Archives for category: freedom

And why are we still trying to solve this riddle?

‘Cause this is indeed a riddle…

Remember those metaphorical stories whose heroes end up having to find the answer to one in order to save themselves/the day?
Like Sophocles’ “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”

A riddle, of course, being a question which cannot be answered until the individuals attempting to solve it stick their heads out of the box into which the riddle had been framed.

So. Individualism? Collectivism?

Having grown up under communist rule – supposedly the most collectivist social arrangement to date, I can testify that there is no such thing as collectivism without individualism nor individualism without collectivism.

Libertarians’ mantra is that socialism/communism – and even liberalism, as Americans understand it, is a form of collectivism. And, of course, that collectivism is bad for you.
Socialists, on the other hand, maintain that the current situation – which is seen as being bad, is the consequence of the growingly extreme individualism which plagues modern societies.

Interestingly enough, both sides are simultaneously right.
Communism is indeed bad for you and the bad aspects of today’s society are a consequence of callous selfishness.

On the other hand, all communist societies are composed of a huge mass of obedient subjects AND a small number of individual, and very individualistic, leaders.
Similarly, all developed capitalist societies – including those sporting huge discrepancies between the shrinking number of haves and the growing number of utterly destitutes, have reached the current level of sophistication because most of their members continue to share the belief that ‘all men have been created equal and that all of them have certain, nonnegotiable, rights: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness’.

“Share the belief…”
But wasn’t this the very definition of collectivism?
A social arrangement where the most important possession belongs to THE public?
Was there anything more consequential for what is currently known as the ‘Euro-Atlantic’ civilization than this shared belief? Other peoples have been in possession of way more abundant natural resources. Had reached ‘astronomical’ levels of civilization way before we were even able to wipe our noses… And yet…

Haven’t we, individual thinkers, figured out yet that unless we agree on ‘the basics’, we’ll be easy prey for the callous ‘snake oil merchantmen’ who have no qualms to use collectivist slogans to pitch some of us against the others?

Haven’t we figured out, yet, that there is no ‘political collectivism’ without fear? All collectivist social arrangements, both socialist and fascist/nazist, have been built using fear/contempt (of the other) to cement ‘the people’ into believing the lies proffered by false prophets. Lenin, Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao… Lies proffered by callously individualistic political agents… bent on satisfying their own domineering instincts and making ‘good use’ of pre-existing conditions.

Haven’t we figured out yet that individualism, the tame version developed along with the good aspects of the Western Civilization, is, by nature, the very beneficial consequence of the mutual respect which (still) exists among the members of our societies?

So, to answer the riddle, we need to understand that there is no real conflict between bona fide individualism and bona fide collectivism.
Just as there is no conflict between two perpendicular lines.

Since, by trade, I’m a mechanical engineer, I’ll use a very practical metaphor to illustrate this idea.
Consider a pressurized Oxygen tank. The more pressure inside, the more Oxygen you can store in it. The more useful the tank. Only if you ramp up the pressure too much, you end up with an explosion.
In this situation, you might consider ‘pressure’ to be in conflict with the ‘walls of the tank’, right?
Wrong. The conflict is only in your mind. Pressure is simply perpendicular to those walls. The more pressure those walls can withstand, the more useful that tank is for you.

But it’s your responsibility to determine the thickness and resilience of those walls. It’s your responsibility to choose how much to ramp up the pressure.
For the very simple reason that that tank is yours.
It is you who will suffer the consequences.


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“One of Pareto’s most noteworthy and controversial theories is that human beings are not, for the most part, motivated by logic and reason but rather by sentiment.”

Coming from an engineer – Pareto had started as one, this concept becomes even more noteworthy.
Why would a ‘professional using precision measurements and seeking consistently reproducible results’ focus his attention on sentiment rather than reason?

Because this is the reasonable thing to to?

And one of the reasons for which I tend to agree with him – besides being an engineer myself, is that he had started his studies using the most ‘reasonable’ instrument ever devised by man: “Residing in Florence, he studied philosophy and politics and wrote many periodical articles in which he first analyzed economic problems with mathematical tools.”

So, Pareto had reached the conclusion that human beings are driven mostly by sentiment after rationally analyzing the economic (and political) life.

OK. But what lies behind ‘sentiment’?

Pareto had proposed ‘residues’ as ‘motivation’ for sentiment. His theory is interesting only rather complicated. Almost byzantine. A well written summary can be read here.

What I find fascinating about Pareto’s theory is the rather veiled but certain correspondence which exists between his ‘residues’ and Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”.

I’ll try to ‘raise the veil’ at a later date, today I’ll just point you towards a very relevant ‘coincidence’.

The psychologist had traveled the same road as the engineer.

Maslow (1943) initially stated that individuals must satisfy lower level deficit needs before progressing on to meet higher level growth needs. However, he later clarified that satisfaction of a needs is not an “all-or-none” phenomenon, admitting that his earlier statements may have given “the false impression that a need must be satisfied 100 percent before the next need emerges” (1987, p. 69).

Both had started ‘deterministically’, trying evidentiate ‘the’ (ironclad?) link between behavior and conditions – and expecting that link to be of a rational nature, only to reach the conclusion that individual sentiment/evaluation is at least as important – if not more so, as reason in the decision process. In shaping human behavior.


I keep hearing that “America is not a Democracy, it is a Republic if you can keep it“.

Well, if nothing else, this is yet another example of how dangerous it is to give up studying ‘humanities’. As in classical languages, history…

‘Republic’ comes from Latin. Res Publica. Meaning a sociopolitical arrangement, a.k.a. country, ‘where “things” – “res”, in Latin, are decided upon by the “public” or the representatives that they elect.

Democracy comes from Greek. Demos Kratos. Meaning a sociopolitical arrangement where ‘power’ – ‘kratos’, belongs to ‘the people’ – demos.

Starting from here, it becomes a lot easier to understand that it doesn’t really matter whether the guy sitting at the formal top of a country calls himself king or president.
It’s who calls the definitive shot which determines whether a country is run as a democracy or is being ruled as an authoritarian regime.

“Government is suppose to be a negative force that leaves people alone.”

I’m afraid this would make any of the Founding Fathers weep.
It’s the ministers – secretaries of state, as the Americans call them, who need to be kept in check, not ‘Government’.
“Government of the people, by the people, for the people” means that the people governs itself. The people determines its own future. All the people …. not just ‘the government’. Extracting, at the conceptual level, ‘the government’ from ‘the people’ means freeing those who happen to be ‘the government’, at any given moment, from their responsibilities. Telling ‘the people’ that ‘the government’ should leave them alone actually means that the people should also leave the members of the government to do as they please.
Really? Would any of you be comfortable with such an arrangement?

“Once Rome left the tenets of their Constitution they adopted Democracy and soon people were left demanding more from the Gov’t. A Gov’t that could not provide.”

In reality, Rome had thrived for only as long as it had managed to preserve the truly democratic features of its government. As long as the citizens went to the Forum – the Roman Agora, and voted their true minds. As long as the Senators did their jobs honestly and decided for the future of the entire city.
Only after the Roman People had given up and stood idle while their democracy was corrupted into ‘mob-rule’ by the bribe-greedy senators, the Roman Empire had started to crumble. The Roman Empire was no longer a true republic nor a functional democracy when it was abolished by Augustus being proclaimed Emperor by his soldiers.
And the final nail was beaten into the Roman coffin when the people itself had started to accept bribes.
When Rome had started to be ruled according to the ‘panem et circenses’ principle. When the people had let himself be bribed by those who wanted to stay in power and when the people had stopped censuring those who determined the fate of the entire social organism.

When ‘the government’ had extracted itself from the people.

And yes, Republic has to be kept. Only not for its own sake. For ours.

It doesn’t matter whether a country calls itself a kingdom or a Republic, it’s how the shots are called which is really important. By the People or by a small number of individuals. While it is true that the Roman Empire had to devolve from a Democratic Republic to a dictatorial kingdom before crumbling, let’s not forget Germany and Russia.
Both had thrown out their rulers – Kaiser and Tzar, only to fall under the spell of dictatorial ideologies which had led both of them to ruin.
To republican ruin.
Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had been ruled as republics by small coteries of callous manipulators.

Really?

Am I the first to understand that once you’ve eaten it, nobody will ever again be able to part YOUR cake from you?

It stops being a cake as you chew on it?

Well… yeah. Actually it does. But… it remains a cake in your memory! That’s what you’ll remember having eaten: A cake!

And now, that we’ve settled the ‘eaten cake’ problem, let me ask you another question.

How strange is it that so many conservatives consider taxes as an infringement upon their right to freely dispose of their property yet they have no qualms to impose their beliefs upon other people – women, to be more precise, denying them the right to freely  dispose of their own bodies?

Because all life is sacred!

Hence, in their view, all abortion is murder. Regardless of the age of the fetus. Regardless of the consequences of having an unwanted child. Too early, too many, not enough money, health problems, sexual assault… nothing counts except for the right of the fetus to be born.

Some go even further. They consider that contraception is murder too. Because it denies the right of the egg-cell to become an embryo…

As I said before.
It is not only possible but very normal to have your cake and eat it too.
Same goes for convictions.
Once embedded in our heads they become ours and nobody can part them from us, no matter what logical arguments might be involved. Invoked?

Except for us. We are the ones who can leave behind some of our old convictions and reach new ones.
Conversion is the name of the game.

A game we’ve been playing since the dawn of time.

We pride ourselves for our ability to choose. Rationally!
We call that ‘liberty’ and we consider it an ‘undeniable human right’.

Yet everything, including our understanding of things, exists because of ‘chance’.
While neither chance nor choice can manifest itself/be exerted outside what we’ve learned to call ‘hard reality’.

“First you guess. Don’t laugh, this is the most important step. Then you compute the consequences. Compare the consequences to experience. If it disagrees with experience, the guess is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your guess is or how smart you are or what your name is. If it disagrees with experience, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Attributed to Richard Feynman by
Florentin Smarandache, V. Christianto,
in Multi-Valued Logic, Neutrosophy, and Schrodinger Equation? (2006), 73

Present owes just as much to Reaction, if not more, as it does to Revolution
Ilie Badescu, PhD.

Newton had noticed  that everything, no matter how ‘inanimate’, reacts whenever ‘prodded’. And, maybe even more importantly, that the reaction is exactly balances the ‘prodding’.
Provided that the ‘prodding’ doesn’t actually ‘destroy’ the ‘target’, of course. But even then, some ‘reaction’ is always exerted against the ‘intruder’.
Walking, for instance. Whenever we walk on tarmac, our weight is fully supported by the pavement. When walking on dry, fine sand, our feet leave an impression. Our weight is eventually counterbalanced but not before some local ‘readjustments’ have been made. Finally, when walking in knee deep water, our feet completely ‘destroy’ the layer of liquid before reaching the ‘terra firma’ below. But not without having been met by some hydrodynamic resistance – which is far greater than the aerodynamic one we constantly overcome when walking on dry land.

Darwin had noticed that species either evolve – and survive, or ‘go under’ whenever something changes in the environment they had been accustomed to.
It’s a no brainer to remark that here the reaction is no longer as instantaneous nor as ‘equally opposed’ as in the first case.

Since Berger and Luckman’s The Social Construction of Reality it is tacitly accepted that our fate is heavily influenced by our actions.
Some of those inclined to entertain religious beliefs will now add that it is our actions which take us to hell or to heaven but since there have always been some ‘misunderstandings’ between the various currents …
Anyway.
My point is that in this third case, each specific ‘reaction’ is actively shaped by the individual ‘reactionary’. According to their own projections of the future, to the prevailing, socially adopted and individually internalized, rules and to the individual understanding of the until then discovered ‘natural laws’.

And that our future, as a species/civilization, is being shaped now.
By us.
Using whatever cultural heritage our ancestors have left us and, maybe more important, according to our limited understanding of the world.
And according to our wishes, of course.

It will be our children who will bear the brunt of our current decisions.

In Nature, ‘evil’ is suicidal.

‘Evolution is not about the survival of the fittest but about the demise of the unfit’.

Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, 1964.

In ‘social’, a sub-domain of Nature, Evil has to be weeded out. By us.
For no other reason than here it is us who determine what is evil or not. By honestly assessing how detrimental that thing is to our own well being.

And we need to act diligently yet sparingly.
Diligently, lest we become engulfed by ‘weeds’.
And sparingly, lest we become evil ourselves.

“One of the main arguments for Durkheim’s theory is that since crime is found in all societies, it must be performing necessary functions otherwise it would disappear in an advanced society. (Hamlin, 2009). One of these necessary functions is social change. Crime is one of the most effective sources of social change in any society. When crime goes against social norms, eventually a society’s collective belief will transform thus bringing about social change. A prime example is the Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States that promoted racial segregation. As society progressed many people began violating the laws at the time until society reached a point where it was considered a norm for inter-racial relationships in society. Eventually racial segregation was abolished and in today’s society would violate social norms.One of the main arguments for Durkheim’s theory is that since crime is found in all societies, it must be performing necessary functions otherwise it would disappear in an advanced society. (Hamlin, 2009). One of these necessary functions is social change. Crime is one of the most effective sources of social change in any society. When crime goes against social norms, eventually a society’s collective belief will transform thus bringing about social change. A prime example is the Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States that promoted racial segregation. As society progressed many people began violating the laws at the time until society reached a point where it was considered a norm for inter-racial relationships in society. Eventually racial segregation was abolished and in today’s society would violate social norms.”

Mike Larsen, Durkheim: Crime serves a Social Function, 2012

 

Men grow up ‘against’ their fathers.
Women grow up with their mothers.

Men try to ‘fix’ their relationship before the older one ‘grows out’.
Women don’t have this problem. By the time they have reached that stage of the relationship, they are beyond the point of no return.  Either not really speaking to each other or so ‘in sync’ that there’s no difference of opinion left to speak of.

Statistically speaking, of course.
For both genders.

A knife can be used for buttering toast, slicing steak and, occasionally, for slitting  throats.
A gun can be used to hunt dinner, defend a homestead or shoot a rival.
Bare hands can knot laces, caress a woman or choke the life out of an innocent.

What makes us, humans, sometimes transform tools into weapons?

We are astonished when we learn about other animals being able to make and use tools.
Which is good. ‘Astonished’ is the opposite of ‘insensitive’. A.k.a. ‘brain dead’.

How about we, humans, learning from the rest of the animals how to solve whatever issues we have amongst us without  killing each-other?
You are aware that humans and chimpanzees are the only animals who systematically murder adult members of their own species, right?

But what instance is powerful enough to transform tool into weapon?

Human consciousness?

Is this a ‘fatality’?
The simple fact that each of us is consciously aware of the differences between ‘I’ and ‘all the rest’ means that whenever ‘survival instincts’ kick in our humanity necessarily vanishes? Entirely?
And ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ becomes ‘dog eats dog’?

We would have already been dead by now… all of us…
Our ancestors must have discovered a way to balance our propensity to ‘stick with your own kind’ with with our need to learn new things and meet new people!
Or is it that some of us continually come up with fresh reasons for ‘war’ while we, the rest, are too lazy to do anything about it? Despite everything history has ever taught us…

The oldest surviving civilized nation, China, calls itself Zhongguo.
The Middle Kingdom. ‘In the middle’ of the barbaric people that surrounded her but also at middle distance between Heaven and the rest of the Earth. The aforementioned barbarians.

And, according to Confucius, it was the emperor’s job to ‘keep things as they should remain’.

Which makes sense. After all, the whole kingdom was the exclusive property of the emperor. And whose job is to watch over one’s property?

Well, things went on long enough for those involved to believe this was the natural order of things.
Until the whole arrangement was upset by a small number of people which had come, more or less ‘under their own steam’, from the other side of the world. And who were, at that time, a lot less civilized than the Chinese.

How can be explained something like this?
OK, the Aztec and the Inca empires might have been primitive relative to the Spanish invaders. They might have prevailed over the small number of invaders by brute force but they had been overcome by the sheer novelty and the apparent sophistication of the assailants.
But China had been in contact for centuries with the rest of the ‘civilized’ world! And way advanced than the rest. Both culturally and economically.

So, what had happened?
How can something like this be explained?

We might try to take the ‘historical route’. And observe that, exactly as Confucius and Laozi had told us, China’s destiny had been tightly linked to the ability of those in charge – the emperors, to manage the empire. From the paleolithic migrations until the Mongol invasion in 1271, nothing from outside had any significant impact over the Chinese hinterland. But the fortunes of those living in that hinterland had oscillated from the misery induced by almost constant ‘live conflict’ during the Warring States period to the various prosperous eras. The Han, Tang and Song dynasties, to mention just a few of them.
The same principle had been valid also for what went on while foreign dynasties had been in power. As long as the ‘managers’ were doing their jobs, things continued to improve. As soon as the helm was grabbed by an incompetent leader… all hell broke loose.

But is the emperors’ incompetence enough to explain what had happened during the XIX-th century? The most advanced, and numerous, nation on Earth had been subjugated – for all practical purposes, by a bunch of drug pushers pretending to act in the name of the far away, and far weaker, British King?

Or we can take the sociological route.
Along which we’ll notice that the ‘drug pushers’ were only nominally subjects of the British Empire. Which empire was behaving imperially only towards the exterior while inside it was already a democracy!

Sounds familiar?

Ancient Athens, the first known democracy, had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for as long as it had retained its democratic character and had failed, abysmally, each time it had reverted to tyranny?
Ancient Rome had established a huge empire as a democratic republic and collapsed four short centuries after becoming a totalitarian empire?
And so on…?

And what might be the difference between a totalitarian empire and a democratic one?
On the face of it, a democratic empire sounds like an oxymoron… yet there’s plenty of such examples in our history…

As you might guess from the title of this post, the ‘famous’ middle class was both the engine and the explanation for the ease with which the ‘democratic’ empires had been established. And yes, the Spanish and Portuguese ones can be explained in the same manner. At that time none of the Iberian monarchies was yet behaving in the absolutist manner they had pursued as soon as the looted precious metals had started to pour in…

But what makes the middle class so special?

Nassim Nicholas Taleb would tell you that the middle class has enough skin left in the game to really care about the outcome and I’m going to add that the middle class is simultaneously distanced enough from the fray to act in a reasonable enough manner.

Let me put back, for a short while, my historian’s cap.

Most of us consider that the middle class is a late appearance. That most of the time, humankind had been divided in two. The haves and the have-nots. The powerful and the meek.
Well, I’m not so sure about that…
For the first 60 000 years after we had learned to speak – which had made us really human, we had been living in small packs. Led by the more powerful male member of the group – if we consider that our ancestors used to behave like our Chimpanzee cousins, or ‘self managed’ in a more or less democratic manner if our ancestors had used the model followed by our other cousins, the Bonobos.
Or we could look at how the surviving ‘primitives’ lead their lives. None of the Hadzabe, Yanomami or Inuit, who have survived in the most difficult conditions on Earth, have a hierarchical social structure.
Primitives?!? Maybe… but not because of their social arrangements. After all, they are freer than most of us.
And what is it that we, proudly modern people, value more than our individual freedom?

Money? I’m going to let this rest… for a while.

Let’s go back to our ancestors.
Who, by all indications, had been living as ‘extended middle class societies’. Without any 0.1% and without people who went to bed hungry while the rest of the gang had been gorging themselves.
Let’s remember now that during those times we had actually transformed ourselves from apes to humans. And if you consider this to be a small feat, just try to teach a bonobo to speak. Then remember how many people who had been born in poor and backward countries are now successful business people or scientists. After passing through a thorough educational process, true! Only that educational process is in no way accessible to any bonobo…
Don’t disparage the long evolution we had graduated from, as a species, while living in ‘extended middle class societies’.

‘But you haven’t explained what you mean by middle class! Most of us see the middle class as those people who make a certain amount of money each year and you keep speaking about primitive people… who have absolutely no use for any money…!’

OK.
For good or for bad, our present society consist of three categories of people.
The haves, the in-between and the dirt poor.

I’m not going to assign numerical values to any of these.
Taleb’s Skin in the Game criterion is far more useful in this situation.

The haves qualify only after they have no skin left in the game. In the sense that they have so much ‘money’ that come hell and/or high water they feel safe. What they make of this world is heavily influenced by the thick ‘insulation’ which separates them from the rest of the world.
The dirt poor – or the lumpen proletariat, in Marx’s terms, have all their skin in the game. In fact, they are the famous ‘Boiling Frog’. They have no way of leaving the kettle so…

In a sense, both haves and the dirt poor are  prisoners. Neither can leave their respective cell blocks. Simply because the dirt poor have no way to go anywhere while almost none of the haves would be able to survive ‘outside’.

the boiling frog

Wesley Chang, The Boiling Frog, Medium.com

Which leaves us with the middle class.
Who have some resources stashed away – or enough credit available, to weather some crises. But not enough to last them for their entire remaining lives.
Which makes the middle class the only really interested people in the long term well being of the entire society. The only ones really interested in maintaining the freedom of the market as the main economic engine. The only ones really interested in maintaining democracy as the main manner of avoiding catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by the too powerful autocrats.

Or, from a psychological point of view, we can look at the haves/dirt poor as being stuck in an immobile state of mind while the middle class are the only open minded members of the society.
In fact, I prefer this last approach.
You see, until recently the American Dream was relatively accessible. With some luck, a ton of determination and a fair amount of brain power, the sky was the only limit. Belonging to any of those three categories, haves, middle class and dirt-poor was as much about the state of mind of those involved as it was about actual economic conditions.
The haves were free to consider the big picture, the dirt poor could contemplate brighter perspectives while the middle class were doing their thing. Keeping the whole show afloat.

I’m afraid we have reached an inflexion point. A watershed mark, if you prefer.
For whatever reason – I’m not ready to tackle this subject right now, we’ve become so preoccupied with something in particular that we’ve lost sight of everything else.

Including the middle class.

Exactly those which were supposed to maintain their cool heads and open minds.

part of the problem

Matthew Stewart,
The 9.9 Percent is the New American Aristocracy,
The Atlantic

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