Thursday, September 29, 2016

'Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion' - Gareth Stedman Jones

Amazon Link

Stalinism has guttered and died; Maoism is moribund. The remaining tradition of revolutionary Marxism is overwhelmingly Trotskyist, yet few contemporary Marxist activists have read much Marx.

As a member of the International Marxist Group in the 1970s, I, along with my serious-minded comrades read Lenin for theories of the state and the party, and Trotsky for the united front, the theory of Permanent Revolution, and analysis of degenerated and deformed workers’ states. I tried to read 'Capital' but was not much interested in economics (and the book was tedious - Mandel was easier). I dabbled a little with Marx’s thoughts on alienation and philosophy but Lukács was more compelling.

What we thought we knew was that Marx had analysed capitalism not as a set of robust, enduring institutions – the ‘end of history’ – but as exploitative social relationships between people constituted as classes, which could be unmade by different social behaviour, different ‘relations of production’. Capitalism was the latest in a long line of social forms which, by increasing the ‘forces of production’ immeasurably, was opening the way to a truly free society based on abundance. The rest was politics, and on this, Marx’s writings appeared to have little relevance to the modern day.

Everyone has an agenda with Marx. The Second International under Kautsky used him to justify its minimal/maximal programmes of de facto collaboration with the bourgeois state. Lenin and Trotsky used him to demonstrate unavoidable, terminal contradictions within capitalism and the necessity of violent revolution. Bourgeois writers distorted his words while left-liberals saw him as a much-maligned but benign genius, whose far-sighted humanity had been co-opted by extremists.

Gareth Stedman Jones’s response has been a deep, immersive dive into the history, politics and ideas which swirled around the contemporary Marx. For most of the book it seems that Jones – along with the reader - has become an invisible member of that small group of friends, colleagues and acolytes of ‘Karl’ as he lives his life from one month to the next responding to events. Jones appears to have read everything important in those debates and to be intimately acquainted with the detailed history of Western Europe and America during Marx’s lifetime (1818 – 1883).

The picture which emerges is much more realistic than the disengaged, omniscient oracle of legend. Marx starts as a classicist and aspiring poet with some legal training. Always political (the ‘Young Hegelians’), he is not at first interested in economics, much preferring philosophy, the subject of his PhD. In the 1840s he supports himself by radical journalism which was to remain his career through most of his life: it was not lucrative.

‘Capital’ was written in the 1860s, in London. Jones describes the major innovations which Marx introduced – specifically the clear distinctions between use-value and exchange-value, the concept of surplus value and the analysis of generalised commodity production as distinctive of capitalism. Here, the exploitative character of capitalism has been laid bare, while in the tendency of the average rate of profit to fall (through an ever-increasing level of automation - ‘constant capital’) a rationale was proposed for inherent limits of the capitalist mode of production.

It was here, according to Jones, that Marx ran out of steam. Although he had a decade or more of life ahead of him he was unable to resolve a number of theoretical problems. How was the abstract concept of exchange-value translated into prices as seen in the shops and on the stock exchanges? How did capitalism interact with the pre-capitalist world as it expanded across the world - what was the nature of the dynamic and to what extent was 'imperialism' forced by its very nature? How could we understand the distinctive incarnations of the capitalist state?

Whenever Marx was under deadlines to write up his analysis of these issues, promised for the later volumes of ‘Capital’, ill-health seemed to intervene – liver problems, headaches and those famous ‘carbuncles’. Jones suggests this was not an accident.

Marx was not incredibly famous during his lifetime. He was for periods notorious however - demonised by the press as a dangerous agitator in the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1871. Meanwhile ‘Capital’ volume one sold well enough (one wonders how much of it was read, however). His real fame came posthumously when his views, as packaged by Engels, became very convenient – in a crude form - as a foundational vision for the influential German Social-Democratic Party (the Erfurt Programme). Things never looked back after that.

Gareth Stedman Jones has written a stellar book here, the scholarship immense. The reader truly feels present in Marx’s life and times. Jones shows how frequently Marx was wrong, tending to impose his ideas as a smothering straightjacket over the complexity and subtlety of political events. Yet he also showed more insight than many of his left-wing colleagues while his thinking was far deeper and more profound. We should also not forget that, in journalistic terms, he was a highly-talented writer.

I have a small quibble: Jones has scrupulously adopted an observational tone, with only small amounts of critical commentary on the more theoretical issues. I would have welcomed a chapter, perhaps at the end, where the author could have summed up what he thought Marx’s fundamental contributions had been - and more specifically, where he though Marx had been intellectually defeated.

Note: while this is an excellent book, it does presuppose the reader is actually interested in the intellectual debates and political disputes of mid-nineteenth century Europe. If you feel underwhelmed, for example, by the issues which so agitated the Young Hegelians, it’s unlikely that you’ll get past the early chapters.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Badger is back!

Yesterday in the small hours

There was some discussion as to whether the badger was responsible for clearing out the robin mix in that ceramic bowl on the patio. Clare speculated about an insane and frenzied banqueting orgy at dawn by assembled ground feeders.

But I was always more convinced that the marksmen had failed - and that Brock was back!

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fashion, Faith and Fantasy: a kind of review

Amazon link

I have just "finished" this book and put my hands up in dismay at the thought of reviewing it.

Roger Penrose is now 85 and this book may be the final presentation of his worldview. Although he talks about the 'layman' as his audience, potential readers should recall "The Road to Reality". In Amazon reviews of that tome, retired maths professors and physics PhDs lined up to recount at which chapter they hit the limits of their knowledge and had to give up.

This volume is not so different.

In a nutshell:

1. Penrose dislikes String Theory because its extra dimensions admit too many functional degrees of freedom (basically the number of possible field configurations).  It is not explained clearly why the super-explosion in the functional freedom space size is problematic, although he does make a related point that he believes that the six 'curled-up' dimensions are actually unstable and should collapse.

Perhaps it's obvious.

2. Quantum Theory is seen as a partial or incomplete theory - in particular, Penrose thinks that its linearity will be violated in an improved theory. He believes that the reason we don't observe 'Schrödinger's cat' spatial superpositions is due to the gravitational effects of superposition (he takes spatial delocalisation to have a real gravitational effect, aligning with his ontological realism for the quantum state). Specifically, the gravitational self-energy due to the superposition generates energy uncertainty, equivalent to time-uncertainty, hence superposed stationary states collapse into a position eigenstate very quickly. As he explains it, the maths behind this is pretty advanced, requiring general relativity.

3. Cosmologically, Penrose is not a fan of inflation, basing his criticisms on the 2nd Law and entropy. His criticisms have force suggesting that inflation retains support faute de mieux.

What does Penrose himself suggest as alternatives? He thinks twistor theory (a framework featuring emergent space-time) continues to have promise, and believes that a particular kind of bouncing, recurrent universe traversing through repeated big-bangs can explain the extraordinarily low entropy 13.8 billion years ago.

I think it's good for physics that he wrote this book, but absent a huge background in general relativity, complex analysis, twistor theory, quantum field theory and tensor analysis it's difficult to assess the merits of his arguments.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

British political tribes are stabilising

With the anticipated anticlimactic confirmation of 'Jeremy' on Saturday, (the Jeremiad?), it seems that British politics has at last settled into a stable configuration. But what is it?

I wish I could see one of those tribal maps marketeers and demographers like so much, but absent that, here's my common-sense guess as to affiliations and voting numbers for the British electorate. From political left to right:

  1. Left middle-class activists + political far-left, the Corbynistas: (less than a million)
  2. Metropolitan BBC/Guardian Labour, the Tristram Hunt left: (some millions)
  3. Working-class socialists and trades unionists, Daily Mirror readers: (some millions)
  4. Metropolitan liberal Conservatives, Cameron/Osborne types: (some millions)
  5. 'Provincial middle-class' and working-class Conservatives: (many millions)
  6. Working-class socially-conservative 'Old' Labour: (many millions)
  7. Right wing fundamentalists such as hard-core UKIP: (less than a million).

The two mass-blocs are emboldened - notice they are both centre-right.

Labour Party capture by the Corbynistas has left both group 2, the Labour metro-liberals and groups 3 and 6, old-school working-class Labour voters, adrift and partyless.

I'm not sure any political tendency properly addresses the concerns of the old-school socialist and trades-unionist working-class Labour voters, (group 3), who have tended to tribally vote Labour, come what may. But this bloc is in any case in terminal decline.

On the liberal centre/centre-left, who now speaks for groups 2 and 4, the Guardian/BBC Labour left and the liberal, public school wing of the Conservatives? Institutional and tribal inertia makes it extremely difficult to establish a unitary party to address this bloc, despite much press speculation. The Liberal-Democrats are too despised, and projects outside the big two of Labour and Conservative have historically been doomed.

Meanwhile on the socially-conservative right, UKIP had a real chance to expand out from group 7, the 'right wing fundamentalists', to go after sections of the ex-Labour working class, but they have been way too disorganised. Instead, Theresa May moved adroitly to position the Tories towards conservative sections of that electorate. UKIP has thus been neatly marginalised.

Since we seem to have arrived at some measure of voting bloc stability, it seems inevitable that after some period - despite the difficulties - a new centre-left party will emerge (2, 3, 4) to confront Theresa May's forthcoming centre-right coalition (5, 6), with both UKIP and the Corbynistas marginalised.


Some Corbynista fellow-travellers believe that Momentum movement politics will 're-found' the Labour Party - a dynamic new membership allowing the Labour Party to reclaim those centre-left millions. Dr Phil Burton-Cartledge is a case in point.

However, Corbynism seems almost designed to make that impossible through its obsessional focus on SJW-style activism, lack of interest in parliamentarism, obscure to non-existent political programme, unpopular pacifism, anti-westernism .. and so on.

Weight Training Programme

Here, for my records and a bored posterity is my current weight training schedule: 16 exercises and the weights assigned to each. Click on images to make larger.

I have two dumbbell-pairs: one set to the full 10kg each; the other pair set to 7.5kg each which can then be reduced (via one pair of locking collars removal) down to 6.5kg.

The remaining weights, not affixed to the bar, (1.25 + 0.5 =1.75kg and not 5kg, as the spreadsheet mistakenly calculates) can be used for the final three exercises (dumbbell sets pictured below).*

Here are the exercises (most of them) - I tend to work through each, in the order above, starting with the heaviest weights and mixing the muscle groups.

Takes about forty minutes. Some cardio to start and end; stretching exercises at the end. Before I hit the weights I do some non-apparatus exercises such as press-ups, ab crunches, locust and plank, boat and leg stretch.

The weights shown are pretty feeble! I'm an ectomorph and very far from the stereotypical lifter. Also not trying for massive muscle gain - it's more about avoiding muscle-mass loss and general task competence.


* The dumbbell weights are: 2.5kg, 1.25kg and 0.5kg. Each dumbbell bar weighs 1.5kg empty.

So a full configuration is: 1.5 + (2*2.5) + (2*1.25) + (2*0.5) = 1.5 + 5 + 2.5 + 1 = 10kg.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


This is a joke, right? (H/t Jess Riedel)
"Many thoughtful people have embraced some form of vegetarianism, adopting practices long traditional with Hindus, Seventh Day Adventists, and other groups.  But that is only a partial solution.  Modern molecular genetics and biochemistry has proved beyond doubt the interrelatedness of all living things, from the lowliest bacterium to the tallest redwood.  We are scarcely less related to the wheat or the yeast in a loaf of bread than we are to our fellow animals.

"We can no longer hide behind the idea that these life forms are not our kin, nor can we rationalize our mistreatment of them by saying that plants, fungi, and microbes are incapable of suffering.  The instinct to avoid pain and noxious stimuli, and the restless search for favorable conditions, which Thomas Jefferson called the pursuit of happiness, are as universal among living beings as their DNA.

If we refuse to eat our relatives, what CAN we eat?  Fortunately, the same sciences of chemistry and biology that reveal our kinship to all life have freed us at last from the need to kill.  Although most people are surprised to hear it, it is possible to live and thrive on a diet consisting entirely of foods of mineral origin.

"This is because every one of the several dozen nutrients the human body requires - carbohydrate, amino acids, fats, vitamins, and of course minerals - can be synthesized or extracted from air, water, and rock without the involvement of any life form, aside from the chemists who perform these miraculous transformations.

"The Mineralarians are an international association of people, diverse in other respects, who share the common determination to subsist on foods of mineral origin, thereby sparing our fellow beings the victimization that has been their lot, at our hands for the last million years, and before that at the claws and jaws of previously dominant species."
So how would this work?
"How are Mineralarian foods made?  Starting with carbon from coal and petroleum, hydrogen from water and nitrogen and oxygen from air, a few feedstocks of simple organic chemicals are made.  Some,  like glycerine (C3H8O3), are already nutritious and digestible; others, like methanol, ammonia, and acetaldehyde, are merely intermediates along the way to synthesizing the dozens of amino acids, fatty acids, and vitamins the body needs in greater or lesser quantity.

"Many of the synthetic reactions mimic those that occur naturally in plants and microbes, but we carry them out with mineral catalysts in a cruelty-free laboratory environment.   The body's own metabolism picks up where our chemistry leaves off, converting the few dozen essential nutrients in mineralarian food into the hundreds and thousands of specialized molecules, including DNA and proteins, required for life. "
Coal?! You're eating extracts from coal!? And petroleum!?? But these come from lifeforms, creatures that were once alive!
"Some mineralarians choose not to eat foods made from fossil fuels like coal and petroleum, or fossiliferous sedimentary rocks, for the same reason they would be not want to eat road kills.  Fossils are usually the result of violence and often contain plain evidence of a being's untimely and painful death.

"To be sure, the violence was not due to human cruelty or negligence, and indeed usually predates the appearance of humans on earth, but it is violence nonetheless.  For those who do not wish to bring the fruits of ancient violence into their bodies, we offer a range of strict mineralarian foods made entirely from certified igneous rocks and atmospheric gases.

"For some, even these foods are problematic, because there is no assurance that an iron or calcium atom freshly spewed from a volcano, or a nitrogen atom distilled out of the air, has not at some earlier time in geologic history been part of a living being who suffered a violent death.  Certainly there are some atoms on earth that have never been part of living beings, but there is no sure way to identify them, because all atoms of a given kind (isotope) are physically indistinguishable.

"The consumer of such atoms is like a reluctant participant in an old-fashioned firing squad execution, where it was customary to issue one blank round at random among the live rounds, so each squad member would have some chance of not having killed.

"If you are troubled by such thoughts, please contact us.  If there is enough interest, we will investigate the possibility of creating foods from material of extraterrestrial origin, in other words from meteorites.  Such food would be as nutritious and tasty as our other offerings, but it would likely be quite expensive, because some biologically essential elements, like nitrogen, occur only in low concentrations in meteorites."
If you feel a need to contact these folk - possible 'this person' - there is a contact email address (Charles Bennett) at the article.


If the Mineralarians are not to your taste, why not choose a Minuteman Pizza?

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Lots of good stuff at this group-blog of economists and evolutionists -

Many good people: Peter Turchin, Joseph Henrich, Jonathan Haidt, Matt Ridley, Garett Jones, .. .

Here are some notable articles, just from a fast scan.

Do Immigrants Import Their Economic Destiny? How migration shapes the prosperity of countries - Garett Jones.

A Radical Proposal After Brexit: End the European Union and Begin Destructive Creation - Peter Turchin.

How America Hates Socialism without Knowing Why - Lixing Sun

How Basic Income Solves Capitalism’s Fundamental Problem - Tom Streithorst

The Pipe Dream of Anarcho-Populism: elites, hierarchy, and large scale society - Peter Turchin.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Why Jeremy will win

Watching Andrew Marr's insightful TV programme about recent political history in Scotland, I was struck by one of his observations: that the decline of Labour and the Trades Unions was a direct consequence of deindustrialisation. Scotland, he said, is now a post-industrial country with all the political and cultural diversity which comes with that.

Something else I read, relating to the evolution of the Labour Party (I have forgotten who wrote this): the Labour Party has walked away from its working class base and been colonised by its other historical support group, the urban leftist middle class.

OK, you knew that, but the real point was what came next: the middle class is largely unaffected by whichever party occupies government. Consequently, its political activism is fuelled not so much by righteous indignation on behalf of its own (mostly aspirational) problems, but by idealised, sacralised issues, often relating to other, less fortunate segments of society. [Example].

So do we think the future is more social, economic and political atomisation, more middle class overproduction and more cultural-tribal politics .. movement politics?

Or are we going to revert to the kind of proletarian solidarity formerly found in industries such as ship building and the mines?

To ask is to answer.

Forget those socialist-realist posters of cloth-capped workers united in storming the barricades. They are history.*

We have seen the future and it is Jeremy.


* Those posters have been history for a long time. This 'present conjuncture' so reminds me of the politics of the late sixties and early seventies, a time of protest, demonstrations and exciting left-wing politics.

The weasel Owen Smith's fundamental problem in this leadership election is that he thinks the 'Jeremy problem' is lack of competence in an electoral/parliamentary context.

Listen up, Owen! The new membership doesn't care about remote parliamentary antics - it's the movement, stupid!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Garden Engineering

So what's this about?

The height is such that it can just be seen from the couch. 'Dry stone' technology: no drilling, wires or cement - just gravity.

So far, no takers. I have quipped that they are waiting for the shower head and curtain.

Extending this thought and as we progress towards winter, I would certainly not be taking cold baths in the garden. Perhaps I should divert the Christmas lights so that a bulb or two is submerged? That would give them a heated swimming pool.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy

Amazon link

My hard copy has just arrived, a respite from reading Gareth Stedman Jones' theory-and-history-dense biographical tome, "Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion".

Here is how Peter Woit describes Penrose's book.
"Besides a mathematical appendix, the book is divided up into four parts:


"This is the section that deals with string theory, and Penrose’s central objection is to the use of extra spatial dimensions as a crucial part of the theory. When trying to use string theory as a unified theory, an assumption is made that one can take four space-time dimensions very large, and the rest very small, decoupling the large and small dimensions. Penrose argues that there is no reason to believe one can consistently do this, that there should be couplings between these degrees of freedom that cannot be ignored, leading to instability of the theory, rather than a stable ground state with large dimensions.


"In this section Penrose addresses the measurement problem of quantum mechanics, pointing out correctly that our standard story about quantum mechanics introduces an “ontological shift”, indicating that something more is going on than a well-understood consistent framework. He favors the idea that perhaps the introduction of gravity into the usual framework could resolve this problem, backing this up a dimensional analysis argument that a relevant effect could come from gravity, while being too small to be observable so far.


"Here Penrose describes in detail some basic problems in the theory of cosmology, and how they are supposedly resolved by the theory of inflation. He explains that characterizing this as “fantasy” is not meant to be purely critical, that “fantasizing” about the moment of the big bang is what theorists do in the absence of compelling evidence, and that he just has other fantasies he thinks worthwhile.

"A new physics for the universe?

"In a final section, Penrose describes some of his more positive ideas addressing the problems pointed out in the earlier sections. This begins with a wonderful summary of the theory of twistors, and I strongly suspect that he’s right that this very different way of thinking about space-time geometry will ultimately be part of any successful integration of our understanding of quantization and geometry. That this geometry is very specific to four space-time dimensions provides yet another reason for skepticism about the fashion of theories with more spatial dimensions."
Update: I have just been reading the mathematical appendices and - just as with The Road to Reality - Penrose's concept of 'lay person' essentially equates to: reader trained in mathematics and physics to at least graduate level, but not a practising post-doctoral physicist!


You might also be interested in John Baez's blog, Azimuth, where he has four pieces published so far under the general title, "Struggles with the Continuum". Part one is here, and each part links to the next.
"Is spacetime really a continuum? That is, can points of spacetime really be described—at least locally—by lists of four real numbers (t,x,y,z)? Or is this description, though immensely successful so far, just an approximation that breaks down at short distances?

"Rather than trying to answer this hard question, let’s look back at the struggles with the continuum that mathematicians and physicists have had so far."
Part one is devoted to Newtonian mechanics and considers point particles moving under gravity. Is this well-understood and well-behaved?

"Xia proved in 1992 that with 5 or more particles, there are solutions where particles shoot off to infinity in a finite amount of time!"
The second part introduces the quantum mechanics of charged point-particles (deploying the uncertainty principle). This makes a difference, but things break down with more than three spatial dimensions.

Part three brings in special relativity, and part four quantum field theory.

There is at least one more part promised, and the level of analysis is not beyond that of a maths/physics graduate - at least to get the general idea.


Today, another one of "the last days of summer", found us at Lytes Cary Manor in the 28 degrees sunshine.

Lytes Cary Manor, Somerset

We had a picnic, swished off a wasp or two, took a walk around the woodland trail then sat in the gardens for a while, watching the Yeovilton helicopters training overhead. Then we came home.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Workers, slaves, androids - and agency

Einstein produced well-validated scientific theories combined with speculations which seem out of synch with current quantum orthodoxies, while politically he seemed to be socialist-pacifist.

Marx produced rigorous theories of class societies focusing on the capitalist mode of production (Capital etc), speculated about the future of capitalism (inaccurately), and politically seemed to be, well, a communist.

It pays to stay focused on the theories.

So ignore the politicking and moralising and focus on Marxism as a theoretical system; how exactly do workers as living, breathing persons figure in Marxist economic theory?


In the beginning was the 'primitive communism' of egalitarian hunter-gathers. Following the neolithic revolutions - agriculture and pastoralism - we entered the age of class societies. All class societies are unequal. At the bottom there are one or more classes which are the primary producers of the necessities of life.

Through the increased productivity of agriculture and pastoralism, the lower classes produced more than they needed to survive. The excess, the social surplus product, was appropriated by the rulers, also serving to fund the elements of the state - administration, warriors and of course, tax collectors.

There was always an accompanying ideology to explain why this little ditty:

was inapplicable, and in fact downright subversive.

Archaic empires had their God-Kings while Axial age empires harnessed more abstract Gods to the maintenance of social order.

In feudal times, there was "a set of reciprocal legal and military obligations revolving around the three key concepts of lords, vassals and fiefs. A lord was in broad terms a noble who held land, a vassal was a person who was granted possession of the land by the lord, and the land was known as a fief. In exchange for the use of the fief and the protection of the lord, the vassal would provide some sort of service to the lord."

As I mentioned already, for Marx the specific essence of capitalism was generalised commodity production and exchange.

The value at which a commodity is exchanged is captured by the formula c + v + s, where c is the value of machinery and raw materials, v the value of the worker's wage and s the additional value created by the activity of the worker in producing the final commodity.

The class nature of capitalism is exhibited in that the worker produces more value (v + s) than he or she receives in payment (v). It doesn't seem that way, as wages are superficially presented as payment for labour (ie the product of labour) rather than labour-power (the capacity to work - placed at the disposal of the capitalist).

Still, in formal terms the worker and the capitalist meet as equals in the market place; the worker sells his/her labour-power and receives a fair price for it. The workers don't have to sell their labour-power and the capitalist doesn't have to employ them. Proletarians have agency (although the concept is not theorised).

We have to add a few things to get closer to quotidien reality: asymmetries of power between workers and bosses; supply/demand & differing profitabilities creating price-variations around value, and so on. But the principle is as stated.


People sometimes talk about wage-slavery, working for the Man. Slavery exists under capitalism (the antebellum American South and Nazi Germany being high-profile examples) but in Marxist economics a slave isn't a proletarian; a slave is not a party to a market-transaction for labour-power: a slave is owned.

In this sense, a slave is in the same category as any other piece of equipment, classified as constant capital (c) in the equation. The slave is not paid wages but is merely provided with the same maintenance and raw materials (specifically shelter, food) as any other piece of smart automation. In particular, a slave does not produce surplus value (just surplus product). An economy comprised wholly of slaves, with no wage-labourers, is exactly equivalent to a totally-automated economy - it cannot operate as a capitalist economy as no surplus value is produced.

It's in this sense that slave economies such as the Roman Empire prefigure speculative-future total-automation economies. The Romans had a class of incredibly advanced, intelligent instrumenta vocalia ('talking tools') embedded within a general technological environment of staggering backwardness and low productivity.

The instrumentum vocale philosophy might be adopted for future AI systems, such as the androids featured in the recent TV programme 'Humans', but we run straight into the problem of agency.

"Humans" on Channel 4, showing the 'Synth' Anita

The moment we start treating advanced automation systems as persons, we cannot embed them into the economy as 'talking tools'. Considering them as free agents, we may feel obligated to offer them rights, including labour rights in waged employment. They then enter our existing capitalist society as 'new proletarians' .. and 'new capitalists'.

No doubt that will turn out well.


Let's be clear. There is nothing in Marx or reality which prevents a 'robot capitalism'. As long as worker-robots are paid wages which they use to buy their means of self-reproduction in the marketplace, and as long as robot-capitalists can use their robotic work force's labour-power to make profits, capitalist relations of production remain in place.

Protoplasm is not a requirement.

Whether these industrious, capable androids will feel comfortable being taxed to support the remaining, wholly parasitic, humans is an issue I leave to your imagination.


In the previous post on this topic, "Total automation under capitalism?", I considered communism brought about by non-sentient automation, giving as an example the 3D printer/fabricator.

In the scenario above, abundance is delivered through automation systems with agency: sentient AI systems - androids or robots - which most people would classify as persons.

It mirrors the distinction in AI research between systems which augment people (like Google today, satnavs or exoskeletons) and those which emulate/replace people, which cut people out of the loop. There are few examples of the latter at the moment - autonomous piloted vehicles perhaps being the most salient.

If we are to avoid the much-hyped technological singularity where in the worst case humans are rendered extinct by our creations, we should perhaps make sure that our automated infrastructure is of the non-sentient type while AI-based agents become our colleagues, companions and friends.

On a bad day, I wonder if this distinction can really hold, given the likely extreme complexity of a communist economy.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Wapping Wharf - how cool is that?

Saturday at Wapping Wharf.

"Wapping Wharf is rapidly becoming a new independent food and drink quarter for Bristol.

"From sourdough pizzas to organic fruit and vegetables, and from freshly baked bread to specialist coffees, Wapping Wharf is home to a plethora of independent restaurants, cafes and shops.

"Gaol Ferry Steps, the tree-lined, pedestrianised route running through Wapping Wharf, has retailers located along either side, while CARGO, a new retail yard made of converted shipping containers, brings together a range of independent traders."
Street entertainers, artisan restaurants, plenty of wood ... Bristol Harbourside is buzzing!

Here we're taking lunch at the Mud Dock cafe, perched two floors above their cycle shop. It's a 'repurposed red-brick harbourside warehouse converted in 1994'.

Above is a view, through the serving hatch, of the kitchen.

The buzz was amplified by the Tour of Britain (stage 7 circulating nearby). Crowds of tall, thin, bearded young men with their pleasantly middle-class families were earnestly expounding the finer points of bike-racing as their heroes time-trialled past every minute.

Bradley Wiggin on the morning's time trial

Mark Cavendish on the morning's time trial

We were so excited that we at once resolved to dispose of our comfortable, spacious house in Wells and lease a trendy apartment in Wapping Wharf where we could be close to the real action.

Who needs a car when you can walk to the Watershed for artistic films and organic green tea? The Arnolfini gallery is just a few hundred yards away - we could explore the subversive power of punk. And all around the delights of central Bristol: galleries, museums, parks, shopping, political activism.

We wait by the river Avon for the next arrival of the Peloton

Mark Cavendish leading the Sky team

Andrei Greipel on the right

We even saw the former Mayor, George Ferguson, in his distinctive red trousers cycling past us from his flat near the Tobacco Factory theatre.

On our way home, we did the logistics. We probably do still need the car. We would want a large bedroom plus an additional large room for guests and as my weight room cum study. The new apartment needs to be affordable. Oh, and there are no more apartments to rent in Wapping Wharf; Phase 1 is sold out.

I think this one is going to have to be deferred.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Gym: Dec 2012 - November 2016

In December 2012 I wrote about my gym induction. The Wells Blue Sports Centre is just seven minutes walk from home and I had signed up.

The proximate cause was Dr Michael Mosley. In August 2012, after his TV programme introducing the 5:2 diet, I decided to give it a go. By December the fat had rolled off - I lost more than two stone. But healthy thinking is contagious: fed up with being a couch potato, I had decided to join the local gym.

So here we are, four years of gym-bunnying later. Recently it penetrated my consciousness that I'm not getting a whole lot stronger. Blaming my poor use of the resistance machines, I took the weight room induction.

There are big advantages to free weight training. But it's complicated learning the exercises and assessing the right weights, much harder than the choreographed resistance machines. Serious home study was required, so I bought the York Dumbbell set and started working through their recommended suite of routines.

Bench-pressing 20kg: things can only get better!

It's good, and this morning I additionally jogged almost two kilometres up the Mendips and back, so that's seen to my warm-up and cardio needs.

Why do I need the gym?

So there you have it. I walked across to the gym an hour ago and cancelled my direct debit. From the beginning of November, if Clare or myself want to use it, we pay-as-you-go.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Total automation under capitalism?

1. Introduction
"Primitive communism is a concept originating from Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels who argued that hunter-gatherer societies were traditionally based on egalitarian social relations and common ownership." (Wikipedia).
We know more today about the cultural and material poverty of hunter-gatherer societies and the frequently brutal xenophobic warfare between tribes driven by Malthusian pressures.

But hunter-gatherers looked down upon early farmer societies, seeing gross inequalities, intense, lengthy and servile labour and an absence of freedom for the majority.

They were right.

The dream of human utopia, the vision which drives social change, is that of an enlightened return to that dawn-era of human equality. A best-case bountiful environment back then of plants, fruit and plentiful game is to be replaced by a sophisticated automation-economy which provides for every need: food, shelter, transport, communications, entertainment and so on.

So productive is this imagined future robotic economy that products are produced at need and no money is involved. Hunter-gatherers did not have to 'pay' to pluck fruit from a wild bush or to hunt animals.

Our future machines are self-producing and self-maintaining. They can be freely used by interested groups to build stadiums, new kinds of computers, rocket ships or to embark upon great projects such as colonising Mars.

Speculative as this sounds, it's not beyond extrapolation from our current technological base; a century might do it. In the jargon, it's called 'development of the productive forces' towards abundance.

But what happens as we move inexorably towards total automation under capitalism?

2. Michael Roberts's three-part series

Noted Marxist economist Michael Roberts has an excellent analysis, starting here.

3. Peter Cooper's Model

Peter Cooper (heteconomist) had an extremely useful post about this back in 2011 entitled "Implications of a Purely Mechanized Economy" which I'm going to discuss in detail.

Peter starts like this:
“It is well known that in Marx’s theory of commodity production, labor is the source of all new value. The means of production merely pass on their already existing value to new commodities. [...]

“It is critical to recognize that Marx’s argument applies to value, not physical output or wealth. He is not suggesting that labor is the only source of physical output or wealth. Nature, other animals and machines all clearly create new physical output and wealth, as does labor. The argument, rather, is that only labor translates into new value. The plant, machinery and raw materials used up in the production period only pass on their preexisting value (actually, their prices).

"Nature, in contrast, does not transfer any value to output. Instead, private property rights give owners of natural resources a legal entitlement to a payment of rent, which comes out of the surplus value created in the production period."
This is a really important point, at the heart of Marx's theory. When a wild tree produces grapes (from thin air) which you eat, value has been created for sure. A use-value.

What has not been created is the kind of value which mediates and regulates commodity exchange via the market, called exchange-value. There is no market!

Exchange-value is a social construct, it is constructed through the human activity of equitably implementing the market exchange of commodities, the normal mode of distribution of goods and services in a capitalist society.
“Of the new value that is created in the production period, some goes to workers as wages and some goes to capitalists and other social groups as surplus value. Specifically, surplus labor – the labor carried out in excess of what is required to produce the equivalent of the value paid to workers in wages and salaries – is the basis of surplus value in Marx’s theory. In aggregate, surplus value equals profit, prior to its distribution among various recipients. Some of it will go to rentiers as rent or creditors as interest income.

“Considering that surplus labor is the sole origin of surplus value in Marx’s theory, it is interesting to reflect on an extreme scenario in which the entire production of the economy becomes purely mechanized. Marx’s theory suggests that, in this scenario, capitalism must have ceased to exist! The reason is that there would be no production of surplus value (profit) in such a system, making it unviable for capitalists.

“But what does it mean to say that a purely mechanized economy could not be a capitalist economy? After all, even in such a society, surely we humans would still be doing some things that were not mechanized. So what would be going on?

“It would simply mean that this human activity (labor) was no longer being treated as value production and that our human capacity to work or create (labor power) was no longer being treated as a commodity.

“In such a system, there might still be a requirement to work in order to gain access to material needs, and there might still be authoritarian measures used to direct production. However, it would not be capitalism. The surplus would not take the form of value, but simply its physical form – the material output produced in excess of the needs of social reproduction.

“Equally possible is that we might choose to organize our activities in such a way that income was no longer tied to work. Material needs could be met through the free distribution of the output of mechanized production processes. Required resources and facilities for human endeavors could be made freely available. Human activity could then be genuinely free and associations between individuals voluntary.

Highly Mechanized Production Under Capitalism

“For capitalism to remain despite a high degree of mechanization, it would instead be necessary that at least some human activity continued to be value production. That would require that some human endeavors were only enabled within the context of value production, just as is the case in our present society.

“In the absence of a basic income guarantee, there would be an onus on the government to ensure demand remained sufficient to sustain high levels of employment. Otherwise, in the midst of such plenty, periodic episodes of mass unemployment, especially if continuing for sustained periods, would likely result in extreme social conflict.

“If human activity remained commodified – i.e. capitalist social relations remained in place – capitalists would retain significant ownership and control of the means of production, including the purely robotized or mechanized production processes. Surplus value would continue to be created out of the employment of labor under capitalist conditions. Just as now, all capitalists would compete for a share out of aggregate profit, irrespective of how much surplus value was created in their own sectors.

“The reason for this, in Marx’s theory, is that competition tends to equalize the rate of profit realized by different sectors, even though it is the least capital-intensive sectors (least efficient sectors) that produce the most surplus value (because proportionately they outlay more on the employment of workers than means of production).
I going to replace Cooper's symbols with their spelled-out meanings to make reading a little easier.
“Briefly, for Marx, the [exchange] value of a commodity equals c + v + s. Here: c is ‘constant capital’, the value (or dollar amount) outlaid for the means of production used up in producing the commodity; v is ‘variable capital’, the sum of value outlaid for the employment of labor; and s is ‘surplus value’, the amount of value produced by workers in excess of the amount (v) outlaid on their employment.

“Marx argued that in exchange there would be a tendency for commodities to sell at their ‘prices of production’, 'price', rather than their values. These are the prices that would ensure all sectors received the same rate of profit. They are equal to c + v + profit, [ie cost + profit].

"Prices of production differ from values whenever surplus-value s differs from profit. In sectors with an above average ‘organic composition of capital’ (c/v), profit  > surplus-value and price > value.

"The reverse is true of sectors with an organic composition of capital below the average. In this way, competition causes surplus value to be transferred from sectors with below average compositions of capital to those with above average compositions.

“In aggregate, however, Marx maintained that total value equals total price (the sum of all values equals the sum of all prices), surplus-value equals profit, and the value rate of profit equals the rate of profit.

"In effect, the creation of aggregate surplus value in production determines the amount of aggregate profit that can be realized in exchange, with competition between capitalists merely causing a transfer of surplus value between sectors according to their compositions of capital.

“For example, if the economy were divided into two sectors, one completely mechanized and the other employing a combination of labor and means of production, the situation might look something like this (for simplicity, I have assumed all means of production are used up each period so that there is no fixed capital):
Here I'm replacing Cooper's spreadsheet with my own copy: same numbers, easier to read labels. Note that in his simple model, there are just two commodities produced in the time period of production - one by the Robot sector (completely automated) and one by the Mixed sector (with some human input).

Robot and Mixed Capitalist economy producing two commodities, each of value 100
“In this example, production in the robot sector occurs entirely without labor. Over the period, $100 worth of robots and other means of production, including raw materials, is used up, passing on $100 to the final value. No new value is produced in this sector, and therefore no surplus value. It is simply the already existing value of the means of production that is passed on to the final value.

"The robots, if able to learn, could be getting smarter and smarter throughout the period, thereby enabling larger and larger material output. But in value terms, there is no new value produced, because the amount paid by capitalists for the means of production will reflect costs of production and the rate of profit, not the material output produced by the means of production.

“In the mixed sector, $20 of value is passed on to the final commodity through the using up of means of production and $80 of new value is created through the employment of labor. Capitalists appropriate $40 as surplus value.

“As already noted, competition between the sectors and between capitalists tends to equalize the profit rate in each sector (in the example, it is 25% in each sector and in the economy as a whole). This is argued to occur as a result of capitalists seeking out the highest return for their investment. If one sector offered a higher rate of profit than the other, investment dollars would flow into the more lucrative sector until no further advantage could be obtained, assuming competitive conditions, which, for Marx, following classical political economy, entails free mobility of money capital.

“The example illustrates that capitalists in the mixed sector do not get to keep the entire surplus value, even though that is the sector in which the surplus value is actually produced. Instead, total price in the robot sector rises above total value produced in that sector ($125 > $100) and total price in the mixed sector falls below total value produced ($75 < $100).

"In Marx's theory, this tendential equalization of profit rates ensures that technical innovation and mechanization are not discouraged by operation of the 'law of value' (value based on labor time). It means that innovators are not penalized in terms of profit for minimizing their use of labor (minimizing their amount of new value production). It provides a competitive impetus to economize on the use of society's labor time.

The Social Possibilities are Open

“Since it is technically possible for capitalism to continue even in a highly mechanized economy provided human activity remains commodified, the social ramifications of increasing mechanization are an open question. Increasing mechanization makes it possible at some point to sever the connection between work and income entirely. That would seem to offer the greatest potential for human freedom and creativity.

“Yet, there is no inevitability that this option will be taken unless general populations actively press for this social progression. Those with the greatest stake in the existing system may persist in their efforts largely to confine employment opportunities (and access to infrastructure and productive facilities) to the sphere of capitalist social relations. General populations might be persuaded to go along with this state of affairs provided there was sufficient class compromise to ensure that real wages and general living standards rose more or less in line with productivity improvements.

“Nevertheless, with material needs so easily met, the absurdity of such a social relation, in which much of human potentiality can only be expressed on terms acceptable to the capitalist class, may well become increasingly apparent over time. For this reason, there are probably grounds for optimism that, ultimately, some kind of basic income scheme or non-monetary type of guaranteed access to material needs and facilities will emerge provided we put our collective foot down and demand it. If there had been the political will, it probably could already have happened.”

4. The model as automation becomes dominant

Peter Cooper's model has additional mileage. What happens to capitalist production as the mixed sector declines and the total-automation sector continues to grow?

Let's start by halving all the numbers so that the total value of the two commodities produced in this model economy is exactly 100. Rates of surplus-value and profit remain the same.

Value parameters halved so that total economy (2 commodities) is of size 100

Now dramatically reduce the constant and variable capital assigned to the Mixed sector. That is, put most of the capital invested in machinery and raw materials into the robotic sector, and employ very few people. In numbers, we have 90% of the produced value  invested in robots, 2%  invested as constant capital in the Mixed sector, 4% invested as wages and the capitalists appropriate 4% as surplus value.

Here's the spreadsheet.

Wages are now only 4% of the economy

As you can see, due to the enormous organic composition of capital (c/v = 92/4 = 23) and in the absence of any increase in the rate of surplus value (s/v = 100%), the rate of profit has crashed to 4%. The Mixed sector commodity price at 6.25 is only slightly above the cost of 6.

Doing the maths shows that as the mixed contribution (ie the amount of employed labour) tends to zero, surplus value also tends to zero and price tends to cost leading to zero profits. At this point, capitalism simply can't work.

5. The experience of total automation for the mass of non-capitalists

What would that be like for the great mass of people who are not owners of the vast amounts of capital sloshing precariously around here? 

In the comments on his post, Peter Cooper observed:
“In narrow material terms, a purely mechanized economy could generate considerable growth in material output over time. Machines might be creating more and better machines that create more and better machines, etc. No new ‘value’ (appropriated labor) would be created, but material output would be increasing.

“The living of our lives in the broadest sense – our thinking, learning, communicating, interacting, creating, working, playing, etc. – could be developing in a very dynamic fashion with the aid of technology. The potential, in this sense, seems unlimited. As one example, interactive virtual reality technology provides access to a wide range of experiences, albeit vicarious, that would not otherwise be accessible. As an aid to imagination or to physical, emotional and intellectual development, the possibilities seem endless.

“I think the real question is whether human activity – life in the broadest sense – has been freed completely from the production of value. Even once we have been freed, we will still be living and experiencing life, including pursuing vocations we find interesting. It’s just that our activities won’t be dictated by value relations.

“Regarding the risk of human redundancy, I am not familiar with the theoretical limits to artificial intelligence – for example, whether some kind of robot consciousness is possible and, if so, in what sense – but even if robots were able to reach a point where they could live life better than us, this would not remove our own desire to live life. I don’t think our own experiences would become redundant just because robots might be capable of greater experiences.

“Technology often seems ominous under capitalism because it is a threat to our employment prospects as wage labor or undermines the profitability of past investments that relied on older technologies. But that is a defect of capitalism, not of technology. Technology provides the potential for better lives for humans and other species. It is an open question whether we will be able to organize ourselves socially in a way that enables us really to benefit from these opportunities.

“I would also question the notion of redundancy in a post-capitalist society. From the perspective of capitalist value production, a worker’s existence is only justified to the extent it enables the production of new value, either immediately through the expenditure of living labor or potentially as a member of the reserve army of labor. But the day we end value production will hopefully also be the day we reject this justification for a person’s life. Hopefully it will be the day we recognize that life needs no justification.

“I have always liked the saying, “we work to live, not live to work”. Unfortunately, it is not really true for many people under capitalism. However, post capitalism, I hope we can do better, and say, “we live for its own sake, and work if we want”.

“It is not that I am necessarily optimistic about the future. I am just suggesting that the social possibilities are open.”

6. The transition to post-capitalism

We have some prior experience with abundant goods produced at zero marginal cost. Remember the saga of MP3 music files?

There was originally a small cottage industry (around Napster) of people downloading digitised music for free. After a while, pretty much everyone was sharing music files with their friends and families. And so the (secondary) production and distribution of music was taken out of capitalist relations of production: communism in music had arrived.

The first recourse of the capitalist providers of commoditised music was to resort to the power of the state. People were prosecuted, as was Napster. But the masses were too many, the activity too widely-practised and the threats ultimately unenforceable.

In the next iteration, legal and cheapish channels of digitised, downloadable music were provided. Many people were persuaded on moral grounds to use these. After all, communism in the means of general consumption hadn't arrived; musicians had to eat!

Some musicians rebased their revenue streams around live performances or hold-in-the-hand artwork. Streaming developed, which was more easily monetisable. And in the background, people continued to rip/download and share music tracks for free with impunity.

7. The wonderful 3D printer/fabricator

I think this is an interesting template for a possible future.

Suppose a philanthropic billionaire develops the ultimate 3D printer/fabricator. Using sunlight, water, air + scrap materials, it can synthesise food, drinks, shelter, transportation and most other basic and quite sophisticated needs. The machines can also self-reproduce if so instructed.

Think of it as a super-fast-growing tree-analogue - indeed, it might be the result of genetic technology.

The billionaire donates this machine to the world for free. What happens next?

Like the MP3 scenario, I imagine that an idealistic network of early adopters would take up this machine and remove themselves entirely from the capitalist economy. Thus sustained and as in Paul Mason's vision of the future, they would no doubt work on endless open-source improvements.

The capitalists see a sharp decline in the wage-labour force. If you don't want to work, perhaps you don't have to. (There are some issues in this scenario to do with land rights - all land is owned by someone and no-one's making much more of it - but let me skirt over these.)

No doubt some capitalists will make use of these wonderful machines to create a totally-automated robotic sector of the capitalist economy, as Paul Cooper discussed above, but it's in competition with the non-capitalist economy which produces only use values.

Notice in this scenario, which is very bottom-up, the automated printer/fabricators are so competent that coordination issues usually addressed by the capitalist market and which have proved so troublesome for Marxists ('central planning') are largely non-existent.

Insofar as there are big projects which require coordination, these could be done by voluntary associations of those interested.

Tempting as it is to say that the capitalist state would attempt to outlaw these machines and 'restore order', I think that in most cases the balance of forces would be against them. Potential abundance is just too compelling and in this scenario, too easy to accomplish.

Other scenarios are alluded to by Cooper above, including a basic income while the capitalist economy is still completing its work of increasing the productive forces.

8. Conclusions

The left finds itself in a century-old dilemma. The reformist left wants to manage capitalism by using control of the capitalist state to tilt the scales a little more towards the interests of the masses; the revolutionary left wants to abolish the capitalist state and the dominance of capitalist relations of production and exchange, and institute central planning based on workers councils instead, as Lenin and Trotsky envisaged.

The former promises at best limited, quantitative gains while the latter looks completely implausible.

Capitalism is the best social system ever devised for increasing standards of living, productivity and the forces of production. The problem is that its motivation and driving force is capital expansion, not human welfare.

That works for quite a lot of the people whose labour power is required to do that mission, but ignores many more who are economically superfluous. It's usually not malicious - it's just that they don't have a specific capability to be useful right now, or the purchasing power to get noticed.

I suspect Marx was right when he suggested that capitalism could only be surpassed when it was obvious to the mass of people that it was no longer the best way to develop the productive forces in the interests of everyone, and where a superior alternative was also obvious.

This suggests that it's been no accident that capitalism continues to reign supreme, even giving a new lease of life to countries such as Russia and China. The conditions just aren't here yet.

But as long as capitalism continues to drive technological progress, brighter prospects will emerge ahead.


Related posts


Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Weston super Mare

Last hot day of the summer, etc. We drive to Weston super Mare for a picnic; it's warm, humid and overcast.

When we arrive, for wonder, the tide is almost in but it's departing at jogging pace. All too soon the sandy beach extends to that familiar mud, stretching for hundreds of yards to the receding water.

We walk onto the pier (£1 each to gain access; what's that all about?) and take tea.

We continue to the mini-headland which marks the northern extent of the Land Train route.

Pleading exhaustion, we do that OAP thing and take the Land Train back to the Tropicana and our car, and return home.

OAPs ride for £1

Your author, not above taking it easy on the Land Train

Now available for trips around the bay

The sea front at Weston super Mare, September 7th 2016


Last night, just past midnight, I was hunting down a mosquito in the bedroom with the high-voltage executioner. It had been making those high-pitched, whining, low-passes over me in bed; Clare merely cowered beneath the duvet.

We have plenty of spiders on the ceiling and in the high corners of the room. I was shouting at them, "Hey, slackers. Do your job!"

On my second foray I spotted the damn thing on the ceiling directly above where my head lies. It was duly incinerated with 20,000 volts.

Sunday, September 04, 2016


Keith Vaz, the vain and oleaginous Labour MP, has been 'outed' by the Sunday Mirror as a user of 'male escorts'.

The story is typically sordid.
"Labour MP Keith Vaz paid for the services of male escorts, the Sunday Mirror has reported.

"The married father-of-two paid for the men to visit him one evening last month at a flat he owns in London, it claims."
It looks like he's in political trouble.
"He also described it as a "privilege" to be the chairman of the select committee, which monitors crime and drugs policy, for the past nine years.

"I will of course inform committee members first of my plans when we meet on Tuesday. My decision has been based entirely on what is in the best interests of the committee."
The Express takes up the story,
"The paper revealed footage that showed the MP meeting with two Eastern European male prostitutes, who he told his name was Jim and he worked as a washing machine salesman, for sex eight days ago."
But in liberal bubble-land where disgust and shame barely register, I don't quite see why this is so problematic.
  • Homosexuality? Check, OK. 
  • Sex workers? Check, OK.
  • Party Poppers? Check, OK.
He appears to have done nothing illegal.

So why all the fuss? Jeremy Corbin, being consistent, says it's "a private matter."

I wonder what The Guardian will make of it.


[Trigger warning: link below not safe for work; generous use of four letter words, asterisked here]

Peter Watts discusses at length an interesting dilemma:
"Did you know that Blindsight contains 73 instances of the word “f***” and its variants? I’ve recently been informed of this fact by a high-school teacher down in a part of the US that - well, in the name of protecting the identities of the innocent, let’s just call it JesusLand.

"The ubiquity of “F***” -  not just in Blindsight but in other contexts as well -  carries a number of ramifications. For one thing, it implies that the characters who use it have better vocabularies and language skills than those whose mouths are squeaky clean. It also means that they probably have a greater tolerance to pain.

"And in the case of this particular teacher -  here in the Twenty First Century, for chrissake - it means she could lose her job if she taught Blindsight, unexpurgated, to her advanced English class.

"Apparently high school students in her part of the world are blissfully unfamiliar with this word. Apparently all sorts of calamities might ensue should that precarious state of affairs ever change."
Blindsight is a fascinating book, looking at deep conceptual questions of evolution and consciousness. In the conservative south of all places, the cuss-words would be the least of it.

The reason I mention Peter's little anecdote here is buried deeper in his post.
"As it happened, Omni had recently stuck my name on a list of “Greatest Sci-Fi Writers of All Time”, right up there with Orwell, Wolfe, and Le Guin. It was completely bogus, of course— my name doesn’t belong anywhere near those folks, not yet at least— but somehow it had slipped in, and maybe that would be enough to classify Blindsight as a “classic”? No?
I just love this little piece of authorial vanity. It's called humble-bragging, no?

Saturday, September 03, 2016

The Experience Room

Look at pictures of your parent's house as compared to yours. It's a bit cluttered but in essence not a lot different, is it?

Not as many electrical points.

It's tempting to assume that, like the bicycle, we've got there. We know how to make the ideal person-cave.

Not at all. We're in the interregnum while they figure out programmable matter: self-reconfiguring smart dust, computronium.

You know, like how the Terminator gets smashed up, then flows like a black fluid back into .. the Terminator.

The house of the future. It's made of smart matter - tiny programmable components which attach to each other to form chairs, tables, rugs, pictures and screens. We sometimes call computers a case-study of 'deferred design'; the future dwelling is deferred décor.

Your apartment will simulate any reality by creating smart-dust avatars (telepario) with the floor, walls and ceiling showing synthesised scenes. VR without the helmets.

You might still run into the walls, though. Much better to directly stimulate the brain. Emulate all sensory inputs and interpret all effector outputs in a totally simulated environment.

How many SF stories have we read with that theme? The slippery slope to the prospect of the brain in a vat, so unsettling at the end of Dan Simmons's spooky 'Flashback'.

We're living the transitional decades, waiting for AI, nanotech, genomics, neuroscience and materials-tech to catch up. The world will then lurch to a very different place.

Friday, September 02, 2016

And is it utopia we seek?

'Utopia',  a word coined in Greek by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean. The word comes from the Greek: οὐ ("not") and τόπος ("place") and means "no-place".

Plenty of people seem to have had a recipe for the kind of place it should be. Writing in The Times today, Philip Collins, a senior adornment to the Labour Party, deploys his customary literary erudition.
"Imagine a nation where all 54 cities were identical and all private houses were exactly alike. Citizens change house every decade to ward off feelings of possession. Adults have no choice over their workplace; all are conscripted into the fields and children are raised in orphanages.

"All are considered equal and nobody is poor but everyone must wear the common habit, and cloaks are of one colour. This picture of the perfect society, from Thomas More’s Utopia, is 500 years old."
Collins sees a disturbing link between utopian political projects and rather dystopian outcomes.
"The recurring nonsense in utopian thought is that perfection comes too easily. Sometimes a traveller discovers the ideal commonwealth in the new world, as in Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis. Sometimes, like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, the hero simply dreams the ideal world into being. The title of one of HG Wells’s dreary utopias summarises the trick: When The Sleeper Wakes.

"The other utopian technique is to hand the creative task over to a preternaturally brilliant elite. For Plato it was the philosopher-king and for Saint-Simon a standing army of industrialists. In later utopias, scientists take the role once occupied by priests; in BF Skinner’s Walden Two, the psychologists are in command, conditioning perfect people. The elite puts people into neat tailored uniforms. It’s a short step from there to having Big Brother watching you.

"William Morris, in News From Nowhere, captures the attitude of all utopian writers: “we have no need of politics”. In a land where all desires have been satisfied there is no poverty and no conflict. People are willing to give up personal liberty because the enlightened despots in charge understand what they really want."
Where is Collins going with this? A modest bait-and-switch. He wants to extract a standard, rather subsidiary objective of all utopias, the ending of poverty, and rescue that as a laudable political project.
"That dismissal of scarcity might seem the archetypal utopian fantasy. In fact, it is not. It is exactly the kind of practical, achievable aim that democratic politics in a rich country should be setting itself.

"On Tuesday, after four years of study, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation will launch a campaign to eradicate poverty in the UK. The JRF’s specific aims are to ensure that nobody is ever destitute, that fewer than one in ten Britons are poor at any time and that nobody remains poor for longer than two years. The redeeming feature of utopian thought was always the critique it offered of the status quo and the JRF is utopian only in that sense.

"This is a prosperous country and the existence of poverty on its present scale is shaming. A child born into a poor family will have a lower birth weight than a child born to a rich family. By the age of three, the cognitive development of a child born into a poor family is already well behind its richer peers. The gap opens during school and is confirmed in work.

"Life for so many people is constant anxiety. There are 2.3 million households, in which 1.5 million children live, that cannot afford to heat their homes. The duration of life itself has a price. The child from a poor family is likely to enjoy nine years less of life than his or her richer counterpart."
Parenthetically we see here the standard denial on the left of genetics, the reassuring but false conviction that everything is environmental so with Government social engineering, all outcomes can be made identical, blah blah blah.

Still, many phenotypical traits are environmental to some extent and certainly do need fixing. This would be some combination of increasing the productive forces (aka 'growth') and some optimised welfare redistribution. Just don't expect equality of outcome - Usain Bolt still gets to win.


Let's raise our eyes a little. The best people are in politics because nothing short of utopia will do as a strategic objective. They understand that utopia is not a place, nor a well-defined social regime. It is the maturing society's ability to remove the social shackles and limits on individual lives, letting everyone flourish in their own unique way.

It's been said before:
"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

Now, I could finish on this modestly optimistic note, but that would be to beg some questions.

  • How do we determine what needs are reasonable?
  • How do we deal with negative externalities - conflicting needs?
  • What about really bad people?

Did the great left-wing visionaries really expect there would be no funding committees and policemen in utopia? Are enlightened 'despots' policing modern social norms so distressing?

If we agree to stop the modern denial of human nature, then we have to take human nature into account. Is utopia a kind of hunter-gatherer paradise where free luxurious cuisine replaces roots and berries, and hi-tech VR systems substitute for mammoth-hunting expeditions?

Is this our destination?

I only ask.


Not to leave you with a dangling question, my answer is yes and no. Those on welfare today who lounge around rather than self-improve (yes, they do exist) won't be going away. We collectively get richer - and their 'free' entertainments get more exotic and compelling. If it works for them ...

All those people who want to push the narrative forwards, in arts and sciences and technology and self-improvement and exploring the universe. Well, those challenges aren't going anywhere either.

Short of dramatic genetic self-modification (physically/mentally) at which point all bets seem to be off, this seems a plausible future, building on trends we see today. The question remains: do we get there within the capitalist mode of production or does that have to get superseded en route?

Heteconomist has a thoughtful piece on this very topic.

I'll be writing about it in a post to come, provisionally titled, "Marxist Economics of Total Automation".