Eighty years ago to the day, the far right was in its ascendancy, and still rising. Hitler was in complete control of Germany, Mussolini had been in charge of a police state in Italy for a decade. The world failed to stop them, and war was to break out within a few years, consuming the world in the deadliest conflict in human history.
But a little to the southwest, in Spain, war had already broken out.
In July 1936, Franco and his co-conspirators made their coup attempt against the elected Republican government, dividing the country and driving it into war. By the end of the year they controlled several major cities and had laid siege to Madrid.
The Spanish civil war had erupted, and while the supposedly democratic powers refused to come to the assistance of the besieged Republic — indeed Britain made some moves in the opposite direction — Mussolini and Hitler had no such qualms supporting the forces of reaction. Their support expressed itself in, among other military attacks, the bombing of Guernica. This attack, the world’s first targeting of civilians by aerial bombardment, inaugurated a new type of crime, and a new type of terror, from which humanity has been suffering ever since. The terror and destruction – though mild by the bombings that were to come, of London, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and elsewhere – has never really left us. Conscientious, idealistic and passionate volunteers from abroad fought for the Republic, Orwell’s account being perhaps the most well known.
But the various forces of Spanish reaction — monarchists, Carlists, phalangists, fascists and more, along with mercenaries, German Nazis and Italian fascists — were not merely met with resistance on the battlefield. Many groups within Spanish society took that very moment to make a social, political and economic revolution.
As Chomsky wrote in his Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship,
During the months following the Franco insurrection in July 1936, a social revolution of unprecedented scope took place throughout much of Spain. It had no “revolutionary vanguard” and appears to have been largely spontaneous, involving masses of urban and rural laborers in a radical transformation of social and economic conditions that persisted, with remarkable success, until it was crushed by force. This predominantly anarchist revolution and the massive social transformation to which it gave rise are treated, in recent historical studies, as a kind of aberration, a nuisance that stood in the way of successful prosecution of the war to save the bourgeois regime from the Franco rebellion. Many historians would probably agree with Eric Hobsbawm that the failure of social revolution in Spain “was due to the anarchists,” that anarchism was “a disaster,” a kind of “moral gymnastics” with no “concrete results,” at best “a profoundly moving spectacle for the student of popular religion.” … In fact, this astonishing social upheaval seems to have largely passed from memory.
In other words, at the same time, and in the same place as this horrific war, also eighty years ago to the day, an extraordinary experiment was underway — which has arguably seen no parallel before or since. It was not undertaken as a sideshow, or as a footnote to the ongoing war, but because of it. It was associated with those most optimistic of political philosophies — anarchism, or libertarian socialism — which hold that human beings can organise their lives without the illegitimate authority of bosses or States, without property in capital, and with equality, freedom, democracy, and free association.
How did this happen? All at once. In Catalonia, the question of how far to push for libertarian revolution under conditions of war against fascism presented itself immediately — indeed, within a day of the initial coup. While the Catalan president Luis Companys had refused to issue arms, the anarchists that had stormed the barracks at Atarazanas, defeating the local military coup plotters, seizing weapons and obtaining de facto power. The result was that the anarchists were forced to respond to the question of taking political power in the most dramatic way: they were literally offered State power. Companys, a Catalan nationalist, but unusually sympathetic to anarchists, presented the anarchist leaders Juan Garcia Oliver, Buenaventura Durruti and Diego Abad de Santillán with a proposition, a mixture of generous support, alliance, realpolitik (for the anarchists were more heavily armed than nearby official Republican forces), self-preservation, and acknowledgment of the justice of their cause.
As Anthony Beevor describes it in his history of the war:
On the evening of July 20, Juan Garcia Oliver, Buenaventura Durruti and Diego Abad de Santillán met with President Companys in the palace of the Generalidad. They still carried the weapons with which they had stormed the Atarazanas barracks that morning. In the afternoon they had attended a hastily called meeting of more than 2,000 representatives of local CNT [anarchist] federations. A fundamental disagreement arose between those who wanted to establish a libertarian society immediately and those who believed that it had to wait until after the generals were crushed. …
At the meeting… Companys greeted anarchist delegates warmly:
… Today you are the masters of the city and of Catalonia because you alone have conquered the fascist military… and I hope you will not forget that you did not lack the help of loyal members of my party… But you have won and all is in your power. If you do not need me as president of Catalonia, tell me now, and I will become just another soldier in the fight against fascism. If, on the other hand… you believe that I, my party, my name, my prestige, can be of use, then you can depend on me and my loyalty as a man who is convinced that a whole past of shame is dead.
To my knowledge this is the only offer of its kind ever made by any State to an anarchist organisation. It was an incredible dilemma for the anarchists:
Garcia Oliver described the alternatives as ‘anarchist dictatorship, or democracy which signifies collaboration’. Imposing their social and economic self-management on the rest of the population appeared to violate libertarian ideals more than collaborating with political parties. Abad de Santillán said that ‘we did not believe in dictatorship when it was being exercised against us and we did not want it when we could exercise it only at the expense of others’. At their Saragrossa conference only seven weeks before, the anarchists had affirmed that each political philosophy should be allowed to develop ‘the form of social co-existence which best suited it’. This meant working alongside other political bodies with mutual respect for each other’s differences. Though genuine, this was a simplistic view, since the very idea of worker-control and self-management was anathema both to businessmen and the communists.
Even if the anarchist leaders sitting in Companys’ ornate office, having just been offered the keys of the kingdom, could have foreseen the future, it is doubtful whether their choice would have been made any easier. They had the strength to turn Catalonia and Aragon into an independent non-state almost overnight. But Madrid had the gold, and unofficial sanctions by foreign companies and governments could have brought them down in a relatively short space of time. However, what influenced their decision the most was concern for their comrades in other parts of Spain. The demands of solidarity overrode other considerations. They could not abandon them in a minority which might be crushed by the Marxists.
Accordingly, a Central Committee of Anti-Fascist Militias was organised, allowing pluralism among the various Republican factions in the government of Catalonia; the anarchists decided to share, rather than take, power.
Being in the majority, the least we can do is to recognize the right of minorities to organize their own lives as they want and to offer them our cordial solidarity.
the strangest city in the world today, the city of anarcho-syndicalism supporting democracy, of anarchists keeping order, and anti-political philosophers wielding political power.
I had come to Spain with some notion of writing newspaper articles, but I had joined the militia almost immediately, because at that time and in that atmosphere it seemed the only conceivable thing to do. The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said ‘Señor’ or ‘Don’ or even ‘Usted’; everyone called everyone else ‘Comrade’ or ‘Thou’, and said ‘Salud!’ instead of ‘Buenos dias’. Tipping had been forbidden by law since the time of Primo de Rivera; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loud-speakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in this that I did not understand, in some ways I did not not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also, I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers’ State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed or voluntarily come over to the workers’ side; I did not realise that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.
Together with all this there was something of the evil atmosphere of war. The town had a gaunt untidy look, roads and buildings were in poor repair, the streets at night were dimly lit for fear of air-raids, the shops were mostly shabby and half-empty. Meat was scarce and milk practically unobtainable, there was a shortage of coal, sugar and petrol, and a really serious shortage of bread. Even at this period the bread-queues were often hundreds of yards long. Yet so far as one could judge the people were contented and hopeful. There was no unemployment, and the price of living was still extremely low; you saw very few conspicuously destitute people, and no beggars except the gypsies. Above all, there was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine. In the barbers’ shops were Anarchist notices (the barbers were mostly Anarchists) solemnly explaining that barbers were no longer slaves. In the streets were coloured posters appealing to prostitutes to stop being prostitutes. To anyone from the hard-boiled, sneering civilization of the English-speaking races there was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrase of revolution. At that time revolutionary ballads of the naivest kind, all about the proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets for a few centimes each. I have often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.
More generally across the Republican zone, anarchists and socialists found themselves in positions of power. As Chomsky writes:
Workers armed themselves in Madrid and Barcelona, robbing government armories and even ships in the harbor, and put down the insurrection while the government vacillated, torn between the twin dangers of submitting to Franco and arming the working classes. In large areas of Spain, effective authority passed into the hands of the anarchist and socialist workers who had played a substantial, generally dominant role in putting down the insurrection.
Turning more specifically to the economic revolution carried out in the midst of the civil war, Beevor explains the collectives as follows.
The collective in Republican Spain were not the state collectives of Russia. They were based on the joint ownership and management of the land or factory. Alongside them were ‘socialized’ industries, restructured and run by the CNT and UGT as well as private companies under the joint worker-owner control. Co-operatives marketing the produce of individual smallholders and artisans also existed, although these were not new. They had a long tradition in many parts of the country, especially in fishing communities. There were estimated to have been around 100,000 people involved in co-operative enterprises in Catalonia alone before the civil war. The [anarchist] CNT was, of course, the prime mover in this development, but [socialist union] UGT members also contributed to it. The UGT or UGT—CNT organized about 15 per cent of the collectives in New Castile and La Mancha, the majority in Estremadura, very few in Andalucia, about 20 per cent in Aragon, and about 12 per cent in Catalonia.
The regions most affected were Catalonia and Aragon, where about 70 per cent of the workforce was involved. The total for the whole of Republican territory was nearly 800,000 on the land and a little over a million in industry. In Barcelona workers’ committees took over all the services, the oil monopoly, the shipping companies, heavy engineering firms such as Vulcano, the Ford motor company, chemical companies, the textile industry and a host of smaller enterprises.
Any assumption by foreigners that the phenomenon simply represented a romantic return to the village communes of the Middle Ages was inaccurate. Modernization was no longer feared because the workers controlled its effects. Both on the land and in the factories technical improvements and rationalization could be carried out in ways that would previously have led to bitter strikes. The CNT wood-workers union shut down hundreds of inefficient workshops so as to concentrate production in large plants. The whole industry was reorganized on a vertical basis… Similar structural changes were carried out in other industries as diverse as leather goods, light engineering, textiles and baking. … One of the most impressive feats of those early days was the resurrection of the public transport system at a time when the streets were still littered and barricaded. …
At the same time as the management of industry was being transformed, there was a mushroom growth of agricultural collectives in the southern part of Republican territory. They were organized by CNT members, either on their own or in conjunction with the UGT. The UGT became involved because it recognized that collectivization was the most practical method of farming the less fertile latifundia.
There are lessons here for the present day: the economic consequences of technological innovation — whether “modernization” by mechanisation or digitalisation, whether “automation” by production line or software — need no longer be feared when production is under the control of workers. We should, however, be clear that while collectivization was often voluntary — indeed spontaneous — it was sometimes coerced.
To many people’s surprise the anarchists made attempts to win the trust of the middle classes. If a shopkeeper complained to the CNT that his goods were being taken by workers’ patrols, a sign would be put up stating that the premises belonged to the supply committee. Small firms employing fewer than 50 people were left untouched if the management had a good record. …
In Aragon some collectives were installed forcibly by anarchist militia columns, especially Durruti’s. Their impatience to get the harvest in the feed the cities, as well as the fervour of their beliefs, sometimes led to violence. Aragonese peasants resented being told what to do by over-enthusiastic Catalan industrial workers, and many of them had fears of Russian-style collectives. …
There were few villages which were completely collectivized. The ‘individualists’, consisting chiefly of smallholders who were afraid of losing what little they had, were allowed to keep as much land as a family could farm without hired labour. In regions where there had always been a tradition of smallholding, little tended to change. The desire to work the land collectively was much stronger among the landless peasants, especially in less fertile areas where the small plots were hardly visible.
The anarchist nucleus achieved a considerable improvement for the peasants and yet was wise enough not to try to force the conversion of the reluctant part of the village, but to wait till the example of the others should take effect.
Indeed, as Beevor continues,
the anarchists tried to persuade the middle classes that they were in fact oppressed by an obsession with property and respectability. ‘A grovelling existence,’ they called it. ‘Free yourselves socially and morally from the prejudices that have dominated you until today.’ …
The anarchists continually tried to persuade the peasants that the ownership of land gave a false sense of security. The only real security lay within a community which cared for its own members by providing medical facilities and welfare for the sick and retired.
Collectivization of agriculture was, in economic terms, a qualified success:
whatever the ideology, the self-managed co-operative was almost certainly the best solution to the food-supply problem. Not only was non-collectivized production lower, but the ‘individualists’ were to show the worst possible traits of the introverted and suspicious smallholder. When food was in short supply they hoarded it and created a thriving black market, which, apart from disrupting supplies, did much to undermine morale in the Republican zone. The communist civil governor of Cuenca admitted later that the smallholders who predominated in his province held onto their grain when the cities were starving. …
In terms of production and improved standards for the peasants, the self-managed collectives appear to have been successful. They also seem to have encouraged harmonious community relations. There were, however, breakdowns of communication and disputes between collectives. The anarchists were dismayed that collective selfishness should seem to have taken the place of individual selfishness, and inveighed against this ‘neo-capitalism’.
It should be made clear just how much opposition the anarchists faced — not just from the Nationalists, but also from other factions in the Republican camp, liberals and communists.
The most outspoken champions of property were not the liberal republicans, as might have been expected, but the Communist Party and its Catalan subsidiary, the PSUC. La Pasionaria and other members of their central committee emphatically denied that any form of revolution was happening in Spain, and vigorously defended businessmen and small landowners (at a time when kulaks were dying in Gulag camps). This anti-revolutionary stance, prescribed by Moscow, brought the middle classes into the communist ranks in great numbers. Even the traditional newspapers of the Catalan business community Vanguardia and Noticiero, praised ‘the Soviet model of discipline’.
There were [for collectivized industries] serious problems in obtaining new machinery to convert companies which were irrelevant, like luxury goods, or under-used because of raw-material shortages, like the textile industry. They were caused principally by the Madrid [Republican!] government’s attempt to reassert its control by refusing foreign exchange to collectivized enterprises.
[Moreover, for Catalonian industry a] sizeable part of the home market had been lost in the rising. The peseta had fallen sharply in value on the outbreak of the war, so imported raw materials cost nearly 50 per cent more in under five months. This was accompanied by an unofficial trade embargo which the pro-Nationalist governors of the Bank of Spain had requested among the international business community. Meanwhile, the central government tried to exert control through withholding creidts and foreign exchange. [Republican Prime Minister] Largo Caballero, the arch-rival of the anarchists, was even to offer the government contract for uniforms to foreign companies, rather than give it to CNT textile factories. (The loss of markets and shortage of raw materials led to a 40 per cent decline in textile output, but engineering production increased by 60 per cent over the next nine months.)
The communists’ Popular Front strategy of defending commercial interests so as to win over the middle class was perfectly compatible with their fundamental opposition to self-management. As a result their Catalonian affiliate, the PSUC, started to persuade [socialist union] UGT bank employees to use all possible means to interfere with the collectives’ financial transactions.
[Prime Minister] Giral’s government in Madrid did not share the anarchists’ enthusiasm for self-managed collectives. Nor did it welcome the fragmentation of central power with the establishment of local committees. Its liberal ministers believed in centralized government and a conventional property-owning democracy…. They were appalled at having no control over the industrial base of Catalonia. But… [the Republican government’s] continued control of supply and credit held out the prospect that concessions might gradually be wrung from the revolutionary organizations”
Facing such obstacles — and of course, eventually, destruction under the victorious military forces of fascism — it is perhaps surprising that the collectives achieved even a fraction of the success they did.
* * *
Apparently there is an old Spanish proverb, “History is a common meadow in which everyone can make hay”. No doubt I am making hay of it in my own way. Let us be clear that all sides in the Spanish Civil War were responsible for atrocities, and many collectivizations were forced. Perhaps the libertarianism of the anarchists is too optimistic for human nature; perhaps, left to run its own course, with increasing complexity of industry, self-management might have floundered. But we do know that the revolution did not fail for those reasons; nor did it fail for inefficiency, or bureaucracy, or authoritarianism — on the contrary. It failed because it was crushed, opposed by every other faction both among both enemies and allies. The situation left them no chance. Between the military attacks of the fascists, the opposition by erstwhile Republican allies, ranging from political interference to outright military attack — supported by all the greatest monsters of European history, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin — and abandonment by the liberal democratic powers, it is impossible to say how they might have developed, leaving fodder for cynic and dreamer alike, and everyone in between.
Let us limit ourselves to a few obvious remarks. People fight harder for something worth defending. When an existing political or economic system is at an ebb, giving rise to the worst forces of reaction, xenophobia, nationalism and authoritarianism, is precisely when changes are most possible. The time for the most realistic utopian thinking is in the time of catastrophe. The history of all great reforms is a span which begins with a demand for the impossible and ends with the acceptance of the inevitable. Even an anarchist can be offered the keys to the kingdom. And even those offered power can decline — and try to build something better instead.
But let us leave the history to speak for itself — a reminder of what can be achieved even under the greatest adversity.
Eighty years ago, Spanish people responded to the rise of the far right with social revolution. What will you do?
Recently I was asked to talk at a secondary school about mathematics and mathematical philosophy. The following is roughly based on what I talked about…
I was asked to come and talk to you about mathematics, which is lucky, because I’m a mathematician. But then I wondered what exactly I should tell you.
I thought — well, should I give you a maths class? But I figure that’s probably not the best idea. I might talk about a little bit of actual maths, but don’t worry, there will be no test.
Then I thought — should I try to persuade you to study more maths? A sales pitch for mathematics? Well, I’m sure you’ve all had an excellent education here, in mathematics as in every other subject, so there’s no need for further persuasion. And anyway I’m not much of a salesman. However, I might try to show you a couple of things about maths that I think makes it interesting
Then I thought — should I tell you about all the places maths is useful in everyday life? Well, maths does come up pretty much everywhere, and it’s used by people all the time – sometimes with good effect, sometimes bad, but in any case it’s everywhere. So I might talk a little about that too. And It raises all sorts of big philosophical questions.
And speaking of philosophy — in the philosophy of mathematics there are all sorts of deep, abstract, and interesting questions there. Pretty heavy ones too. What does it mean for a mathematics to be true? What is mathematics anyway? Well, those are pretty deep questions, but since I’m the only professional mathematician in the room, I might say a little about it.
Then I thought — I’m just here to talk to you. And as far as I’m concerned I’m talking to adults.
But then I thought — oh, I should probably introduce myself first! Well it would be rude not to, so OK, I’ll do that first, then I’ll tell you some of the things I think about mathematics, which are hopefully kind of interesting. And then we’ll leave some time for questions, and you can ask me about anything you like.
* * *
So yes, I will start by telling you a little bit about myself. I’m a mathematician, a lecturer at Monash Uni. I’m also, a sometime lawyer, activist, writer, husband, dog owner.
I’ve been into maths since I was very young. At school I enjoyed learning lots of things, including mathematics and science. I’ve always wanted to know how the world works. But actually my favourite subject at school was history. You know, “maths, science, history – unravelling the mystery”. I heard that on TV somewhere. I enjoyed history: learning about how we came to be how we are now – how we got into this mess!
At school I found out I was apparently good at maths, and I got involved in the Maths Olympiad. I actually represented the country at the International Maths Olympiad.
I graduated from school, feeling like I didn’t know anything, and that there was so much more to learn. I went to university. I wanted to learn everything, but they only let me enrol in two degrees. So I studied science and law: the rules that govern the world, and the rules that govern society. And from then on I’ve never really left university, but I still feel like I know nothing. I did a few courses here in Melbourne, then I did a PhD in maths at Stanford University in California. I got involved in some politics as well – I was involved in a website you might have heard of called Wikileaks, although I left it long ago, before it became famous, or rather, infamous. After getting my PhD I then worked in France, at the University of Nantes – Nantes is a city in north-western France which has good mathematicians and good crepes. Then I worked in Boston, at a university called Boston College. So as you can see mathematics is very international. It’s the same with all science really – it’s a very international enterprise.
I now work at Monash Uni, in the maths department there. I am also a fully qualified lawyer, and although I’ve never practised law, I have done volunteer legal work and been involved in some politics here as well. I’m an advisor, for instance, to a wonderful group called the Initiative for Equality, which works to build more equal and participatory societies around the world.
But that’s enough about myself. If you want to know anything more you will have to ask.
* * *
So, let’s get down to talking a bit about mathematics. And I thought a first thing to do might be to actually ask – what is mathematics? Because I suspect the average person, and you, and me, might all have different answers.
As a mathematician, I think it’s actually quite a difficult thing to define.
Perhaps the main thing I want to impress upon you about what mathematics is, is just how big it is, how long it’s been going, and how narrow a slice of it most people see. Maths is a lot more than the subject you learn at school called maths!
Studying maths at school, you can kind of get the impression that you study year 7 maths, and then year 8 maths, and so on, and finally you get to year 12 maths, and you are then done. You finished mathematics.
Well, no. At that point you know a little bit of the mathematics that was known up to the 17th century. You’ve seen essentially zero mathematics from the last 300 years – possibly a little bit, if you’ve got good teachers, as I’m sure you do here.
But what would your education be like, if you graduated from school completing all the English units, but never having studied, let alone read or even seen, any literature from after 1700? Well with mathematics it’s like that.
Perhaps it’s not quite that bad. Mathematics doesn’t change like English does. Literature from 1700 is now outdated, in a certain sense, but mathematics from 1700 is not. It’s just as true, just as valid now as it was then. And mathematics had made a significant amount of progress by 1700, so it’s not terribly bad that you only get up to 1700.
But it’s useful to place it in context. Mathematics has an enormously long and rich history, and its story goes right back to the beginning of civilization. We have evidence of writing numbers dating from about 3500 BC. The Sumerians were doing their times tables from 2500 BC. The ancient Egyptians knew about prime numbers before 1800 BC.
But mathematics exploded in ancient Greece from the 6th century BC onwards and took the world by storm. And since then, mathematics has been actively advancing.
Told you I liked history.
But whenever you are learning mathematics, you are tapping into one of the deepest continuous strains of human thought, and you are tapping into some of the most ingenious, clever, ideas ever conceived, ideas developed by some of the greatest minds in history.
Think of it this way. We are now so advanced that, in a mere 12 or 13 years of schooling, you’re able to go from a pre-literate level of mathematical understanding, up to the 17th century. That’s quite an achievement. It took humanity millennia, but for you it’s just exercises in your textbook – combined with good teachers.
So maths has been around a long time. It’s not going away – sorry if you don’t like it. It was here before we were born, it will still be here after we are gone. It will even survive Donald Trump. And it will be no less true for that.
* * *
So, what is mathematics? In the end I can’t really define it, but I can say some things that are mathematics and some things that are not.
Now, there are many things we know that are definitely included in mathematics. Algebra is maths. Geometry is maths. Anything with numbers in it is maths. Anything with exact logic in it is maths – maths has a type of thinking and a type of logic that is characteristic to the subject, and unlike the sort of thinking you get pretty much anywhere else – we might talk more about that later.
Some other things are definitely not mathematics. History is not maths. Biology, chemistry, physics are not maths, although they may use it. Physics is an interesting one actually – it’s very mathematical, and so much so that sometimes the boundary between physics and mathematics is unclear. I might talk more about that later.
The other sciences are easier to define than maths. You can say at least roughly what these other sciences are about. Physics is about the study of objects in the universe and so on, chemistry is about the properties of atoms and molecules and their reactions and so on.
The other sciences are easier to define because they’re basically limited to things which actually exist in this universe. Maths, on the other hand, has no such limitations. It does have some limitations. It shouldn’t be wrong. Two and two is definitely not five. Other than that, it’s limited only by our imagination.
* * *
Let me try to give you an idea of what I think mathematics is by giving you an example of the type of outlook a mathematician has.
Suppose a mathematician walks into a bar. This is not a joke… much…
In the bar there is a pool table. But as you’re all underage, you don’t know this.
For those of you who haven’t played pool, the idea is to hit these billiard balls into the pockets using a cue stick. The exact rules aren’t important here, the point here is simply that the balls roll around on the table, bounce off the sides, hit each other, and so on.
Anyway, a lot of mathematics has been inspired by pool tables. And this is not (just) because mathematicians drink too much.
A mathematician might look at a pool table and see some interesting geometry problems – to get this ball into that pocket, where should you aim? Well perhaps you can do a reflection like this, and aim over there.
And she might go further, and wonder, what can you say about the path, the trajectory traced out by a billiard ball? Is it possible for a ball to start off in one position, going in a particular direction, and later come back to that position going in the same direction? Can it do so after hitting every wall? Is it possible to hit the wall 17 times and come back to your initial position and direction? Is it possible for a billiard ball to go in such a way that it eventually passes through every point on the table?
What if you change the geometry of the table – make it a triangle, or a square, or a pentagon, or even make it curved? What if it’s a concave heptagon?
What if it’s 3-dimensional?
So, by pure imagination, you have a dozen questions all ready to think about. They belong to different fields of mathematics, some of which you may never have seen. But somehow they’re all mathematical questions. Some of them are much harder than others. Some might require more advanced ideas, or ideas that haven’t even been invented yet. Others might be impossible.
But the point I’m making is that mathematician is free to ask whatever questions she pleases. She is limited only by her imagination. She invents her own problems, and tries to solve them. She solves the ones she likes. She solves the ones she can.
In the meantime, everyone else in the bar is having a slightly less nerdy good time.
But in fact, it goes even further. There are several whole fields of mathematics devoted to billiard balls.
For example, mathematicians have shown that you can arrange billiard tables and billiard balls in all sorts of interesting shapes and configurations to get all sorts of interesting results. You could have many billiard tables, joined up by narrow passages, like pipes or tubes, forming patterns. You can have billiard tables designed to keep billiard balls rolling about for a while and then come out through a tube. You can have billiard tables with incoming and outcoming tubes, and a billiard ball comes out this tube if balls comes in both those tubes.
Here is a picture of a billiard table which functions as an AND gate, which is something you see in electronic circuits and in computers. In fact, you can make computers out of billiard balls.
Of course, it’s a hypothetical computer where we assume that all the billiard balls move without friction and never slow down and don’t spin and so on. But mathematicians are happy to make those assumptions, we are not limited by those kinds of practical considerations. But under those assumptions, you can arrange a billiard table to do the things a computer can. Here’s the Wikipedia article on it.
And here is a book on mathematical billiards.
Do you recognise any of the maths there? I’m struggling, and I do this stuff for a living!
It gets into some of the most advanced and cutting-edge areas of mathematics.
And this is just one sub-sub-sub field of contemporary mathematics. Mathematicians take an idea, like a billiard table, think up some problems, solve them, and develop entire theories out of their pure imagination and curiosity.
So maybe some mathematicians have too much time on their hands.
But who knows? Perhaps this mathematics one day will be used to design solar panels – after all that’s all about reflecting light rays cleverly, just like a pool player bounces balls off walls cleverly. Or who knows what else. Or perhaps not. History is full of examples of mathematicians thinking up maths for its own sake, which then later on turns out to be useful in a completely unforeseeable kind of way.
If their maths gets used for something useful, the mathematicians who invented it will be very happy; but, if it doesn’t, they won’t be particularly disappointed.
That’s how mathematics works. It is, by far, the craziest and most unpredictable of the sciences, and I think the most fun and the most profound.
* * *
It’s interesting, for instance, to consider from this point of view a subject that by now most of you – maybe all of you? –have studied: calculus.
Who discovered calculus? These two gentlemen.
Calculus was discovered at roughly the same time by two different people: Isaac Newton (left), and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (right). Newton was English, Leibniz was German, and who came first was a matter of national pride and a lot of controversy.
Online there is a comic called XKCD. It has nerdy maths jokes in it. Here’s one about the discovery of calculus.
Get it? Because a derivative is a thing in calculus, but also, when someone takes an idea someone else has, it’s called…
Anyway, so let’s consider the discovery of calculus.
It is an enormous advance in knowledge to be able to use calculus. Using differential calculus, you can figure out, merely from knowing the position of an object, how fast it is moving, at any instant of time. You can then calculate the exact trajectory of an object – so you can work out the motions of objects, of any size, from billiard balls, to the motions of the stars, to… Angry Birds.
But the discovery of calculus was very controversial – not only for the priority dispute between Newton and Leibniz. It was also controversial because it made no sense. Do you remember your dy/dx, and wondering what the dx and the dy mean? The derivative dy/dx tells you how much y changes compared to how much x changes. But what is this dx and this dy? They are supposed to represent really small changes in x and y. But how small? Really small – infinitesimally small – smaller than any positive number – and yet not zero.
Newton and Leibniz both had incredible intuitions about these things. They knew what they were doing, and knew how to use calculus – and yet they couldn’t quite express their theories in a sufficiently rigorous way to satisfy their colleagues. They were mocked for producing these inconsistent things which were infinitesimally small and yet not quite zero and if not quite zero but not any definite number more than zero then what? Their colleagues asked WTF.
Later, the ideas of calculus were put on a logically firm footing – today it’s on firm ground. This was largely done with the idea of limits – and today, at school, when you learn calculus, you learn about it via limits. This definition of the derivative, which you’ve hopefully seen, comes much later – it was not how Newton or Leibniz did it.
But if you’ve ever felt that the dy and the dx are really weird and what the hell is going on here and am I really getting the full story – then I applaud your scepticism and you are in excellent company and you can get the full story with further study – although it’s not an easy story and there’s a reason it’s left to university. There’s a whole world of mathematics that comes from considering these ideas further — and that mathematics is crucial in engineering and physics and much more.
Newton invented calculus, actually, not out of pure curiosity, but because he wanted to understand the motion of the planets. It was physics that motivated him. And he made enormous breakthroughs by applying calculus to the problem.
Calculus is an intellectual superpower. And today, everyone who learns calculus receives the benefit of this superpower. You all have the power to calculate how fast something is going merely from knowing its position as a function of time. Tell us where something is, and we can tell you where it is going. Nobody had that power until 300 years ago, and today it has become completely routine. Although the awesomeness of your superpower may become a little lost on you as you differentiate six hundred slightly different functions from your mathematics textbook.
And of course, our mathematical superpowers have grown enormously since the 17th century.
We now know how to use mathematics to see how matter bends space and time. We use mathematical superpowers to move gigabytes of information in mere seconds around the world – and yet invisibly, so that all you see of it is a cat video.
We use mathematical superpowers to encrypt our messages so that even if we broadcast our encrypted message to the world, put it on display, and even broadcast how we encrypted it, then all the computing power in the world is not enough to decode our message.
Mathematics can do all this, and we are still figuring things out.
I like to think of mathematics as a brain extension. Mathematics is a brain extension that allows you to solve some problems you never thought you could. And it’s being developed further all the time.
* * *
And that leads to a philosophical question, which you may have discussed in your theory of knowledge course. What is mathematical knowledge? Whatever it is, it’s a different type of knowledge to almost anything else.
When we say that 1+1=2, we’d say that’s a true statement. It’s not very controversial. That’s mathematical knowledge.
But if we said that 1+1=3, we’d be pretty well justified in saying it’s false. That’s not very controversial either. That’s also mathematical knowledge, a known falsehood.
And this truth and falsehood is in a kind of absolute sense.
And there are of course many other mathematical truths. That’s what mathematics consists of. All the mathematical theorems and facts you’ve learned at school so far are mathematical truths.
So let’s look at one piece of mathematical knowledge, which is really nice: Pythagoras’ theorem.
Remember what Pythagoras’ theorem says?
In a right angled triangle, the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.
Yes, but can you prove it?
Actually there are many many ways to prove Pythagoras’ theorem. It’s probably the most proved theorem ever. There are books consisting entirely of hundreds of different proofs of Pythagoras’ theorem. I’ll show you one of my favourites, which is similar to a one given by Bhaskara, an Indian mathematician who lived in the 12th century AD.
It’s a proof by animated GIF.
This animation I think shows really nicely what’s going on. Now to give a proof you should write an actual argument, and explain why when you swing the triangles around they make the arrangement shown. But that’s not too hard. I think you can get a lot out of this picture.
But I think, if you understand this picture – and you might have to stare at it for a while to fully understand it – then you will understand that the certainty with which we believe Pythagoras’ theorem to be true is a similar level of certainty as we believe that 1+1=2.
So this is another example of a mathematical proof – a type of knowledge which is arguably the most certain thing in the world.
* * *
So 1+1=2, Pythagoras’ theorem, and other mathematical theorems, all have this kind of absolute truth about them. The level of knowledge contained in them is very different from other statements.
Are there any statements outside of mathematics which have a similar status of absolute truth?
Well, there are facts about the world, which are pretty certainly true. There is a chair here, today is sunny, Donald Trump is the President-Elect of the United States. The last one may be hard to believe, but that doesn’t make it any less true. They’re all empirical facts.
Still, I wouldn’t say they quite have the same level of certainty as 1+1=2. We might debate what sunny means, about the technicalities of US elections. And we might be wrong about them. We say it’s sunny, but this is Melbourne, so it might spontaneously cloud over and rain in a few minutes. Perhaps it will be discovered tomorrow that there was a giant conspiracy to rig the US election. There are also more radical ways we could be wrong. Perhaps there is not in fact a chair here and my eyes are deceiving me. Perhaps I am hallucinating. Perhaps we are all hallucinating. Perhaps this is all a dream. All these things are very unlikely, but in a certain sense, not entirely inconceivable.
On the other hand, is it ever possible that 1+1=2 could be falsified?
Scientific facts and theories also have a very high status as knowledge. But even scientific facts and theories are falsifiable. In fact, this is the whole point of scientific theories: they should be able to be confirmed or disproved. Even the most well-established theories can turn out to be wrong. Newton’s theory of gravity works to a very high level of precision, but turns out it’s wrong – it was superseded by Einstein’s theory of relativity, which makes different predictions, and when they differ Newton is wrong and Einstein is right. Relativity might be superseded in due course. Every scientific fact is just as weak as the next experiment, and if the next experiment doesn’t agree with the theory, it could all come tumbling down.
But could you imagine that one day an observation will contradict 1+1=2, and that in fact it might turn out to be a tiny bit more than 2? Not really. It’s an interesting question why, and nailing down the certainty of mathematics is a topic which has occupied some of the greatest minds in mathematics and philosophy – people like Descartes, Bertrand Russell, and Kurt Gödel.
So there’s a certain sense in which mathematics is the most certain type of knowledge. One might even define mathematics as the thing that produces certain knowledge.
But the type of knowledge that you get from mathematics is limited. It can tell you many things about numbers, or polynomials, or geometry, but perhaps not so much about, say, morality, or justice, or a good life, or love. Perhaps it might contribute something, but not much.
Actually my favourite nerd-comic, XKCD again, has a good one about mathematics and love.
A mathematician has some tools that can be used to analyse many things. But alas, it doesn’t take you very far here. Although there is a recent book by Hannah Fry called “The Mathematics of Love”, which is lots of fun.
* * *
A related question is about what type of thing mathematics is. When the ancient Greeks wrote down the first proofs of Pythagoras’ theorem, were they inventing it, or discovering it?
With science, we speak of scientific discovery, not invention. We discover the law of gravity, or the laws of optics, or whatever. We don’t invent it. The law was already there; humans just figured it out.
When we speak of invention, we mean something that is made by humans, created by human ingenuity. We invent the steam engine, the transistor, the iPhone, and so on. The invention wasn’t there before; humans brought it into being.
When mathematicians prove new theorems, is it like discovering the law of gravity, or inventing the iPhone?
A lot of mathematicians, in describing how they solve problems and prove theorems, will talk about discovery rather than invention. Pythagoras’ theorem was true before they proved it; they just found a proof.
In that case, mathematics already exists. As we gain more knowledge about it, we discover it, just like the laws of nature.
If you’ve ever solved a hard maths problem, you might have had a feeling that everything finally made sense, that it all became clear, you finally “saw” it. And that kind of feels like you were discovering something, or finally seeing something clearly that was already there. Often in maths we find that there is a nice answer that “really” explains what’s going on – perhaps like that proof of Pythagoras we saw before. And then we talk about “finding” or “discovering” the solution, rather than inventing it.
This sort of approach is often associated with the ancient Greek philosopher Plato – and called Platonism. Platonism is then basically the view that abstract objects exist. When we say that 1+1=2, what are we saying? It seems that we are saying that there are numbers, 1 and 2, and when we add the 1 to itself we get 2. But then what are these things called numbers? The Platonist says that, you know what they are, they exist and they are ideal objects. They are not objects you can touch, but they exist just as well. They are not just in our minds. If there were no humans in the universe, or anyone to think it, it would still be true that 1+1=2. So, a Platonist would say, the numbers 1 and 2 exist.
And similarly, the Platonist would say, not just 1 and 2, but every single number exists. They are all mathematical things. Similarly, abstract triangles, sets, functions and so on all exist. Every abstract mathematical object exists.
So, that’s one view, Platonism.
A contrary, anti-Platonist view, which sometimes goes by the name of nominalism, is that no, there is no heaven somewhere containing all these objects. Where would it begin and where would it stop? Mathematics can think up all manner of abstract objects, and if all of them exist, eternally and regardless of whether we think of them, then this is just an enormous parallel universe littered with mostly useless abstract objects, all adding very little except confusion.
Well, fair enough, but then the nominalist has to answer the question: If 1 and 2 are not things that exist, then what are they?
So, suppose you’re asked to explain why 1+1=2. What do you say?
If you’re a normal person, you might say something like, when I have one thing and I put it together with another thing I get two things. If you do this, it’s pretty much a nominalist point of view. You’re not arguing that the numbers are pre-existing things. On this view, numbers are just a sort of generalisation – an abstraction from everyday observations. We made the generalisation a long time ago, probably in our infancy, from collections of objects, to numbers. On this view, numbers are just these really cool abstract ideas, ideas in our heads, useful to count things.
If you’re not a normal person but a mathematician, and you’re asked to explain why 1+1=2, then you might start by answering like the normal person, but if you’re pressed on the point, you might take a different tack. You might fall back on definitions. You might go back to a definition of 1, and a definition of 2, and a definition of addition and equals, and then explain why, when you put all these definitions together and make a few deductions, you get an explanation as to why the statement 1+1=2 is true. So the whole thing becomes a big exercise in definitions, and you have to make sure of what your definitions are and why they all fit together – and in the end, the whole thing is just a tautology. 1+1 = 2 because we defined 1 and 2 and + and = in such a way that 1+1=2 is true. This approach sometimes goes by the name of formalism, because it relies on formal definitions.
Now this might seem bizarre. Is it really possible to define the number 1? Is it possible to define addition? Aren’t these just the basic concepts in mathematics? And also, don’t you have to define things in terms of simpler things? How far back can you go? How simple is simple enough? Where does it all end?
Well many mathematicians have thought about this, and there are mathematicians who have devoted a huge amount of time to building mathematics up from the simplest of foundations. In the early twentieth century, two mathematicians thought about it a lot.
These two guys are Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. They were both leading mathematicians of the early 20th century. Russell was also a very famous philosopher and author and socialist and educator and peace activist and many other things – probably one of the most impressive human beings of the 20th century. He arguably literally saved the world during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, but that’s a whole other story.
These two mathematicians thought very long and hard about how to define mathematics from the very beginnings, from simple, obvious – even more obvious than 1+1=2 – propositions called axioms. And then to deduce the whole of mathematics from that.
They wrote an enormous series of books, 3 volumes, 2000 pages. It was called Principia Mathematica. There it is.
And in these 2000 pages they make every single definition and axiom and deduction absolutely clear and explicit. And eventually, they manage, after 700 pages or so, to prove that 1+1=2. Here’s the key part of the proof.
Well you can now relax.
You might wonder if these guys had anything better to do. Well, actually Bertrand Russell as I mentioned had lot of things of other things to do as well, but he thought this was at least as important!
So, anyway, if you asked me to explain why 1+1=2, and pressed the point, I would eventually point you back to this work of Russell and Whitehead – Principia Mathematica.
And this is really the modern approach in mathematics. A mathematician these days will often write their proofs by making formal definitions of whatever she’s talking about, and then deducing things about them. These objects might or might not relate to the real world; sometimes they do, and sometimes they do not. When they do that’s great; when they don’t, it’s not a great disappointment.
And that is roughly my view. I’m not a Platonist, I’m a nominalist, and a pretty formalist one when it comes down to it. But there are plenty of mathematicians who are Platonists. When you solve a maths problem, I would say, it might feel like you’re uncovering something from the Platonic heaven of universal ideas, but if you feel that way, I’d say that’s just because mathematics is a wonderful subject.
* * *
OK, well that’s all pretty heavy stuff.
Let’s talk about some actual living mathematicians. Most people don’t know any mathematicians alive today, so let me introduce you to a few leading ones.
This is Grigori Perelman. He won the Fields Medal in 2006. The Fields Medal is the maths equivalent of a Nobel Prize. He works in a field of mathematics not so far from my own. He is an interesting guy – friend of one of my PhD supervisors.
Anyway, Perelman solved one of the hardest outstanding problems about 3-dimensional space, called the Poincare conjecture, about 10 years ago. I’m not going to try to explain it to you here, but it’s a fundamental problem, but really hard, really fundamental, and there was actually a million dollar prize for anyone who could solve it. He solved it. He then got famous, was in the media a lot, and he didn’t like being paraded in the media. He decided that the community of mathematicians was corrupt, and turned down the million dollar prize. He currently, so far as I know, lives as a hermit with his mother in St Petersburg.
Mathematicians are often interesting characters.
Here’s another interesting character.
This is Edward Witten. He is a physicist, perhaps most famous for his work on string theory. But he also won the Fields medal, in 1990, because in doing physics he also did a lot of mathematics. And it’s mathematics which people are still trying to figure out, myself included. Perhaps you can think of what he’s doing, as like Newton or Leibniz with calculus in the 17th century. I read his papers and I have no idea what he’s talking about. Some mathematicians think Witten is sloppy, and talking a lot of nonsense. But then when it comes down to mathematical statements, and calculations, you tend to find out that he’s right. It’s incredible intuition which somehow almost transcends mathematics. By all accounts he’s a very nice guy, and an absolute machine. Is what he does mathematics? It’s not the traditional way of doing mathematics, and not all mathematicians think it is, but I think it is. Just like calculus was hard to digest back in those days, some of Witten’s work isn’t quite yet digestible as maths.
Ed Witten actually studied history at university. He got a degree in history. Then he dropped out of that and decided he wanted to do… economics. Then he dropped out of that too and worked in…. politics. He worked on a losing campaign. They he turned to… maths, but dropped out of that too. Finally he turned to physics. And today he’s probably the most influential physicist alive.
And here’s another famous mathematician.
This is Maryam Mirzkhani. She’s an Iranian mathematician, and another Fields Medallist. She works in a field, again, not so far from what I do. She is a great role model for women wanting to study science and mathematics.
* * *
Let me tell you about some of the things I do in my daily life as a mathematician.
As I said, I’m a lecturer at Monash Uni. So one thing I do is lecturing. I teach classes. I give lectures on mathematics. So if you come to Monash uni and study mathematics, you might be in one of my lectures. And if you go on to major in mathematics, you could take my course in differential geometry. If you go on to do honours in mathematics, I might end up teaching you topology. So that’s one thing I do, which is pretty good fun. At least it is for me! And for students, maybe, sometimes!
I also do mathematical research. I work in pure mathematics. As I’ve mentioned to you, as with the billiard balls, pure mathematical research is research that is done purely for its own intrinsic interest. It may have applications, or it may not; but we think it sufficiently interesting and important to develop new fundamental knowledge.
Mathematical research is like mathematical problem-solving, except you get to think up the problem as well as the answer. And if you solve a problem that nobody has ever solved, or even asked, before, then they have progressed human knowledge. And a lot of mathematics develops in this way.
So those are some of the things I do as a mathematician. But I’m not the only type of mathematician.
Many mathematicians also work on research which is much more applied. They tend to make a lot more progress than I do. They don’t beat their head against a wall with impossible problems like I do. Their research has direct practical applications and can affect people’s everyday lives.
Applied mathematics is often motivated by a concrete practical problem, and devising new practical solutions.
And there are many different types of applications. There are mathematicians who apply their mathematics to all sorts of things: chemistry, biology, data analysis, finance, transport, consulting, programming, economics, energy, engineering, government, health, insurance, meteorology, military, intelligence, logistics, biotechnology, teaching – of course, as your maths teachers do here – and much more. Maths is everywhere.
There are also many people who use maths as a large part of their job, but who may not actually call themselves “mathematicians”. They might be setting up mathematical models to simulate a practical situation. They might be making predictions based on such models. They might be running algorithms. They might be coding. They might be analysing data, or calculating statistics, or optimising a manufacturing process or transport network or energy flow. They’re all using maths to solve real world problems. Mathematical skills, and the creative logical thinking skills of mathematicians, are sought after by employers everywhere
So, maths is powerful. It can be used to do many things, and improve the power that we have to do things. It’s a superpower. Like all superpowers, it can be used to achieve all sorts of social ends, good or bad. It can be used to match up organ transplant recipients and save lives. It can be used in war to produce more efficient death. It can be used to optimise a transport network for maximum efficiency. It can also be used to optimise a coal mine for maximum extraction. It can be used to locate tumours and treat cancers. It can also be used to build bigger and more lethal weapons. It can be used to create a more equitable economic system. It can also be used to crash Wall Street.
It’s a big powerful thing, and like all science it can be used for all sorts of ends. I hope you enjoy it, and that you’ll put it to good use.
When the Goths sacked Rome, St. Augustine wrote the “City of God”, putting a spiritual hope in place of the material reality that had been destroyed. Throughout the centuries that followed St. Augustine’s hope lived and gave life, while Rome sank to a village of hovels. For us too it is necessary to create a new hope, to build up by our thought a better world than the one which is hurling itself into ruin. Because the times are bad, more is required of us than would be required in normal times. Only a supreme fire of thought and spirit can save future generations from the death that has befallen the generation which we knew and loved.
— Bertrand Russell, Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916)
Marx and Hegel remark upon the repeating phases of history. On the Eighteenth Brumaire (9 November) 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte seized power in France. Louis Napoleon did the same in 1851, and Marx wrote about the farcical character of the repetition. First as tragedy, then as farce, he said. Tragedy and farce and much more — with vastly greater consequences — have taken place on the Eighteenth Brumaire 2016.
History’s repetitions are not as cleanly tragedy then farce as Marx claims, but it does repeat, and it repeats each time with more tragedy and more farce. And economic development brings with each repetition more powerful technology, more powerful institutions, and greater means to inflict damage on the world.
It is surely true, as Marx wrote then, that people make their own history — voters vote for who they do with an intentional conscious choice — but they do not make it under self-selected circumstances. The circumstances are given and transmitted from the past — the heritage of left and right, of boom and bust, of global recessions and resentments and racism and nostalgia for supposed national glories. And so short are their memories, so influenced are they by the ideas and ideologies that infect culture and psychology, that history’s repeats carry increased tragicomic impact each time.
After the tragedy of Kennedy’s escalation of the Vietnam war and his near-destruction along with Kruschev of the world in the Cuban missile criss, came the carpet-bombing tragedy — enacted in farce, but not for the victims — of Nixon, merely one of whose crimes was to drop more bombs on Cambodia than the US did on Japan in the second world war. Then came the murderous menace of a terrorist and senile Reagan, the destruction of the threat of post-cold-war peace by Bush the Elder and Clinton, and the criminal invasion of Iraq, and more, by Bush the Younger. After eight years of war as usual by Obama, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria, and Libya, we now have a thin-skinned lying vindictive narcissist with his finger on the nuclear button.
* * *
Usually the character of a politician is the least of their problems. Discussion of candidates’ character is usually used to deflect attention from policies. In general most politicians will follow the agenda of their backers — lobbyists or their party. They might follow their party’s policies or the whims of their latest focus group — the usual cynical machinations. But their character is more or less irrelevant — the amount of overt lying may vary, but the outcomes not so much.
But with Trump it is different. The level of vindictiveness, the impossibility of compromise, the outright pussy-grabbing misogyny, the outright racism, the encouragement of violence, the twitter meltdowns, betray precisely the temperament that disqualifies a leader — if only because that sort of temperament of a man with his finger on the nuclear trigger augurs poorly for civilization.
But enough has been said about the disqualifying tendencies of Trump. By rights he should have been eliminated from the electoral field long ago. But enough voters wanted to burn the system down that they voted for him.
One generally hopes that conservative governments are incompetent; and the further right, the more incompetent. There is little one can ask or expect of a far-right leader, but at the very least one might hope that they be sane enough not to destroy the world as they destroy their political enemies. It is not at all clear whether this is true of Trump.
The traditions of all dead generations still weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Trump is too ignorant to know the half of it. But the worst of it still lives on in our culture, as racism, as xenophobia, feeding our resentments and, when exploited by politicians, when whipped up by media and — let us not assume voters have no agency — when chosen by voters, it creates monstrosities.
Who said that history has ended? It has just swung into the most unpredicable, dangerous waters since the 1930s.
* * *
Sometimes one wonders why people vote the way they do. Those who vote for the right, or the far right, may do so out of resentment, out of ideology, out of misogyny, out or racism, out of ideology, out of genuine conviction, the cult of personality, or out of a mere desire to burn the system down and root out the corrupt establishment. Surely all of these factors are present in Trump’s election. Those of us on the left will surely point to the failures of an economic and political system that have left the working and middle classes of an enormous nation with little to show for lifetimes of hard work and effort. The anger of voters at a decadently corrupt and self-serving system that crushes unions, destroys hope, depresses wages, and which at its best delivers a meagre improvement in health insurance coverage, is surely justified. We can hope that a half-decent left could win over such voters with a half-decent programme that at minimum restored some worker rights, delivered some improvements in health and welfare, alleviated extreme inequality, and stimulated jobs and growth. And perhaps it could have — polls suggest that Sanders would have done much better against Trump than Clinton did.
But the results do not indicate economic resentments as the only factor in Trump’s win. Trump’s support skewed towards higher income brackets, towards whites — the classic constituency of fascism. A majority of white female voters voted for him and against the first ever US major party female presidential candidate. All of this is speculation — little more than reading tea leaves — but there is no doubt that the ugliest sides of politics, stirring up the ugliest sides of human nature and of the not-so-distant past, have played a role too.
My own view is that human naure is simultaneously so dark and so good that almost any result is possible in varying circumstances. It can soar to the most beautiful heights of compassion and humanity; but also, there is no limit to how low it can go. Trump, carrying in his rhetoric, if not consciously, the dead weight of history’s far right — the fascists, the authoritarians, the segregationists, the slaveowners and yes also the Nazis, for he did not earn his neo-Nazi endorsements for nothing — has taken it to depths not seen in the West for a long time. The spectacle of the first African-American President handing over the keys to the White House to a KKK-endorsed candidate is nauseating, and the nausea is no less for the fact that Obama will likely do it with grace, while Trump clings to his hateful resentments.
* * *
Of course, such depths of depravity have never really gone away. They have been plumbed, conspicuously, by US governments continually for a long time — at least they are conspicious to those on the receiving end of foreign policy. Casual bombing of people and places far away from the US, but able to be regarded as sufficiently evil, terrorist, Muslim or crazy, is bipartisan and par for the course. Obama bombed seven countries and the US establishment never batted an eyelid, unless to berate him for being too weak. Whole provinces of Pakistan suffer trauma from random drone bombing death; liberals applaud Hillary Clinton’s sensible defence of such policies, indeed expansion of them with her more hawkish stance; conservatives rail as to why they are insufficient.
Talk about Clinton being a progressive or “liberal” candidate should never have been met with anything but derision. She was instrumental in creating the tragedy of Libya, which in turn established conditions for tragedies across the region. She would have provided much of the same as President, probably with slightly more death and destruction. Those depths would have remained well plumbed.
To be fair, some conflicts may well ease or even end under a President Trump. Relations with Russia might warm; life might become easier for Syrians. My understanding is that by and large Syrians would prefer Trump.
But the overall threat to the world of a Trump is vastly greater. Calls for carpet bombing, expanded torture and mass killing of “suspected terrorists” and their families means, if it is to be taken seriously, a vastly expanded war machine. The US military industrial complex is a killing machine constantly primed to bomb some enemy, and Trump will turn the machine up to a higher kill rate. One can hope that it is merely rhetoric, but the consistency of his advocacy of war crimes and international terrorism, combined with his macho aggression, reduce that to hope to a very slim one.
So let us not talk of a turn to savagery. The savagery has been present in US government policy for a long time, and there is no doubt it will continue. But while Clinton was bad and would have provided a predictably worse, outcome, Trump is completely unpredictable and irrational, and the worst outcomes under him are global catastrophes.
* * *
There will be enough finger pointing. Clinton was a terrible candidate, and part of the reason she lost was because she was so: more comfortable with bankers than ordinary workers, coldly cynical, no less corrupt than the rest of the system, and murderously hawkish, even as she genuinely pushed a slightly more progressive economic policy, together with gender equity and liberal feminism. She lost because she was a terrible candidate, but no doubt she also lost because she was a woman. Australians do not have to go far into the past to remember the incredible and irrational level of hatred displayed towards former Prime Minsiter Julia Gillard, in order to understand the misogyny directed at Clinton.
Clinton lost for many reasons, no doubt, including these and many others, that are impossible to untangle because every voter has their own mix of incoherent reasons for voting the way they did.
Sanders may have done better; polls seem to suggest he would have. Sanders pushed a mild form of social democracy; he garnered a following under the banner of the word “socialism” that one might have thought scarcely imaginable in the US. He probably would have done better because he also opposed the establishment. He probably would have done better because misogyny does not apply to him. Stein was a far better candidate again. And with a half-decent voting system, and a a half-decent chance at media airplay, who knows how far she might have gone. But all this speculation is of no use now.
The establishment may burn, and in that case good riddance. If the Democratic establishment, that at every turn undermined and sabotaged Sanders and his supporters, falls apart then that is no great loss.
No great loss, that is, as long as a serious and half-decent alternative can be built in its stead.
* * *
The left should be, of course, terrified at the prospect of a Trump presidency. But it should also be emboldened at the inroads made by a self-proclaimed socialist. In an alternative universe not so far from our own, a socialist might now have been the most powerful person in the world.
What is to be done? I can only offer my own thoughts, meagre as they are.
Here in Australia, we are not unaffected by the result. We are affected by US politics just like the rest of the world. And just like much of the rest of the world, we have our own strain of Trumpism, as it adapts to local conditions.
The Australian Labor Party has long possessed many of the worst tendencies of the Democratic Party: a decaying culture, disconnection from the grassroots and ordinary working people, corruption, moral cowardice, and a long historic retreat from the progressive values it was supposed to stand for. The Liberal Party has a faction no less conservative, no less ignorant, climate-denying, racist or misogynist than the Trumpists, to which the Prime Minister is beholden. And the far right of One Nation is newly empowered and welcoming Trump with open arms.
But Australia has already enacted some of the main planks of Trumpism. The equivalent of Trump’s wall with Mexico already exists in Australia, with cruel turnbacks of boats ensuring that all hope of refugees arriving safely in Australia is destroyed. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigration, a policy which also has significant support in Australia. And not even Trump has advocated holding refugees in offshore jurisdictions where they are sheltered from legal liability in conditions amounting to torture. Australia does it as a matter of course and it is accepted bipartisan pollicy.
If Australians want to fight Trumpism, the fight starts at home, against xenophobia, racism, sexism, and all the ugliness which in many ways is no better here than in the US. It also consists of a fight for better working conditions and against inequality, which is creating a divided country, even if not quite so starkly divided as the US.
If we are scared of an Australian version of Trump, the fight begins, in the short term, by taking on the cultural and economic pillars of support for the far right. It should underscore the urgency to close refugee camps on Nauru and Christmas Island, to redress historic wrongs against Aboriginal people, to promote progressive economic policy, and to stand steadfastly against xenophobes, racists, and misogynists.
But in the long term — not just in the US, not just in Australia, but everywhere — surely the task is the same as always: to build serious progressive left movements. The movements of the disaffected, of the oppressed, the marginalised, minorities, and all those crushed by racism, by capitalism, by sexism, need to build a serious infrastructure and a serious programme for a better world.
One might have thought that, faced with Trumpism, it was enough to not be as crazy as a Trump.
On 9 November 2016, the Eighteenth Brumaire of Donald Trump, we have learned that it is not.
Astronomy is the most humbling of the sciences.
It is humbling not only because of the reminders of our insignificance provided by the unfathomable depths of interstellar space, or the eons of time in which galaxies form. It is also humbling because, as we know, all stars die. Our sun, being no different, will die too, and our solar system with it, including our precious planet Earth and everything on it. (Indeed, the Earth will be enveloped by the sun and die its own death a rather long time before the sun dies.)
One can take several possible attitudes to this bleakest of certainties about the future.
Bertrand Russell, in his 1903 essay “A Free Man’s Worship”, took the view of unyielding despair.
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.
One must face the facts. When pressed to think of something really certain, a person will often say that it is certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. And it will; but what is equally certain is that one day it will not — there will be no day. There is no escape from the ineluctable slide into disorder, entropy, and the dusty, cold heat death of the universe.
Many years later, Russell in 1927 took a somewhat different view. His essay “Why I am not a Christian” broached the topic, and took an entirely different attitude of almost breezy nonchalance to this cosmic angst:
if you accept the ordinary laws of science, you have to suppose that human life and life in general on this planet will die out in due course: it is a stage in the decay of the solar system; at a certain stage of decay you get the sort of conditions of temperature and so forth which are suitable to protoplasm, and there is life for a short time in the life of the whole solar system. You see in the moon the sort of thing to which the earth is tending—something dead, cold, and lifeless.
I am told that that sort of view is depressing, and people will sometimes tell you that if they believed that they would not be able to go on living. Do not believe it; it is all nonsense. Nobody really worries much about what is going to happen millions of years hence. Even if they think they are worrying much about that, they are really deceiving themselves. They are worried about something much more mundane, or it may merely be a bad digestion; but nobody is really seriously rendered unhappy by the thought of something that is going to happen to this world millions of years hence. Therefore, although it is of course a gloomy view to suppose that life will die out — at least I suppose we may say so, although sometimes when I contemplate the things that people do with their lives I think it is almost a consolation — it is not such as to render life miserable. It merely makes you turn your attention to other things.
And this would, it seems to me, be the view of the average practical person, who needs to get on with their life and, even if they are not soothed by the temptingly comforting delusions of religion, have quite enough to worry about in the next few hours or days, and anything on a cosmological timescale is entirely outside their purview.
I cannot accept this view. The argument that we should not think about the bleakest and darkest facts of our existence, simply because they are far away, is in essence no different than the argument that we should ignore other uncomfortable facts about the world, merely because they are remote from everyday considerations. The non-existence of god, the loneliness of individual consciousness, faraway victims of war, or the uninhabitable climate left to future generations — all these are cause for despair, and yet we are superficial, or at least incomplete as human beings, if we do not consider them.
The world is there to be faced. We do better to look it square in the face and understand it for what it is, than to shy away and live an unexamined life. Indeed, another quote of Russell’s seems to be appropriate here:
The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.
Perhaps as a matter of practical advice, for everyday cheer and a sunny (pardon the pun) disposition, one can justify a wilfully blind attitude. But from the point of view of one who wants to understand the world fully, live in it fully, one cannot.
And that brings us to the extraordinary poem “On living” by the Turkish communist poet Nazim Hikmet. (This reading by Chris Hedges is stirring, but this version, in the original Turkish, with orchestral accompaniment, is beautiful.)
Concerning himself with the question of how to live, Hikmet, writing in 1948, dedicates the final stanza to the death of the world:
This earth will grow cold,
a star among stars
and one of the smallest,
a gilded mote on blue velvet—
I mean this, our great earth.
This earth will grow cold one day,
not like a block of ice
or a dead cloud even
but like an empty walnut it will roll along
in pitch-black space . . .
You must grieve for this right now
—you have to feel this sorrow now—
for the world must be loved this much
if you’re going to say “I lived”. . .
[This is roughly the text of my story of Bertrand Russell, given at The Laborastory, a monthly science storytelling event in Melbourne. In the interests of brevity and entertainment, I took a little licence; but a little stretch can sometimes yield a greater truth.]
I would like to thank the organisers of the Laborastory, for their love of science, and bringing it to the people; the Spotted Mallard, for their love in hosting it; and I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and pay respect to their elders past and present.
Well, I’m here to talk about Bertrand Russell. It’s an impossible task. Because this is a man who really lived half a dozen lives. He was a mathematician, a philosopher, an educationalist, a social critic, a best-selling author – he was a towering figure of humanity in the 20th century. Since we’re at the laborastory, not the philoso-story or many other o-stories, I’m going to focus on Russell the mathematician. Hopefully my omissions aren’t completely unforgiveable.
* * *
Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 into the upper reaches of the British aristocracy; his grandfather had twice been Prime Minister of Britain. But his parents died before his fourth birthday and he was brought up by his puritanical grandmother. She would not entrust her grandson’s education to a school, and so young Bertrand was educated by governesses and tutors. He learned fast. And he fucking loved mathematics.
But the most crucial component of grandmother’s curriculum was religion, and she refused to entrust the teaching of that subject to anyone but herself. Her theology was old-school fire and brimstone.
Her indoctrination however did not quite have the desired effect. Instead, it pushed an inquiring young mind into a lifelong attitude of scepticism. Teenage Bertrand Russell kept a secret diary – not about girls, because he didn’t know any – but about the nature of the soul, human mortality, and similarly uplifting matters. It was complete heresy to grandma, so he wrote it in Greek.
Doubting the certainties of religious faith, Russell developed an overwhelming desire to know what can be known with certainty. And this desire drove him to mathematics.
In mathematics, there is a sort of certainty. One plus one really is two. Mathematical statements can be proved. And mathematical proofs are true by sheer force of logic.
These days, the only contact most people have with the notion of mathematical proof is in year 8 or 9 geometry. You may remember being made to explain such things as why two triangles were similar; this was called a “proof”. The intention may have been for you to appreciate the certainty of mathematical proof, but the effect in practice is much more heartwarming – it brings students together with a topic they can all hate in unison.
Luckily, Russell did not learn his geometry from the year 9 curriculum. He convinced his brother Frank to explain it to him. And in those days they learnt geometry old-school, from the ancient Greek text, Euclid’s Elements.
It’s full of amazing theorems and ingenious deductions, but Euclid has to begin somewhere. He begins from axioms – basic starting assumptions, which are supposed to be completely obvious, things that no person would question. Or, no sane person would question.
Of course Russell questioned them.
Exasperated, Frank declared that if Bertrand did not accept the axioms then he could not go on.
Bertrand was not happy. He would come back to that later, with a vengeance.
But for now he relented. Because geometry made his miserable youth bearable. At the depths of his despair, he contemplated suicide. He wrote, “I did not, however, commit suicide, because I wished to know more mathematics.”
That is possibly the only time in the history of the world anybody has thought that thought.
* * *
Eventually Russell left for Cambridge and a stellar academic career. But he had forged a habit of solitary, deep thought, developing strong opinions and ideas – always logically watertight, usually brilliant, sometimes eccentric, occasionally insane. As he wrote,
[t]hought is subversive and revolutionary … merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits… anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages.
Well, Russell certainly was. And as a naturally gifted writer, and general troublemaker, he eventually published his ideas on pretty much everything he thought about.
Even when his views were controversial or outrageous. Especially when his views were controversial or outrageous. Because those questions are often the most important, and he was absolutely fearless.
For instance, he was to become known as a notorious atheist for his incendiary essay “Why I am not a Christian”, and an unorthodox socialist for his book “Roads to Freedom”, examining the best social system for a good society.
Perhaps surprisingly, the vast majority of his writing still stands up pretty well today. Not all, to be sure. But his provocations have often become our common sense – and often, in part at least, because he argued so effectively.
Take, for instance, the First World War. When the war came Russell campaigned against it tirelessly, giving speeches and writing pamphlets – eventually losing his job and going to jail for it. It was not to be the only time.
But his arguments today seem positively tepid. Britain’s alliances were unwise, and should stay out of it, he said. Today it’s common sense, even inadequate. But back then, it was enough to see him suffer criminal prosecution.
Except, “suffer” is not quite the right word.
Russell was elated to face prosecution. Finally he’d discharged his moral responsibilities and could get some maths done.
But he was disappointed. The magistrate deciding his case was far too reasonable. He was sentenced to only 6 months jail.
Imprisonment is, of course, not very pleasant. But Russell had reading and writing privileges, provided he didn’t mention the war. This suited him perfectly, as he had been neglecting other topics like mathematics. And it gave him an opportunity to mix with his fellow prisoners, who he found were no worse than the rest of the population, although, he wrote,
they were on the whole slightly below the usual level of intelligence, as was shown by their having been caught.
In six months jail he read two hundred books and wrote two.
* * *
Now for mathematics, the turn of the 20th century was a period of unbridled optimism. To many mathematicians like the German David Hilbert, it seemed that soon it would be possible to apply mathematical logic, mechanically, to answer any mathematical question. Mathematics could become an infinitely powerful machine.
Others, like the French mathematician Henri Poincare, thought human understanding and intuition played the central role in mathematics. Poincare hated the thought of his beautiful French mathematical culture reduced to Hilbert’s German sausage machine.
But history appeared to be on Hilbert’s side. Logicians like George Boole – he of the Boolean search – Gottlob Frege, and Georg Cantor, had shown that much of mathematics could be mechanised, reduced to pure logic, and sets.
Today, mathematicians still love the joy of sets.
Russell did too. He dug into the foundations of mathematics – and what he found broke the foundations and destroyed it all.
What did he do? He discovered a paradox, now known as Russell’s paradox.
Let me try to explain it.
I invited some friends here tonight. I told them about this great event and said they should come along. Some time later, I wasn’t sure if they’d booked themselves a table.
So, I told them, if you haven’t booked a table, I’ll book one for you.
I said, I will book a table for everyone who doesn’t book a table themselves.
And then I felt very pleased with myself, as I usually forget about all this kind of practical stuff and then panic at the last minute.
But then I thought – hang on a minute. Should I book myself a table?
Well, I was to book a table for everyone who doesn’t book a table themselves.
So if I don’t book myself a table myself, then I should book a table for myself.
And if I do book a table for myself, then I shouldn’t have.
I was stuck in a terminal loop. I do if I don’t and I don’t if I do.
At this point, thankfully the Laborastory organisers emailed me and resolved my ineptitude by telling me that actually there is a separate speakers’ table.
But in mathematics there are no organisers to resolve your ineptitude.
Russell’s paradox is, in essence, the Laborastory table-booking paradox. Russell just wrote it in the language of sets. A set in mathematics is just a collection of objects, which could be anything – numbers, letters, your missing socks. A set can also contain other sets. You could even have the set of all sets. A set can even contain itself. Russell said to consider a particular set – the set of all sets which do not contain themselves.
Russell asked: Does this set contain itself?
I leave that question for you to discuss over your next beer. You will probably get a headache.
Even if your head doesn’t explode, well, set theory does in fact explode with this paradox and, sets being a foundational idea in mathematics, the whole of mathematics falls apart.
Mathematicians were devastated by this discovery. Russell’s colleague Frege had just finished his book claiming to reduce mathematics to logic. Upon hearing the news, he was forced to add one of the most abjectly sad appendices in scientific history, admitting that his magnum opus was actually completely flawed and could not work.
* * *
Speaking of things which are completely flawed and cannot work, Russell gained greatest notoriety not for his work on mathematics, or philosophy, but… marriage.
Russell wrote a book, Marriage and Morals, in which he argues for birth control, liberalised divorce laws, and gender equality. By the standards of contemporary feminist theory, it’s pretty tame. But that is only because it’s now common sense.
All respectable opinion was outraged.
At the time, he was about to teach a class in formal symbolic logic at the City University of New York. A mother of a student, fearing her daughter’s indoctrination into – perhaps enjoying sex? – by taking this class from a, quote, “lecherous erotomaniac”, sued the university. He was promptly dismissed.
If you’ve ever doubted the allure of formal symbolic logic, bear this in mind.
* * *
But, back to mathematics. Having ruined it for everyone, Russell, together with his colleague Alfred North Whitehead, tried to put it back together. Their project was to start over from the very beginning, and build up, step by step, without paradox, the mathematics that we all know and love. Well, that some of us know and love.
The result was the 2000-page 3-volume work, Principia Mathematica. It took them 10 years and, being written mostly in formal logic symbols, it looks like alien hieroglyphics.
The scale of the work is awe-inspiring. It might inspire other thoughts too, like, yawning, “WTF is this Klingon poetry?”, or admiration at the sheer bloody-minded persistence.
The high point comes after 360 pages, when they prove a stunning result: 1 + 1 = 2. That’s right, it takes them 360 pages to prove 1 + 1 = 2. You can now set your mind at rest.
Every academic library in the world has a copy of Principia Mathematica. I don’t think anyone has ever read it all the way through.
* * *
Russell was exhausted after writing the Principia. He’d had enough of mathematics. He wrote that
In universities, mathematics is taught mainly to men who are going to teach mathematics to men who are going to teach mathematics to… Sometimes, it is true, there is an escape from this treadmill. Archimedes used mathematics to kill Romans, Galileo to improve the [Tuscan] artillery, modern physicists to exterminate the human race. It is usually on this account that… mathematics is commended… as worthy of State support.
Accordingly, much of his subsequent work was devoted to promoting peace and nuclear disarmament. The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation still exists today. Its reports are still worth reading and still ignored by the mainstream.
Russell had one joint publication with Albert Einstein. It was a manifesto on the abolition of nuclear weapons. But it wasn’t in an A* journal, so it would count for nothing today.
He lived so long – 98 years – that he saw his most of his opinions on sex, marriage and war become mainstream. He won a Nobel Prize – but not for anything I’ve been talking about tonight – in literature. Did I mention he also wrote a monumental History of Western Philosophy? Or arguably literally saved the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis? Such were his accomplishments that, in a talk of this length, saving the world must be a mere footnote. As I said, there’s a lot more which, alas, I don’t have time to share.
In the end he became respectable. He was never happy about this.
* * *
Let me finish by saying something about the legacy of Russell and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.
There is actually at least one person who read it cover to cover: Kurt Godel, upstart logician.
Godel noticed that Russell and Whitehead had missed a crucial point. They had assumed that what is true, and what is provable, are the same.
But they are not. Godel showed there are mathematical statements which are true, but which cannot be formally proved. Basically, he showed that mathematics can never be a sausage machine.
It is still, however, too much of a sausage fest, unfortunately.
Others wondered what could actually be done with the formal procedures and logic developed by Russell and others. A young man named Alan Turing made machines to do them, now known as computers. They were used to assist war, then to assist business, and finally, today they are used to watch cat videos. I think Russell would probably have approved of this progression.
A new UN report details how for every person in Australia, nearly 80 tonnes of materials are extracted each year. But a few of us we change our light bulbs, recycle some of our waste, and feel better about it.
For every person in Australia, over 40 tonnes of materials are consumed each year. We extract far more than we consume. But even the half that we consume is enormous. No doubt it is also very unequal.
Much of that extracted material ends up in China and every countries. But for every person in China, only 17 tonnes of materials are consumed each year.
In its extraction and consumption of pure material, Australia far surpasses even the United States. There, no more than 25 (and currently less than 20) tonnes of materials are extracted, per person, each year. And consumption is around 20 tonnes per person.
Australia is a superpower in the pure volume of materials extracted, processed, put through the system, turned into throughput, and consumed, whether in the form of household consumption, or in industry.
Among those seriously concerned about climate change, there is a long-running debate about decoupling. It is clear that all the rich countries have economies whose sheer use of resources, materials, throughput, are so vast and so destructive to the environment, with such a climate footprint, that they must completely reorient their resource and energy usage — and urgently. By urgently, we mean that to avoid catastrophe it should be done within negative five years. The arithmetic becomes more drastic each year, so that even to do it by pure state enforcement — utmost efforts, the economy on a war footing, transition implemented by force of law — may not be enough to avoid the 1.5+ degree catastrophe.
But this still leaves the question as to what the desired economy should be. The question is: Is it sufficient to switch to renewable energy, and reorient our economy towards a rational use of energy and resources? Such an economy is quite possibly institutionally incompatible with capitalism, but this is at least what is needed. Or, is it necessary to go further, and to reverse economic growth, and head towards a steady-state or degrowth economy?
That is, the principal question in responding to climate change is whether it is sufficient to reject capitalism, or whether we must reject the idea of economic growth altogether. The politics demanded by the climate situation are that stark, and have been that way for many years. The conservative position is to overthrow capitalism; the radical position is to overthrow the conventional measure of standard of living and, instead of seeking to increase it, seek to decrease it as fast as possible.
Robin Hahnel, the anti-capitalist economist, for instance, takes the conservative position. Once energy comes from renewable sources, so that climate impact is under control, and sustainable, then growth is still possible, if it derives from intangible or less-tangible or at least less-climate-impactful goods. On this, I tend to agree, though I am not sure that the less-impactful goods can be provided in sufficient quantity to provide growth.
But when one looks at the sheer mass and volume of materials extracted, shipped, processed and consumed around the world — the 40 tonnes of materials consumed for each Australian each year — it is hard to imagine a sustainable future which does not rapidly decelerate this maelstrom of coal, metal, concrete, bitumen, oil, gas, and war.
And that amounts, at least, to a severe degrowth of a particular type — the type that is built of bricks and mortar, shipyards and railroads, family homes, blue collars, and American apple pie. Which is all another way of saying that a radically different economic system is the very first thing a sustainable economic future demands.
Sometimes the choices are easy. And for the short and medium term they are. Green jobs and the war economy of a war on fossil fuels will provide employment, aggregate demand, excitement, initiative, innovation, science, technology, adventure, purpose, and an historically rare sense of literally building a better world with our own bare hands. But sometimes they are not.
In the long run, the choices are not easy. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that once the wind turbines, the solar panels and the smart networks cover the globe, capitalism faces crises and a choice between throughput, catastrophic warming, and minimally acceptable levels of employment on the one hand, or crisis, poverty, feudal inequality, and unrest on the other. For those who care about the long term prospects of civilization, the only way out is a radically different system.
The year is 2016. It is the future. Incredible technology exists. It is feasible for all human knowledge to be available to every person at an instant. It is feasible to run all of human civilization on a sustainable basis. It is feasible, technologically, as it has never been before, for advanced civilization to run for a million years. It is feasible technologically, as it has been for a long time, for human society to exist without hunger, poverty, and war. It is even feasible to satisfy all human needs and almost all (maybe all) material desires, with a minimal burden of toil.
We have won. We have triumphed. From here on the technological questions are mere improvements, icing on the cake, and the engineering questions are mere practicalities; as to the possibility of the above, there is really no question.
It is entirely possible now to banish to the annals of pre-modern barbarism all the accumulated damage of the history of the world. Old petty divisions and sectarianisms need not exist. Ancient moral codes of honour, shame and violence can be discarded for tolerance, dignity, autonomy, solidarity, community, diversity, freedom, and justice. The root causes of most human problems can dry up and wither, and flowers may bloom in their place.
Human life will never be perfect; human life will never be without suffering. The pangs of lost love, thoughts in old age of what one’s life might have been, the knowledge of mortality, the contemplation of non-existence, disease, decay, and death — and jealousy, bitterness, anger, quarrels, and the full spectrum of human emotional life when fully lived — the mystery of the universe, our place in it, how it works, our conscious selves — all these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life will never be without these. (Though perhaps some optimistic transhumanists, biologists and physicists might even disagree on some of these.) Existential drama will never cease as long as we exist. But the drama of material poverty, of stunted human development, of resource depletion, of ignorance, of civilization powered by sickening, polluting, dirty fossil fuels — all these can, at least as a matter of technology and engineering, be avoided. In this regard, we really have won, as much as it is possible to win.
There have been past eons of more or less indefinitely sustainable living — epochal climate change, meteor strikes, and supernovae aside. And there have been past eons of peace. There have even been, to some extent, past eons of human societies that were sustainable and, relatively speaking, at peace. But there has not been a human society that had the capacity to do all that, simultaneously with advanced technology, material comfort, and instant total knowledge.
Until now. That possibility exists now. Possibly it existed a decade ago; but renewable energy technology has developed so quickly that we can now say “now” without hesitation.
The future is bright. And yet, it is not. It is terribly, tragically, world-shatteringly not.
But it is only social structures — more specifically, political, economic and cultural structures — that lie in its way. By now everybody recognises the crisis of capitalism, and increasingly many understand the need for a new system. It is the economic system that prevents goods from going where they need to go. And it is increasingly recognised how intractable the problems are, within the present system.
There are a million pressing needs in the present. Wars are continuing right now. Carbon emissions are increasing right now. New coal mines and power plants are being built. Rising carbon, rising sea levels, rising temperatures, warming seas, dying coral, extreme weather. Mass extinctions. Nuclear proliferation. Ethnic violence. Failed states. Marginalisation, dispossession, incarceration, violence against women, poor, black, brown, queer, trans, indigenous, disabled people. Hunger. Unemployment. Precarious employment. Demeaning, soul-crushing, underpaid, sweatshop employment. Religious hatred and extremism. Nationalist hatred and extremism. Anti-religious warmongering. Drone murders. Unregulated weapons exports. War crimes. Impunity. Refugee outpourings. Xenophobia. Media misinformation. Total government surveillance, surveillance capitalism, collecting it all. Governments that treat the governed like mushrooms: kept in the dark, fed shit. Dissent criminalised; whistleblowers demonised and prosecuted. Militarised, racialized, brutal policing. Mass shootings. Domestic violence. Deregulations. Privatisations. IP stealing knowledge from the commons. Defunding of health, education, welfare institutions. Tax breaks for the rich. Trade treaties for multinational corporations. Corporate capture of the state. Unregulated corrupt political donations. Abyssal gap between rich and poor. The 1%. A financialised, Ponzi economy. Mass unpayable debt. International financial markets holding governments to ransom. Greece crushed. Occupation of Palestine. Coup in Brazil. ISIS. Putin in Russia. Authoritarian China. Obama a terrorist on Tuesdays. Trump in the US. Erdogan in Turkey. The House of Saud. EU collapsing. NATO aggressing. Unions in decline. Social democracy in decline. Neoliberalism ascendant. Fascism rising. How many fronts are there to fight on?
And it will continue, it will feed back on itself, it will worsen, if nothing is done.
But the only lasting solution, to at least some of these, is, at least, a new system, a wholesale change in how our society is organised and run — political, economic, cultural. But it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.
And yet the future is so close. We have to imagine it, and create it. Despite the poverty of our imagination, it is almost within our grasp. What could it look like? How could things be? These are the questions we must ask, and the answers we must create.
Meanwhile, in the forsaken and privileged south-east corner of the globe, an election will take place shortly for who is to govern 0.3% of the planet’s population. The major issues are whether a tax loophole favouring the rich should be closed; the appropriate degree of shame for politicians to make use of said loophole; and whether an actor in a political advertisement about said tax loophole is genuinely a tradesman. On the fringes, there are occasional murmurs that the gulag archipelago created to punish a tiny fraction of the world’s suffering refugee population, fleeing war and persecution, should be wound down; but such suggestions are largely ignored, drowned out of sight, along with the refugees, by three-word slogans.
Of all the things, this is what our system concerns itself with. This is our current incarnation of democracy. It is time for a new one.
Electoral politics in Australia. The mere thought of it makes me want to gnaw my arm off.
Actually, this thought is not confined to Australia. With one or two exceptions – but not many (and then, only perhaps) – it applies to the entire world.
We can take the humorous approach, and think about which clowns will best populate this circus. And it is a circus. It is a zero-ring circus under a far-too-big tent, whose antics are occasionally hilarious but almost always harmful. If only most of the people who populate it could go home and perform their shenanigans in the privacy of their own home!
The humorous approach to electoral politics is fun, but bad. These clowns are not funny; this is no laughing matter. We should take it seriously. Elected politicians are the ones entrusted with power in our system, and the clowns we elect become abusive clowns with power.
Moreover, it is an inaccurate approach. It is far too kind to refer to members of Parliament as mere clowns. They may behave like clowns in their role as politicians and parliamentarians, but mere clowns do not do harm. The Australian government regularly does harm, whether to asylum seekers, Aboriginal communities, the disabled, LGBT people, poor people, sick people, people on the receiving end of foreign policy, people on the receiving end of climate change – people in general.
I’ve long been of the view that real social change is best pursued outside of electoral channels. Channeling political activity into electoral channels constrains it, turns it into a vote-winning game, clouds issues with personalities, forces it into the system, weakens it, draws it towards the status quo.
As far as I’m concerned, one usually does better to work for social change outside the electoral realm. If we push institutions in a progressive direction, win over people, change their minds, spread good ideas, establish our own good institutions, and advance on matters of principle, we achieve lasting change. And this change will be reflected within electoral politics, because the people have changed, and vote-seeking politicians will go along with them.
Of course, the matter is not a simple one, as with anything in human affairs. At this level of generality one can say little. Electoral parties are certainly not equally bad, and some are certainly more harmful than others. Sometimes historical, economic and political circumstances are such as to make major gains possible through purely electoral means. Sometimes exceptional personalities appear on the electoral stage and are able to break through the impasse of electoral two-party sclerosis. Sometimes the circumstances may be such as to make a strategic intervention in electoral politics possible and desirable.
But it will not surprise many to assert that this political system is bad.
For one thing, it’s bad in principle. Not the fact that it is democratic — that is good. It’s the fact that it is barely democratic, and reduced to a façade of democracy, that is bad. The idea that we should entrust all power to party apparatchiks for several years at a time is nauseating. The fact that we have no power over our own affairs except to, once every 3 years, number a ballot paper ranking politicians from least to most bad is highly undemocratic, technologically backward and historically outmoded. That it’s done on a geographic basis (in the lower house at least, which determines the government), with many seats clearly one way or the other, so that most votes will not make the slightest difference, makes its effectiveness negligible. And the fact that we are constantly reminded that this is a supposedly wonderful democratic system — and expected not only to accept it, but to celebrate it — is patronising and demeaning. It is bad as a matter of principle — so bad that the task of finding a better system is an urgent one, merely as a matter of political morality.
There is also the small matter that the current Australian representative-democratic system takes no account of the fact that it was established illegitimately on the land of sovereign Aboriginal peoples, and will remain so until some form of treaty or sovereign agreement regularises the situation.
But even worse than all this — and it is very bad — is the way those institutions play out in practice. Large parties form; they become bureaucratic and oligarchic; they build a machine, factionalised, beholden, compromised. They attract sycophants, egomaniacs, social climbers, backstabbers, people who desire power rather than justice. Those who rise to the top are usually the worst. The parties as institutions may be founded on a set of principles, or to represent certain classes or interests, but they become machines to harvest, deliver, and manipulate votes. Having achieved power by winning enough votes, they seek to maintain power. They value votes over principle. They value power over principle. They will compromise on anything to win votes. They require financial resources to do so — and take money from powerful vested interests, compromising themselves further in the process. The party becomes more corporate, and corporations capture the party. In the end, the party privileges whatever they can use to their electoral advantage over anything that matters, and their agenda is the agenda of the status quo.
Not just one, but multiple parties — with all these faults, to a greater or lesser degree — arise and compete. The worse they are, the more attuned they are to the prejudices of the electorate, the better they are at distracting people from the most important issues, the best they are at manipulating emotions to their advantage, the better they perform. There are many exceptions, and in certain times and places there may be parties which are electorally successful by being highly principled — but if there is no external pressure to constrain them, such as a powerful extra-parliamentary activist or union movement, they will eventually become complacent.
The parties which are the best at this game — and therefore the worst — compete and compromise and adjust until they can win, until they can cobble together enough votes through a combination of class interest, voter inertia, policy, prejudice, demagoguery, fearmongering, vindictive attacks on the other side, and emotional manipulation. The other party does the same, until a stable equilibrium emerges, and the two parties compete on the margin. (In some countries it may be more than two.) They gravitate to their mutual centre. Like any commercial duopoly, they compete by minor adjustments to their policies, by attacking each other, by racing to the bottom. They aim for the 51st percentile from the left or right. They discard any coherence in their policy or (gasp!) philosophy in the process. They forget what ideas they are supposed to represent. Their whole purpose and meaning revolves around defeating the other team and taking power to — do what again? No matter, the corporate backers and think-tanks will fill in those details. They have power, they win the prize, and the rest does not matter.
Although we describe it as a race to the bottom, there is no bottom. We may speak of hitting rock bottom, but the rock is never there. Bitter experience shows that there is no depth which will not be plumbed in this process. We accelerate to negative infinity. We fall into a black hole.
Meanwhile, the electorate disengages. At best, politics becomes at best another sports match to discuss: we can opine on the various teams’ tactics and skills, and their latest results. At worst, it becomes an a subject of active aversion. We usually just vote however our parents did. We would rather gnaw our arms off than seriously engage with this nonsense. And rightly so.
But there are positive ways to engage.
Not all parties are so bad. The ones that are less bad, or even good, are usually those further from power. As parties get closer to power they will likely face the same process of degeneration, but in the meantime they can be worth supporting. In voting, we do not need to say how good each party is; we only need to say which is the least bad among them.
But that doesn’t mean we should never get involved with electoral parties; indeed I’ve done so myself. Without good people inside the parties, they will be even worse. There is much work to be done inside and outside political parties to try and keep them honest, keep them progressive, keep them from compromising principle in the name of power. Against the institutional pull of the system it may, over the long term, be a losing struggle, but that does not mean it is useless. If the party’s stance affects government policy, it affects people’s lives.
More importantly, we can recognise that politics is about far more than elections. Social change is a process which is affected by election, but it also affects elections. If we can work — however we think best, however best fits our skills and talents — to uphold, to promote, and to realise just social principles and institutions, then we can simply do it ourselves, along with our friends, colleagues, and communities. No matter how large or small — we should do what we are able. For much of the work that needs to be done, there is no need for an intermediary.
That sounds nice, of course. The reality is not quite so nice. It is not enough for every good citizen to be engaged in local issues, while horrendous politicians at the national level let the world burn. At the very least, whatever we do politically, we should do it with a view to how it affects the system as a whole, and have an idea about larger strategy and how our actions it into it. The system is bad, it is entrenched, and it is leading us towards multiple disasters. We need to stop it; but we cannot let it stop us.
In the meantime, there are elections occasionally. So we can take some time out from real politics once every few years to rank the parties best to worst, and then get back to the task of changing society — including those parties, and the system in which they operate — for the better.
That way, at least, I won’t have to gnaw my arm off.
An interesting scholarly article appeared in the journal Studies in Higher Education in February of this year, by Jennifer Chubb and Richard Watermeyer. It investigates some aspects of the research funding system in the UK and Australia.
Give any research academic in Australia today (or the UK, or well, anywhere) a few minutes to vent about their job and you will most likely hear a tirade about grants — whether the writing of research grant applications, the application process, the chances of success, who and what tends to succeed, the pressures universities exert on researchers to obtain them, or any aspect of the related culture.
Well, come to think of it, there might be tirades against many possible things. The university universe is not short on tirades or things to tirade against.
While anyone in the academic world will be very familiar with the standard grievances — and it would take far too long to attempt to make a list — they are grievances usually only aired in private.
What is good about this article is that it uses the medium of a research article to air the views of academics, suitably anonymised, in public. The focus is on a particularly problematic aspect of the process of research funding in Australia and the UK: impact statements.
To quote the article,
In both UK and Australian funding contexts… the perceived merit of a research funding application is now linked to the capacity of the applicant to prescribe convincing (pathways to) research impacts, or more specifically, credible statements of how they will ensure economic and/or societal returns from their research… ‘Impact Statements’ … demand that academics demonstrate an awareness of their external communities and how they will benefit from the proposed research… [and] require that academics demonstrate methodological competency in engaging with their research users, showing how research will be translated and appropriated in ways that most effectively service users’ needs.
On its face, it looks like a good idea: any research asking for public money must make some attempt to justify its effect on society. And that doesn’t just look like a good idea, it is a good idea.
However, most research — including especially most important and worthy research — has zero-to-infinitesimal direct impact on society — or at least very little that can be explained in the few sentences of the word limit to create an “impact”. There are certainly areas that do have direct impact: most medical research; some (but not all) climate research; some renewable energy research; some biotechnology and nanotechnology research, and so on. But of course, that research with the most immediate direct economic or commercial impact is already funded by private capital and does not need public funding. Most research is much slower, uncertain, slowly and methodically working towards a long-term scientific or scholarly goal — with occasional surprises and breakthroughs.
But what impact statements, and the associated culture, demand are not accurate stories with all the complexity of scientific understanding, research programmes, educated guesswork and careful methodology that sensible research requires. That would take too long. Boring! We want impact. In a few words. Major impact. High velocity. Boom. That’s what we’re looking for. And that’s just not how research works.
Alas, simply saying that your research makes the world a better place by improving its store of important scientific and scholarly knowledge, and making society better because by supporting this research the society becomes the kind of society that supports this kind of research, is much too subtle for the politics of the situation to allow. Rather, the politics of the situation make the impact statement into a crude sales pitch.
Thus, we have a situation where, in the principal public statements made to support scientific and scholarly research, the predominant, sufficient and principal good reason for the public to support scientific and scholarly research is out of the question — it is inexpressible. It is also, in effectively preventing full justifications from being aired (at least where it counts), a scientific version of the censorship by concision so familiar in mainstream media.
How would, say, Euler have written an impact statement for his research into, say, analysis? The impact of theorems which gradually improve mathematical understanding, over decades and centuries, to the point where they enable breakthroughs in other sciences, engineering, or technology, is impossible to quantify. Even for those parts of Euler’s research which have had major, definite and decisive impact, like Euler’s theorem in number theory central to RSA encryption, the idea that Euler could have had any inkling of this application, over 200 years later, is laughable. Even in 1940 Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology sung the praises of number theory precisely because of its uselessness.
So, justification based on “impact” would have been an impossible task for Euler. And Euler is the most prolific mathematician of all time, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. God help any lesser mortal.
To be fair, pure mathematics is in some sense too easy a case. The very inapplicability of pure mathematics is so clear that any statement about “impact” in this context can only seriously be understood as a source of amusement. A three-year project to think hard and prove some theorems about some interesting and important field of mathematics — but which may have some practical applications, one day, but this is impossible to predict, and in all likelihood not — is so far from the average person’s concept of “impact” that we can only feel that the poor mathematician has been dragged by a faceless bureaucracy into a system designed for someone else, in some other time and place.
Or, perhaps slightly more accurately, and disturbingly, a pure mathematician made to justify their research based on “impact” is a lamb about to be fed to the lions. But thankfully, mathematicians will not be fed to the lions — or at least, not all of them — because the emperor has taken their side. A society without mathematicians produces none of the STEM-literate graduates that the emperor, capital, demands. The survival of the planet, as it turns out, also demands STEM-literate graduates, but as the perilous state of the planet so clearly attests, it is capital, not the planet, which is a much stronger determinant of social outcomes, at least under present social arrangements.
Mathematics aside, the point remains. Requiring 30-second written advertisements called “impact statements” leads to exaggeration, over-speculation, and, at best, twisting of the truth.
But don’t take if from me — it’s much more interesting to requote the senior academics at Australian/UK universities quoted in the article:
It’s virtually impossible to write one of these grants and be fully frank and honest in what it is you’re writing about. (Australia, Professor)
‘illusions’ (UK, Professor); ‘virtually meaningless’, or ‘made up stories’ (Australia, Professor) ‘…taking away from the absolute truth about what should be done’ (UK, Professor). Words such as lying, lies, stories, disguise, hoodwink, game – playing, distorting, fear, distrust, over- engineering, flower-up, bull-dust, disconnected, narrowing and the recurrence of the word ‘problem’
Would I believe it? No, would it help me get the money – yes. (UK, Professor)
I will write my proposals which will have in the middle of them all this work, yeah but on the fringes will tell some untruths about what it might do because that’s the only way it’s going to get funded and you know I’ve got a job to do, and that’s the way I’ve got to do it. It’s a shame isn’t it? (UK, Professor)
If you can find me a single academic who hasn’t had to bullshit or bluff or lie or embellish in order to get grants, then I will find you an academic who is in trouble with his [sic] Head of Department. If you don’t play the game, you don’t do well by your university. So anyone that’s so ethical that they won’t bend the rules in order to play the game is going to be in trouble, which is deplorable. (Australia, Professor)It’s about survival. It’s not sincere all the way through…that’s when it gets disheartening. It puts people on the back foot and fuels a climate of distrust. (UK, Professor)
It is impossible to predict the outcome of a scientific piece of work, and no matter what framework it is that you want to apply it will be artificial and come out with the wrong answer because if you try to predict things you are on a hiding to nothing. (UK, Professor)
The idea therefore that impact could be factored in in advance was viewed as a dumb question put in there by someone who doesn’t know what research is. I don’t know what you’re supposed to say, something like ‘I’m Columbus, I’m going to discover the West Indies?!’ (Australia, Professor)
It’s disingenuous, no scientist really begins the true process of scientific discovery with the belief it is going to follow this very smooth path to impact because he or she knows full well that that just doesn’t occur and so there’s a real problem with the impact agenda- and that is it’s not true it’s wrong – it flies in the face of scientific practice. (UK, Professor)
It’s really virtually impossible to write an (Australian Research Council) ARC grant now without lying and this is the kind of issue that they should be looking at. (Australia, Professor)
It becomes increasingly difficult – one would be very hard pressed to write a successful grant application that’s fully truthful…you’re going to get phony answers, they’re setting themselves up for lies…[they go on]…it’s absurd to expect every grant proposal to have an impact story. (Australia, Professor)
Trying to force people to tell a causal story is really tight, it’s going to restrict impact to narrow immediate stuff, rather than the big stuff, and force people to be dishonest. (UK, Professor)
They’re just playing games – I mean, I think it’s a whole load of nonsense, you’re looking for short term impact and reward so you’re playing a game…it’s over inflated stuff. (Professor, Australia)