Age of Castration

< 1 min

We live in the age of the perpetual emergency. We will never cease to be reminded to wash our hands, wear our PPE, and serve our employers from our homes when possible! Thank you darling for the right to work from home! And lecherous I must watch as essential workers bring me my food, not trusting their cleanliness and question the efficacy of their hygienic protocol. I resort to submerging my fresh fruit, my precious greens into poisonous liquids, chlorine and I stare back, the trembling backs which prevented civil society from collapsing, as they hurry away into some other home.

The sheer indignity beckons the end.

Book Review: Global Development, A Cold War History

5 min

This book is about the creation of a particular form of dialogue between “the North and South”. In the postwar environment the ideas for decolonization gained traction as newly-minted international institutions found their purpose; the UN for international dialogue and conflict resolution, and the IMF and World Bank to fund and manage investment in foreign, developing countries. These relationships were instrumentalized during the Cold War to counteract Soviet influence around the Third World, but its consequences went far beyond. A tightly coupled mechanism was formed uniting the global North and South, by which raw materials flowed towards central countries from the periphery was developed, one where diplomatic concessions and military interventions were used to maintain the regular resource flow. The unfortunate consequence was that development and aid fell short of their objective of creating self-sustaining economic growth. Often, what it caused was spurious and inadequate funding of disparate projects, and it encouraged corruption across the world. What it did achieve was sustaining US hegemony throughout the period, promoting and instituting a super system of integrated economic exchange, ultimately going against the very interests that the system was supposed to maintain: the growth and best interest of the Third World.

“On 20 January 1949, when Harry Truman came onstage at the Capitol and took his oath for the second term as the thirty-third president of the United States of America, he probably did not anticipate that his words would be included on the list of the history’s most influential speeches. As the fourth point in his program, he launched a policy of making US scientific advances and industrial progress available to underdeveloped areas in order to fight misery, malnutrition, and illness. Truman’s Point Four, as it soon became known…”

In this speech, Truman posited a radical new role for the United States vis-a-vis the rest of the world, and conceived as the great resistance of the West against the Soviet Union on the eve of the Cold War, of democracy against communism. Already for decades experiments had been conducted on southern Italy. “The Mezzogiorno was a laboratory of the kind envisaged by economist Eugene Staley in the 1930s.” Here the wisdom of economists, engineers, technicians and other experts was put into practice. The World Bank was put into action in order to kickstart Italy’s largely traditional economy into self-propelling industrial development. Albert O. Hirschmann, Manlio Rossi-Doria are some of the prominent actors in this area, and were related with the creation of the Associazione per lo Sviluppo dell’Industria nel Mezzogiorno think tank, which designed the direction of development across “Backward Areas” of Italy. The language of Willard L. Thorp (economist, assistant secretary of state for economic affairs, writer of Formulating a Four Point Program, on a 1950 special edition of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science), was clear in the preeminence of “technology, international cooperation, and promotion of democracy,” this was more of an excuse to foster conditions for foreign direct investment, the taming of “nationalist and leftist tendencies among peasants and workers” that were so characteristic of their time. Along with the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, a vast enterprise was undertaken by the United States to single-handedly kickstart development across the globe.

To accommodate the interests of the aid-giving nations around the issues surrounding development, a circle of elites began to coalesce and develop methods and ideas suited for this purpose. This included educators, engineers, health practitioners, anthropologists, activists and internationalists of various sorts. The project intended to “educate” more than just dialogue, and instill attitudes that favored US interests such as openness to free trade, suspicion of Soviet and communist relations, and respect of foreign investments. Aurelio Peccei, founder of the Club of Rome think tank that funded the controversial Limits to Growth, and Beyond the Limits, which stressed the importance of managing the adverse consequences of exponential growth. Other economists created the frameworks still in use today to measure hunger, poverty, and development, most prominent among stands Colin Clark, the creator of the modern methods for calculating GDP. The World Bank defined poverty as under $100 annual GDP per capita. The failure to satisfy the goals of creating self-sustained growth was presented as evidence that infrastructure was not enough. Although the use of uniform standards of poverty highlighted the structural possibility of a transition from underdeveloped to highly developed and even a donor country, it did not offer any clues to help the transition. So if the measures employed were not shown to promote the self-sustained growth that was the goal, why was this policy pursued? We will have to consult Eisenhower.

“While Harry Truman saw development assistance as a way to increase security in the changing decolonizing world and as a tool in the Cold War, his successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, did not share his enthusiasm. It was during Eisenhower’s administration, though, between 1953 and 1961, that the soviet challenge in the Third World became palpable and a discussion about foreign aid moved to center stage. Unable to reconcile anticolonialism with its overriding determination to contain communism, preserve ties with the European allies, and promote a liberal capitalist international economy, the Eisenhower administration endorsed conservative elites in the Third World, backed repressive regimes, and resorted to covert operations to prevent a communist seizure of power. As a result, it nourished the kind of revolutionary violence that Americans most feared.”

The purpose was not necessarily providing a measure of aid or development to the recipient country, but to crowd out Soviet “solidarity” from corrupting the country elites towards communist sympathies. It was mostly thanks to the charisma of John F. Kennedy that the American approach to development is not recognized as simple imperialist or colonialist policy. He proclaimed to the UN General Assembly in 1961 that this would be the “Decade of Development.” He increased funding for aid agencies by $800 million, and consolidated all agencies under USAID, the Agency for International Development. There was a special committee for Latin America called Alliance for Progress: A Program of Inter-American Partnership, a “ten-year, $20 billion foreign aid program” that was orchestrated by Albert O. Hirschman, Paul N. Rosenstein-Rodan, Federico G. Gil, Walt W. Rostow, and included input from Felipe Herrera, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, and Raul Prebisch the principal intellectual force of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America.

“Chile, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Colombia received almost 60 percent of all US funding. The Alliance failed, and weaknesses in its administrative structure are usually blamed. At the core, however, stood the flawed assumption (held for the whole developing world, not just Latin America) that foreign aid would convince leaders to change their policies and accept US ideas about development.”

It was not just about the failed attempt to indoctrinate the Third World with US ideas about development, and particularly about the choice of capitalism over socialism as a source for progress and well-being. It was also about the creation and satisfaction of a vast machinery aligned to produce “scientific” solutions to the problems of development. “Economist and US ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith was an eyewitness to this transition. He explains how in 1949 development economics hardly existed, but within fifteen years, with contributions from private foundations such as Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie, attention to poverty and its conundrums had increased exponentially.” This problem was not just one of a technical nature, it often entailed the restructuring of social relations in various countries, particularly when they were underdeveloped. But the language of economics that was used to justify these interventions clouded the fact that the relationships that were raised were often not in the interest of these developing nations. “The World Bank promoted an idea of efficiency based on the theory of comparative advantage. It encouraged solutions in which poor countries exported raw materials while advanced countries produced and exported technology.” It also excluded any projects that were not compatible with the ideas that were associated with capitalism during the era.

The consequences of these biases often spelled disastrous consequences for the recipient countries. The technocratic body that was responsible for these policies came to terms with their radical inefficacy when Hans W. Singer produced a 1949 report titled UN Report on Relative Prices of Exports and Imports of Underdeveloped Countries. His findings were shocking, because he found that the theory of comparative advantage was in fact creating a systematically worsening situation for developed countries that primarily exported raw materials. “The terms of trade for goods exported by poor countries tended to worsen, while the terms of trade for manufactured goods tended to improve.” The political consequences of this study are evaluated by Raul Prebisch in his The Economic Development of Latin America and Its Principal Problems. He develops the language that evoked a rise in consciousness among the developing country elite on the importance of economic as well as political sovereignty.

The retreat of colonial rule represented the recognition of the political sovereignty of these developed nations, well then the recognition of the systematic unfairness observed in the worsening terms of trade from Singer’s study. Many Third World countries found their voice when Prebisch spoke of a “long-standing pattern of trade” that was “systematically disadvantageous” for Third World countries. It would be thanks to these books that the discourse around development would focus now on the possibility of a renegotiation between the First World and the Third World, the creation of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) to right the scales in favor of the Third World.

Countries were demanding their sovereignty in the economic domain, which included “sovereignty over natural resources, controls on foreign investments, better trade terms, access to the markets of developed countries, reduction in technology costs, more aid, a moratorium on debt and its eventual reduction, and the redistribution of power within the World Bank and the IMF.” They would however, unfortunately, receive exactly the opposite deal, although this is better explained in another book, Oil Revolutionaries, by Christopher Dietrich. By some account they are successful, for oil producing countries established OPEC and took control over price and production of many of the world’s most important oil fields, particularly in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The nationalist rhetoric encouraged plenty of politicians to take advantage of the opportunity: “seventy-nine U.S. firms were expropriated in 1967-1971; fifty-seven were expropriated in 1972-1973.” However, it was not enough, because the plans for the NIEO would fall through and non-oil producing developing nations would face one of the hardest decades that they would see during the 20th century. But this is better left for my review of Oil Revolutionaries, which will follow soon.

For now, I really liked this book, I think it’s worth most people’s time if they’re perversely interested in development economics, and particularly how development is instrumentalized by rich and powerful countries. This book will be very useful in my upcoming essay, Malign Logic, which will decompose the thought behind Nick Land’s language when describing the relations between developed and developing countries.

Bayesian Cybernetics

2 min

The posthumous discovery of Thomas Bayes’s Essay towards Solving A Problem In The Doctrine Of Chances (1761), and its rigorous rule for the revision of probabilistic inferences in response to emerging evidence, brought risk analysis to a level of comprehensiveness that was fully epistemological, and thus no longer subordinate–even nominally– to higher-order determinations of knowledge. In Bayesian adaptive forecasting, a circuit was completed. Modernity had learnt how to think risk, and thinking risk had taught it how to learn. What it had learnt and what it had risked were no longer meaningfully distinguishable. It had realized integral cognitive hazard, or virtual intelligence catastrophe.

Land, Nick. “Odds and Ends: On Ultimate Risk.” Collapse VIII. Urbanomics (2014).

During the last 200 years the laws of probability, Arabic numbers, compound interest, and the limited liability company were successfully integrated into a distributed system of wagers that progressively took over the world. To truly bear witness the insanity of modernity is to get lost in an incomprehensible cyclone of complexity; most people are lulled into a sort of perpetual future-shock. It is hard to deny the brilliance of the minds that created those powerful engines that we use nearly every day to go to work, those flying marvels that take us from one side of the world to another with almost miraculous reliability, or the ability to be seen and heard nearly everywhere in the world by just clicking a few buttons. The system is based on an intrinsic reward to wagers, by definition risks must be compensated if they are to be taken. For centuries, what was once called the capitalist class used their wealth to undertake ventures, dramatically when it was close to running out, by investing in some offshore interest. And so, with the passing of time, nearly all of the world is in some way generating or prospecting for productivity, with all sorts of stakes attached to these. And as a greater and greater edifice is built upon these wagers, colossal against an increasingly unsympathetic planet, one can start to see it teetering like a tower that as a child one would build, swaying softly after the placement of the last block. It is not without reason that our ancestors feared change so much. And doubly so now, as we must not only navigate through change but also have our wagers succeed also.

What I want to highlight here is the following premise: “In Bayesian adaptive forecasting, a circuit was completed. Modernity had learnt how to think risk, and thinking risk had taught it how to learn.” In no time is this truer than today, where the machine learning revolution, as well as the increasing wealth of information that we are exposed to, has not only added a new dimension to the phenomena that can be studied–economically, sociologically and psychologically–but, crucially, an impulse to progressively integrate these horizontal extension of measurement-of-everything into our objectivity. As we transition to a post-structural world and ever greater parts of our identity are digitized (more precisely, those that can be measured), we too wager the that the very things we measure are forever changed through measurement and the feedback we direct through and by these measures. The Bayesian notion of updating priors to update expectations continuously with the arrival of new data insinuates a feedback cycle that perpetuates measurement and prediction that in itself resists objective delineation, never mind understanding. This incredible tool gets sharper each time you use it, and if you’re competing with others, you have every incentive to use it as much as possible. If modernity is truly defined as a risky wager then in assuming this risk we must really evaluate emergent risks that arise through the systemic undertaking of risk itself. The calculation of risk, as a cultural innovation whose real coherence is expressed as an emergent being, or developing global system, is unable to step outside itself, in order to submit to an objective self-estimation. More concretely, systems that we cannot understand cannot be measured. The unknown unknown is not the consequence of a single wager–which unless measured and deemed correspondingly rewarding is not taken–but the joint emergence of a system-of-wagers and the risk that pertains to itself, which is unmeasurable and unknowable.

Book Review: Spaces of Global Capitalism

8 min

As alluded to by Zizek in his debate with Jordan Peterson, David Harvey’s flavor of Marxism is one that is rigorously backed by sound economic analysis in urbanization dynamics, particularly the role of the city as nexus for economic forces and the outcomes of suburbanism, gentrification, etc. My interest in other theorizers of the city, like Lewis Mumford, brought me towards this book. However, this book is not about cities. This is a book about the notions of space under which modern neoliberalism supports and satisfies capitalism.

Key notions that are introduced are the means by which neoliberal projects, too radical for domestic politics, are exported to third world countries in the interest of “peace, democracy, development”, satisfied by the privatization, free trade and the free market. These maxims, although consistent with the monetarist political theories popularized by Milton Friedman and proselytized by the “Chicago boys”, failed to materialize their goals, and instead seem to be pursued solely for elite interests.

Looking particularly at the era of 1970s, which was haunted by inflation and unemployment, a series of policies were pursued in what is interpreted by Harvey as a consolidation of power towards elite hands being the defining narrative of our current era, the answer to “what happened during the 1970s?” that we debate at length. Although I am sympathetic to austrian perspectives regarding the monetary consequences of Nixon closing the gold window, I believe a more nuanced perspective of this era is necessary to properly isolate the forces at work behind the great stagnation.

I believe the key that Harvey lays out is this idea of accumulation by dispossession, which is contrasted to “accumulation through the expansion of wage labor and productivity in industry and agriculture, which dominated processes of capital accumulation in the 1950s and 1960s. Dispossession, on the other hand, is fragmented and particular–a privatization here, and environmental degradation there, a financial crisis of indebtedness somewhere else.” Herein I target my own version of the critique, which is that the nature of this distributed system of dispossession and perpetuation of class differences is nebulous by design, and that only by properly describing the behaviors and intensities of these forces can we understand our present condition: stagnant, overburdened by debt, monotonically rising inequality. Let’s then begin where Harvey begins, with the closure of the 70s:

“In October of 1979, Paul Volcker, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve Bank, engineered a draconian shift in US monetary policy. The long-stranding commitment in the US to the principles of the New Deal, which meant broadly Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies with full employment as the key objective, was abandoned in favor of a policy designed to quell inflation no matter what the consequences might be for employment or, for that matter, for the economies of countries (such as Mexico or Brazil) that were highly dependent upon economic conditions and sensitive to interest rate shifts in the US.

The real rate of interest, that had often been negative during the double-digit inflationary surge of the 1970s, was rendered positive by fiat of the Federal Reserve. The nominal rate of interest was raised overnight (the move came to be known as the ‘Saturday night special’) to close to 20 percent, deliberately plunging the US, and much of the rest of the world, into recession and unemployment. This shift, it was argued, was the only way out of the grumbling crisis of stagflation that had characterized the US and much of the global economy throughout the 1970s.”

What interests Harvey most about this movement is not the consequences of this policy at home, which favored debt-owners and thus the financial elite, and were broadly observed as “deregulation, tax cuts, budget cuts, and attacks upon trade union and professional power,” but mainly the consequences that were externalized to codependent countries like Mexico and Brazil. These policies, exemplified by the refusal to back down to PATCO air traffic controller union strike, proved to be actively hostile towards the middle classes as well as lower classes, surprisingly, since PATCO was a white-collar union and an icon of the middle class.

But where Harveys analysis is most interesting to me, and sadly where I feel more detail is necessary, is at the global level for the consequences of these actions. In the wake of the oil crisis, product of the 1973 oil embargo, vast amounts of capital flowed towards oil producers in OPEC, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi. Through threats of invasion and other means of coercion, the US had the Saudi’s agree to channel all their petrodollars through New York investment bank infrastructures, which created a “search for yield” in the historical low interest rates of the mid-70s (conditions mirrored in today’s world), which forced these banks to find new territories on which to invest and speculate. The search for yield needed to satisfy two conditions for the profits to be secure to US interests. First, investment opportunities had to be made available by tearing down barriers to foreign investment. Second, the security of these investments was to be guaranteed, most critically the risk of nationalization, for these were critical material resources (oil, minerals, agricultural goods), as well as capital-intensive industries, such as telecom.

The logic of this coercive project is, of course, fraught with parallels to colonialism, and yet again this is regrettably not the focus of the book. However, a historical sketch depicts the most flagrant instances of this practice, taking Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, Mexico’s 1982-4 default, and in Nicaragua during the 40s and 50s. Mexico’s case is of particular interest, as it most exemplifies the logic of “accumulation through dispossession” that Harvey points out. In an initial stage, these investment banks take dollars that are a result of low interest rate regime as well as coercive channeling of petrodollar money and start to offer dollar-denominated debt to foreign governments.

Upon becoming indebted to US banks with debt denominated in US dollars, these governments became sensitive to changes in US interest rates. It is for this reason that, following the Volcker shock of 1979, Mexico fell into distress and eventual default. Harvey cites Wade and Venenoso when they write about the 1997 Asian currency crisis, but is similarly applicable to the conditions orchestrated in Mexico, “Financial crises have always caused transfers of ownership and power to those who keep their own assets intact and who are in a position to create credit, and the Asian crisis is no exception … there is no doubt that Western and Japanese corporations are the big winners … The combination of massive devaluations, IMF-pushed financial liberalization, and IMF facilitated recovery may even precipitate the biggest peacetime transfer of assets from domestic to foreign owners in the past fifty years anywhere in the world, dwarfing the transfers from domestic to US owners in Latin America in the 1980s or in Mexico after 1994. One recalls the statement attributed to Andrew Mellon: ‘In a depression assets return to their rightful owners.'”

These are the austerity measures that today are most apparent in troubled countries like Greece, Argentina, Turkey, etc, and consist of “cuts in welfare expenditure, relaxed labor laws, union busting, and privatization.” These of course make the country more attractive as pools of exploitable labor for US investment, and make the country compete in a logic of zero-sum extractive, cost-differentiation strategy, which is basically a race to the bottom, as it disincentivizes value-added industries from flourishing, as well as draining or destroying natural resources of these countries without benefiting local interests.

Harvey writes about the ejidos, a system of communal land ownership that was fundamental to Mexican agriculture, and how “the privatization of the ejidos in Mexico became a central component of the neo-liberal program set up during the 1990s … [forced] many rural dwellers off the land and into the cities in search of employment.” Furthermore, the creation of bankruptcy and distressed condition of company interests make these investments even more compelling to US interests, which have priority access to make these investments.

It is again disappointing that Harvey does not further expand on this thesis, as I find it very interesting, but perhaps other sources cited by Harvey, such as Dumenil and Levy, do a better job. He acknowledges their perspective, although distances himself from their more radical conclusion: “Dumenil and Levy go so far as to argue that neoliberalism was from the very beginning a project to achieve the restoration of class power to the richest strata in the population. Commenting on how the top one percent of income earners in the US fared, they write: ‘Before World War II, these households received about 16 percent of total income. This percentage fell rapidly during the war and, in the 1960s, it had been reduced to 8 percent, a plateau which was maintained during three decades. In the mid 1980s, it soared suddenly and by the end of the century it reached 15 percent.’ Other data show that the top 0.1 percent of income earners increased their share of the national income from 2 percent in 1978 to over 6 percent in 1999.” Today we know these trends have only exacerbated in the years since this analysis was performed, so the question of whether these movements should be identified as malicious class conflict remains critical.

The operative logic of neoliberal accumulation is described: the confluence of private and government interests, the public bearing of risk and reaping of profit by private sector. The preeminence of economic interests, particularly in places where laws are little or loose and nothing stands in the way of capital. Although familiar, Harvey poignantly : “externally, neo-liberal states seek the reduction of barriers to movement of capital across borders and the opening of markets (for both commodities and money capital) to global forces of capital accumulation, sometimes competitive and more often monopolistic. The powers of international competition and the ideology of globalization are used to discipline internal opposition at the same time as new terrains for highly profitable and in some instances neo-colonial capitalistic activity are opened up abroad.”

Other relevant characteristics such as: “governance by elites is favored and a strong preference for government by executive order”, and use of institutions such as IMF and World Bank outside of democratic influence. Although these conditions are today taken for granted, Harvey details the ways in which skepticism of this economic orthodoxy still prevailed in the 1980s: “in spite of all the rhetoric about curing sick economies, neither Britain nor the US achieved high levels of economic performance in the 1980s […] The 1980s in fact belonged to Japan, the East Asian ‘tiger’ economies and West Germany as powerhouses of the global economy […] To be sure, in both Japan and West Germany, the central banks generally followed a monetarist line (the West Germany Bundesbank was particularly assiduous in combating inflation). But in West Germany the unions remained very strong and wage levels relatively high […] In Japan, independent unions were weak or non-existent, but state investment in technology and organizational change and the tight relationship between corporations and financial institutions (an arrangement that also proved felicitous in West Germany) generated an astonishing export-led growth performance […] By the end of the decade those countries which had taken the stronger neo-liberal path still seemed to be in economic difficulty. It was hard not to conclude that the West German and Japanese ‘regimes’ of accumulation were deserving of emulation. Many European states therefore resisted neo-liberal reforms and increasingly found ways to preserve much of their social democratic heritage while moving, in some cases fairly successfully, towards the West German model.” Here this line of thought is very interest, and is in line with Robert Gilpin’s Global Political Economy, in which he broadly categorizes the main political-economic forces into American, German, and Japanese flavors. However, the notion of these ideologies competing is not thoroughly developed in this book, nor do I think it is the main point. Nonetheless, an interesting line of thought, and one that is consistent with other work that I’ve read. Especially interesting because Harvey believes that the reason that the American model was ultimately successful, the neo-liberal model, was because from the standpoint of the elite class this was the most effective way to help them restore and accumulate their power.

In his critique of this system as a means of accumulation through dispossession, he relies on Dumenil and Levy, as previously alluded to, but also Brenner, Gowan, and Pollin. These thus stand out as places to learn more about the things that interest me most about this book, the gory details. Although these deserve separate lines of inquiry, three main arguments are of critical importance in Harvey’s analysis. The first is the financialization of the economy in the course of the last 50 years, with distinct waves of innovation in financial instruments, as well as deregulation and a preponderance of financial companies as the drivers of economic growth. This is tied in his view to the rise of foreign direct investment (FDI) and the integration of previously disjointed markets, such as Germany and Japan, into the global financial fabric that US interests located about New York City. Secondly, the alliance between Wall Street, the IMF and the US Treasury, which is previously alluded to, become an important political driver during the Clinton presidency, which consolidated these institutions and their political economics as the new orthodoxy around the globe. It was in particular effective at persuading emerging markets to open up to foreign capital, with preferential treatment to for US capital and consumer market. This is not, however, the type of victory that is clearly worthy of emulation, as Harvey qualifies the high growth of the 1990s as unsatisfactory, given wages grew so little during this period. Finally, he postulates that this decisively “eradicated” Keynesian economics from corridors such as the IMF and the World Bank and, by the end of the millenium, most economic departments too.

This is all an interesting narrative, but it is one that is spoken in a way that I find very interesting, particularly with how it resonates with other modes of capitalist exploitation that I have been developing separately, and which were greatly informed by this book. Have you ever searched for months for a way of describing some crazy idea, only to find a book that approximates it a few months later? It is a great feeling. Just a few months before I had been working on an essay detailing a distributed system of coercive extraction, not one where one particular country clearly benefits, as in colonialism of old, but where the structure that delineates economic competition is itself the constraining element that creates political expediency towards the allineation of countries into a cohesive trade structure. Harvey says “the development of neo-liberalism must be regarded as a decentered and unstable evolutionary process characterized by uneven geographical developments and strong competitive pressures between a variety of dynamic centers of political-economic power.”

What I want to highlight is that it is part of the nature of this system, its main feature perhaps, that not one country can be singled out as responsible, as an oppressor, as guilty of a crime that by logic of economic orthodoxy does not exist. There is no grand plan, isn’t that a post-modern beauty? Instead of the hegemonic powers that we dealt with in yesteryear’s colonial history, today we deal with institutions like the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, which are ostensibly independent but in practice pliable under US pressure, allows these interests to manage the rest of the world under the cover of plausible deniability. Instead, in this regime we see a new, distributed layer that fills the void of the omnipotent state: NGOs, think tanks, consultancy firms, investment banks.

In Harvey’s view, the deification of human rights as intransigent laws of nature is a political project meant to satisfy primarily the economic rights of man, and exclude those that cannot be formulated consistently under the guise of an individualist worldview. “The rise of advocacy groups and NGOs has, like rights discourses more generally, accompanied the neo-liberal turn and increased spectacularly since 1980s or so … NGOs function as ‘trojan horses for global neoliberalism.’ Furthermore, they are not democratic institutions. They tend to be elitist, unaccountable, and by definition distant from those they seek to protect or help, no matter how well-meaning they may be … Chandler reports, a prominent journal such as Foreign Affairs, carried not a single article on human rights [before the 1980s]. Human rights issues came to prominence after 1980 and positively boomed after the events in Tiananmen Square and the end of the Cold War in 1989 … Law replaces politics ‘as the vehicle for articulating needs in the public setting.’ It is, Chandler concludes, ‘the liberal elite’s disillusionment with ordinary people and the political process (that) leads them to focus more on the empowered individual, taking their case to the judge who will listen and decide.'” And yet who does the judge serve but precisely those interest and advocacy groups with the money and contacts to succeed in litigious activities. It may seem noble to support human rights, but the conditions under which these rights are exercised–that is, the conditions under which state actors are roused to respond to claims of human rights violations–are those most likely to be in their interest, while in the courts of justice the group with the greatest and richest supporter is likeliest to be satisfied. As Marx said, “between two rights force decides.” This is in an environment where the progressives were successfully “persuaded that class was a meaningless category”, and where instead categories that do not challenge business interest, or in cases which directly support them, become new obsessions.

To conclude this review, I would like to say that in spite of the 3/5 stars that I am awarding this book, I think that it is very important and worth reading, at least for those interested in the themes that I allude to in this article. Although I am left with more question than answers when I started this reading, I am sent in a direction that has been thoroughly transited by the work and literature that Harvey builds upon. Particularly, in respect of my other projects on the question of modern systems of control, I am still undecided and need more time to make my mind, but again this is a good direction, and a satisfying work from an interesting thinker. I look forward to read more of his work on city development, as well as the authors cited, particularly Venenoso (fantastic name), Dumenil and Levy.

The Red Queen Hypothesis

4 min

Leigh Van Valen, in his seminal article published in 1973 on The Journal of Evolutionary Theory, A New Evolutionary Law, introduced to the rest of the world a dark and disturbing fact that should trouble any person alive today in our post-coronic times, particularly if you recognize Homo Sapiens as the dominant species (and want to keep it that way). In this article Van Valen recounts with erudite craft how he went through monumental archives of fossil remains spanning millions of years, carefully cataloguing and inferencing the rise and fall of thousands of species and, more generally, taxa through the ages (taxa, plural for taxon, is a taxonomic group of any rank, such as a species, family, or class). Though the records are painfully incomplete, decades of careful cataloguing and sophisticated statistical analysis can yield patterns from these disparate remains. Indeed, what Van Valen found, hidden in all the data, is a timeless story, and perhaps a lesson to all those used to trophic dominance as the apex predator. What he found was evidence that the statistical probability that any one species becomes extinct is not at all dependent on the age of the species, nor its evolutionary fitness. What is instead suggested by these data is the following:

  1. The probability of extinction remains constant throughout a taxon’s existence.
  2. If the rate of evolution and adaptation falls below the baseline extinction rate or, more restrictively, the rate of its competitors, the taxon becomes extinct.
  3. The evolution of taxa and the competitiveness or extinction are best described with unimodal, stochastic models.
Stochastic model of taxa. Note unimodal distribution (single peak) and the correlation of competing taxa peaks with the decline of others.

This result, lovingly proved, and further justified by new evidence, solidified the theory under which these phenomena are explained. This paper has hundreds of thousands of citations, and is very well regarded in the scientific community. However, and the reason that some of you might be interested in this at all, is the strangely suggestive name given to this proposition, The Red Queen Hypothesis. In brief, this behavior is explained by the dynamics under which the evolutionary process develops, wherein taxons compete in (approximately) zero-sum competition to capture as much energy as possible from their environment, in the forms of greater adaptation to its environment as well as growth in its population. A taxon will, in its increasing mastery of energy, not only require constant adaptation to preempt the risk of extinction (which is constant), but also require even greater expenditures of energy or adaptation to continue growing and, crucially, remaining competitive against new threats. The finding evoques some colorful imagery from the children (and occultist) classic Alice in Wonderland–Through the Looking Glass, whereupon meeting the Red Queen in her spiraling chessboard realm, she advises Alice:

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!

What is perhaps not too clear here is is how this excerpt relates to the previous claims. It turns out that due to the extinction rate being constant throughout some taxon’s history in the fossil record, the pressure to compete or adapt to the environment remains a constant threat to the expansion of this taxonomic group. When applied to the dynamics of some taxon near the peak of its growth, the competitive pressures from other competing species become greater in proportion to how close this species is to dominating the trophic space. When one species becomes the dominant life-form or it reaches its peak of dominance, it is in direct competition with the greatest number of other life forms in its ecosystem. Its pressure to evolve to stay competitive against a greater number of species is eventually what leads to the end of growth, as in the (pre)historic records show there is no species capable of harnessing energies without directly challenging all others.

This alone is quite fascinating, and morbidly parallel to accounts of civilization collapse explained through decreasing marginal returns to complexity and energy extraction. And this reference to Tainter is not incidental, for what we find here is a theory of exponential increase in evolutionary pressures driving dominating species from their position of growth and superiority to a position of decline and submission. What should be noted here is that the moment when one expects competitive evolutionary pressures to be at their most pressing is precisely when some species finds itself at the peak of dominance. It is hard not to wonder if this in turn applies to our current position in relation to our ecosystems, and indeed I would hold that position, that given our level of unprecedented dominance and the fragility of the human sphere in relation to its equilibria with the broader biogeochemical cycles and our financially unsustainable position in the absence of continuous exponential growth. The question is not whether or not we’re at our peak, but rather when will the stage of decadence set in. We could go even further and ask, what will be the cause?

While I among many others feared climate change as the critical event that could lead to the end of mankind’s dominance, these findings suggest we discount the relative importance of this factor and instead focus on those pressures that could emerge from other species. And here is where the horror creeps in. What if the latest outbreak of Coronavirus was merely the prelude to the longest and most bloody conflict in human history, yet one that has for millenia been repeated and whose terrible outcome is to be extracted from the fossil record. What the Red Queen Hypothesis suggests is that perhaps we should take the risk posed by deadly disease very seriously, for in the present state that our species finds itself, our vulnerabilities to disease have ceased to decrease with technological development, and have started to increase with the problems posed by scale, connectedness, and eventually the rise of bioweapon-grade diseaseases. It is not an easy truth to acknowledge, but the fact is that trivial experimentation with pathogens can lead to disproportionally catastrophic consequences, and that you might one day too get your viruses from some nerd’s garage just as you did your personal computers, should make anyone pause. This is not to claim that coronavirus was an engineered weapon, but that this is the teaser of a dark world to come, one where handshakes threaten and coughs betray, and where a bit of tinking in the lab or a festering market can crunch the world economy in mere weeks.

What I suggest is that we begin to guard ourselves a little more closely against these pathogenic threats. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but I can say with confidence that things are changing around the world, and people are starting to think differently about the real, run-out-of-food, die-without-medical-treatment risks that we face. In this regard, perhaps we should be thankful that it was coronavirus that forced us to react, and not some far deadlier pathogen. Here is one way in which an arms race will surely doom us, for the side we work with to build our weapons is inhuman and uninterested in our military aims. Tread carefully in this new era of viral dominance, I will close with a few words from the research article that led to my discovery of this hypothesis, written by Indrė Žliobaitė, Mikael Fortelius, and Nils C. Stenseth, published in Nature, Reconciling Taxon Senescence with the Red Queen Hypothesis:

“On the basis of the modelling results and analysis of fossil data, we propose that the Red Queen’s hypothesis (emphasizing the role of competition in driving evolutionary rates) primarily relates to the peak in occupancy during taxon history. Because natural selection at any time maximizes the expected amount of expansive energy, evolutionary success is defined not by simply staying alive, but is instead driven by expansion. In this view, traits are adapted to functional demands in a deterministic manner, but which particular taxon next acquires a better-adapted trait is mostly random.”

“Expansion stops at the peak, the point at which the taxon begins to fail in the competition and starts to decline towards extinction. The path to extinction ends with the extinction event, which occurs when the taxon becomes too rare to be detectable in the fossil record or disappears entirely. Small populations are more exposed and more vulnerable to environmental changes, and a small geographic range in declining populations has been shown to be associated with a higher probability of extinction.”


Instantiation

< 1 min

Hello. This is my first post. Since this blog has no readers, this is mostly for myself. A little mythmaking is appropriate when starting something new. I’ve had this blog for over four months now, and lots of writing and editing have taken me not much closer to publish any of the ideas I’ve had. But, over the course of the last few months, thanks to the curious concoction of existentially boring work and poisonous literature, I have found what I needed.

This blog is about horror. Firstly, because as a sensitive person these topics fascinate me. Secondly, because we live in terrifying times, but remarkably few people have the heart to notice. I hope to reawaken horror for all logical and dispassionate folk that feel like no jump-scare or psychological thriller out there gives them what they seek. Although still ticklish in a fanciful way, this horror is too easy to rationalize, tune out, and move on. In short, it’s not real horror.

Real horror is existential. It threatens a fundamental facet of identity. It posits a catastrophic discontinuity. Death is the most basic horror, an end of the pulsing wetware that draws consciousness out of the fatty folds of the brain, an extinction of subjectivity. Yet much greater horrors exist, anyone that believes otherwise believes braindeath to be a long nap. To some even sleep belongs to horror.

In H. P. Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness, professor Danford goes mad from revelations that, to his learned mind, shine light on impossible horrors that annihilate any possibility of normal life. In The Shadow Over Innsmouth, the narrator describes the transformation of his cousin into an acolyte of the ancient Deep Ones, chthonic horrors that confirm a universe crawling, ruled by malevolent powers.

It is knowledge that brings about true horror, and perhaps even true knowledge is pursued by seeking horrors, answering forbidden questions.

Real horror makes us want to forget, or failing that, take to drilling our skull. Anything less is entertainment.

The Breakdown of Deterrence

3 min

Since the end of the Second World War, deterrence became a crucial strategy after the nuclearization of the United States and the USSR. In an incalculably lucky feat of diplomacy, the two powers, which at the time engaged in vicious ideological disputes, somehow found a way to avoid war and total destruction. They competed in other ways (e.g. proxy wars, the Space Race, propaganda), but the use of deterrence strategies is the main reason that the conflict did not escalate to nuclear conflictreached an equilibrium.

Deterrence is a strategy founded on principles of game theory. It instructs strategic players how to coerce their opponent when engaged in zero-sum competition and in the absence of perfect information. To coerce is to convince another power — through negotiation, promises or threats — to accommodate to your interests. As threats and strategic objectives are progressively matched an equilibrium emerges where no player can earn new profit by taking from another player [1]. Thus, the balance of deterrence. To achieve it, nations did their best to signal readiness to retaliate, and armed themselves to ensure the credibility of their threat.

To achieve credibility both powers sought the means to reliably issue a counterattack. This was achieved in the form of the nuclear triad . Signaling readiness was much easier, since the threat of nuclear war was concentrated on their respective territories, any attack would merit at least an equal attack, if not total obliteration, but this was stated in their strategic doctrines for the world to see. The attacker knew that the cost of any strike was equal or greater losses, the “twisted logic” behind the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the Cold War. And although the threat of accidental attacks and errors in threat-detection still threatened the stability of the equilibrium, we were fortunate, by the fact of our very existence, and now 74 years have passed since the last nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons of the Cold War era were largely strategic. These are designed to be used against reinforced targets, and thus have greater yields and take longer to deploy, 30–45 minutes to contact. Although the U.S. and Russia are matched in their strategic weapons and have around 1550, deployed and in high alert, the balance is no longer just predicated on strategic weapons [2].

Tactical weapons were originally developed during the Cold War, but their destructive potential soon led to their withdrawal following the Cuban Missile Crisis and NATO wargame casualty estimates [3]. These are often smaller and less destructive, but they can be deployed in as little as 1–3 minutes, and thus lend themselves to wholly different strategies [2]. Russia has modernized their arsenal by adding 500 of these tactical weapons, threatening to upset a delicate balance. In addition, in Russian war games on the its army has been seen developing a strategy known as escalate to de-escalate. This consists of threatening to use nuclear bombs to settle small disputes that would not provoke an opponent sufficiently for them to risk using their nuclear weapons. Take the case of the Crimean Annexation. Since US interests are not such that they would risk all-out war with Russia over the territory, they cannot issue a credible threat, and deterrence breaks down, leaving a gap for Russia to pursue territorial expansion and quickly put an end to any resistance with small, tactical nuclear strikes. The US would have had little chance to respond, even with full knowledge of Russian tactics.

US nuclear doctrine is not suited against this threat because they cannot deter such attacks without tactical weapons of their own. It is obvious to Russia that the US is unwilling to risk all-out war over anything other than a direct threat. As said by Henry Kissinger, “great powers do not commit suicide for their allies.” The beauty of deterrence is that it works without ever having to draw blood, but to do so powers must match each other so that no threat is unmatched. Otherwise, nuclear conflicts are, once more again, on the table.

It is in the interest of all that nuclear war should be averted, but what is not obvious is that for deterrence to render nuclear war strategically unsound, non-proliferation agreements between the US and Russia will have to be renegotiated, particularly the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. On first of February, President Trump withdrew from the treaty, citing Russian non-compliance as the reason, and soon thereafter President Putin followed suit. Although the decision was by no means popular, the choice is backed by the logic of deterrence. Following Russian development of these weapons, the US could no longer effectively deter without developing weapons of their own.

To this end, the US should match capabilities and signal readiness to retaliate against Russian forces in case that they use their short-range armament. This involves the creation and deployment of these weapons and declaring the conditions for their use in US nuclear doctrine. Twisted or not, it is necessary so that nuclear conflict remains a thing of the past.

References

[1] M. J. Osborne, A Course in Game Theory, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, p. 14.

[2] E. Colby, “If You Want Peace, Prepare for Nuclear War: A Strategy for the New Great-Power Rivalry,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 97, no. 6, pp. 25–32, 2018.

[3] W. i. Boring, “Adam Rawnsley,” War is Boring, 2015. [Online]. Available: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/war-game-was-nato%E2%80%99s-first-glimpse-how-nuclear-war-would-be-hell-44797. [Accessed 7 03 2019].

[4] ”America’s Nuclear Triad,” United States Department of Defense, [Online]. Available: https://www.defense.gov/Experience/Americas-Nuclear-Triad/. [Accessed 05 02 2019].