Thursday, June 26, 2014

Slavoj Žižek: Only a radicalised left can save Europe

Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis, says Slavoj Žižek.

After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant eurosceptic parties in countries like France and UK, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naivety in their surprise and indignation, in their wonder at how the victory of the populist right was possible. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.

When Jean-Marie Le Pen made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French Jewish pop singer – “we’ll do an oven load next time” (Le Pen denies this was intended to be anti-Semitic) – his daughter Marine Le Pen publicly criticised him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant if this family conflict is staged or real – the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilised one, is what defines today’s populist right. Beneath the civilised public face, there lurks its obscene, brutal underside, and the difference concerns only the degree to which this underside is openly admitted. Even if this obscene underside remains totally out of sight, even if it there are no slips in which it breaks through, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s spectre, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.

There is no surprise in Le Pen’s message: the usual anti-elitist working class patriotism which targets trans-national financial powers and the alienated Bruxelles bureaucracy. And, effectively, Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: addressing the worries of ordinary people, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumbed to the temptation to defend her: she rejects the non-elected Bruxelles financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interest of the international financial capital, prohibiting individual states prioritising the welfare of their own population; she thus advocates a politics that would be in contact with worries and cares of the ordinary working people – her party’s fascist outbursts are a thing of the past. . . What unites Le Pen and the European leftists who sympathise with her is their shared rejection of a strong Europe, and the return to the full sovereignty of nation states.

The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. It begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practised by the Bruxelles experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist tried to convince him of the need for violence against enemies, evoking the proverb “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, to which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelette of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Bruxelles technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs all around Europe, but where’s the omelette you are promising us?”

The least one can say is that the economic crisis of 2008 offers large proofs of how is it not the people but these experts themselves who, in their large majority, don’t know what they are doing. In western Europe, we are effectively witnessing a growing inability of the ruling elite – they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making it sure the Greek debt will never be repaid. At the end of December 2012, the IMF itself released research showing that the economic damage from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling its own advice on austerity in the eurozone crisis. Now, the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive… now, after hundreds of thousands of job have been lost because of such “miscalculations”.

It is as if the providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt – they are accused of feeling innocent. Recall the ongoing EU pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures – this pressure fits perfectly what psychoanalysis calls superego. Superego is not an ethical agency proper, but a sadistic agent which bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them; the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw it clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. This is what is so terribly wrong with the EU’s demands and commands: they don’t even give a chance to Greece, because Greek failure is part of the game.

Therein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests all around Europe: the protesters know very well what they don’t know, they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers, but what their instinct is telling them is nonetheless true – that those in power also don’t know it. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense; it is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition – a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrable complex situation, a blind common sense reaction of “things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffers, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less…”. Austerity is not “too radical”, as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.

However, can the idea of a united Europe be reduced to the reign of the Bruxelles technocrats? The proof that this is not the case is that the US and Israel, two exemplary nation states obsessed with their sovereignty, at some deep and often obfuscated level perceive European Union as the enemy. This perception, kept under control in the public political discourse, explodes in its underground obscene double, the extreme right Christian fundamentalist political vision with its obsessive fear of the New World Order (Obama is in secret collusion with the United Nations, international forces will intervene in the US and put in concentration camps all true American patriots – a couple of years ago, there were already rumors that Latino American troupes are already in the Midwest planes, building concentration camps. . .). This vision is deployed in hard-line Christian fundamentalism, exemplarily in the works of Tim LaHaye et consortes – the title of one of LaHaye’s novels points in this direction: The Europa Conspiracy. The true enemy of the US are not Muslim terrorists, they are merely puppets secretly manipulated by the European secularists, the true forces of the anti-Christ who want to weaken the US and establish the New World Order under the domination of the United Nations… In a way, they are right in this perception: Europe is not just another geopolitical power block, but a global vision which is ultimately incompatible with nation-states, a vision of a transnational order that guarantees certain rights (welfare, freedom, etc). This dimension of the EU provides the key to the so-called European “weakness”: there is a surprising correlation between European unification and its loss of global military-political power.

So what is wrong with the Bruxelles technocrats? Not only their measures, their false expertise, but even more their modus operandi. The basic mode of politics today is a depoliticised expert administration and coordination of interests. The only way to introduce passion into this field, to actively mobilise people, is through fear: fear of immigrants, fear of crime, fear of godless sexual depravity, fear of the excessive state itself, with its burden of high taxation, fear of ecological catastrophe, fear of harassment (Political Correctness is the exemplary liberal form of the politics of fear). Progressive liberals are, of course, horrified by populist racism; however, a closer look soon reveals how their multicultural tolerance and respect for (ethnic, religious, sexual) others shares a basic premise with anti-immigrants: the fear of others clearly discernible in the liberals’ obsession with harassment. The other is fine, but only insofar as his presence is not intrusive, insofar as this other is not really other. . .

No wonder the topic of “toxic subjects” is gaining ground recently. While this notion originates from popular psychology that warns us against the emotional vampires who prey on us out there, this topic is expanding much further than immediate interpersonal relations: the predicate “toxic” covers a series properties which belong to totally different levels (natural, cultural, psychological, political). A “toxic subject” can be an immigrant with a deadly disease who should be quarantined; a terrorist whose deadly plans should be prevented and who belongs to Guantanamo, the empty zone exempted from the rule of law; a fundamentalist ideologue who should be silenced because he is spreading hatred; a parent, teacher or priest who abuses and corrupts children. What is toxic is ultimately the foreign neighbour as such, so that the ultimate aim of all rules governing interpersonal relations is to quarantine or at least neutralise and contain this toxic dimension.

On today’s market, we find a whole series of products deprived of their malignant property: coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol. . . And the list goes on: what about virtual sex as sex without sex, the Colin Powell doctrine of warfare with no casualties (on our side, of course) as warfare without warfare, the contemporary redefinition of politics as the art of expert administration as politics without politics, up to today’s tolerant liberal multiculturalism as an experience of the other deprived of its otherness – the decaffeinated other who dances fascinating dances and has an ecologically sound holistic approach to reality, while features like wife beating remain out of sight. . .

Is this detoxification of the immigrant Other not the main point of Nigel Farage’s Ukip programme? Farage repeatedly emphasises that he is not against the presence of foreign workers in the UK, that he highly appreciates the hard-working Poles and their contribution to the British economy. When he was asked on LBC about why he said that people wouldn't like to have Romanians living in the appartment next to their own, the contrast was immediately drawn with German neighbours – what worried him, he said, were people with criminal records being allowed to enter the UK. This is the stance of the “civilised” anti-immigrant right: the politics of the detoxified neighbour – good Germans versus bad Romanians or Roma. This vision of the detoxification of the Neighbour presents a clear passage from direct barbarism to barbarism with a human face. In what conditions does it arise?

Walter Benjamin’s old thesis that behind every rise of fascism there is a failed revolution not only still holds today, but is perhaps more pertinent than ever. Rightist liberals like to point out similarities between left and right “extremisms”: Hitler’s terror and camps imitated Bolshevik terror, the Leninist party is today alive in al-Qaeda – does this not rather indicate how fascism replaces (takes the place of) a failed leftist revolution? Its rise is the left’s failure, but simultaneously a proof that there was a revolutionary potential, a dissatisfaction which the left was not able to mobilise. And does the same not hold for today’s so-called “islamo-fascism”? Is the rise of radical Islamism not correlative to the disappearance of the secular left in Muslim countries? Today, when Afghanistan is portrayed as the utmost Islamic fundamentalist country, who still remembers that, 30 years ago, it was a country with strong secular tradition, up to a powerful Communist party which took power there independently of the Soviet Union? As Thomas Frank has shown, the same goes for Kansas, the homegrown US version of Afghanistan: the very state which was till the 1970s the bedrock of radical leftist populism, is today the bedrock of Christian fundamentalism. And the same goes for Europe: the failure of the leftist alternative to global capitalism gives birth to anti-immigrant populism.

Even in the case of clearly fundamentalist movements, one should be careful not to miss the social component. The Taliban are regularly presented as a fundamentalist Islamist group enforcing its rule with terror – however, when, in the spring of 2009, they took over the Swat Valley in Pakistan, New York Times reported that they engineered “a class revolt that exploits profound fissures between a small group of wealthy landlords and their landless tenants”. If, by taking advantage of the farmers’ plight, the Taliban are “raising alarm about the risks to Pakistan, which remains largely feudal”, what stops liberal democrats in Pakistan as well as the US similarly “taking advantage” of this plight and trying to help the landless farmers? The sad implication of this fact is that the feudal forces in Pakistan are the “natural ally” of the liberal democracy. . . And, mutatis mutandis, the same goes for Farage and Le Pen: their rise is the obverse of the demise of the radical left.

The lesson that the frightened liberals should learn is thus: only a radicalised left can save what is worth saving from the liberal legacy. The sad prospect that lurks if this doesn’t happen is the unity of the two poles: the rule of nameless financial technocrats wearing a mask of populist pseudo-passions.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

How WikiLeaks opened our eyes to the illusion of freedom

by Slavoj Žižek
Julian Assange, who went into exile in the Ecuadorean embassy two years ago, has blown apart the myth of western liberty

We remember anniversaries that mark the important events of our era: September 11 (not only the 2001 Twin Towers attack, but also the 1973 military coup against Allende in Chile), D-day, etc. Maybe another date should be added to this list: 19 June.

Most of us like to take a stroll during the day to get a breath of fresh air. There must be a good reason for those who cannot do it – maybe they have a job that prevents it (miners, submariners), or a strange illness that makes exposure to sunlight a deadly danger. Even prisoners get their daily hour's walk in fresh air.

Today, 19 June, marks two years since Julian Assange was deprived of this right: he is permanently confined to the apartment that houses the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Were he to step out of the apartment, he would be arrested immediately. What did Assange do to deserve this? In a way, one can understand the authorities: Assange and his whistleblowing colleagues are often accused of being traitors, but they are something much worse (in the eyes of the authorities).

Assange designated himself a "spy for the people". "Spying for the people" is not a simple betrayal (which would instead mean acting as a double agent, selling our secrets to the enemy); it is something much more radical. It undermines the very principle of spying, the principle of secrecy, since its goal is to make secrets public. People who help WikiLeaks are no longer whistleblowers who denounce the illegal practices of private companies (banks, and tobacco and oil companies) to the public authorities; they denounce to the wider public these public authorities themselves.

We didn't really learn anything from WikiLeaks we didn't already presume to be true – but it is one thing to know it in general and another to get concrete data. It is a little bit like knowing that one's sexual partner is playing around. One can accept the abstract knowledge of it, but pain arises when one learns the steamy details, when one gets pictures of what they were doing.

When confronted with such facts, should every decent US citizen not feel deeply ashamed? Until now, the attitude of the average citizen was hypocritical disavowal: we preferred to ignore the dirty job done by secret agencies. From now on, we can't pretend we don't know.

It is not enough to see WikiLeaks as an anti-American phenomenon. States such as China and Russia are much more oppressive than the US. Just imagine what would have happened to someone like Chelsea Manning in a Chinese court. In all probability, there would be no public trial; she would just disappear.

The US doesn't treat prisoners as brutally – because of its technological priority, it simply does not need the openly brutal approach (which it is more than ready to apply when needed). But this is why the US is an even more dangerous threat to our freedom than China: its measures of control are not perceived as such, while Chinese brutality is openly displayed.

In a country such as China the limitations of freedom are clear to everyone, with no illusions about it. In the US, however, formal freedoms are guaranteed, so that most individuals experience their lives as free and are not even aware of the extent to which they are controlled by state mechanisms. Whistleblowers do something much more important than stating the obvious by way of denouncing the openly oppressive regimes: they render public the unfreedom that underlies the very situation in which we experience ourselves as free.

Back in May 2002, it was reported that scientists at New York University had attached a computer chip able to transmit elementary signals directly to a rat's brain – enabling scientists to control the rat's movements by means of a steering mechanism, as used in a remote-controlled toy car. For the first time, the free will of a living animal was taken over by an external machine.

How did the unfortunate rat experience its movements, which were effectively decided from outside? Was it totally unaware that its movements were being steered? Maybe therein lies the difference between Chinese citizens and us, free citizens of western, liberal countries: the Chinese human rats are at least aware they are controlled, while we are the stupid rats strolling around unaware of how our movements are monitored.

Is WikiLeaks pursuing an impossible dream? Definitely not, and the proof is that the world has already changed since its revelations.

Not only have we learned a lot about the illegal activities of the US and other great powers. Not only have the WikiLeaks revelations put secret services on the defensive and set in motion legislative acts to better control them. WikiLeaks has achieved much more: millions of ordinary people have become aware of the society in which they live. Something that until now we silently tolerated as unproblematic is rendered problematic.

This is why Assange has been accused of causing so much harm. Yet there is no violence in what WikiLeaks is doing. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the character reaches a precipice but goes on running, ignoring the fact that there is no ground underfoot; they start to fall only when they look down and notice the abyss. What WikiLeaks is doing is just reminding those in power to look down.

The reaction of all too many people, brainwashed by the media, to WikiLeaks' revelations could best be summed up by the memorable lines of the final song from Altman's film Nashville: "You may say I ain't free but it don't worry me." WikiLeaks does make us worry. And, unfortunately, many people don't like that.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Only art can save us now

by Santiago Zabala

The world needs creative interpretations of global issues, not better descriptions of things people are accustomed to.

Perhaps rather than God, as Martin Heidegger once said, it is art that can save us. After all, artistic creations have always had political, religious and social meanings that also aimed in some way to save us. Certainly, they also express beauty, but this depends very much on the public's aesthetic taste, which varies according to the cultural environment of each society.

But when the political meaning is manifest, aesthetics (our sensations and taste) lose ground in favour of interpretation (knowledge and judgment); that is, instead of inviting us to contemplate its beauty, a work calls us to respond, react and become involved. As it turns out, art - as a channel to express reactions to significant issues - has sometimes worked better than historical or factual reconstructions.


Pablo Picasso's Guernica is the example we all have in mind: painted as a response to the Spanish nationalist forces' bombing of a town in the Basque country, it was used not only to inform the public but also as a symbol of all the innocent victims of war. This is probably why "aesthetics", a term coined by the German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten in 1735, refers not only to the study of art but also to sensory experience coupled with feelings regardless of the nature of its object. But can contemporary art, whether through music, conceptual installations or cinema actually save us from the damned circumstances, atrocities and injustices we live among?

As an ontological discipline, philosophy must always pay attention to existential claims, whether they come from science, religion or art. Even though this is now possible, since philosophy (and aesthetics) has overcome metaphysics, that is, objectivist-representational nature (which also limited art's creations), not all philosophers pay attention to the claims these works make.

If such distinguished thinkers as Arthur Danto and Gianni Vattimo have moved beyond aesthetic representationalism and formalism, it is because of their post-metaphysical positions but also their interest in art's current existential appeal. Both philosophers seem to agree that the end of art proclaimed by Hegel is not simply a matter of art becoming conceptual - that is, "philosophical". Rather, the radical changes brought about in the advent of global society mean that the artist today must respond to a wider public than in the past, one that is concerned with the same global issues that affect the artist.
Existential intervention

After the eras of "imitation" and "ideology", when artists were often commissioned for their work, we have now entered the era of "existential claims", where we, the viewers, are the ones called to respond. Although this began in 1917 when Marcel Duchamp revealed his Fountain (to point out how any "readymade" could become a work of art if placed within the walls of a museum), there are some new examples of (as Danto and Vattimo would probably call them) "transfigurations of our common places" for "existential claims of truth", that is, art that is determined to save us. But what here is transfigured and claimed?


When one listens to Tom Waits' The Road to Peace or watches Alfredo Jaar's Rwanda Project or Daniele Viccari's Diaz: Don't Clean up this Mess, it is difficult to remain simply (aesthetically) satisfied since they involve us at an existential level. But this is not because they simply narrate the truth of ongoing events (the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the 1994 Rwanda genocide and the brutal police violence against the 2001 G8 protesters in Genoa) in a more objectivist way than we are accustomed to, but rather because they demand that we take a stance in a process of transformation, which is vital for our future.

Rather than points of arrival for consumers' contemplation of beauty, they are points of departure to change the world, a world that needs new interpretations instead of better descriptions. While some might consider these works excessively politically correct, it is difficult to ignore their interest in our salvation. But salvation from what?

If there is a "transfiguration" (in music, photographs, film) of our "commonplaces" (conflict, genocide, violence) in these three works, it does not come only from the creative energy in the composition but also because these commonplaces have become much too common. If we have become so accustomed to these events that we take them for granted, then art is saving us from discrimination, forgetfulness and annihilation.

It should not come as a surprise that Hans-Georg Gadamer's greatest concern was to emphasise how art, just as science, also manifests claims of truth. The only difference between them is their requirements: while science will remain satisfied with propositional truths (information regarding the state of things), art demands we enter into dialogue with the work.

This is why the German master believed so much in the capacity of hermeneutic philosophy (concerned with the interpretative nature of human beings) to stimulate further interest through interpretation. If "being", that is, our existence, were affected only by propositional truths, not only art would be useless but also the variety of information networks that are the cornerstone of democratic institutions.

Waits, Jaar and Viccari call their audiences to respond and also to intervene practically - and this, an involvement in the shocking commonplace atrocities of the world, is necessarily existential.

Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. His books include The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press. His forthcoming book is 'Only Art Can Save Us: The Emergency of Aesthetics'.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The French are right: tear up public debt

The French are right: tear up public debt – most of it is illegitimate anyway

Debt audits show that austerity is politically motivated to favour social elites. Is a new working-class internationalism in the air?

As history has shown, France is capable of the best and the worst, and often in short periods of time.

by Razmig Keucheyan

On the day following Marine Le Pen's Front National victory in the European elections, however, France made a decisive contribution to the reinvention of a radical politics for the 21st century. On that day, the committee for a citizen's audit on the public debt issued a 30-page report on French public debt, its origins and evolution in the past decades. The report was written by a group of experts in public finances under the coordination of Michel Husson, one of France's finest critical economists. Its conclusion is straightforward: 60% of French public debt is illegitimate.

Anyone who has read a newspaper in recent years knows how important debt is to contemporary politics. As David Graeber among others has shown, we live in debtocracies, not democracies. Debt, rather than popular will, is the governing principle of our societies, through the devastating austerity policies implemented in the name of debt reduction. Debt was also a triggering cause of the most innovative social movements in recent years, the Occupy movement.

If it were shown that public debts were somehow illegitimate, that citizens had a right to demand a moratorium – and even the cancellation of part of these debts – the political implications would be huge. It is hard to think of an event that would transform social life as profoundly and rapidly as the emancipation of societies from the constraints of debt. And yet this is precisely what the French report aims to do.

The audit is part of a wider movement of popular debt audits in more than 18 countries. Ecuador and Brazil have had theirs, the former at the initiative of Rafael Correa's government, the latter organised by civil society. European social movements have also put in place debt audits, especially in countries harder hit by the sovereign debt crisis, such as Greece and Spain. In Tunisia, the post-revolutionary government declared the debt taken out during Ben Ali's dictatorship an "odious" debt: one that served to enrich the clique in power, rather than improving the living conditions of the people.

The report on French debt contains several key findings. Primarily, the rise in the state's debt in the past decades cannot be explained by an increase in public spending. The neoliberal argument in favour of austerity policies claims that debt is due to unreasonable public spending levels; that societies in general, and popular classes in particular, live above their means.

This is plain false. In the past 30 years, from 1978 to 2012 more precisely, French public spending has in fact decreased by two GDP points. What, then, explains the rise in public debt? First, a fall in the tax revenues of the state. Massive tax reductions for the wealthy and big corporations have been carried out since 1980. In line with the neoliberal mantra, the purpose of these reductions was to favour investment and employment. Well, unemployment is at its highest today, whereas tax revenues have decreased by five points of GDP.

The second factor is the increase in interest rates, especially in the 1990s. This increase favoured creditors and speculators, to the detriment of debtors. Instead of borrowing on financial markets at prohibitive interest rates, had the state financed itself by appealing to household savings and banks, and borrowed at historically normal rates, the public debt would be inferior to current levels by 29 GDP points.

Tax reductions for the wealthy and interest rates increases are political decisions. What the audit shows is that public deficits do not just grow naturally out of the normal course of social life. They are deliberately inflicted on society by the dominant classes, to legitimise austerity policies that will allow the transfer of value from the working classes to the wealthy ones.

A stunning finding of the report is that no one actually knows who holds the French debt. To finance its debt, the French state, like any other state, issues bonds, which are bought by a set of authorised banks. These banks then sell the bonds on the global financial markets. Who owns these titles is one of the world's best kept secrets. The state pays interests to the holders, so technically it could know who owns them. Yet a legally organised ignorance forbids the disclosure of the identity of the bond holders.

This deliberate organisation of ignorance – agnotology – in neoliberal economies intentionally renders the state powerless, even when it could have the means to know and act. This is what permits tax evasion in its various forms – which last year cost about €50bn to European societies, and €17bn to France alone.

Hence, the audit on the debt concludes, some 60% of the French public debt is illegitimate.

An illegitimate debt is one that grew in the service of private interests, and not the wellbeing of the people. Therefore the French people have a right to demand a moratorium on the payment of the debt, and the cancellation of at least part of it. There is precedent for this: in 2008 Ecuador declared 70% of its debt illegitimate.

The nascent global movement for debt audits may well contain the seeds of a new internationalism – an internationalism for today – in the working classes throughout the world. This is, among other things, a consequence of financialisation. Thus debt audits might provide a fertile ground for renewed forms of international mobilisations and solidarity.

This new internationalism could start with three easy steps.

1) Debt audits in all countries

The crucial point is to demonstrate, as the French audit did, that debt is a political construction, that it doesn't just happen to societies when they supposedly live above their means. This is what justifies calling it illegitimate, and may lead to cancellation procedures. Audits on private debts are also possible, as the Chilean artist Francisco Tapia has recently shown by auditing student loans in an imaginative way.

2) The disclosure of the identity of debt holders

A directory of creditors at national and international levels could be assembled. Not only would such a directory help fight tax evasion, it would also reveal that while the living conditions of the majority are worsening, a small group of individuals and financial institutions has consistently taken advantage of high levels of public indebtedness. Hence, it would reveal the political nature of debt.

3) The socialisation of the banking system

The state should cease to borrow on financial markets, instead financing itself through households and banks at reasonable and controllable interest rates. The banks themselves should be put under the supervision of citizens' committees, hence rendering the audit on the debt permanent. In short, debt should be democratised. This, of course, is the harder part, where elements of socialism are introduced at the very core of the system. Yet, to counter the tyranny of debt on every aspect of our lives, there is no alternative.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Wake up. After this, there is no turning Back.

What is the Turing test? And are we all doomed now?

The Turing test has been passed by a robot named Eugene. It may be time to pledge fealty to the machines

Programmers worldwide are preparing to welcome our new robot overlords, after the University of Reading reported on Sunday that a computer had passed the Turing test for the first time.

But what is the test? And why could it spell doom for us all?

The Turing Test?

Coined by computing pioneer Alan Turing in 1950, the Turing test was designed to be a rudimentary way of determining whether or not a computer counts as "intelligent".
The test, as Turing designed it, is carried out as a sort of imitation game. On one side of a computer screen sits a human judge, whose job is to chat to some mysterious interlocutors on the other side. Most of those interlocutors will be humans; one will be a chatbot, created for the sole purpose of tricking the judge into thinking that it is the real human.

On Sunday, for the first time in history, a machine succeeded in that goal.

Or a Turing test?

But it might be better to say that the chatbot, a Russian-designed programme called Eugene, passed a Turing test. Alan Turing's 1950 paper laid out the general idea of the test, and also laid out some specifics which he thought would be passed "in about 50 years' time": each judge has just five minutes to talk to each machine, and the machines passed if more than 30% of the judges thought that they were human. Those somewhat arbitrary, if historically faithful, rules were the ones followed by the University of Reading.

It remains impressive that Eugene had 33% of the judges "he" spoke to convinced of his humanity, but the robots still have a long way to go to pass the gold standard of modern Turing tests, using rules laid out in 1990 by the inventor Hugh Loebner. Those rules call for the computer and a human to have a 25-minute conversation with each of four separate judges. The machine only wins if it fools at least half the judges into thinking it's the human (though every year there is a "bronze medal" awarded to the machine that convinces the most judges).

The hardest Turing test described so far is one set up as part of a $20,000 bet between the futurologist Ray Kurzweil and the Lotus founder, Mitch Kapor. Kapor bet that no robot would pass the test before 2029, and the rules call for the challenger and three human foils to have two-hour conversations with each of three judges. The robot must convince two of the three judges that it is human, and be ranked as "more human" on average than at least two of the actual human competitors.

How do the robots win?

Turing test competitions have been held for more than 20 years, and the strategies the robots employ have changed over time. Where originally the stumbling blocks were simply understanding the questions asked by the judges, now the bigger challenge is in answering them in a human-like manner. In recent years, winners have started changing the subject, asking questions of the judges, and simulating moods and typos.

The big breakthrough behind Eugene, the University of Reading's winner, was in giving the robot the persona of a 13-year-old boy. "Our main idea was that [Eugene] can claim that he knows anything, but his age also makes it perfectly reasonable that he doesn't know everything," said the robot's creator, Vladimir Veselov. It also makes affectations like misspellings look more plausible than they would coming from an "adult".

What does a conversation with Eugene look like?

Here's the transcript of a 2012 conversation with a judge which resulted in them picking Eugene over the human interlocutor on the other side of the screen:
[16:11:25] Judge: what music do you like?
[16:11:32] Eugene: I like Eminem – because he doesn't have a thing to do with "polite-correctness".
[16:11:46] Judge: OMG i love eminem, he's my favourite artist!
[16:12:00] Eugene: I wonder what Eminem's nick mean. I associate it only with a word "enema". But he is a cool guy, I like his "The Real Slim Shady".
[16:12:55] Judge: i know what his nick name means, his real name is Marshall Mathers. From the initials M&M phynetically sounding like Eminem.
[16:13:06] Eugene: Eminem is a famous crapper. No, raper... ripper... Yeah, I mean - rapper. I like his "Stan" and "The Real Slim Shady".
[16:13:32] Judge: I like "Hailies song"
[16:13:46] Eugene: Interesting tastes. I like science fiction books, by the way. Where do you came from, by the way? Could you tell me about the place where you live?
[16:14:22] Judge: Epsom, home of the derby. yourself?
[16:14:27] Eugene: My guinea pig says that name Derby sounds very nice.
[16:14:41] Judge: i shopuld talk with him sometime
[16:14:48] Eugene: I think you should take some typing lessons. Or just type more accurately.
[16:15:04] Judge: that's very rude?
[16:15:09] Eugene: Ummm... Frankly, I didn't get your question:-(
[16:15:49] Judge: "Ummm" isnt a word. i think you need typing lessons
[16:15:58] Eugene: My thoughts are same. By the way, I still don't know your specialty - or, possibly, I've missed it?

At the time, Eugene passed 28% of such conversations. Two years on, that extra 5% has made all the difference.

Is it time to pledge allegiance to our new robot overlords?

Probably not. For one thing, winning a competition by pretending to be a child with gaping holes in their knowledge does not exactly reinforce the idea that machines are something to be scared of.

But moreover, chatbots are a fairly limited application of the sort of artificial intelligence which science-fiction authors have been imagining for decades. By having to pretend to be human, they are prevented from being more than human.

They still offer new problems and possibilities for the future, from automatic scambots which carry out phishing attacks to customer support algorithms that don't need to reveal that they aren't actually a person.

But really, these machines say more about us than them. "You don’t write a program, you write a novel," explain Eugene's creators. "You think up a life for your character from scratch – starting with childhood – endowing him with opinions, thoughts, fears, quirks." When the best way to pretend to be human is to imitate our foibles and weaknesses as much as our strengths, the victors of Turing tests will continue to be the least scary output of artificial intelligence research.

Computer simulating 13-year-old boy becomes first to pass Turing test

'Eugene Goostman' fools 33% of interrogators into thinking it is human, in what is seen as a milestone in artificial intelligence

A "super computer" has duped humans into thinking it was a 13-year-old boy to become the first machine to pass the Turing test, experts have said. Five machines were tested at the Royal Society in central London to see if they could fool people into thinking they were humans during text-based conversations.

The test was devised in 1950 by computer science pioneer and second world war codebreaker Alan Turing, who said that if a machine was indistinguishable from a human, then it was "thinking".

No computer had ever previously passed the Turing test, which requires 30% of human interrogators to be duped during a series of five-minute keyboard conversations, organisers from the University of Reading said.

But "Eugene Goostman", a computer programme developed to simulate a 13-year-old boy, managed to convince 33% of the judges that it was human, the university said.

Professor Kevin Warwick, from the University of Reading, said: "In the field of artificial intelligence, there is no more iconic and controversial milestone than the Turing test. It is fitting that such an important landmark has been reached at the Royal Society in London, the home of British science and the scene of many great advances in human understanding over the centuries. This milestone will go down in history as one of the most exciting."

The successful machine was created by Russian-born Vladimir Veselov, who lives in the United States, and Ukrainian Eugene Demchenko, who lives in Russia.

Veselov said: "It's a remarkable achievement for us and we hope it boosts interest in artificial intelligence and chatbots."

Warwick said there had been previous claims that the test was passed in similar competitions around the world. "A true Turing test does not set the questions or topics prior to the conversations," he said. "We are therefore proud to declare that Alan Turing's test was passed for the first time."

Warwick said having a computer with such artificial intelligence had "implications for society" and would serve as a "wake-up call to cybercrime".

The event on Saturday was poignant as it took place on the 60th anniversary of the death of Turing, who laid the foundations of modern computing. During the second world war, his critical work at Britain's codebreaking centre at Bletchley Park helped shorten the conflict and save many thousands of lives.

Instead of being hailed a hero, Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality. After his conviction in 1952 for gross indecency with a 19-year-old Manchester man, he was chemically castrated. Two years later, he died from cyanide poisoning in an apparent suicide, though there have been suggestions that his death was an accident.

Last December, after a long campaign, Turing was given a posthumous royal pardon.

In 2011, at the Techniche festival in Guwahati, India, an application called Cleverbot took part in a Turing-type test and was perceived to be human by 59.3% of its interlocutors (compared with a score of 63.3% human for the average human participant). However, because the programme draws on a database of real conversations, many disputed whether it was in fact exhibiting true "intelligence".

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Climate Domino
Paul Krugman, NYT, June 5, 2014
Maybe it’s me, but the predictable right-wing cries of outrage over the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules on carbon seem oddly muted and unfocused. I mean, these are the people who managed to create national outrage over nonexistent death panels. Now the Obama administration is doing something that really will impose at least some pain on some people. Where are the eye-catching fake horror stories?

For what it’s worth, however, the attacks on the new rules mainly involve the three C’s: conspiracy, cost and China. That is, right-wingers claim that there isn’t any global warming, that it’s all a hoax promulgated by thousands of scientists around the world; that taking action to limit greenhouse gas emissions would devastate the economy; and that, anyway, U.S. policy can’t accomplish anything because China will just go on spewing stuff into the atmosphere.

I don’t want to say much about the conspiracy theorizing, except to point out that any attempt to make sense of current American politics must take into account this particular indicator of the Republican Party’s descent into madness. There is, however, a lot to say about both the cost and China issues.

On cost: It’s reasonable to argue that new rules aimed at limiting emissions would have some negative effect on G.D.P. and family incomes. Even that isn’t necessarily true, especially in a depressed economy, where regulations that require new investment could end up creating jobs. Still, the odds are that the E.P.A.’s action, if it goes into effect, will hurt at least a little.

Claims that the effects will be devastating are, however, not just wrong but inconsistent with what conservatives claim to believe. Ask right-wingers how the U.S. economy will cope with limited supplies of raw materials, land, and other resources, and they respond with great optimism: the magic of the marketplace will lead us to solutions. But they abruptly lose their faith in market magic when someone proposes limits on pollution — limits that would largely be imposed in market-friendly ways like cap-and-trade systems. Suddenly, they insist that businesses will be unable to adjust, that there are no alternatives to doing everything energy-related exactly the way we do it now.

That’s not realistic, and it’s not what careful analysis says. It’s not even what studies paid for by opponents of climate action say. As I explained last week, the United States Chamber of Commerce recently commissioned a report that was intended to show the terrible costs of the forthcoming E.P.A. policy — a report that made the least favorable assumptions possible in an attempt to make the costs look bigger. Even so, however, the numbers came out embarrassingly small. No, cracking down on coal won’t cripple the U.S. economy.

But what about the international aspect? At this point, the United States accounts for only 17 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, while China accounts for 27 percent — and China’s share is rising fast. So it’s true that America, acting alone, can’t save the planet. We need international cooperation.

That, however, is precisely why we need the new policy. America can’t expect other countries to take strong action against emissions while refusing to do anything itself, so the new rules are needed to get the game going. And it’s fairly certain that action in the U.S. would lead to corresponding action in Europe and Japan.

That leaves China, and there have been many cynical declarations over the past few days to the effect that China will just go ahead and burn any coal that we don’t. And we certainly don’t want to count on Chinese altruism.

But we don’t have to. China is enormously dependent on access to advanced-country markets — a lot of the coal it burns can be attributed, directly or indirectly, to its export business — and it knows that it would put this access at risk if it refused to play any role in protecting the planet.

More specifically, if and when wealthy countries take serious action to limit greenhouse gas emissions, they’re very likely to start imposing “carbon tariffs” on goods imported from countries that aren’t taking similar action.Such tariffs should be legal under existing trade rules — the World Trade Organization would probably declare that carbon limits are effectively a tax on consumers, which can be levied on imports as well as domestic production. Furthermore, trade rules give special consideration to environmental protection. So China would find itself with strong incentives to start limiting emissions.

The new carbon policy, then, is supposed to be the beginning, not the end, a domino that, once pushed over, should start a chain reaction that leads, finally, to global steps to limit climate change. Do we know that it will work? Of course not. But it’s vital that we try.

Piketty and the Pope, and why Marx is back

The criticism of income inequality that Thomas Piketty exposes in his bestselling “Capital in the 21st Century” is not very different from Pope Francis’s views on capitalism in his apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” last year.

The Financial Times is trying to demonstrate that the French economist’s theory is wrong, and Rush Limbaugh, among other conservatives, has accused both men of Marxism, which for him is synonymous with being wrong, of course. But being labeled a Marxist is not offensive anymore; it’s simply a sign that Marx has returned from the remnants of communism to invite academics, activists, and even clerics to seek in his thought solutions to the ongoing global recession.

Even though Piketty and the Pope (formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio) have denied any interest or faith in Marxism, they will not be forgiven anytime soon because anyone who points out capitalism’s social flaws pulls a fire alarm in our state of exception.

The good aspect of this alarm is that it indirectly gathers together people concerned with such vital matters as the distribution of wealth, health and education, as demonstrated by UNASUR and the Occupy Movement.

The Pope has called for redistribution, and Piketty has suggested a way that this can be implemented through a progressive global tax on capital or wealth. And has also (indirectly) become the papal economist. In order to explain why the French economist’s solution is appropriate for the pope’s concerns, let’s quickly recall both theses.

The most interesting feature of “Evangelii Gaudium” is not that the Pope calls for a more equitable distribution of wealth but rather that he makes this call in the spirit of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s liberation theology.

According to Pope Francis, a “financial reform” is necessary not only “because the socioeconomic system is unjust at its root” but also because “today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption. “When this unbridled consumerism is combined with inequality it proves particularly damaging to our society, where the “excluded are not the ‘exploited’ [anymore] but the outcast, the leftovers.”

As we can see, the Pope is opposing not just an economic system where exclusion is possible but one where it has become the norm, that is, the “result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation.” As a true postmodern philosopher, Pope Francis concludes his observations by pointing out how far “we are far from the so-called ‘end of history’” because economic growth, encouraged by a free market, instead of bringing greater prosperity for all, has increased “widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions.”

Piketty seems to have provided both historical and economic justification for the Pope’s concerns over an “economy of exclusion” and a “financial system which rules rather than serves.” If capitalism has become such an economic system it is not simply because of its natural drift toward high inequality, which the author demonstrates through detailed historical analysis, but also because capitalism permits the concentration of wealth to perpetuate from one generation to the next (as the Spanish royal family has just demonstrated).

This occurs when the “rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income” and“ capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.” The French economist suggests a “progressive annual tax on capital” that would contain the “unlimited growth of the global inequality of wealth, which is currently increasing at a rate that cannot be sustained in the long run and that ought to worry even the most fervent champions of self-regulated market.”

If Piketty seems to have become Francis’s economist, it is not simply because he provides a solution the Pope would most likely endorse, but also because he has moved away from the scientific nature of his discipline, that is, economic determinism. After all, the French economist believes that the “resurgence of inequality after 1980” was not caused simply by capitalism’s inevitable drift towards inequality but also by “the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance.” The Pope’s call for a financial system that “serves instead of rules” is directed against this political shift, which has always avoided financial reforms such as those suggested by both men.

Although Piketty will probably continue to teach economics in France instead of moving into the Vatican, the Pope now has an economist whom he can rely upon when he pontificates from Rome, regardless of all accusations of Marxism. These accusations, then, are not only necessary to bring together economists and the Holy See but also serve to mark a turning away from capitalism’s acceleration of inequality for anyone so accused, regardless of our faith or social status.


Santiago Zabala is ICREA Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of Barcelona. He is the author of, among other things, The Hermeneutic Nature of Analytic Philosophy (2008), The Remains of Being (2009), and, most recently, Hermeneutic Communism (2011, coauthored with G. Vattimo), all published by Columbia University Press and translated into several languages. His forthcoming book is Only Art Can Save Us. He also writes opinion articles for The New York Times, Al-Jazeera, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Guardian.