Tuesday, December 15, 2015

marx's moral theory


If there is such as thing as human essence and we can discover what it is then that will go a long way towards developing a moral theory.

Human nature is part biological, part social and not religious. Religion is something to be explained rather than believed. This includes modern religions such as Nature worship (currently popular) and Marx worship (currently marginalised).

Humans have both needs and powers. Obviously, it follows that we are both needy and powerful and both of these aspects of being human need to be explored further.

The biological and social parts are connected or interact dialectically. It would be an error to see them in isolation from each other.

Fundamental biological needs include eating, drinking, habitation, clothing, sexuality ...

Biological and Social. Humans produce their own existence / material life through social labour. Our biology allows this, eg. Opposable thumb, upright posture frees the hand, large brain. This separates us from other animals. Compared to other animals we are self conscious and wilful to a qualitatively different degree. Although we originate as part of nature, with our social labour we oppose nature. Our productivity is also imaginative. We imaginatively and self consciously transform nature and in that process also transform ourselves. This is a teleological process. Humans imagine new forms of the material and self and then through social labour bring that imagination into reality. This is human essence.


The guiding moral principle is to do whatever is required for the human flourishing of rich individuals, to dynamically expand human powers for all humans. Human flourishing is not original to Marx but Marx built on the best available ideas that came before him, those of Aristotle.

Marx and Engels were more aware than Aristotle about the role of social labour in this enrichment process. After all, Aristotle lived in a slave society. Refer Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. In communist society there would not be a division of labour based around the supply and demand of the labour market. In a world where production for the needs of all is established then each individual would be free to pursue their own perceived interests.


The philosophical stance here is to investigate what is distinctive about humans (biologically and socially) and from that basis to articulate what a good or rich life is.


Be clear about where our moral principles come from. Being determines consciousness. Matter is philosophically prior to ideas.

The theory is philosophically materialist. It starts from real people and real conditions. It ascends from earth to heaven, not descends from heaven to earth.

But, once we are in heaven how do we get back down to earth again? The only way is to make a detailed study of society in all its aspects. Mode of production, division of labour, social classes, Is there a surplus and who controls it?, the history of knowledge, current issues, individual self knowledge. There is a lot to know! The desirable actions that promote the best human nature at any point in history depends on the depth and perspicacity of such an analysis.


Capitalist limitations. For the capitalist, because they own the means of production, the workers life activity becomes a mere use value. In general, workers have no direct stake in the products they produce. Temporary niche solutions may be possible for individual workers but overall work loses it human character. In class society, the economy operates as a thing more or less outside of human control. If there is no profit to be made then production grinds to a halt. There maybe poorly understood economic laws. But the best that could be said of capitalism is that it is a highly unstable system in which the future well being of the workers who make it is uncertain and problematic.

Capitalism gives labour a bad feel (alienation) and production a bad name. Under capitalism humans are alienated from their essence, their living social labour, since the capitalists own the means of production and determines which products are made and who owns those products.

The capitalist economy is an unstable monster, poorly understood, difficult to manage and continually spinning out of control. Workers are alienated from the products they produce. Creative people who produce things of beauty (some artists, some writers, some teachers etc) are often not seen or appreciated as typical workers, rather they are marginalised workers looking for a niche to survive in a system that systematically undermines them. Or a handful may become megastar celebrities who play a significant role in entertaining the masses. Moreover, many believe today that capitalist production is despoiling the environment at an alarming rate. I think there is some truth to this latter charge, although I also see talk of environmental Armageddon as exaggerated and a distraction from the main wrongs of our society.

These issues in combination (production for profit not human need) give production itself a bad name. Human essence, social labour, life's prime want, is reduced to being a wage plug, without a real say in the overall progression of society.

Rather than saving the planet (the current “left” mainstream zeitgeist) we need to focus more on how to liberate the social productive forces, human essence, in all their real power and beauty. A power and beauty which is obscured by the ugliness of capitalism.


The natural world is the world created by humans, who are part of nature, as well as the world that existed before humans. The natural world is not “green” insofar as that suggests a world not touched by humans. Such a world no longer really exists on Earth. In a post natural world (aka the anthropocene) our needs will be created more by what we make than the natural world that exists independently of what we make.

As society evolves our tastes, including our basic biological tastes, become more sophisticated: “the forming of the 5 senses is a labour of the entire history of the world” (source)


A moral theory has to somehow account for all human moral thinking, good and bad, angelic and evil, noble and perverse, optimistic and pessimistic. But Marx's moral theory is (intentionally?) thin. It does not claim or suggest that humans are any of essentially selfish, altruistic, competitive, fallen, vicious etc. Is this a feature or a bug? In my view Marx is right about the essentials but there is a lot of stuff that is not covered. Marx analyses the deep structure of capitalist society but there are important issues that lie more on the surface (eg. the dark and deep emotions such as love, grief, anger) that strongly motivate individual actions but are left hanging. Hence, many people find that other moral philosophers and novelists address their needs more directly.


Utopians make the error of promoting general moral principles in the abstract, without regard to the current real state of society, without assessing the social forces at play. They are not realistic. Mere moral persuasion in favour of a better society is inadequate / doesn't work.

There are many alternative moral theories. For example Plato (Iris Murdoch provides a modern interpretation), Stoic, Christian (various branches), Kantian, Utilitarian (Bentham and JS Mill provide different interpretations), feminism / women's liberation, Buddhism (meditation and mindfulness are currently popular), existentialism, libertarianism, animal liberation, Sufism (adopted by Doris Lessing after her disillusion with communism), pragmatism (Dewey, Putnam), the liberal Capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

All of these need to be critically examined since what is correct only emerges clearly from a critique of such alternatives. At this stage I would say that none of these alternatives share with Marx the view that human essence is the conscious production of our existence / material life through social labour. Moreover, they tend to be indifferent to the analysis that the main current problems are generated by capitalism.


Humans are self conscious, intelligent, purposive, active, self directed. But this doesn't mean we can negate the so called "external world" (only external to humans, who are a part of nature, so not really external to nature in that broader sense of the word) or history.

Human individuality (as distinct from herd or tribal mentality) emerges historically from the bourgeois revolution against feudal relations (when it was “natural” to obey a preordained superior such as a lord or king). Herds are not good at shopping, whereas individuals are. But just as individuality emerges strongly in the capitalist era, you would expect it to also change dramatically in a post capitalist society.

In class society, social class is a more important determiner of who we are than individuality as such. Individuals pick their personalities, interests, work etc. from what is available socially (including the cutting edge, futuristic and off beat, quirky trends) at the time. The idea that we are free, autonomous individuals is more part of capitalist mythology or ideology than reality.


Morality is historically contingent. What is moral in one historical period becomes immoral in another. The central issue is doing whatever is required to maximise the human flourishing of rich individuals in the given time and place.

For example, in the French revolution the rising bourgeois class overthrew feudal relations, got rid of divine rule by the King etc. In that historical period bourgeois right coincided with the needs of the proletariat as well. But at a later date the bourgeois class held things back, became reactionary, used social labour for their own ends, promoted an economic system which went through periodic crises and still does. At that point the revolution to continue human liberation and the liberation of the productive forces must be picked up by the proletariat, sooner or later.

Given the views expressed here about ontology (materialists need to deeply investigate reality) and history (morality is historically contingent) it follows that to work out the best moral - political actions requires some hard work. No one said it would be easy.


The productive forces developing within bourgeois society create the material conditions (preconditions?) for the solution to the problem of the antagonism of the individuals social conditions of existence. Big is beautiful, not small is beautiful (the latter from EF Schumacher). Not because capitalism is beautiful but because big, centralised production prepares the way for socialism.


Marx is grounded, not utopian. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as "an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself", rather he sees it as "the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”

This is pretty much the opposite of what most people today believe about communism, that it is idealistic and unrealistic.

From a moral perspective the aim is to bring together social being (human existence as it is) with social essence (human existence as it ought to be). As the contradiction between the individual and the social diminishes then the need for morality to maintain social cohesion would also diminish. All the conditions for rich individuality would be met by society. Eventually, morality might disappear altogether. If everyone's needs were being met through the basic social structure then wouldn't concepts such as selfishness or altruism lose their meaning?


There are many important issues missing from both the theory and practice of Marxism in this account. I have a preliminary list but will leave that to another time. No doubt if you have read this far you are both interested in this topic and will have your own unanswered questions. This will require far more discussion.


I have done a lot of reading on this topic but won't attempt a detailed bibliography at this stage. But I will mention one reference which to me is a stand out, a PhD thesis by Vanessa Wills titled Marx and Morality (pdf 269pp) who has read and understood all of Marx IMHO.

Monday, December 14, 2015

life's prime want, 1875-2015

"In ... communist society ... labour has become ... life's prime want ... only then can ... society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"
- Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)
As soon as he died, Juan found himself in a gorgeous place, surrounded by all the comfort and beauty he had dreamed of.

A fellow dressed in white approached him and said, “You have the right to have whatever you want; any food, pleasure or amusement.”

Charmed, Juan did everything he dreamed of doing during his life. After many years of pleasures, he sought the fellow in white and asked, “I have already experienced everything I wanted. Now I need to work in order to feel useful.”

“I am sorry,” said the fellow in white, “but that is the only thing I am unable to give you. There is no work here.”

“How terrible,” Juan said annoyed, “I will spend eternity dying of boredom! I’d much rather be in hell!”

The man in white approached him and said in a low voice:

“And where do you think you are?”
- Paulo Coelho (2015)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Nicolas Henin: the main problem in Syria is Assad

(Video 6.5 minutes.)

Nicolas Henin (French journalist who was held hostage by Isis for 10 months).
Core issues:
(1) Assad repressed the democratic revolution.
(2) International communities response was passivity.

Chemical weapons are still being used by Assad. Assad’s barrel bombs are the current main cause of death for Syrian civilians. The Syrian regime kills 7-10 times more civilians than ISIS. Western policies are driving recruits to ISIS. Air strikes just focused on ISIS are counterproductive.

Refugees, insofar as they were welcomed to Europe was a blow for ISIS since it undermined their mythology that the West hates Muslims. Paris attack was aimed to reverse European good will to refugees. They hope that we will “close our borders, more importantly close our minds”.

Ultimately to win a war is not decided by weaponry but by whoever wins the minds of the people. Once the people can see a political solution then the Islamic State will collapse. At the end he calls for a no fly zone which excludes everyone, not very logical since there has to be someone to enforce the no fly zone, but his overall message is strong.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Climate change: R&D breakthrough, at last

Any real progress on de carbonisation of the energy economy has been stuck for some years by the economics of renewables. They are more expense than fossil fuels and so the developing world in particular can't afford to go down that path. See the graph which shows that the CO2 emissions of China and India in particular have increased dramatically in the past 20 years.

In Australia we have the Green Party and the Labour Party who are in denial about the high cost of renewables. The Greens have called for a 90 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 (source). Labour has called for a carbon reduc­tion target of 45 per cent by 2030 (source). Greenpeace activists demand 100% renewables.

The problem with these policies is that they imply that renewables in their current state of development can do the job. From my reading of the evidence of those who have studied this in detail, they can't.

Let's assume for a minute that there are people who are neither alarmists, nor deniers, that there are people who actually want to think more deeply about these issues than the latest media headline about the Paris summit or how it's going to be very hot this summer. For those people here are some articles which provide a starting point:
Has Renewable Energy Finally Ended the Great Clean Energy Stagnation? by Jesse Jenkins
A Look at Wind and Solar Part 1: How Far We've Come by Alex Trembath
A Look at Wind and Solar Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Intermittent Renewables? by Alex Trembath

Nevertheless, it seems that something quite significant has at least coincided with the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. It follows that if de-carbonisation of the energy supply is a good thing and that renewables or nuclear for that matter can't currently replace fossil fuels (due to cost in the case of nuclear) then what is required is more research and development in order to lower the price of these alternatives.

From this perspective the dual announcement of the government based Mission Initiative and the entrepreneurial based Breakthrough Energy Coalition which focus on the need for more R&D is a very good thing.

Bill Gates has been pushing for more R&D for a while, see American Innovation Energy Council and TerraPower. I guess more wealthy people are coming on board now and even Obama, from the government perspective, now sees the need for more R&D.

Under capitalism the benefits of more R&D tend to go to all capitalists since once a breakthrough is made it is hard to stop competitors finding a way to copy it. In cases of energy development with long time lines and massive expenditure requirements it can only happen this way with big government - big capitalists seeing the need and combining efforts. Historically, massive R&D has happened before due to huge rivalry between different big powers. One example, was the Manhattan Project when America feared that the Nazis would develop the first nuclear weapon. Another example was the crisis caused by the USSR putting the Sputnik into space. This quickly led to funding for massive science research in the USA which created the moon landings, the internet, etc. I guess an issue has to be perceived as urgent before that happens. So my guess is that this dual announcement does represent a significant change.

Could this be the beginning of the end of a futile argument between global warming alarmists and deniers that has distorted our political landscape for the last 20 years?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

the environment, capitalism, modernity and marx

Capitalism does harm the environment in some ways because it is a system that pursues profit before anything else. For instance, coal and other carbon based fuels will continue to be used by capitalism in general and developing countries (China, India, etc.) in particular as long as they remain cheaper than non carbon based alternatives.

It is difficult to work out the real state of the environment. This requires more scientific investigation by unbiased experts. They do exist but their voices tend to be drowned out by alarmists and deniers on global warming and other issues. It has become very difficult to sort out the reality since environmental issues have become heavily politicised. There is a litany of issues which require scientific investigation: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. Nevertheless, there is no real option but to continue to make the effort.

As well as sometimes harming the environment, capitalism also improves the environment. eg. It is a huge environmental advance for humans to live in big cities with all that they offer compared with previous regimes such as hunter gatherer society. The built environment, planned and developed by humans, is a beautiful part of our modern environment. It seems reasonable to assume that even the latte drinking, dog walking Adam Bandt supporters in Fitzroy agree with this, in their actions at least, since they haven't moved to remote areas off the grid, yet.

Some authors make the distinction between modernity (good) and capitalism (bad or not so good): An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Modernity is all the great things developed by scientific – technological humans that enhance our lives. Civilisation, electricity, transport, cities, the internet etc.

The distinction between modernity and capitalism is a good one. But can they be decoupled so easily? We do live in a capitalist system and so more often than not the capitalist dog wags the modernity tail. This severely limits the ability of us moderns to do all sort of things, including improving and appreciating the environment. We would make a lot more progress if we replaced capitalism with a system not based on profit (Socialism → Communism)

But given that there is currently no mass movement in support of a socialist revolution it is far, far better to embrace capitalist creative destruction, warts and all, than the Deep Green alternative of throttling back on development in general to a zero growth state. This futile idealism would condemn the developing world to ongoing poverty and the developed world to intellectual poverty. The whole idea that we should cautiously huddle on the earth (light footprint) is a denial of what humans are, a social, tool making species who has progressively made scientific and technological breakthroughs which enable us to understand and control the natural world more and more. Certainly, we should not overestimate our knowledge. There are many things about nature that we don't understand. But the Deep Green philosophical stance that we should worship nature is looking backwards. Nature is powerful and magnificent. We should embrace that and strive to emulate it, not humbly worship it. See Tale of a Doomed Galaxy:
The civilization I’m imagining was smart enough not to stick around. They decided to simply leave the galaxy.

After all, they could tell the disaster was coming, at least a million years in advance. Some may have decided to stay and rough it out, or die a noble death. But most left.

And then what?

It takes a long time to reach another galaxy. Right now, travelling at 1% the speed of light, it would take 250 million years to reach Andromeda from here.

But they wouldn’t have to go to another galaxy. They could just back off, wait for the fireworks to die down, and move back in.

So don’t feel bad for them. I imagine they’re doing fine.
Forms of Green ideology and policies exist that totally distort the better ways to look at these questions. As a corrective it needs to be pointed out that the earth and humans are incredibly robust, not fragile. Humans are part of nature. We are social, tool making, future planning (teleological) animals. That is how we differ from other animals and in fact it makes us superior to other animals. There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

It would be a huge error to follow some sections of Green ideology down an anti development or zero growth pathway. Technological risk taking, what we have always done, is an essential way for the human race to proceed: the proactionary principle:
The Proactionary Principle emerged out of a critical discussion of the widely used “precautionary principle” during Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I in 2004. The precautionary principle has been used as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against the technological progress so vital to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.

Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment and innovate.

The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity—good as well as bad—while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity’s evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.

While precaution itself implies using foresight to anticipate and prepare for possible threats, the principle that has formed around it threatens human well-being. The precautionary principle has become enshrined in many international environmental treaties and regulations, making it urgent to offer an alternative principle and set of criteria. The need for the Proactionary Principle will become clear if we understand the flaws of the precautionary principle.
In Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Thomas Malthus claimed that exponential population growth was produced by God so that human beings would be forced to learn such virtues as abstinence and restraint. According to him, it would always be the case that population growth would outstrip the resources available to satisfy the needs of society, and thus it was not possible to improve society by increasing production, since the population would always increase to catch up with and eventually outstrip it. (Reference: Marx and Morality by Vanessa Wills, pp. 139-51 and 227)

Marx's criticisms of Malthus were (1) that Malthus blamed the poor for their poverty and recommended them to abstain from procreation, rather than blaming the real culprit, capitalism (2) Malthus believed that the productive forces would reach a ceiling beyond which they would not further increase.

The modern Green Malthusians also preach catastrophe arising from population increasing beyond what the Earth can support (see the litany above). Those who have challenged this Green orthodoxy such as Julian Simon (who won a bet against Paul Ehrlich) or Bjorn Lomborg (in The Skeptical Environmentalist) are often written off as right wingers because they support capitalist development. But we need to remember that Marx also supported capitalist development insofar as it liberated the productive forces which provided the potential for the needs of everyone to be met. His criticism of capitalism was that in the course of its development it shut down the productive forces due to periodic economic crisis arising from its internal dynamics. The argument to develop productivity to the maximum is a Marxist argument, not a right wing argument. The other part of Marx, which is not identified with right wing, is that distribution ought to occur by work under socialism or by need under communism.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

All along the watchtower by Michael Hyde

This week I read Mike Hyde's "All Along the Watchtower: Memoir of a sixties revolutionary". I know Michael and bought his book at the launch a few years ago but delayed reading it. I suppose I thought I'd lived it, at least in part, and so didn't have to read it.

Those times were marked by dramatic events: the Ronald Ryan hanging, widespread rejection of religion, the Vietnam war, conscription by a ridiculous process of birthday marbles being drawn from a box, China's Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tsetung, feminism, drugs, sex and rock n roll.

In part of the book Michael comes across as an angry, justice seeking, sex obsessed political activist, almost a cardboard cut out. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I'm looking for a deeper insight into the human condition. The dark side. So what I liked even more was that he interleaves this with a graphic description of the fear (panic attacks) of what might happen to him, his conflicting friendships including one with a friend who went to fight in Vietnam, the tension between his activism and his family (his father was a preacher but ended up supporting Michael) as well as the dysfunctional communist party that some of us joined. I was impressed that he included the dark, difficult and conflicted personal side as well as the excitement and optimism of the hard fought struggle which eventually changed public opinion from apathy to fierce opposition to this disgusting, unjust war. This is a warts and all account which captures the spirit of the times of a section of the radical youth.

The political stance in the book is about supporting the "enemy", ie. raising money for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and the case for why that was the right thing to do. We used to chant at demos, "One side right, one side wrong. Victory to the Viet Cong". A lot of things flowed from that, too numerous to mention but he covers them all in the book.

I can personally identify with this book. Thank you, Michael. For many years I wanted the 60s to repeat themselves. One day they will but in a different form.

The title is from a Dylan song but apparently the Jimi Hendrix version is more popular.

Critical review by Ken Mansell

Thursday, October 22, 2015

rationale for a computer literate society (Mark Guzdial)

Requirements for a Computing Literate Society slides by Mark Guzdial. Mark's blog is here. I particularly liked slides 6, 7, 8 (rationale for teaching of abstract processing), 9, 13, 14 (Lake Wobegon effect: we don't know as much as we think we do), 23, 25, 27 (media computation as a motivating path to learning computer science) and 45 (conclusion)

Alan Perlis argued that all students should learn to program because:
  • Computer Science is the study of process. Automated execution of process changes everything including how we think about things we already know (slide 6)
  • The purpose of a course in programming is to teach people how to construct and analyze processes ... A course in programming is concerned with abstraction: the abstraction of constructing, analysing and describing processes ... The point is to make students construct complex processes out of simpler ones ... A properly designed programming course will develop these abilities better than any other course. (slide 7)
The Power and Fear of Algorithms. The Economist (Sept., 2007) spoke to the algorithms that control us, yet we don’t understand: Credit Ratings, Adjustable Rate Mortgages, Search Rankings. C.P. Snow foresaw this in 1961. Those who don’t understand algorithms, can’t understand how the decisions are made:
“A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

how syrians can return


Go to the above link to sign the petition. 
I’m writing this to you from a refugee camp in Germany. All the Syrians here are so grateful for the welcome people have given us but we want to live in Syria, not Germany.

I was 22 when the fighting started in 2011. I was living in a neighbourhood called Ghouta, a short drive from Damascus. A year after the uprising the regime of Bashar al-Assad placed Ghouta under siege - this means nothing comes in or out - no food, no medicine, nothing. A year after that the regime attacked us with chemical weapons and more than a thousand were gassed to death. For years they have also dropped barrel bombs and missiles on us from regime aircraft. Normally we got struck eight times a day. How could we continue to survive that hell on earth?

I had to cross twenty checkpoints on fake documents to make it out of Syria. Each time your heart stops as you know that there is a chance you will be arrested and taken away. I made it out and survived a death boat. I have survived so many ways a human being can be killed.

At home I was a medical student. We had so many attacks I assisted more surgeries than most surgeons do by the time they retire. My dream is to only have to perform ‘normal surgeries’, what I trained for, not picking shrapnel from bombs out of children's limbs.

We cannot go back while the war continues which is why we are asking for you to do everything you can to stop the war. All your governments agree there needs to be a political transition in Syria but no amount of words have made it happen. The Assad regime is still in power, killing seven times more civilians than Isis.

World leaders have to act to stop the bombs from the sky. We can survive sniper fire, chemicals but the barrel bombs are unbearable. A no-fly zone or creation of safe zones would save lives instantly. And I would be the first person on the plane home.

Right now everybody in Europe is talking about us refugees. But not many are listening to us. Please sign this petition to Europe’s leaders asking them to do more to stop the bombs and help us return home.

Abo Adnan

Sunday, August 30, 2015

syria needs a no fly zone

Syria needs a no fly zone

Here are 5 things everyone should know about what is happening in Syria today:
  1. The Assad regime is killing 7 times more civilians than ISIS.
  2. More than 11,000 barrel bombs made of scrap metal and high explosive have been rolled out of regime helicopters onto hospitals, homes and schools since the UN banned them. They are the biggest killer of civilians. They drive extremism.
  3. These barrel bombs are the leading cause of displacement, forcing refugees to cross the Mediterranean and other borders.
  4. Many of the barrel bombs are dropped on areas under siege. More than half a million people in Syria live in areas with no access to food, water or medicine since 2013, including the areas of Ghouta that were targeted by the sarin gas attacks in the same year.
  5. The international anti-Isis coalition is flying in the same airspace where many of these barrel bombs are dropped, choosing to look the other way.
  6. There is no military solution to the fighting in Syria. But like in Bosnia, a no-fly zone can help protect civilians from the worst of the violence and encourage the fighting parties to come to the negotiating table.
Too many Syrians spend their days looking up at the sky, wondering when the next barrel bomb will drop and what it will hit. Today we look up in solidarity with all those who continue on, and call on all those with a conscience to join the call to #clearthesky.

Join 100+ non-violent Syrian groups in asking for the international community to enforce the UN ban on barrel bombs with a Bosnia-style no-fly zone.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ursula Le Guin: "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable ..."

Ursula Le Guin, author of my favourite novel, The Dispossessed.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

human existence produces human consciousness

or, a gritty materialist view of our all too human consciousness

Typical stereotype of Marx's view of human consciousness:
“Marx was a materialist. He believed that nothing exists but matter. He had no interest in the spiritual aspects of humanity, and saw human consciousness as just a reflex of the material world. He was brutally dismissive of religion, and regarded morality simply as a question of the end justifying the means. Marxism drains humanity of all that is most precious about it, reducing us to inert lumps of material stuff determined by our environment. There is an obvious route from this dreary, soulless vision of humanity to the atrocities of Stalin and other disciples of Marx.”
- Eagleton, p. 128, goes onto refute this stereotype.
Something closer to the real Marx:
Human consciousness is developed or shaped through our bodily, material needs and very real desires (eg. food, shelter, companionship, sex, love, freedom from fear and violence). We are intelligent (sometimes), active, practical (makers and doers), grounded, self directed, unfinished beings. We are always becoming and never quite finished, until death.

Our social development requires both co-operation and struggle with other humans (there are often disagreements) and natural things to develop our productive capacity in order to overcome material scarcity. In the course of self development other humans and nature resist, as well as enable, our immediate goals. This creates self awareness and above all, awareness of others. In view of our drives we can't help but work together socially to transform the natural and human synthetic world to better meet our needs. “All for one and one for all” is a desirable goal even if we never attain it. At root our economic life represents a bridge between our biological needs and our social life.

Our bodies, our senses and our reasoning abilities are closely connected. There is no basis in reality for a separate development of our material beings and our ideas. Hence idealist philosophy, the approach that ideas come before or are more important than our practical life, is fundamentally wrong. We are not intelligent robots; we are embodied, mortal humans. Our bodies, meanings, values, purposes and intentions are all interconnected.

Over time, everything changes as humans evolve and society develops. We are strung out in time. Since our consciousness is corporeal or embodied then it lags behind the physical or material development of the world. Our consciousness is belated, there is a lag between practice and theory.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx ). Our ideas, concepts and consciousness are tightly interwoven with our material activity and language of real life which has developed from our life and death struggle to make nature serve our needs.

Life and death struggle. It follows therefore that there is a dark side, which has to be faced, a shadowy and not so secret underside to civilisation. At the root of our most lofty conceptions lie violence, lack, desire, appetite, scarcity and aggression, “the horror teeming under the stone of culture” (Theodor Adorno)

Humans, as active and practical beings, strive for the freedom to shape their own narrative. In creating civilisation we have turned Nature, albeit imperfectly, into an extension of ourselves. But for nearly all of us, our freedom is restricted by class society. We are wage labourers forced to work in order to put food on the table and pay off the mortgage.

Social being has the edge over consciousness. This is because the understanding that sticks arises from what we actually do. Tacit knowledge (experience, competence, deed, commitment) trumps explicit knowledge (book learning).

It follows that to change our consciousness we need to change our activity. Talk may well lead to action but talk alone is not enough. We swim in a world of social relations, of social class. “We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish” (Marshall McLuhan). Only by breaking the mould through self conscious practical activity can we make the transition from passive acceptance of social norms to active resistance. But what practical activity will do the job in a world dominated by bourgeois social relations? That is a hard question. If we grow up brainwashed in an alien system then how is it possible to find an effective way to rebel and overthrow that alien system?

Can our knowledge be objective? Yes and no. Our knowledge is historically and socially determined. Before Copernicus, in the minds of men and women, the Sun revolved around the Earth. According to nearly all reports from capitalist media, socialism has been tried and failed. Yet we have found successful, although far from perfect, ways to wrestle knowledge from nature and society. This is called science but the nature of the diversity of the sciences, including Marxism as a science, needs to be further clarified.

Marxists tend to be millenial optimists. Is this justified or whistling in the dark? “The future is bright, the road is tortuous”. Is that a boring cliche or a deep truth? The reality is that progress always happens more slowly than is hoped for by revolutionary radicals. In my view the world does progress but very slowly in real terms most of the time. We don't live long enough! In real life tragedy is often the norm. The Arab Spring was followed by the tragedy in Syria and elsewhere. As noted above, our (revolutionary) consciousness is belated.

Did Marx denounce moral thinking? What he denounced was historical inquiry which ignored material factors in favour of moral ones, the abstraction of moral values from their historical context and then pronouncing them as absolute moral judgements. We could call that approach utopian or moralising. A better approach to moral analysis is to investigate all aspects of a society – its facts and values, it's science and morality; the historical and social context. The error here would be to separate out morality from the total social analysis.

There is an extensive modern literature on the nature of human consciousness and theory of mind. Presumably, some of this would build positively on the broad outline provided by Marx. I would like to hear more about modern authors who have contributed to such an approach, that our consciousness is grounded in our bodily, material needs and our social desires.


Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right, Ch 6 (my essay is, in the main, but not entirely, a summary of this chapter)

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Preface)

Adorno, Theodor. Prisms (I haven't read Adorno but liked the quote)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Iceland 2008 – now, timeline with supporting links

Oct: Economic crash, 3 banks collapse

Pots and Pans revolution

Government resigns
Feb: new Government elected (Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green coalition)

Director Central Bank resigns

new constitution process begins

Aug: Kaupping Bank gags national broadcaster RUV from broadcasting a risk analysis report originating from Wikileaks. This enrages people when they find out.

June: Icelandic Modern Media Initiative Freedom of Information resolution unanimously approved by parliament

(a) New constitution crowd sourced – a National Assembly of 1000 individuals randomly selected to elicit their opinions of what should go into the new constitution
(b) Consitutional Committee (7 experts) produces report on ideas and information for the new constitution
Nov: (c) Constitutional Assembly elected (25 seats)

International Modern Media Initiative (IMMI) formed

July: Constitutional Bill presented to Parliament
Parliament rejects Constitutional Bill

April: Geir Haarde (former PM) found guilty of negligence (not sentenced)

Oct: Government submits Constitutional Bill to referendum, with some additional related questions. 69% respond that the Constitutional Bill should be used as a basis for the new constitution

Nov: Pirate Party of Iceland formed. Platform of democratic reform, adoption of a new constitution, copyright reform, safeguarding freedom of expression and freedom of information

Jan: New Information Act passed

April: New Government elected (Independent and Social Democratic alliance). Pirate Party receives 5.1% of the vote

June: Pirate Party is the most popular party in Iceland with 34.1% of the vote. The next Icelandic parliamentary elections will be held on or before 27 April 2017

For trends in the polls since 2013 see Icelandic_parliamentary_election,_2017

LINKS, some annotated
* indicates well worth reading IMHO

1) The ongoing pots and pans revolution as a response to the economic crash of 2008

update (Sept 16)
* Reykjavik Rising (video 54 min) provides an excellent background to the thinking of some of the activists behind the pots and pans revolution and subsequent events.

* Iceland's unfinished revolution? An interview with Hordur Torfason
The award-winning human rights activist credited with starting Iceland's 'pots and pans revolution' ... So in the crash in October 2008, I had already done things like this. I’ve learned a lot of what I would call facts or methods through my years of dealing with people. So what I simply did is what Socrates did in the old days, I went around asking people questions. I just placed myself in front of the parliament building and I asked people, ‘Can you tell me what has happened in this country?’ and ‘Do you have any idea what we can do?’ I stood there every day during the lunch-hour and it didn’t take me long to understand the seriousness of the situation, the anger among people and how scared people were.
* Lessons from Iceland's 'pots and pans revolution' (2015)
In the long run then, what may turn out to be a more significant outcome of the revolution is the cluster of citizens’ initiatives that emerged, dedicated to improving the way democracy works. Rather than focusing on banking reform, the post-revolution push from Icelandic civil society has been on fundamental democratic reform. The logic runs: why treat the symptoms of a system that has become corrupt when you can tackle the disease itself?
Big rallies outside Iceland's Parliament continue in 2014-15:
March 2015: anti-government-protest-draw-thousands-doors-icelands-parliament
Nov 2014: thousands-gather-outside-icelands-parliament
Solomon comes to Iceland (2012)

2) The Banks

* Icesave dispute -Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Icesave dispute was a diplomatic dispute that began after the privately owned Icelandic bank Landsbanki went bankrupt on 7 October 2008, with a subsequent dispute evolving between Iceland on one hand and the United Kingdom and the Netherlands on the other
* A short history of banks and democracy (2013)
The extraordinary bounce-back of the banks reveals the most disturbing, but least obvious, largely invisible, feature of the unfinished European crisis: the transformation of democratic taxation states into post-democratic banking states (includes a section on Iceland at the end)
3) IMMI (International Modern Media Initiative) and FOI (freedom of information),

* John Perry Barlow - On The Right To Know (2008 Digital Freedoms Conference)
Speech at Digital Freedoms Conference, Reykjavík (Iceland) → his comment about Iceland becoming the Switzerland of bits was influential in kick starting the FOI movement. Video, roughly 60 minutes, entertaining history of his involvement in internet freedom issues. At 33 min. he makes the point that an important historical battle is being waged over control of information.

* The official IMMI web
International Modern Media Institute (Icelandic and English sections)
About IMMI
The International Modern Media Institute was founded in 2011 with the aim of bringing together the best functioning laws in relation to freedom of information, expression and speech, reflecting the reality of borderless world and the challenges that it imposes locally and globally in the 21st century
* Reports & Academic Papers
This page includes the report "Beyond WikiLeaks: The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and the Creation of Free Speech Havens" (pdf 24pp)
* Heimildarmyndir um IMMI
“From the Hell of the Crisis to the Paradise of Journalism” (1 hour 13 minutes) provides a dramatic and informative introduction to what has been happening in Iceland since the economic crisis of 2008 to the near present. Some sections in Icelandic but nearly all of it is in English.
FOI progression since the IMMI resolution: A new Information Act was passed in January 2013. It does not satisfy the IMMI resolution’s level of quality and assurance, as referred to with regards to the public’s access to information.
The Data Narrative - The Reykjavik Grapevine (2013)
Smari McCarthy: there has yet to be a country in the world that has promoted global competitiveness on the basis of the best human rights, data protection and legal transparency
Read a five-point guide for a better internet (2013)

4) The people want a new constitution in Iceland but their efforts so far have been foiled by a parliament which still represents vested interets

* Aðfaraorð – Iceland_New_Constitutional_Bill.pdf (2011)
A proposal for a new constitution for the Republic of Iceland delivered to the Althing by The Constitutional Council on 29 July 2011

Content includes: transparency, fairness, environmental protection, national ownership of natural resources and stronger checks and balances between the 3 branches of government
* Iceland: direct democracy in action (2012)
Do you want the proposals of the Constitutional Council to form the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution? 67% said Yes.

Would you want natural resources which are not in private ownership to be declared the property of the nation in a new Constitution? 83% said Yes.

Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions on a National Church of Iceland? 57% said Yes.

Would you want a new Constitution to permit personal elections to the Althing to a greater degree than permitted at present? 78% said Yes.

Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions to the effect that the votes of the electorate across the country should have the same force? 67% said Yes.

Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions to the effect that a specific proportion of the electorate could call for a national referendum on a specific matter? 73% said Yes.
* Jon Elster í Silfri Egils 13. maí 2012
Interview with constitutional expert Jon Elster about Iceland's new constitution - mostly in English after an Icelandic introduction (video)
Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland (2011)
Icelandic constitution on the way (2012)
The Icelandic constitutional experiment (2012)
Real democracy in Iceland? (2012)
From the people to the people, a new constitution (2012)
Real democracy still missing (2013)
When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment? (2013)
Democracy on ice: a post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution (2013)

5) The Pirate Party (Iceland)

There are currently 3 Pirate MPs: Birgitta Jónsdóttir (Southwest), Jón Þór Ólafsson (Reykjavik South) and Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson (Reykjavik North)

update (July 14): * Exclusive interview with Pirate MP: Resigned from Parliament to mix asphalt
Jón Þór gave his word shortly after the elections two years ago, that he would step aside for his supplementary MP, Ásta Helgadóttir, and he is sticking to that word. So, he is retiring from politics and returning to his previous day job, which is to load asphalt onto trucks at an asphalt mixing plant. Of course it is stuff like this which is leading many voters to the party. It seems to be something different from the more established parties ...

What could other parties learn from the success of the Icelandic Pirates?

This, he believes might help explain why the Icelandic Pirate party has been surging in the polls, while Pirate parties in Europe are struggling: It isn’t all about the internet.
“Of course I don’t know enough about all the details, and there are different factors in each country, but to my understanding some of the European Pirate parties have not prioritized democratic reforms, and direct democracy in the way that we have done. But some of it has to do with the fact that Iceland is a small society, and you can more easily achieve things in a small society you can’t in larger societies.”

* Icelandic_parliamentary_election,_2017
June 2015 Opinion Polls: Pirate Party 33.2%; Independence 23.8%; Progressive 10.6%; Social Democratic Alliance 9.3%; Left-Greens 12.0%; Bright Future 5.6%; Others 5.5%
* We, the people, are the system | Birgitta Jónsdóttir | TEDxReykjavik
The 21st century will be the century of the common people – the century of you, of US
* Birgitta Jónsdóttir official blog
Poetician and activist in the Icelandic Parliament for the Pirate Party
* Making Better Decisions - The Reykjavik Grapevine (2013)
Smari McCarthy: For the last several years I’ve been thinking about the way we make decisions in societies, and the way in which we often sacrifice our ideals on the altar of expectations. This line of thinking has led to the development of a number of systems broadly termed “liquid democracy”: electronic voting and deliberation systems geared towards helping people make better decisions together. In the Pirate Party, for whom I’ve become a candidate, we use one of these systems of my design to make decisions. Anybody can propose an idea, and after a rudimentary sanity check it goes into a process where anybody can comment and propose changes to the proposal, after which the entire thing goes to a vote
* Pirate Party Iceland Chatgroup (Facebook)
This a group where Icelandic Pirates of the English persuasion come togeather and discuss politics, policies and current events in the Icelandic Political arena
Pirate Party, Iceland

No joke: Iceland's Pirate Party surges into first place in the polls
Show Notes and Podcast: The Order of the Pirate Unicorn Podcast 008 | PirateTimes
Background information about iceland's pirate party
Iceland: portrait of the pirate as a young politician (2014)
* Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir (2015)
Smári McCarthy | Project Gutenberg Self-Publishing
Smári McCarthy is an Icelandic/Irish innovator and information activist. He is executive director of the International Modern Media Institute, a co-founder and board member of the Icelandic Digital Freedoms Society (FSFÍ) and a participant in the Global Swadeshi movement. He is a founding member of the Icelandic Pirate Party,and stood as their lead candidate in Iceland's southern constituency in the 2013 parliamentary elections. He was the spokesperson and one of the organizers of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative.
You Have It All Wrong! - The Reykjavik Grapevine (2012)
Early interview of Smari McCarthy about the formation of the Pirate Party
6) other political issues

A cold reception: the rise of anti-Islamic sentiments in Iceland?

RELATED LINKS ABOUT DEMOCRACY, not about iceland in particular

Democratic Reason: The Mechanisms of Collective Intelligence in Politics by Helene E. Landemore :: SSRN

Connecting the Basque and Icelandic cases: an ethnographic chronicle about democratic regeneration

* Bergeron's Children - Smári McCarthy - Appropedia: The sustainability wiki
Story telling which links together the Economic Crash of 2008 - the Arab Spring of 2010-11 – the current Icelandic Freedom of Information movement
Smári McCarthy: Failure Modes of the Modern Rational Utopia (2013)
video: High-modernist idealists, when given unfiltered power to act on their ideologies, have a tendency to try to enact their vision through authoritarian means - the creation of laws and regulations, the manipulation of the major consensus narrative, through socioeconomic restructuring and societal design. As with the sudden introduction of any large scale perturbation to a chaotic system, the results are often unpredictable. There is plenty of evidence of historical flawed attempts at constructing rational utopia, where the perceived ability to control society leads to disaster, but the modern rational utopia - in its technologically superpowered glory - promises to fail in ways we have not yet fully fathomed. I talk about how authoritarianism is changing its nature, how rational utopias come about, look at how they fail and why fail, and try and figure out what we can do about it.
Passing Over Eisenhower (2013)
Smari McCarthy: there is a plan emerging. The hackers and the human rights activists, the net-freedom-blah people and the technophiles have been awakening from the post-Arab spring burnout and remembering the things that need to be done to prevent the next Mubarek. Better, simpler, more usable cryptography. Peer-to-peer, verifiable, anonymous monetary systems and democratic decision making systems. Secure communications and full transparency within governance.
Liquid Democracy In Simple Terms

The Joy of Revolution (chap. 1)
To begin with the political aspect, roughly speaking we can distinguish five degrees of “government”: (1) Unrestricted freedom (2) Direct democracy ____ a) consensus ____ b) majority rule (3) Delegate democracy (4) Representative democracy (5) Overt minority dictatorship The present society oscillates between (4) and (5), i.e. between overt minority rule and covert minority rule camouflaged by a façade of token democracy. A liberated society would eliminate (4) and (5) and would progressively reduce the need for (2) and (3). I’ll discuss the two types of (2) later on. But the crucial distinction is between (3) and (4)
Delegative democracy - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Delegative democracy, also known as liquid democracy, is a form of democratic control whereby voting power is vested in delegates, rather than representatives. This term is a generic description of either already existing or proposed popular control apparatuses

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Greece: sign a petition or start a revolution?

The economic crash of 2008 hasn't gone away, has it? Perhaps I should resume my study of political economy. I tried before but abandoned it because it was so difficult.

The crisis in Greece isn't going away. It wouldn't surprise me if it spread further.

Here are some facts that were posted to the xmca list (Mind, Culture and Activity) about the situation inside Greece:
Unemployment in Greece is officially at 26% of the working population (1.4 mil. people –unofficially they are more than 3 million If you take into consideration those that they have stopped reporting their employment state, and mostly those employed only a few hours per week gaining less than 200€ per month)

Another 3 million people live near the poverty limit (that is, they cannot afford buying all meals of the week, or pay their utilities, let alone their mortgages, or taxes),

And another 3 million people can hardly cover all of their mortgages and taxes.

Leaving less than a couple of millions that can run a life of the average middle class in a western country

Needless to refer to the few thousands that have built monumental fortunes by evading taxation and suppressing labor costs.
These facts were posted as background information to raise support for a petition. But even more interesting someone else then posted this reply:
Only a socialist revolution can save the Greek people and can grant her an honorable, sustainable human life, as advocated by KKE (Communist Party of Greece). All options other than this are either a lie or an illusion, which does conceal today's capitalism's realities or consciously deceive the working masses.

Syriza govt is managing this crisis for capital and tries to keep the country in the line of interests for greek and international capital, not for the working class. Like Podemos in Spain. Capitalist Europe is shrinking in all respects and it is time for working peoples to search for other, much more realistic options. Otherwise, peoples will miss these days.
I scrolled through my blogroll for related articles and found this one, which drills down deeper into the facts and the anger: Email from Greek Voter With "No Dreams and Nothing to Lose"; Greek 'No' Vote Demographics

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Renewable energy costs more than fossil fuels

This is the beginning of a long thread (actually, a couple of long threads) from the Making Sense of Climate Denial Course ("Climate change is real, so why the controversy and debate? Learn to make sense of the science and to respond to climate change denial"), which ran from April-June, 2015.

If you want to read the full thread which contains this introduction then go here straight away. Otherwise, keep reading here if you first want the introduction which sparked the thread before deciding whether or not to read the whole thing.

It represents a challenge to the course organisers on the issue of whether renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels.

Fact: Renewable energy costs more than fossil fuels
discussion posted 4 days ago by ArthurD
Vote for this post, there are currently 3 votes 3 Votes

This simple fact is common ground among all serious participants in debates concerning what to do about global warming.

It is the central reason why many argue for a carbon tax and subsidies to renewables. Without such measures there is no hope of renewables replacing fossil fuels.

It is also the central reason for concern that the world will continue on the present "business as usual" track towards significant problems from global warming before the end of the century. No such measures are in fact being taken to the extent that would be required to make a significant difference.

The vast majority of emissions are expected to come from poor countries like India and China rapidly industrializing over the next few decades.

They are not cannot and will not be switching from fossil fuels to renewables because they cannot afford the extra cost. Consequently 4 times as much additional energy is being supplied by coal each year as by renewables.

There are NO serious claims that renewables will become cheaper than fossil fuels. What IS being claimed is that they will become cheaper than they are now but that it is still NECESSARY to make fossil fuels more expensive through such measures as carbon taxes in order to internalize the external costs imposed by emissions.

Numerous posts with "good news" about trends towards renewables demonstrate that many students in this course are unaware of these facts.

Worse, course staff are actively in denial about them.

I started a thread on this, which had 47 posts --> this course helps preserve fossil fuels

Another student posted several links as follows:
"I'm a serious student of the economic debate, with a degree in economics and in science: renewables demonstrably cost less than consumables, and I nor the World Bank, nor http://thesolutionsproject.org/ nor https://www.irena.org/DocumentDownloads/Publications/Renewable_Power_Generation_Costs.pdf nor Swanson's Law nor http://www.skepticalscience.com/renewable-energy-is-too-expensive.htm nor the IEA do not tacitly or otherwise agree to the myth of cheap consumables; it's a bald misrepresentation to suggest consumables are cheaper."
Not one of these links claims that renewables are or will become cheaper than fossil fuels so that poor countries could switch to them while industrializing. The last, from the group behind this course, repeats what is in fact usually claimed:
"When you account for the effects which are not reflected in the market price of fossil fuels, like air pollution and health impacts, the true cost of coal and other fossil fuels is higher than the cost of most renewable energy technologies."
This is true but completely irrelevant to the question of whether renewables will or can replace fossil fuels in the poor countries that are industrializing.

They are paying ACTUAL costs in the ACTUAL situation of no "carbon price" and people on $2 per day have much higher priorities. They do NOT "account for the effects". (Neither for that matter do most developed countries that could afford to, but the point is that even if they did, poor countries still CANNOT do so while industrializing).

The response of course staff was to close down the thread before I could even point out that NONE of the links offered even denied, let alone refuted the commonly accepted basis for all serious debate that renewables are not replacing fossil fuels because their actual costs are greater.

Please take a look at the closed thread and then come back here and follow this thread if you are interested in serious discussion of what can be done about the ACTUAL situation rather than pretense that endlessly repeating what OUGHT to be can change what is continuing to happen - "business as usual" with rapidly growing emissions.

For the subsequent (lengthy) discussion of these introductory comments go here

Thursday, July 02, 2015

"A wish for a better reality" Smari McCarthy

In the minds of some people there is a connection between different issues that amounts to a continuity. You may call it hope, you may call it wishful thinking or it may be a reflection of reality. In the mind of the Icelandic / Irish information activist Smari McCarthy these events are closely linked: the Economic Crash of 2008 - the Arab Spring of 2010-11 - the current Icelandic Freedom of Information movement

I think he is right.

This story, Bergeron's Children (source) by Smari McCarthy explains how:


On the 19th of December 2010, I received a message from a guy I’d met some months previously. ‘TUNISIA’, it said. Capitals, no punctuation. Nothing else.

I searched, saw what was happening, and pinged another contact, a Tunisian guy, asking how I could help. Over the next couple of weeks, we accumulated a set of videos from the protests all over Tunisia, and I bundled them up into an easy to view, share and mirror package.[1] This was the beginning of massive weaponised Streisandisation. The theory is, when you try to restrict access to information, the value of that information goes up. Barbara Streisand learned this the hard way.[2] Anybody who’s ever seen porn knows this instinctively.

Shortly after the Streisandisation project began, Ben Ali fled the country. Unrelated, but revolution was here. And while the victory belonged to the Tunisian people and outsiders should not lay claim to it, I can’t say that I wasn’t somewhat proud. But before the joviality had passed its apex, another message from the same contact: ‘EGYPT’.

This is a guy who had been monitoring North African human rights issues for decades. He knows this stuff in and out. This is a guy who was tortured, and fled, and survived. So when this guy sends me a message, I take it seriously.

A Swedish-originating hacktivist (hacker+activist) group I’ve been working with, Telecomix, took the Egyptian cause to heart. Peter Fein describes Telecomix as the Yin to the Yang of Anonymous.[3] They break, we rebuild. When the Internet got cut off in Egypt, the plain old telephone system was still left running. So the Telecomix agents thought: ‘If the phones are running, we can install modem stacks and people can dial in.’ Reverting to an ancient technology to protect freedom of expression has never been so fun. Somebody came up with the great idea of crawling the Internet in search of Egyptian fax numbers, and a message was constructed and sent to all of them, giving information about how to dial in to the modem racks we had set up in Sweden and Germany. Egypt fell, kind of.

As the year moved on, things slowed down. As NATO started bombing Libya, I kept waiting for a message. None came. So I did as any man would in that situation, and went to Norway. Sitting there one evening, watching Tim Minchin videos and debating information politics, I received the third message: ‘SYRIA’.

Why was Libya so overlooked, as the bombs fell from on high? Could it be callousness on the part of my delightfully informed comrade, or was it something else? Considering the dynamics of what played out in Tunisia and Egypt, and what has since been going on in Syria, it’s hard to think that the Libyan uprising is motivated by the same ideals. The tribal origins of the revolution, coupled with the almost immediate influx of weapons from various Gulf countries and from NATO gives the impression that it was a power grab. Oman, Jordan, Bahrain. Egypt. Iraq. Throughout the region, people were taking to the streets. In Libya it was different. More focused. Some weird politics were in play.

But this is not about Libya. The Arab Spring undoubtedly put a mark on 2011, but for me it was only the origin of the confusion that shaped the year, and the cadence to which my life harmonised.

July. I was sitting at a café in Porto, feeling relaxed and happy with life, when news comes: a city in Syria, Homs, has disappeared from the Internet. A massive contingent of information activists from all over the world start trying to figure out why. After a while, it becomes clear, as we start to see scattered and vague reports of tanks rolling into the city. Then, at more or less the same time that the tanks were blowing holes in buildings in Homs, a massive nationalist Christian conservative fertiliser bomb goes off in Oslo. Just around the corner from where I had been when the ‘SYRIA’ message arrived.


To make sense of 2011, I go back to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, ‘Harrison Bergeron’.[4] The 1995 film adaptation will do even better.[5] The setting is the United States in the second half of the 21st century. After the Cold War, there had come a massive economic downturn: the great recession, which never really ended. ‘In all previous recessions,’ Harrison says, ‘once the economy bottomed out and production increased, unemployment decreased. But in the Great Recession due to new and improved technologies, fewer and fewer workers were required in all sectors. With so many people forced from their jobs the traditional economic recovery was impossible.’ The widening gap between rich and poor ended in a Second American Revolution, following which the government mandates total egalitarianism: citizens are subject to mind-numbing television programmes and fitted with electronic headbands to regulate their intelligence to a social norm.

It is a society in which everybody is forced to be equal, yet what is presented as equality is really a docile acceptance that one should not engage creatively: in fact, should not engage at all, since any engagement in the issues of the society would be a cause of disequilibrium. Anybody who lacked the cognitive capacity to understand the implications would be left behind, and therefore it is considered imperative that all be forcibly reduced to the same level.

Being rather smarter than would otherwise be acceptable, Harrison finds himself recruited to the secret organisation that runs this society. They aren’t allowed to breed, but they are allowed to enjoy all of what human culture had to offer, in terms of culture and technology. Unlike everyone else, they have not been subdued by an information vacuum and prepackaged ideologies. But our protagonist rebels against all of this, taking control of the broadcasting system...

You can guess the rest; it isn’t really important. What matters is the seed of rebellion planted by Harrison. It is only hinted at in the closing moments of the film, but slowly, after his subversive act of defiance against the shadow government, people start to wake up.

I can imagine how it played out. Teenagers daring each other to take the headbands off in secret. Adults sneaking to read a book or two. People having conversations about the state of the world. About history. About culture. Somebody might become good at playing the violin.

And one day, somebody gets a text message. ‘AMERICA’, it might say.


By August, Telecomix was providing infrastructural support to half a dozen revolutions. Some, like Egypt, were nominally complete but still reeked of militarism and repression. Others, like Libya and Syria, were ongoing and becoming bloodier each day.

The toll a revolution takes on the revolutionaries is immense. People get tired. Exhausted even. Post-traumatic stress disorder, combat fatigue. Burnout. What we learned, during all of this, is that support staff also get burned out. It’s like the drone pilots dropping bombs on innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq. The cause is more moral, but the scenario is the same. When a soldier goes to war, he stays on the battlefield with friends and comrades for extended periods of time. He and his allies are immersed in the context of their reality, and they back each other up. Just like the protesters on the streets of New York or Oakland, of Madrid or Athens, Damascus and Cairo. That contextual immersion is lost on the drone pilots and hacktivists: when our shift is done, we unplug and leave the war zone. We walk through peaceful streets and have dinner with friends who don’t know or don’t care what happened today in some far away place. Our context shifts from war to peace. Eleanor Saitta wrote that her ‘friends at Telecomix are not on the front lines in Syria, but they know many people there well, and even fighting that war at a remove can tear you apart.’[6]


I never got the message saying ‘AMERICA’. I never got one saying ‘UK’. There were many I wish I had received but never did. Yet mixed with that wish was a deep and unnerving fear. A wish for a better reality mixed with fear that the reality I had lived with all my days was at an end. For much of 2011, my heart would jump whenever my phone beeped or rang. Sleep was more disturbed than ever, marked by cold sweat. I was not alone. Many of my friends were suffering, and many thousands of others were fighting a brutal war against oppression, felling dictators when they could, but more often failing.


Then we ask why. Why now? What made 2011 different from other years? In many ways it was similar to 2008, when my home country crashed. Iceland’s economy burst and lost almost all of its mass over the course of a few weeks. Iceland is recovering, but there is little will amongst the political class to work through the legacy of the crash which marked the beginning of the end. 2011 was the third year of the Great Recession which had taken many small countries in its first wave.

The politicians and economists hoped that once the economy bottomed out and production increased, unemployment would decrease. They refused to acknowledge that, due to new and improved technologies, fewer and fewer workers are required in all sectors. With so many people forced from their jobs, the traditional economic recovery is impossible. The question becomes: what does a nontraditional economic recovery look like?

The sequence of events was unexpected. All of us who had thought about this eventuality seem to have expected the rich countries to go first. Some, like mine, did. But with our western tunnel vision, we overlooked the way in which the same forces were working on the countries where the stuff we use is made: people are competing against indefatigable machines on a free market. The owners of the devices and productive capacity that keep us alive have alienated all of us. The difference being that, outside of the most developed countries, infrastructural elasticity is much lower and personal freedoms comparatively nonexistent. Of course they were going to go first.


But now 2011 is past, and I’m not sure what is going to happen. Some countries are calming down, while others are still ratcheting up. At the time, I often thought that 2011 would be the year of the revolution, where we fix our world; now I see that this wasn’t the year in which we win the wars, but it was the year in which we picked our fights. It was the year in which we all became Bergeron’s children, waking from repose, casting off docility, and becoming human again. Not everybody is there, yet. A lot of people still have their headbands on. A lot of people have so forgotten how to be free that it feels alien to them.

There’s plenty of work to be done, but it’s going to get done. Globalisation may have been used against us so far, but now it’s working to our advantage. Humanity has, for the first time, a real ability to work together, but first we need to overcome some hurdles. In the words of Harrison Bergeron, ‘I hope we can all be together again real soon, as whole people, family – no bands, no government, just people...’

(1) A ‘mirror’ is an exact copy of another website, hosted on a different server. A ‘package’ like this makes it as easy as possible for anyone with access to a server to make a copy of the site, which makes it harder for the material on the site to be taken offline or blocked.
(2) See ‘Streisand effect’, Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Streisand_effect
(3) Peter Fein, ‘Hacking for Freedom’, I Wear Pants, 17 June 2011 - http://blog.wearpants.org/hacking-for-freedom/
(4) Collected in Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Welcome to the Monkey House (New York: Delacorte Press, 1968).
(5) Harrison Bergeron, Directed by Bruce Pittman, 1995.
(6) Eleanor Saitta, ‘Our Stories, Our Weapons’ in ‘Two Stories of Uncivilization’, New Public Thinking, 30 August 2011 - http://newpublicthinkers.org/?p=107

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

iceland: a different vision

After hearing that the Pirate Party has become the most popular political party in Iceland (one source) I've been searching for information which explains how this happened.

What accounts for the difference in the way Iceland is developing politically?

The video at the top of this page, “From the Hell of the Crisis to the Paradise of Journalism” (1 hour 13 minutes) provides a dramatic and informative introduction to what has been happening in Iceland since the economic crisis of 2008 to the near present.

Alternatively, the paper on this page, Beyond WikiLeaks: The Icelandic Modern Media Initiative and the Creation of Free Speech Havens (pdf 24 pp), provides a written down version of similar information.

The video opens with this quote from "Demian" by Herman Hesse.
"We were not separated from the majority of men by a boundary, but simply by another mode of vision. Our task was to represent an island in the world, a prototype perhaps, or at least a prospect of a different way of life"
  • A particularly severe Banking crisis in 2008
  • Icelandic citizens in response held a weekly kitchen revolution outside parliament with clear demands (the Government, the Bankers and Monetary authorities should resign). These goals were achieved. Unlike other countries those responsible were punished.
  • A new government constitution was developed initially through crowd sourcing of 1000 citizens randomly (direct democracy) to develop it
  • The media was held complicit in not spotting the weakness of the Banks
  • Wikileaks helped by publishing information about corruption in those same Banks at that time
  • The Bank involved took legal steps to suppress that information – but this resulted in making things worse for them
  • In response the opportunity was taken by visionary leadership to launch a freedom of information revolution
  • One aim is transparent government, to move from secrecy by default to transparency by default
  • A large section of the video goes into detail of the FOI legislation, under nine subheadings: Freedom of Information; Whistleblower Protection; Source Protection; Communications Protection; Limiting Prior Restraint; Judicial Process Protection; Protection of Historical Records; Defamation Law and Libel Tourism Protection. They are serious and well researched about the legal issues surrounding FOI. Also see Progress Report for detail
  • In a world where the internet and governments are becoming less free the Icelandic visionaries see an opportunity to promote freedom as a nation building exercise
  • Never waste a good crisis (advice to those in other countries)
    • countries need to update their outdated constitutions (Birgitta)
    • be clear about what you need to do and how to do it (Smari)
    • catch the spirit of the nation by listening to the people (Birgitta)
    • radical change only happens during crisis, at other times people become too complacent (Birgitta)