Sunday, April 2, 2017

Selling History By The Pound (2015)

The Pathfinders Column from the April 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
You have to hand it to Isis, in a way, for their orgiastic ability to outpace the world’s sense of shock-fatigue. Now they are bulldozing cities and sites which are among the most ancient in the world, sites like Nimrud, an Assyrian city dating from 1250BC, and Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire and the largest city in the world until it fell to a coalition of Babylonians, Persians, Medes and Scythians. This at a time when Rome was still a village and western Europeans lived in hill-forts and hide tents.
It turns out though that Isis have not simply gone insane with cultural bloodlust against anything un-Islamic. They are canny operators in the capitalist marketplace. In public and on camera, they are weighing into ancient statues and monuments with pick-axes and sledgehammers. Privately and away from view, they are looting archaeological sites and making a fortune selling artefacts to western collectors through a black market administered by organised crime (New Scientist, 14 March). With sculptures, mosaics and coins fetching anything up to $60,000 a piece, it’s not hard to understand the incentive, and a bit of public vandalism is a very useful way to drive up black-market prices. Any socialist comment would be redundant.
Let’s Get Medi-evil
That Isis are total unmitigated bastards intent on clocking up crimes against humanity is hardly news, but nevertheless some liberals, ever cautious when faced with absolute statements of any sort, are tempted to look for mitigating factors. In an interview with the cast of BBC’s Tudor drama Wolf Hall, one actor observed that Islam was approximately 500 years behind Christianity in terms of age, and that if one were to look 500 years or so backwards in English history, what were we doing to each other then? The answer: beheading, burning, hanging, drawing and quartering. The intention of this observation was not to excuse Isis as such, but merely to provide some sort of historical context. The unfortunate effect, though, was to patronise the great majority of western Moslems who are quite at home with modern values, thanks very much, and don’t appreciate being described by well-meaning white actors as medieval barbarians.
It’s a silly argument anyway. The post-Columbian United States is around 1,500 years younger than Christianity, so on this logic American policy-makers should still be crucifying people, sacrificing goats and reading the future in chicken guts.
The reality is that societies don’t necessarily develop at the same rate nor independently of each other. Ideas don’t stop at frontiers and societies at different stages of development are forever cross-fertilising each other – that’s why socialism will spread geometrically and not serially. As for what ‘we’ did to each other in Tudor England, it was no different from behaviour across the whole of ‘civilised’ Europe at the time. When these forms of behaviour later came to be regarded as brutal, they fell out of favour in all related societies. (For an interesting historical account of the birth of Islam, see page 12 in this issue).
Isis are out of step with modern times and modern ethical values not because they are somehow psycho-historically underdeveloped but because they have a calculated and steely resolve to scare the living shit out of everyone they meet. As a strategy of terror you just can’t beat biblical brutality, and that’s something Isis probably did learn correctly from history, theirs and ours, unlike some people who act in plays.
Death Row Dispatches
They might not be crucifying people or burning them at the stake, but some American states are having trouble choosing ways to execute them, now that European pharmaceutical companies have almost unanimously grown a spine and refused to supply the US with lethal chemicals for use on Death Row inmates. Now Utah is proposing bringing back the firing squad, despite liberal objections that it is an inhumane method of murder (BBC Online, 11 March). Hmm, really? In Oklahoma they’re considering using gas, a method with unpleasant historical resonances. Well, we’ve got news for the liberals. All methods of murder are inhumane, by definition. It says a lot about the mentality of ‘reasonable’ people in capitalism that this is even considered a negotiable question.
Nuts to Bosses
Here’s an idea what we can do in socialism with all those ex-aristocrats and ex-CEOs who remain narcissistically devoted to their own self-importance. Such people will undoubtedly exist, and while the majority of us will just ignore them or, perhaps cruelly, laugh at them, some will find it in their hearts to pity the petty Napoleons, flapping like fish out of water in a society that has no use for them. Assuming that they are addicted to power like junkies are to smack, we must also assume that going cold turkey will be an unbearable torture for them.  So how could we make it easier on them? Simple. Give them robot flunkeys to order about. AI will make a terrific Jeeves to their Bertie Woosters, grovelling tastefully on cue and getting them out of all sorts of scrapes, thus saving the rest of us the trouble of minding them.
Think this is a joke? Just look at the behaviour of some of these people today, like the lunatic executive of Korean Air who forced a plane to taxi back to the departure gate and worse, forced an air steward to kneel in front of her and receive a humiliating barrage of vilification over a stupid bag of nuts (BBC Online, 11 March). If businesses in South Korea are really run by preening princesses like her, and workers put up with it, it makes you understand how the North Korean junta gets away with it. Happily though the steward didn’t put up with it, and sued for damages. Even more happily, the executive ended up in jail, though for obstructing aviation safety rather than for behaving like an arrogant tit.
So, no reason for the likes of Stephen Hawking to fear that AI is going to kill us all in a Terminator-like Armageddon. Just get the robots to wear morning suits and eat lots of fish, and the world’s ex-bosses can be kept in delusional bliss while the rest of us get on with the important matters of life.
We Dream of Gini
Socialists are always looking for ways to make the case simpler, and here’s one approach we haven’t tried before: Object: to set the Gini coefficient to zero. It’s fifty years since Italian statistician Corrado Gini devised his index for measuring inequality, which charts the distribution of income in any given society, deriving a number between zero, where everybody earns the same, and one, where all the income is earned by just one person (BBC Online, 12 March). The zero figure is entirely putative, since no capitalist society would or could ever fix all incomes as equal, and in fact the only real way to achieve this ultimate equality would be to abolish incomes and the wages system altogether – which is one definition of socialism. Capitalism’s logical end point is similarly obvious, whether any capitalists care to admit it or not: to set the Gini coefficient to 1.  That such an outcome is not only undesirable and unsustainable but in fact globally suicidal ought to be glaringly obvious to any schoolchild, and never mind the political sophistries.

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