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Saturday, March 13, 2021

Refuting (again) Chris Knight in his (2020) The Unknown Chomsky: When the Pentagon Used Chomsky’s Linguistics for Weapons Research, Critique, 48:4, 661-676.

Refuting (again) Chris Knight in his (2020) The Unknown Chomsky: When the Pentagon Used Chomsky’s Linguistics for Weapons Research, Critique, 48:4, 661-676.

 

Wolfgang B. Sperlich

 

 

It looks like Chris Knight is trying hard in making a career out of critiquing, or rather denigrating and defaming Noam Chomsky, rehashing his rather absurd claims first published in his (2016) Decoding Chomsky, which I reviewed on my blog and on various on-line sites. Chomsky himself refuted his claims in Allott et.al (2019) point by point, noting in the end that:

 

What is striking is the unfailing regularity with which Knight’s vulgar exercises of defamation crash to the ground on a moment’s inquiry, typically into the sources he provides. I can only assume that Knight provided these extensive sources in a show of scholarship, assuming that few would actually look into them.

 

Knight, like a shark, cannot let go of his prey, even if he wanted to by way of reason. As such he has to follow his reactionary instincts and do it again in his new article (2020) The Unknown Chomsky: When the Pentagon Used Chomsky’s Linguistics for Weapons Research.  His beef with Chomsky is summarized by himself, in his abstract:

 

Noam Chomskys early linguistic research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was funded by the Pentagon. While acknowledging this funding, Chomsky has always denied that it had any effect on either his linguistics or his political activism. Here, I provide evidence that Chomskys linguistic theories were initially developed in a context of signicant military interest and involvement. I go on to argue that Chomskys anti-militarist conscience then prompted him to throw himself into passionate resistance against the Vietnam War – while making sure that his models of language were so abstract and unrealistic that military applications were unlikely ever to be found. The result was an impoverished linguistics that ignores the political implications of our understanding of language and its origins.

 

Yet again, let’s first look at his claim that Chomsky’s academic work ‘was an impoverished linguistics that ignores the political implications of our understanding of language and its origins’. Harking back to the 1995 The Linguistics Wars by Randy Allen Harris, another anti-Chomsky hatchet man, there have been many attempts to discredit Chomsky’s widely adopted school of linguistics, mainly based on the denial that language exists as a syntactic construct situated in the brains of homo sapiens, as an evolutionary mutation some 80,000 years or so ago, allowing a recursive operation called MERGE. What is claimed instead (often by non-linguists like Knight), is that language slowly evolved as part of the cognitive apparatus, what with communication being the main driver.  As such, Knight again comes up with this biblical (Chris calls it ‘political’ since he a self-avowed left-wing activist) story of our paradisical-communist evolution:

 

            I am endlessly struck by the vast amount of scientific research being conducted these days about  

            the evolution of life on earth and the deep history of Homo sapiens. For something like ninety 

            percent of our existence as a species, we humans were hunter-gatherers, living without property or

            the state. Our bodies and minds were shaped not by class society but by an egalitarian, even a 

            communistic, social order. It was under these social conditions that we developed the most 

            exquisitely social of our genetic capacities - our ability to use language creatively in order to share

            our thoughts and dreams.

 

He then shoots himself in the foot by noting:

 

At a time when humanity faces deadly threats from nationalism, militarism and environmental catastrophe, we urgently need to find some way out of this mess. To do this, it would be more than just helpful to understand where humanity comes from and what our potential as a species really is.

 

So, Chris, what happened when the 90% of our existence changed to the 10%, now characterized as the above horror story? Surely if good old socialist language shaped us for eons, how come it turned into fake news, corporate bullshit and fascist militarism? Sure enough, Knight again assumes that 

 

… language must have something to do with history, politics and culture, and that children acquire their first language at least in part by learning from those around them.

 

So, again, was this not also true of our existence as hunter-gatherers? 

 

I think it becomes plain to see that language use (or sometimes called ‘performance’ or ‘parole’ by Saussure) has been at the crux of this matter since year dot. How does Chris Knight know that amongst the hunter-gatherers there were no little Hitlers whose seductive oratory led to periods of political insanity? Let’s just stick to recorded history and maintain that there were also periods of socialist and syndicalist anarchist (à la Chomsky) movements that had it all figured out, namely what Knight calls ‘our potential as a species’. 

 

So, how come Chris Knight keeps celebrating Chomsky as a political activist to his liking and yet refutes him as a shonky scientist who sold his soul to the Pentagon? 

 

Why can’t he believe Chomsky who says that all he wanted to do with his linguistics is to find out what language is, rather than study its many uses. There is no getting away from the fact that the fascist and the socialist share the same brain, the same genes, the same language, the same syntax, the same grammar, the same biological make-up and the same speech organs - but what sets them apart is what they say and how they say it. Chomsky’s neutral claim that language as such can generate an infinite set of sentences, good and bad, seems to me the true ‘potential’, namely by overcoming the bad use by being able to generate novel thoughts, and yes, show up reactionary bad language content for what it is. 

 

Let us reaffirm that Chomsky conducting his studies at MIT is a mere random event in academic history, as he had no devious plans whatsoever to get there in the first place. Academic careers, like so many other professional careers are often determined by the proverbial luck to be at the right place and time and who you know and who recommends you. Chomsky was recommended  for MIT by no other than Roman Jacobson (of Harvard and later of MIT). So was Jacobson a militarist in disguise?  How did Chris Knight end up at UCL where they have academics for military radar (2016)? Should he feel guilty by association, since he accuses Chomsky of such a crime? Just about every university in the world has some association with the military. Should Einstein have refused the invitation to join the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin which at the time was also a hotbed of German militarism? 

 

These conundrums then lead to Knight’s most laughable assertion, namely that Chomsky did feel guilty and therefore devised an incomprehensible linguistics that could not be used by the Pentagon even though they paid him for it. Here again Knight shoots himself in the foot, seriously:

 

Chomsky felt most comfortable with models of language so utterly other-worldly and abstract that no one could possibly make use of them for anything at all, let alone for killing people.

 

So, Chomsky’s linguistics is a truly pacifist theory, however incomprehensible, especially for those who like killing people. Clearly then, if somewhat cynically, linguists who see language as a functional tool for communication, and nothing else, are aiding and abetting killing people because one can say things like “lieber tot als rot” (attributed to Goebbels). 

 

Sure, the Pentagon was funding MIT research into command and control applications to enable thick generals to issue English kill commands to computers. As Knight cites Chomsky in this instance, noting that Chomsky thought this was a bad joke and that he wanted nothing to do with it, why not believe it? In fact if one wants to go down this road, Chomsky’s contribution to computer science is the so-called Chomsky hierarchy, which is derived from his ‘incomprehensible’ theory of formal grammars. It did nothing for machine translation, by the way. In fact, machine translation has now become an industry by way of statistical matching algorithms which are as primitive as Skinner’s Pavlovian language assertions in his (1957) Verbal Behaviour (which Chomsky famously debunked; see also my blog on Mercer et al.). Why then assume that Chomsky did everything in his power to come up with a crazy theory of language to assuage his guilt for not having resigned his MIT position at that point in the 1960s? Who is not guilty of somehow contributing to the mess we are in now? I drive an old car contributing to pollution. Being a professor at UCL is a bullshit job (cf. David Graeber, 2019) as much as it is at MIT. Give me a chair at UCL or MIT, and I’ll take a seat (I’ll promise not to bite the hand that feeds me). Knight admires Chomsky as a political activist, and Chomsky says he feels guilty for not having done more. What has Chris Knight done? Clearly not as much as Chomsky, so he should feel guiltier than Chomsky! Chris the Knight should get off his high horse, do the honourable thing and apologize to Chomsky. 

 

Finally though, let’s give Chris (who is not a linguist) a lesson in linguistics, since he tries again to ridicule Noam by misquoting him “that he then makes the even stranger claim that the concepts we put together in sentences - for example ‘book’ or ‘carburettor’ - are natural items which existed in the human brain thousands of years before real books or carburettors had been invented.” Hahaha, Noam, how stupid can you get! So let’s have a look at the real quote which Chris, to his credit, provides in the footnotes:

 

Noam Chomsky, New Horizons in the Study of Language and Mind, op. cit., p. 64. In 2000, Chomsky said ‘there is overwhelming reason to believe that concepts like, say, climb, chase, run, tree and book and so on are fundamentally fixed’. In 2010, when again discussing the innate nature of such concepts, he wrote: Furthermore, there is good reason to suppose that the argument is at least in substantial measure correct even for such words as carburetor and bureaucrat. ... However surprising the conclusion may be that nature has provided us with an innate stock of concepts, and that the child’s task is to discover their labels, the empirical facts appear to leave open few other possibilities.

            

So what does this really mean? Chris, as any school boy who attended a good old British grammar school, should know, in the English canonical SV(O) sentence, the subject (S) is always in the nominative case. Having done a bit of Latin and Greek, he would also know that the word ‘nominative’ is derived from Greek via Latin, meaning something like the ‘naming case’. Now we all know that ‘naming’ – putting a name or label on anything animate or inanimate – is a fundamental concept fixed in our brains. Words (the lexicon) do not drop out of the sky but are essentially generated by syntax, based on the well-known categories of noun and verb that exist in all natural languages. As such we explain in simple terms ‘nouns’ as ‘naming words’ and ‘verbs’ as ‘action words’. Chomsky simply asserts that we have an innate stock of concepts like nouns and verbs in our brain, and the child learning her language will discover the synchronic labels as they exist in today’s language. So when acquiring a word like ‘book’ we can easily find the underlying fundamental concept that existed before the book was invented, namely the etymology of book tells us that this can be traced back to an Indo-Germanic label or name attached to a particular tree (beech) which was used to scratch in runes. In other words (excuse the pun) all words in our lexicon can be traced back to fundamental concepts, so whenever something new crops up, like the carburettor, we have the innate language capacity to ‘name’ this new thing by slotting it into a pre-existing category that ultimately links up with an innate concept that Chomsky describes above. It doesn’t require a genius to find a proto-concept for ‘carburettor’ either, namely via Latin and further back to designate/name/label something fundamental as ‘charcoal’ (our hunter-gatherers would agree). BTW, there was a popular school of thought called generative semantics, developed by former Chomskyan scholars around George Lakoff (1970) but in competition with generative syntax, whereby a famous lexical item ‘kill’ was said to derive from ‘cause to die’. There have been many attempts to find lexical or semantic primitives that somehow underly the lexicon (cf. Wierzbicka, 1996), hence Knight’s attempt to ridicule Chomsky on this account falls very flat.

 

So, Knight’s lamentable misrepresentation of Chomsky’s claims about the lexicon is then followed up by the even more startling assertion that ‘many linguists now agree that almost none of Chomsky’s detailed claims about the nature of language has survived the test of time’ citing a few authors, some of whom, surprise, surprise, are not linguists (like Knight). It would be easy to list ‘many linguists’ who actually subscribe to Chomsky’s minimalist bio-linguistics program but let’s just focus on one of them, namely Koji Fujita who advanced the theory of the lexicon as derived via syntax, as I have briefly indicated above (see also my various blog entries on this subject, e.g. 2010). The educate himself, Knight should leaf through a fairly contemporary (2016) ‘book’ titled Advances in Biolinguistics The Human Language Faculty and Its Biological Basis, edited by Koji Fujita and Cedric A. Boeckxand count how many genuine linguists tow the Chomsky line. BTW, Chomsky has never behaved like an academic guru who surrounds himself with adoring disciples but has always advanced his scientific program in fair and equal collaboration with many others, giving rise to many interesting research directions in biolinguistics, not all of which necessarily align with all the technical details that arise from the Minimalist Program, which is very much alive and well today.

 

 

Allott, N., Knight, C. and Smith, N. (eds) 2019. The Responsibility of Intellectuals: Reflections by Noam Chomsky and others after 50 years. London: UCL Press.

 

Graeber, David. 2019. Bullshit Jobs. (see also my review of the book http://wolfgangsperlich.blogspot.com/2018/09/an-orange-review-of-bullshit-jobs-by.html

 

Military Radar (2016). https://www.asdevents.com/event.asp?id=15356

 

Sperlich, Wolfgang (2010). A review of First Special Issue of Biolinguistics https://wolfgangsperlich.blogspot.com/2010/08/review-of-first-special-issue-of.html

 

Sperlich, Wolfgang (2016). A review of Decoding Chomsky by Chris Knight.  http://wolfgangsperlich.blogspot.com/2016/11/a-review-of-decoding-chomsky-2016-by.html

 

Sperlich, Wolfgang (2017). Computational Linguistics à la R. Mercer: gross and crude. http://wolfgangsperlich.blogspot.com/2017/03/computational-linguistics-la-r-mercer.html

 

Wierzbicka, A. (1996). Semantics: Primes and Universals. Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

STRANGE LOOPS 2

 STRANGE LOOPS 2

 

I was dreaming I was asleep

Ad infinitum

Until I reached the edge of the universe

And the outer limits of my consciousness

I looked across into nothingness

 

Aptly named and phrased recursively

It makes way for my expansion

Only to fade into insignificance

Quite alone

Totally unknown

 

Back on earth, the Garden of Huia grows

The sun is shining

Then it rains

I hug the trees

Talk to the bees

 

I admire the view nature provides

I ignore the weeds

I rearrange the fields

My genial family shows me the light

Conventional by day, out of this world by night

 

Play a game of chess against masters of AI

Try to decipher Chinese whispers

Translate English into Germanic

Become a professor of bio-linguistics

But cannot get there due to adverse logistics

 

All I say has been said before by you and me

Written down for eternal uncertainty

You move me through time in ages

I’ll stand still

If you will

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

STRANGE LOOPS

 STRANGE LOOPS

 

I was dreaming I couldn’t sleep

So, I woke up

And after a while went back to sleep

Soon enough

I was dreaming I couldn’t sleep

 

I am a Cretan liar

So, I never tell the truth

Never sleep, only dream awake

When I say I told a lie

Did I tell the truth?

 

Paradox

Just a pointless language tale

Or a mirror neuron within a mirror

The system checking itself

The snake biting its tail

 

Whose theory is most elegant?

Russell or Gödel, Wittgenstein, Engels perhaps

Chomskyan minimalist or neo-Gricean pragmatist

The scientific method 

Or Nietzsche as the fröhliche scientist

 

Follow me

Recognise yourself in the mirror

Fall in love with your image

To be a narcissist and a pathological liar

To be a Machiavellian politician like me, me, me

 

Better to sleep and dream of life as a dream

Than being awake and to act for real

And yet, per force, commercial universes beckon

Das Kapital, Wealth of Nations reckon

Calquing human language with language of corporate aliens

 

All the while we spiral up or down the ultimate loop

The dream of blissful extinction

Coming to rest in a mythological Garden of Eden

Eating of peaches and cream

Having finally grasped Escher’s impossible coup

 

The Moebius strip, the cyclical language rules

No beginning, no end

I am not dreaming now

Must go and make some money, pay the rent

It all drives me around the working-class bend

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, December 28, 2020

THE QUEEN'S SPEECH

 THE QUEEN’S SPEECH

 

In a speech entirely made up of empty phrases and religious claptrap, one stands out, namely that ‘life must go on’. Had she acknowledged one of her dear monarchist compatriots, SIR David Attenborough, she would have had to come to the conclusion that life does not have to go on, for unless we make drastic changes, human life at least may come to a grisly end. Attenborough’s solution to averting the catastrophe by ending the use of fossil fuels, stop deforestation and population growth (the surviving lot on vegan diets) and re-wilding the earth, sounds ever so reasonable were it not for Her Majesty’s court of aristocrats like Richard Drax, and of course her own complicity so well described by Heathcote Williams in his Royal Babylon. Obviously, to entertain even a few of Attenborough’s desperately needed recommendations, we need a revolution, the like of which this world has never seen before. Given the absolute powers invested in the Queen and Her Government, not to speak of the global madness of absolute corporate powers, there seems to be no room to manoeuvre (excuse the pun), as even the most modest proposals to the contrary are shut down, like the proverbial ‘killing of the fly with the sledgehammer’. The Queen’s religious homily of the Good Samaritan as some sort of charitable balm on the wounds of the dispossessed is yet another affront: didn’t JB Shaw say something like:

 

Most of the money given by rich people in charity is made up of conscience money, ransom, political bribery, and bids for titles ...

 

Finally, Her Majesty’s appeal to patriotism, via the selfless unknown British warrior who gives his life for the country, is as old as the last call of emperors, presidents, dictators and other such divinely military personage, echoing yet another literate Englishman’s dictum of ‘patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel’. The supposedly republican Guardian’s take is to use HER quote of ‘the nation rising magnificently to the challenges of 2020’ as a headline with not a single word of even the mildest criticism. Well, as Heathcote noted so poetically, the mythological Englishman does not criticize the Queen because she is above politics, innit (an’ de Guardian is a mere political rag, innit)! Anyways, with Brexit done, she can now tell Boris to exercise his powers, unfettered by silly EU regulations designed to steal the eternal limelight from Rule Britannica. With Sir David’s ripe old age reaching that of the Queen by a month or two, one wonders if the two of them will meet again in 2021, in heaven, looking down on mankind while singing the praises of the Lord who gave them an easy life on a scorched earth, one who lit the fires and the other who pretended to try to put them out by making wonderful nature documentaries for auntie Beeb.

 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/dec/25/queen-christmas-message-praises-nation-rising-magnificently-challenges-2020

 

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/12/wealthy-mp-urged-to-pay-up-for-his-familys-slave-trade-past

 

 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

THE POINTLESS ETHICS OF AI LANGUAGE SOFTWARE

 THE POINTLESS ETHICS OF AI LANGUAGE SOFTWARE

 

The firing/resignation of a Google ‘ethics’ expert has caused a bit of a storm, mainly because the researcher in question is a black woman representing minority concerns in the USA. Most media articles like the one quoted here from Wired focus on this issue, maintaining quite correctly that AI language software ‘can replicate biased language on gender and race found online’. I would replace the word ‘can’ with ‘does’. 

 

Gebru’s departure was set in motion when she collaborated with researchers inside and outside of Google on a paper discussing ethical issues raised by recent advances in AI language software. Supersmart algorithms won't take all the jobs but they are learning faster than ever, doing everything from medical diagnostics to serving up ads. Researchers have made leaps of progress on problems like generating text and answering questions by creating giant machine learning models trained on huge swaths of the online text. Google has said that technology has made its lucrative, eponymous search engine more powerful. But researchers have also shown that creating these more powerful models consumes large amounts of electricity because of the vast computing resources required, and documented how the models can replicate biased language on gender and race found online. Gebru says her draft paper discussed those issues and urged responsible use of the technology, for example by documenting the data used to create language models.

 

As I have noted in a number of blogs on this issue before, algorithmic, statistical matching as the basis of generating text (and associated language tasks) is a regressive enterprise (echoing Chomsky’s dictum on behaviour models of language as being ‘crass and crude’) because it treats language as a closed (but ever expanding) set of data, or as phrased in the quote below ‘by creating giant machine learning models trained on huge swaths of the online text’. Of course a lot of language use is premised on replicating (with possible variations) what has been uttered before but language competence (in Chomsky’s sense) generates an infinite set of utterances (data) via the mechanism of iteration and merge. Given this uniquely human language capacity, language itself (via AI or any other application) cannot be reduced to a computational model. Wittgenstein famously failed to reduce language to a logical, axiomatic set of rules, and instead settling on game theory to account for it. As he employed chess as an analogy, it therefor not surprising that AI has largely solved the chess problem even though on occasion Deep Blue (or whatever the next greatest version is) still loses. Note that chess has a closed set of possible moves however massive in numbers – an increasingly small challenge for number-crunching computers. Now imagine a chess board that is infinite on all four sides – this is what language is: a finite set of rules able to generate an infinite set of moves. So, what has this got to do with the ‘ethics’ reported above? If we merely protest the replication of ‘biased language on gender and race’ in the hope to become less biased if we include all data from, say 2SLGBTQ+, we will surely mitigate the problem but we will not solve it. Racism and sexism exist and will continue to exist as long as the capitalist model of life, as we know it, exists. By working for Google, Ms. Gebru and others merely support the system that creates the biases noted. Not surprisingly, Google does not like the idea of employees biting the hand that feeds them. Corporate capitalism by definition has no ethics. That Ms. Gebru headed a Google department on ethics must be a cruel joke if not a minor tragedy. AI language software, as we know it, is the ultimate business model, automating human speech (and writing) so that when you ring your insurance company to make a (predictable) claim you will be served by a robot that can answer all your questions and at the same time decline your claim, even if the whole process takes 15 minutes or more – note Turing’s famous dictum that when a robot can talk to you for 15 minutes and you did not realise you are talking to a robot, said robot has become human (or at least clever humans have succeeded in computing and replicating human speech). Sadly Turing did not anticipate algorithmic matching. As a member of the 2SLGBTQ+ community he was treated cruelly by homophobics at the time, hence it was a real personal tragedy. Patented AI language software will mean that human language becomes the most valuable corporate asset of all time, and no amount of crying wolf and ethics (the more you cry the less impact it has, as even the ancient Aesop figured out) will stop it. 

 

https://www.wired.com/story/prominent-ai-ethics-researcher-says-google-fired-her/

 

 

Friday, November 27, 2020

CIVIL WAR IN CAPITALISM

 CIVIL WAR IN CAPITALISM

 

Guardian columnist George Monbiot says that ‘Brexit stems from a civil war in capitalism – we are all just collateral damage’, noting further that such events are disguised as ‘culture wars’, fooling the people into believing that these issues have nothing to do with capital. In the war between ‘warlord’ and ‘household’ capitalists, as George sees it, the former are winning in the UK while presumably they just lost in the USA. Well, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, ‘this is how it goes, everybody knows’ or ‘nothing new on the Western front’ citing Erich Maria Remarque (alias Kramer). Capitalism’s credo is endless competition, and when the rules for a ‘level playing field’ are rigged too much, all-out war amongst the capitalists is inevitable. Marxist have long harboured the touching belief that capitalism will thus produce its own rope to hang itself with but, sadly, I believe, this can only happen in a world totally dominated by ‘warlord’ capitalists. Mind you, there are signs for this to begin to happen. The biggest stumbling block are still the state capitalists ensconced in Russia and China that are neither ‘warlord’ nor ‘household’ capitalists. Trump and Co. did however entertain the idea that Russia under Putin could be fully converted into a ‘warlord’ economy and thus be at one with the USA. China on the other hand as a nominally communist dictatorship has to be dealt with in other terms. On one hand there are encouraging signs that economic warlords in China, like Jack Ma, are upsetting the apple cart but on the other hand, Xi Jin Ping seems to be still in full control. So, until these issues with Russia and China are sorted out by the combined Western capitalist camp, the Western warlords and householders cannot have an all-out war amongst each other lest the savaged winner would be easy prey for Russia and China. As such the new and old household capitalist Joe Biden will no doubt fall in line with the likes of Angela Merkel and work on China and Russia in covert ways that a Machiavelli would applaud, what with Merkel being an expert on dismantling ex-communist states. Given that the Western ‘household’ capitalist world is breathing a sigh of relief with Trump in retreat, pronouncing Westminster democracy alive and well again, George Monbiot’s Brexit anxieties will be laid to rest with a ‘deal’ foreshadowed by the sacking of little warlord operatives like Cummings, allowing the UK to continue her path to erase the working class by raising the stakes for free (common) market capitalism as enshrined in the EU. Given also the huge profits to be made from mass vaccinations to mitigate the Covid pandemic, there is much anticipation for 2021 and beyond to restart the economic machinations that will tighten the screws on small-holders and reward the corporate elites with bonuses out of this world. George Monbiot can switch to the ‘news’ (also reported by the Guardian) that 70% of the world’s agricultural output is controlled by 1% of agri-companies run by 00000.1% of the world’s population (the last number is made up by myself). These sort of statistics do indeed point to the ultimate aim of capitalism in that, say, one agri-corporation controls 100% of agricultural output, one pharma-corporation controls 100% of pharmaceutical products, etc. While household capitalists are aware of the dangers of monopolizing industries, i.e. pronouncing such trends as anti-competitive, there is in the long term nothing to prevent it from happening, simply because competition as an economic mantra must end up with a winner-takes-all (as the American saying goes ‘there is no point in coming second’). Biden’s billionaires outbid Trump’s in a bid (excuse the pun) to slow down the mad rush towards monopolizing the economy but look at corporate structures in the US and you soon realize the concentration of immense wealth spiralling towards singularity. Just as in feudal times the sovereign ‘owns’ everything and everyone, we are now faced with a descent into some kind of neo-feudalism, ushered in by mind-numbing social media empires, massaging the 99% with snake oil and make-belief, celebrating progress in battling disease and pestilence, not to speak of the climate crisis which will be solved by corporate climate engineers. Other issues like threat of nuclear war have already been wiped off the face of the earth even though the doomsday clock is not receding. Workers in capitalist gig economies have the choice of serfdom or living on hard-to-get unemployment benefits (cf. I Daniel Blake). The bourgeoisie will be squeezed thinner and thinner, making a mark only as a class of middle-managers whose orders are to make life as miserable as possible for the workers, i.e. work itself is a commodity to compete for (read the Marxists for some in-depth analysis in this regard – the Guardian and George Monbiot are out of their depth in this regard). The general populace will live in hope to emulate the self-made billionaires who started out with a small inheritance of only a few million, for competition itself has no favourites, yes, you too can do it. You don’t have to be born rich to become rich. The sporting kid from the slums can make it too (cf. the hand of God). Or you can win the lottery. We don’t need actual soma (as in Huxley’s Brave New World) to make us all happy: all we need is the promise of the promised land (cf. Obama) where everyone has an equal chance to be what identity you want to be. Of course no one knows what the time line is: maybe tomorrow the rope is finished and capitalism will hang itself. Maybe the day after democracy will come to the USA (it never did in Leonard Cohen’s life-time when he penned these lyrics). Maybe all we have left is Shakespearian words to play with, like to be or not to be is the question. Maybe. Vielleicht. Akene. 

 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/nov/24/brexit-capitalism

 

Monday, September 28, 2020

A great review of Too Much and Never Enough – how my family created the world’s most dangerous man – by Mary L. Trump (2020)

 A great review of Too Much and Never Enough – how my family created the world’s most dangerous man – by Mary L. Trump (2020)

 

Given my assumption that the USA repeat history (as a farce) as chronicled by Edward Gibbon in his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the phenomenon of Donald Trump must rank along the likes of Nero and Caligula – as I claimed in my previous blog called Trump, Trumper, Trumpest. With the end of the Trump era now in sight, allow me to join the thousands of authors who have something to say on this matter yet again, this time as a review of a book that hangs out the dirty underwear from the inside out. As a trained psychologist, Mary Trump goes for her uncle’s warped psyche as a fairly clear act of revenge (best served cold) for having been swindled out of a fortune (she has since started a new lawsuit to get her fair share). Naturally, given that hyperbole is in the DNA of the Trump clan, she gives her best shot in the title of the book. Poor old uncle Donald is painted as the ‘world’s most dangerous man’ when in fact he has done nothing much to earn the epithet. So far, he has not started any major wars as some of his more pathetic predecessors did, although he may yet start a minor civil war. His disastrous handling of the corona virus pandemic is not that much different from his fellow (elected) travellers in the UK, Brazil and India. Mary Trump’s account of Donald’s upbringing is as boring as any tycoon’s story, tracking along the tenets of vulture capitalism, whereby selling your grandmother for a real estate deal is the least of the problem. Donald’s father Fred made Donald for what he is, or so says Mary Trump. To make it a bit more ‘nasty’ (a word Donald likes) Mary notes that Fred was a real tycoon while Donald is a failed one. There is a lot of psycho-babble, as to be expected from a psychologist, but strangely missing is the term ‘megalomaniac’ which is surely a character trait of Donald, not in the sense of being a ‘dangerous militarist’ but in the sense of a bizarre businessman who lives off the megalomaniac celebrity culture so prevalent in the USA and Western World in general. Obviously, Donald is doing a great job as a media star, surrounding himself with beautiful people whose main claim to fame is being somewhat photogenic. If Mary Trump’s (psycho)analysis were correct of Donald being a totally dysfunctional bastard (liar, cheat, torturer) he would never have been able to win his way into the sagging hearts, if not breasts – to invoke a Freudian slip – of his many admirers. Donald is not utterly stupid, as Mary suggests,as he is practiced in the ‘art of deception’ (to quote a line from a Rolling Stones’ song that Donald liked to play at his rallies until the Rolling Stones complained), a trait greatly admired in the world of the one percent. Not that Donald is a major player in this league, having only gotten some 170 million dollars from the sale of his father’s real estate empire – and Mary having gotten nothing. Donald’s other siblings benefitted equally, except for Mary’s father who had died earlier in the story, aged only aged 42.  Mary accuses the rest of the clan, Donald and her grandfather in particular, for having driven her father to an untimely death, having disinherited her separated mother and Mary and her brother in due process. Mary accuses the media and the banks for having aided and bankrolled Donald, all the while blatantly bankrupting himself due to his incompetence. Again, this is an unlikely scenario, for in particular, banks like the Deutsche Bank, provided Donald with huge loans and mortgages in the knowledge that his real estate deals - like his golf courses – were in fact worthy collaterals in a world where desirable (location, location) ‘real estate’ appreciates faster than you can say a billion dollars. Donald did after all learn from his father that real estate in the form of housing estates is a gold mine (now also via the Kushner empire), while of course, more risky items like casinos and flash hotel towers (as later favoured by Donald) can bring you down – but not the bank that will call in the collateral. Banks love the brash businessman who puts profits before people, and that’s something that Donald certainly also learnt from his father, as in this case well described by Mary. The mainstream media too, as an extension of the capitalist banking and corporate system, loves the fairy tale of the self-made billionaire (with a little help from his father and his father’s friends), to give hope to the 99 percent who live their miserable lives in the knowledge that it is due their own shortcomings that they are dirt poor. You too can overcome your shortcomings by subscribing to Fred Trump’s bible called The Power of Positive Thinking by Pastor Norman Vincent Peale (who was also a friend of Richard Nixon and whose church Donald attended as a youngster, and later was married to Ivana in that church). In the good old USA, to this day, the Calvinist dogma holds fast, namely that the Christian God rewards good people with being rich. Donald brandishes the Bible like all the presidents before him, only that in his case all the angels open the wings for him, literally, and if not willingly, he will grab their pussies. This endears him to all the chauvinists who still rule the roost (not to speak of the hens who happily submit to such divine demands). Maybe the Rolling Stones should let him play at least the Little Red Rooster! The US mainstream media really has reached a pinnacle with Donald Trump, manufacturing consent (to paraphrase Noam Chomsky) along with social media like Twitter (you have to be a twit to use Twitter). Mary fails to analyse these major contributing factors, with her sole focus on the presumed psychological dysfunction of Donald due to his upbringing. To her credit though she does offer a glimpse towards the end of her book, saying that ‘… Donald isn’t really the problem after all’. She then cites the ‘sham’ acquittal of the Senate impeachment trial as an example of how he is aided and abetted by the powers to be. Then again, she fails to mention that Bill Clinton’s acquittal was a ‘sham’ as well. Nixon, the true madman of recent US politics, did however see the writing on the wall. Indeed, US politics, in recent history at least, is a sad story of the corporate elite running the ship to the ground, what with Donald Trump just being a bit player in the grand scheme of things. Mary Trump still lives in a dreamworld of the USA being (before Donald) a ‘great nation’, a great democracy, with a great economy … words that echo none other than Donald’s delusions of grandeur. Finally, regarding Mary’s by-line of Too Much and Never Enough, if she succeeds to get some of the millions owed to her by the remaining Trump siblings, is she going to donate said millions to charity or is she going to do what her aunt Maryanne allegedly did? Namely, take the 170 million from the sale of the Trump Empire and resign from her position as a judge (formerly appointed with Donald’s aid), collect her $200,000 pension and live happily in her Florida Palm Beach mansion worth some 20 million. Money makes the world go round, world go round – as the song goes – and the Trump money, as dirty as their combined sibling’s underwear, is a stain on even the one percent, and Mary should have the common sense of not wanting any of it. Her income from her day job and now from book sales should suffice, and she, as many of the other erstwhile sycophants fired by Donald, should thank Donald for the great opportunity to have something to write about. If and when Biden gets in, all the talk show hosts cum comedians will have to retire and authors like Mary Trump will have to revert to writing cheap crime novels, if anything at all.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Marxist review of Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney

 A Marxist review of Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney


In an interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1S5bOdJq3U Sally Rooney says that she is a Marxist and that she would like to write a Marxist novel but doesn’t quite know how to do it. So, when she wrote Normal People, she just told a story that has human relationship at its core, which in itself is axiomatic of any kind of socialism, so subconsciously perhaps, her novel does express Marxist ideas. Nevertheless, since Rooney wants to be a literary Marxist, she should/could have read some of the Marxist writers who would/could have given her some tips on how to do it. Maybe she has but from my perspective it seems unlikely, hence let’s give her a helping hand.

 

While there are no rules that say that a Marxist novelist must only write rousing, social realist, revolutionary tomes to uplift the working classes, there are some guidelines as elaborated by the likes of György Lukács and Berthold Brecht. Given that the former is often considered the expert on the novel while the latter is the consummate socialist playwright, let us briefly consider what Lukács has to say. Accordingly, the author’s task is to show the dialectic between the consciousness of the characters (appearance) and the social forces (essence) that create them. Lukács cites Thomas Mann as the master of this genre, and having read, in the original German, both the Magic Mountain and the Buddenbrooks, I can attest to the great ‘appearances’ of the characters but I am not so sure about the ‘essences’ that were supposed to have created them. Surely then, Brecht is the master of the ‘essence’ even though as a playwright he has to focus on the ‘appearance’, as it were, of the actors. Thus, as is well known among Marxists, Brecht has quite a different perspective in these matters, disagreeing with Lukács:

 

The new ascendant class shows it. It is not a way back. It is not linked to the good old days but to the bad new ones. It does not involve undoing techniques but developing them. Man does not become man again by stepping forth from the masses but by sinking deeper into them. The masses cast off their loss of humanity and thereby men become men again—but not the same men as before. This is the path that literature must take in our time when the masses are beginning to attract to themselves everything valuable and human, when they are mobilizing people against the dehumanization produced by capitalism in its fascist phase. It is the element of capitulation, of withdrawal, of utopian idealism which still lurks in Lukács’s essays and which he will undoubtedly overcome, that makes his work, which otherwise contains so much of value, unsatisfactory; for it gives the impression that what concerns him is enjoyment alone, not struggle, a way of escape, rather than a march forward.

            https://newleftreview.org/issues/I84/articles/bertolt-brecht-against-georg-lukacs

 

Having studied Brecht and having seen one of his great plays Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui in the Berlin Ensemble in 1969 (then still under Helene Weigel), I am on the side of Brecht. 

 

Given these contradictions within a Marxist framework, how does Rooney and her Normal People measure up? In terms of Lukács’ prescriptions, there is certainly a lot of ‘consciousness of the characters’ (Marianne and Connell) but there is not much ‘essence’ apart from the social class differences alluded to between the main characters (and their families, friends and university students). If one takes a sympathetic point of view, one might be able, at least by reading the sub-text, to reach the conclusion that Marianne’s masochistic leanings are caused by her abusive bourgeois family, given that at the end of the novel she seems to disown her mother and brother (or at least they seem to disown her). Connell as the Irish working-class lad also alludes on occasions to class differences, especially as a student at Trinity, which is described as a bourgeois academic institution where students mainly talk about how much money their parents earn. In Brecht’s terms, however, there is not much of the ‘march forward’ to discern, even though occasional protest marches in Dublin are mentioned. This is a shame because Dublin, Ireland and the rest of the world in 2011 to 2015 (as is the timeline in the novel) is in a phase of ‘our time’ that equates to Brecht’s dictum of

 

… this is the path that literature must take in our time when the masses are beginning to attract to themselves everything valuable and human, when they are mobilizing people against the dehumanization produced by capitalism in its fascist phase …

 

and where all we have to do is replace ‘fascist’ with ‘neo-fascist’. Current mass movements in the US and elsewhere seem to do just that, so the question is how much does Rooney’s novel contribute to this struggle – as it should? Are Marianne and Connell and the rest of the crew being screwed by neo-fascist capitalism? Do they submit or do they mobilize? It seems to me that mainly the former is the case, as the protagonists struggle with their love life in ever more complicated scenarios, and while at the end of the novel there is some sort of resolution, it is denied again in the last line, what with Marianne encouraging Connell to part from her again and accept his literary scholarship in New York (sic). All the agonising episodes in between, described in minute detail, do have a touch of social realism but the overall effect seems to be a rather morbid teenage fascination with feeling miserable and unhappy, relieved only by the organic sexual encounters between Marianne and Connell, which in turn get a somewhat voyeuristic treatment (good for the TV movie version though). Other attempts at ‘realism’ seem cantered on describing mundane procedures in great detail, like making and drinking cups of tea and coffee, eating an ice cream, driving a car, getting dressed and undressed. The latter, though, has a touch of class consciousness, what with Connell’s wardrobe smelling of working-class poverty, while Marianne can afford the latest brands to good effect. 

 

With all this huge emphasis on the personal love life, one would have liked a few explorations into the other realms that seemingly occupy the lives of Marianne and Connell, namely what they are studying at university. While Connells’s forays into English literature entail the small sub-plot of him becoming a writer, the only hint we get for Marianne is that she is doing a thesis on incarceration in Ireland – sounds an interesting topic. Both Connell and Marianne are portrayed as A+ students at high school and at university – how do they do that in between endless personal dramas? It seems incongruous, for I always pictured, stereotypically, A+ public school students as ambitious, right-wing, career-minded bullies (also good at sports like rugby or tennis) who become the proverbial doctors, lawyers and politicians like Boris Johnson – not at all like the super-sensitive, somewhat neurotic Marianne and the lost soul, Connell, who descends into depression at times. Sure, complicated people like that can turn into conflicted artists, living tragic lives, creating great art along the way. Maybe Sally Rooney thinks of herself that way, yet she also has a self-awareness that seems to transcendent this scenario, inasmuch she echoes Brecht in the line 

 

… literature, in the way it appeared in these public readings, had no potential as a form of resistance to anything …

 

in other words, does her novel (and her public readings of it) offer any resistance to anything, as it really should? Is she taking the mickey out of her own writing? If so, one has to congratulate her for her sense of self-depreciation, for indeed, to quote Brecht again, the writer too ‘does not become human again by stepping forth from the masses but by sinking deeper into them’. Then again, Rooney’s marketing team plays the capitalist card as stupidly as possible, what with cover page emblems of ‘The Million Copy Bestseller’ and ‘Winner of the 2018 Costa Novel Award’. Not everybody who studies English or American literature at university becomes an award winning author who sells millions of copies and whose novels are turned into TV-series but I suppose if you are plucked from the masses, as was Rooney, by a literary agent (sic) whose profession it is to turn art into hard cash, then good luck to you! 

 

In capitalist societies in particular, everyone wants to be a winner, hence winners are celebrated as evidence that you too can be the one amongst the billions of losers (obeying the great capitalist maxim that the winner takes all and that being number two on the list is just a tragic failure). Sally Rooney knows how this commodification of literature works and yet she cannot escape the trappings that are demanded of her. Maybe she thinks of herself as some sort of secret agent that smuggles Marxist ideas into her novel, thus subverting the whole exercise, laughing secretly at implementing Marx’ dictum that capitalism will produce the rope to hang itself. As such there is perhaps no point in calling for class struggles and revolutions because nothing will change until the rope is fashioned, ready for use. There are signs of this happening, in the USA in particular but also in pseudo-Marxist countries like China where the masses of people might be ‘beginning to attract to themselves everything valuable and human’. If Rooney’s novel contributed to this Brechtian notion, even with a miniscule proportion, then well done! On the negative side, her novel can easily be hijacked as an object of ‘enjoyment alone’ or a ‘way of escape’, such as Brecht accuses Lukács of being his main concern. Watching and listening to various interviews with Sally Rooney, where she is made (or forced) to explain her novel, one has the inescapable impression that the hosts and audiences never get beyond the level of ‘enjoyment’, and Rooney is relieved to leave it at that (it makes sense commercially). If, however, she wanted to get to a Brechtian level, she should have considered scripting her novel for socialist theatre (there is plenty of good dialogue that would suit such an enterprise) – and not selling the rights for TV.

 

 

 

Saturday, June 13, 2020

WITHERING LOWS: OPERATIVES OF THE STATE

WITHERING LOWS: OPERATIVES OF THE STATE

[the case of Fiona Hill, PhD (Harvard)]


A Guardian article on Fiona Hill notes her concerns about people left behind due to de-industrialisation, in the UK, Russia and the USA:

And in all three countries, the ties of family obligations and social networks kept people rooted in place without prospects, and educational opportunities to change your destiny have withered away.

These same people then vote for populist like Johnson, Putin and Trump because

“Populism provides a narrative for people who have lost their identities that were tied to meaningful work,” she said. “When people lose that then they’re looking for something. There’s a feeling they’ve been robbed and deprived of a golden age, and they want that back and populist politics feeds upon that, and provides scapegoats for losing it.”

So, because ‘liberal democracies’ did not deliver the goods for working people, they turned to populists who screw them even more.

This is a sad narrative trotted out over and over again by high ranking academics who deplore the current affairs of state while being intimately associated with them. Fiona Hill, as a former adviser to Trump, and now back at the Brookings Institution, the foremost conservative think-tank (sic) of the U.S., is a case in point. Coming from a northern England working class background in County Durham, she ‘escaped’ a withering town called Bishop Auckland1, to ultimately end up in Washington DC as a highly acclaimed operative of the state. The Guardian attributes her rise to fame and glory to ‘karma and luck’, which is yet another favoured narrative for those who have prospered against all the odds. The other heart-warming story of pulling yourself out of the mire by the bootstraps, is less favoured these days (unless you are another celebrity operator called Dominic Cummings, BTW also from Durham) because it is fake, i.e. billions of people work extremely hard but never get anywhere, withering away instead, as of no fault of their own. Being an adviser to Trump must be one of the laziest jobs known to mankind, and yet with pay checks and perks that make the eyes water of well-to-do faculty of ivy-league universities in the U.S.

No doubt, Fiona Hill’s relatives and acquaintances left behind in withering Bishop Auckland are extremely proud of her achievements and rise in social and economic status. She is still one of us, they may say. But is she really? By her own admission she was accused of a betrayal of sorts:

Given everything that Hill knew and understood about the threats to democracy from populism and Putin’s Russia, some of her friends and colleagues were astonished when she went to work for Trump in the early months of the administration, with one accusing her of “aiding and abetting a criminal enterprise”.

Her feeble excuse, it seems was that 

… she felt obliged to do what she could to address the dangerous volatility of the relationship between two nuclear-armed state.

Sounds a bit like working for Hitler’s regime with the excuse to wanting to mitigate the danger of war and genocide, which was a ruse employed by many of the Mitläufer so as to escape prosecution. 

Not that I am suggesting that Fiona Hill is in the same league but what is so serrating in her case, is the stupendous denial of having anything to do with the ‘withering’ masses of people and yet being able to analyse the causes of it, and doing so from a highly privileged position of academic super power. If the current protest movements in the US were to succeed, everyone working or having worked for Trump should be indicted on the grounds of having condemned millions of people living in the US (and quite likely elsewhere in the world) to poverty, racial degradation and all that is implied in the term ‘withering’. 

If this wasn’t so serious, one might call it hilarious when Fiona Hill is mistaken as a note-taking secretary by Trump, as if to confirm her perceived lack of criminal association. Given the vast machinery of state, some of the flunkeys that hover around the bright light of Trump (and Putin, Johnson and the like) like moths, do get their wings burnt, and then they have to retreat to their respective think-tanks. As Hill notes herself, these Machiavellian machinations have nothing to do with policy advice (how to avoid a nuclear war with Russia, for example) but with advisers sticking knives into each other’s backsides so as to get closer to the people in the room who make policy decisions on a whim. So, let us briefly look at her implied assertion that she is a genuine policy expert on all things Russia, i.e. why people like Trump should really listen to her. Having studied Russian and politics at St. Andrews and later at Harvard (see ‘karma and luck’) she was seemingly destined to advance to the higher ranks of the Brookings Institute by virtue of her publications on Russia. The first notable title from 2003 The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold is so revealing that one does not have to read a single line of the treatise: bad communists! A sentiment surely sufficient to endear oneself to arch-capitalists on Capitol Hill. A second one from 2004 I read in more detail (as one can download it for free), i.e. Energy Empire: Oil, Gas and Russia's Revival. To me it reads like pure policy trash, citing endless World Bank statistics and the like, introducing her topic with the meaningless but ever so dramatic phrase of ‘Russia is back on the global strategic and economic map.’ I mean, was Russia ever NOT on the map? Does Fiona Hill decide who is and who is NOT on the map? Is the ‘map’ some sort of objective artefact that needs no context? Colourful academics with a flair of colourful writing styles get away with murder but are applauded by their peers (in higher positions) as having an ideological baseline that somehow validates all the details that follow. As a conclusion Hill offers us this pill of wisdom:

Fuelled by oil and gas, Russia may yet follow the same path after the end of the Cold War. It could become the dominant power in its immediate neighbourhood by virtue of its economic growth and new soft power resource potential – not by virtue of the old hard power that led it to invade, conquer, and colonize territory in the past. Russian dominance of Eurasia in this manner would be much more palatable, even for the traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West who eventually became comfortable with the economic dominance by Germany and Japan of their immediate neighbourhoods.

This type of geopolitical trash talk is utterly divorced from the concerns of the vast majority of the people on this earth, appealing only to a small class of neo-feudal princelings who like to be told of their divine powers to rule the earth for the benefit of ‘their’ people and mostly for themselves. I mean, who are the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ that Hill is writing about? Today, are they the neo-fascists who deem the so called ‘antifa’ as terrorists? Are they the ‘hawks’ who deem anarchists as ‘ugly’? People who tear down racist statues are told by Johnson that

To tear them down would be to lie about our history, and impoverish the education of generations to come.”

When after the collapse of the Soviet Union the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ encouraged the new states to tear down statues of Stalin, Lenin, etc. and rename places named after them, nobody of the Western liberal power elites blinked an eyelid. When a progressive intellectual like Noam Chomsky called for various U.S. presidents to be tried for war crimes, the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ (e.g. Nixon) put him on a list of ‘traitors’ to be eliminated. Sure, Nixon went too far but it looks as if Trump and his contemporaries (Johnson and Putin, in Hill’s estimation) are going further without impunity, what with Hill’s ambiguous statements during the impeachment trial having no impact whatsoever. I am not advocating that Fiona Hill work in the coalmines, like her father did, but I wish she would reconsider her status and at least join an autonomous zone in Seattle, writing pamphlets to call for the ‘defunding’ of all police and armed forces in the U.S., Russian and the U.K., if not the rest of the world. This would not only mitigate the dangers of all wars (civil and uncivil) but eliminate them. A project that might even appeal to the ‘traditional hawks in the U.S. and the West’ as they are always intent on ‘eliminating’ something and someone. In the absence of such action we will only experience more ‘withering’  - lately enhanced by a virus that decimates the working classes more than twice the rate of the upper classes, so why care? 


1               As another BTW, writing this from Auckland, NZ, one may note that this city is named after a miserable British colonialist who waged various disastrous wars in India and Afghanistan. Time to revert to the Maori name of Tāmaki Makaurau. 



Hill, Fiona; Gaddy, Clifford G. (2003). The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Hill, Fiona (September 2004). Energy Empire: Oil, Gas and Russia's Revival (PDF). London: Foreign Policy Centre.