Bonobo World

One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Revolution 2014?

Well, no. Obviously not. Not by a long shot. Despite what some may imagine I'm not some wild-eyed RCP member [1] who constantly supposes that the workers are about to rise up and storm the Winter Palace. Besides, last time we tried it took months to get the tanks off the streets of Glasgow.

But if – if - Scotland gains Independence it will be no small thing. More than just a shuffling of seats, it offers the potential for re-shaping a society. Let’s think about how such societal transformations occur. Time for some political theory.

Historical materialism and all that.

The way people make their living determines the structures of their society – their laws, their culture, how they do business with one another, how they assign ownership to things. These form the supporting framework for their livelihood. Sometimes different parts of society will find new ways of making a living. Divisions can occur as one side feels that the old ways of doing things are holding them back, the other that their livelihood is being threatened by competition from the new ways. Transformations occur as a result of the tussle between both sides – sometimes messy.

A good example is the European transition from Feudal to Mercantile economies. Both means of livelihood competed for land and labour.  Competing interests engaged in a long series of conflicts, including the Thirty Years War and the War of the Covenanters/ English Civil War (historians now talk of these inter-related conflicts as The War of the Three Kingdoms) in which transformation of religious infrastructures which were integral to the political and economic was a key feature. Broadly Catholicism underpinned feudal hierarchy, Protestantism reflected individualist enterprise.  More or less.

Or take the American Civil war which was, in essence, a matter of whether the labour of African-Americans should continue to be used in low-margin manual agriculture or be ‘freed’ to feed mechanised industrial production and deliver economic growth. The cultural differences between both sides, economic in origin, remain visible to this day.

So a transformation requires economic and social difference. But it also requires that the future livelihood be viable. A noteworthy example of what happens when this is not the case is The Roman Servile Wars. Various slave rebellions led by Spartacus and others were doomed to failure because once you’ve risen up, well…what do you do? Best case scenario you find yourself temporarily in charge of a complex society - Spartacus was within an inch of capturing Rome. But Roman society depended on a system of slavery for its livelihood. Dismantle slave-based agriculture and you starve – and the slaves had nothing to put in its place.

In the present day, one really hopes that the South African revolution does not fail. Obviously its people experienced a clear and present imperative to free themselves from economically-led social oppression that was quite literally killing them.  But clearly it is undergoing some dire problems caused by not having transformed its pre-existing economic modes into forms which are able to meets its people’s needs. See this excellent piece by a former Minister in Mandela’s government about the ANC's sell out of its Communist principles. They panicked and reverted to the neo-liberal Received Wisdoms which require inequality to make them work.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Back to Scotland…

Why are Scots even talking about Independence?

Or more to the point - why now? While clearly something needs to be done quite desperately, it's far from a done deal (my pessimistic hunch is that it's an outsider bet). Although Scotland did quite knowingly elect a landslide government committed to offering the option., so the idea's Out There even if even those who voted SNP might have some reservations.

Certainly Independence would be a matter of the electorate wishing to take power to determine its own affairs. Certainly it would come down to a view that Westminster governs more in the interest of London and its hinterland more than Scotland. And, yes, let’s be honest, though not by any means a dominant factor, there's a measure of unsavoury cultural resentment. These, though, are arguments for an administrative change: ‘We could do better ourselves.’ They are perhaps akin to a regular, ordinary change of government at a General Election. And the notion that whoever Scots vote for they get the Westminster parties is an important factor

But a difference of opinion on the seat of power doesn’t get to the nub of why. It isn’t coming out of nowhere - people surely base their opinions on what they perceive to be their own interests. We need to consider how economic divergence has lead to political divergence.

Fundamentally Scotland continues to be hit hard by the de-industrialisation of the 1980’s. The official narrative is that this was inevitable: British industry was uncompetitive.  The reality was that it was an ideologically driven move to support a specific type of economy.  Oil is a big factor – and a related one. When people cry 'Give us back our oil', it’s not a matter of simply a matter of wanting a chunk of budget to buy an enormous fiscal Elastoplast. It’s in opposition to the model whereby the UK has used oil to prop up its credit rating, despite huge unemployment, all for the benefit of the City. Exports and therefore re-investment in industry suffered: coal and engineering were not uncompetitive entirely due to market whim: oil allowed a strong currency to be maintained, making financial products attractive. . Meantime the prioritisation of the City-centric economy meant that the government had little interest in using oil to invest in a sovereign wealth fund,  like all the sensible oil producing nations have done. These conditions remain. Scots have long realised that this economic model is not in their interest.

The nub of it is that a City-centric government does not seem to be offering Scotland an economic future. Which is most odd, because, despite the current Crisis, there does seem to be one out there.  Scotland is by no means subsidised by England: Scotland contributes 9.9% of UK revenue but only receives 9.3% in spending.  If Scotland were a basket case it would be slight less so than UK as a whole, then.  So why do we feel as though we're not achieving our potential.  There is a future – of which more later – but some investment and planning is needed. Not only does this hardly figure in Westminster thinking but policies militate against it.

As to social differences – let me count the ways. Personally I care very little indeed about sporting nonsense and Saltire flying – although it’s undeniable that they are expressions of Scottish cultural difference. What’s far more significant is that Scotland is politically different to England. The fact that we’re into our second administration let by a party with (for obvious reasons) no English showing does not suggest on its own that Independence is inevitable. But that, our single Tory MP and our famous rejection of the (almost certainly overplayed) recent swing towards UKIP in England at least says that Scottish voters’ minds are in different places. This does not seem to be a momentary trend but a Settled Will, reflective of some very different ideas of what sort of policies Scots people want to see, whoever delivers them. (Except the Tories. See this documentary on ‘Why Scotland Didn’t Vote Tory’ in which former Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth clearly fails to grasp the outlandish notion that some Scots may choose to sacrifice some of their income for the greater good.)

Where might we go from here?

Well, all well and good. You already knew that some in Scotland were feeling disgruntled enough to end the relationship. But it will only work, and people will only be convinced that it will work if there’s a ‘Vision Thing’. This has to be better than the Which Party Do You Trust to Run Things the Same Way As Before model offered by UK general elections. Plus this isn’t a vote for Salmond – a man loathed by as many as he’s admired. [2]

‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ Scotland is ideally placed to be a major player in renewables energy – and our neighbours are investing in a North Atlantic grid. Arctic Rim shipping is going to be major. And there’s still oil. (Recent scare stories suggest that Independence plans are bust because of a recent – disputed – fluctuation in oil revenue. They have no comment on whether this will also affect the UK as a whole and a Scotland that remains within it. Nor do they comment on likely future revenue trends). Add to this that geographically well positioned for trade with some of Europe's most successful and dynamic industries. Looked at from Westminster, 'Europe' means France. From the City it's Frankfurt. But look at a map and its clear that there are some successful adjacent nations with a common interest in matters maritime, engineering and oil. There's a market to be tapped.

No, these are by no means there yet – but assuming a sensible business environment can be created, they do seem to indicate an inevitable direction for the Scottish livelihood. Sincere sceptics must answer the question of what growth opportunities the UK economy offers Scotland at present.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

But what's in it for us?

For the ordinary Scots citizen, though, the economy isn’t about building wind turbines. It’s about the state of our hospitals and schools, about jobs and benefits. All those might be paid for by business but are experienced at one remove. Now, already Scotland has resisted some of the worst Westminster war on our economic wellbeing, and the success of The Scottish Government in delivering this has given them popularity and credibility. But we know we need to do better.

The political narrative that the UK is offered at the moment is that we need Austerity.  Both main parties accept that there's no money to spend on fripperies like schools, nurses, let alone benefits for skivers and cripples.  Sorry - but that's just the way it is.  I guess we'll have to tighten our belts.

It's patently obvious - to the whole UK - that the elephant in the room is  economic growth. Growth not only brings jobs, but the jobs are better paid so income from taxation is higher so governments can spend more. What's holding Britain down isn't benefits - it's low pay. We know this.  But Scotland seemingly knows it better than England because while English voters elect politicians who agreeing over austerity and reinforcing the skivers vs strivers narrative, Scotland has put into power people who talk about growth at every opportunity and who are doing their level best to hold off austerity excesses until they can take the power to scrap them.  We like the sound of this.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Making it add up.

But what’s the bigger plan? Why should we think that we can run a successful yet people-friendly economy when Westminster can’t.

Well the big news seems to be that Scotland has found a viable economic model to aspire to. We're not , by any means, talking about crazy communism There are many varieties of capitalism available, some more successful, sustainable and supportive of a nation's wellbeing than others.   One particularly successful variant has been tried and tested in adjacent nations. Those nations have high per capita GDP, high levels of equality, high levels of social welfare and rank high on indices of happiness. Scotland would be very foolish indeed not to drift towards Scandinavia and adopt something approaching The Nordic Model. Indeed an Independent Scotland would be very well placed to do so, given the convergence of our engineering industries and our proximity to successful nations on the lookout for trade cooperation.

This is why various groups e.g. Nordic Horizons have been looking into aspects of policy in the Nordic nations. Most notably, The Reid Foundation, named for a noted Glaswegian folk hero, has launched the Scottish Common Weal project dedicated to applying the best ideas from Scandinavia and beyond to the Scottish context. They have been well received in many quarters, including the SNP. To give a crude précis of the model:
  • A strong social model has to be supported by good jobs, paying high wages and able to contribute through taxation. This requires investment to build a supportive business environment. 
  • The business model needs buy-in from society. The necessary social cohesion is built through high standards of welfare and public services. 
To look at it another way:
  • Business is the bedrock of the economy. It pays for all the things we need. 
  • Business needs people to make money. It does best in a modern economy when they are well-educated, healthy and happy. [3] 
Remember - when we talk about the high standards of welfare, childcare, maternity leave, healthcare we're not talking about about a Scottish Cuba: there is some serious economics here. Indeed, Scottish business groups are in favour of an alternative to the perilous City-centric model. Revere Prize winning Australian economist, Professor Steve Keen:
The ‘UK economy is a ponzi scheme that is about to go bust – Scotland should get out while it still can.
Make no mistake, we intend to be wealthy. And on any sensible set of indices, the Nordic model pays off [4].

It’s fair to say that many Scots' knowledge of Scandinavia stops at Wallander and Ikea. This kind of thinking is not yet at the forefront of public opinion when it comes to Independence. But the fact that it’s being widely discussed, beginning to permeate the political culture, is significant. At very least there’s a framework than can be held up to those who doubt a society can be run another way. Even The Economist speaks favourably of The Nordic Model.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Let's not be too hasty.

There are still forces which hold us back. Obviously one still has to counter all the yeah-but-no-buts: ‘Will we keep the queen?’ (At some point we'll have an extremely unpopular King - but we're going for the easy option of monarchy.); ‘Will we need to show our passports at Hadrian’s Wall?’ (No – no more than when crossing the Øresund Bridge - nor at the British/ Irish border, come to that.); ‘What makes you think we’ll be allowed to stay in the EU?’ (It will be in other European countries interests, not lest the rest of the UK.  We expect Europeans to act sensibly - but obviously you’ll have to ask the English electorate what their plans for the UK including Scotland are.); 'What about Trident?' (Look - you know fine well the UK can't afford it and most of the Royal Navy don't even want it. Nor does America.). And so on. Project Fear's tactic is to keep the Yes campaign tied down in these misleading minutiae. Unfortunately we do need to waste valuable energy dealing with this silliness.

And then there’s The Tax Thing. One of Thatcher’s legacies was to permanently limit fiscal room for manoeuvre by putting tax rises off the political agenda. (‘Labour’s Double Whammy’). As it happens citizens of the Nordic nations are happy with their high taxation, appreciating that they get value for money. Well, OK - as ever there are exceptions - and as ever largely amongst those who can best afford to pay. But generally tax rates are accepted - not simply as a politically-imposed evil but as the key to a prosperity.

But here’s the thing: at least now we now have a way of framing the debate around how Scotland can make a living. We’re not necessarily tied to challenging old assumptions piece by piece.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Yeah, but...

We should honestly question whether the Nordic model is really all that. It's certainly true that Sweden especially has struggled with the its Social Democratic underpinnings in recent years. Income equality has plummeted with predictable social consequences such as this years riots. To some extent their model is founded on good conditions for the indigenous population. Immigrants are officially welcome - at least to the extent that their mainstream politicians don't make the racist noises that the Tory, Labour leadership do (while LibDems remain silent, with honourable exceptions) - but immigrants start at the bottom and do low paid work without a safety net. Maybe this is inevitable. The point is that economic systems generally presuppose some degree of inequality.. No, we shouldn't idealise the Nordic nations as wholly egalitarian, racially tolerant, non-sexist paradises. It's not for nothing that Scandinavian Noir writers from Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to Henning Mankell to Stieg Larsson, who more often than not align themselves to leftist parties, highlight the dark side of society that their compatriots prefer to gloss over. Breaking news: no country is perfect. Nevertheless...they're starting from a high base. We are talking about some relatively affluent, equal and tolerant societies by a whole host of measures. Even with their recent political shifts to the right they have retained the Nordic social model. Why? Because it basically works. They don't do stupid.

Plus - we're not taking about ideology here. The Nordic model works because it's pragmatic, able to tack and turnabout so long as it's going in roughly the direction of a prosperous, fair coherent society. While sharing common features, Nordic economies and societies are all rather different. These excellent comics play on their perceptions of one another - and of the wider world.   Should Scotland follow the same model it will doubtless come up with its own variants. The Common Weal recognises the need to pick up on the best ideas and avoid mistakes.

It might not even work out 100% But what ever does? And is the UK economy going to plan?


Another criticism comes from the traditional British left, expressed well in this comment from a recent article:
'My socialist tendencies are still deep-rooted and the humane imperative of each of us to fight for a justice and peace for those who are denied them all over the world still sits uncomfortably with the concept of going it alone to achieve these things in an independent Scotland.'
It's sort of a lightweight version of Trotskyism vs Socialism in One Country. Although I doubt there's much in the way of revolutionary thought behind it. I suspect what people really mean is that they want the same for England and they can't work out how to get it. But nobody seems to suggest putting improvements in UK society to one side until we can deliver the same for (random example) Burkina Faso. Pursuing this vision in Scotland wouldn't prevent the same for the UK. You'd have to persuade a Westminster part to adopt the policies and the English electorate to vote them into power (since the 1950s the party that has taken the majority of English seats has taken power. Scotland has been irrelevant, even in Labour victories). Well...good luck with persuading New Labour that they don't have to deviate from Osbourne's orthodoxy for fear of scaring the voters.

Similarly 'Why not an independent Wales/ Cornwall/ Yorkshire?' Well, I sympathise with your plight. Their independence is somewhat none of my business and I don't know of any properly worked up plans.  But my hunch is that Yorkshire isn't sufficiently divergent from the rest of England and Cornwall haven't yet got a viable alternative. Sorry. But really, sincerely...if any from the English (and Welsh) left think that these economic ideas sound useful and sensible, they are welcome to join us in pursuing them. They are unlikely to be thinking along quite the same lines: the Scottish social and economic conditions are different. They are unlikely to be able to implement them: Scottish political conditions are different. Welcome to reality.

Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

So it would seem foolish to hold back. What I'm not sure of is why the rest of the UK would think Scottish Independence a bad thing. If the UK's social and economic model is viable then surely it will remain viable? There might even be some benefit in having an economically dynamic neighbour, set loose from its fetters. And at very least the left will have some good practice to hold up, without having to translate if from a Nordic language.

The counting of votes is only the final ceremony of a long process.

The provenance of all this is also interesting, I think. The SNP, is a broad church centre-left, perhaps more Fianna Fáil than Fine Gael.  They're not necessarily what you'd call Radical - but even so the business ideas above are pretty much part of their thinking.  That's  no surprise: they're common sense. They're also open to ideas in a way the Westminster political monopolies are not. They have less baggage.

The 'radical Independence' movement is becoming influential from the left.  There is a possibility that they may break the STUC's studied neutrality. Many a chortle was chortled, both sides of the border, at their finest moment.

I can’t comment on the personal politics of members of the Jimmy Reid Foundation (although...c’mon, yer man was a Communist-turned-SNP candidate). As to Nordic Horizons – I detect lots of Scandiwegian-style Social Democrats…but also a certain crossover with Democratic Left Scotland. See, Scotland still has a vestigial EuroCommunist grouping. They're a fluffy, touchy-feely, non-threatening enough bunch of Greens, Feminists, poets, journalists. Small but influential, pragmatic and happy to make connections in all sorts of places. What 'Euros' like to do is to subtly influence [5]. It is doubtless a far fetched to see all this as a (to use EuroCom theoretical jargon) as a ‘War of Position,’ getting minds ready to challenge the ‘cultural hegemony’. But if one were predisposed to this type of analysis one might detect a pattern.

I'm not fantasising about a EuroCommunist plot. Honestly I'm not. But it’s one way to think about how significant political change could be happening. And in typical, sneaky EuroCom fashion I've managed to slip a little Dialectical Materialism under the radar [6].
Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. 
Socio-economic divergence. A viable, alternative model.

Revolution? Perhaps not. But watch this space for a War of Manoeuvre. [7]

End with a song...

Actually, I don't much like this noodly instrumental. I wanted 'Listen to the Lion', which has fond memories for me, but I couldn't find a decent YouTube clip. Apt words:

And we sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed
Away from Denmark
Way up to Caledonia
Away from Denmark
Way up to Caledonia 
And we sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed
All around the world
And we sailed, and we sailed, and we sailed
Looking for a brand new start

[1] A friend tells the story of the time he attended a Revolutionary Commumist Party meeting, just out of interest. In the pub afterwards a member was holding forth: 'The people in this country are desperate for a revolution!' He looked over the guys head to where he could see a TV showing the cheering crowds at the wedding of some prince or other and thought 'Nah!' An independent Scotland will remain a monarchy - it's the easy option. But one likes to think that the ongoing baby palaver can only further the Independence cause.

[2] I'm not a died in the wool SNP supporter, but I can't understand why the very mention of Salmond has many people frothing at the mouth.  He seems pleasant enough to me and he's clearly a bright man - but really does seem to be an instinctive reaction. I guess we have to accept that some are happy to decide their future on which politician has the nicest face.

[3] This is basically Marx's Labour Theory of Value, but don't tell any business leaders.

[4] Note this quote from the Economist link:
Yet it is hard to see the Nordic model of government spreading quickly, mainly because the Nordic talent for government is sui generis. Nordic government arose from a combination of difficult geography and benign history. All the Nordic countries have small populations, which means that members of the ruling elites have to get on with each other. Their monarchs lived in relatively modest places and their barons had to strike bargains with independent-minded peasants and seafarers.
Fair enough. But aren't they describing something more like Scotland than England?

[5] Eagle-eyed readers may spot that their statement of principles ends with a paraphrase of the closing lines of 'The Communist Manifesto'...and its title, 'What Is to Be Done' is a cheeky reference to Lenin. Elsewhere, Euros have sneaked references to The Peterloo Massacre into a pop song.

[6] and extra-special kudos to anyone who spots the Gramsci quote.

[7] Eurocommunist political theory. Antonio Gramsci. 'Scritti Politti'. A society is bound within a 'cultural hegemony' - a mindset that says that there can be no other way. First you need a 'War of Position' to change minds offer an alternative and gather broad support from wherever you can. Euros are non-sectarian. Then you can launch your 'War of Manoeuvre' to change society.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

We Need To Talk About Lenin

This is post 2 of the promised 3. Sorry for the delay1 - looking back at the date of the last one there was a reason

I'm going to talk a little about Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - mainly as a lead in to talking about the idea of Marxism as 'scientific' worldview, whether Marxism tries to be a 'Theory of Everything' and whether it can be considered as Deterministic.

But first we need to talk about Lenin. Up to 10m deaths on his watch, depending who you ask. Not a good record. I'm not going to wriggle out of the fact that Lenin (and Mao) were varieties of Marxist. Stalin - arguably less so. Lenin was a political philosopher rather than an ideologue and made some interesting intellectual contributions. Maybe the problem is having philosophers in charge of people's lives - or thinking you can build a society from philosophy up. But the end of the day, when asked how one can reconcile a Marxist viewpoint with the disaster of the Soviet Union, the honest answer should be 'I don't know.' 2

Say what you like about Lenin (and we certainly should!), he wasn't in it for himself. Perhaps his greatest fault was the singlemindedness of his revolutionary zeal. Why? Well the universe demanded it: The Marxist Way - specifically Dialectical Materialism3 was so embedded within the fabric of the universe that his revolutionary process was both inevitable and desirable. Referring to advances in the emergent atomic science he said something along the lines of:
'Recent discoveries from chemistry confirm this.' 4
This was more than a tangential reference to science. Lenin was clearly interested in the unfolding discoveries in physics. In his 'Materialism and Empirio-Criticism' - fair to say one of his lesser known works and possibly not directly relevant to day-to-day political problems...but check out the diagrams! - he's struggling to get to grips with what it all means for Real Life. If even matter is divisible...where are we etc. etc. It seems to me that Lenin believe that the Marxist way is The Right Way. It is is scientifically proven! The proletariat will rise up, the bourgeoisie will be smashed. We will emerge into Communism. Nothing can stop us...but it's might be a bumpy ride.

Problem is...I'm not sure that this is what Marxism implies.

Granted, Engels coined the term 'Scientific Socialism' to refer to a means of understanding historical, social, political and economic phenomena by reference to the empirical, material world and therefore, by implication, tractable to the scientific method. He also described Dialectic - the motive force behind the progression of ideas as identical in character to natural forces. After all - ideas are manifestations of the material :
"All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change."
Friederich Engels - The Dialectics of Nature
(Incidentally - many have pointed to similarities between Engels' views on Dialectical Materialism and the much earlier work of Lao-Tse. The Tao Te Ching is even on the archive. Meh. Folk have found Taoism everywhere, from The Bible to Winnie the Pooh. That said...if I ever get around to Post #3 I'll explain why this maybe isn't too surprising.)

So far so good. However, saying that a philosophy is Scientific is not - and from Marx and Engel's viewpoint was never intended to be - the same as saying that it provides infallible predictions of the future. My favourite analogy is meteorology. Solar gain and the gas laws and the like are about as sound science as it gets, yet nobody expects meteorology to predict what the weather will be like more than a few days in advance. (Or maybe a rough, macro-level trend, in the case of global warming). But meteorology at least knows that volumes of atmosphere will move from hither to yon, and why. It knows about specific phenomena such as hurricanes and knows that they occur in certain parts of the world at certain times of the year - but not precisely when or where.

So too Marxism. Marx recognised certain dynamics within history in general and Capitalism in particular. He thought that the logic of Capitalism's innate instability would inevitably push society towards something like Communism (possibly he was an optimist here: disaster is equally possible - but he was somewhat in favour of preventing that). He also thought that the situation in 19thC Europe was perilous - but this peril offered opportunities for advancement. What he did not have a view on, perhaps contrary to popular belief, is what the futures would or should look like: we'd have to work that out step by step as we went along - and what it would like like at any given time would depend on what had preceded it5. What's more he didn't have a magic formula for fastforwarding to Communism (via The Dictatorship of the Proletariat). The point is for people to be in charge of their destinies, unconstrained by the structures of Capitalism. This is new territory. Who can say what life will be like then?

But...does this mean that we Marxists are trying to have our cake and eat it? Marxism is a brilliant theory that tells you all you need to know about history and society and shit which all makes perfect sense...until you try to do anything with it. Marxists can never be wrong! We always have a get out out clause somewhere. ('When he said XYZ...he didn't mean XYZ...'). Well it depends on what you expect Marx to do for you. If you want Marx to give you foolproof instructions on how to manage Russian agriculture - You've probably got the wrong man6. If you want him to predict the next financial crisis...well I'm not sure who you'd go to, but at least Marxists insist there will be crises (broken clocks, etc.) If you want someone to tell you what utopia will look like, you probably want that Palestinian fella.

Or...there are some Philosophers that might come in handy. The thing with philosophy is that it's not about giving answers to things, but the mental equipment to think about them. To my mind the go-to guy for thinking about why history, society and economics work the way they do is Marx. Sure - you'll need some empirical tools to back you up in much the same way that a fan of Popper might also find a particle accelerator handy when it comes down to actual work. But at least you'll have a way of getting your head around the problem.

And I shall be expanding on that last sentence in my next post...whenever.

1 Yeah, right! As if anyone's been waiting.

2 For what it's worth, some of the harshest criticisms have come from the Left. The official version, in brief, goes something like this: Marx would have been askance at the idea of trying to provoke a proletarian revolution in a backward, barely post-serf economy like Russia. For communism to succeed you need the material conditions brought about by Capitalism. It could have worked if the European industrialised nations had revolted - Russia could have specialised as the breadbasket - but given international competition, Communism wasn't meant to work in a single country. Plus Russia lacked an indigenous political tradition so from the start they were trying to run Soviets with a handful of Bolsheviks. Then there followed a brutal civil war in which a lot of their best people were lost leaving only the self-serving dullards who remained through Stalinism, down to 1990 and beyond.

3 Marx and Engels didn't actually coin the term Dialectical Materialism. This vecame its name as the official philosophy of the Soviet Union.

4 Aaaand...I had the quote lined up from, a repository for Marxist-Leninst writing, which was going to be the centre of this Post...only I've lost it. It was something like that, anyway.

5 Interestingly, in some of Lenin's work you get a glimpse that he understood this. Initially at least he was willing to work with what he had - the parliament, existing economic structures - deriding the 'Infantile Disorder' of the ultra-leftists who didn't want to get their hands dirty.

6And I'd keep away from Trofim Lysenko, too.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Marx and Monkeys.

This is intended as the first blog in a series of (probably) three. When I get around to them.

Speak to any intelligent and informed person and they'll have to problem at all with Darwin's revelation that the rich diversity of species was brought about by competition. Neither will the 21stC reader have any problem taking this to the microbiological level. Dawkins' Selfish Gene idea of life shaped by the impersonal interactions of gene sequences and the Blind Watchmaker principle whereby order and complexity can spontaneously arise from simple, binary mutations, are common currency. As ways of making sense of the world we can simply take them as given. Perhaps slightly less well known, but still Out There (it's been on the telly with Jim al-Khalili) is Alan Turing's work on the chemical basis of morphogenisis which shows how complex patterns can emerge from chaotic conditions.

But when you mention's all that stuff about gulags and purges...and he was hardly any good at predicting the death of Capitalism and subsequent workers' paradise, was he...and it's all old-fashioned stuff, dead and buried. And it was hardly scientific, was it?


Let's begin with Darwin the Philosopher. Note, incidentally, that Marx who was first and foremost a philosopher - a vital thing to remember about him - was a great admirer of Darwin and cited him as an inspiration. While Darwin's primary focus was the biological world, in thinking about it he came across a mode of conceptualisation that had ramifications way beyond The Origin of Species. He discovered a philosophy that allowed him to think sensibly about Life. (That's what philosophy is about , surely? Ways of Thinking.)1

Dan Dennett has taken this on with his Darwin's Dangerous Idea. in which he argues that Darwinian ideas of evolution by natural selection are relevant to areas areas of biology, to philosophy of mind and to ethics. While I respect the man enormously, I would argue that he was behind the curve. This kind of meta-Darwinism was being done 100+ years previously, and with wider application, only under the name of Marx. See his application to everything from sociology to psychoanalysis to literary criticism.

Marx, as well as being a philosopher, was an economist. Nowadays we draw a bizarre distinction between the two. Economists are the harmful drudges who balance the books while philosophers are the ivory tower dreamers. Hah! That's why Marx failed. He was too airy fairy yadda yadda (this apart from the fact that he spent years with his nose stuck in the accounts of Lancashire cotton mills). But is it any accident that two of the world's most prestigious universities award degrees in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (My fantasy degree)...or that the same man, who mixed company with Hume and Voltaire, wrote both The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

A short aside - the last three Nobel Prizes for Economics have been for work in how communities share resources; Friction in markets and; macroeconomic cause and effect. OK - so Marxism is often accused of trying to be a Theory of Everything (and in a later blog I'll explain why this is no criticism)...but trust me...these are all areas where Marxism could make some inroads.

So...economics and Darwin. Now..we all know that business is red in tooth and claw. 'It's a jungle' is a reasonable metaphor. We also know how much a certain kind of Capitalist admires the idea of Social Darwinism. But there's more. An economist friend quoted to me 'Evolution and economics are isomorphic' [which, I see, I keep using - even though I don't know the source]. They are the same kind of system of competition. Indeed, it seems there is a whole sub-discipline of Evolutionary Economics (namecheck to Marx in that Wiki). Or how about this article which suggests that in future Darwin will be recognised as the greatest economist off all time (sorry - it's fallen behind a paywall since I read it) .

Well, possibly. But why not Marx? It doesn't really matter - ideas don't develop in a vacuum and both Darwin and Marx were doubtless drawing from the same well. Except maybe Marx had a clearer idea of what the ideas were.

So let's take Marx's Big Ideas. The fundamental structuring principle of human life is Class struggle. From this struggle derives all the social and economic structures that we see around us today. In what way is this not Darwin, except applied to human society rather than inter-species competition? OK - in terms of a predictive theory that can correctly identify the impending revolution in England/Germany/the US...maybe not. But how many Darwinists would like to predict what tomorrow's species will be? Yet Darwinism provides reasonably convincing explanations of how species are how they are - and Marxism provides a reasonably convincing explanation of how the human world works.

Two differences. Firstly - Marx provided the philosophical underpinning. This can't be stressed enough. He explained why the world works that way. In his political work he was simply applying the philosophy to the clear and present problem of the conditions of the industrialised world - but if he was tootling around on HMS Beagle, who knows, maybe his interest would have been in finches.

Secondly, On the whole, species do not have a choice in how Natural Selection pans out for them. Big fish eat little fish and there we have it. But humans are different, and Marxism provides a theory of praxis for achieving a desirable end. Possessed of an understanding of the nature of their society and of a revolutionary self-consciousness - i.e. if people understand what's going on - the proletariat can fight back against their annihilation. A self-conscious person will do this as surely as an animal will struggle against predation. Capitalism creates the conditions for its downfall.

1 In a later blog I'll be talking about how this fits into Hegelian Dialectics - but let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Only Smarties have the answer

My son’s primary school had The Church in to their assembly last week. He said that they held up a jar of Smarties and told them that they might be all sorts of colours on the outside, but underneath they’re all the same.

Oh. Fuck. Off.

For a start, a contemptibly patronising message to be telling children to whom the stupid hang-ups of previous generations are not an issue. These are young people for whom issues of ethnicity, religion, disability simply do not figure. Who are used to watching men kissing on Coronation Street. Well, OK, let’s not be too naïve – girls still play with girls and boys with boys and ‘Gay’ is a playground insult…but on the whole and by and large today’s kids are smart enough to realise that differences just…exist. Smarties are all different (is it just me or do the orange ones taste slightly orangey?)…but none of that don’t matter. They don’t need some retrograde religious type coming in and parading his credentials.

But it’s even more insidious, isn’t it?

People are all the same underneath.

Actually, it’s quite a surprising message from the religious perspective, if you think about it. Surely we’re all meant to have unique souls? But I’d better leave the theology to the experts. From my secular perspective – people quite plainly aren’t all the same underneath. We all have individual personalities, experiences, cultural contexts, beliefs, perspectives, hopes, desires.


In Rev Smartie’s version of things, we need to reconcile our differences by smoothing them out. It would perhaps be uncharitable to suggest that he would prefer to see everyone embracing Jeebers – I gather he was Church of Scotland, not one of the evangies they sometimes get in1. But by promoting this ‘all the same underneath’ message with the authority of a churchman…isn’t he assuming that the cultural assumptions of the white, surburban, Scottish are the default position to which to aspire? This Is The Church’s Way? And perhaps it’s not a bad way, if it leads to love peace and harmony etc. But can’t he just trust people? Can’t he accept that people might not be the same as him underneath…but none of that don’t matter?

This sort of thing is why I’m not a Liberal. This article by notorious neo-post-Marxist provocateur Slavoj Zizek on the ‘barbarism of Liberal Multicultural’ puts it nicely. [EDIT I've linked this before. Sorry for being boring.] What is being sought is ‘the decaffeinated other’ (and, true to form, he ends with a defence of Christian values. J ). It’s a dumb way of being. In a bland monoculture…where’s the next, earth-shaking surprise going to come from? We simply can’t afford to take on board this kind of Fukuyaman ‘End of History’ thinking and assume that a neo-Liberal, Euro-American stasis is the way to be. It won’t work and it’ll end in tears.

Fortunately…the world is getting smarter than Church of Scotland ministers. Example: big, fascistic corporations (I won't give examples) have started paying at least lip service to this thing called ‘Diversity and Inclusion’. They ain’t doing it to be nice. They’ve woken up to the stark reality that they are not recruiting talent from a uniform demographic. Given that talent is evenly distributed between all sub-groups (Ya don’t say?!), if they’re underrepresented in any then they’re probably failing to recruit the best available. Worse! They’re leaving the talent for their competitors to pick up. And once they get the talent in….they don’t want any unfortunate atmospherics in the company that will make them uncomfortable, decreasing their productivitity or sending them out the door. Who’d have thought that pinko-lefty ideas were good for business? Who’d have thought that countries that spend most on health, education, welfare tend to have high GDPs. Healthy, well educated, happy workforces are productive? Imagine that!

Or in schools. The modern education system is constantly berated, although its got much, much better, year by year. OK – in Britain it still has some way to go. But all those pinko-lefty teachers are at least, by and large, now treating children as humans and teaching them to be citizens of a future world. The stuff my son has been taught on Children’s Rights is far more progressive. There’s no kowtowing to the popular ‘Ooh! There’s too much talk about Rights and not enough about Responsibilities’ tosh. Sensible teachers realise the two are the same are simply using the UNDRC as the governing principle in their schools. ‘Stop disrupting the class! You’re depriving everyone of their right to education!’

Or…when I was young, Disability was A Big Thing. You didn’t see it on the streets, let alone in classrooms2. Now…some school pals go away to special classes a couple of days a week, but no biggie. Oh…and by-the-by they’re moving the classrooms around because one child has a wheelchair…

And all this is normal. None of the kids bat an eye. They just carry on playing with…whoever is their friend. Only their parents, fixated on the past, notice that one is wearing hijab and another has cerebral palsy. But if we want lessons on how to handle our Brave New World (and probably I need some – otherwise I wouldn’t be making a big deal of it) – I’d, take them from the kids, not a Minister. On my brighter days, I think it’s almost as though humans were programmed to be sensible.

Or...I might be wrong. Maybe our kids are going to louse it up although they show rather fewer signs of doing so than previous generations). Yes, there's a certain misty-eyed liberalism in what I've said - a 'Whig View of History' which assumes constant progress for the better. Also I'll admit that there are certain Enlightenment Values that I'd like to see go forward. But mutatis mutandem. Que sera sera.

Whatever - the world is for the next generation to shape. At least they seem to be able to cope with Difference.

1 The school has an unfortunate infestation from The Scripture Union. By my other Kids' High School, the title of 'RME' (Religious and Moral Education) was changed, following student demands, to 'RMPE' (Religious, Philosophical and Moral Education). Teachers do not divulge their own faith - although one keeps mentioning Jesus. He's the one they take the piss out of.

2 More than once I've heard the issues of Disability Rights and Abortion conflated - as though the latter were a breach of the former. Abortion 'devalues' the disabled, who are simply damaged foetuses to be got rid of I like to point out that the remarkable progress that has been made in Disability Rights over roughly the same timescale that abortion has been legalised. This is not to make a positive correlation - just to point out a lack of connection. To twist the knife, I like to mention that my wife and I declined amniosentisis. There was no point because we wouldn't have considered abortion if the result were positive. But that was a purely personal matter: other mothers should be able to make their own decisions. I am, of course, fully supportive of contraceptive abortion. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am the son of an abortionist.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Guilt and Innocence....of what?

All the right thinking (by which I mean Left thinking) folk have been lining up in support of Julian Assange. All well and good. But do they have their causes confused?

On last Thursday's (16th Dec) 's R4 'World at One', Josefin Brink from Sweden's Vänsterpartiet ('Left Party')1 made the good point that a) The exposure of government lies, double-dealing and general shadiness and b) the alleged rapes of two women are separate issues.

She reminded us that there have been numerous cases of famous men being accuesed of rape, and everyone says "Oh, how could it have been him? He's such a nice guy!" Often, though, our hero has turned out to be a rapist, and people find this concept difficult to accept. She stressed that she's not saying Assange is guilty - but there's one proper place to decide the issue: the court.

The general assumption appears to be that the rape allegations have been trumped up by Dark Forces. One of the victims has been 'linked' (whatever that means) to the CIA. All this might be more than conspiracy theory - after all, remember back to when Anti-Apartheid Activist Peter Hain was fitted up for bank robbery by the South African BOSS, with the compliance of the Met?

Now I accept that the Scandiwegian nations aren't as squeaky lean as they like to believe.: a browse through a Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell novel suggests an underbelly. But I wonder...if you wanted to bang up a troublemaker for political reasons, which jurisdiction might you find most amenable? Britain? Australia? Sweden? Myself, if I were looking for a fair trial (and a clean, non-Dickensian cell), I know where I'd be headed.

There's also a feminist angle missing here. (I note, with mild surprise, the involvement of Helena Kennedy QC. a leading advocate for justice for women, in this case). From the pro-Assange camp, there have been complaints that the Swedish definition of rape is somewhat more liberal than in other countries. I'm struggling to see their point here. Sweden is also - at least, theoretically - more robust than many in prosecuting rape1. If this is the case, the proof or innocence of a case may turn on complicated matters than whether the man can be proved to have held the woman down at knifepoint. There seem from the allegations here to be prima facie grounds. Granted, there appears in Swedes to uncertainty over whether evidence supports rape or lesser molestation charges, but again...this reflects the complexity of the issues and its why the allegations need to be examined in a court. Surely?

Isn't it somewhat disturbing that some of Assange's supporters have been so ready to dismiss the allegations a priori?

1. But note my 'dark underbelly' comments: below the surface, Swedish men are no more reconstructed than any. Stieg Larsson was making a point with the original, Swedish title of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo' ('Män som hatar kvinnor'): Men who hate women.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Was God a Mathematician?

Last night I watched a BBC4 tellything called 'Beautiful Equations' in which the presenter, an artist with no scientific background, struggled to get to grips with the idea that some scientists have talked about the aesthetic quality of equations. I don't recommend the programme to anyone with a basic understanding of science - it was one of those that was more travelogue than science1 - but the basic idea's interesting enough.

Einstein famously said:

"The only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones."

and Paul Dirac:
“God used beautiful mathematics in creating the
There are implications here that the universe is 'constructed' with an underlying, elegant pattern. Neither was necessarily saying that the universe was created by God. Einstein was certainly an atheist who was at pains to make it clear that he only ever used 'God' as a metaphor. Dirac perhaps took the idea more literally - although in point of fact he probably didn't give it much thought. Certainly neither saw any connection between the ordering of the universe and the conduct of our daily lives: they weren't theologians or philosophers.

(Interestingly, there is a school of thought within Islam that wheras only God can fully understand the universe, we have a duty to practice science to gain insight into the Oneness of God. Sometimes this is described as scraping back the surface of the universe to reveal glimpses of the underlying 'greeness' - green being associated with God, life, etc.)

Even so, the idea that science and mathematics reveal the inherent beauty of the universe is arsey-versy, isn't it? It's an anthropocentric notion. The universe is complicated. We are evolved to grub for roots, spear antelope and/or gather shellfish. We're on a par with other beasties in our ability to Comprehend Nature. Granted, we're extraordinarily adaptive by virtue of our faculties for problem solving. Nevertheless, when we bump our heads against the difficulty of understanding the inner workings of the universe, there's no reason to suppose our capacities are any more limitless than, say, a bonobo. We're undoubtedly better at it...but even our best minds can find it awfully hard.

The reason we're better is that, especially over the last 400-ish years, we've come up with some little tricks to simplify the picture. It goes without saying that equations are useful if they allow us to predict the way the universe behaves. But that wouldn't necessarily make them beautiful. A beautiful equation is something like:

E = mc2
...which has the additional advantage of simplicity. It's not only simple in that it only has three terms, but the way it falls out of Special Relativity is elegant. Plus it tells us a lot about the the universe and has various practical applications.

Or take the Dirac equation:

Now, OK, I'm not going to bullshit that I understand the first thing about this, but my understanding is that its a simple, clean expression which, by manipulating its variables, predicts the existence of various particles (e.g. anti-matter) which are experimentally verifiable.

So what these 'beautiful' equations have in common is that they're neat little bundles with the power to tell us a lot about the universe. Einstein's probably wouldn't have caught on if it went 'E=mc2 except in February minus the number you first thought of...' and on for twenty pages. For an example of an inelegant equation, see the Computus (origin of the word 'computer') by which the date of Easter is calculated. Its main predictive power is to explain why nobody ever knows what date it's going to fall on in any given year. The Dirac equation is slightly different. Wheras most people can grap the bones of Relativity after a bit of thinking about trains, watches and flashlights, even particle physicists struggle with Dirac. My understanding is that in deriving it he 'boiled down' some concrete stuff into abstract variables. E, m and c we can get to grips with, but nobody can quite explain the real-world concept represented by Ψ.

Note, incidentally, that not all mathematical descriptions of the world are considered elegant. I well recall my A-Level in Pure Mathematics with Mechanics2. The Pure, I liked. The Mechanics...sheesh!....all those long, long expressions representing the forces acting on a ladder leaning against a wall on a rough surface. The underlying maths was simple (and repetitive) - basically variants on Newton - but it was pure handle turning, without elegant shortcuts. Subsequently, throughout my so-called career, I've worked with people doing various forms of mathematical modelling. While in no way denegrating them, the type of maths they're dealing with is getting computers to spit out anwers using more data and doing morecalculations than humans can get their heads around. It's a matter of brute force rather than elegance.

But wait a minute. In contrasts to the messy maths, there are the beautiful equations which show themselves to be powerful tools for understanding and manipulating the real world. Doesn't the very fact of their existence demonstrate a beautiful order?

It's Douglas Adams' Intelligent Puddle once again, surely?:

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"3

What we've done is to go out looking for ways to simplfy the world, either for good, practical purposes or simple curiosity. Some parts of it we find can be described in nice, neat equations. But these will only be tractable if they'll fit within a human head or can be worked out on not too many sheets of paper or, more recently, in MATLAB.

We haven't discovered an underlying pattern, pleasing in its beauty. It's more that we've found we cen get our heads around parts of it and have been pleased with our ability.

(Btw, when I say 'we', I mean 'they'...those cleverer people than I who've made scientific discoveries.)

Finally: As a further test of Snow's 'two cultures'...can any scientists amongst us tell me why I have a picture of a vase in this post? See last two lines here. No cheating, now!

1 Actually, it was a good illustration of CP Snow's 'Two Cultures'. At the outset, the presenter seemed to have little notion of the idea of manipulating variables in equations, finding limiting values, etc.
2 My school's assumption was that if you did science and weren't clever enough to be a doctor, then you'd be an engineer, so you needed Mechanics. Alternately, if you did Arts and weren't posh enough to be a solicitor, you'd be an accountant and would need Statistics. It was only at university that I encountered - and was good at - statistics, which comprised a large part of my Experimental Design and Analysis.
3 Completing the quote, to illustrate the potentially malign consequences of anthropocentrism (or puddlecentrism):
"...This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A thousand words paint a picture

I've been playing with tag clouds at the gorgeous For thems as doesn't know, a Tag Cloud is a visual representation of word frequencies within a body of text. More frequent words are shown larger. Wordle lets you monkey around with layout, colour, etc.

Here's what it makes of Shakespeare's sonnets. All 154 of them:

And here's Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales.' It was a bugger editing out the footnotes from this one. I'm slightly disappointed that 'shiteth' doesn't appear - but bigge shoute out to 'eke':

The Communist Manifesto:

NWA's seminal 'Straight Outta Compton' album:

By way of comparison, I used to do Bonoboworld. It doesn't have such nice graphical features:
(Hmm. This could become recursive.)
Any ideas for what else we really ought to see clouded?