Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Grand Stagnation

August 22, 2011

It has been said that things are going very fast lately. Perhaps it can be said that, equally, there is a slowing-down effect, a stagnation. Things don’t seem to be going very well for the world economy lately, but I am nevertheless tempted to say that this one of the “happy” periods of capitalism. One of the reasons why is that a financial crisis does not necessarily weaken capitalism as a mode of production, it can indeed serve to strengthen it in the long-term. Not even individual capitalists seem to be particularly worse off – the number of millionaires just keep growing.

The primary reason I can say it is a happy period for capitalism, though, is through looking at history – and the emphasis on class struggle. World War Two is usually said to have had a knock-off effect on labour strengthening its position. But as James Heartfield writes in the article World War as Class War the war served to weaken it. The economical growth in the 50’s was tremendous, mostly due to the technological knock-off effects from the war. There was a lot of stagnation in the “social” field, though, with the glass roof ever-present and the Cold War environment hampering the development of commons.

The thing with how society worked in the West (the state capitalist USSR not deserving much of a mention) is the strong position labour nevertheless came to have, due to the craftskill of each individual worker and the general shortage of labour, giving great negotiation power. This was most visible in Sweden, which was the least effected by the privations of war. A high minimum wage and great security of the worker forced companies to constantly innovate. A turning point would perhaps be the wild strikes and general social upheaval of the ’68 revolutions.

The Oil Crisis, when the oil-producing countries of the Middle East used their oil as a political weapon could perhaps obfuscate matters here, since it happened in 1974, very close to ’68. I am not sure if they excacerbated the tendencies I shall elaborate upon next or not. The artifical oil shortage did push innovation in alternative energy sources, only for them to be mostly discarded once the crisis was over.

Anyway, this turmoil forced capital to renew itself, try to shake off the dependencies of the worker, or the strong unionized one of the West at least. Note that this way of looking at the developments of capitalism differs from how the worker is often painted as a passive subject of the reshaping of capital. Labour-saving technology was invested in – contrary to the trumpeting of technology as requiring more poly-technical skill – as part of the so-called “knowledge society” – these machines defanged the worker as it required less skill to use. Requiring less people overall to use made capital less vulnerable to labour shortage, and unemployment levels worsen the position of the working class overall.

After, and as this went on, capital also found another weapon in its struggle against labour. Letting production happen overseas, especially in Far East Asia, where labour standards are worse and the cost of production markedly lower, despite the distance. This pushed countries in the West to carry out the seemingly foolish action of disestablishing its own industrial base.

There’s a conundrum for capital here, of course, one which has been present in capitalism as a way of production from the very beginning, and which Karl Marx has written about in great detail. Overproduction. This way of breaking the position of labour through labour-saving technology and outsourcing has the obvious effect of pressing wages down, and thus leaving fewer to actually buy the products being produced. A  way to try to combat this has been the increased financialization of the economy. Simplified, the people in the West are the consumers which the global economy hinges on, and the way to try to keep their consumerism going has been through increasinly indebting these. The current crisis could be seen to be partly caused by this specific type of action. Heck, even the Eastern countries have fallen prey to this, as debt keeps increasing behind the bureaucratic walls of China.

Capitalism thus have the wheels burrowed in the mud again, and looks to be needing a push. Capitalism has the odd ability of being able to die, but to keep going as a zombie, but we need to dezombiefy it and ensure it’s actually living and… OK, I’m not sure where I’m going with these metaphors, but try to misunderstand me correctly. Commons can serve as an alternative to capitalism. Voluntary labour between free people on the basis of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” can compete directly with capitalism, mayhaps forcing it to reshape as it always has done. The thing is to try to keep pushing until it dies. And stays dead. “The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite”, as Karl Marx put it.

The 19th Century Deislamification of Europe

August 2, 2011

Stumbled upon this post on alternatehistory.com today which I found quite interesting:

Here is a map of the population of the Ottoman Balkans by subprovince that I painstakingly assembled, which I think is pretty interesting, and opens a lot of AH channels as well. I did this as research for a TL that I’m working on with a different outcome of the Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78 and Treaty of Berlin (1878).

A few striking points:

1. Muslims were a majority or at least a plurality in a surprising proportion of the Balkans – the only place where they are not a strong presence is the Aegean Islands. On the continent there are only three provinces where they are not a majority/plurality: Sofya, Manastir, and Yanya. They constitute approximately 43% of the total population of the Balkans (not including the Istanbul province).

2. Bulgaria was put in the wrong place. Large swaths of it contained very few Bulgars at all, necessitating the ethnic cleansing of huge numbers of Muslims, and the Bulgars of Macedonia were left out of the Bulgarian state.

3. The position of the Muslim population probably goes a long way to explain the resilience and longevity of the empire – and the border regions tended to be heavily Muslim.

4. The Muslim area of the Tuna province (today’s northern Bulgaria) was principally Turkish, with a large number of Tatars and Circassians, the latter two constituting about a third of the Muslim population. Much of the Turkic element actually preceded the Ottoman period and had lived in the area as long as the Bulgars had.

5. Muslims were nearly a majority in Bosnia, which included Novi Pazar. They were overwhelmingly converted Serbo-Croats.

6. There is more detail for Bosnia and Bulgaria because these provinces were investigated before the Russo-Ottoman War. Figures from the census of 1881 are good, but by then the remaining territories of the empire were much more heavily Muslim, so it’s only possible to determine the overall Muslim percentage of the population for the province as a whole, except Iskodra, where no refugees went.

7. Language ran in a continuum, running roughly West to East, beginning as Serbo-Croatian and drifting into Bulgarian – it was not until after the creation of ethnic nationalist states that dialects were standardized. That is why the question of to whom Macedonia “belonged” was so tricky. Obviously though, Greek, Albanian, and Turkish were totally separate languages.

8. The category “Greek” is tricky because in censuses this included all Orthodox Christians until the creation of the Bulgarian Exarchate. The Patriarchate attempted to Hellenize as much of the Slavic and Albanian population as possible in pursuit of the Megali Idea. They had some success.

The Russo-Ottoman War of 1877-78 was a human catastophe as well as a geopolitical one.

The Muslims of the region suffered horrendous mortality. Approximately 850,000 were massacred outright, a similar number died as refugees, and many more were resettled in the remaining Ottoman Balkans and Anatolia.

The best statistics available in the post-war period are not surprisingly the Austrian census data for Bosnia. There we see the tell-tale drop off in the number of young males which is characteristic of ethnic cleansing, and continued long into the Hapsburg period. The Muslim birthrate also plummeted.

The influx of refugees and the continuing stream of Muslim immigrants from the Balkan states had a drastic impact on the ethnic balance of the territories remaining to the empire. By the turn of the 20th c, only Yanya did not have a Muslim majority or comfortable plurality.

The Balkan Wars resulted in an even greater loss of life, followed by WWI which topped even that. This is the primary reason why modern Turkey is so paranoid about separatism – it has inevitably been accompanied by ethnic cleansing, if not genocide, on a massive scale.

Anyway, with regard to AH possibilities, the following spring to mind:

1. The loss of the Balkans is not inevitable. If the Ottomans can stay out of wars with Great Powers, the population balance is likely to increasingly tilt Muslim as rail lines are built and people move from poorer areas or the empire to the more developed regions of the Balkans. If the Capitulations are abolished and universal conscription is introduced, a number of Christians will emmigrate. This did happen in the 20th c when conscription of Christians was instituted.

2. There seems to be to be a great likelihood that if Bulgaria had achieved statehood under more “normal” circumstances (i.e. through gradual increases of autonomy as experienced by Serbia and Rumania), it would have been located further West.

3. If Bulgaria does gain independence, the Ottoman position in Albania and Bosnia is untenable. However, it does seem quite possible that the Ottomans would be able to retain a large swath in the Balkans covering the Eastern half of today’s Bulgaria and stretching to Salonika.

4. Due to the language issue in point 7 above, the creation of a large South Slav state including Bulgaria is conceivable. Serbia is the fulcrum, and is the obvious focal point for it, but not necessarily as there are a lot more Bulgars than there are Serbs.

5. The areas that are Albanian Orthodox are vulnerable to Hellenization. This happened to an extent even during the Ottoman period, and Greece managed to almost totally obliterate Albanian identity in the areas it absorbed in the Balkan Wars. It’s interesting that the areas Greece ended up with were largely Greek or at least Greek-Orthodox plurality or majority.

The principal source for this is Kemal Karpat, Ottoman Population, 1830-1914: Demographic and Social Characteristics

I have also used Justin McCarthy’s works as well as a lot of 19th c European ethnographic studies.

The Hellenistic Scientific Revolution

June 9, 2011

Today I wrote one hell of a forum post over at the alternative history forums, writing under the psuedonym. The background was that I had just finished reading Lucio Russo’s The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why It Had to Be Reborn, and as it was a timeline about a world without Rome, I listed some things I had learnt from the book to help the thread maker out. I provide what I wrote in this blog post in its entirety, as well as some additional comments I have in mind seperate from the forum post provided after the “footnotes”:
Military technology:

  • Non-gunpowder[1] siege weapons that made the medieval trebuchets pale in comparison[2].
  • There were repeating catapults, and repeating crossbows wouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Naval technology:

  • There was, as mentioned the ability to sail the open seas, which was possible because they possessed 1) a coordinate system, ie a scientific theory of cartography 2) reliable and 3) a method to locate the ship with respect to the coordinate system
  • It seems that there was a push towards building larger ships. The descriptions of some of them make me think of Zheng He’s treasure ships.[3]
  • Canal-digging was pretty advanced, as there was a canal linking the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
  • Ships had lead-plating to protect from barnacles, of which none of the British and Dutch ships had as late as the seventeenth century.
  • Very advanced catoptrics, the ability to build lighthouses. Pharos in Alexandria would be the most famous example, but many others had started to built throughout the Mediterranean.

Water engineering (this area should not be underestimated):

  • In aqueducts, pressure pipes (simply called “syphons”) were used, which overcame depressions in the terrain.[4]
  • The Archimedean screw, a tool for lifting water.

Alternative (from muscle power, that is) energy sources[5]:

  • The water mill was known, and used throughout the whole Mediterranean. Horizontal ones to boot, which are more effective than vertical ones.
  • Windmills were in use, and so wide-spread that there were quite a few place-names named after them (anemourion)[6]
  • The possibilites of steam power had started to be explored[7].

Intricate machinery:

  • The Antikythera mechanism was found on a shipwreck outside the islet of Antikythera, between Peloponnesus and Crete. It was a sort of perpetual calendar that allowed the calculation of the phases of the moon, past and future. Two features stand out: 1) It uses at least thirty gears, which makes it almost seem like clockwork. 2) “[…] the presence of a differential turntable, a mechanism that allows the addition or subtraction of angular velocities. The differential was used to compute the synodic lunar cycle (moon phase cycle), by subtracting the effects of the sun’s movement from those of the sidereal lunar movement”.

Medicine, biology, botany, zoology etc:

  • Anatomical knowledge was quite developed[8].
  • Diagnosis, pathology etc. had been developed.
  • There was measurement of the pulse.
  • Mental illnesses had started to become explored.
  • Biological classification was in full swing[9], also fuelled by the conquests of Alexander the Great, who himself ensured that flora and fauna was sent back for study.
  • Fossils were widely studied, and many were identified as being of species no longer extant.
  • There had been developments towards an evolutionary theory[10].

Chemistry:

  • The problems with understanding what rate of progress Hellenistic chemistry was at is that it later morphed into alchemy – “a syncretism of Greek natural philosophy, Egyptian magic, allusions to Judaism and Christianity, craftsmen’s recipes and empirical chemistry”.
  • What we can be quite certain of is that the artficial pigment industries, cosmetics and fragrance industries were quite developed.
  • The conception of a molecule had forerunner in the oncos.

Art, music etc.:

  • There is the possibility of primitive motion pictures[11].
  • Figurative art was pretty advanced, with there starting to be more emphasis on painting rather than sculpture. An example of the new figurative art:

 

  • The novel.[12]
  • The first keyboard instrument: the Ctesibius water organ.
  • More advanced music started to develop.
  • Greater interest in preserving cultural heritage, with traditional Greek songs etc. started to be written down.
  • The birth of Greek grammar.

Some advances in agriculture:

  • Plants from outside Hellenistic kingdoms started to be cultivated, and preexisting plants were improved through seeds imported from different countries.
  • “Animals from elsewhere were acclimated, breeds were improved through crosses, and wild animals such as hares, dormice and boars began being raised, as did fish species”.
  • Egg incubators.[13]
  • There were animal-powdered automatic harvesters with teeth and blades. Very simple, but beyond the ken of medieval and early modern Europe.
  • Egypt’s population around 1 B.C. was eight million, with a half million in Alexandria, and they were major exporters of grain. An estimate of Egypt’s agricultural capacity in 1836 had it that eight million was the maximum population that could be fed if all land capable was cultivated…
  • The production of olive oil throughout North Africa was very advanced, aided by the invention of the screw press.

Some advances regarding metals:

  • There were drainage installations in mines, from Andalusia to Afghanistan.
  • In early Hellenistic times iron came into common use for tools and machinery of every kind.
  • “From the little information we have about metallurgical procedures we can glean certain technological innovations in the area of metal refining. Polybius tells us about a new blacksmith’s bellow, perhaps fed by the Ctesibian pump”.
  • The clearest example of advances in metallurgy would be the Colossus on Rhodes; when in the Renaissance they wanted to build a similar structure, they had no idea how to go about it.

Lucio Russo also has written a word of caution, useful to alternate history writers:

Quote:
I think there can be no doubt about the importance that ancient science and Hellenistic technology could potentially have had for production processes, but in assessing the extent of applications actually deployed in Antiquity we must avoid certain traps that lurk in making comparisons, whether explicit or implicit, with our own age.
In Chaplin’s movie Modern Times, the tokens of modernity are screws, gears, transmission belts, valves, steam engines, automata: a smorgasbord of inventions from ancient Alexandria. How can one say that these innovations were useless back then? Yet, though so much of the technology that made up the movie’s factory goes back to the third century B.C., it is clear that in that century there were no factories like Chaplin’s.
The Western world has experienced since the late seventeenth century a unique phenomenon in human history, characterized by an exponential increase in several technological and economical indicators, and the source of achievements and problems without parallel. (This growth certainly cannot continue for long at the same exponential pace.) The primitivists are right in warning us against the pitfalls of “modernizing” Antiquity by reading into it the accoutrements of modern life. There was certainly no Hellenistic Industrial Revolution, there were no stock brokers in Alexandria and the Mouseion was not the Royal Society. On the other hand, using today’s Western world as a sort of universal standard, lumping all ages other than ours into an undifferentiated “underdeveloped” category, can be highly misleading. If we think that biology has predetermined a unique possible path for the human race, culminating in the “economic rationalism” of today, it may be possible to define other civilizations by how far they are from ours; but human history is much more complex than that.
The application of scientific technology to production does not necessarily mark the beginning of the process in which we find ourselves now, where technology itself grows exponentially. Having made this clear, I think it must be agreed that scientific technology did have in Antiquity important applications to production. The Mouseion’s economic role was not comparable to that of the Royal Society, but that does not mean this role was insignificant, nor does it imply a lack of wisdom or foresight on part of the ancient scientists. The process of exponential development starting with what is usually called the Industrial Revolution as triggered by a plethora of economic, social, political, cultural and demographic factors that we have not yet understood in depth. It is more sensible to try to figure out what happened in Europe in the late seventeenth century than to ask why the same thing did not happen two thousand years earlier. Hellenistic scientific development was violently arrested by the Roman conquest. We may wish to speculate on what might have happened had this interruption not taken place. Nothing authorizes us to conclude that things would have gone the way it did in seventeenth century Europe; we do know, however, that the recovery of ancient knowledge and technology played a major role in the modern scientific take-off.

[1] “The introduction of firearms in the modern age concerned primarily large-bore guns used against fixed positions; as a personal weapon, the arquebus took centuries to supplant the pike. So the role of gunpowder was to replace the catapult, the technology of which had been lost”.
[2] Fortification overall did change as well, because walls started to become “thicker and started being surrounded by moats, but were complemented by towers capable of hosting catapults”. The advances in siege outpaced advances in defense, though, as shown by a rapidly increasing amount of victorious sieges.
[3] “Merchantmen also got bigger. Hiero II of Syracuse had a cargo ship built, the Syracusia […] Thus we know that the ship, whose construction had required as much wood as sixty quadriremes, had on board, among other things, a gymnasium, a library, hanging gardens and twenty horse-stalls.”
[4] “The most remarkable syphon was at Pergamum; it pushed water uphill to a height of perhaps 190 meters from the deepest point, and the pressure at the bottom must have been almost 20 atmospheres.”
[5] Whoever holds Iberia is in a good position, as both wind and water energy is plentiful there, and there’s even coal in the north.
[6] “Many scholars have felt that the Heronian passage can be disregarded because it is not confirmed by other writings. Heron presumably meant anemourion in a moment of distraction, forgetting that it had not been invented yet. We know that he was given to such lapses.”
[7] “The first steam engine actually built in modern times seems to have been the one described in 1615 by Salomon de Caus; it operated an ornamental fountain intermittently. Thus the inheritance from Heron was so complete that it even concerned the end to which the machine was put. Heronian technology hung on for another century in various hands, until it became convenient to start building steam engines – which is to say, when the rapidly growing energy needs of nascent industrialization no longer could be met by watermills alone.”
[8] There’s even evidence of there being dissections of “condemned men” while they were still alive!
[9] It would not be seen again until Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus).
[10] “We have seen, then, that the bases of modern evolutionism, namely the notions of mutation and natural selection, were both present in Hellenistic thought.”
[11] “This is consistent with Heron’s remark that an early automatic playlet merely showed, by way of motion, a face with blinking eyes – something that is of course easy to accomplish with an alternation of just two images. Heron also says that with still automata one can either show a character in motion, or a character appearing or disappearing.”
[12] “The Hellenistic origin of the novel has long been obscured. It was thought that Greek-language novels first appeared in the late imperial age; this changed in 1945 when a papyrus was found in Oxyrynchus that dates from the first century B.C. and contains fragments of the Novel of Nivus. Now many scholars think that the novel originated in the second century B.C.”
[13] “In the early sixteenth century Thomas More wrote admiringly that in Utopia “vast numbers of eggs are laid in a gentle and equal heat, in order to be hatched”, but incubators would remain a mere literary memory still long after that.”

———————-

History, both in the past and into the future is not deterministic, there is nothing inevitable about our situation. At the same time, it is not completely random, either. The term convergence can be of help, with some forms of possibilities being more probable than others. The similarities between the feudalism of Europe and Japan is striking. Yet, there is much variation, too, in this convergence, especially in how different civilizations interact, mix, with each other.

The Greek city-states had throughout the centuries developed science, and democracy. Macedonia then united all of Greece, and set out to conquer vast swaths of the world under Alexander the Great. Of course, war is never a pleasant matter, and many of the Greek cities’ democracies had been halted in the process. But the mixing between ancient civilizations and Greek culture, becoming known as Hellenistic civilization, is still incredible. The Greeks were technologically inferior to the civilizations they became rulers of, but the scientific culture they carried with them had very impressive results. The future looked bright, indeed.

Unfortunately, the mixing of different cultures can go both ways. The Roman conquest of Mediterranean can very well be considered the most somber event in history. A pre-scientific, militaristic culture, the Romans could not understand anything of the scientific methodology the Greeks used, and were not interested in preserving it. These were not the Romans of Virgil; indeed, any cultivation they had was through what they adopted from the Greeks. By the time anyone in the Roman empire actually cared about Hellenistic civilizations again, they simply could not comprehend these writings. The decline after that unstoppable. After that the Roman empire slowly collapsed, and in its place came the dark ages, and it got even worse, somehow. It was only through the Renaissance and the (very partial) recovery of Hellenistic knowledge that Europe started to wake up from her horrible nightmare.

I’ll end with a quote from Peter Englund’s essay On a Stroll in the Hilbert Room:

And we are lonely, lonelier than any generation have been on this side of Nicolaus Copernicus, when he twisted around the whole solar system with help of a goose quill pen and threw us all out into an infinite universe. Lonelier, but paradoxically also stronger, because now there are no excuses anymore, no musts, no historical metaphysics to cling onto or blame. We ourselves form our destiny. What happens in the future is thus driven by ourselves. […] What is needed is merely a reason large enough to not be tempted by repressions, and as critical that it doubts everything, even itself. History is made by humans.

 

Blind Liberalism

June 6, 2011

There were theologians working in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages who thought that they were living in the best possible of worlds. The same appears to be true of liberal theologians – even though they tend to worship “progress” they have a very technocratic conception of what this “progress” is. What I think is most depressing is the incredible sense of triumph they seem to have, history is over and all that. But I just have to wonder why they are so happy about they way things are going. My hidden assumption here is that they actually believe in liberal values.

The background of this post is the so-called “globalization party” which a liberal think-tank called Timbro is arranging. They mention the struggles going on during the early noughties, in Gothenburg, Genoa and Seattle. Elin Grelsson writes in reply “you dance on our grave”:

But yesterday I read this open invitation to a “globalization party” the 15th of June and for me there stopped being some sort of feeling of OK towards Timbro. Ten years after the Gothenburg demonstrations of police harassments, suspension of law and sharpshooting against demonstrators Timbro celebrates that the movement for global justice (what they call “the anti-globalization movement”) went into the grave and history got a happy ending with a global, hypercapitalist system. One gets an international buffet, champagne and a globalization anthology. All is stringently decorated by a cobblestone-throwing demonstrator.

You know how people write in social media write that they cry or their “tears flow” because of some link? I always wonder if it’s for real. Sit and cry at any moment because of some cute animal or sad story. Few things bring me to tears. But this event was the last drop and I cried.

On day I would like to read the stories of those who took part in these riots. It’s the first time since Ådalen 1931 where police have shot at demonstrators. It can be a good idea to look at this wikipedia article for a general outline of what it is. I was admittedly only nine years old at the time, and I’m not even sure if I was aware of what had happened at that time. Anyway, I believe that 2001 will go down in infamy as the year when political liberalism really started dying.

If we look at World Values Survey there appears to be a greater loss of faith for democracy in the young generation. Of Swedes between 18 and 29, 23% don’t think it matters very much if they live in a democracy or not. 26% think it would be quite, or very good if Sweden was ruled by a “strong leader which doesn’t have to care about the parliament or elections”. 21% are willing to change parties for a smaller amount of money. World Values Survey also ranks Sweden as one of the, if not the most individualistic country in the world.

Rights are not things that come down from nature or God. They are things which must be fought for. Through the struggle of our ancestors we have managed to gain things which we now take for granted. But the thing about these rights is that if the glow of struggles wane, the tide will turn and the things that have been fought for starts to be disassembled. Herein I think the very nature of liberalism lies: it arrogantly appoints itself as the protector of these rights, but it is like a parasite, slowly killing them. It has been very obvious how the truncheon liberals throughout Europe and the US has continued this trend of slowly killing everything we hold dear.

And remember that saying of Winston Churchill’s, “democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried” one has to wonder about what one is measuring. Is it economical performance, as many liberals are wont to do? As I have mentioned previously on the blog, China I think is very interesting. Through its “capitalism with Asian values”, ie authoritarian capitalism they are currently doing capitalism the best in the world. For those who put equality marks between capitalism and democracy China must be a bit of a conundrum, to put it mildly. While the Chinese are now more enthusiastic about capitalism than ever, the interest in democracy is mild at best.

The economic policies of the sad excuses which set Europe’s agenda is finally twisting the knife in the wounds of the public sector. In the name of “tightening of the belts”, in the name of realism, Western “democracy” is finally starting to dig its own grave. Not surprisingly, fascist and populist movements are starting to gain ground. The whole thing is starting to seem pretty dark. China seems to be the most realistic country in the world.

When we look back later, I think the early 21st century will be remembered as pretty dark age. But all is not said and done quite yet. Once again the radical left will have to pick up the slack, and the revolutions that have shaken North Africa can possibly be repeated in Europe as well, and in other places. This is not the end, and the end is not yet. This I am convinced of, however: Whatever liberals be – be they useful idiots, extreme hypocrites, or just the sort who think freedom is the freedom to exploit in any manner they can – they don’t have anything to offer to global justice. Not an ounce.

Happiness Redux

May 27, 2011

You remember that blog post I wrote about happiness? No? Anyway, I wrote a forum post today which was more or less a continuation of it. Being too lazy to write a proper blog post, here it is.

———-

On a bit of a different note, the whole good emotions, bad emotions thing sounds a bit like hedonism. It’s not something I know much about, but to my understanding it says that the attainment of pleasure and happiness is what to strive for, and to avoid pain. I think that idea may have been around for a while. I also wonder about this whole culture of happiness thing I’ve heard a little bit about- apparently people prize happiness, and being happy is seen as priority. Happiness as a goal… not something that’s unheard of, but perhaps something that’s not too healthy. Again, it might be a matter of the individual.
Ah, the word “happiness” can be a bit confusing, because the English language has two somewhat similar, yet very different concepts as homonyms. Using the two Swedish words can clear up some linguistic entanglement: glädje and lycka. Glädje is an emotion; it makes me happy to pet a cat, for example. I do not believe that lycka, the sort of happiness baked into for example the phrase “the pursuit of happiness”, is an emotion, however. I believe it can be construed as, at its heart, contentment.

When yet more governments come out and say that this “happiness” should be the true goal, and not GDP (I’m very sceptical about GDP as well, though, which is hardly controversial). Bhutan would be the clearest example, but we’ve also got the Tories in Britain and of course China – which have a vision about what they call “Harmonious society”. Basically, it’s about having a “good leader, a good mother and a good worker”. Which of course sounds very similar to corporative fascism.

Now, while it’s easy to drag up “Godwin’s Law”, I don’t think this is merely guilt by association, it has a strong basis in fascist “thinking” (if that word can be used). What we must conceive of here is fascism ‘more radical than Hitler’ – ultra right as opposed to extreme right. What strikes me is how similar these “ultra right” fascists are with what we might call the hippie movement. There’s this same obsession with Eastern mysticism and paganism, the same conception of this mythical ‘nature’, Mother Earth, which is supposedly in balance, as opposed to the chaotic civilization (never mind that there have been five so-called “super extinctions” – which are just what they sound like). There was even a Swiss health resort in the interwar which was like a fascist hippie haven. It’s not strange that Hitler had a copy of Bhagavad Gita with him wherever he went.

Now, what’s significant about all the major non-Abrahamic religions/philosophies is their conception of a hierarchical society, everyone having their place in the organic whole, and the conception of time as cyclical, as opposed to linear. What’s significant about early Christianity is its radical rejection of this. We can take the book of Job as an example, by far the most awesome story in the Bible. Some have said it’s a story about the infinite ways of God, but it should be seen as a story about the impotent god. We have Job being told three different theories about why God would test him, only for God to turn up by the end of the story and basically tell him that there was no reason for it. What appears here is the conception of that of things actually not always happening for a reason – all that talk about it raining in the desert, even when there’s no one around and all that. By this incredible impotence of God, it lies the crown on the humans – the basic message is that a clean slate, radical change possible, the choice lies in your hands.

How Christianity is actually conceived of and practiced is very different in the present of course, but I believe this paved the way for much of its success. Speaking of hedonism, I’d say deontological morality is basically hedonism, in a round-about way. It lies down a set of rules which should be followed, and beyond that everything is permitted. The oft-quoted saying attributed to Fjodor Dostojevsky (actually something Sartre made up in a letter) of “If there is no God, everything is permitted” is false. To quote Jaques Lacan instead: “If there is no God, everything is prohibited. In the utter lack of objective meaning morality must be “made up”. Somewhat incisively, it can be said that the only true Christian is an atheist.

TLDR; Happiness sucks.

 

 

The Penultimate Result

May 6, 2011

This blog post is about something that has been weighing heavily on my mind for quite a while, and which reflects my very greatest fear. Criticism is welcome, for I would like to be proven wrong.

Hans Rosling has been a doctor working in the poorest parts of Africa, and also a professor of international health at Karolinska Institutet. The above TED talks video has made him a bit of a celebrity, and he has been dedicated to deconstructing people’s mental “Tintin” image of the world. His ambitions are admireable, but there is something about his thinking that I’m very sceptical of: his general disregard of environmental factors.

From a radio interview with him:

I was four years old when we got a washing machine. I belong to the group of people who have seen my mother wash clothes and blankets by hand. It was completely fantastic when we got a washing machine. And dad took me on a trip to Järlåsa outside of Uppsala and showed me the power lines, “here comes the electricity from Harsprånget, it’s what driving the washing machine”. That was how we got there, now we have time to do something. So mom put in the clothes in the washing machine and said “now we can go to the library and loan books”. […]  Tanzanian families should [also] have access to washing machines.

One must understand how hard it was [in Sweden] 1850, 1880 and how fantastic it was to get to 1920 and 1950. That’s what Tanzania is currently trying to do.

That strikes at the heart of any Swede – after all, we were relatively late to industrialize compared to the countries down on the continent, and the difference between 1920 and 1970 cannot be understated. I recall my grandmother mentioning that the washing machine were one of the new things she was happiest about. Still, comparing Tanzania to Sweden in the latter half of the 19th century can be misleading. Tanzania has 43 million people and is projected to become 80 million in a couple of decades. However, they have no North America to emigrate to.

On a direct question on whether 10 billion people in Earth would be sustainable Hans replies:

Well, it’s what we must plan for. Because I would never consider the possibility of killing 2-3-4 billion people I think the question is pretty weirdly put. […] We will become 9 billion and we must plan for that. The alternative would actually be… to just ask that question is to start planning a mass-murder we have not seen in modern times. So we can forget about that.

Speaking of “overpopulation” is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more than just the amount of people, it’s about the carrying capacity of these people. Now, while the UN estimates that population growth will level by 2050 or so, it is also clear that Asian countries have started to catch up on the West, and Hans also wants Africa to do so. It is also clear that Hans is a friend of economical growth, not only in Africa but everywhere, even the West. The results of that can be shown with a hypothetical scenario. Say the world 6000 years ago until this day experiences a growth of a mere 0.1%, and that the material possessions of that world can be represented by a meter. That can be expressed with this mathematical equation:

1 * 1.1^6000 =  2.3^263

Check it out on your calculators. The average distance to the moon, by comparison, is 3.8^8 meters. The sheer vastness of the number 2.3^263 is so great that it is very hard to imagine it. Theoretically growth could go on forever, if the world was infinite. But the world isn’t infinite. What that means is that compound growth is fundamentally unstable, yet it is also a fundamental part of the global economy, both for poor and rich countries.

To quote Kurt Cobain:

Most economic justice work is currently premised on the view that greater economic equality requires continued economic growth.

As such, those operating under this view assume that the natural resources required to attain the needed growth will continue to be available in the quantities required at prices that will make such equality possible. In other words, the seemingly politically impossible task of redistributing wealth will be sidestepped in favor of redistributing current income from future growth. This constitutes a wholehearted embrace of a cornucopian future; it recognizes no limits to growth that are implied by climate change, world peak oil production, and the rapid depletion of other resources including metal ores, water, soil and fish. And, if any of these limits are acknowledged, the resulting problems are assigned to the “technology will save us” category.

This quest for economic growth in developing countries, no matter at what costs, counter-intuitively also worsens the food situation for a whole slew of countries. A lot of it is because African countries simply can’t compete with the subsidized farms of Europe and the US, thus having to instead sell cash crops or biodiesel. Lots of land has been bought, too. Daewoo Logistics in South Korea has negotiated a 99-year lease of land of about 50% of the arable land on Madagascar, and plans to have about 75% of the land growing corn and 25% palm oil. “Food security” is an alien concept (except possibly as it applies to them):

although Daewoo plans to export the yield of the land, […] it plans to invest about $6 billion over the next 20 years to build the port facilities, roads, power-plants and irrigation systems necessary to support its agribusiness there, and that will create thousands of jobs for Madagascar’s unemployed. Jobs that will help the people of Madagacar earn the money to buy their own food – even if it is imported.

It is widely considered that Malthusianism has been disproven by the “Green Revolution”. I would say that this is not true. In fact, the agriculture of the green revolution is actually unsustainable, as it depends on resources that will soon be limited. It has been remarked that industrialized farming is a way of converting petroleum into oil, and there is much truth to that. Arguing that African countries should adopt this method of farming – as Hans Rosling has recently done – is to head in the wrong direction.

If African countries should have any chance at all of avoiding a Malthusian catastrophe, then they must adopt ecological farming on a large scale. Only that way can they build a sustainable agriculture. Food on the table, running water and electricity wouldn’t then be so uncontroversial. However, material affluence on the level of current OECD countries?

The sad truth is that it’s not possible. This affluence has been built on the systematic plunder of natural resources from poorer countries. The imperialism which developed in the late 15th century is what made Europe rich. What I’m saying is that for poorer countries to truly flourish, to be improved, then some of the standards of the rich countries must be lowered. This may not be necessarily bad; perhaps it could be put as “more with less”. There is after all enough food in the world to feed everybody, it’s just that it’s inequally shared, and that’s why people are starving.

To really solve our problems, I believe that a grand plan, something along the lines of Plan B 3.0 (avaliable here) is needed. And that is optimally done through a democratically planned economy. Though Tim Jackson who wrote Prosperity Without Growth argues at the end that capitalism could restructure itself to deal with this, I would argue that it would be just as difficult to change the Business As Usual model to that than a democratically planned economy.

Unfortunately, those who would profit from the inequities of this world have quite a different mind, and the forces who truly want to change the world break against the wall of the status quo like a wave towards the beach. It goes completely against the cultural narrative which has been set up. As Dick Cheney once said: “The American way of life is non-negotiable”.

To reply to Hans Rosling regarding mass-murder: it’s not going to be a particularly “planned” one. Food prices are going to go up, and it has already caused starvation in places such as Ethiopia and Haiti. Since the market will have it so that everything is grown in the mythical “somewhere else” it is the poorest, the damned of the Earth, which will be without a chair when the music stops playing. This could have effects on political stability:

Perhaps there is no better case than Rwanda of state killing in which colonial history and global economic integration combined to produce genocide. It is also a case where the causes of the killing were carefully obscured by Western governmental and journalistic sources, blamed instead on the victims and ancient tribal hatreds.

A country the size of Belgium, with a population of 7 million people (overpopulated according to most reports but Belgium supports over 10 million people), Rwanda experienced in 1994 one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Some 800,000 people, mostly but not exclusively Tutsis, were slaughtered by the Hutu-run state. Contrary to media and many government reports, the genocide was the result of Rwanda’s political and economic position in the capitalist world system. It involved such monetary factors as its colonial history, the price of coffee, World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, the global interests of Western nations, particularly France, the interests of international aid agencies, and Western attitudes towards Africa (Shalom 1996.

If nothing is done, expect to see more things like that over the next fifty years. It will overshadow the Holocaust and the Holomodor. Our descendants will look back to this time period with disgust, because they will be disgusted by how egoistical and passive we were They will be appalled to learn about how people ran cars on biodiesel grown in the Third World while people were starving. The history books will brand the 21st century even darker than the 20th. Hopefully they would also learn from our mistakes, and try to work together more.

US Part II: Most Equal Society

April 5, 2011

Last time we took a small look at the influence, and dependence of oil in American society. We should now take a look at the social inequities haunting the US.

When Alexis de Toqueville penned his Democracy in America, the US was indeed the most equal society on Earth. That is, equal compared to the countries of Europe, entrenched in aristocracy as they were. While Toqueville saw down on some things, such as slavery (and correctly guessed that the slave question would tear the country apart down the road) he also saw favourably on other things, such as the subjugated role of women, which goes to show how values change. Perhaps now we can say that the Scandinavian countries are the most equal on Earth – compared to other countries.

Anyway, there seems to be a very strong trend in American society actually favouring inequality, arguing that some should be rich. The results of which we can read about in the wonderful book Spirit Level: Why Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better:

As we can see there is a very strong correlation between equality and living standards. A from the start staunchly individualistic (in the negative sense) country, there was, and still is, a sort conservative egalitarianism, the conception that success and failure was invariably up to the entrepreneurial life choices of the individual. It was thus a country which in conception wasn’t particularly interested in the common good of the country and its people, but which really took this “social contract” theory seriously. The result is that there is that the underclass is steadily growing. “Trickle down” my ass:

It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.

A leading factor behind this is of course a very successful class struggle. On the part of the upper class. Taste that word, class struggle. It’s like there’s a complete lack of class consciousness. While the US used to have a few quite powerful unions, such as IWW and the Teamsters, and which had some influence, they were brutally beaten down by thugs hired by corporations and, a few times when the strikes were big enough, by the armies of the State. Few workers are now affiliated with unions. Another factor is the lack of parties working for socialism. While they do exist, the political system is set up so that only two parties had a say. The Democratic party thus absorbed all the progressive forces of the country, and the Democrats are quite right-wing by European standards. Say what you want about social democratic parties, but they did a whole lot of good here.

What does all this mean? Keep in mind that rights are given neither by nature nor god; they’re something one must fight for. Remember that during the 20’s and 30’s, it was only the American Communist party which was in favour of racial equality, but the civil rights movement of the post-war period would go a whole lot of way towards that. There has been very few struggles inside the US, though. While the demonstrants in Wisconsin (almost completely ignored by the media) is impressive, it is impressive because it is actually happening in the US. Demonstrations larger than that size have been going on and are ongoing in Europe. The American populace has taken a lot of beating by the rich, and have done much to fight back, and so they’ve ended up in this situation.

I’ll end this blog post with a video about Martin Luther King, showing that he wasn’t as soft as some would believe (how strange that MLK day was introduced by Ronald Reagan):

US Part I: Sick Man in America

April 4, 2011


Picture from 1974 – first oil crisis

I will attempt to write about the difficulties which currently faces, and which will face the US in the future, and why it is probably a good idea to move to Europe rather than stay.

One thing that struck me is that even though Sweden has one of the highest prices of oil in the world. Yet it is the people of the US who fall down on their knees with prices that are actually cheaper than those here. Some have gone out of business because they can’t afford to upkeep their car. What am I, from my more European perspective, to make of this absurdity?

One obvious thing, as I described in a previous blog post is of course the heavy reliance on cars. America is a car culture. Though most of the Western world, and some areas outside the West has started to adopt this car culture, no country has modelled their society as much in the shape of this machine than has the US. This has led to the dismantling of commuting, and what was once the most formidable railroad system in the world. Instead of efficient cities, the trend has been towards urban sprawl, and an extensive construction of the most hopelessly inefficient type of residential areas of the world, namely suburbia. And heck, even the road system has been falling apart since the 80’s due to underfinancing. Oil prices before the economic crisis, and now afterwards are rising much faster in the US than in Europe, and showing how inaquedately prepared the US is for Peak Oil.

Why did the US decide to tread this path, though? One obvious factor is the amount of oil historically produced in the US. In fact, ~60% of all oil in the world was produced by the US in 1942. High on the agenda by both businessmen and politicians after the war was how to make the American populace consume more, and thus keep the economical machine spinning. There was incredible business gains to be made through having people wanting to have, and later actually requiring a car, and the political establishment were happy to build the infrastructure (ie motorways). Oil and the car industry helped fuel, metaphorically and literally, an American economical boom lasting for nearly three decades.

Good things didn’t last forever, though. Around the early 70’s American oil production peaked. Despite being the most technologically advanced nation in the world, the US couldn’t find new sources of oil, and oil production has been inexorably declining ever since. The US might’ve still enjoyed good economical times, but it untimely coincided with the 1973 oil crisis, leading to hard economical times. Around this time the US also moved towards a more liquid money supply, and consumption increasingly driven by credit cards. The effects we see today, with the financial crisis fresh in mind.

What effects does it have on a nation which has a transport system and infrastructure based around oil, a commodity whose price might reach 200 dollars a barrel in a very near future? One thing is that it won’t be very easy for the US to simply build itself out of that, with better means of transportation, energy and so on. Infrastructure is something that can take many years to build, and the investments needed to finance this cannot be attained within the US’ current political and economical system, due to the mastodontical debt of the country. It can thus be inferred that if the oil price rises as high as 200$ a barrel, the US is on very thin ice. Perhaps one can make a parallel to the decision of the Chinese in the 15th century to burn all their ocean-going ships. They were the foremost naval power of the world, but due to an idiosyncratic decision that made sense at the time, they lost that lead. Badly.

Perhaps one, then, can say that the US is like a rotten wooden house. There has been attempts to make this house look prettier and more attractive, but it is fairly rotten nevertheless. A very literal example of this would be Greener Grass Company, making the houses of bankrupted owners more valuable and “makes the neighbourhood look decent again”. Perhaps a few kicks at this rotten foundation would make it collapse, triggering a civil war or similar. Or maybe this facade would actually work, with government and/or corporations taking a greater control of the country? In either case, it doesn’t look too attractive for the people living there. In short, I think Americans better leave this perverse country.

Dwarf Metropolis

October 19, 2010


Housing built under a motorway in Argenteuil, north western suburb of Paris. (Source)

I was thinking about cities today. Cities first arose in Mesopotamia. With the rise of agriculture individuals for the first time amass a certain wealth. But it was also ripe for plundering by the more nomadic groups, so walls were built to protect this. And so cities were made. It is interesting, that connection between capital, cities and protection. In Swedish, there’s a word called borg, which means fortress (and not a cybernetic organism :p). This sounds familiar to borgare, bourgeois, though it also sounds similar to Bürger, the German word for an inhabitant of a town. Thinking of capitalism, a mental inner image of a sprawling metropolis appears. The city where the government of a country is located is also called a capital.

Speaking of fortresses, the name of this post is inspired by the game Dwarf Fortress. I’ve only played Dwarf Fortress once, didn’t really find it entertaining. But that didn’t stop me from getting all nerdy about it, reading the wiki and Let’s Plays of it. When a goblin raid comes along, if the dwarves cannot defeat it they’ll have to hide behind the fortress walls and have to sustain themselves on what is inside. I believe that to cope with goblins (environmental issues) we’ll have to rely on fortresses (cities). By that I don’t mean stuff like growing food inside cities, but that with peak oil behind the corner we need to live more densely together.

A most interesting feature of it is the z-dimension, that the fortresses are built underground. For greater density, cities of course need to build into the sky and down into the ground. In the sky we have the tall buildings, floors built upon another (I am quite interested in whether tall buildings made of wood can challenge concrete and steel, or complement them in some way), and in the underground, where the dwarves live, there is also a sprawling world. The subways are attractive to humans, but the sewers less so. I also find the connection with the living of the humans and the living of the dwarves interesting not only due to the subways, but due to the fact that the tall buildings cast large shadows, making days less bright. Inverted during the night, the electrical lamps makes the city bath in light.

Cities are often logistical nightmares for city planners. Especially those in Europe or Japan, owing to their age – building for immediate needs causes troubles later on when the cities grow. Sweden, due to never having had a war fought on Swedish soil, has a lot of medieval cities still standing strong. On the other hand, Sweden initiated an urbanization process after WWII where the agricultural populace was drawn to the cities in a quite orderly fashion. This was possible primarily due to three factors: 1) The country came quite unscathed out of the war, 2) a strong centralized state and 3) close connections with the US.

The above process, along with vast spaces and a certain “frontier romance”, similar to the US and Australia, means that Swedes like cars a bit more than they’d admit. Cars and cities are a terrible combination. They seem to embody the faults with liberalism. Commuting is fairly slow. Cars are a bit faster. So when cities grew, some chose to use cars instead of more collective means of transportation in cities. Travelling by car got a little bit slower, but so did commuting. People living in Stockholm actually seem to be driving more than people living in Norrbotten (the province of the northern north, here be dragons). And so we have cities filled with bubbles of steel, machines dangerous to all who cross roads. Even when they’re not moving they obstruct the city. Think of all parking spots which could have something much more useful on them. A great step towards better cities is thus prioritizing more commuting, or less obtructive means of transportation like bicycles and taxis (taxis don’t need parking spots).

One big problem with cities is of course the anonymosity. In a large city, you can more easily be left out. Though maybe that has more to do with the social mores of the present, which I talked a bit about in my previous post. It is imperative of course to expand the commons (those things which are outside both the private and public sphere), for greater social interconnectedness. I see no reason why the city can’t be as good in the respect as the country-side, if not better! There are so many more cool things in cities. I would be most interested in more communes, and I think it is good especially for senior citizens. Old people dying, without anybody to notice it until weeks or months afterwards, represents a low point in humanity.

To summarize: I think cities should be prioritizing the z-dimension, for example buildings which don’t need windows, like cinemas and shops, should preferably be underground. Tall buildings become crazy inconvenient after reaching a certain number of floors, of course. There should be a greater collectivism in both transportation and social life. Though living like dwarves may not be natural for us, it is imperative for environmental sustainability. Hopefully there will be good ways of making cities greener, in the sense of more flora, that is.

I should add that I live on the countryside, like not the “countryside” which city folks call certain suburbs, but actual countryside with forests all around and a kilometer or so to the nearest bus stop. Cities, though truly impressive, also seem intimidating to me in their vastness. But I believe in human cities.

Generational Differences

August 8, 2010

Since I suspect I will not write a proper blog post in a while, this forum post will suffice for now (The rest of that that thread might be worth a look).

Hmm, my grandparents I think are relatively good as tolerance goes, though I think I know less about them than I’d like. My paternal grandfather was going to go to Finland as a volunteer in Winter War and fight the Soviets, but he ultimately didn’t because the war ended before he had the chance to go there. He later ended up working in the same factory as my father worked in his youth. He died an atheist, before I was born, in an accident involving a bridge.

My paternal grandmother started out a maid, became a waitress at some point before retiring at 60. I went to her 86th birthday last weekend. And I can honestly that while she might seem frail and senile now, she was strong like hell. I can honestly say she’s done more physical labour during her retirement than I have done my entire teens. She seems to have played football (soccer for you Americans) sometime in the past. She was pretty cool with immigrants until some gypsies asked her for directions and robbed her of her purse in the process. She once was on vacation in Italy, and because it was so hot she dressed only in a bra and was arrested for indecency.

My maternal grandmother was a jail guard. I’m thinking it’s pretty awesome that she as a woman had such an apparently masculine job back in those days. She was pretty skilled with the accordion, and was a member of an accordion club. I really liked visiting her when I was a child. She had lots of candy and a television, and would take me to see places. It made me happy. She later had lots of problems with her health, likely because she was a heavy smoker, and she died. And I knew death.

My maternal grandfather was a farmer, I think. After my mother and uncle were born, he and my grandmother divorced. After his retirement he started a horse club in Jämtland, high up in the country. He seems to work as hard as ever, still keeping up farming for his horses. I actually seem to know the new SO (he and my grandmother never actually married each other) better than him. A pleasant gentleman who likes to refer himself as “herr Johansson” and who is good with children. Gets rowdy when he’s drunk, though.

I do not notice the different social mores as much as the socio-economic differences I’ve had compared to them growing up. Before the “People’s Home” which was constructed during the 40’s and 50’s, Sweden was one of the poorest countries in Europe. It’s especially noticeable in how much labour my grandparents had to do as well as the seemingly subpar education. On a car drive once, my mother pointed towards one of those stereotypical red cottages and said that my grandmother went to school there. In fact, I’m actually living in one those schools right now. We’ve had visitors who come to see the old building they went to as children.

This got me a bit nostalgic and sad…

As an aside, my paternal grandfather was born in 1915, before the Soviet Union, and I was born in 1992, after the Soviet Union. I’ve always found that pretty cool, somehow.