Saturday, 15 September 2018

Democritus: an agreeable hypothesis about everything

When philosophy and religion are taught these days, it is most unlikely that the ideas of Democritus (460-370 BC) will get a mention. That is regrettable since his approach to making sense of the universe, life and society has much to commend it.

At a time when religious thinkers were offering different versions of ‘god’ and ‘creation’, and philosophers were coming up with diverse conceptions of nature and its components, Democritus championed the hypothesis that everything was ultimately made up of indivisible entities – ‘atoms’, literally the ‘undividable’. These inanimate entities have always existed and will never perish. Through a variety of combinations, they form substances that make up all things in the universe – from a grain of sand by the sea to distant stars.

We now know that what Democritus characterised as ‘atoms’ are more like what we call molecules (formed by conjoined atoms), and what are indivisible are entities currently classified as quarks, which make up the protons, electrons and neutrons that constitute atoms. In terms of positing ultimately indivisible entities which are the universal building blocks of the universe, Democritus’ hypothesis is nonetheless apposite. Furthermore, anticipating Darwinist biology, Democritus speculated that just as the indivisible basic entities could combine to produce diverse physical properties, these properties could in turn interact and give rise to a wide variety of living things, including human beings.

For Democritus, the emergence of rich complexity from simpler constituent components also applies to the transition from primitive human existence to sophisticated civilisations. The experience of the dangers for isolated individuals and the vulnerabilities of living in small groups, especially when contrasted with the vastly increased opportunities for improvement in larger communities, prompted extensive social and political development. And eventually people would discover that, in order to ensure the benefits of living in a well-structured polity are not wiped away by some unscrupulous ruler, they must as citizens secure democratic control over the state.

Given his account of the world, Democritus advised we should live with three things in mind. First, in society, we must respect and be helpful to others if we are to expect respect and support in return. Individuals who seek only to advance their own interests regardless of the consequences for others, will turn the rest of society against themselves. Secondly, we should cultivate our understanding of reality, and appreciating that while the basic indivisible entities endure, what they combine to produce are finite and will in time disintegrate once more. We should not be misled by superstitions, or fear the natural sequence of beginnings and ends, but accept it calmly. Thirdly, it would be wise to enjoy life when we can, so long as it is in moderation and does not get in the way of our pursuits of deeper fulfilment. Through life’s vicissitudes, a cheerful disposition is a better companion for ourselves and others.

It’s fair to say that anyone hoping to learn something about the nature of the world and the meaning of life, should spare some time to reflect on Democritus’ most agreeable hypothesis.

Additional notes:

• Democritus’ writings were numerous and widely known in ancient Greece, but they are now largely lost. Our knowledge of his ideas today is based on preserved fragments; quotations from his works made by his contemporaries; commentaries by (for example) Aristotle; and later expositions by thinkers such as Epicurus and Lucretius. A short introduction can be found in Paul Cartledge, Democritus, London: Orion, 1998.

• Although Democritus was well ahead of his time with many of his ideas, he did not have the foresight to reject the practice of slavery or the exclusion of women from political citizenship. Alas, these were personal blind spots he shared with many of his contemporaries around 5th century BC. However, they do not form any part of his characterisation of the universe or how we should relate to the transience of life.

• Some of Democritus’ ideas have been attributed to an earlier thinker, Leucippus. But virtually nothing is known about Leucippus, whose very existence has been disputed by a number of historians. Democritus, by contrast, was a well-known figure; indeed his fondness for recommending the disposition of cheerfulness led to him being widely referred to as the ‘Laughing Philosopher’.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

The Most Important Ideas to Teach

There are those who maintain that society cannot function if its members are not taught a core set of ideas about what they should value, what is unacceptable, and how they should accordingly act. Such ideas are meant to remove any ambiguity about what binds people together, and provide clear guidance on the attitudes and behaviours we should promote or condemn.

However, every attempt to define these ideas has failed to achieve its goal. Either it ends up with platitudes about freedom, fairness, and any other positive sounding notion without addressing any contention over rival interpretations; or it pushes through specific claims that are rejected by large numbers of people who find them misguided, or insulting even.

To retreat from articulating these foundational ideas for community cohesion and national unity is often rebuked for conceding to relativism. The imagery conjured up is that of being confronted with people who say they disrespect others, are poised to act aggressively, and we just shrug and let them be. While some ardent libertarians or anarchists may indeed prefer to see no rules for collective wellbeing, and are ready to leave the obnoxious and militant to threaten and damage as they please, most of us would not want to stand idly by. But in order to establish a common front against irresponsible deeds, it is not necessary to invoke some timeless guidance on right and wrong.

What is needed is an understanding of the ideas on how we should learn and explore with each other what are acceptable claims, rules, and practices that ought to be adopted for our common protection and wellbeing. At any one time, there would already be commonly held beliefs and enacted laws in place. It is vital to teach all citizens that, on the one hand, these are not immutable and could be altered subject to evidence review and critical examination; while on the other hand, they need to be respected and adhered to unless reasons and relevant findings render them obsolete.

So there is no relativistic standing back and letting people do whatever they want, but neither is there to be any dogmatic presumption that there is one eternal set of ideas that have settled everything beyond question.

As to how the contesting of conflicting claims is to be managed, that is precisely why ideas relating to cooperative problem-solving need to be taught more widely and effectively. Provisional consensus, empathic deliberations, evidential assessment all need to be explained and cultivated so that people are not misdirected towards fallacies and lies. People also need to appreciate that while they may personally have strongly held views about what they should do, they must engage others in reconciling differences. The argument that one must stick by one’s conscience or one’s god is no different from fanatics’ obsession that they will ignore everyone else because their inner voice tells them what they must do.

The most important ideas for any civilised society are not about what we must believe or obey, but about how we work with each other to continually determine what at any given time we should deem reasonable to believe and obey. The real threat to civilisation comes from those who insist that they will refuse to listen to or deliberate with others, and will act as they wish regardless of the harm that could bring upon others.

To learn more about how to differentiate what does or does not merit our belief, check out:
What Should Citizens Believe? – exploring the issues of truth, reason & society
Available in e-book format and in paperback.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Xenophobic Curse: how the Right keeps getting it Wrong

A core characteristic of the Right is its preoccupation with securing and expanding the power and privileges of those who want to see themselves towering over others in a vastly unequal socio-economic hierarchy. To secure this objective, its proponents will exploit any opportunity that can raise their status at the expense of others.

For example, they can be found among those who will by any means amass more wealth for themselves even as they impoverish workers, deceive consumers, and damage the environment for others. They lead campaigns to celebrate ‘traditions’ that have discriminated against groups such as women, disabled people, ethnic minorities, followers of non-‘standard’ religions, and any other category of stigmatised people. They project themselves as ‘strong’ by backing the use of excessive force whether it is against targeted groups at home or designated enemies abroad.

Of course, the different tactics for advancing Right-leaning objectives could end up clashing with each other. Fuelling prejudices could get in the way of making money. Individuals who develop a dubious reputation for their callous deployment of force in law-enforcement or the military could be from one or another of the traditionally marginalised groups. Prioritising profits could mean that peaceful relations are favoured over endless sable-rattling.

Over and over again, strategists on the Right have convinced themselves that they could fuse the different tactical elements together. What they count on is that a good dose of xenophobia will help to distract enough people from callous business practices that are depriving them of jobs, decent pay, and revenue to support vital public services. As large numbers are misdirected towards venting their frustration at foreign workers, foreign benefit claimants, foreign terrorists, and foreign institutions, exploitative corporate leaders can keep enriching themselves while everyone else is ripped off.

But xenophobia is like a highly radioactive substance left in a paper bag. The Right think they can weaponise it to protect their own position, yet they have no idea how to contain its toxic effects. In the 1930s, the rich business leaders in Germany thought they would benefit from galvanising the Right by embracing Nazi racist ideology. It was not long before Germany itself was devastated. From the 1980s on, the New Right in the UK and the US have sought to make xenophobia a key ingredient of their overall plan to widen the gap between the superrich elite and the insecure masses.

In the 2010s, radical xenophobic activists were emboldened by the growing enthusiasm of many established Conservatives and Republicans in raising their profile in anti-progressive campaigns. The result was the coming of Brexit, Trump, and the reckless corrosion of economic stability. Shut out workers from abroad who are actually needed, destroy market arrangements that facilitate the flow of goods and services, throw away tariff-free systems and launch trade wars to bring about higher prices and shortage in supply. Economic stagnation then leads to business closures and further job losses.

A tiny minority of people will gain financially from this. Those who devise investment funds that thrive on causing and exploiting chaos in the financial markets; those whose media companies’ ratings and circulations depend on feeding xenophobic prejudices; and those who profit from selling sub-standard and unsafe goods and services – they will be delighted with what is happening around us.

But for the vast majority, including most business people, the consequences are nothing short of disastrous. And with karmic inevitability, the Right has once again poured so much fuel on the xenophobic fire they lit, many of them will also end up being badly burnt.

It is often claimed that xenophobia will always be a problem if immigration is not curtailed. This ignores the evidence that xenophobia is lowest in areas with the highest immigrant population, where people become familiar with each other. It is highest in areas with the lowest number of migrants, because fear of the unknown is most easily stirred where its object is rarely seen. The real problem is the threat to people’s livelihood, with jobs and pay constantly at risk as a result of plutocratic exploitation.

As the Right implodes, we should focus on promoting effective means for sustainable livelihood. See ‘The Livelihood Challenge: 10 actions to consider

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Neo-Humans & Sub-Humans

Throughout history, every time technological advancement has enabled a minority to gain substantial advantages over others not in a position to utilise the latest technology, the power gap between the few and the many has greatly widened.

Control over metallic weaponry and large-scale construction techniques meant that ancient rulers could command vast numbers of people to endure hard labour to erect pyramids and structures such as the Great Wall of China. The Industrial Revolution led to unprecedented levels of mass production and transportation, and business leaders could place countless workers like cogs in a machine to deliver wealth that will accrue predominantly to themselves.

The latest IT-driven transformation is also opening new ways to differentiate the have-tech and have-not. On one side of the divide, there are intelligent machines that can carry out many tasks at higher speed and with greater reliability than humans; communication devices that facilitate instant and complex interactions with those devices over vast distance; and bionic enhancement that can give enhanced durability and capability to the human frame. Put these together at the disposal of the small minority who can afford them all, we have neo-humans who can order tasks to be implemented all over the world at the blink of a networked eye.

On the other side of the divide are the people left behind, displaced by machines that do the work they previously did, unable to acquire the latest generation of multi-functional devices, and lacking the many features that give neo-humans incomparably healthier, stronger, and longer lives. In the not too distant future, these will be deemed ‘sub-humans’.

Is this inevitable? Ancient rulers of large empires once considered themselves representatives of gods, or even fully divine. But political movements emerged to confront them and succeeded in securing a wider dispersal of power. Emperors and kings who did as they pleased gave way to constitutional monarchs and elected governments that must concede to democratic constraints. Business magnates too were eventually caught up by political challenges. Ownership of shipping, railway, factories, shops might have given them hegemony over the people for almost a century, but the rise of social democracy resulted in the power and resources of many countries being shared out more equitably and effectively among all its citizens.

Unfortunately, if laissez faire were allowed to prevail, those with inherited wealth and a strong corporate powerbase would accelerate their ascendancy as neo-humans. They would take control of more natural resources (air, energy, water, land) and technological aids that would render other people wholly dispensable. Pushed to the margins with virtually no power to obtain food, shelter, or any basic ingredients of life, the majority of the world would be relegated to the status of sub-humans – neglected, despised, and left to die.

The only way out is for renewed political resistance to challenge this insidious growth of power inequalities, set up collective arrangements to ensure that life-enhancing technology is made available for the wellbeing of all, and halt any form of neo-human development feeding into the takeover of land and resources for a few to the exclusion of everyone else. It is no exaggeration to state that our future depends on it.

For a depiction of a dystopian world divided between neo-humans and sub-humans, check out the novel, The Hunting of the Gods:

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Patriotism Subverted: Putin’s Strategy to Destabilise the West

It is remarkable how the British and American Right, which once sensed a threat in everything the Kremlin plotted, are now embracing the most subversive plot ever to have come out of Moscow.

Countless Russian sources offering help in terms of finance, illegitimately obtained information, and fake social media accounts designed to boost support for Brexit and Trump in the 2016 UK referendum and US election have been uncovered. And the reason why Vladimir Putin was so keen for the UK to leave the EU and to have someone like Trump as US President can be summed up in three words: Destabilise the West.

Putin do not like dissent at home or challenges from abroad. Within Russia, he could have his critics arrested and imprisoned. But outside, he could not ignore the strength of the Western allies. Ever since he sent his troops to Ukraine in 2014 which led to the Russian annexation of Crimea, his stance has been opposed by the West. His support for the Syrian government has also been at odds with Western attempts to get Assad to step down. Then in 2016 he saw, not one, but two outstanding opportunities to weaken the West.

True patriots clearly would not take kindly to a foreign power meddling in their own democratic processes, and would stand together against those who try to hurt their country. But Putin’s strategy has been to stoke false patriotism. He targeted resources to aid those who would wrap themselves up with the Union Jack or Stars & Stripes, and turn Britons and Americans against foreign ‘enemies’ such as immigrants, refugees, and their neighbouring countries and allies such as the EU in the case of the UK, and Canada and Mexico in the case of the US.

The Russian backed law-breaking Brexit campaign fuelled the rise of hate crime and its outcome has mired the UK economy in debilitating uncertainties. The successful Russian plan to help Trump get elected emboldened racist extremism and led to trade wars that would harm many businesses in the US and abroad. Brexit has also posed immense problems for the EU, while Trump is undermining NATO with his adversarial stance against America’s allies.

With the UK, US, and their Western allies severely disrupted by Brexit and Trump, there is only one winner – Putin. After Russia sent troops to the Ukraine in 2014, Putin was told his country would no longer be welcome as a member of the G8 group of industrial nations. But once Tump became US President, he refused to cooperate with what was now the G7 group, and instead called for Russia’s return.

Putin’s strategy is not confined to the UK and the US. He has developed links with right-wing groups across Europe. He invited France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, to meet with him at the Kremlin. Italy’s Northern League signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia, the political group led by Putin. And like Trump, these tactical flag-wavers tell their supporters that while they must be harsher on immigrants in their country, they should seek better relations with Russia.

Russian clandestine involvement in aiding the campaigns for Brexit and Trump is by now well documented. What needs to happen next is for true patriots to rise up to demand an end to this gross subversion.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Big Egos, Small Print, & Zero Accountability

How many times have we heard the excuse from people at the top of an organisation that they could not possibly have time to read everything that was sent to them? The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, we are told, has not even read the Brexit impact assessments even though she was pushing the process through on the tightest timescale she imposed herself. Donald Trump, in his private business dealings and very probably in his role as US President, is known for responding to lawyers’ questioning about what he had authorised by saying he did not know what was in documents he had signed.

At one level, many of us may feel that we have all experienced having too much to read, or signing up to agreement that are too long or too complicated for us to fully grasp. But we must not forget one critical difference – we in our own everyday lives weigh the costs/benefits to ourselves of how much we explore any proposal before we make a decision on it. We are not paid a hefty salary and given substantial powers to make decisions that will affect the lives of millions of other people. If we do take on jobs that have that kind of responsibility, we have no doubt we need to get hold of and read the relevant information before we sign off on a way forward.

This ‘I’m so high-up, no one can expect me to read everything that can influence the decisions I make’ excuse must be turned on its head. It is precisely because the people high up are entrusted with such power, that they must be held responsible if they fail to digest the relevant information presented to them, and go on to make decisions that result in dire consequences for others.

Political leaders like Trump and May, not to mention those presiding over openly authoritarian regimes, want to wield maximum power with minimal accountability. And they would get away with it if people buy into the fallacy that they have not got time with details. If they lack the ability to digest all the relevant information effectively, then two possibilities should be explored. One is to open the public office in question to others who genuinely have that ability. That would require a critical process that, unlike routine electoral contests that reward those with clever soundbites or superrich backers, tests how well candidates can absorb information, reason on the basis of evidence, recall what is pertinent, and make coherent judgement accordingly.

A second possibility is that even with the most able candidates, the powers associated with that position should be revised. It could be that it is too much to expect any one person to handle the workload involved. A co-leader may be appropriate to share out specific responsibilities. Some decisions should be delegated to others who will be given the corresponding power and responsibility to carry them out. Other powers may be better devolved to other public bodies that have the technical expertise and/or local experience to make far more informed decisions. And there will be areas that are so complex that a scrutiny committee or chamber should be entrusted with examining a proposal, and where necessary, veto it so that the fate of thousands, or even millions, is not left to an executive leader who would otherwise make an arbitrary decision without having engaged with all the relevant information.

It is bad enough to be governed by an individual with too much power. But so much worse when that power is so vast and unmanageable that it will only be taken on by a reckless fool.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Exposing the Affordability Con

Whenever people are made to think society cannot afford to support what is important, but accept costly policies that mainly benefit the wealthy elite, the ‘affordability con’ is on.

Ever since irresponsible bankers utilised the vastly expanded scope handed to them by reckless deregulation to gamble away billions of their savers’ money, the public have been told one simple story. Money is in short supply. Therefore, ‘everything’ has to be cut back – help for people who cannot get a job, support for workers whose job does not pay them enough to live on, funding for the health service, for tackling homelessness, for education at every level, and the list goes on. And whenever anyone points to the desperate need to finance these services better, there will be those who faithfully repeat the mantra, “but we can’t afford it”.

So why is it that we can afford to hand billions over to bankers, despite the atrocious problems they have caused? Moreover, that money is given to them with no strings attached. They can pay themselves vast bonuses regardless of whether or not they are now lending more responsibly. And the deregulated financial system remains in place for them to exploit.

That is not the end of it. If billions are to be spent on sending bombers and missiles to attack a foreign country, that will go ahead without even a public debate in Parliament or Congress. Is there a serious threat to the lives of Britons or Americans if such costly action is not taken? No, if anything, it would just add fuel to the flame of twisted resentment against the West and raise the level of terrorist threats. It certainly does not compare with the threats and violence unleashed on ordinary people in the UK and the US as a result of growing economic insecurity and rising levels of hate crime. Yet domestic protection is unreservedly scaled back by the Conservative Government’s cuts to policing numbers in the UK, and the US Republican President’s de-prioritisation of all threats other than ‘Islamist’ terrorism.

What about the argument that money is needed elsewhere? Perhaps there are vital actions that have to be paid for to help society as a whole. So what do those cautious custodians, who tirelessly warn us about the need for austerity and deficit reduction, think our precious money should be put aside for? In the UK, the Conservative Government’s priority was to prevent losing votes to UKIP, and while both David Cameron and Theresa May (successive Tory Prime Ministers) had been unequivocal that they believed the UK was better off in the European Union, they would hold a referendum on the issue, and when that was lost, their government would spend endless amount to push ahead with Brexit even though it would make trade, jobs, standards of living, all worse off for the vast majority of Britons. In the US, the Republicans’ priority was to reward their superrich donors and friends. The federal deficit would be escalated to around a trillion dollars to pay for tax cuts that would overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest few.

To compensate for such drastic losses to the public purse, the Conservative Government in the UK has taken an even more resolute stance on cutting back on expenditure in other areas, for example, by reducing the staffing level of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs) team tasked with tackling tax evasion by those with most to gain from evasion.

Finally, on the point about there being no money, it should be noted that a defining feature of any sovereign government is its power to oversee the flow of money in the economy. If it deems it necessary, it can issue more money. Under the guise of ‘quantitative easing’, a lot of extra money has been injected into the economy in the UK and the US. But it was not designed to help people in need. Indeed it is widely acknowledged that by far the biggest beneficiaries of quantitative easing have been the wealthiest who own shares and assets, and of course the bankers, for whom, affordability is always someone else’s problem.