Saturday, December 31, 2016

Martin Nakata's Disciplining the Savages Savaging the Disciplines

My dissatisfaction with the discourse of culturalism stemmed largely from being certain about who I was (an Islander) and uncertain about why we were treated the way we were. Something about the re-writing of earlier racial discourses into a cultural discourse grated deep within my mind and soul. Why would I accept such a shift that said in effect 'Oops, sorry, we were wrong but we've rethought this and, here, we think this is a better explanation of you and your predicament' ...

In my undergraduate years, there was the possibility that my oppositional stance could have developed into a radically 'dumb' one and at many times sheer anger at our historical circumstances threatened my sanity and my study ...” (pp. 222-3)
What is required to make indigenous education better than it is now?

Martin Nakata describes and traces his alienation within the system. As a helper within schools the whites were only interested in his opinions if they were congruent with their own. Earlier, on as a secondary student, it all felt meaningless, he dropped out and took drugs, for a while. Later, at University, he was very successful, but could not articulate how he felt to others. At one point in this process other Islanders questioned whether he was still an Islander.

How should one respond to being marginalised and alienated by the dominant system?

MN's response was to study and more study to understand the knowledge base of the oppressor. What knowledge base could possess such arrogance as to intrude in every possible way into Islander lives with the casual assumption of superiority. Although overt racism has now been more or less replaced by culturalism (the glib shallowness of they are equal but different, let us respect that difference) but still the dominant culture can't see the world as an Islander sees the world. Ideas about Islanders are expressed by well meaning "experts" with little or no reference to the actual life experiences of Islanders. MNs goal is to comprehend this lack, to come to grips with it.

Moreover, he develops the theory of the Cultural Interface (which it needs to be explained is not a capitulation to culture) as a vantage point for all of us to understand these issues.

So, when I say the book is magnificent I mean that it has personal, political and educational significance which is complex but needs to be thought deeply about. It persuades me that a complex problem, which no one has solved so far, requires a complex solution. So this book has changed me.

The educational implications are that the complexity and curriculum reform (savaging the disciplines) both have to be embraced. Unfortunately, this goes against what normally works in schools, the KISS principle, Keep It Simple Stupid.

Fortunately, some have taken up the challenge: for example, see 8 ways, the YuMi Deadly Centre and ATSIMA. I'm not certain how much of this was started independently of MN but I suspect that he started something important, that his role in all of this has been significant.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Inside the mind of David Oldfield and friends

I thought Anthony Dillon went too easy on David Oldfield in his Quadrant article (First Contact's First Sin) by focusing on the clean up the rubbish issue (where he did have a point) and not mentioning a couple of other things that Oldfield said in the First Contact series.

In the last episode, at a Noel Pearson school in Coen, Oldfield said that aboriginal people were better off learning Japanese than their own language since an aboriginal language would never help them get a job.

At another point he described aboriginal culture as a Stone Age Culture. This latter statement has been approvingly aired in a comment from Bill Martin at the end of Anthony's article:
“As David Oldfield said during the “First Contact” program, it is a Stone Age culture that should be allowed to die out. Shock horror! – it was not edited out, presumably to illustrate Oldfield’s despicable racism.

Let those objecting to Oldfield’s sentiment answer this simple question: Emotional sentimentality notwithstanding, what practical use is Aboriginal culture in contemporary Australia or any other civilised society?

All it achieved over 45-50000 years is the mere survival of the species, as did all other living organisms. It is not necessary to list the primitive, often childish details of Aboriginal culture, nor the range of its detestable aspects to conclude that the endeavour to live by it in the 21st century is a diabolical folly. Consider further that the overwhelming majority of Australians identifying as Aborigines live their lives according to the norms of contemporary Australian culture, with only a modicum of acquaintance of indigenous culture. Why, then, condemn the tiny minority living in remote communities to their appalling misery? This last question is addressed to the Dodsons, Burneys, Mansells, at al, who live according to contemporary Australian standards while enjoying the rich benefits accruing to “champions” of a culture which they have abandoned a long time ago”
If you read the comment thread (only open to Quadrant subscribers) you will find plenty more of the same sentiments.

This reminds me that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party is resurgent according to a Newspoll in October 2016, which recorded the following support figures: Queensland 10%; NSW 6%; Western Australia 6%; South Australia 4%; Victoria 3% (One Nation soars post-election, Newspoll shows)

For reasons such as these I had a think about my own attitude to aboriginal (and western) culture.

First up, with the help of Martin Nakata and Marcia Langton I compiled a list of adjectives / descriptors used to describe aboriginal and TSI culture over the past 230 years. I then grouped those descriptors into categories of my own making:

Dangerous: Savages, Barbarians, Cannibals
Backward: Primitive; Lost souls; Stone Age; Infantile; a People from the Past; Uncivilised; Childlike; Overgrown Children; Undeveloped; Low Intelligence; Inferior; Heathen
Admirable, sort of: Noble Savage; Exotic
Regrettable: Drunks; Dirty; Irresponsible; Dying race; Victims

Of course all these labels were dreamed by our “advanced” white, Colonial civilisation and often justified according to the “advanced” science of the times:
... the inferiority of the black races is due to the cessation of the growth of the brain at an earlier age than in the white races ...
- McDougall, 1903, quoted in Nakata, p. 76
But then the science has developed, changed and apart from Quadrant comment writers, One Nation supporters (a growing tribe) and genetic determinists most people now have a more humane perception: equal but different. Now we are enlightened, well some of us, since our culture is dynamic and changes as we learn more.

Well, is indigenous culture any different? Culture, including aboriginal and TSI culture continues to evolve. Once you attempt to set any culture in Stone as David Oldfield and his friends want to do (“Stone Age Culture”) then by freezing the culture of the Other you freeze your own mind, in a superior prejudicial state, in the process. All culture evolves, is dynamic, white, black and of course multicultural.

Historically Colonial whites did use their superior technology combined with their inferior morality to intrude in every way into black lives. So, in response, in order to survive, blacks have had to learn those aspects of white culture that enabled those whites to win the war. The obvious motivation to do this was to learn from the bastards who defeated them, as well as uniting with those whites who weren't or aren't bastards. Fight back. Learn English so as to defend the good aspects of ones own culture against those who have tried and are still trying to destroy it.
We had no education to check the scales, we knew no arithmetic, subtraction, addition. If we brought up 5 or 7 tons (of pearl shells) and the price was say 155 pounds per ton, we might get, ah 5 pound or 6 pound ... just pocket money
- Ganter 1994, quoted in Nakata, p. 161
There is also an internal problem in indigenous culture. Josephine Cashman, Jacinta Price and Marcia Langton amongst others have pointed out that there are elements within aboriginal culture that legitimise violence against women. In particular, this is a problem in remote communities. They are waging a campaign against this and meeting fierce resistance from the indigenous men (as well as elements of our "advanced" culture - legal system, police) who benefit from it.
Langton spoke of "a new version of Aboriginal culture that keeps a few elements of the older culture and adds a new set of dangerous elements", elements that expose women and children to assault yet forbid them from speaking out about it.

She believes legislators have "drunk the Kool Aid" and are too afraid to interfere with the "culture" of communities, a culture that now involves high levels of violence and abuse.

From this comes a "culture of silence" as explained by Cashman, which "allows criminals to gain power over communities and to establish unfettered access to children through fear, which perpetrates a misguided tolerance of criminal behaviour."

In situations where domestic incidents are reported, victims are called "dog and snitch" for collaborating with white authorities and those who report violence and rape often find that the police responses range from slow to non-existent, she said
- Being offended by Bill Leak's cartoon misses the point, says Marcia Langton
Note that Marcia Langton condemns this "new version of Aboriginal culture". This is what I mean by all culture evolves. Josephine Cashman, Jacinta Price and Marcia Langton don't renounce their aboriginal culture, they take great pride in it, rather they renounce those aspects that are not compatible with modernity. That is aboriginal and TSI culture, an evolving work in progress, full of significant internal contradictions, just like our western culture.

Breaking Down the Barriers to Sexual Violence Care, speech by Josephine Cashman
Langton, Marcia. Well, I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television… pdf, 46pp (1993)
Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines (2007)

Monday, December 19, 2016

the desire to be normal

Some people, the outsiders, speak to us as though we are normal. More sadly, some amongst us think they are normal, or at least, act as though they are. Poor blighters.

This year, many times, I've felt the need to recount this story:
"But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
(Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 6)

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Samantha Power righteously condemns the Russians et al

When I googled "Syria genocide" the main article I found which made sense to me is written by a right wing think tank: Nothing can be done in Syria? Not true

Every night we watch the newsreader read the news, augmented by social media horrific footage, about the latest Aleppo massacres. It is just the news, which report facts, and doesn't reflect on the policies which created those facts.

Somewhere in memory I recall that the west had apparently learnt a lesson from the Rwandan genocide and at a later date intervened in Kosovo:
The most important precedent supporting the legitimacy of unilateral humanitarian intervention was established by the events that transpired in Kosovo between March and June of 1999.1 NATO’s intervention in Kosovo has confirmed the doctrine of humanitarian intervention as legal custom. The Kosovo incident also gave expression to the moral consensus in the international community that severe tyranny should not be tolerated.
I remember that the first George Bush created a no fly zone in Iraq which saved the Kurds from massacre by Saddam Hussein

President Obama could have created a no fly zone many years ago in Syria but instead he created a power vacuum. Putin saw this as weakness and moved in.

Samantha Power, the American UN Ambassador who has published a few books about genocide has righteously pilloried Russia, Iran and Assad for their Aleppo massacres:
Ms Power began her speech by saying how those left are now saying their final goodbyes as a city was “being erased from history”.

“This is what is being done by Member States of the United Nations who are sitting around this horseshoe table today,” she said.

“This is what is being done to the people of eastern Aleppo, to fathers, and mothers, and sons, and daughters, brothers, and sisters like each of us here.”

She went on to say how Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is being backed by Russia and Iran who are using militia on the ground to cut off the city and then hiding this shame from the world.

“To the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes,” the speech continued.

“Your barrel bombs and mortars and air strikes have allowed the militia in Aleppo to encircle tens of thousands of civilians in your ever-tightening noose. It is your noose.

“It should shame you. Instead, by all appearances, it is emboldening you. You are plotting your next assault. Are you truly incapable of shame?

“Is there literally nothing that can shame you? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin, that just creeps you out a little bit? Is there nothing you will not lie about or justify?”
What she forgot to add is what she wrote in her book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide:
Power observes that American policymakers have been consistently reluctant to condemn mass atrocities as genocide or take responsibility for leading an international military intervention. She argues that without significant pressure from the American public, policymakers avoid the term "genocide" altogether. Instead, they appeal to the priority of national interests or argue (without merit, she contends) that a U.S. response would be futile and accelerate violence as a justification for inaction

Sunday, November 20, 2016

why trump won

economic reality beats identity politics

The recognition that the economy hasn't recovered from the 2008 crisis and the Obamas / Clintons have protected Wall Street (no Banker gaoled; what new wealth there is has gone to the top 5%) has become a stronger social force than identity politics (you are female, black, Hispanic etc., we support you morally but not economically)

More detailed explanations here:
Break Up the Democratic Party
The Great Con: Political Correctness Has Marginalized the Working Class

update 4th December 2016:
Michael Moore picked it well before the election:
5 reasons why trump will win

update 14th December 2016:
If You Think This Is About Sexism and Racism, You’re Missing the Point by Eric Robert Morse
(the Michael Moore video within this article is very powerful, worth taking the time to watch IMHO)
As Moore puts it: “Donald Trump came to the Detroit Economic Club and stood there in front of Ford Motor executives and said ‘if you close these factories as you’re planning to do in Detroit and build them in Mexico, I’m going to put a 35% tariff on those cars when you send them back and nobody’s going to buy them.’ It was an amazing thing to see. No politician, Republican or Democrat, had ever said anything like that to these executives, and it was music to the ears of people in Michigan and Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the ‘Brexit’ states.”
update 15th December 2016:
Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit by Glen Greenwald

The Trump victory provides us not just the opportunity but the necessity to dig deeper into what is really happening in America, not to mention the world since we have BrExit in England, the popularity of Pauline Hanson in Australia, etc. I found this Readers Review of a new book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, enlightening:
There is a lot to take in here, even for someone that's seen this life up close in many of its many guises.

While ostensibly about the particular culture of the West Virginia Scots-Irish underclass, anyone that has seen white poverty in America's flyover states will recognize much of what is written about here. It is a life on the very edge of plausibility, without the sense of extra-family community that serves as a stabilizing agent in many first-generation immigrant communities or communities of color. Drugs, crime, jail time, abusive interactions without any knowledge of other forms of interaction, children growing up in a wild mix of stoned mother care, foster care, and care by temporary "boyfriends," and in general, an image of life on the edge of survival where even the heroes are distinctly flawed for lack of knowledge and experience of any other way of living.

This is a story that many of the "upwardly mobile middle class" in the coastal areas, often so quick to judge the lifestyles and politics of "those people" in middle America, has no clue about. I speak from experience as someone that grew up in the heartland but has spent years in often elite circles on either coast.

Two things struck me most about this book.

First, the unflinching yet not judgmental portrayal of the circumstances and of the people involved. It is difficult to write on this subject without either glossing over the ugliness and making warm and fuzzy appeals to idealism and human nature, Hollywood style, or without on the other hand descending into attempts at political persuasion and calls to activism. This book manages to paint the picture, in deeply moving ways, without committing either sin, to my eye.

Second, the author's growing realization, fully present by the end of the work, that while individuals do not have total control over the shapes of their lives, their choices do in fact matter—that even if one can't direct one's life like a film, one does always have the at least the input into life that comes from being free to make choices, every day, and in every situation.

It is this latter point, combined with the general readability and writing skill in evidence here, that earns five stars from me. Despite appearances, I found this to be an inspiring book. I came away feeling empowered and edified, and almost wishing I'd become a Marine in my younger days as the author decided to do—something I've never thought or felt before.

I hate to fall into self-analysis and virtue-signaling behavior in a public review, but in this case I feel compelled to say that the author really did leave with me a renewed motivation to make more of my life every day, to respect and consider the choices that confront me much more carefully, and to seize moments of opportunity with aplomb when they present themselves. Given that a Hillbilly like the author can find his way and make good choices despite the obstacles he's encountered, many readers will find themselves stripped bare and exposed—undeniably ungrateful and just a bit self-absorbed for not making more of the hand we've been dealt every day.

I'm a big fan of edifying reads, and though given the subject matter one might imagine this book to be anything but, in fact this book left me significantly better than it found me in many ways. It also did much to renew my awareness of the differences that define us in this country, and of the many distinct kinds of suffering and heroism that exist.

Well worth your time.
update 21st December:
Both of these articles re-iterated the point that the fundamental reason for Trump's victory was economic.

J.D. Vance, the False Prophet of Blue America
This one argues that Hillbilly Elegy stresses the individual attitudes required to escape poverty too much, that it becomes a morality play. It's too hard to pull yourself up by the bootstraps if you don't have boots.

To Understand 2016’s Politics, Look at the Winners and Losers of Globalization: An interview with economist Branko Milanovic
The elephant chart shows that globalisation has not benefited the middle classes in the developed nations:
The biggest gains, (Milanovic) found, have gone to the very richest in the richest countries—the kinds of people that are overwhelmingly found in places like London or US coastal cities—as well as the “emerging global middle class,” people with much less wealth who are predominantly located in China. Both of these groups saw their real incomes skyrocket from their previous levels, though Chinese people on overage are still only one fourth as wealthy as Americans. The world’s poorest people didn’t do nearly as well, but they saw some improvements.

And the losers have been working people in rich countries. A large portion of the lower middle class in Western Europe and the US saw essentially no income gains since the Reagan administration, while almost everybody else in the world, including elites in their own countries, moved forward. Milanovic presented his data for these findings in the now famous “Elephant chart.” The graph, which looks like the outline of an elephant, shows how much incomes have increased for people at different levels of wealth. The dip between the elephant’s back and its trunk shows the comparatively small gains that working people in rich countries have seen

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Aurukun: it is the education department that is broken

Those who see a place for Direct Instruction in education are not so mechanically robotic as its critics imagine. As this testimony from Dennis reveals, an emotional advocacy of Direct Instruction from a dark place is just as likely to be the response to those who plan to tear it down.
I found it a deeply painful experience to leave school, after 12 years, not being able to spell, read my hand-writing or write correct sentences. I didn’t have a clue where the comma was supposed to go; and I avoided at all cost writing things on paper because I was embarrassed. But unlike most remote Indigenous children who finish their education almost completely illiterate, I was able to find work as a roustabout and later a shearer. It was in the shearing sheds that I met a lot of other bashed-up boys, courtesy of the clenched fist of the 1970s Education Department. I thought I was the only one, but I was far from alone. You will only find us in statistics, faceless and anonymous.

After more than fifty years and literally hundreds of billions of dollars of a failed state run education system for, among other children, remote Aboriginal children, it was disheartening to read the thoughtless boasting comments of Liberal Federal Member for Leichardt Warren Entsch and the insincere, cold hearted rhetoric of State Labour Education Minister, Kate Jones.

Both sides of politics have been united in their response to the demise of the Direct Instruction teaching method being used in Aurukun Aboriginal Community School in FNQ. The American prescriptive teaching method, Direct Instruction, was introduced by Noel Pearson through his Good to Great Schools five years ago. Entsch suggested after Pearson pulled out of the school that ‘…there’ll be dancing in the streets.’ I hardly think so. These streets are paved with despair, cultural depression and generational trauma. And Jones claimed her ‘focus was on improving educational outcomes for the community.’ Well, in fifty years they haven’t had one win, and they never will. The article posted on the ABC’s web site claimed a ‘mainstream curriculum will help solve some of the problems we’ve seen in recent times.’ That is a bare faced lie. The education department has produced far more Indigenous prisoners than students. I couldn’t get an education with a mainstream curriculum and I am white, had access to health care and lived in a working class suburb. But neither could most of my friends. The veiled attitude to our poor academic performances was that we came from a bad family. Not much had changed on that score, particularly with Aboriginal families. It is the education department that is broken. It is run by people who have never failed at school, never felt the shaming effects of their creation.

As is often the way, my big break in education came as a father in the most unfortunate of circumstances. My first born daughter was diagnosed with an acquired brain injury at twenty-three weeks of age. When she was about three and a half and didn’t speak we discovered an unusual program of exercises that stimulated her brain, specifically her cerebellum. Miraculously, she started to recover. The exercises were followed by flash cards and repetition, repetition and more repetition. Each phase of her learning had to be achieved with small increments to give adaptation the best chance. The smaller the learning loads the better chance the brain had in adapting to the stress. My daughter recovered and went on and received a degree in education, a Master’s degree and is now completing a law degree. If you like, we manually overrode the damaged part of her brain and built new pathways –just like Direct Instruction overrides the neurological effects of (generational) trauma and a lack of English in Indigenous students.

After my daughter become ill, I left shearing to be home more regularly and I worked digging a sewage tunnel. A few years after she had started school I was working on a night shift gang. After we had finished building some form work I was sitting on a drum. It was after three in the morning. I was eighty meters underground, two kilometres in from the shaft in a five metre diameter rock tunnel. I was covered in oil and sludge, water dripping all around me and I was bone tired. I was lamenting my lot in life. I felt I hadn’t achieved any of my potential and I had worked hard yet ended up in a sewage tunnel. I wondered why my daughter was able to get an education with a brain injury and I couldn’t get one with a normal brain? So I decided to copy what we had done with my daughter. In short, I started reading again and started patterning sentences. I looked at education much the same as sport. Learning to write was no different than learning to kick a ball. Get the technique right and practice until the skill is consolidated and it worked. The comma though, I had to be taught over and over.

That was in 1988. In 1999 I went to university and in 2014 I was awarded a Doctor of Philosophy in Writing from the University of Adelaide. When I finished my studies I wanted to go back and put steps in place for those children, like me, who struggle to adapt to the standard curriculum in our standard education with its Standard English. While I was studying I worked in many remote Indigenous schools and it has been heart breaking seeing the abject failure of education in so many communities. At the same time I was observing the meteoric rise of Principals to senior administrative roles on the back of long term systemic failure of whole schools. Get the numbers up, subdue the students and get out quick is the modus operandi of most opportunistic careerists.

After working in over a dozen remote Indigenous schools, with site allowances, remote subsidies, free houses and no bills, the only people who benefit from the education system are the teachers. If they are young they are buying up houses and making long term investments. If they are older they are topping up their superannuation. The students are left with nothing. The education department is a career structure for teachers, not an education program for children. There are however, some great teachers and dedicated Principals. Some teachers don’t like D.I. because it takes away their creativity. Others though don’t like being made accountable and there is no accountability in remote schools. When I saw the Direct Instruction program and its systematic teaching method with its small, concise increments of learning, I knew, if it was delivered properly, it would work. This year I was invited to work at Djarragun College, an Aboriginal School in Cairns. The school is part of Pearson’s Cape York Program and Direct Instruction is the main teaching pedagogy. And it works—and works well. I was blown away when I saw grade one, two and three Indigenous students reading, writing and editing their mistakes. I saw grade four children writing in paragraphs. It was rolled gold education.

Is Direct Instruction the best teaching method for all children? No. Play based learning; investigative learning and visible learning have had extraordinary results for some students. But those more independent learning frameworks are a bridge too far for many students. What my white mates and I couldn’t do, and remote and urban Indigenous students can’t do, is intuit English. If I wasn’t taught what comes next, I couldn’t work it out. It wasn’t second nature to us.

Do I care about Direct Instruction, or Noel Pearson and the Cape York Academy? No. I care about seeing children find the joy in learning and embracing with courage and confidence the opportunities an education can provide. I don’t want to see another generation of bright, witty students end up at the bottom of a sewer.
- Dennis McIntosh
Background information: indigenous-leader-noel-pearson-withdraws-support-arukun-school

Update (22nd November): Dennis's article has been published by Eureka Street, with the title Mainstream mindset fails remote Aboriginal students

Update (16th November): Two of us: Nicole and Dennis McIntosh

I'm currently reading The Tunnel, about Dennis's work in the sewerage tunnel or rather that's the backdrop to his life story, it's very entertaining. His earlier book is called Beaten by a Blow, about his life as a shearer. See

Sunday, October 23, 2016

indigenous robotics

Interesting paper on the possible intersection b/w the very old and the very new

From Angie Abdilla's Facebook page:
"Indigenous knowledge is shared via strict coded compression of oral law where spirituality, law, kinship, and science are integrated. To approach such a holistic understanding, Indigenous knowledge systems requires acknowledgement and respect of indigenous culture" -
The authors will be delivering this paper again on Tuesday November 1 at the ATSIMA conference, which I am going to:
Abdilla, Angie and Fitch, Dr. Robert
Australian Centre for Field Robotics & University of Sydney
Indigenous knowledge systems and pattern thinking: analysis of the first Indigenous robotics prototype workshop
- workshop-presentations
Angie Abdilla interviewed by NITV:
“We have thousands of years of experience in designing and creating new technologies - the digital age is no different, the only barrier is access to the technologies,” Abdilla told NITV.

“My connection to Western science has been through a personal curiosity for all new technologies, driven by divergent formats and forms of storytelling. My connection to Indigenous sciences, as an Indigenous woman, is innate.

“Within an Indigenous paradigm, Indigenous Sciences are not segregated but part of all aspects of our culture and lore,” says Angie.

We now see communications and Technologies transforming society, improving our mutual understanding, eliminating power differentials and realising a truly free and democratic world society.
- indigenous-science-core-social-economic-and-political-change
Robert Fitch's reflection on the workshop:
Robotics is known to be an excellent motivational tool for engaging students in STEM subjects; the effect of one’s efforts is immediately and tangibly apparent through the robot’s behaviour. We are interested in employing robotics to engage urban Indigenous youth, and the Symposium provided an excellent opportunity to present our work in developing specialised robotics workshops. We were encouraged by the ensuing discussion of the relationship between robotics concepts and Pattern Thinking, and came away from the Symposium energised to proceed along these lines of thought.
- reflections-indigenous-science-symposium-sydney-2016

why do I need maths?

  1. Mathematics teaches you to admit when you're wrong
  2. To choose exact and correct words
  3. To think several steps ahead
  4. Not like everyone else but in your own way
  5. And never give up
more detail

Saturday, October 22, 2016

the black memory hole

Henry Reynolds has estimated that aborigines killed somewhere between 2000 and 2500 Europeans in the course of the European invasion and settlement of Australia.

He further estimated that at least 20,000 aborigines were killed as a direct result of conflict with the settlers. If anything, the latter estimate errs on the side of caution.

Henry Reynolds claims that he was the first person who tried to quantify the aboriginal death toll. His estimates were first published in The Other Side of the Frontier in 1981 (amazon, review by Humphrey McQueen)

Why are we never told these figures? Why isn't it part of the school curriculum? Our memory of these events has disappeared down a black hole.

Many Australians don't want to look at the dark side of our history. A veil is drawn.

But if these bodies had been white then our history would be full of their story, monuments would be everywhere to celebrate their sacrifice. As we do on Anzac Day.

Henry Reynolds goes onto to document figures that reveal that in the north of Australia twice as many blacks were killed in a 70 year period (1861 to 1930s) as whites (Europeans) were killed in the five wars between the Boer War and Vietnam war, a different 70 year period.

Don't these figures reveal that the black wars were the most significant in Australian history?

Reference: Why Weren't We Told? by Henry Reynolds (1999), pp. 113-116

Thursday, October 20, 2016

percentage and Yolngu: a life and death issue

Yolngu health (Arnhem Land)
From Richard Trudgen, who is acting as an interpreter between David, a Yolngu who appears to understand and speak good English and his doctor, who has been trying without success for 13 years to get David to change his diet.
I asked the doctor to explain diabetes and especially the kidney failure side of things. He said that only two per cent of David kidneys were operating. I had to stop him again and explain what two percent meant because percentage is a concept Yolngu just do not understand. So I drew a kidney shape on a piece of paper and shaded in about two percent. 'That's how much is still working', I told David. 'The rest is, like, "dead".' (99) ...

As mentioned previously, percentage is a concept that Yolngu have great trouble with. As a cultural group they just do not understand it. Even people with seemingly good Western education standards have problems with it.

To use percentage as a quantitative measurement and expect to convey an accurate concept to Yolngu is very dangerous as far as their health is concerned. It was equivalent to saying to David, 'You have only two wup-wups of kidney working.' It gave him no picture at all but simply added to his confusion. David would not even have realised that percentage is a measurement of quantity. The concept is just not understood, so it is very difficult for a patient to frame and ask questions about it.(109)
Reference: Trudgen, Richard. Why Warriors Lie Down and Die (2000)

Trudgen's broader view is that communication between Yolngu and Balanda (whites) breaks down in three related areas (1) Language (2) World view (3) Culture. In this particular case study he documents 8 world view problems and 2 language problems which all contributed to David declining to change his diet (smoking, eating salt and sugar). So, this information about Yolngu not understanding percentage has to be situated in a far broader context. By drawing a diagram of the kidney and shading in 2 parts out of 100 of that diagram, you could say that Trudgen did explain percentage to David, without using the word percentage. Nevertheless, we are still a long way from the concept being internalised and understood fluently.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Can Words Like Belief, Desire, Hope, Fear Be Scientific?

Review and thoughts triggered by “Skinner Skinned” by Daniel Dennett (1978)

Many hate Skinner because his behaviourism implies that people are not free, dignified, morally responsible agents. He does this by reducing all behaviour to probabilities based on past regimes of stimulus and response. Since our responses are conditioned by forces outside of our control when young then our responses in later life are automatic, unconscious, not free.

Nevertheless, Skinner's was driven by the admirable goal of explaining behaviour scientifically. So, when we evaluate Skinner we also evaluate our attitudes to science and the role of scientific world view in our whole life. If we reject Skinner then there is an accompanying danger of rejecting a scientific world view, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Alternatively, a better pathway would be to develop a more robust and broader view of what it means to be scientific. This is what Daniel Dennett is attempting here.

This preamble serves to highlight the importance of accurately identifying the real mistakes of Skinner. In the past I was satisfied with Chomsky's critique. I now feel that Chomsky's critique is inadequate and leads people to irrationally reject all of behaviourism.

Skinner's enemy is mentalism, that talking about people's behaviour using terms such as beliefs, desires, ideas, hopes, fears, feelings, emotions is not allowed because it is not scientific.

Dennett, however, sees a positive role for these mentalist idioms in explaining behaviour / psychology / mind. So this essay, while acknowledging there is some point to Skinner's objections to mentalism, is about clarifying where mentalism is useful and where it stops being useful and becomes unscientific.

Skinner gives many reasons for disqualifying mentalism:
  1. mental things must be made of non physical stuff (dualism objection)
  2. the mental is private (whereas behaviour is public and objectively measurable)
  3. mentalism appeals to events that can only be inferred
  4. mental events are internal
Chomsky takes (3) as Skinner's prime objection against mentalist psychology but Dennett points out that Skinner is not against inference as such in other passages in his writing. Chomsky Reference: “The Case Against B.F. Skinner”, New York Review of Books (Dec 30, 1971)

However, Dennett points out, through a close reading of Skinner's “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, that although Skinner uses these arguments occasionally he also qualifies them and contradicts them. So, there must be something else to Skinner's objection to mentalism.

The something else is the virtus dormitiva, the dormitive virtue, defining an effect as its own cause. From Moliere's Le Malade Imaginaire, The Imaginary Invalid. What is it in opium that puts people to sleep? Why, it is its sleep producing powers of course!

The key argument of Skinner's objection to mentalism is a little man in the machine, a homunculus.
“The function of the inner man is to provide an explanation which will not be explained in turn” (quoted from Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 14)
We must abolish “the autonomous man – the inner man, the homunculus, the possessing demon, the man defended by the literature of freedom and dignity” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, p. 200)

Dennett is exasperated by Skinner's array of different objections to the little man in the brain: moral agent = little man in the brain = demons. Skinner then sees superstition behind any and every claim of moral responsibility. “Mental” means “internal” means “inferred” means “unobservable” means “private” means “virtus dormitiva” means “demons” means “superstition”.

Nevertheless, Skinner has a point even though he exaggerates his case. There is a real danger in presupposing intelligence when we try to explain intelligence.

When you use a certain vocabulary ( the mentalist words which refer to beliefs, desires, ideas, hopes, fears, feelings, emotions) then does that presuppose intelligence or rationality?

Yes it does. Dennett agrees with Skinner here.

These mentalist terms are called intentional idioms by philosophers.

Quine also is opposed to intentional idioms in psychology. But his objection is different to Skinners. He does not argue that intentional idioms presuppose rationality or offer no explanation. His argument is that we can't translate sentences containing intentional idioms into sentences lacking them, they can't be reduced to the sentences of the physical sciences.

Quine Reference. Word and Object, #45 The Double Standard, pp. 198-203

The issue becomes more complicated because Skinner, unlike Quine, believes, at least in some of his writings, that intentional idioms can be translated into the language of physical science. Dennett argues that Skinner is inconsistent (“sloppy”) in his arguments on this point. More on this later.

Dennett's advice is that we can agree with Skinner that no satisfactory psychological theory can rest on any use of intentional idioms, for their use presupposes rationality, which is what psychology is supposed to explain.

However, Dennett advises us to disagree with Skinner when he takes the further step that intentional idioms therefore have no legitimate place in psychological theory at all.

Dennett argues that we can use intentional idioms as a starting point of explanation provided we are aware of the dangers (of virtus dormitiva, defining an effect as its own cause or the little man in the machine). It is ok to speculate first and explain later in more scientific language.

Returning to Skinner's allegedly sloppy arguments / inconsistency about intentional idioms. Dennett demonstrates through quotations from Skinner that sometimes he eschews intentional language such as “beliefs” and instead argues in terms of changing probabilities. But at other times Skinner argues that intentional words such as belief can be translated into behaviourist (“scientific” in Skinner's view) terminology. But, on balance, Skinner concludes that “scientific', which for him means behaviourist or probabilistic explanations can't co-exist with intentional explanations which cite beliefs, desires etc.

The reason many don't like or hate Skinner is that he wants to take away our personal moral sense, that we, as individuals, possess freedom, responsibility and dignity. By reducing all behaviour to probabilities based on past regimes of stimulus and response this is what Skinner ends up doing.

In contrast, Dennett argues that intentional idioms and scientific language, include stimulus response language, can co-exist in our thinking and description of psychology. Specifically, Dennett is saying that intentional idioms, expressions of belief, desire etc. can be reduced or translated into other more scientific terms, as a consequence of study, research, theorising etc.

Dennett's claim here, as mentioned in this essay is disputed by Quine, who says translation from the intentional to the scientific is not possible. It is also disputed, I believe, by Hilary Putnam, although I need to study more of Putnam before I could accurately state his position.

In the rest of the essay Dennett provides some examples of situations where intentional explanations can co-exist with more reductive scientific explanations. One of Dennett's favourites is the chess playing computer. … “... we know that there is a purely mechanistic explanation of the chess playing computer, and yet it is not false to say that the computer figures out or recognises the best move, or that it concludes that its opponent cannot make a certain move, any more than it is false to say that a computer adds or multiplies.” (p. 64)

This and other examples provided by Dennett (such as someone handing over their wallet when threatened) demonstrate that the only type of explanation allowed by Skinner of always having to provide back to basics, stimulus-response probabilistic reasons is taking a good idea and stretching it too far.

This issue of the limits and usefulness of intentional idioms is one I need to study more. As noted above Quine and Putnam put a more sophisticated argument against than Skinner.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

indigenous maths mentoring program

I would like to assist the indigenous helpers who want to become teachers to grasp maths, along with the more general day to day teaching of taking the students down that path as well. The idea of helping to train the indigenous helpers is particularly appealing, in terms of me feeling that I would be helping “make a difference”.

Further reflection leads me to think there are 4 possible maths pathways:
  1. DI / EMM / JUMP. Direct Instruction (Zig Engelmann) / Elementary Maths Mastery (Rhonda Farkota) / Junior Undiscovered Math Prodigies (John Mighton). I am already using parts (modified) of the EMM approach
  2. Indigenous culture. Maths that links to elements of indigenous culture. There is a significant literature about this, eg. the work of Dr Chris Matthews, Dr Alan Bishop, Dr Bronwyn Ewing for starters, but I have yet to trial it.
  3. Computer microworld. Teaching maths through multimedia / computer coding using the Scratch software, the most recent incarnation of Logo. I have a very strong background in this method.
  4. Home grown. Quite often because I feel the textbooks are inadequate I develop my own maths activities to better fit where the class is at. eg. Pythagoras activity requiring the construction of different triangles and modified milk carton volume activity were promising.
Two way street post mortem conversation. A lesson plan is formulated by the teacher / researcher to achieve a learning goal for a class using one or a combination of the above methods. The lesson is taught, with an indigenous helper usually present. Afterwards, a post mortem conversation is held to evaluate effectiveness and possible improvements. This iteration is repeated many times. A mutual exchange of skills and cultural knowledge will take place during this conversation. As the learning process develops the indigenous helper can be invited to trial their own experimental lessons. Both sides of the equation should keep learning journals reflecting on what they have learned and their ideas for the future.

More details at IMMP, including a reference list.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

books I've been reading in 2016

This turns out to be a mixture of indigenous issues, philosophical thinking, Australian history, science, maths instruction and other oddities.

Bennett, Ronan. Zugzwang (2007)
Blanchard, Ken. The One Minute Manager Meets the Monkey (1990)
Brooks, Geraldine. Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague (2001)
Canada, Geoffrey. Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence (1995)
Cohen-Solal. Sartre: A Life (2005)
Dawes, Glenn; Northfield, Peter; Wallace, Ken. Astronomy 2016 Australia: Your Guide to the Night Sky (2015)
Dixon, Robert. Words of our Country: Yidiny – The Aboriginal Language of the Cairns – Yarrabah Region (2015)
Farkota, Rhonda. Elementary Maths Mastery (2000)
FitzSimons Peter. Batavia (2011)
Gaita, Raimond. Romulus, My Father (1998)
Gaita, Raimond. The Philosopher's Dog: Friendships with Animals (2002)
Goodwin, Doris Kearns. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005)
Hooper, Chloe. The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (2009)
Hooper, Judith. Of Moths and Men: Intrigue, Tragedy and the Peppered Moth (2002)
Jarrett, Stephanie. Liberating Aboriginal People from Violence (2013)
Jordan, Mary Ellen. Balanda: My Year in Arnhem Land (2005)
Kehlmann, Daniel. Measuring the World (2007)
Langton, Marcia. Well, I Heard It on the Radio and I Saw It on the Television… (1993)
Le Guin, Ursula. The Lathe of Heaven (1971)
McIntosh, Dennis. The Tunnel (2014)
McIntosh, Dennis. Volume One, Creative Work: Tunnelling (PhD thesis, 2013)
Michaels, Walter Benn. The Trouble with Diversity: How we Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (2006)
Mighton, John. Nurturing Mathematical Talent in Every Child (2003)
Monteath, Peter and Munt, Valerie. Red Professor: The Cold War Life of Fred Rose (2015)
Nakata, Martin. Disciplining the Savages, Savaging the Disciplines (2007)
Nussbaum, Martha. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001)
Osborne, Barry, and Osborne, Elizabeth (2013) A Serious Dialogue with Noel Pearson's Radical Hope: education and equality in Australia.
Pascoe, Bruce. Dark Emu Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident? (2014)
Pearson, Noel. Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (2012). Get the version which has replies to the author and the authors replies to those replies, better than the original Quarterly Essay version.
Petraitis, Vicky. The Dog Squad (2015)
Porter, Liz. Written on the Skin: An Australian Forensic Casebook (2007)
Porter, Liz. Unnatural Order (1995)
Reynolds, Henry. Why Weren't We Told? (1999)
Reynolds, Henry. North of Capricorn: The Untold Story of the People of Australia's North (2003)
Sutton, Peter. The Politics of Suffering: Indigenous Australia and the end of the liberal consensus (2009)
Trudgen, Richard. Why Warriors Lie Down and Die (2000)
Yunkaporta, Tyson. Aboriginal Pedagogies at the Cultural Interface (2009)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Some books I read in 2015

I've been too busy to blog because of my new job. However, after 6 months, the pressure is beginning to lift a little and so I might be able to manage a blog or two.

I want to list the books I read (or reread) last year (2015) since good books play such an important part in my life and consciousness. This acts as a reminder of some of the places my mind has visited not so long ago, as a wandering wonderer.

Berlin, Isiah. Freedom and its Betrayal: Six Enemies of Human Liberty (2002)
Berlin, Isiah. The Roots of Romanticism (1999)
Berman, Marshall. Everything Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982)
Berman, Marshall. The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society (1970)
Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained (1991)
Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx was Right (2011)
Greenwald, Glen. No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State (2015)
Harris, Sam. Free Will (2012)
Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution (1972)
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011)
Hofstadter, Douglas. I am a Strange Loop (2007)
Murdoch, Iris. Existentialists and Mystics: Writings on Philosophy and Literature (1997)
Murray, Patrick. Marx's Theory of Scientific Knowledge (1998)
Ollman, Bertell. Alienation: Marx's Conception of Man in Capitalist Society (1971)
Ollman, Bertell. Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method (2003)
Putnam, Hilary. Philosophy in an Age of Science: Physics, Mathematics and Skepticism (2012)
Strong, Anna Louise. The Stalin Era (1957)
Wills, Vanessa. Marx and Morality (2011)
Yalom, Irvin. Love’s Executioner (1968)

Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
Le Guin, Ursula. The Dispossessed. (1974)
Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (1995)
Sobel, Dava. A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos (2011)
Sobel, Dava. Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (1999)
Yalom, Irvin. The Schopenhauer Cure (2005)
Yalom, Irvin. The Spinoza Problem (2012)

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

No Viet Cong called me Nigger

or didn't rape or kill my mother and father ... I don't want to shoot them (Muhammad Ali)

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

A misplaced concrete perspective of value

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
5) The social form perspective of value
6) The equivalent form and the evolution of value into money
7) A misplaced concrete perspective of value
8) Fetishism and alienation
9) Metamorphosis of Value

In a previous section, the commodity perspective on value, I said:
Value is measured by the quantity of human labour added to the commodity. If productivity increases due to improved technology then the value or cost of the product should decline proportionately. eg. Power looms in England in Marx's time doubled productivity and so the cost of cloth produced by yarn should have halved.

Marx talks about materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour adding value to a commodity.
From this presentation strategy by Marx in the first part of Capital Chapter one it can too easily and incorrectly be interpreted that Value is defined as embedded abstract human labour and that the whole point of value theory is mathematical quantification.

Nevertheless, there are qualifiers that ought to warn us that the above interpretation is far too tidy:
  • if a thing is made with labour but useless then it has no value, the labour does not count
  • a thing can be a use value without having value (eg. air, virgin soil)
  • private labour creates use values but not commodities
  • value is only real if the product goes to market and is sold. That is what distinguishes a commodity from a product.
In Diane Elson's words there is a misplaced concreteness in the way that many interpret Marx.

Embedded or congealed labour time as value is not helpful, it makes it sound as though it is like a physical property

Elson argues that since Marx uses metaphors that are chemical and biological (crystallisation, incarnation, embodiment, metabolism, metamorphosis) and not mathematical that he is trying to convey the idea that value represents a change of form (eg. use value created by concrete labour changes form into exchange value represented by abstract, social labour) rather than something that can be calculated precisely in a logical / mathematical sense. One stream of thought since Marx has tried to pin down value as a precise magnitude or has emphasised the quantitative aspect (embedded or congealed labour) rather then the qualitative aspect, that value changes its form continually through the whole process of capitalist production and circulation.

There is a natural human tendency to settle on a tidy, neat, tangible definition of value. Unfortunately, this doesn't work. Value is an essential concept to understand the inner workings of capitalism but also a complex concept.

Why is value complicated? It is a deeply embedded although historically contingent, multifaceted (it has a form, a substance and a magnitude) social concept. Moreover, it takes on the much desired (lusted after) physical form of money. Hence it possesses both very real and phantom like (historically contingent) properties.

Reference and Further Reading:
Elson, Diane. The Value Theory of Labour. In: Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism. Verso (September 1, 2015)

the equivalent form and the evolution of value into money

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
5) The social form perspective of value
6) The equivalent form and the evolution of value into money
7) (to be continued)

Equivalent form           Relative form

one 32GB USB stick = 12 packets of Dilmah tea, or,
one 32GB USB stick is worth 12 packets of Dilmah tea

one 32GB USB stick = 20 litres of Pura full cream milk, or,
one 32GB USB stick is worth 20 litres of Pura full cream milk

On the right hand side it's called the relative form because the value of USB sticks can only be expressed relatively by comparing it with some other commodity. On the LHS it's called the equivalent form. Only the value is equivalent, nothing else.

A whole series of equivalence relationships like the above can be written. But what is the underlying rationale behind comparing unlike things in the above “equations”? USB sticks, tea and milk have few or no natural or physical properties in common. Initially Aristotle had pointed out the difficulty or impossibility of comparing things with unlike properties. Normally, the properties of things are not the result of its relations with other things!

The ability to compare comes about (evolves) through a social process of millions of commodity exchanges. The above equations can be reversed and updated to include money.

12 packets of Dilmah tea = $60 (5*12)
20 litres of Pura full cream milk = $60 (3*20)
one 32GB USB stick = $60

Marx argues that money (he refers to gold or silver as money) evolves from the commodity. Money eventually evolves as a universal equivalent. Gold has the ideal properties required for money (divisibility, durability etc.)

Hence Value arises through the social process of commodity exchange. Its origin and evolution is through this social process and has nothing to do with any identifiable physical or material properties of commodities. Although value eventually takes a physical form in the shape of money its origin is social.
“No scientist to date has yet discovered what natural qualities make definite proportions of snuff, tobacco and paintings 'equivalents' of one another”
- Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Ch. 20, p. 130
In time the social forms become more than the expression but the bearers, the motivators, the dominant consideration in the decisions people make in their lives. This is fairly obvious, in the case of money, for instance.

Note that the above equations are not a real equations!! It is useful to also look at the equation as ABSURD! One 32GB USB stick does not equal 12 lots of Dilmah tea. USB sticks and Dilmah tea have nothing in common!

We are now so used to money exchange of equivalents that it is an effort to see this inequality. But the natural properties of USB sticks and tea are different, they are not equal! Value is not a natural but a social attribute of the exchange of products, at which point we can call them commodities.

Seeing the equations as absurd helps us to understand that Value and money are social constructs. There is a quote from the 1st German edition of Capital (inexplicably chopped out of subsequent editions) which highlights the absurdity.
“... is as if alongside and external to lions, tigers, rabbits and all other actual animals, which form grouped together the various kinds, species, subspecies, families etc. of the animal kingdom, there existed also in addition the animal, the individual incarnation of the entire animal kingdom”
Money is real enough. But at the same time as being real it is an absurd social construct.

evolution of value into money

How does abstract labour become objectified as a value of a commodity?
  • one commodity becomes the bearer of value or value form
  • the bearer of value called the equivalent form by Marx
  • it must be directly exchangeable, it does not depend on its own use value
  • in this sense it must differ from all other commodities
  • the nature of equivalence is social
  • this social position arises from the joint contribution of the whole world of commodities
  • exchangeability remains embryonic until the equivalent is a universal equivalent
  • this further evolves into a unique universal equivalent
  • empirical check: such a commodity exists – gold money
  • gold money as universal equivalent is a necessary prerequisite to paper money
  • money crystallises out of the process of exchange
“A social relation of production appears as something existing apart from individual human beings, and the distinctive relations into which they enter in the course of production in society appear as the specific properties of a thing – it is this perverted appearance, this prosaically real, and by no means imaginary, mystification that is characteristic of all social forms of labour positing exchange value. This perverted appearance manifests itself merely in a more striking manner in money than it does in commodities”
- Contribution, p. 49

Monday, February 29, 2016

The social form perspective of value

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
5) The social form perspective of value
6) The equivalent form and the evolution of value into money
7) (to be continued)

What is a social form?

Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know

I thought I had understood capitalism, that the bosses owned the means of production and the workers had no option but to sell their labour to the boss. There were rich people, poor people and class struggle.

But I didn't know about Value as a social form and so my real understanding of capitalism was deficient.

Despite my involvement in radical anti-imperialist / communist politics going back to the late 1960s I totally missed that a variety of social forms (formations) that we swim in daily have evolved and materialised from non material things, namely social relations. For example, some people worship money and virtually everyone can't help but adopt a strong interest in money, since it is essential to both survival and a good life. But most people haven't thought through that money originates in a social relation, that is, the need to standardise commodity exchange.

Such social forms are historically contingent, not an inevitable aspects of society. In the late 60s I had looked below the surface of capitalism and understood some of its workings but had missed that there was a lot more happening down there than I had imagined. Sadly, I now realise, my ignorance was and is shared by most other 60s radicals. This ignorance originated in a failure to understand Marx's most important work, “Capital”.

social forms

Social forms are things that emerge (materialise) as social artefacts as society evolves. Their origin is social not material. They become part of that society and are often perceived as part of the air we breathe. But it is social function that has brought them about and not the form which has created the social function. They don’t have any necessary permanence beyond that. Social forms in capitalist society include things of major importance such as value, abstract labour, money, capital, the commodity, commodity exchange, the market, rent and interest. These things emerge from a social process and are not set in stone for all time.

What Marx meant by Value as a social form was the capacity of a commodity to be exchanged as an equal. In terms of social or class consciousness some people have a strong sense of boss – worker relations as a social construct, something that can change, but usually do not have the same sense that Value has arisen socially and will not be around forever. You can imagine a society (socialism, communism) where things are produced for people's needs or wants, that people will receive food, medicine and white goods irrespective of their financial status. In such a society Value as a measure of commodities to be exchanged would whither away.

The social form of value

Commodities have a physical, bodily form (use values) and a value form (a social form). Value does not contain a single atom of matter. Value is a social reality. It comes into being through the social exchange of equivalents. Value hides behind exchange value, what we perceive on the surface.

After establishing that value is materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour Marx then starts to discuss the social form of value. By this he means that value is not a natural property of a commodity but arises socially due to the exchange of one commodity for another.

He doesn't emphasise that he is throwing a hand grenade into what he has previously established. Congealed, abstract labour has a concrete, measurable, cut and dried feel to it as a “definition” of value. He now introduces the idea that value is also social, that it exists in the space between the exchange of commodities, that it doesn't belong to a commodity but in the relationship of one commodity to another. This undermines the concrete feel of value.

This was confusing. How could value be BOTH a fluid social thing and a definite, even measurable, concrete thing at the same time?

I think I was vaguely aware that my thinking was being too literal, too linear and this intellectual demand that I hold two contradictory aspects in continual tension in my mind at the same time did require a different way of thinking. This is the Marxist way, his dialectical legacy from Hegel.

Note, however: In nature, the transformation of energy from one form to another (when a stone falls to the ground gravitational potential becomes kinetic energy becomes sound energy etc.) while at the same time the amounts of energy involved can be precisely measured. So the concept of change of form accompanying quantitative measurement, even precise measurement, is not a conceptual game changer in this case. But, of course, in the case of value, the origin of the form is social not natural and that adds another level of conceptual difficulty.

Rubin's definition of value

My confusion about value led me to search for a more complete definition. I thought I had found this in Isaak Rubin's writings and this felt like another AHA moment
“Marx analyses value in terms of its form, substance and magnitude. “The decisive, crucial point consists of revealing the necessary internal connection between the form, substance and magnitude of value” (Capital Volume one, first edition). The connection between these three aspects was hidden from the eyes of the analyst because Marx analysed them separately from each other. In the first German edition of Capital, Marx pointed out several times that the subject was the analysis of various aspects of one and the same object: value. “Now we know the substance of value. It is labour. We know the measure of its magnitude. It is labour time. What still remains is its form, which transforms value into exchange-value.” … In the second edition of Volume one of Capital these sentences were excluded, but the first chapter is divided into sections with separate headings: the heading of the first section say, “Substance of Value and Magnitude of Value”; the third section is titled: “Form of Value or Exchange-value.” As for the second section, which is devoted to the two fold character of labour, it is only a supplement to the first section, ie. To the theory of the substance of value”
- Ch 12, Content and Form of Value p. 112, in Essays on Marx's Theory of Value by Isaak Rubin
So, according to Rubin, the value of a commodity is:
  • a social form or social relation (the capacity for a commodity to be exchanged as an equal)
  • AND a substance or content which is embedded abstract, social labour
  • AND a magnitude (labour time)
Value is BOTH a dynamic social relation and embedded abstract labour. To see only the embedded labour part is to not understand value in motion. Embedded labour implies a static notion of value. But abstract labour and labour time are derived from a social process involving both the production and circulation of commodities. If there is a glut of commodities that are not sold they contain no value, the “embedded labour” counts for nothing.

Socially necessary labour time perspective on value

At some stage I became aware that David Harvey (in his online lectures) was explaining value with the phrase (from Marx) socially necessary labour time.

This is shorthand but, in a way, reasonable shorthand since it contains both the quantitative aspect (labour time) and the social qualitative aspect (socially necessary) in the one expression.

Socially necessary is when you think about it unpredictable. Who can say in advance how much labour is socially necessary? We don't know in advance whether the products will sell (if they don't their labour doesn't count) or whether new technology will be introduced which will reduce the necessary labour time or whether workers will agitate for a wage increase, etc.


Marx, Karl
- Chapter 1.3 The Form of Value or Exchange-value of Capital Vol 1
- Ch. 1 as per First German Edition
- The Value Form. Appendix to the 1st German edition of Capital, Volume 1, 1867

Rubin, Isaak. Essays on Marx's Theory of Value

Friday, February 26, 2016

The labour process and different categories of labour

Index for a series of articles about Value
1) Marx and the domains of ignorance
2) Unpacking the value suitcase
3) The commodity perspective on value
4) The labour process and different categories of labour
(to be continued)

Marx loves labour, as human essence, but hates the restriction or confinement or degradation of human labour under capitalism.

In my words from an earlier article about Marx's moral theory:
“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”
Or in Marx's words:
“Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that state in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We pre-suppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi, and to which he must subordinate his will. And this subordination is no mere momentary act. Besides the exertion of the bodily organs, the process demands that, during the whole operation, the workman’s will be steadily in consonance with his purpose. This means close attention. The less he is attracted by the nature of the work, and the mode in which it is carried on, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as something which gives play to his bodily and mental powers, the more close his attention is forced to be.”
- Capital, vol 1, Ch 7
Labour is fluidity which in any society has to be socially 'fixed' or objectified in the production of particular goods. Human labour, unlike animals instinct, is indeterminate. With industrialisation the fluidity of labour is more apparent – jobs are not completely determined by tradition, religion, family ties etc. - individuals do frequently change jobs, etc.

How is human labour determined? Under capitalism there is individual choice within social limits. This evolves out of the life of definite individuals

Marx's Capital is an attempt to describe the conceptualisation of this social determination, from the indeterminate to the determinant, from the potential to the actual, from the formless to the formed.

Marx says (agreeing in this respect with his predecessors Adam Smith and David Ricardo – but in conflict with the marginal economists who came after Marx) that since use values can be exchanged as equivalents there must be a common denominator. Remember, when we talk of commodity exchange, we are dealing with the capitalist system here and not something set in place for all of time. This common denominator is materialized or crystallized or embedded or congealed or abstract human labour. However, note that these adjectives may give the wrong impression that labour enters a commodity as a physical property of the commodity. This is not a good way to look at it. Commodities exchange as equivalents in the marketplace, this is a social process, not a property of an individual commodity that can be be measured like the taste of tea or the amount of memory on a USB stick.

Labour has both a qualitative aspect and a quantitative aspect. With respect to use value the labour is qualitative (How and What). With respect to value the labour is quantitative (How much? How long a time?)

As capitalism develops labour saving technology also develops, which increases the productivity of labour. An increase in productivity leads to an increase in use values which means an increase in the total wealth of society. But an increase in productivity does not alter the value of labour, since that depends on how much and how long. As industry becomes more high tech and more productive the same amount of labour produces more. The ratio, c/v, between constant capital (c), which includes machinery, and variable capital (wages) increases. The dead labour incorporated in machines comes to predominate over living labour. Marx called this ratio, c/v, the organic composition of capital.

Put simply, the reason a 32GB USB stick cost $60 in 2010 but reduced to $16 by 2015 is that the amount of human labour required to make it is declining due mainly to progressive technological improvements. Despite all the objections to Marx's labour theory this much is fairly obvious.

Under capitalism labour power is just another commodity which is sold in the marketplace. Like other commodities it has a use value and an exchange-value. Use value is represented by the particular skills of the labourer, for example, computer programmer or school teacher. This is categorised by Marx as concrete and / or individual labour. Exchange value is reflected in the fact that all workers sells themselves in the labour market, their value works itself out as part of a social process. This aspect is categorised by Marx as abstract and / or social labour.

Under capitalism the historical tendency is for labour, including skilled labour, to become more general or universal. Capitalism needs technically skilled workers who are delivered through education but capitalism does not like irreplaceable or indispensable workers. Hence, all teachers, for example, are expected to know basic computer applications but creative computing is not encouraged, for most, since such teachers are difficult to replace. So the skilling of workers is at the same time accompanied by an opposing tendency of dumbing down or leveling of those skills. The abstract and social labour categories are not only abstractions arrived at through analysis but also a historical tendency (Harvey quoting Desai, p. 60 FN 16, “the category of abstract, undifferentiated labour is not an abstraction but a historical tendency”)

Capitalism levels labour. Work becomes impersonal. Shopping becomes self expression. These generalisations are a valid description of the direction capitalism takes us even though individual workers may find their jobs rewarding for now those jobs are continually being transformed into more mechanised forms of work. eg. Capitalism would love to replace teachers, who display some creativity, with computerised teaching machines. This process is beginning to happen through MOOCs and online courses (eg, the Salman Khan academy) but in general human to human teaching skills are incredibly complex and can't be emulated by computer interaction, yet.

The contradictions that Marx observes in human labour are between the labour which produces use values and the labour which produces exchange values.

In various places Marx uses the following terms to describe abstract labour which creates exchange values: simple, average, unskilled, homogenous, abstract, general, social (in the sense of producing social use values), universal.

My corresponding list of labour which creates use values is: useful, specific, skilled, heterogeneous, concrete, individual, social in a general sense (meaning sociable workers assisting each other and having some fun at work), creative.

The sense in which Marx uses the word social in creating exchange values needs to be explained and contrasted with the more general use of the word social, as in being sociable, on the second list in the creation of use values. See below.

There is only one labour process but it has these different aspects:

Individual or private labour

Individual or private labour means people working as individuals. Within capitalism individuals appear to have some choice as to their work. They may work in a group or on their own but their work has an individual or private aspect to it as well as a social – group like aspect.

Concrete labour

Concrete labour means that people can perform many different types of work, the diversity and qualitative differences in work. Some workers are engineers, some are teachers etc. In Marx's day he talked about tailors and weavers. Under capitalism there is a division of labour. This division of labour may take an extreme form (Taylorism in factories) or less extreme forms for skilled workers but our education system is geared to create specialists not polymaths.

Social labour

In section Chapter 1.4 of Capital on commodity fetishism Marx starts off by saying that there are things about the commodity that are non mysterious and other things that are mysterious

The non mysterious things are that use values are properties that satisfy human wants and that value is a product of human labour.

The mysterious things are that the social character of labour takes the form of social relations between products and that the social relations between men assume the form of a relation between things

social exchange between things”
By this Marx means that commodities appear as exchange-values, in a mutual relation with other commodities.

The problem here is the lack of clarity by Marx of his use of the word “social”. He is using social to refer to particular aspects that arise or flourish under capitalism and NOT social in the more general sense of any sort of social interaction.

I can discern two aspects of Marx's use of the word social. Value as a social form means that commodities are exchangeable on the market as equivalents. An exchange is a social interaction. Exchanges in the marketplace are a huge and important part of our lives. Products are transformed into the social form of a commodity, a product which is taken to the marketplace. The commodity becomes part of a complex social process, unlike products that are made by individuals for private use and which never enter the market.

The second aspect is that the labour that appears in exchange is also general labour or universal labour. Although the labour is performed by individuals it is irrelevant which individuals perform the labour. Universal labour time produces a universal product. Universal means any labourer, any product. It happens independent of individuals. Hence it is social. The universal is individual, the individual is universal. (Contribution, p. 32)

So social in this sense means both exchangeable and universal (interchangeable) . Universal means that labourers and products are interchangeable.

One way to understand the meaning of social labour is to see it as people working to produce social use values, irrespective of whether they work alone or in a social group, ie. people working to produce things not for their individual use but for the use of others.

Abstract labour

Abstract labour is the opposite of concrete in that different types of labour can still be compared. All work has something in common. This is not an assumption that all work is physiologically identical but that differences in work can be measured and quantified in some way. Abstract labour measures the quantity or duration of work. Abstract labour forms the substance of value

Although individual / social labour and concrete / abstract labour represent two pairs of dialectical opposites there are other helpful ways in which these aspects can be viewed. Individual labour and concrete labour both involve an element of subjective choice. Social labour and abstract labour both involve an element of detachment from the individual.

As capitalism progresses there is a historical process whereby capitalism levels and detaches labour from the individual. Abstract and social labour become dominant over their dialectical opposites of concrete and individual labour. Work becomes more impersonal and shopping becomes self expression. Labour becomes more like an interchangeable part. No one is indispensable. This is because the skilled artisan is anathema to capitalism. ( Harvey, p.59, “they must be subdued or eliminated by transformation of the labour process”) The domination of abstract labour signifies that “the process of production has mastery over man” (Marx,

Labour power, the capacity to labour, has the ability to create a surplus beyond the cost of its purchase by the capitalist. eg. The worker spends 6 hours a day working for himself (variable capital, v) and 2 hours a day working for the capitalist (surplus value, s). The rate of exploitation is s/v, in this case 2/6 or 33%.


Elson, Diane. The Value Theory of Labour. In Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism (Radical Thinkers). Verso (republished September 1, 2015)

Harvey, David. The Limits to Capital. Verso (2006), amazon

Marx, Karl.
- A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
- Capital Vol 1, Chapter 1 (1867)

Saturday, February 13, 2016

head injury

Recently, I decided to leave Melbourne and head north to work in indigenous schools.

My first choice was Northern Territory since there is now a whole swathe of remote schools there that have introduced the Zig Engelmann Direct Instruction approach, imported into Australia by Noel Pearson and first implemented in a handful of Cape York schools. I wrote a report about this method in 2012: Direct Instruction observations at Djarragun College

Fate and luck intervened. I was offered a great job at Djarragun College, near Cairns, and decided to accept.

In the meantime I had booked a flight to Adelaide and went ahead with it.

The unusual headaches started on Monday 1st February and although not severe they weren't going away. So eventually I visited a doctor and he suggested a CT scan.

This revealed a chronic subdural haematoma which requires an operation. The problem is that blood has leaked into the brain cavity which puts pressure on the brain. The surgeon drilled some small holes in my head and then I had to lie flat on my back for 48 hours to drain out the old (motor oil) blood. I'm an active person so lying flat for 48 hours was the hardest thing for me about the whole procedure. I had the operation at the Royal Adelaide on Monday 8th and was discharged on Thursday 11th.

I'm still going to Djarragun but my start has been delayed to March 7th

The surgeon and nurses at the Royal Adelaide were brilliant. I'm reminded that we have a great medical system in Australia for urgent cases, even though waiting times could be improved for non urgent cases. Many thanks for the support I've received from friends and family during my brief hospital stay.

The first pic shows me still smiling straight after the operation.

The two other pics show the stapled wounds on the day of my discharge.

Reference: Chronic subdural haematoma in the elderly

Some points from this article which relate to my situation:
  • Presenting features in my case: headaches, drowsiness
  • Risk factors cerebral atrophy in the elderly, increasing space between the brain and the skull by 6-11% of total intracranial space. This stretches and can rupture the bridging veins and they haemorrhage into the subdural space. A history of head injury is absent in 30-50% of cases
  • Complications - recurrence can occur within 4 days to 4 weeks but this appears to be associated with inadequate expansion of the brain back into the void where the dead blood was. My surgeon says in my case this is unlikely since my brain has moved back to where is should be. But I won't know for sure until my next CT scan on Thursday 25th February.
  • Update, March 2nd: I had the CT scan on the 29th February and received clearance to fly to Cairns by the neurosurgeons on Tuesday 1st March. My flight is on Thursday 3rd March.