Beyond Capital

Polemics, Critique and Analysis

Archive for September 2008

A cybernetician’s dilemma

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Norbert Wiener

from Norbert Wiener (1948/1961) Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts. pp.26-29

It has long been clear to me that the modern ultra-rapid computing machine was in principle an ideal central nervous system to an apparatus for automatic control; and that its input and output need not be in the form of numbers or diagrams but might very well be, respectively, the readings of artificial sense organs, such as photoelectric cells or thermometers, and the performance of motors or solenoids. With the aid of strain gauges or similar agencies to read the performance of these motor organs and to report, to “feed back,” to the central control system as an artificial kinesthetic sense, we are already in a position to construct artificial machines of almost any degree of elaborateness of performance. Long before Nagasaki and the public awareness of the atomic bomb, it had occurred to me that we were here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and for evil. The automatic factory and the assembly line without human agents are only so far ahead of us as is limited by our willingness to put such a degree of effort into their engineering as was spent, for example, in the development of the technique of radar in the Second World War.

I have said that this new development has unbounded possibilities for good and for evil. For one thing, it makes the metaphorical dominance of the machines, as imagined by Samuel Butler, a most immediate and non-metaphorical problem. It gives the human race a new and most effective collection of mechanical slaves to perform its labor. Such mechanical labor has most of the economic properties of slave labor, although, unlike slave labor, it does not involve the direct demoralizing effects of human cruelty. However, any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor. The key word of this statement is competition. It may very well be a good thing for humanity to have the machine remove from it the need of menial and disagreeable tasks, or it may not. I do not know. It cannot be good for these new potentialities to be assessed in the terms of the market, of the money they save; and it is precisely the terms of the open market, the “fifth freedom,” that have become the shibboleth of the sector of American opinion represented by the National Association of Manufacturers and the Saturday Evening Post. I say American opinion, for as an American, I know it best, but the hucksters recognize no national boundary.

Perhaps I may clarify the historical background of the present if I say that the first industrial revolution, the revolution of the “dark satanic mills,” was the devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain, at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone’s money to buy.

The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling. To arrive at this society, we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle, which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise – who knows? I thus felt it my duty to pass on my information and understanding of the position to those who have an active interest in the conditions and the future of labor, that is, to the labor unions. I did manage to make contact with one or two persons high up in the CIO, and from them I received a very intelligent and sympathetic hearing. Further than these individuals, neither I nor any of them was able to go. It was their opinion, as it had been my previous observation and information, both in the United States and in England, that the labor unions and the labor movement are in the hands of a highly limited personnel, thoroughly well trained in the specialized problems of shop stewardship and disputes concerning wages and conditions of work, and totally unprepared to enter into the larger political, technical, sociological, and economic questions which concern the very existence of labor. The reasons for this are easy enough to see: the labor union official generally comes from the exacting life of a workman into the exacting life of an administrator without any opportunity for a broader training; and for those who have this training, a union career is not generally inviting; nor, quite naturally, are the unions receptive to such people.

Those of us who have contributed to the new science of cybernetics thus stand in a moral position which is, to say the least, not very comfortable, We have contributed to the initiation of a new science which, as I have said, embraces, technical developments with great possibilities for good and for evil. We can only hand it over into the world that exists about us, and this is the world of Belsen and Hiroshima. We do not even have the choice of suppressing these new technical developments. They belong to the age, and the most any of us can do by suppression is to put the development of the subject into the hands of the most irresponsible and most venal of our engineers. The best we can do is to see that a large public understands the trend and the bearing of the present work, and to confine our personal efforts to those fields, such as physiology and psychology, most remote from war and exploitation, As we have seen, there are those who hope that the good of a better understanding of man and society which is offered by this new field of work may anticipate and outweigh the incidental contribution we are making to the concentration of power (which is always concentrated, by its very conditions of existence, in the hands of the most unscrupulous). I write in 1947, and I am compelled to say that it is a very slight hope.

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Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 22, 2008 at 5:11 am

“Admiring a flawed Gandhi”

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Salil Tripathi correctly finds irony in the ads in the Danish newspaper, Morgenavisen Jyllands Posten, showing “the Dalai Lama admiring the Himalayas while preparing to ski down a slope; Nelson Mandela relaxing on a beach, carrying a surf board; and Mohandas Gandhi, smiling with a beer bottle in one hand, with the other, he is barbecuing sausages, empty beer bottles at his feet”.

But Tripathi makes a false comparison of these ads with “controversial cartoons of Mohammed” published by the same newspaper. In former cases one can justify them as an attempt to “challenge the self-righteous among us”, as they seem to “challenge” the stereotypes, but in the latter the newspaper was clearly strengthening the rampant orientalist stereotype already present among its readership – biases against Islam in the West. It was this anti-immigrant right-wing conservative Danish newspaper’s contribution to the post-modern “crusades” of the west.

Tripathi himself uses his arguments essentially to preach liberal media consumerism especially to Muslims.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 18, 2008 at 11:51 am

Who’s who in the terror story

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1. Nazis put the Reichstag building on fire, and then blamed the communists. The purpose was simple – to create an anti-communist wave and legitimise fascistic measures.

2. So, “Why ignore Bajrang Dal [and others’] role in blasts?”

3, Within hours of the Delhi blasts, the police administration finds heroes among rag-pickers. They are supposed to get 50,000 Rs and be made honorary SPOs…

4. A 11-year old child labourer at the Barakhamba Road crossing in central Delhi – the heart of Delhi – saw two bomb dumpers and described them for the police.

5. For middle class elite paranoiacs in media, politics and societies – it is sufficient for them to hear the word “bomb”, and they easily visualise the image of “two bearded men in black kurta-pyjamas” planting bombs. It is obvious!

6. Next day, every TV news channel showed and glorified the “spirit of Delhi” as heroic since it was back to normal – people without livelihood security swarming through the streets…

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 18, 2008 at 6:26 am

Terrorism and anti-terrorism in India

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In India there has been a growing demand from political, media and business elites for stringent ANTI-TERROR legislation. In their pursuit to repress their own fear, they demand fear among the public so that the public doesn’t terrorise the masters. At opportune moments and places, to aid them (one can never tell whether there is conscious mutuality or not) we have ghastly incidences like yesterday’s in Delhi, or earlier this year’s in the BJP run states. Such incidences effectively create a required legitimation for such McCarthyite demands. You need to just watch the tv news channels with their distinguished guests and “ex”s from politics, police-military bureaucracy and new ‘security intellectuals’ who unabashedly demand repressive laws to control their own fear and create fear among the “faceless” “terrorists”.

Probably matters of coincidence – in the morning of the tragic day we read about “the UPA government speaking in different voices over the need for enacting tough anti-terror laws by the States”. The government’s National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan openly favours the Gujarat government’s proposal for a state law against “terrorism”. And there was a considerable coverage on the opposition party’s three-day conclave which was entitled “Terrorism to be the BJP’s major poll plank”. The party leader Rajnath Singh said that “only after Advani becomes Prime Minister will there be a decisive initiative”. And in the evening there are blasts throughout Delhi. What a day-case for anti-terrorism.

If you are conscious of the material organisation of newspapers and media reporting, you will find this pattern repeated daily.

—————-
US Supreme Court Justice Brandeis while disagreeing with the Court’s analysis in upholding a conviction for aiding the Communist Party in Whitney v. California (1927) (though concurring with the disposition of the case on technical grounds), made the most brilliant case possible within a liberal democratic framework against fascistic ideologico-legal regimentation:

Those who won our independence… knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed.

Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burned women.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 14, 2008 at 1:31 am

“Fear breeds repression”

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Meredith Fuchs, general counsel to the National Security Archive in the US, made a simple, but significant point: “The Rosenberg case illustrates the excesses that can occur when we’re afraid.”

“In the 1950s, we were afraid of communism; today, we’re afraid of terrorism. We don’t want to make the same mistakes we made 50 years ago.”

This is an important lesson for us too…

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 13, 2008 at 3:27 am

Muhammad Iqbal – his contradictions and greatness

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Marxist historian V.G. Kiernan’s introduction to his translation of Muhammad Iqbal’s poems echoes Lenin’s classic essay in defence of Tolstoy. It provides a perspective to Iqbal’s contradictions, which arguably make him the greatest intellectual of the twentienth century India (including Pakistan). To paraphrase Lenin, the contradictions in Iqbal’s views are indeed a mirror of the contradictory conditions of his time – on the one hand, “centuries of feudal oppression, [colonialism] and decades of [colonial] pauperisation piled up mountains of hate, resentment, and desperate determination”. Iqbal strives to sweep away all the old forms and ways that characterised the old order. But on the other hand, “striving towards new ways of life, had a very crude, patriarchal, semi-religious idea of what kind of life this should be”.

Iqbal’s writings are full of such Tolstoyan contradictions – or what Kiernan says, “Iqbal, as usual, put new wine into old bottles not always well suited to it”; he “had ended by being, in some ways, the prisoner of the ideas that had promised to liberate him. All his life as a poet he had been using the hard, distinct, unyielding thoughts of a bygone age as supports round which the softer tendrils growing out of the amorphous sensations of his own age could twine themselves and climb. Dante and Milton did the same”.

Iqbal’s contradictions and consistency make him great. But, what was consistent in him? He “hated injustice; his protest, first made in the name of India, continued in the name of Islam; in this form it was reinforced, rather than superseded, by a protest in the name of the common man, the disinherited of all lands”. This is very important to understand ideas underneath the pan-Islamic theological crust that he developed to shape them.

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 13, 2008 at 1:19 am

Capitalism and Caste

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Economist Nirvikar Singh in his latest column in Mint questions the exclusive focus on the rural-urban divide in policymaking. He points out at a more “pernicious” “social and economic divide” – which divides even the villages.

At the bottom of the heap are India’s Dalits, whose traditional social status is so low that they are outside and below the country’s complex caste hierarchy. Even when government spending reaches down into villages, the Dalits, living in segregated neighbourhoods, with the worst access to health and education facilities, may see little of the benefits.

However he finds that “Capitalism is beginning to break the caste system”. In fact, Dalits in India have more opportunities than African Americans in the US (the latter being permanently stigmatised due to their colour) because

Dalits in cities far from home have the opportunity to change their names and reshape their identities. This may be the first step in getting an education, participating in stronger social networks than their own, and eventually climbing the economic ladder.

So Sanskritization – cultural aping – is of course according to Singh an opportunity for Dalits!

Singh acknowledges that “capitalism is not a guaranteed destroyer of discrimination”, but he also stresses capitalism’s potentiality to neutralize caste. Once again he quotes Chandra Bhan Prasad that “Economic expansion is going to neutralize caste in 50 years. It will not end caste.” He concludes,

Maybe neutralizing caste is good enough: Caste can remain like the markers of national origin (Irish-, Italian-, or Indian-American)in the US, without being a basis for oppression

Singh is correct – capitalism does neutralize every difference to the extent that under this system based on generalised commodity production

Everything becomes saleable and buyable. The circulation becomes the great social retort into which everything is thrown, to come out again as a gold-crystal. Not even are the bones of saints, and still less are more delicate res sacrosanctae, extra commercium hominum [consecrated objects, beyond human commerce] able to withstand this alchemy. Just as every qualitative difference between commodities is extinguished in money, so money, on its side, like the radical leveller that it is, does away with all distinctions.

As Singh himself says, migration (“circulation” of human beings as “variable capital”), along with Sanskritization, will have “positive knock-on effect”. Definitely the qualitative difference is extinguished between castes, they are all equally levelled as labour inputs. Castes are increasingly reduced to “markers” as of a 100 dollar note, a 10 dollar note etc – they are all ultimately various quantities or denominations of the same currency, the dollar…

But then the difference between a 100 dollar note and a 10 dollar note does remain – these “markers” allow the system to locate you within itself according to your ‘worth’. The difference between the excluded and the included is ‘extinguished’ – everyone is ultimately included even if differentially.

Yes, Singh and Prasad are correct – the caste system will be perhaps finished as the hierarchy of status in “next 50 years”, as a new caste system has already emerged based on the competition between “markers” – as between Godrej, Lux, Rexona and Palmolives.

This is

in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham. Freedom, because both buyer and seller of a commodity, say of labour-power, are constrained only by their own free will. They contract as free agents, and the agreement they come to, is but the form in which they give legal expression to their common will. Equality, because each enters into relation with the other, as with a simple owner of commodities, and they exchange equivalent for equivalent. Property, because each disposes only of what is his own. And Bentham, because each looks only to himself. The only force that brings them together and puts them in relation with each other, is the selfishness, the gain and the private interests of each. Each looks to himself only, and no one troubles himself about the rest, and just because they do so, do they all, in accordance with the pre-established harmony of things, or under the auspices of an all-shrewd providence, work together to their mutual advantage, for the common weal and in the interest of all.

However, should we give Singh the benefit of doubt that as an economist he knows that these “markers” have vital roles to play in construction and dynamics of the labour market?

Written by Pratyush Chandra

September 8, 2008 at 12:58 pm

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