Sunday, April 25, 2021

There's No Passing the Crown Around Anymore...

Go call the Earls of Surrey and of Warwick;
But, ere they come, bid them o'er-read these letters,
And well consider of them; make good speed.

*Exit Page*

How many thousand of my poorest subjects
Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?
Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,
Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee
And hush'd with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,
Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,
Under the canopies of costly state,
And lull'd with sound of sweetest melody?
O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile
In loathsome beds, and leavest the kingly couch
A watch-case or a common 'larum-bell?
Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast
Seal up the ship-boy's eyes, and rock his brains
In cradle of the rude imperious surge
And in the visitation of the winds,
Who take the ruffian billows by the top,
Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them
With deafening clamour in the slippery clouds,
That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.


Shakespeare, "Henry IV Part II" (Act III, Sc. I) 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Paris Commune @ 150

Slavoj Žižek, "Paris Commune at 150"
These days we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune which lasted exactly 2 months and 10 days (from March 18 till May 28 1871). After the infamous defeat of France in the war with Germany, with Germany army at the doors of Paris, the people of Paris took over and quickly organized outside the coordinates of existing state power. Once the French government forces crashed the Paris Commune (and killed many Communards in the so-called “Bloody Week”), the government organized an inquest into the causes of the uprising: “The inquest concluded that the main cause of the insurrection was a lack of belief in God, and that this problem had to be corrected immediately. It was decided that a moral revival was needed, and a key part of this was deporting 4,500 Communards to New Caledonia. There was a two-part goal in this: the government also hoped that the Communards would civilize the native Kanak people on the island, and that being exposed to the order of nature would return the Communards to the side of ‘good’.”

The contradiction is here easy to note: the decision implies the admission that France itself is corrupted, so to return Communards to the “side of the good,” they have to be isolated among (non-Christian) savages, who are presumably closer to nature; simultaneously, they would “civilize” the savage Kanaks. How? With French corruption? One can only hope that the effect was the opposite one: the exiled Communards experienced solidarity with the colonized Kanaks… And is a similar inconsistency not at work in many people dissatisfied with our corrupted civilization who seek authenticity among the less developed but in reality bring poison to them since their own notion of authenticity is projected onto the less developed?

From the privileged standpoint of hindsight, it is easy to claim that the Communards made virtually every mistake possible and that they were doomed to fail. But they mark a radically new beginning: the Paris Commune was the first workers’ government in history, the first time modern workers took over power, and this is enough to apply to it what Hegel said about the French Revolution:

“Never since the sun had stood in the firmament and the planets revolved around him had it been perceived that man’s existence centres in his head, i.e., in Thought, inspired by which he builds up the world of reality. Anaxagoras had been the first to say that nous governs the World; but not until now had man advanced to the recognition of the principle that Thought ought to govern spiritual reality. This was accordingly a glorious mental dawn. All thinking beings shared in the jubilation of this epoch. Emotions of a lofty character stirred men’s minds at that time; a spiritual enthusiasm thrilled through the world.”

However, the contrast between the two events immediately strikes the eye. The French Revolution arouse sublime feelings in publics all around Europe (recall the famous description of this effect by Kant), while the Paris Commune was mostly met with horror. After the Commune was defeated, “enlightened” writers from George Sand to Gustave Flaubert visited the trials of the Communards to see the cases of degenerated humanity, Nietzsche dismissed the Commune as the last slave rebellion, etc. The honorable exception here was the old Victor Hugo who fought for the amnesty of the imprisoned Communards.

The continuity between the French Revolution and the Commune is at another level. The reception of the French Revolution among the enlightened public was enthusiastic about the first phase of the revolution, and this enthusiasm turned into horror when the Jacobins took over. 1789—yes, 1793—no! At the level of the political dynamic, the Commune was the reappearance of 1793, albeit not a precise one. Something happened with the Commune that did not happen in 1793.

Although praised by Marx as “the form at last discovered” for the overcoming of the state and the emancipation of the proletariat, i.e., as the first taste of what the “dictatorship of the proletariat” would look like, we should note that the Commune was a surprise for Marx himself. We tend to forget that Marxists were a minority in the Commune: with his triumphant interpretation of the Commune in The Civil War in France, written during and immediately after the Commune, Marx re-appropriated an event in which his followers were marginalized by the anarchist, proudhonist and bakuninist majority. Plus, the popular base of the Commune were not just workers but also artisans, small owners, and so forth. The figure whom Communards themselves perceived as their leader was Louis Auguste Blanqui, a French revolutionary Socialist who was more concerned with the revolution itself than with the future society that would result from it. Contrary to Marx, Blanqui did not believe in the preponderant role of the working class, nor in popular movements: he thought that the revolution should be carried out by a small group, who would establish a temporary dictatorship by force. This period of transitional tyranny would permit the implementation of the basis of a new order, after which power would be handed over to the people. In short, Blanqui was a Leninist avant la lettre.

On 17 March 1871, Adolphe Thiers, acting head of the French government in the confused state after the defeat in the war against Germany, aware of the threat represented by Blanqui, had the latter arrested. A few days afterwards the insurrection which established the Paris Commune broke out, and Blanqui was elected president of the insurgent commune. The Communards offered to release all of their prisoners if the Thiers government released Blanqui, but their offer was met with refusal. Marx himself, in spite of his critique of Blanqui, was convinced that Blanqui was the leader that was missed by the Commune. Blanqui was not focused on the program of a revolution; he aimed at forming an organized group that would smash the state and take power. No wonder that Lenin himself danced in the snow in a Kremlin court when Bolshevik power lasted a day longer than the Commune! But was the Bolshevik regime a true heir of the Commune? Yes, they first legitimized their reign with the slogan “All power to the soviets (local councils)!”, but then they quickly disbanded these very councils.

So why was Marx surprised by the Commune? What did he learn from it? Before the Commune, he conceived of the revolution as a set of measures executed by a central power: nationalization of banks, free universal healthcare and education, etc. (they are enumerated at the end of the Communist Manifesto). The “surprise” of the Commune was local self-organization of the people, its attempt at a democracy, which grows from below, from local councils, with active participation of the people. The Jacobins, in turn, did not make this step which, in their case, would have meant dismantling the National Assembly – which is why they lost power by a simple vote in the Assembly.

Can the Commune still be a model for us today? When the predominant form of political representation is exhausted, can our political engagement be given new life through a direct awakening of the people? Yes, but the harsh lesson of history is that the difficult point comes afterwards, when popular enthusiasm has to be transformed into an effective political organization with a precise program.

Recall the “chaotic” leaderless and decentralized character of the Yellow Vests protests in France. One can claim that this, precisely, was their strength: they exposed the gap between ordinary experience and political representation. Instead of a clear agent addressing demands to state power and thereby offering itself as a partner in dialogue, we get a polymorphous popular pressure, and what puts those in power in a panic is that this pressure cannot be localized in a clear opponent, but remains a version of what Negri called the multitude. If such a pressure expresses itself in concrete demands, these demands are not what the protest is really about… However, at some point, hysterical demands have to translate themselves into a political program (or else they disappear). The protesters’ demands are the expression of a deeper dissatisfaction with the very liberal-democratic capitalist order, in which demands can only be met through the process of parliamentary political representation. In other words, the protests contain a deeper demand for a different logic of economico-political organization, and here a new leader is needed to operationalize this deeper demand.

The Yellow Vests in France clearly articulated an experience that was impossible to translate or transpose into the terms of the politics of institutional representation, which is why the moment Macron invited their representatives to a dialogue and challenged them to formulate their complaints in a clear political program, their specific experience evaporated. Did exactly the same thing not happen with Podemos in Spain? The moment they accepted to play party politics and entered the government, they became almost indistinguishable from Socialists in yet another sign that representative democracy doesn’t fully work.

The crisis of liberal democracy has been lasting for decades. The Covid pandemic only made it explode beyond a certain level, showing how the basic premises of a functioning democracy are more and more undermined today. The trust, on which democracy relies, was best expressed by Lincoln’s famous saying: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Let’s give to this saying a more pessimist spin: only in rare, exceptional moments does the majority live in truth; most of the time they live in the non-truth, while only a minority is aware of the truth. And the solution is certainly not to be sought in some kind of more “true” democracy, which would close the gap between “real” people and their political representation and be more inclusive of all minorities. Rather, the very frame of liberal democracy will have to be left behind, which is exactly what liberals fear most.

The solution is also not that somehow the self-organized and mobilized civil society (Podemos, Yellows Vests…) directly takes over and replaces the state. Direct rule of the multitude is an illusion that, as a rule, has to be sustained with a strong state apparatus. One should gather the courage and accomplish here a Hegelian reversal: if no political representation can adequately capture what it refers to (the true will of the people, what people really need and want), then this permanent failure indicates that the trouble resides in this very point of reference, namely in what people really need and want.

Remember Trump’s inauguration speech in 2017: “Today’s ceremony has very special meaning, because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.” Till now elites were ruling but: “All that changes, starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment — it belongs to you. It belongs to everyone gathered here today, and everyone watching, all across America. This is your day.” We should not take these words just as cheap demagoguery but as an indication of what is wrong in the very idea of the direct power of the people. In a Blanquist way, these people did try to take power by invading the Capitol in January 2021. Of course, the “people” were in this case the white middle class, whose privileges were threatened. But there was a deeper crisis of representation, the crisis, which was also clearly palpable in the French case of Yellow Vests protests. When they were invited to a dialogue with the government, this dialogue utterly failed, the two sides were simply not talking the same language.

Is the solution here some kind of return to the Commune with its vision and practice of direct democracy? Should we oppose the “false” Capitol crowd and the “authentic” Yellow Vests crowd? Maybe what we are witnessing today, with the “post-truth” politics, is the end of the entire tradition of true and authentic people’s will, which is usually manipulated and misrepresented but for the adequate representation of which we should strive. The way to beat Trumpian populism is not is not to claim that it doesn’t really stand for the people, that the real people’s will should be allowed to express itself outside this populism. The very fact that people’s will can be “manipulated” in such a thorough way signals its phantasmatic character. In a Hegelian way, the critique of representation should thus be inverted into the critique of what representation is supposed to represent.

To get this point, we should draw a parallel not between the Commune and today’s situation, but between today and the French Revolution of 1848. Recall Marx’s deservedly famous description of the political position of peasants as a class from his writings on the 1848 revolution:

“The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another instead of bringing them into mutual intercourse. / In this way, the great mass of the French nation is formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. / They cannot represent themselves, they must be represented. Their representative must at the same time appear as their master, as an authority over them, as an unlimited government power that protects them against the other classes and sends them rain and sunshine from above. The political influence of the small holding peasants, therefore, finds its final expression in the executive power subordinating society to itself.”

And was it not the same in Egypt when Arab Spring protests with their demand for adequate political representation overthrew the Mubarak regime and brought in democracy? But with democracy, did not those unrepresented go to vote and brought to power the Muslim Brotherhood, while participants in the popular protests, mostly the educated middle-class youth, with their agenda of freedom, were marginalized? Today the problem of representation is exploding also in the developed Western countries. Whole strata don’t represent themselves; they even actively reject being represented since they perceive the very form of representation as fake, and when they get mobilized, it is under the banner of a populist leader.

Perhaps, this is one of the most succinct definitions of populism: the movement of those who do not trust political representation. What Marx said concerning French peasant protests of 1848 – “their entry into the revolutionary movement, clumsily cunning, knavishly naïve, doltishly sublime, a calculated superstition, a pathetic burlesque, a cleverly stupid anachronism, a world-historic piece of buffoonery, and an undecipherable hieroglyph for the understanding of the civilized – this symbol bore the unmistakable features of the class that represents barbarism within civilization” – fits perfectly the attack on the Capitol. The “revolutionary” attackers were clumsily cunning (thinking they were deceiving everyone by their rhetoric), knavishly naïve (in following Trump as the embodiment of popular freedom), doltishly sublime (evoking the great tradition of the founding fathers betrayed by the US administration), followed a calculated superstition (not really believing in the conspiracy theories they relied on), displayed a pathetic burlesque (of imitating revolutionary fervor), exhibited a cleverly stupid anachronism (of defending the old American values of freedom)… As such, they were truly “an undecipherable hieroglyph”: an explosion of anti-Enlightenment barbarism, which brought out the hidden antagonisms of our civilization.

Another name for this anti-Enlightenment thrust that characterizes our time is “post-truth era.” An incident which took place in the US legal system in March 2021 brings us to the core of this weird phenomenon. Dominion Voting Systems filed a defamation lawsuit against the pro-Trump right-wing attorney Sidney Powell over her claims that the company, which manufactured electronic voting machines used by some districts in the 2020 election, changed votes for President Donald Trump to votes for President-elect Joe Biden (plus, her claim that this same company had links to the regime of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela). An uncanny move was Powell’s defense against this lawsuit: in a new court filing, she claimed that reasonable people wouldn’t have believed to be factual her assertions of fraud after the 2020 presidential election:

“Indeed, Plaintiffs themselves characterize the statements at issue as ‘wild accusations’ and ‘outlandish claims.’ They are repeatedly labelled ‘inherently improbable’ and even ‘impossible.’ Such characterizations of the allegedly defamatory statements further support Defendants’ position that reasonable people would not accept such statements as fact but view them only as claims that await testing by the courts through the adversary process.”

The underlying logic is that statements are really defamatory (and one can be prosecuted for them) if they could be taken seriously by at least some reasonable people. So, if the problematic statements are characterized as “outlandish” and “improbable,” i.e., if no reasonable person can take them seriously, they are not a defamation and one cannot be prosecuted for them. One can imagine a defense of Hitler in the same terms: his idea of a Bolshevik-Jewish plot is so outlandish and improbable that no reasonable person would take it seriously… The problem is that millions died because of that outlandish idea. And something similar (though, of course, not of the same weight) holds for what Powell was saying: statements like hers mobilized millions, brought the US to the brink of a civil war, and caused deaths.

The underlying question is: when Powell was spreading her defamatory claims (and, while doing it, she must have been aware that all reasonable people would see that they were ridiculous and false), why was she then doing it? To manipulate and seduce the unreasonable crowd by way of mobilizing our irrational instincts? Things are more complicated here: yes, Powell was aware that she had no rational grounds for her defamations, she was knowingly spreading non-truths, but it was as if she fell into her own trap and identified with what she knew was not true. She was not a manipulator exempting herself from her lies: she was exactly in the same position as her “victims.”

Powell’s defamations have the status of rumors, but they are rumors elevated to public discourse. Rumors do not deal with factual truth as opposed to appearances; they are both outside factual truth (to save the appearance of dignity we are ready to keep silent about the truth). Anonymous rumors are excluded from the public space, and they remain strangely efficient even if not true. They are usually told as: “I don’t know whether this is really true, but I was told (or, rather, the impersonal “one says that”) X did that and that.” A blistering case of rumors spread in the form of disavowal was provided by one of the main Russian national TV networks, Channel One, which launched a regular slot devoted to coronavirus conspiracy theories in its main evening news programme, Vremya (“Time”). The style of the reporting was ambiguous, appearing to debunk the theories while leaving viewers with the impression that they may contain a kernel of truth. The message (shadowy Western elites and especially the US are somehow ultimately to blame for the coronavirus pandemic) is thus propagated as a doubtful rumour: it’s too crazy to be true, but nonetheless, who knows… The suspension of factual truth doesn’t annihilate its symbolic efficiency. Powell exemplifies a new era when rumors openly circulate in public space and form a social link. Her mode of fetishist disavowal is the obverse of the traditional one with regard to the public dignity of a person (“I know that our leader has private sins, but I will act as if he is without them to save his dignity”): “Although I don’t really know if these rumors are true, I will spread them as if they are true.”

Decades ago, I encountered a similar logic when I was caught in a ferocious debate with an anti-Semite who defended the truth of the “Protocols of Zion,” describing a purported secret Jewish plan to dominate the world fabricated around 1900 by the Russian Tsarist secret police. I pointed out how it is convincingly proven that the Protocols were fabricated. Already numerous factual mistakes in the text make it clear beyond doubt that they are a fake. But the anti-Semite insisted that the Protocols were authentic, and his answer to the obvious reproach that there were mistakes in the text was: the Jews themselves introduced these mistakes to make it appear that the Protocols were a forgery, so that gentiles would not take them seriously, while those in the know would be able to use them as a guideline free of suspicions.

What the crazy anti-Semite imagined, Sidney Powell is trying to sell to us as a fact. She is dismissing what she said was outlandish and improbable, not to be taken seriously, making sure that her words continue to have real effects. This is how ideology functions in our post-truth era. Today, when we are caught in the process of a gradual disintegration of the public common space, we can no longer rely on trust in the people, that is, on trust that, if we only give the people a chance to break the spell of ideological manipulations, they will arrive at their substantial truth.

Here we encounter a fatal limitation of the much-praised “leaderless” character of the French protesters, of their chaotic self-organization: it is not enough for a leader to listen to the people and formulate a program based on what they want, their true interests. Henry Ford was right when he remarked that, when he offered a serially produced car, he didn’t follow what people wanted. As he put it succinctly, if asked what they wanted, the people would have answer: “A better and stronger horse to pull our carriage!” And the same goes for a political leader that is needed today. The Yellow Vests protesters in France want a better (stronger and cheaper) horse – in this case, ironically, cheaper fuel for their cars. Yet, they should be given the vision of a society where the price of fuel no longer matters in the same way that, after the introduction of cars, the price of horse fodder no longer matters.

But this, of course, is only one aspect of being a true leader. The other, opposite one, is the ability to make tough decisions where they cannot be avoided: which group of soldiers to sacrifice on a battlefield, which patient to let die when there are not enough resources, etc. Or, as an old doctor in the TV series New Amsterdam says: “Leaders make choices that keep them awake at night. If you sleep well, you are not one of them.” Paradoxically, the excess that cannot be captured by mechanisms of electoral political representations can only find an adequate expression in a leader or a leading body, which is able to impose a long-term social and economic project and is not constrained by the narrow period between two elections. Does this sound like universal militarization? Yes – the forthcoming Communism will be a War Communism, or there will be none.[i]

This is how we should reflect on the legacy of the Commune today. Instead of getting lost in nostalgic memories, we should focus on how to imagine a popular mobilization today, in the conditions of a dispersed working class traversed by many conflicting interests. As Hegel was fully aware, a Leader (or a leading collective body) does not reflect some substantial content that pre-exists it, namely “the true will of the people.” A true Leader literally CREATES the People as a united political agent out of a confused mess of inconsistent tendencies. When, in the Summer of 1953, workers’ protests erupted in East Berlin, Brecht wrote a short poem titled “The Solution”:
“After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had distributed leaflets on the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could only win it back
By increased work quotas. Would it not in that case be simpler
for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”
This poem is usually read as a sarcastic denouncement of the Party’s arrogance. But what if we take it as a realist description of what happens in every truly radical emancipatory process, in which the leadership literally recreates the people, “electing” another people as a disciplined political force? We have to renounce the dream or the hope that, at some point, LGBT+, feminism, antiracism, protection of minorities, worker’s struggles, freedom of expression struggles, hate speech opponents, freedom of internet efforts, etc., will join into one big Movement in which trans-feminists will march together with Muslim women protesting the prohibition to have their faces covered; in which students who feel their intellectual freedom constrained protest with workers whose wages don’t allow them to survive. Along these lines, Badiou complained that in Turkey, Egypt, and Occupy Wall Street, protesters mostly came from the educated middle classes and didn’t mobilize the silent working class. Apropos OWS and Yellow Vests in France, he goes a step further and claims that the working class in the developed Western world is already part of what Lenin called “workers’ aristocracy” prone to racism, corrupted by the ruling class, and deprived of any emancipatory potential (no wonder that many of them voted for Trump!), so that the alliance we should look for doesn’t include them. The dream of the famous scene in 1968 when students went to a Renault factory to meet with workers there is over; we should, rather, try to establish a link between jobless precarious intellectuals, dissatisfied students, and immigrants. What lurks behind these efforts is a desperate search for today’s incarnation of a true emancipatory agent that would replace Marx’s working class. Badiou’s candidate is “nomadic proletarians.”

With the loss of a substantial reference to the People, one should finally abandon the myth of the Commune’s innocence. As if the Communards were Communists before the Fall (the “totalitarian” terror of the twentieth century), as if in the Commune the dream of direct cooperation came true with no alienated intermediary structures,[ii] even if people were effectively eating rats… What if, in contrast to the obsession with how to overcome the alienation of state institutions and bring about a self-transparent society, our task today should be almost the opposite one: to enact a “good alienation,” to invent a different mode of passivity of the majority? The formula of the mobilization of a crowd is a political version of Freud’s wo es war soll ich werden: where a chaotic crowd was party organization should arise, or, as Hegel would have put it, where chaotic popular substance brews, a well-organized subject should impose order and direction. But today we should add another spin to this formula: to move from subject back to substance – to a different substance created by the subject, to a new social order, in which we can dwell with trust and pursue our lives.

[i] For a more detailed argumentation, see Fredric Jameson et al., edited by Slavoj Žižek: An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, London: Verso Books 2016.

[ii] There were even (retroactive) rumors circulating that social life in the Commune was a time of great sexual promiscuity.

Urbanism 101

Thursday, April 22, 2021


The £6.5 million Northumbria was christened by Princess Anne and launched in May 1969. Not only did the size of the vessel require cutting away a significant portion of the river bank opposite the launch berth, it had to be launched on a particular day in May when the spring tide would be highest or risk scraping the bottom.

The Dreadnoughts reference "Wallsea Yard" as the place where the ESSO Northumbria was built, but it was in fact constructed by Hunter Swan at Wallsend on Tyne, North Tyneside, England.

The closing of the Red Sea referenced in the song is a direct reference to the Suez Crisis, which was in no small part a motivator for the Northumbria's construction.

There is no Port of Hulal, it was likely just a name that the Dreadnoughts slotted in place to keep the rhyme.

Though the song references the Mersey river, Northumbria never travelled it, it was launched on the river Tyne.

Carpathia, Vengeance, and Celestial are all oil tankers registered at one time or another to a variety of oil companies.

The ESSO Northumbria did not actually suffer an oil spill, though plagued by repeated technical and mechanical issues. Concerns were raised over the ship's single hull design and due to the potential risk of a major spill if the hull were punctured, Northumbria was decommissioned in 1982 after just 12 years of service. At no time did the vessel, in fact, limp away through an ocean of flame.


These lyrics are based on those sung for the album version of Roll Northumbria, transcribed while examining the original lyrics as found on the Dreadnoughts Bandcamp.

Twas late '65 at the old Wallsea Yard
Where she was commissioned to haul the black tar
We built the Northumbria there on the bar
Roll Northumbria Roll

For when the Egyptians, they closed the red sea
The call came on high from the powers that be
To build a royal monster right down on the quay
Roll Northumbria Roll, me boys
Roll Northumbria Roll

Carpathia, Vengeance, Celestial call
she was the tanker to outsize 'em all
From the banks of the Mersey to the Port of Hulal
Roll Northumbria Roll

And fair Princess Anne threw a bottle of wine
And watched as the giant set down in the Tyne
What lay ahead could no mortal divine
Roll Northumbria Roll, me boys
Roll Northumbria Roll

And it's one for the hot sun above
Two for the empire we love,
and it's three for the fire that burns down below
Roll on Northumbria,
Roll Northumbria Roll

{Chorus again}

So come all you good workmen, beware the command
That comes down on high from the desk of a man
Who's never held steel or torch in his hands
Roll Northumbria Roll

For atop a wild breaker the cracks in her frame
spilled 'er black guts all across the wild main
And she limped away through an ocean of flame
Roll Northumbria Roll, me boys
Roll Northumbria Roll


Saturday, April 17, 2021

FMJ - The Cost of Change

Robert Blake, "Songs of Innocence"
Piping down the valleys wild,
Piping songs of pleasant glee,
On a cloud I saw a child,
And he laughing said to me:

‘Pipe a song about a Lamb!’
So I piped with merry cheer.
‘Piper, pipe that song again.’
So I piped: he wept to hear.

‘Drop thy pipe, thy happy pipe;
Sing thy songs of happy cheer:’
So I sung the same again,
While he wept with joy to hear.

‘Piper, sit thee down and write
In a book, that all may read.’
So he vanish'd from my sight;
And I pluck'd a hollow reed,

And I made a rural pen,
And I stained the water clear,
And I wrote my happy songs
Every child may joy to hear.

Songs of Experience

Hear the voice of the Bard,
Who present, past, and future, sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word
That walked among the ancient trees;

Calling the lapséd soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen light renew!

‘O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass!
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumbrous mass.

‘Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,

Is given thee till the break of day.’

Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Break, Break Break"

Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.

O, well for the fisherman's boy,
That he shouts with his sister at play!
O, well for the sailor lad,
That he sings in his boat on the bay!

And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanish'd hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!

Break, break, break
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.

When I Kant Understand it... I Begin to Reason

Thursday, April 8, 2021


The horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It’s that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great.
- "Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek, [Harper's Magazine, November 11, 2011]”

Hope flits about never-wearying wings;
Profit to some, to some light loves she brings,
But no man knoweth how her gifts may turn,
Till 'neath his feet the treacherous ashes burn.
Sure 'twas a sage inspired that spake this word;
If evil good appear
To any, Fate is near;
And brief the respite from her flaming sword.

Sophocles, "Antigone" 

Their Master's Voice...


...IS the noise!
“freedom of expression sometimes presents a greater threat to an idea, because forbidden thoughts may circulate in secret, but what can be done when an important fact is lost in a flood of impostors, and the voice of truth becomes drowned out in an ungodly din?”
- Stanisław Lem

Take off those headphones and let this world pour into you
Throw off those glasses and then you'll start seeing
Forget those battles, those ones that mean nothing to you
Know you're alive and just smile, you'll start hearing

Somewhere out beneath the heavens and the atmosphere
Somewhere out among the silence there's a voice
There's a feeling that takes over and it has no fear
When you're caught between the signal and the noise

Shout out the names of everyone that feels most dear to you
Praise to the moon and the sun and you'll start feeling
Shut out those ghosts with their talk is far too negative
Make love your armor and smile and you'll start hearing

Somewhere out beneath the heavens and the atmosphere
Somewhere out among the silence there's a voice
There's a feeling it takes over and it has no fear
When you're caught between the signal and the noise
And the noise
And the noise

And the noise

Somewhere out beneath the heavens and the atmosphere
Somewhere out among the silence there's a voice
There's a feeling it takes over and it has no fear
When you're caught between the signal and the noise
You're just caught between the signal and the noise


Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cause? Or Effect?

Johnjoe McFadden, "Brain wifi"
Instead of a code encrypted in the wiring of our neurons, could consciousness reside in the brain’s electromagnetic field?

Some 2,700 years ago in the ancient city of Sam’al, in what is now modern Turkey, an elderly servant of the king sits in a corner of his house and contemplates the nature of his soul. His name is Katumuwa. He stares at a basalt stele made for him, featuring his own graven portrait together with an inscription in ancient Aramaic. It instructs his family, when he dies, to celebrate ‘a feast at this chamber: a bull for Hadad harpatalli and a ram for Nik-arawas of the hunters and a ram for Shamash, and a ram for Hadad of the vineyards, and a ram for Kubaba, and a ram for my soul that is in this stele.’ Katumuwa believed that he had built a durable stone receptacle for his soul after death. This stele might be one of the earliest written records of dualism: the belief that our conscious mind is located in an immaterial soul or spirit, distinct from the matter of the body.

More than 2 millennia later, I was also contemplating the nature of the soul, as my son lay propped up on a hospital gurney. He was undertaking an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that detects electrical activity in the brain, for a condition that fortunately turned out to be benign. As I watched the irregular wavy lines march across the screen, with spikes provoked by his perceptions of events such as the banging of a door, I wondered at the nature of the consciousness that generated those signals.

Just how do the atoms and molecules that make up the neurons in our brain – not so different to the bits of matter in Katumwa’s inert stele or the steel barriers on my son’s hospital bed – manage to generate human awareness and the power of thought? In answering that longstanding question, most neurobiologists today would point to the information-processing performed by brain neurons. For both Katumuwa and my son, this would begin as soon as light and sound reached their eyes and ears, stimulating their neurons to fire in response to different aspects of their environment. For Katumuwa, perhaps, this might have been the pinecone or comb that his likeness was holding on the stele; for my son, the beeps from the machine or the movement of the clock on the wall.

Each ‘firing’ event involves the movement of electrically charged atoms called ions in and out of the neurons. That movement triggers a kind of chain reaction that travels from one nerve cell to another via logical rules, roughly analogous to the AND, OR and NOT Boolean operations performed by today’s computer gates, in order to generate outputs such as speech. So, within milliseconds of him glancing at his stele, the firing rate of millions of neurons in Katumuwa’s brain correlated with thousands of visual features of the stele and its context in the room. In this sense of correlating with, those brain neurons would supposedly know at least some aspects of Katumuwa’s stele.

Yet information-processing clearly isn’t sufficient for conscious knowing. Computers process lots of information yet have not exhibited the slightest spark of consciousness. Several decades ago, in an essay exploring the phenomenology of consciousness, the philosopher Thomas Nagel asked us to imagine what it’s like to be a bat. This feature of being-like-something, of having a perspective on the world, captures something about what it means to be a truly conscious ‘knower’. In that hospital room watching my son’s EEG, I wondered what it was like to be one of his neurons, processing the information registering the slamming of a door. As far as we can tell, an individual neuron knows just one thing – its firing rate. It fires or doesn’t fire based on its inputs, so the information it carries is pretty much equivalent to the zero or one of binary computer language. It thereby encodes just a single bit of information. The value of that bit, whether a zero or a one, might correlate with the slamming of a door, but it says nothing about the door’s shape, its colour, its use as a portal between rooms or the noise of its slamming – all features that I’m sure were part of my son’s conscious experience. I concluded that being a single neuron in my son’s brain would not feel like anything.

Of course, you could argue, as neurobiologists usually do, that although a single neuron might know next to nothing, the collection of 100 billion neurons in my son’s brain knew everything in his mind and would thereby feel like something. But this explanation bumps into what’s known as the binding problem, which asks how all the information in millions of widely distributed neurons in the brain come together to create a single complex yet unified conscious perception of, say, a room or a stele. Another issue is one of omission. Why don’t you know anything about the complex network of informational inputs and processing events between immune cells that decide what kind of immune response your body will deploy to protect you from infection? Why hadn’t Katumuwa been aware of the highly complex computations needed to keep himself upright while walking across his room? Why didn’t Deep Blue’s electronic brain maintain an interest in chess? The puzzle is to understand what is special about some, but not all, brain activity that confers awareness and thought but is absent from artificial brains.

Watching those wiggly lines march across the EEG screen gave me the germ of a different idea, something that didn’t boil down to pure neuronal computation or information-processing. Every time a neuron fires, along with the matter-based signal that travels down its wire-like nerve fibre, it also projects a tiny electromagnetic (EM) pulse into the surrounding space, rather like the signal from your phone when you send a text. So when my son heard the door close, as well as triggering the firing of billions of nerves, its slamming would have projected billions of tiny pulses of electromagnetic energy into his brain. These pulses flow into each other to generate a kind of pool of EM energy that’s called an electromagnetic field – something that neurobiologists have neglected when probing the nature of consciousness.

Neurobiologists have known about the brain’s EM field for more than a century but have nearly always dismissed it as having no more relevance to its workings than the exhaust of a car has to its steering. Yet, since information is just correlation, I knew that the underlying brain EM field tremors that generated the spikes on the EEG screen knew the slamming of the hospital room door, just as much as the neurons whose firing generated those tremors. However, I also had enough physics to know that there was a crucial difference between a million scattered neurons firing and the EM field generated by their firing. The information encoded by the million discrete bits of information in a million scattered neurons is physically unified within a single brain EM field.
It is a scientific dualism based on the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit
The unity of EM fields is apparent whenever you use wifi. Perhaps you’re streaming a radio documentary about Katumuwa’s stele on your phone while another family member is watching a movie, and another is listening to streamed music. Remarkably, all this information, whether movies, pictures, messages or music, is instantly available to be downloaded from any point in the vicinity of your router. This is because – unlike the information encoded in discrete units of matter such as computer gates or neurons – EM field information is encoded as immaterial waves that travel at the speed of light from their source to their receiver. Between source and receiver, all those waves encoding different messages overlap and intermingle to become a single EM field of physically bound information with as much unity as a single photon or electron, and which can be downloaded from any point in the field. The field, and everything encoded in it, is everywhere. While watching my son’s EEG marching across the screen, I wondered what it was like to be his brain’s EM field pulsing with physically bound information correlating with all of his sense perceptions. I guessed it would feel a lot like him.

Locating consciousness in the brain’s EM field might seem bizarre, but is it any more bizarre than believing that awareness resides in matter? Remember Albert Einstein’s equation, E = mc2. All it involves is moving from the matter-based right-hand side of the equation to energy located on the left-hand side. Both are physical, but whereas matter encodes information as discrete particles separated in space, energy information is encoded as overlapping fields in which information is bound up into single unified wholes. Locating the seat of consciousness in the brain’s EM field thereby solves the binding problem of understanding how information encoded in billions of distributed neurons is unified in our (EM field-based) conscious mind. It is a form of dualism, but a scientific dualism based on the difference between matter and energy, rather than matter and spirit. Awareness is then what this joined-up EM field information feels like from the inside. So, for example, the experience of hearing a door slam is what an EM field perturbation in the brain that correlates with a door slamming, and all of its memory neuron-encoded associations, feels like, from the inside.

Only weeks before I was in my son’s hospital room, I had read Francis Crick’s provocative book The Astonishing Hypothesis (1994). In it, the co-discoverer of the double helix proposed that consciousness was a solvable problem that could be tackled by identifying brain activity that correlates with conscious thoughts or perception. For example, everyone knows the familiar experience of failing to see what’s in plain sight. For me, it’s usually my glasses. I can be staring at my untidy desk for a minute or more before I spot them. Early in that minute, the image of my glasses will have been recorded on my retina and features such as colours, the shape of a line, the angles between lines, shape, texture, etc will have been extracted and processed along scores of parallel neural pathways for the entire minute that I do not see my glasses. Then, quite suddenly, I do see them.

Crick proposed that we should identify what’s different between the neural processing that precedes and then follows conscious awareness. Several decades of research by many neurobiologists around the world have identified synchronous neuronal firing as the best correlate of consciousness. So when the many scattered neurons are processing the various features of my glasses yet I fail to see them, those neurons will be firing asynchronously, out of step with one another. In that ‘Aha!’ moment when I finally spot them, all those scattered neurons line up to fire synchronously.

But why? Whether neurons are firing synchronously should make no difference to their information-processing operations. Synchrony makes no sense for a consciousness located in neurons – but if we place consciousness in the brain’s EM field, then its association with synchrony becomes inevitable. Toss a handful of pebbles into a still pond and, where the peak of one wave meets the trough of another, they cancel out each other to cause destructive interference. However, when the peaks and troughs line up, then they reinforce each other to make a bigger wave: constructive interference. The same will happen in the brain. When millions of disparate neurons recording or processing features of my glasses fire asynchronously, then their waves will cancel out each other to generate zero EM field. Yet when those same neurons fire synchronously, then their waves will line up to cause constructive interference to project a strong EM signal into my brain’s EM field, what I now call the conscious electromagnetic information (cemi) field. I will see my glasses.

I’ve been publishing on cemi field theory since 2000, and recently published an update in 2020. A key component of the theory is its novel insight into the nature of what we call ‘free will’. To return to our Iron Age servant of the king, like most non-modern people, Katumuwa probably believed that his supernatural soul was the driver of his willed actions. When, nearly 3,000 years later, secular philosophers and scientists exorcised the soul from the body, voluntary actions became just another motor output of neuronal computation – no different from those that drive non-conscious actions such as walking, blinking, chewing or forming grammatically correct sentences.
Our non-conscious mind appears to be a parallel processor; our conscious mind is a serial processor
Then why do willed actions feel so different? In a 2002 paper, I proposed that free will is our experience of the cemi field acting on neurons to initiate voluntary actions. Back then, there wasn’t much evidence for EM fields influencing neural firing – but experiments by David McCormick at Yale University School of Medicine in 2010 and Christof Koch at Caltech in 2011 have demonstrated that neurons can indeed be perturbed by weak, brain-strength, EM fields. At the very least, their experiments suggest the plausibility of a wifi component of neuronal information processing, which I claim is experienced as ‘free will’. So, Katumuwa was right: his soul, now understood as EM field-encoded information in his brain, was the driver of his will.

The cemi field theory also accounts for why our non-conscious and conscious minds operate differently. One of the most striking differences between the two is that our non-conscious mind can do many things at once, but we are able to engage in only one conscious task at a time. For example, Katumuwa wouldn’t have had any problem chatting to a friend while chewing on his roast duck, but he wouldn’t have been able to divide a number such as 1,357 by seven while concentrating on a game of chess. Our non-conscious mind appears to be a parallel processor, whereas our conscious mind is a serial processor that can operate only one task at a time.

The cemi field theory accounts for these two modes by first accepting that most brain information-processing – the non-conscious sort – goes solely through its neuronal ‘wires’ that don’t interact through EM fields. This allows different tasks to be allocated to different circuits. In our distant past, all neural computation likely took this parallel-processing neuronal route. Our parallel-processing immune system similarly lacks EM field interactions so is also non-conscious. However, at some point in our evolutionary history, our ancestors’ skulls became packed with more and more neurons such that adjacent neurons started to interfere with each other through their EM field interactions. Mostly, the interference would have impaired function. Natural selection would then have kicked in to insulate neurons involved in these vital functions.

However, occasionally, electrical interference might have been beneficial. For example, the EM field interactions might have conferred the ability to compute with complex joined-up packets of EM field information, rather than mere bits. When this happened, natural selection would have pulled in the other direction, to increase EM field sensitivity. Yet there was also a downside to this way of processing information. Remember the pebbles tossed into the pond: they interfere with one another. Different ideas dropped into the brain’s cemi field similarly interfere with one another. Our conscious cemi-field mind inevitably became a serial computer that can do only one thing at a time.

The theory also provides clues as to the benefits that natural selection harnessed from EM field interactions in conscious minds. They are of course the activities – such as planning, imagination, problem-solving or creativity – that engage consciousness. These operations compute with holistic field-encoded complex ideas rather than binary digits. Ideas, I propose, are the computation units of consciousness – its conscious ‘bits’ or ‘cbits’.

Katumuwa imagined his future mind in basalt, which is a form of silica, an oxide of silicon. The elderly servant might have been amused to know that his plans weren’t so preposterous after all, since silicon is the key element responsible for the computational capability of computers. The deep learning AI pioneer Gary Marcus recently lamented that, despite their impressive number-crunching power, conventional computers have so far completely failed to develop what’s known as ‘general intelligence’, the capacity to generalise knowledge to solve novel problems. Marcus gives the example of working out ‘the best way to fix a bicycle that has a rope caught in its spokes’. This is the kind of puzzle that a five-year-old child could easily solve in seconds on her first exposure to the task, yet, Marcus points out, no current computer would have a clue how to proceed.
A new form of computing could deliver the dream of conscious, general intelligence-enabled AI
The cemi field theory predicts that conventional computers will never gain general intelligence, because it’s a skill enabled by the cemi field’s ability to compute with cbits, ideas, rather than binary digits. Conventional AI lacks this capability because computer engineers take great pains to prevent EM fields interfering with their computations. Without EM field interactions, AI will remain forever dumb and non-conscious.

Yet the cemi field theory also provides the exciting and potentially world-changing prospect of building artificial conscious minds. It will require a different kind of computer architecture that, like our own brain, computes with fields as well as conventional logic gates that encode only bits. The architecture of our own EM field-sensitive brains provides lots of clues as to how these revolutionary artificial brains of the future could be built. Transforming those clues into a new form of computing could finally deliver the dream of conscious, general intelligence-enabled AI.

Looking even further ahead, could a Katumuwa of the future realise the Sam’alan’s dream of mental immortality? It would of course be hugely challenging to reverse-engineer the informational content of a human brain and then to upload it to a more durable silicon-based computing substrate that processed information both along wires and through fields. Challenging, but not impossible. They won’t be made of basalt, but it might one day be possible to build potentially immortal receptacles for electric souls. Katumuwa’s dream could be the future of humanity.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Problem of the Elites....

Plato, "Republic"  (Jowett Summary)
But how did timocracy arise out of the perfect State? Plainly, like all changes of government, from division in the rulers. But whence came division? 'Sing, heavenly Muses,' as Homer says;—let them condescend to answer us, as if we were children, to whom they put on a solemn face in jest. 'And what will they say?' They will say that human things are fated to decay, and even the perfect State will not escape from this law of destiny, when 'the wheel comes full circle' in a period short or long. Plants or animals have times of fertility and sterility, which the intelligence of rulers because alloyed by sense will not enable them to ascertain, and children will be born out of season. For whereas divine creations are in a perfect cycle or number, the human creation is in a number which declines from perfection, and has four terms and three intervals of numbers, increasing, waning, assimilating, dissimilating, and yet perfectly commensurate with each other. The base of the number with a fourth added (or which is 3:4), multiplied by five and cubed, gives two harmonies:—the first a square number, which is a hundred times the base (or a hundred times a hundred); the second, an oblong, being a hundred squares of the rational diameter of a figure the side of which is five, subtracting one from each square or two perfect squares from all, and adding a hundred cubes of three. This entire number is geometrical and contains the rule or law of generation. When this law is neglected marriages will be unpropitious; the inferior offspring who are then born will in time become the rulers; the State will decline, and education fall into decay; gymnastic will be preferred to music, and the gold and silver and brass and iron will form a chaotic mass—thus division will arise. Such is the Muses' answer to our question. 'And a true answer, of course:—but what more have they to say?' They say that the two races, the iron and brass, and the silver and gold, will draw the State different ways;—the one will take to trade and moneymaking, and the others, having the true riches and not caring for money, will resist them: the contest will end in a compromise; they will agree to have private property, and will enslave their fellow-citizens who were once their friends and nurturers. But they will retain their warlike character, and will be chiefly occupied in fighting and exercising rule. Thus arises timocracy, which is intermediate between aristocracy and oligarchy.

The new form of government resembles the ideal in obedience to rulers and contempt for trade, and having common meals, and in devotion to warlike and gymnastic exercises. But corruption has crept into philosophy, and simplicity of character, which was once her note, is now looked for only in the military class. Arts of war begin to prevail over arts of peace; the ruler is no longer a philosopher; as in oligarchies, there springs up among them an extravagant love of gain—get another man's and save your own, is their principle; and they have dark places in which they hoard their gold and silver, for the use of their women and others; they take their pleasures by stealth, like boys who are running away from their father—the law; and their education is not inspired by the Muse, but imposed by the strong arm of power. The leading characteristic of this State is party spirit and ambition.

And what manner of man answers to such a State? 'In love of contention,' replied Adeimantus, 'he will be like our friend Glaucon.' In that respect, perhaps, but not in others. He is self-asserting and ill-educated, yet fond of literature, although not himself a speaker,—fierce with slaves, but obedient to rulers, a lover of power and honour, which he hopes to gain by deeds of arms,—fond, too, of gymnastics and of hunting. As he advances in years he grows avaricious, for he has lost philosophy, which is the only saviour and guardian of men. His origin is as follows:—His father is a good man dwelling in an ill-ordered State, who has retired from politics in order that he may lead a quiet life. His mother is angry at her loss of precedence among other women; she is disgusted at her husband's selfishness, and she expatiates to her son on the unmanliness and indolence of his father. The old family servant takes up the tale, and says to the youth:—'When you grow up you must be more of a man than your father.' All the world are agreed that he who minds his own business is an idiot, while a busybody is highly honoured and esteemed. The young man compares this spirit with his father's words and ways, and as he is naturally well disposed, although he has suffered from evil influences, he rests at a middle point and becomes ambitious and a lover of honour.
“Because the horror of Communism, Stalinism, is not that bad people do bad things — they always do. It's that good people do horrible things thinking they are doing something great."

― Slavoj Žižek, "Six Questions for Slavoj Žižek" [Harper's Magazine, November 11, 2011]”

Hanging Trees...