personalities. Their main interests are yachts, soccer clubs and so on - “servants” who have become “kings”. Unfortunately, Russia - as in almost every ex-Soviet republic - is being ruled by a bunch of pathetic, greedy clowns.
Tell us about some of the other samples on "The Invisible Hand of Market".
There are not so many samples on this album compared with earlier works. The track “Perfecti” has a speech by Kathryn Kuhlman - an American cult evangelist. I have a passion for really cool evangelists, but it has nothing to do with religion in my case. The track “Bethel” has an intro from Ronald Reagan. “Oil and Gas Colony” contains words by Zbignev Brzezinski.
It's been argued that Soviet Russia was Western capitalism's best friend, because it kept it restrained from its own worst excesses. What are your thoughts?
Yes, such opinion has its merits. The worst excesses hit not only capitalism, but liberalism as the ideology of the so-called “free world”. When the Soviet Bloc existed, Western liberalism emphasised basic and logical human rights, which were often violated in totalitarian societies. But when it stood alone, it didn’t stop its “freedom mission” and continued “liberating everyone from everything” inside its own societies, with pretty absurd motives sometimes. As far as the economy is concerned, I think Soviet Russia had two main periods. The first one was during Lenin and Stalin’s time, which emanated from the idea of constant expansion and radical opposition to the capitalist world. The second period lasted from Khrushchev to Gorbachev and is usually labelled “revisionism”. It had a conception of peaceful coexistence of two different systems, and this second form was quite comfortable for Western capitalism. But the “revisionism” logically ended with suicide. The USSR was not destroyed by capitalists, it was killed by revisionists - and Gorbachev was only the last in a long line.
Have you been composing any music built around the crisis in Ukraine?
Maybe we will one day. Ukraine has become extremely degraded since the USSR's collapse. During Soviet times, Ukraine was one of the wealthiest republics, but now their GDP per capita is the lowest in Europe. The country is openly ruled by oligarchs, but it doesn’t have the enormous resources of Russia. For many years, the Ukrainian elite has been cultivating ultra-right, nationalistic themes. It's logical that it has come to civil war.
Tell us about your other side projects, Archon Orchestra, West State, Sphere Rex and Hex On.
West State and Hex On consisted of more mainstream-like compositions, which could not find their place in Cyclotimia. Sphere Rex and Archon Orchestra are both my solo projects. With Sphere Rex, I've released one album called For Electronics and Piano and the name speaks for itself. It is ambient music composed in an old-school style, reminiscent of some Brian Eno works, maybe. Archon Orchestra is closer to academic minimalist music. I'd name Terry Riley or Philip Glass as “associations”.