Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Huawei Honor 6X

Alex shows off my new phone

Huawei make the Honor 6X, a pretty good Android phone. It was time to pass the Nexus 6 to Adrian and move on.

Alex's pose satirises both the name of the device and Huawei's phone-motto "For the Brave" which they helpfully printed on two sticky-backed labels (one of which is on Alex's head).

It seems the Chinese are still wrestling with western culture.


These days getting a new phone working isn't so hard - the process is pretty automatic. What takes the time is having to reinstall half the apps and then relog into almost all of them. Much hunting for passwords and other credentials.

Usefully the Honor 6X has a fingerprint pad on the back which saves re-entering the PIN all the time.


I wonder just how much real-time intelligence I am giving China's foreign intelligence service. I am aware, of course, that I already keep the Americans fully informed.

My only defence is to share all my secrets with you here, first.

Friday, May 26, 2017

A human-machine cortical interface (in fiction)

The BIAC is the Bio-Inter-Active-Computer.
"For the first couple of days after his arrival in Baltimore, Clifford sat through a series of lectures and tutorials aimed at imparting some essential concepts of BIAC operation and at giving the class some preliminary benefits from the techniques that others had developed.

"The BIAC becomes an efficient tool when you've learned to forget that it's there," one of the instructors told them. "Treat it as if you were learning to play the piano -concentrate on accuracy and let speed come in its own time. Once you can play a piano well, you let your hands do all the work and just sit back and enjoy the music. The same thing happens with a BIAC."

Eventually Clifford found himself sitting before the operator's console in one of the cubicles adjacent to the machine room while an instructor adjusted the lightweight skull-harness around his head for the first time. For about a half-hour they went through the routine of calibrating the machine to Clifford's brain patterns, and then the instructor keyed in a command string and sat back in his chair.

"Okay," the instructor pronounced. "It's live now. All yours, Brad."

An eerie sensation instantly seemed to take possession of his mind, as if a bottomless chasm had suddenly opened up beside it to leave it perched precariously on the brink. He had once stood in the center of the parabolic dish of a large radio telescope and had never forgotten the experience of being able to shout at the top of his voice and hear only a whisper as the sound was reflected away. Now he was experiencing the same kind of feeling, but this time it was his thoughts that were being snatched away.

And then chaos came tumbling back in the opposite direction  - numbers, shapes, patterns, colors ... twisting, bending, whirling, merging ... growing, shrinking ... lines, curves ... .

His mind plunged the whirlpool of thought kaleidoscoping inside his head. And suddenly it was gone.

He looked around and blinked. Bob, the Navy instructor, was watching him and grinning.

"It's okay; I just switched it off," he said. "That blow your mind?"

"You knew that would happen," Clifford said after he had collected himself again. "What was it all about?"

"Everybody gets that the first time," Bob told him, "It was only a couple of seconds ... gives you an idea of the way it works, though. See, the BIAC acts like a gigantic feedback system for mental processes, only it amplifies them round the loop. It will pick up vague ideas that are flickering around in your head, extrapolate them into precisely defined and quantitative interpretations, and throw them straight back at you.

"If you're not ready for it and you give it some junk, you get back superjunk; before you know it, the BIAC's picked that up out of your head too, processed it the same way, and come back with super-superjunk. You get a huge positive feedback effect that builds up in no time at all. BIAC people call it a 'garbage loop.' "

"That's all very well," Clifford said. "But what the hell do I do about it?"

"Learn to concentrate and to continue concentrating," Bob told him. "It's the stray, undisciplined thoughts that trigger it ... the kinds of thing that run around in your head when you've got nothing in particular to focus on. Those are the things you have to learn to suppress."

"That's easy to say," Clifford muttered, then shrugged helplessly. "But how do I start?"

Bob grinned good-humoredly.

"Okay," he said. "Let's start by giving you some exercises for practice. Try ordinary simple arithmetic. Visualize the numbers you want to operate on, concentrate hard on them and also on the operation you want to perform, and exclude everything else. Get it fixed in your mind before I switch you in again. Okay?"

"Just anything?" Clifford shrugged. "Okay."

He mentally selected the digits 4 and 5 and elected to multiply them together, just to see what happened. The torrent of chaos hit him again before he realized Bob had hit the key.

"That was a bit sneaky of me," Bob confessed. "The best time to slot in is often when the problem is clear in your mind. Try again?"


After three more excursions round the garbage loop, Clifford sensed something different. Just for a split-second it was there; the concept of the number 20 seemed to explode in his brain, impressing itself with a clarity and a forcefulness that excluded everyything else from his perceptions. Never before in his life had he experienced anything so vividly as that one simple number for that one brief moment. Then the garbage came at him again and swallowed it up. For a while he just sat there dumbstruck.

"Got it that time, huh?" Bob's voice brought him back to reality.

"I think so, at least for a second."

"That's good," Bob stated, encouraging his pupil. "You'll find for a while that the shock of realizing it's working distracts you enough to blow it. You'll get over that though. Don't try and fight it, just ride it easy. Try again?"

An hour later Bob posed the problem, "Two hundred seventy-three point five six multiplied by one hundred ninety-eight point seven one?"

Clifford gazed hard at the console, visualized the numbers, and almost immediately recited, "Fifty four thousand, three hundred and fifty nine point one zero seven six."

"Great stuff, Brad. I reckon that'll do for a first session. Let's break off for lunch and go have a beer."

 A week later Clifford was learning to-cope with problems in elementary mechanics - situations involving concepts of shape, space, and motion as well as numerical relationships. He found, as his skills improved, that he could create a dynamic conceptual model of a multibody collision and instantly evaluate any of the variables involved.

Not only that, he could, by simply willing it, replay the abstract experiment as many times as he liked from any perspective and in any variation that he pleased. He could "feel" the changing stress pattern in a mechanical structure subjected to moving loads, "see" the flow of currents in an electrical circuit as plainly as that of liquid in a network of glass tubes.

By the end of the fourth week he could guide himself through to the solution of a tensor analysis as unerringly as he could guide his finger out of a maze in a child's coloring book.

The BIAC's adaptive learning system grew steadily more attuned to his particular methods of working and automatically remembered the routines that it had flagged as yielding desired results. As time went on it proceeded to string these routines together into complete procedures that could be invoked instantly, without their having to be assembled all over again.

In this way the machine automated progressively more of the mundane mechanics of solving a whole variety of problems, leaving him ever more free to concentrate on the more creative activity of evolving the problem-solving strategy. It therefore built up its own programs as it went along; and it was all the time expanding and refining its collection.

Programming in the classical sense, even with respect to the parallel programming used in the distributed computing systems of the 1980s and '90s, no longer meant very much.

Clifford imagined a single cube. He imagined that he was looking at from the direction of one of the corners and down on to it. Having fixed the picture in his mind, he opened his eyes and found a fair representation of it staring back at him from the BIAC graphic screen. It was not bad - a bit ragged at one of the corners and the lines were a little wavy here and there, but ... not bad.

Even as he thought about it, the subconscious part of his mind took its cue from his visual perceptions and the imperfections in the displayed image subtly dissolved away.

"Try adding some color," Aggie suggested. ..."

The Genesis Machine was published in 1978 and I read it as an artificial intelligence researcher at STL in the 1980s.

Amazon link

I still struggle to think of a better description of the subjective experience of learning to use a cortical-interface to a computer.

The second facet of the novel is a quantum-gravity theory the author calls "k-space" discovered by the scientist-protagonist Brad Clifford. It's a six-dimensional Kaluza-Klein theory-variant with some overtones of String Theory.

Today I have limited patience for pages data-dumping faux-science, but back then it all seemed pretty exotic.

The final component is the plot. Brad and his experimentalist-sidekick Aubrey Philipsz ('with a z') are hounded by powerful bureaucrats who don't understand the significance of Brad's theory, won't let him publish and deny him funds to test and exploit it. The Military-Industrial Complex is the bad guy and the story tells how idealistic, pacifistic Brad and his like-minded chums manage to defeat the warmongers using the eponymous machine they eventually fund against them.

The researchers against the management theme had a powerful resonance at STL in the 1980s!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Diary: Burnham-on-Sea

Temperatures hit 24 degrees again today. Time for a trip to the Somerset Riviera: Burnham-on-Sea.

If Weston-super-Mare (love the Latin!) just up the road has gentrified over the last twenty years, Burnham retains its authentic working-class culture: the mother chasing her recalcitrant toddler along the beach, shoulders reddening, crying "Jason, stop kicking over those sandcastles - they don't belong to you!"

I digress. Click on any of the images to make them larger.

Clare really enjoys the Somerset Riviera -
the beach is such an improvement over Nice

This in homage to Jonathan Meades - lover of concrete brutalism in all its forms

One of the sights from Burnham: the Hinkley Point reactors A and B.
I watched with fascinated interest for any intense flares of actinic blue light:
Burnham is downwind of the reactor.

The sandy beach will be packed this summer.

Never let it be said that we don't delight in our beach experience.
After our picnic, Clare read her John le Carré  in the bright sunshine;
I tried to read the screen of my Nexus 6.

You get a better class of beach graffiti at Burnham, perhaps inspired by Hinkley Point?

Your author on the promenade

If you'd like to check out the beach and sea-front at Burnham-on-Sea, here's a bonus video.

We'll certainly be back!

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Diary: Barrington Court (National Trust)

Barrington Court (National Trust) is a fifty minute drive from our home in Wells, Somerset; the temperature peaked at 24 degrees today.

Barrington Court from one of the walled gardens

Clare in a walled garden

Clare and myself at the front of the house

The flowers are colourful but a little past their best


En route home we stopped at RSPB Swell Wood to visit the Heron Sanctuary

In the Heron Hide was a small group of pensioners who had been bussed in to see the herons. They came equipped with high-power binoculars and rather sophisticated long-lens cameras.

Clare sandwiched between the real enthusiasts

The birds in question were (apparently) nesting high up in the canopy, quite a way off. I saw nothing, but Clare cadged a view through a telescope and claims to have spotted a chick.

Here's my video account of the Heron Hide experience:


And finally, we have a mini bee-colony in the birdbox in our back garden.

I gave her the option: cherish or kill?

Clare is not quite a 'friend to bees' but she doesn't fear them in the way she is panic-stricken about wasps. So they will be suffered to live and thrive .. very close to our clothes line.

I expect to be checking my shirts and underwear very carefully the rest of the summer.

Posts will be sparse here till mid/late June

Just to let you know that posts will be sparser and more random here over the next four weeks. A combination of engagements and guests.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The next Kondratiev wave?

Wikipedia article

Fortunate we are to develop our careers in the rising phase of a Kondratiev wave. As new platform technology is widely introduced, the economy grows, wages and salaries rise and a host of fascinating and challenging socio-technological problems present themselves. Work can be fun!

Yes, I remember the late 80s through the mid-2000s, when the Internet was bright and young and we made a new world of computing and telecoms!

The stagnation and depression phase of a Kondratiev wave is something else. The economy flatlines, wages and careers stagnate, everything is flat and immobile; the story of the last ten years.


A new wave starts with new platform technologies, sufficiently mature to make a practical difference, which revolutionise production at a higher level. At the same time, the required (and vast) capital investment has to be profitable with a promise of demand sufficient to absorb the new products.

Are we there yet?

It's been predicted for a while now that the next Kondratiev wave will be driven by a combination of AI (in its new neural net incarnation), robotics and genomics - driving industries such as pharmaceuticals and healthcare - but in practice almost everything.

I don't think we're at the lift-off point yet. None of these technologies are ready for prime-time: they're niche and require too much scarce expertise to make work. Nor is it clear that the political conditions are in place for massive new investments.

Peter Turchin has predicted that we're in for a rough decade, suggesting civil turmoil until the mid-twenties. His view may be no more than inappropriate curve-fitting: we shall see.


Ernest Mandel (Late Capitalism - PDF) correctly observed that massive investments in transformational new technologies will not occur unless they are profitable, which, he argues, requires that working class resistance (to losing jobs and perhaps lower wages) has been broken. He sees fascism and the second world war (thirties and forties) and Thatcher's union-busting (eighties) as typical precursors to new waves.

The next wave would, however, seem to require very little in the way of cheap unskilled labour (which in fact it proposes to - eventually - replace). If we take Google as the current industry leader in next-wave technologies, the economic and political strength of the working class en large hardly seems to matter as regards their truly enormous investment in AI and robotics.

But if the impact of the next wave will be the massive elimination of both middle class and working class jobs, then a precondition for across-the-board capital investment would surely have to be a belief that such high rates of job loss and unemployment could be successfully achieved.

Is such an outcome politically deliverable today? Plainly not.

I anticipate the next decade to be one of the steady imposition of job-elimination technologies, accompanied by increasing worker resistance. Those states which succeed by force and/or inducements in advancing total automation will open the floodgates for the next wave.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A field manual for Theresa May

Amazon link

Here's a summary:
"Several decades of greater economic and cultural openness in the West have not benefited all our citizens. Among those who have been left behind, a populist politics of culture and identity has successfully challenged the traditional politics of Left and Right, creating a new division: between the mobile ‘achieved’ identity of the people from Anywhere, and the marginalised, roots-based identity of the people from Somewhere. This schism accounts for the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, the decline of the centre-left, and the rise of populism across Europe.

"David Goodhart’s compelling investigation of the new global politics reveals how the Somewhere backlash is a democratic response to the dominance of Anywhere interests, in everything from mass higher education to mass immigration."
and here's the author bio:
"David Goodhart is the founding editor of Prospect magazine and one of the most distinctive voices on British politics today. He is currently head of the Demography, Immigration and Integration Unit at the think tank Policy Exchange, and was previously director of the centre-left think tank Demos.

"His last book The British Dream: Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration (2013) was runner-up for the Orwell Prize in 2014 and was a finalist for ‘Political Book of the Year’ in the Paddy Power Political Book Awards. David voted remain in the EU referendum and has been a mainly inactive member of the Labour Party since he was a student."
I was afraid I was going to get a typical liberal hatchet-job on Brexiteers and oiks. The familiar stuff about that section of the population notorious for being stupid, reactionary, nostalgic for times-long-gone, and so forth.

I'm pleased to say that David Goodhart's book is considerably better than that: it's well-written and quite a page-turner, despite a fair degree of repetition and the occasional splash of necessary but dry statistics.

Goodhart is open-minded, understands Jonathan Haidt's work on the differing moral foundations of liberals and conservatives, and sees how much light this sheds into his 'Anywheres' and 'Somewheres'. And although he never leaves the outer boundaries of the liberal paradigm, he does acknowledge innate differences in cognitive, personality and gender attributes (normally denied by liberals) and sees atomised individualism for the fanciful illusion it is.

Jonathan Haidt's Moral Foundations Theory: liberal vs. conservative values

Using an approach grounded in history, economics and sociology, his book details the damage that decades of neoliberalism has done to the fabric of non-elite life across the world. Goodhart's 'Anywheres' are deliberately myopic about this - they either do not care or think it's actually positive.

He makes a further very telling point: with the demise of the mass-unionised manufacturing sector, the elites are no longer afraid of the diminished and fragmented working class. They pursue their own agendas with impunity.

Those chickens finally came home to roost with Brexit, Trumpism and the generic rise of 'populism'.

Goodhart is keen to propose a political solution: essentially Blue Labour or Red Toryism .. which happens to be the position Theresa May has adopted in the current election campaign. He favours policies for strengthening technical education, controlling permanent immigration and improving integration, reinforcing the family and encouraging job/career opportunities for the 'non cognitive-elite'. You can already hear the condescending insults of the 'Anywheres' to such 'reactionary tosh'.

I don't want to get into his detailed policy prescriptions (which in any case seem to have mostly ended up in the Tory Manifesto). His general approach is what Tony Smith would probably call 'the social state', a recasting of 1950s social-democracy for the modern age.

It may well be the least bad option we currently have, even though I'm sure the British elite will put up the same contemptuous, disparaging resistance that the US elites are currently inflicting on the Trump Presidency. (It won't be so strident over here since things are not so polarised and May is a far less abrasive and aggressive politician).

Goodhart is detailed and descriptive, but with insufficient analysis as to why the extraordinarily silly ideas of the 'Anywheres' (expressed most clearly and absurdly in the 'political correctness' of 'social justice warriors') have become the entrenched ruling ideology of the age.

The answer is surely that they happen to express the entrenched interests and practices of the globalised elites themselves. With such powerful economic buttresses, coolly rational critical thinking from people like David Goodhart has hitherto found little purchase. Any influence he may yet develop will depend upon the 'populist' masses in motion - which do seem to be unsettling the elites, judging by their reactions. So although I read the book with much interest, I didn't feel in the end much of a wow-factor, as if I had suddenly understood the world in a new and more profound way.

It's more like David Goodhart, Ambassador to the 'Somewheres' from the 'Anywheres', returned to write down his considered thoughts, careful not to appear to have gone native.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Care Home automation

We remain transfixed by the low-level of Care Home productivity.

If Care Homes were as productive as car plants, they could lower costs to the point where every old person could expect an affordable and superior level of intimate care until death.

Whereas at the moment ...

It is tempting to think that we're currently stuck - waiting for Google to invent that fusion of AI and robotics which would automate the Care Home worker at significantly lower marginal cost.

If that's so, we may be waiting a while yet.

But perhaps that's the wrong way to think about it ... ?


We talked about it on the way back from Waitrose.
"One of those trick questions they give beginning students of Automation AI: 'How would you design an AI system to paint a car on the production line?'"

Snorts. "Just dip it."

"Yep, absolutely on the right track. The students start talking about cameras, computer vision to steer the paint nozzles. Trying to reproduce a human on the job.

"At this point the lecturer takes pity and explains that the car is simply pinioned to a defined position by side-pommels while the robot paint-sprayer follows a blind, predetermined trajectory. It's considerably easier and cheaper."

"I had that idea already, about a kind of tipper-chair which could give an old person a bath ..."

"We could think of a Care Home as a car assembly-line for people. But here's another idea. The state-of-the-art chicken abattoir is entirely mechanised. Each chicken is stunned, hung upside-down, has its throat cut, bleeds out, is defeathered, eviscerated and steam-cleaned. Finally it's packed ready to be sent off to Waitrose."


"Brilliant idea. I can see how that might work as an inspiration for Care Homes. Could be a bit of a PR problem ..."


 ... But don't let me put you off a bit of lateral thinking.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

How Gmail broke the Internet

It all started so innocently.

Google developed Smart Reply, where its neural-net AI was able to comprehend emails sent to you and craft reply options (as above). All you had to do was to select a good option and your email reply would be automatically launched.

No typing.

Look at the image again. Those replies are good! And they're not just some random canned text from a small database of stereotypical small-talk. Those replies are crafted by a deep learning neural net trained on zillions of examples. Those replies are fresh.

After you've tried it a bit, it seems very natural - even obvious. How did we ever do without it? It became increasingly unnecessary to actually review the proposed replies. Over time the system learned your own choices and became better and better at anticipating. The Gmail equivalent of "I'm Feeling Lucky" worked so well that people took to just letting Gmail reply to incoming mail all by itself.

Well, that was great, except that soon pretty much all Gmail users were using Smart Reply and indeed, ceding it control of their inboxes. Since all messages received (courteous) replies, the volume of email on the Internet began to rise exponentially.

Smart Reply was smart all right, but not all that creative. As the proportion of emails on the Internet began to be dominated by AI-generated texts, the level of - well, literary excellence - began to fade, degrading the input into Smart Reply's response-crafting neural-net.

And then one day, the Internet finally seized up.

It failed trying to carry 1018 concurrent emails, all consisting of the single word: "Wow!".

Should I return this to Amazon?

Amazon link

And yes, I do get the Hayek reference.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

And this is the best you could do?

Over the last thirty to forty years, capitalism leveraged the developing Internet and a rapidly-industrialising Far-East to reorganise itself on a thoroughly global basis. It's just a fading memory now, the latter part of the twentieth century with its industrially-based national capitalisms, first-world manufacturing and millions of production-workers in secure, well-paid and unionised jobs with prospects.

The advent of globalisation coincided with massive overproduction in manufacturing (cf the car industry, steel)  so that the smart money moved into finance. Bailed out in the aftermath of 2008, and with a dearth of profitable investment opportunities, the global elite continue to enjoy their luxuries while the masses stagnate .. and wonder where their lives are going.

We all know something about globalisation and many of us want our politicians to fix it. Part one of Tony Smith's book reviews the leading proposals for reform.

Amazon link


As I mentioned in a previous post, I learned a lot from Tony Smith. Here is how he begins: the quotes below are taken from his chapter 8, "A Marxian Model of Socialist Globalisation".
"The various models of globalisation examined in part one are designed to ... provide a spur to reform existing institutions and practices.

  1. Proponents of the social state call for a renewed state commitment to social welfare and full employment. 

  2. Neoliberals advocate increased free trade and capital liberalisation, along with the dismantling of 'crony capitalism'. 

  3. Defenders of the catalytic state insist that public authorities must aggressively and comprehensively provide the necessary preconditions for a region's successful participation in the global economy. 

  4. Democratic-cosmopolitan theorists propose a global social charter guaranteeing the material preconditions for autonomy and substantive equality of opportunity."

Smith has little difficulty in establishing that all four schools of thought (since they accept the continuing existence of capitalism) fail to propose realistic measures which put a 'democratic' control of economic activity ahead of relentless global profit maximisation.


There is, of course, no end to the list of critics of capitalism. But the socialist alternatives are completely tarnished, are they not? By the disastrous experience of 'soviet communism'?

Smith tackles this issue with commendable rigour and honesty:
"A wide variety of objections have been proposed against Soviet-style bureaucratic central planning, widely taken to be either the only form of socialism or the form to which all others degenerate. I shall first list what I take to be the eight most significant criticisms of this framework. ..."
Smith's case against state bureaucratic-socialism is familiar:
"(i) Ownership of the means of production lies in the same hands as control of the coercive state apparatus. While this arrangement may not make the worst forms of totalitarianism inevitable, no one familiar with the historical record could deny its close association with authoritarian regimes.

(ii) Ownership by everyone in general is equivalent to a lack of ownership by anyone in particular. When private property rights to capital goods are not defined, no one has an incentive to use them efficiently.

(iii) Product quality tends to be poor. It is far easier for planners to formulate, implement, and monitor plans in quantitative than qualitative terms. The lack of an effective feedback mechanism connecting producers and users/consumers also leads to a neglect of product quality.

(iv) The informational burdens placed on bureaucratic central planning are now almost universally acknowledged to result in economic inefficiency. Central planners cannot appropriate adequate information regarding all potential inputs, all potential outputs, and all potential social wants and needs, when possible inputs, outputs, and wants and needs are all changing over time.

(v) If we take planners as 'principals' and managers of enterprises as their 'agents', centralised bureaucratic planning necessarily tends to generate severe principal/agent problems. Collective ownership leads managers to distort the information they pass on to central planners, underestimating the output their enterprises are capable of producing while overestimating the inputs required to produce any given level of output.

(vi) Authoritarian central planning is not able to develop successfully in areas where personal initiative and creative responses to unforeseen problems are important. Ordinary workers feel dehumanised and cynical, with pernicious economic effects.

(vii) State ownership of the means of production and centralised planning by a bureaucratic caste cannot match the technological dynamism of capitalism. In certain circumstances, bureaucratic central planning is able to attain considerable extensive growth, that is, growth resulting from the mobilisation of greater and greater inputs. And, in certain sectors where mass resources could be devoted and where success or failure was relatively easily measured (for example, space, military, heavy industry), significant accomplishments were in fact attained in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

But this sort of social order is unable to generate intensive growth based on the more efficient use of inputs. The lack of incentives for managers to engage in risky activities like innovative behaviour is surely a significant factor. Managers appropriate few of the fruits of such activities when they are successful, and may suffer significant penalties when they are not.

(viii) A lack of hard budget constraints allows inefficient firms to continue in production and even expand over time.

Taking all of these factors into account, most observers conclude, it should have come as no surprise that bureaucratic central planning with state ownership of the means of production eventually generated vast material and spiritual stagnation."
It's surprising how many nostalgic communists and left social-democrats have still not taken these forceful (and thoroughly correct and legitimate) points on board.
"These considerations appear to justify the conclusion that there is simply no feasible alternative to capitalist markets with private ownership of the means of production. Market competition appears to provide private owners with incentives to ensure a level of efficiency and dynamism unattainable in either bureaucratic socialism or market socialism.

"One can accept this conclusion without having to deny that capitalism brings with it profound social costs. Financial crises, environmental crises, extreme levels of economic and political inequalities, and so on, are not likely to ever be entirely eliminated. But the harms they inflict can be lessened over time.

"If there is no feasible and normatively attractive alternative to a capitalist framework, lessening these harms must be our goal, and the failed project of collective ownership of the means of production must be unequivocally abandoned.

"In the present historical context, the burden of proof lies entirely with those who continue to call for the socialisation of the means of production [my emphasis]. Meeting this burden requires developing an alternative model of socialism capable of avoiding the fundamental structural flaws listed above."

You can imagine at this point how excited I was that such an incisive and profound thinker was about to unveil a model of post-capitalist economics and politics which might actually work!
"I shall adopt the model of economic democracy developed by David Schweickart, adding three modifications to make it a more adequate alternative form of globalisation."
David Schweickart's book is called "After Capitalism" (2002) by the way: I haven't read it.
"The model Schweickart defends has the following essential elements:

(i) Production and distribution are primarily undertaken within worker collectives. Workers are not hired as wage-labourers by capital; they instead join worker collectives as fellow members. There is a basic right to employment, with state enterprises providing jobs for those unable to find positions in collectives."
Hiring is the easy bit. Smith does a fair amount of hand-wringing later in the chapter when he considers how you might have to get around to actually firing workers.
"(ii) Managers of worker collectives are democratically accountable to those over whom they exercise authority, either through direct elections or through appointment by a workers' council that is itself directly elected. These enterprises are required to have representatives from a range of social movements (environmental groups, consumer groups, feminist groups, and so on) on their boards of directors, accountable to those movements."
Given the intellectual coherence and balanced judgement observed in radical social movements in the real world, I think you can guarantee that they would wreck any otherwise-viable economic enterprise. I might also mention the ample opportunities for rent-seeking and intimidation.
"(iii) Worker collectives produce public goods, inputs into the production process, or final consumption goods. Funds for the first are directly allocated to collectives by the relevant planning agencies (see below). The latter two categories of products are offered for sale in producer and consumer markets.

"In Schweickart's view, attempts to centrally plan all inputs and outputs in a top-down fashion are simply not feasible, at least not in a complex and dynamic economy. But it does not follow that capitalist market societies are the only acceptable forms of economic organisation.

It is possible to imagine a feasible and normatively attractive society combining markets with the socialisation of the means of production, that is, a society making use of producer and consumer markets after abolishing both capital markets and labour markets."
This doesn't pass the innovation test. Would Steve Jobs have got the funds he needed from the relevant 'planning agency'?
"(iv) Workers in enterprises are granted use rights to facilities and other means of production. But ultimate ownership rights remain with the local community. Workers cannot use their enterprise as a cash cow and then walk away; they have a legal duty to maintain the value of the community's investments. If sufficient depreciation funds cannot be appropriated from revenues to maintain the value of these investments, it is the responsibility of community banks to shut down an enterprise."
Shutting down a community enterprise? Yes, that's going to happen. To be fair, Smith himself worries about that but his Pollyanna assumptions that everyone would 'do the best thing' are unfortunately just so much pie-in-the-sky.
"Once depreciated funds have been deducted, the remainder of the revenues from public allocations or sales in consumer/producer markets (apart from the taxes to be considered below) are then distributed among the members of the collective according to formulae set by the democratically accountable management."
Incidentally, this focus on local communities is endearingly Victorian but hopelessly anachronistic. Modern globalised industry (which Smith agrees is a productivity advance that post-capitalism needs to build upon, not roll-back) increasingly organises both production and employee-allocation globally. Localised, and presumably small-scale communities are simply not the scale at which state-of-the-art enterprises operate at.
"(v) The origin of funds for new investment and public goods is a flat tax on the non-labour assets of all enterprises. In Schweickart's proposal, the rate of this tax is initially set by a democratically elected legislature, operating on the national level. This legislature also decides on the appropriate division of revenues between funding for national public goods and funds that are allocated to democratically elected regional and local legislative bodies.

"Each of these assemblies, in turn, must also decide upon the level of funding for public goods to be supplied in the relevant geographical area vis-à-vis the level of funds set aside for distribution to the level below it. These legislative bodies can also set aside a percentage of funds for investment in areas of pressing social needs."
It's touching that Smith thinks that allocations of resources in the billions of dollars are going to be somehow resistant to powerful lobbying, rent-seeking and every form of power-play. Plainly the human nature that Smith sees is not the same as most of us observe.
"(vi) After all decisions have been made regarding the general level of new investment and the order of social priorities, and after funds required for public goods on the national, regional, and local levels have been allocated, the remaining revenues are distributed to local communities on a per capita basis (at least this should be the presumption in the absence of compelling reasons to do otherwise, such as the need to temporarily favour historically disadvantaged regions).

"Community banks would then undertake the actual allocation of new investment funds to worker collectives. The boards of directors of these banks would include representatives of a broad range of social groups affected by the banks' decisions. New enterprises would be formed, and existing ones expanded, through allocations by community banks rather than private capital markets."
Still this idea that 'local communities' are the essential unit of future social organisation. Leading edge corporations today operate globally and have to raise resources on global financial markets. Any socialist alternative is going to have to recognise that global is not simply the additive sum of hundreds or thousands of local community banks.
"(vii) When allocating investment funds for new worker collectives and the expansion of existing ones, community banks must take three main questions into account. Is there likely to be sufficient demand for the output of the given enterprise for it to maintain the value of the community's investment and provide adequate income for its members? Will the investment provide stable employment? And is the investment consistent with the set of social priorities democratically affirmed on the national, regional and local levels?

"Extensive external financial and social audits can be regularly imposed on all enterprises and community banks to assess their performances in terms of these criteria. These independent social audits are a crucial component of the socialist version of the principle of transparency, institutionalising a level of accountability and transparency far beyond the limited neoliberal version of the principle.

"Community banks can then be ranked on the basis of the results of these audits. The level of income of the staff of a particular bank, and the amount of funds allocated to this bank for distribution in the future, are determined by the bank's place in this ranking."
I think we're looking at an impenetrable veto-network here. How many crucial innovations were funded by capitalists taking a punt? There will be precious few punts in the above arrangements.
"(viii) In Schweickart's model, there are no markets for capital assets, and so there will be no capital flight in the form of cross-border investments in capital assets. There will also be little foreign direct investment, since worker collectives are unlikely to outsource their own jobs, and community banks are assessed according to the extent they create employment in their own communities. But there will still be trade across borders.

"For a period of time, this may include trade with regions that have not institutionalised a version of economic democracy. In such circumstances, regions committed to socialist globalisation should follow the principle of fair trade rather than 'free' trade. To ensure that this occurs, Schweickart calls for a 'social tariff'." If oppressive labour practices hold down wage levels in a given region, the prices of imports from that region will be raised to what they would have been had worker income been comparable to the level prevailing in the importing country.

"A social tariff will also be imposed to compensate for a lack of adequate spending on the environment, worker health and safety, or social welfare in the exporting nation. The revenues collected by this tariff will then be distributed to the groups in the exporting country with the best record of effectively implementing anti-poverty programmes, whether or not they are agencies of the government."
A touching faith in (chronically ineffectual) do-gooding organisations and a complete lack of insight into the intractable developmental issues in the third world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.
"I believe that three additions to this framework should be made:

"(ix) Schweickart does not investigate the monetary dimension of international trade in his model. I believe that the proposals made by Paul Davidson discussed in the last chapter are incompatible with capitalist social relations, but quite feasible if socialist production relations are established. In the latter set of circumstances, it would be possible to have something like Davidson's International Monetary Clearing Units serve as the sole form of world money. It would also be feasible to establish a set of rules that ensure that excessive trade imbalances do not persist, and that the burdens of adjusting to the imbalances that do arise are not disproportionately imposed on the most vulnerable regions of the global economy.

"(x) David Held's proposals for democratic-cosmopolitan law are also incompatible with capitalist social relations, as Chapter 4 established. But they, too, would be feasible if socialist production relations were in place. More specifically, a level of global governance above the state should be established. This would include a representative assembly selected more democratically than the United Nations, a global social charter, an international court of justice, and so on."
Ah yes, world government through a beefed-up UN. presumably with a world army to enforce its decisions. That will go down well. If only we could all get along, like a vast ant colony of genetically-related and sterile individuals.
"(xi) Schweickart holds that local communities within a nation ought to receive new investment funds on a per capita basis. In this manner, the material preconditions for both individual autonomy and flourishing communities are furthered. The force of this argument extends to the global level. There should be a democratically accountable socialist international planning agency to ensure the provision of global public goods. It must also guarantee that regions across the planet have access to new investment funds in direct proportion to their population in the absence of special considerations (such as the need to temporarily favour previously disadvantaged regions of the global economy).

"This is an extension of Held's proposal for global social investment funds, but with these funds now replacing, rather than merely 'complementing', global capital markets. In this manner, the systematic tendency to uneven development that afflicts all possible forms of capitalism could be abolished."
We know how popular transfer payments are.
"This model of economic democracy undoubtedly needs to be greatly supplemented and modified, and compared and contrasted with other approaches with which it shares 'family resemblances'. Once again, however, the goal here is not to provide a fully fleshed-out blueprint of the single best form of socialism. If the model is developed enough to show that a feasible and normatively attractive socialist alternative is possible in principle, that is sufficient."
So you can see how unimpressed I was by Tony Smith's model of post-capitalism. A fantasy of infeasible cooperation and general niceness. To be fair, Smith recognises that not everyone will be thinking altruistically of the greater good of all humanity all of the time, but his architecture kinda presupposes that.

It's what happens when you ignore biology and your model assumes a human nature which would indeed work if almost everyone was a sterile clone.

Still, even if the solution is utterly unconvincing, the analysis isn't bad. I listened to Professor Smith lecturing for an hour last night - to a rather sparsely-attended class at Iowa State - and I was impressed by what he had to say about current global economic difficulties.

He comes across as a slightly manic Bernie Sanders.


I am still waiting for the Martian Marxist, the social scientist who simple analyses without confected, activist rage.

I am also of the opinion that a post-capitalist future will emerge from a capitalism which has automated away almost all routine jobs. Call me a fan of AI and robotics.

What happens when the few remaining jobs are at a level of skill and intelligence denied to, say, 95% of the workforce? Those 95% will insist on a radical reordering of things, one which is probably incompatible with the reproduction of capitalist relations of production.

But it will be better.

Monday, May 15, 2017

"I have already been absent, non-existent"

Jenni Diski - writer

I thought this Jenni Diski (1947-2016) article worth noting. Here's an excerpt.
" I am appalled at the thought, suddenly, that someone at some point is going to tell me I am on a journey.

"But much as I hate it, the journey – that deeply unsatisfactory, often deceitful metaphor – keeps popping into my head. Like my thoughts about infinity, my thoughts about my cancer are always champing at the bit, dragging me towards a starting line.

From ignorance of my condition to diagnosis; the initiation into chemotherapy and then the radiotherapy; from the slap of being told that it’s incurable to a sort of acceptance of the upcoming end. From not knowing, to "knowing", to "really" knowing; from being alive and making the human assumption that I will be around "in the future", to coming to terms with a more imminent death. ...

"The end of the 'journey' doesn’t come until you either die cancer-free of something else, or die of the effects of a regeneration of the cancer cells. Good and bad; from here to eternity, and from eternity to here.

"But I have been not here before, remember that. By which I mean that I have been here; I have already been at the destination towards which I’m now heading. I have already been absent, non-existent.

"Beckett and Nabokov know:
I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store.

From an Abandoned Work

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.

Speak, Memory
"This thought, this fact, is a genuine comfort, the only one that works, to calm me down when the panic comes. It brings me real solace in the terror of the infinite desert. It doesn’t resolve the question (though, as an atheist I don’t really have one), but it offers me familiarity with:
“The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns.”
"I’ve been there. I’ve done that. And it soothes. When I find myself trembling at the prospect of extinction, I can steady myself by thinking of the abyss that I have already experienced. Sometimes I can almost take a kindly, unhurried interest in my own extinction. The not-being that I have already been."

Jenni Diski's insight here is real, but for those who know some physics a deeper consolation (perhaps) is that our lives persist in spacetime, a consequence of Einstein's great discovery which I wrote about in my article "Sub Specie Aeternitatis".

National characteristics and MBTI type

In the previous post I mentioned that Theresa May came across as an ISTJ, and that this resonated with ordinary folk. I was sufficiently interested to google the subject of national character and found this.

Obviously countries present different facets of themselves - different national stereotypes - but it isn't completely arbitrary: the stereotypes do have force, a ring of truth. The methodology one instinctively applies is to think of an individual who seems to embody the character of a country, and then personality-type him or her.

For England, ISTJ seems pretty apposite but I think we need to differentiate between the 'England profonde' - England in the large - and the metropolitan and cosmopolitan elites primarily located in London, who are effectively inhabitants of a different country (the so-called 'anywheres').

ISTJ is indeed the type of 'John Bull', the quintessential English person, but the transnational London-elites are much more like George Osborne, an INTJ, or Tony Blair, an ENTP. So in Keirsey's language, those globalist politicians dealing in economics abstractions and cool self-interested logic are Rationals.

The average English person, concrete to the core, has always distrusted intellectuals 😑. One way of understanding the recent turmoil in the Conservative party is to observe that control has passed from that faction which was the government of London (as the UK-based outpost of the global elite) to the faction which considers itself the government of England, tolerating London as a financial entrepôt.

Theresa May is often, pejoratively, called provincial.


America has numerous distinctive national stereotypes. In political terms, the coastal policy elites (as represented, say, by Hillary Clinton, an INTJ), are plainly NT-Rational. Trump, a clear ESTP, represents the disinhibited force of nature we're familiar with from Westerns; the blustering and authoritarian 'Big Man', impatient with formal authority and rules, demanding personal loyalty. In this he reflects the yearning values of his mostly working-class base, which I visualise predominantly as STJs.


The EU leadership is part of the global, neoliberal cosmopolitan elite, and so NT-Rational. Emmanuel Macron is a personification of this type, as is the French elite. Beneath the surface, European countries diverge: Germany has, in Angela Merkel's public persona, a profound embodiment of the German national character - very STJ; France en masse, like the other Latin countries, inclines more SFP.


Does any of this matter? Yes: when interests fracture in a country, national types are strongly predictive of values, which then lend direction to political movements.


For more about the Myers-Briggs personality scheme, look to the link on the upper right sidebar.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Is Theresa May .. Stalin?

Dominic Lawson

Dominic Lawson's op-ed in The Sunday Times today:
"In truth, this secretive, politically friendless and yet virtuous woman has a surprising lack of self-confidence. It accounts for her evident shyness and the lack of spontaneity that so exasperates reporters — not that it matters what journalists think, as long as the voters respect her.

"The lack of intellectual confidence is in some respects a refreshing change from her predecessor’s excess of it: Cameron would make promises he couldn’t keep, in the belief that he could somehow bend the facts to his will — or just busk it.

"But a lack of intellectual confidence in a leader can have the unfortunate consequence that she (or he) finds it impossible to accommodate first-class minds in her top team. May’s replacement of Michael Gove with Liz Truss as lord chancellor is an example. Gove, admittedly, had already fallen out with May when she was home secretary; but Truss has now demonstrated the limitations of craven careerism as head of a judicial system that requires an intellectually rigorous grip at the top. ...

"Theresa May, to her credit, chairs countless cabinet committees and by all accounts does it well, taking account of arguments based on solid evidence and being prepared to change her mind. ...

"... the British public has always liked the idea of a strong leader who says what she’ll do and then does it. Mrs May is gaining enormous electoral traction by appealing to that tradition. Let’s hope such a mandate gives her the confidence not to run a cabinet of fearful mediocrity."
We used to live in Maidenhead, where Theresa May is MP, and once attended a hustings where all the parliamentary candidates made their pitches.

Theresa May - UK prime minister and ISTJ

It was clear that Theresa May was by far the brightest and most competent of those up for election. On the other hand, she did not impress me as scintillatingly bright. She's exactly how you would imagine a high-calibre ISTJ: no surprise that she's patronised by NT intellectuals .. and rather admired by ordinary folk.

It's early days. Too early to determine whether the reaffirmed PM will select a cabinet of the best intellectual talents (those signed up to the mission of course).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Latin's evolution to Romance

I have always been interested in the process by which Latin transitioned from being the common speech of Western Europe in the fourth century to its irretrievable fragmentation to the Romance languages - the sundry dialect precursors to modern French, Spanish, Italian, etc - by the ninth.

Why did it happen? Did people at the time even notice? Were there crisis points where definitive change occurred?

All these questions are answered in chapter 11 of Nicholas Ostler's excellent "Ad Infinitum".

Amazon link

"After the collapse of the Empire in the west, Latin began to split into what we now see not as a language but a language family, the vernacular languages of western Europe, collectively known as Romance. ...

"The middle and latter part of the first millennium AD was a period of social "hamletization," when horizons became narrower for many people, and the chances of wide-scale activity, e.g., travel, correspondence, or trade, were highly restricted outside the topmost elites.

"Without an overarching government, movement beyond the local market town became too costly and too dangerous to be undertaken without an exceptional reason. The resulting fragmentation of Latin, hitherto a highly unitary language across its wide range, is the best example we how a former imperial language can split when the political conditions of unity and mutual contact are no longer maintained.

"Latin was transformed on the lips of its speakers into a profusion of different dialects that were one day to become recognized as languages in their own right. The intrinsic changeability of language, the code passed on not quite perfectly from generation to generation, began to assert itself, and the speech of the different communities went off in separate directions.

"The story of how this happened is fascinating in itself, although the changes took place largely unconsciously. To tell it or understand it requires a certain tough-minded determination to see Latin not (as contemporaries did) as rule-governed text on the page, but as a vast set of spoken words, each taking its part in a system, the mental grammar, that made the language make sense.

"As local accents changed the pronunciation of certain sounds, various words' grammatical relations to other words became less obvious, or even quite impenetrable. New generations of language learners made sense of how the language worked in slightly new ways. The changes rippled throughout the system, causing new systems to form, which became the grammars of the new, Romance languages.

"First and foremost, then, Romance is the name for any more or less distorted form of Latin, as the language gradually evolved and split apart in the latter first millennium.

"Over the long centuries in which the new kingdoms established themselves, the stories of Rome's continent-wide imperium and single invincible army came to seem like legends. Societies became more strictly hierarchical, with most people bound into the feudal network of personal relationships, each man (and woman) recognizing his superior lord, but few outside the Church active in that wider world that had once been ruled through Latin.

"Within three hundred years from those fateful crossings of the Rhine, the people of France, Italy, and Iberia began to find it difficult to understand one another when they did meet. Ordinary speech, wherever it was spoken, was more and more called romanica rather than Latina lingua.

"Latin, as a single written language, was still taught in classes of grammatica and increasingly took its name from that. Meanwhile the inhabitants of Rome's old domains increasingly spoke a multitude of dialects, each called an idioma: this, when it could be recognized, arbitrarily marked out the origin of speakers. But the differences between them seemed to have no meaning.

"Nevertheless, there remained the constraint of the need to communicate with the neighbours; in practice the result was not so much a set of distinct idiomata as a dialect continuum, which varied gradually across the whole field of Romance speech. Picking out particular local varieties within this continuum as "national languages" came much later.  ...

"At the end of the eighth century, the Frankish kingdom that ruled northern France had become mightier than any other. Under Charlemagne (768-814) it united all of France, western Germany, and northern Italy, with an enclave south of the Pyrenees, and began to act in concert with the papacy in Rome in a way that recalled the glorious old alliance of Church and Empire in the century after Constantine.

"This political revival had an immediate cultural manifestation, what is to-day called the Carolingian Renaissance, when Charlemagne called scholars to receive his patronage at his court in Aachen. They came, first from Italy, but later and more notably from monasteries in England and Germany, and in 781 Alcuin, head of the cathedral school at York, was appointed the director of Charlemagne's Palace School.

"Alcuin was above all a teacher and a regimenter. He presided over the establishment of new standards for the spelling and pronunciation of Latin, an attempt to return it to its classical roots, seen as the source of its fundamental value in education, thought, and culture.

"Alcuin enjoined a new, universal style of pronunciation for Latin, deliberately reconstructed to be close to its original sound. Rather than allow each local community to pronounce its Latin as came naturally, he proposed that all should follow a single norm. In his own words:
Me legat antiquas vult qui proferre loquelas;
Me qui non sequitur vult sine lege loqui.

Let him read me who wishes to carry on the ancient modes of speech;
He who does not follow me wishes to speak without law.
"This would perhaps give scholars closer access to the true sound of Latin poetry and rhetoric; importantly, it would certainly make it easier for them to communicate orally in Latin, wherever in Europe they might hail from.

"As a reform, it did not in itself tend towards vernacular literacy: indeed, quite the reverse, for the immediate effect of the new pronunciation was to make priests reading out their sermons or their church offices more or less incomprehensible to their illiterate parishioners.

"In the favourite - somewhat extreme - example, the word viridiarium, 'orchard', could no longer be pronounced in northern France as vair-jair, by then its natural rendering in the local variety of Romance.

"With each priest following his home pronunciation, it was possible - at least in Romance-speaking countries - for the Latin text to have been read pretty much in line with the local language, hence understood by those who could not read. The newly antiquated, universal Latin, by contrast, was a foreign language everywhere, accessible only to those who had studied it.

"So quite soon after Alcuin's reforms, rulings were needed to guarantee that Church services would still make sense. At the Council of Tours in central France in 813, as at the Council of Mainz in Germany in 847, an explicit exception was made, to guarantee the continued understanding of the countryfolk: "... and that each should work to transfer the same homilies into rustic Romance or German language [rusticam romanam linguam aut thiotiscam], so that all can more easily understand what is said"

"One effect of Alcuin's reforms must ultimately have been to impress on everyone that Latin, as written and spoken, was actually now a foreign language, not just the written, quasi-eternal form of Romance speech.
To restate it: after Alcuin's pronunciation reforms, people suddenly realised that Latin was a different language to those vernaculars which everyone in their diverse ways were actually speaking. It must have been quite a big deal.

Ostler also observes that later, in Dante's time (1303), it had been quite forgotten that the Romance languages even derived from Latin (or indeed anything else); Dante was controversial for suggesting otherwise (p. 176).

Friday, May 12, 2017

Diary: Evesham, Winchcombe + the Cotswolds (NT)

A few days in the Midlands with Clare plus my sister-in-law and her husband. Click on any of the pictures below to make them larger.

The Library Bar at Dumbleton Hall

Dumbleton Hall, where we were staying, is a classic Cotswold country house in its own grounds. Very stylish with five-star levels of staff attentiveness. Not quite 'if you accidentally drop your fork a waiter appears and catches it before it hits the ground' but the staff were cheerful and engaged without overdoing it.

Evesham: a lower limit of five hours: bug or feature?

We thought we'd do the towns the first day, starting with Evesham. I had in mind that it might be classy, but it's just another undercapitalised and under-powered provincial town, far from the glitzy dynamism of Bristol, Manchester or London.

It's defined by its mobile phone shops, charity shops, bookmakers, shabby ethnic restaurants with fading, peeling paint, the drop-in pregnancy advice bureau .. and minimum-wage jobs such as the above.

We rapidly translated to neighbouring Winchcombe. It's surprising how often in the 'England profonde' we see a gritty, down-at-heel town partnered with an adjacent chichi one. So Winchcombe is golden Cotswold sandstone, mediaeval buildings, an ancient Abbey and Castle (too expensive) and way too many antique shops. No technology more recent than 'between the wars' that I could see; very Jane Austen.

The rich who make their money elsewhere come here to relax and wealth-signal.


Day two we ventured to Lawrence Johnston's legendary Hidcote (NT), with its famous Arts and Crafts gardens. Truly a delight in the sunshine.

The author and his wife at Hidcote - the kitchen gardens

Hidcote (NT): beautiful, colourful and dense

We followed up with Snowshill Manor and Gardens (NT), where the eccentric owner had filled the manor house with his eclectic collection of - dare we say - bric-à-brac?

Clare on the left: Snowshill Manor House in best Cotswold stone


Yesterday we returned home, calling in at Newark Park (NT) where I had a stand-off with a rather showy peacock.

The garden at Newark Park (NT)

We stare at each other: Newark Park

The National Trust is universally seen as a collection of traditional upper middle-class insulae. Nothing wrong with that. But it's Evesham which is more typical of 'the other England' - adrift in the 1950s with a sprinkled overlay of 21st century consumer tech.

Look no further for Brexit or Theresa May: it's not a happy place.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

This ritualisation of Marxism is getting tiresome

Another day and the Labour leadership will be asked once again whether they "agree with Marx". They will reply - again! - that there is a lot to learn from Marx, but that he was wrong about some things.

And they will be right.

I have been reading: "Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account" by the excellent Tony Smith,

Amazon link

and I have read no other account of globalisation so sophisticated, profound or analytic (a detailed review here).


We all want some kind of roadmap, a clue as to where human civilisation is heading in the twenty first century. Smith reviews four contemporary theories:

  • Traditional social-democracy: capitalism plus a redistributive national state
  • Neoliberalism: emphasising the benign power of global markets
  • The "catalytic state": exemplified by the Chinese activist-state model
  • A putative 'democratic world-state' checking the power of global capital.

All these models assume global capitalism and seek to ameliorate its more perverse or dire effects, those currently creating the popular backlash against the dominant neoliberal ideology - so-called 'populism'.

Smith then cruelly eviscerates each of these models, giving a master-class elaboration of the Marxist approach to economics. It might help to have read Michael Heinrich's "An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital" first.

Amazon link

Such criticism is fine: indeed, a breath of fresh air. Where Marxism fails is not so much in the analysis - who could deny that the 'structures' of society are, in any deep analysis, highly-sophisticated protocols of systematised (but malleable) human behaviour? - but in the remedy.

Describing capitalism for what it is should be ethically-neutral .. in the tradition of scientific analysis.No Marxist analysis has, for example, demonstrated that capitalism would collapse through its own inner nature through some terminal crisis.

But Marxists then add something new and extraneous: an ethical criticism.

They claim that capitalism is inherently unfair, oppressive and - dare I say it? - evil. In opposition, a communitarian solution is proposed (although the Marxist tradition was - and is - understandably sketchy on the details).

The model of future-communism is seldom subject to the level of rigorous criticism correctly bestowed on capitalism, but if it was, it would be understood to be an impossibility. It presupposes a biological human nature which does not exist.


There have been precisely zero attempts to integrate Marxism with current understanding of human (evolutionary) psychology, genetics or genomics. Attempts to do so are disavowed as if some category error is being proposed. Marxist blank-slatism reacts with horror to the idea that there could even be such a thing as human nature, detachable from specific and historic relations of production and exchange.

Such a lack of seriousness: the sure hallmarks of an ideology to be taken on faith.

If we learned one thing from Marx, let alone from the Stalinist experience, it's that lack of development of the productive forces is the root of all evil. Conversely, as capitalism increases those forces seemingly without limit, who can predict - yes, who? - as to how future-humanity may be able to organise itself?

In the meantime, let's just crack on and increase those productive forces, while ameliorating the consequences of their current inadequacy.*


* Yep, a lot of people think that. And then the arguments start 😟 ..