Saturday, March 17, 2018

A Culture fit for dodos

In yesterday's post, "Paul Kincaid on Iain M. Banks", we discussed Paul Kincaid's take on the Culture, Iain Banks's attempt to define a utopian civilisation. Kincaid argued that this attempt was a failure, that the covert unpleasantness of the Culture expressed contradictions within Iain Banks's own high-minded liberalism.

Paul Kincaid was absolutely right. Social liberalism, the celebration of Enlightenment values, is an edifice founded upon ungrounded abstractions: 'individualism', 'freedom from oppression', 'human rights'. While such slogans were and are undoubtedly intoxicating in the struggle against authoritarian (and in particular pre-capitalist) formations, they are dramatically disconnected both from the historical specificities of the capitalism they served to inaugurate and from the evolutionary-ecology of the human animal itself.

Can we do better?

Consider an ecosystem of multiple species, many in a predator-prey relationship. Let's be specific and consider the pigeon. Here's a species whose evolutionary-physicality exactly captures its ecological constraints. Its senses are acute because it needs to forage, to avoid predators and to mate. It enjoys tasty food and is disgusted by poisons because any inferior affect would lead to loss of fitness - it might die before reproducing and those suboptimal genes would fail to propagate.

The pigeon tells us that what it really wants is unbounded food, plenty of mating opportunities, a safe nest and no predators. Should we listen to it?

The end of utopia

Occasionally animals find themselves on islands with no natural predators and plenty of resources: a truly benign environment. No doubt they would consider that they had found utopia. Yet a Malthusian-powered evolutionary descent soon follows. Their descendants lose sensual acuity, mobility and intelligence - all energy-wasters in utopia. The end result (starting out as a pigeon) is the dodo.

At the level of the individual creature's wish-list, utopia does not end well.

If the species could speak to us collectively (!) then it would tell us a different story. It would ask for a testing, but not too-testing environment. One where there were problems that the truly competent animal could overcome, thereby proving themselves and securing fame, fortune and mates. There would, sadly, be unfortunate creatures with greater than average genetic load, creatures which would be culled by natural selection. But the species, in its descendant cohort, would maintain itself in pristine condition.

You see the problem. All of this applies to humans too at every level: genetic, phenotypic and psychological. No-one even wants the all-mod-cons beach holiday their whole life. But by our very smartness, our technological competence, our innovative economies, we're on track to remove all those threats which make life a challenge. We'll start by being bored .. and then devolve into complacent human dodos.

I don't think Iain Banks wanted that conclusion, but he didn't know how to avoid it either. And evasion is the enemy of great literature.


You say we'll correct mutational load by genetic engineering. But we end up with an 'enhanced' species-genotype uncorrelated with its undemanding ecology. Hard to see how such a mismatch leads to psychological tranquility: bored in paradise.

The dodo was never bored: it positively evolved to become complacent and easily-pleased.

It's worth reminding ourselves that all of our much-prized human attributes are an evolutionary response to the challenges of our previous environments. We value high intelligence, for example, because it enables us to manage our complex societies (the abstractions underlying science, technology, politics, processes, finance, ...) while human language was the key to adaptive social coordination and cohesion on those dangerous savannas.

If we simplify our interaction with our environment by off-loading complexities (as the Culture does with its AIs, its Minds) then there is no very good reason for us being more cognitively or physically capable than a mollusc.

Again I ask the shade of Iain Banks: what ecological problems in the desired-future are humans to be bioengineered to cope with?

Friday, March 16, 2018

Paul Kincaid on Iain M. Banks

Amazon link

I bought this on the strength of Abigail Nussbaum's positive review. There's a more detailed discussion by Russell Letson which contains this:
"Kincaid outlines how the Culture was devised as a delib­erate counter to earlier (particularly American) space-adventure conventions that Banks saw as militarist and imperialist and infected with “gran­diose superhero thinking that has no place in the communal, socialistic approach that Banks takes in his fiction.”

He also argues for a break in that group of books – that the Culture sequence was essentially finished before the last three books (Matter, Surface Detail, and The Hydrogen Sonata, 2008-2012) were written – that the project was complete and that the later books represent a kind of retreading of old ground.

The job of the first set of Culture novels would seem to be to deconstruct not only the political notions behind traditional space opera, but also notions of utopia – to push at the contradictions in the Culture’s own view of itself. Excession, for example,
'is about presenting the Culture with barriers it is reluctant to cross…. We begin to get a picture of the Culture as a deeply conservative society, too attached to its comforts and plenty to be easy with the idea of risk or change…. we see that it is far less a utopia, far less perfect, than it likes to present itself.'
Like the Culture itself, Banks’s thinking about attempts to square the circle of power, freedom, and ethical behavior in an imperfect world results in unresolved contradictions."

I've read all of Iain Banks's science-fiction (I abandoned Feersum Endjinn) but I do find the novels curiously unmemorable. Partially this is to do with their complex structure, the large cast of characters with indecipherable names, and detailed and baroque settings which can overwhelm the storyline. Sometimes it's hard to see the wood for the trees.

The first great service Paul Kincaid offers in this impressive piece of literary criticism is to confirm these complexities and to summarise the novels for the floundering reader. More than this, Kincaid dives deep into each book's thematic unconscious, distilling what he believes to be motivating the author.

He does a pretty good job. Kincaid sees Banks as eternally wrestling with his ideal society. If utopia is post-scarcity communism where oppression is definitionally absent, then how do people spend their time? If the Culture is about freedom, how does it deal with cultures which don't share the Culture's value system?

Perhaps in Banks's earliest formulations, these seemed distant and rather easy problems to solve. Yet the more he engaged, the more problematic the Culture became. In the end, utopia seems smug, boring, shallow, selfish, cowardly - even imperialistic.

Banks was a smart guy but he was also a proud bien-pensant liberal, a world-view which is curiously unreflective of the true roots of its value-system. In that spirit, Banks never quite resolved the contradictions at the heart of his own philosophy.

This is a mature, comprehensive and above all interesting take on all of Iain Banks's work and it's recommended.


NextA Culture fit for dodos

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A beta-level simulation

Amazon link

I'm just finishing "Elysium Fire" by Alastair Reynolds, his follow-up to "Aurora Rising: Previously published as The Prefect". It's a perfectly serviceable SF techno-thriller: the action moves along briskly enough.

I am most intrigued, though, by the concepts of alpha- and beta-level simulations.
"An alpha-level simulation was a digitised version of a scanned human mind, perfectly replicating its brain structure. It was fully capable of remembering past experiences, learning, adapting, and was fully self-aware.

Later technologies allowed individuals to survive the scanning process, leaving essentially two copies of the same person, one physical and one digital. ...


Beta-level simulations were sophisticated computer programs designed to mimic a person in appearance, mannerisms, and thought-patterns. While capable of successfully impersonating a human mind down to their most minute idiosyncrasies, they were not in fact self-aware -- they were just near-perfect imitations of life. As such, they enjoyed no legal rights or protections.

In Yellowstone society, and presumably other Demarchies, it was considered a most egregious social faux pas to allow someone to believe a beta-level simulation was in fact alpha-level."
A continuing theme is that after someone is murdered, they may well have had a shadowing beta-level simulation which the authorities then sequester for interrogation - a chance to interview the deceased victim, if you like. It's quite a shock when they're told they are dead.

The beta-levels generally don't know they're simulations and the hero, Inspector Dreyfus, is conflicted as to whether he should adopt the instrumental view ("I'm interviewing an expert system") or the intentional view ("I'm interviewing a digitalised person"). For the reader, this dilemma is never truly resolved.*

It does give me itchy fingers. I want to go back to my Lisp environment, to my 'Eliza' system and my automated theorem-prover. I'm sure I could knock up a fairly awesome beta-level myself, if we were talking, say, of a cat .. .


* I suppose a remote descendant of Replika will give us all beta-level simulations.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The biotech road to full automation

In my post "Advanced AI is indistinguishable from slavery" I wrote about the advantages biotechnology brings for a future post-capitalist society. Communist theory has traditionally counterposed central planning to the 'anarchy' of the market. But that often-criticised anarchy is actually rather biological, a kind of exploratory behaviour in which potential new needs are tested for sustainable effective demand.

By contrast, as János Kornai has pointed out at length, our experience of central planning has identified insuperable principal-agent problems together with a structural inability to properly engage with real human needs.


A global biosphere has existed on this planet for five hundred million years, exhibiting persistence and dynamic self-regulation in the absence of any intelligent oversight or central planning.

Biology is local while ecology is global.

Compare this with our global capitalist economy, the ongoing maintenance of which requires the mandatory coordination of human effort, intelligence and conscientiousness. It's because apart from human workers, other means of production are generally incredibly dumb. We work on metals, plastics, glass, oil, coal .. none of which do anything useful without the application of human labour mediated by clunky tools.

Peter Hamilton's vision of the Eden habitat (by Jim Burns)

Plants and animals, by contrast, are self-supporting nanotechnology of such stupefying sophistication and complexity that we can't even emulate the simplest possible animal (C. elegans). If we could bioengineer plants and animals to address our portfolio of needs (substituting for our present reliance on dumb stuff) the complexities and endless engagement of humans in running the economy could in large part be finally dispensed with.


Some people think that a linear extrapolation of AI and robotics on our current technology base will deliver full automation, but (a) we're a long way from embodied AGI robots, and (b) the global supply chains to build and maintain such artifacts of metal and plastic would be incredibly brittle .. not at all to be relied upon. They should be discretionary extras around a biotech core for future societies.


I imagine a rather sneering response: "Wait till an adversary comes up against you with high-bandwidth satellite comms, tanks, hypersonic missiles and nukes. See how far your genetically modified palm trees will take you then. Are you going to fight back with Game of Thrones-style dragons?"

So how would a super-sophisticated biotech-civilisation respond to such a threat? By using smart biology (including servitors) to build counter-artefacts. Nothing says that every element of a future biotech-civilisation must be fabricated from protoplasm: that's not even true in today's biosphere. Biotech just gives you a fantastic set of new options.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

A deniable assassination drone

It is claimed that America made more than 600 attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro, the communist leader of Cuba.

One can think of one or two contemporary leaders that the US administration might also wish to terminate but in addition to competence, the problem has always been that of deniability.

Dropping something lethal on the target from a great height is rarely a problem.

As the recent assault on Sergei Skripal in Salisbury indicates, covert administration of a lethal agent is not a problem if you have access; but wary leaders take precautions. The idea of 'slaughterbots' comes to mind, but these are high-tech. Inevitably some will crash and only partially burn - and then the adversary's weapons lab will point the finger.

The answer is to use a biological vector - an insect such as a wasp or bee comes to mind. Surely with American leadership in deep learning and artificial neural nets this must be a trivial engineering problem? But not so. Virtually nothing is known of how the insect brain controls the insect body, in terms of flight control, visual processing and goal attainment.


The simplest possible organism with a nervous system may be C. elegans.

"Nervous systems are complex, highly parallel information processing architectures made of seemingly imperfect and slow, yet highly adaptive and power-efficient components to carry out sophisticated information processing functions.

However, despite the rapidly growing body of knowledge on almost every aspect of neural function, currently no computational model or hardware emulation exists that is able to describe or even reproduce the complete behavioural repertoire of the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, an organism with one of the simplest known nervous systems.

This is particularly surprising because C. elegans, a soil-dwelling worm with a life span of a few days, 1 mm long and 80 µm in diameter, is one of the five best characterized organisms. It is multicellular and develops from a fertilized egg to an adult worm just as a human being does. Despite its small genome (~ 10 M base pairs), there is about 40% homology to the human genome (3.2 G base pairs).

The adult hermaphrodite is comprised of exactly 959 cells, including 95 muscle cells and 302 neurons. The morphology, arrangement and connectivity of each cell including neurons have been completely described and are found to be almost invariant across different individuals. There are approximately 7000 chemical synaptic connections, 2000 of which occur at neuromuscular junctions, and approximately 600 gap junctions (White et al., 1986).

All of this data including the connectome, the detailed interconnectivity map of the 302 neurons through synapses, is publicly available through the Worm Atlas (Achacoso & Yamamoto, 1992; Oshio et al., 2003; Varshney et al., 2011).

Despite its simplicity, the nervous system of C. elegans does not only sustain vital body function, but generates a rich variety of behavioural patterns in response to internal and external stimuli. These include associative and several forms of nonassociative learning that persist over several hours (Hobert, 2003). Interestingly, many processes of learning and memory in C. elegans are highly conserved across evolution, which demonstrates that there are universal mechanisms underlying learning and memory throughout the animal kingdom (Lin & Rankin, 2010).

With all of this data, information and modern computer technology at hand, it is surprising that there is yet no comprehensive artificial C. elegans emulation system from which the principles of neural information processing underlying behaviour can be derived. The Si elegans project aims to fill this gap.

Research into neural networks (NN) and artificial or computational intelligence (AI/CI) has tried for more than 30 years and not succeeded in understanding the signal processing in a simple network made of only 302 neurons.

The main reason is: nervous systems work in different ways than current computers and any simulation running on them. In nature, information is processed in a highly parallel and "plastic" fashion, which cannot be sufficiently reproduced or simulated in hard-wired, serial multi-tasking or even parallel-linked von Neumann architectures."
I'm not sure I completely believe that final sentence, although the complete operation of neuron-neuron communication is far from understood.

Amazon link

This (2013) ebook, " Engineered Biomimicry: Chapter 9. Flight Control Using Biomimetic Optical Sensors" comes with the following summary:
"Insects are dependent on the spatial, spectral, and temporal distributions of light in the environment for flight control and navigation. This chapter reports on flight trials of implementations of insect-inspired behaviors on unmanned aerial vehicles. Optical-flow methods for maintaining a constant height above ground and a constant course have been demonstrated to provide navigational capabilities that are impossible using conventional avionics sensors.

Precision control of height above ground and ground course were achieved over long distances. Other demonstrated vision-based techniques include a biomimetic stabilization sensor that uses the ultraviolet and green bands of the spectrum and a sky polarization compass. Both of these sensors were tested over long trajectories in different directions, in each case showing performance similar to low-cost inertial heading and attitude systems."

If we could replicate the insect's brain on hardware and remotely couple it to an insect body, a possible mission architecture sees a stealthed RPV deliver a cache of insects to within a couple of kilometres of the target.

The swarm is released and remotely flown to the target - where some kind of lethal toxin is delivered. The insects then disperse to receive a 'destruct' command. If any bodies are found, there will be little left to show that they have been engineered.


See also: Openworm. All these 'worm simulation' projects seem to be moribund, if not dead. I wonder why?

Friday, March 09, 2018

My top twelve SF novels

Over at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen has his "Ten favorite science fiction novels". It's a party game anyone can play: here are mine - in no particular order.


1. Eon by Greg Bear (and its follow-on, Eternity)

Amazon link

Great sense of wonder SF on the grandest of canvases. The plot seriously holds attention while characterisation is not bad, at least for the major characters.

2. Quarantine by Greg Egan 

Amazon link

Cowen prefers "Permutation City", Egan's 'reality is computation' novel (cf Dust Theory), but the many-worlds interpretation of QM is so compelling a setting and the private-eye thriller-based plot so convoluted that I felt compelled to buy this novel twice.

3. The City and the City by China Miéville

Amazon link

Cowan prefers "EmbassyTown" which is clever but, for me, less involving. The City and the City has a most unusual setting, the only novel I've read centred around the social construction of reality - and while the police procedural plotting and characterisation is a bit clunky, the whole book amazes throughout.

4. Hyperion (and its three successors) by Dan Simmons 

Amazon link

Cowan agrees with this choice. The four novels are beautifully written, have cultural depth and immerse the reader. Some of the scenes are truly shocking.

5. Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan 

Amazon link

The story of brutal but fundamentally moral Takeshi Kovacs. The successors are good also and complete the exploration of Morgan's interestingly-complex protagonist. Warning: high levels of sex, torture and violence throughout; most characters lacking in personal empathy .

6. The Mote in God's Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

Amazon link

The writing is clunky but the plot and setting completely compelling. You won't read a better account of first contact. The style is a bracing antidote to a public culture of suffocating high-mindedness.

7. Accelerando by Charles Stross

Amazon link

Hits you hard and then accelerates. A convincing and baroque invocation of the Singularity: never bettered.

8. Mindbridge by Joe Halderman 

Amazon link

People usually quote "The Forever War" which is good, but Mindbridge hits more of my buttons.

9. The Reality Dysfunction (and successors) by Peter Hamilton

Amazon link

Hamilton's later door-stoppers have proven tedious, but the Night's Dawn Trilogy brims with energy and inventiveness on the grandest of scales.

10. Tactics of Mistake (and follow-on Dorsai novels) by Gordon R. Dickson

Amazon link

Intelligent and exciting, intricately plotted with overtones of mediaeval chivalry. Loved them all.

11. The Three-Body Problem trilogy by Cixin Liu 

Amazon link

The writing may sometimes be rather pedestrian, as Cowen observes, but the three volumes are incredibly inventive.

12. Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Amazon link

Starship Troopers: last but not least. It's the only Heinlein novel which makes the cut for me, impressing by force of conviction. The author profoundly cares about the message of the novel and it's another antidote to contemporary hand-wringing.

Putting aside the occasional bouts of didacticism, it's a great story too.


Near Misses

Solaris is brilliant - I'm also a fan of Lem's other works such as His Master's Voice and The Invincible.

As a child I loved Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy and Frank Herbert's Dune sequence but, like Cowan, coming back to them I find they're not brilliantly written.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Advanced AI is indistinguishable from slavery

"Any sufficiently advanced AI is indistinguishable from slavery".

Amazon link

“Before he met the brilliant, hypnotic child Milena, Alex Sharkey had never played with "dolls"—blue-skinned, gengineered lifeforms designed for work, amusement, or destruction. But the underground gene-hacker is seduced by a megalomaniacal little girl's dream of providing the soulless genetic constructs with free thought and a future—and he unwittingly unleashes a plague of madness on the world.

Now there's a void in his life and memory that must be refilled, but it means pursuing the dangerous sentient species he helped sire from the ruins of a Magic Kingdom through a wasted Europe. It is Alex Sharkey's last chance and the last hope remaining for a once-dominant human race.”
From this review of Fairyland.


The historic role of capitalism is to develop the forces of production towards abundance. The founding fathers of Marxism speculated that everyone would then live like the ancient aristocrats of Greece and Rome, but with deeper, broader and more sophisticated experiences than those available in antiquity .. and without the slavery.

How would communism look? I sometimes think they imagined automated factories with conveyor belts and robot arms moving stuff onto automated trucks to deliver to your door. But Amazon seems to have all that in hand.

There is another route to abundance - the biological.

Biology seems to work off plentiful raw materials: air, earth, rain and sunshine. We're getting better at gene-hacking. Within a generation we could make dolls. Start from a primate base, add IQ and speech. Modify the empathy-volitional drives .. .

Is it slavery if they really want to work to keep us happy?

Everywhere you currently envision smart, AI-controlled robots of steel and chrome, tilling the fields (or the hydroponic tanks), fabricating gee-gaws .. replace them in your mind with smart biology - genetically-engineered protoplasm.

Just itemise people's needs:
  • food and drink (lots of new plants) - check
  • accomodation (grows from a pod, see the catalogue) - check
  • transport (smart horse and carriage; primate-derived servitors) - check.
The list goes on. If it can be done with metals and integrated circuits, it can be done with genetically-modified lifeforms in a much more sustainable way.

Will our prospective uplifted biosphere be subverted, as in "Fairyland"? With all that free time in a communist society, there should be plenty of people happy to invest in counter-terrorism. Or we'll engineer some servitors to do it: there's a lot to learn from the Greeks and Romans.


Why the emphasis on biology?

Because our existing metal-and-plastic technology-base depends upon a complex division of labour and global supply chains. It's brittle and unstable, and relies upon human (in fact smart-fraction) levels of competence to make it work at all, to sustain it against entropy. It's capitalism's great achievement.

By contrast, the biological ecosystem is predominantly local and functions on the lowest level of explicit intelligence possible. It's so much more robust. It also helps address economic coordination problems which have proved so intractable to centralised planning.

I don't think everything can be subsumed under applied biology. But most things for sure.

Other stuff (supercomputers, hypersonic/space transport, genome engineering) may be beyond anything a tailored plant/animal could do* - opportunities for our future AI overlords to shine.

What will we do with all that free time?


* As the old saying has it: "supercomputers etc don't grow on trees". And probably in the future they won't either.

Perry Anderson's Marxism

Amazon link

In this work (based on a lecture series in 1983) Anderson addresses (amongst other things) the legacy of Critical Theory and structuralism: the work of Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault and Derrida. You will not encounter a clearer overview or critique of their school.

The author's preferred style is olympian abstraction but he is also a bit of a magpie, selecting authors and works here and there which have struck his interest. He is extremely open-minded and non-dogmatic. But he doesn't want to be a reformist or a renegade - so many of those in the history of Marxian thinking! - so when he encounters a dogma he has internalised, and which is thereby uncritiqueable, he's forced to a fanciful or fantastic conclusion. I won't discuss it further here, but his views on why the feminist agenda is unachievable under capitalism (but will be delivered by socialism) defy belief.


Let's look at his postscript for "In the Tracks of Historical Materialism" via selected extracts. He starts with the lack of any serious examination within the Marxist tradition of what socialism would actually be like. As he correctly observes:
"Yet it is quite clear that without serious exploration and mapping of it, any political advance beyond a parliamentary capitalism will continue to be blocked. No working-class or popular bloc in a Western society will ever make a leap in the dark, at this point in history, let alone into the grey on grey of an Eastern society of the type that exists today. A socialism that remains incognito will never be embraced by it.

To bring the two closer together, there are four great areas where practical research and proposal are above all now needed.

(i) The first of these is this the political structure of a socialist democracy. What would be the precise forms of mandate, periodicity, franchise and constituency in a `neo-soviet' system articulating workplace and residential principles within a producers' democracy covering polity and economy alike?
  • How far would a professional administrative apparatus subsist? 
  • What division of powers would be codified? 
  • How would jurisdiction be allocated between national and local instances of authority? 
  • Would there exist a new 'technology of delegation'? 
  • What would be the optimal ways of disaggregating control over the means of communication? 
(ii) The second central area for debate is obviously the pattern of an advanced socialist economy. Assuming a full producers' democracy and popular determination of alternative plans, all the most difficult and intricate problems remain.
  • What would be the range of forms of social ownership?
  • How large, or small, a role should the market play?
  • Could planning ever pre-adjust to new needs, with their inherent dynamism?
  • What devices would exist to resolve conflicts between central and regional interests?
  • What would be the appropriate combination of price mechanisms?
  • How should consumer rights be articulated with those of producers, in major services?
  • Should the volume of product choices be increased, or diminished?
  • Which patterns of technology, and what distribution of labour-times, would be desirable?
  • How should different jobs be remunerated?
(iii) A third area where careful reflection is long overdue is what might be called the socio-cultural pattern of a 'libertarian levelling' - that is, means for abolishing class and gender inequalities beyond the reappropriation of the means of production by the direct producers.

What kinds of detailed transformation of the educational system, and mutations of the division of labour, would most effectively tend to overcome any inherited or imposed ladder of life-chances - while at the same time multiplying rather than restricting individual differentiation and development of talent?

(iv) The final and most formidable area of all concerns the international relations between - inevitably - unevenly developed socialist countries themselves. Ultimately, this involves the problem of the relationship between the producing classes in the rich nations and those of the poor nations, as well as the question of the relationship between the world peasantry and the world working-class within the poorer countries themselves.
  • What would be any protectable pattern of equitable flows of trade and investment between North and South, were both liberated from the sway of capital?
  • How could revenues and resources be progressively best shared? 
  • What kinds of technological exchange and diffusion would most depolarize the economic geography left by capitalism? 
  • Is 'evened development' historically imaginable - if so, what would it mean? 
Merely to enumerate such questions is to register how little most of them have been directly confronted within the Marxist tradition in the West."

Anderson then considers "The Economics of Feasible Socialism" by Alec Nove.

Amazon link

I have not read this book but reviewers point to its rather pedestrian vision of municipal quasi-social-democracy, a mixed economy with nationalisation of the commanding heights .. and strict egalitarian salaries .. and parliament.

Anderson is extremely polite, and in his own dismissal through faint praise simply notes that Nove present no roadmap for transition to such a state, which in any event is unlikely to inspire proletarians to die in a ditch. He continues:
"If capital could visit such destruction on even so poor and small an outlying province of its empire as Vietnam, to prevent its loss, is it likely that it would suffer its extinction meekly in its own homelands?

The lessons of the past sixty-five years or so are in this respect without ambiguity or exception: there is no case, from Russia to China, from Vietnam to Cuba, from Chile to Nicaragua, where the existence of capitalism has been challenged, and the furies of intervention, blockade and civil strife have not descended in response.

Any viable transition to socialism in the West must seek to curtail that pattern: but to shrink from or to ignore it is to depart from the world of the possible altogether. In the same way, to construct an economic model of socialism in one advanced country is a legitimate exercise: but to extract it from any computable relationship with a surrounding, and necessarily opposing, capitalist environment - as this work does - is to locate it in thin air. "
The step Anderson is not prepared to take is this: accept that capitalism is not weak, that its superficial contradictions are not life-threatening and that Bolshevik-style revolutions will never happen in advanced capitalist states.

Capitalist states have seen great dislocations and have tolerated left-wing governments (which absorbed and defused popular discontent). Their subsequent policies tended to wreck the economy which then ushered in a period of political counter-revolution (the Allende-Pinochet transition in Chile is an extreme case in point). Finally capitalism (with its vast reserves) stabilised and resumed (Chile today is quite successful).

The one thing capitalism can't handle is abundance, which undermines market relations. That's the area Anderson should be looking at but it's beyond his intellectual paradigm.


Related: "Perry Anderson on Western Marxism and Hegemony".

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Perry Anderson on Western Marxism and Hegemony

Amazon link

"In The German Ideology, Marx wrote that the development of the forces of production is an absolutely necessary practical premise because without it scarcity is merely generalized (nur der Mangel verallgemeinert), and with destitution (Notdurft) the struggle for necessities would begin again and all the old filth would necessarily be reproduced'. See Werke, Vol. 3, pp. 34-5.

This passage was to be recalled by Trotsky in his analysis of the reasons for the rise of Stalinism in Russia, which made scarcity (nuzhda) a central category of its explanation: see The Revolution Betrayed, New York 1965,pp. 56-60."
This from the notes for Chapter 4 of "Considerations on Western Marxism" by Perry Anderson. It's a quote I've had in mind a long time, but was unable to track down. Very critical for the analysis of the failures of bureaucratic-socialism in the twentieth century, and perhaps in the twenty-first.

Anderson is a visionary, synthetic writer: (a bird or a seer in the classic distinction). His account of Western Marxism after the Russian revolution is crammed full of insights. Anderson reviews the works of Lukács, Korsch and Gramsci; Adorno, Marcuse and Benjamin; Sartre and Althusser; and Della Volpe and Colletti, together with other figures within Western Marxism from 1920 to 1975.

Here's a brief summary from a generally hostile review.
"Anderson argues that despite their diversity all these thinkers represent a common response to the failure of the Russian revolution to spread to the West after the First World War, and the consequent suffocation of Marxism by Stalinists, fascism, and social-democracy.

The ‘Western Marxists’ reacted by flying from active involvement in the class struggle to a preoccupation with philosophy, and indeed with idealist philosophy divorced from practice in a way that the classical Marxists, from Marx himself to Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky, would have violently rejected.

Only today, Anderson concludes, with the revival of workers’ struggles and of the revolutionary movement in the advanced capitalist countries, can Marxist theory be integrated into the class struggle again."
Anderson was writing in 1974, when the événements of May '68 in Paris were still fresh in mind and the Trotskyist movement had been revitalised (it was not to last). In his afterword written a decade later, Anderson was less starry-eyed and more conscious of the many gaps at the core of Marxist thinking: what would the socialist state look like, once we reject the naive vision of the permanently mobilised working class organised in councils? Where is the genesis of revolution to be found in a prosperous bourgeois democracy?

Reminiscent of the situation with quantum gravity, our theoretical difficulties here relate to our very distance from the phenomenon in question, the transcendence of capitalism.

Anderson has come to see the concept of hegemony (as pioneered in the works of Gramsci) as a powerful and under-theorised foundation of capitalist stability: the privileging of consent over repression. His latest books ( The H-Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony and the reissued The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci: With a New Preface) are his attempt to address these issues.


Next: Perry Anderson's Marxism.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Leon Trotsky's vision of communism

Link to PDF

Trotsky wrote the series of articles published as "Literature and Revolution" in 1924, two years after the end of the ruinous civil war and during the earliest phase of the 'New Economic Policy'. At that time he still occupied the position of Commissar of War, the head of the Red Army.

Most of the early chapters are assessments of (often obscure) contemporary artists but towards the end Trotsky widens his scope and considers the nature of art in class societies and its future under socialism. Here is the final section from Chapter Eight, Revolutionary and Socialist Art.
"Having rationalized his economic system, that is, having saturated it with consciousness and planfulness, man will not leave a trace of the present stagnant and worm-eaten domestic life. The care for food and education, which lies like a millstone on the present-day family, will be removed, and will become the subject of social initiative and of an endless collective creativeness.

Woman will at last free herself from her semi-servile condition.

Side by side with technique, education, in the broad sense of the psychophysical molding of new generations, will take its place as the crown of social thinking. Powerful “parties” will form themselves around pedagogic systems. Experiments in social education and an emulation of different methods will take place to a degree which has not been dreamed of before. Communist life will not be formed blindly, like coral islands, but will be built consciously, will be tested by thought, will be directed and corrected.

Life will cease to be elemental and for this reason stagnant. Man, who will learn how to move rivers and mountains, how to build people's’ palaces on the peaks of Mont Blanc and at the bottom of the Atlantic, will not only be able to add to his own life richness, brilliancy, and intensity, but also a dynamic quality of the highest degree. The shell of life will hardly have time to form before it will burst open again under the pressure of new technical and cultural inventions and achievements.

Life in the future will not be monotonous.

More than that. Man at last will begin to harmonize himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness, and economy in his work, his walk, and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psychophysical training.

This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique, and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. [Recall that the 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat' in Marxist theory is the rule by the masses which secures the revolution against its class enemies. It does not mean Stalin!].

The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the Socialist organization of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. [Marx and Engels talked about the socialised, collectivised family (in The Communist Manifesto) - not one of their better ideas. Trotsky here seems more circumspect.]

Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the subsoil. Is it not self-evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction? [Trotsky was supportive of the work of Freud - p. 182].

The human race will not have ceased to crawl on all fours before God, kings, and capital, in order later to submit humbly before the dark laws of heredity and a blind sexual selection! Emancipated man will want to attain a greater equilibrium in the work of his organs and a more proportional developing and wearing out of his tissues, in order to reduce the fear of death to a rational reaction of the organism towards danger. There can be no doubt that man’s extreme anatomical and physiological disharmony, that is, the extreme disproportion in the growth and wearing out of organs and tissues, give the life instinct the form of a pinched, morbid, and hysterical fear of death, which darkens reason and which feeds the stupid and humiliating fantasies about life after death.

Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.

It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psychophysical self education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music, and architecture will lend this process beautiful form. More correctly, the shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point.

Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise."

I think Trotsky is here making illustrative, but realistic projections of his futuristic views. Many of these ideas have also been addressed by science-fiction writers subsequently; Trotsky would have nodded appreciatively at current genomic research, I'm sure. Personally I'm a supporter of most of his vision.

One needs to remind oneself that Russia in 1924 was economically ruined. Trotsky, like the other Bolshevik leaders, was expecting revolution in Western Europe to save the infant soviet regime (undoubtedly very large and sustained transfer payments would have been needed - as was the case from West into East Germany after reunification).

Those revolutions never occurred, the soviet dream was lost. But the vision is worth pondering: how much of it is actually compatible with future developments within capitalism?

I will never understand quantum gravity

I knew it would be pointless, but I read Carlo Rovelli's book anyway.

Amazon link

Rovelli is a good writer, interesting and erudite. He covers the history of philosophising about the nature of the world - void to atoms to cosmos - from antiquity to contemporary physics. He finds echoes of quantum gravity ideas in Democritus (nothing save atoms and the void): I guess there are a limited set of philosophical concepts applicable to matter and spacetime geometry.

And he tries to explain loop quantum gravity, which in its quest to derive spacetime from quantised geometry, is plainly philosophically attractive. But it's impossible. Fighting the densely sedimented layers of opaque analogy, I chanced upon: "An elementary introduction to loop quantum gravity" by N. Bodendorfer (2016).
"An introduction to loop quantum gravity is given, focussing on the fundamental aspects of the theory, different approaches to the dynamics, as well as possible future directions.

It is structured in five lectures, including exercises, and requires only little prior knowledge of quantum mechanics, gauge theory, and general relativity.

The main aim of these lectures is to provide non-experts with an elementary understanding of loop quantum gravity and to evaluate the state of the art of the field.

Technical details are avoided wherever possible."
Encouraging, that final sentence. So here's an extract.
"4 Geometric operators, matter, and quantum geometry

In this section, we will discuss the construction of geometric operators and compute their action on spin network states. The strategy to derive those operators is to regularise them in terms of holonomies and fluxes and to compute their action in the limit of infinitely small holonomies and fluxes, where the exact classical expression is approached. We will again skip many technical details and only consider the most instructive cases.

For a rigorous treatment, see [42]. For original literature, see [131, 138–141].

Next, we are going to discuss how to couple matter to this theory. The emerging picture is very similar to lattice gauge theory, with the additional twist that the lattices themselves are now dynamical objects describing the gravitational sector of the theory.

For original literature, see [52, 142, 143], as well as [143–146] for a comparison to standard Fock representations. A textbook treatment is given in [42]."
OK, so I spared you the readership-sapping equations. As I skimmed the paper I realised that I lacked the prerequisites to the prerequisites to get a handle on any of it. It's so sad.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

"Experience" - Martin Amis (2001)

Amazon link
"In this remarkable work of autobiography, the son of the great comic novelist Kingsley Amis explores his relationship with his father and writes about the various crises of Kingsley's life, including the final one of his death.

Amis also reflects on the life and legacy of his cousin, Lucy Partington, who disappeared without trace in 1973 and was exhumed twenty years later from the basement of Frederick West, one of Britain's most prolific serial murderers."
The above from the Amazon synopsis. I like Martin Amis (and the book) for his brutal, revelatory honesty. He gets a hard time from sections of the press, being out of tune with a feminised air du temps.

On the other hand ..
"On election night in the US, he and his wife anticipated a win for Hillary Clinton, and were “rubbing our hands together over the size of the landslide”. The next day, he was put in mind of something Sebastian Haffner, the German historian, said after Hitler came in. “He said the feeling was not of horror; it was of complete unreality. You go out into the street and people look different. The commerce, the cars; it all looks staged for your benefit. Completely make-believe. A sick-making feeling. And here it is. And what the fuck did they expect?”