Splinters: February – short essays on the here & now
This month: AGAINST EXTINCTION II... Thought Experiment... India after Modi... Trope-hunting...
Julian Assange: another other
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This month's splinters:
AGAINST EXTINCTION II
by Iain Galbraith
We were preparing a celebratory reading for the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin's 250th birthday when a nark arose. There were tweets to twitter, bottles to buy, but one of us would be out of the country until the day before our event on March 20: the day in 1770 of Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin's birth in Lauffen on the Neckar. "But where danger is, deliverance too will grow", the culprit quipped, citing the German bard. "Deliverance" wouldn't just arrive here, however, not without fewer hands carrying heavier burdens.
Stimulated by Hölderlin's quasi-Hegelian proposition, the discussion wandered to more difficult dangers from which we might require deliverance, one of them invisibly staring us in the face now: the connectivity carbon footprint. I add that I am writing this in a place where there is no internet connection and from which, if I wished to check any facts and figures that follow, I would need to walk through a snow-storm to a nearby town that is lucky to have retained its public library amid nationwide cuts to this essential public service.
You, on the other hand, with access to the web, sitting, I hope, in a warm dry room, can easily and digitally check anything I say against information offered by a host of competing versions of the truth. In fact I beg you to do so, lest you think me guilty of wild contentions – always bearing in mind, of course, that about 17 searches use the energy required to boil up a cup of tea, and that at 3.45 billion Google searches per day (according to Google), quite a few kettles could be boiling.
When I say, "invisibly staring us in the face", what I mean is something that I, for one, only began to consider recently. It appears the worldwide web and its various uses (e.g. the screen in front of you) already have a carbon footprint greater than that of global air traffic. It appears too that internet-related emissions are set to double within the next 10 years, and that data centres in the city of Frankfurt alone require more energy and have a more hostile impact on the climate today than Frankfurt Airport.
While digital connectivity and the internet are therefore drivers of the climate emergency, they are also promoted by the most powerful lobby ever known to mankind: not just Google, Netflix, Amazon and the CIA, but pretty-well every corporation, government, organization, association and indeed person has a stake in immediate and comprehensive internet use.
Judging by the growing volume of conflicting data, climate number-crunching itself threatens to become a significant emissions producer. Energy analysts George Kamiya and Oskar Kvarnström tell us the worldwide energy consumption of data centres (which everybody agrees are the big burners) has been flat since 2015, while global internet traffic tripled and data centre "workloads" (a measure of service demand) more than doubled (Cisco, 2018). Energy consumption in this sector can indeed be reduced by various means, including recycling heat from data centre coolers, geographic concentration of centres, the use of sustainable energy sources and intelligent surveillance of energy demand. According to a report in Climate Home News, however, artificial intelligence and the "internet of things" (IoT) could increase data-related energy consumption to 20% of the worldwide energy demand by 2025, with communications technology by 2040 accounting for 14% of global emissions.
But what is this mysterious "internet of things" when it's at home? Flash forward to future kitchens. Our domestic robot has been programmed to perform a range of services using the appliances available. But the market (or its ownership) can only survive if it is continually replacing products by newly attractive or useful "things", while each new appliance comes equipped with software capable of educating cybernetic partners in use and safety. While the function of the "internet of things" is apparently to provide for our needs, its rationale as a self-regulating and self-perpetuating system facilitating a permanent revolution in AI-agency and technology is equally evident.
If the internet's carbon footprint is already a cause of climate disaster, how shall the revolution proceed without solving the contradiction deriving from its gradual destruction of the very basis and need for its emergence? Or shall this revolution unleash its potential to a burning planet, negating negation by adapting design solely to its own survival in the flames?
The human factor is obviously an issue. Could it be that humans need to develop and adapt if they are to achieve what Aaron Bastani has called Fully Automated Luxury Communism (Verso, 2019). To think any further is to see how that might happen in different ways, not all of them as comfortable as the notion of cybernetically-regulated sustainability. "But where danger is", we might hope that "deliverance too will grow."
A Thought Experiment
by Christos Tombras
Let’s imagine there was a lotto jackpot. The fourth in a row. The total prize exceeds now your wildest dreams. You can’t ignore it any more. You have made up your mind. You are going to play. You rush to the betting shop. You grab some lotto tickets, you take out your pen, and you are just about to mark some numbers down – when, out of nowhere, a demon appears.
That’s odd, you might think, but it’s not. Remember, we are conducting a thought experiment.
“Wait a second”, the demon says in an assertive but warm voice. “Please forgive the interruption. You came here to play lotto, no? I see your excitement and eagerness to choose some numbers, but may I have your attention for a moment?”
You are startled of course, if not a bit worried. He is a demon, after all. You look at him. A proper demon, with all his demon’s paraphernalia. Unsettlingly, he appears to be visible only to you: other customers are getting on with their business completely undisturbed. That’s highly unusual. But then the demon looks benign and friendly, so you are worried, but not too worried. Admittedly you are a bit curious too.
“You want to win” the demon is saying now, “and that’s why you are going to pick your five numbers carefully. You think you are free to choose any number you want, but – please allow me to disappoint you – you are not. I know exactly the numbers you are going to pick.”
You glance around nervously. No-one seems to pay attention to the exchange. People simply go about their business. The demon is waiting for a reaction.
“How do you know my numbers?” you ask. “How can you know my numbers? I haven’t written them down yet. I haven’t even chosen numbers yet. What are you trying to do?”
“Nothing, really”, the demon says. “You don’t need to worry. I just want to make a case about free will. You thought you are free to choose, and I want to show you, you are not. As I said, your numbers are known to me – even before you know them yourself.”
“What is this all about?” you exclaim. “Is this some kind of a trick?”
“Not at all. You are unconvinced, that’s natural, but it’s the truth. I can prove it to you.” The demon hands you an envelope. “Here. There is a paper in it”, he says. “It’s for you. It has the five numbers you were going to play.”
You take it reluctantly.
“This is what I am interested in”, the demon says. “I am interested in what you are going to do now.”
You remain silent.
“Or rather, I am not.” The demon smiles at you. “I know what you’ll do. I just know it. That’s all. Take care. Bye!”
And with that, the demon flies away.
So, here we are. This is the thought experiment.
What if you were indeed going to play lotto, and a demon did indeed appear to you and told you that he knew your numbers even before you knew them yourself, and what if the demon left you a paper with the numbers. What would you do?
Would you ignore the episode and pretend nothing ever happened?
Would you look at the demon’s numbers? And if you did that, would you first write your own numbers down or not? Because, you see, without having written them down, you can’t really know if the demon’s guess is correct. Would you trust the demon’s prediction and play along? Would you perhaps discard his numbers, and play something else?
On the other hand, if you did write your numbers, how would you be affected by the demon’s prediction? Imagine that he guessed correctly. Would you still play these numbers? What if he wasn’t correct? What then? Would you choose to play the demon’s numbers? Your numbers? Or perhaps a combination of the two?
And so on, and so forth.
The whole matter rapidly becomes very confusing.
But that is not the point. The point is that the more one thinks about it, something else becomes increasingly clear.
Whatever you decide to do; whether you’ll choose to use the numbers the demon predicted; or choose other, new numbers; or pretend there was no prediction; and so on and so forth. In all those cases, you have become aware of a demon’s prediction, and this very fact, the fact that a prediction exists, affects your choice in ways that render the prediction irrelevant.
A bit like Schrödinger’s cat, only reversed.
I don’t know the moral of this story.
Perhaps we could return to this next time?
India after Modi
by Samir Gandesha
A considerable strength of Ajay Gudavarthy’s acutely insightful book, India After Modi, is that it locates the shift in Indian politics not simply in the BJP but in prior transformations of the state which, of course, contrasts with many US liberals who are unable to see the precursors of the Donald Trump presidency in Obama and George W. Bush administrations. It also refuses to denounce populism moralistically, viewing it as a legitimate opening for marginalized groups to enter political life and one the Left must grapple with.
What Gudavarthy means by the book title, India after Modi, is that the Indian Prime Minister, like other populists, has not simply won political power at the national level (now twice – the second time, surprisingly, by an even greater margin) within the existing rules of politics. Rather, what he has done is changed those very rules. From its inception as a secular, socialist state, politics in India were grounded in a certain separation of public and private and were premised upon a distinctly liberal account of public reason. Such a form of reason entailed that citizens made calculated choices and decisions based upon their own understanding of their interests. Such decisions were themselves guided by a set of institutions oriented towards limiting executive power: for example, free and unencumbered elections, the separation of the judicial and legislative branches of government, a free press, universities oriented by the principle of academic freedom, constitutionalism, due process and, perhaps above all, the rule of law.
In such a model, religious belief was a matter of private conscience and, in principle, had a marginal role in public life. Moreover, if reason carried the day within the realm of public life, emotion and affect was relegated to the realm of privacy and familial life.
In the name of ‘the people’
With the exception of elections, Modi came to challenge and undermine most liberal-democratic assumptions and commitments. One glaring case in point is the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, guaranteeing the right of Jammu and Kashmir to self-determination. Democracy is reduced to pure electoralism dominated by majoritarianism. Beyond that, any attempt to hold the government to account between elections is denounced as seditious or, as in the oft-used slogan, “anti-national.” Emotional appeals have supplanted or displaced reasoned debated and argumentation. Moreover, in what Gudavarthy calls “performative dialectics” the Hindutva project cannily appropriates certain post-colonial tropes, in particular a certain emphasis on particularism and moral relativism, “The conservative political being of the Right today ‘feels like a subaltern and thinks like the elite’.”
For example, BJP President, Amit Shah, claims that western notions of “Human rights” have no place in India. In other words, the articulation of what often amounts to a radical form of particularity (communalism) in opposition to universalism is pressed into the service of authoritarian political ends. The abrogation of liberal-democratic norms and values is undertaken in the name of ‘the people’ which is said to be embodied in the will of a strong leader.
Gudavarthy offers a fascinating discussion of the elective affinities between Hindutva and fascist discourse, especially clear and ever more pressing after the abrogation of Article 370. The danger of fascism today, as the great late Egyptian political economist, Samir Amin (2014) put it, is precisely the destruction of liberal-democratic institutions and the underlying public reason that underlies it, in the name of an overarching collective identity.
India’s middle class
In a post-Modi India, there is simply no returning to the status quo ante. Troublingly, while discerning some hopeful signs of a green-blue-red alliance comprised of Muslim, Dalit, and Left formations, Gudavarthy shows the opposition to be divided against itself. It seems that while benefiting the right, the politics of identity– not just in India but globally – dooms the left to failure.
Gudavarthy reminds us how the middle class in the west came into its own in a period of relative stability and security in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. As a consequence, it played a moderating role between working class demands from below on the one hand, and the bourgeois drive to accumulation regardless of the costs and consequences, on the other. The Indian middle class, in contrast, arose precisely under conditions of insecurity in which the social bond was replaced by purely transactional relationships (what Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto referred to as “callous cash payment”) which could therefore be broken off at any point. Such pervasive and constitutive insecurity makes the Indian middle class uniquely susceptible to the attractions of Hindu communalism, articulated in a way that makes it attractive to this class.
As Gudavarthy argues: “The Right has encroached on the discourse of equality, dignity, recognition, and representation, and sutured them to the ideas of unity, nationalism, loyalty, and order”.
by Rosemary Bechler
“One Sunday night already getting on to the small hours, I chanced to find myself walking alongside a band of six tipsy artisans for a dozen paces or so, and there and then I became convinced that all thoughts, all feelings, and even whole trains of reasoning could be expressed by using a certain noun, a noun, moreover, of utmost simplicity in itself. Here is what happened. First, one of these fellows voices this noun shrilly and emphatically by way of expressing his utterly disdainful denial of some point that had been in general contention just prior. A second fellow repeats this very same noun in response to the first fellow, but now in an altogether different tone and sense – to wit, in the sense that he fully doubted the veracity of the first fellow's denial… And so, without having uttered one other word, they repeated just this one, but obviously beloved, little word of theirs six times in a row, one after the other, and they understood one another perfectly.”
Dostoevsky’s Diary of a Writer, as quoted in Chapter 4 of the Marxist Philosophy of Language, by M. Volosinov
For Volosinov, the study of human language cannot be detached from social existence in time and space and from the impact of socioeconomic conditions. No dictionary definition of the written word is going to capture the meaning of a noun that can be used differently six times. Once one has taken into account the overall context and the relationship between the recipients, intonation provides an essential clue for closing down the many options for the noun’s meaning, and the intonation of the immediate response provides a further clue.
This may be an extreme invocation of the need to grasp meaning through the subtleties of performative utterance, but it is not difficult to conjure examples of a simple sentence which means something very different in different speech contexts.
Think of the huge range of readings of Shakespeare classics at the mercy of the main actors’ choices of emphasis and intonation. Derby potteries recast their popular Richard the Third figurine in the successive postures of David Garrick (from a 1760 portrait), John Philip Kemble (1790) and Edmund Kean (1814) for good reason, since the character had travelled in time from a haunted brutal murderer to the imposing eloquence of a flawed hero, to Edmund Kean’s existential villain-hero, whose turbulent and passionate spontaneity threw Lord Byron into convulsions.
Or take the cruder example I hazarded in an article on the row over the nature of the Zionist state that has accompanied attempts to apply the IHRA definition of antisemitism to ‘hate speech’ by banning certain tropes: “statements calling for the destruction of the state of Israel mean something very different when yelled by a young Palestinian trapped in the Occupied Territories and humiliated by the experience of occupation, from, say, the opinion of a Middle East military man with influence over the development of a nuclear arsenal in his country.”
Of course, in the ongoing storm over allegations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, nobody is choosing between traumatised Palestinian youths and calculating Arab generals. Nevertheless, it is troubling to hear of expulsions of members on the basis of written accusations including the citing of certain phrases or tropes, apparently without any review of speech context, and more disturbingly, in situations where the accused rejects having meant what she or he is accused of saying, and yet is denied a hearing.
How can the intention of the person uttering a trope be assessed without a hearing? When you are told that a person has used a certain form of speech, but not how or why they have used it, won’t your reading of the trope be inevitably governed by your own a priori assumptions about the motives of the people involved? Moreover the Labour Party’s accusers, having bitterly insisted on the full set of IHRA exemplary tropes being adopted by Labour, rather than being open to persuasion, must hope that all will prove decisive in spotting misdemeanors. The only chance you have to move away from such assumptions is to at least contemplate the possibility of another rendition. Given the gathering call for swift and irrevocable punishment without a hearing, how could you ever amend your own prejudicial view?
In practise, the accusing institutions and constituencies seem happier to see careers blasted by accusations of antisemitism without even going through the motions of applying the hard-fought-for IHRA definition. Any substantive charges of antisemitism are being dropped or transmuted into the far more general charge of ‘bringing the Party into disrepute’. This in turn eludes easy definition. But it now seems a member can achieve this by querying the Party’s procedure for establishing left antisemitic motivation.
Isn’t it time to stop this punitive charade and have a political debate?
Julian Assange: another other
by Leonie Rushforth
Many consumers of news in recent months, during and since the lamentable coverage of the UK General Election campaign, have been asking what is going on in British journalism. A statement released on 12 December 2019 by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) in support of Julian Assange has gathered 1130 signatures in a month. Barely 40 are UK journalists: across all media, journalists and writers have shown a marked lack of interest in the case. There are honorable exceptions. Yet all British journalists know what is happening to Assange and why; a tiny number of them see him as someone they wish to defend or be seen to defend. A search enquiry for ‘Julian Assange’ on the NUJ website yields a single result – a post in December 2019 linking to the IFJ statement. This is worth considering.
To rehearse a few facts: Assange founded WikiLeaks in 2006. In April 2010 he published the Collateral Murder footage of the 2007 US airstrike on unarmed civilians in Baghdad. In July 2010 he released the Afghan War Diary, internal US military logs of the war in Afghanistan. In August 2010 the Swedish Prosecutor issued an arrest warrant for Assange on 2 charges, one of rape and one of molestation. Assange was arrested in London and granted bail in December 2010. In May 2012 the UK Supreme Court finally ruled that he should be extradited to Sweden to face these charges and at that point Assange, fearing extradition from Sweden to the US, took refuge in the Ecuadorean embassy in London where he stayed until last year. There is a lot more to say about how conditions of his asylum there changed as time passed and critically after Ecuador elected a new president in 2017.
Assange is now in Belmarsh high security prison in solitary confinement, having been taken by force from the embassy in April 2019. The Swedish charges were dropped in May 2017, re-imposed in May 2019 and dropped for a second time in November 2019. However he faces new charges – 17 of them, brought by the US government in May 2019 under the 1917 Espionage Act. These charges relate solely to the material provided by Chelsea Manning that Assange released in 2010 and would mean his trial by military tribunal outside the control of civilian judges. There would be no right of appeal. As WikiLeaks tweeted the day the charges were issued: It is the end of national security journalism and the first amendment.
Before he can be brought to trial, he must be extradited to the US by the UK Government. The hearing has been fixed for February 25, 2020. Friends and supporters have been attending his recent court appearances and have been shocked by the deterioration in his health and bearing. In November 2019, 60 doctors signed a letter voicing their concern. Nils Melzer, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, has written twice to the UK Government about Assange’s treatment, asking for his immediate release. The reply was a tweet from Jeremy Hunt telling him to mind his own business. Two weeks later Hunt tweeted in support of the Russian investigative journalist Golunov: ‘journalists should never have to face intimidation for doing their jobs. Great to see strong support for Golunov from across Russian society.’ The UN, international norms and the British public are being treated with contempt by the UK Government. Where in our media are the questions to ministers, the holdings to account, the facts?
An example is being made. Just as Jeremy Corbyn, a potential Prime Minister, was systematically dehumanized, so Assange has been rendered a something else deserving of suffering. The means are different, the effects the same: distaste, derision, mistrust, ostracism. Journalists, and many others, have taken note. As Prime Minister in a Labour Government, Corbyn would have changed British foreign policy decisively, steering a course towards peace and away from adventurism and wars of the kind WikiLeaks showed us close-up – and this was perhaps the single most dangerous thing about him.
We were deprived of the opportunity to see what this transformation would have been like. But Assange transformed investigative journalism before his persecution, doing us an inestimable service by providing a safe space for whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden – and so that we properly understand the gravity of the crime he committed, we have been required to witness a brutal punishment taking its course: a protracted and ruthless business defined unambiguously as torture by the UN. The silence from a profession thus neutralised is deafening.
On January 21, 2020, Glenn Greenwald, investigative journalist and co-founder of The Intercept, was arrested in Brazil and charged with cybercrimes. Edward Snowden had this to say:
Latest news, January 24 :
UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Nils Melzer, on the explosive findings of his investigation into the Assange case, Republik, January 31, 2020.
« If Julian Assange is convicted, it will be a death sentence for freedom of the press.»
Mark Curtis to the IFJ meeting in November 2019: 8 things we can all do
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