The story of a paradox

[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.


Written by dan

September 10th, 2016 at 11:55 am

Throughput the Wringer

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.


Written by dan

August 12th, 2016 at 10:04 am

Of all the things

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.


Written by dan

June 21st, 2016 at 1:46 pm

Elections — or, how not to gnaw your arm off

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.


Written by dan

June 15th, 2016 at 2:05 pm

The Impact of Impact

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)


Written by dan

April 29th, 2016 at 12:57 pm

Love, the Answer to the Problem of Human Existence

[ A paean to, and exposition of, love, extracted as an extended set of quotations from Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving. This book, in my view, is possibly the best answer in existence to the question of “What is this earth thing you call love?”  The answer makes clear that it is not an earth thing at all. Gender-specific pronouns are annoying but I leave them untouched; the work is from 1956. ]


Any theory of love must begin with a theory of man, of human existence. While we find love, or rather, the equivalent of love, in animals, their attachments are mainly a part of their instinctual equipment; only remnants of this instinctual equipment can be seen operating in man. What is essential in the existence of man is the fact that he has emerged from the animal kingdom, from instinctive adaptation, that he has transcended nature — although he never leaves it; he is a part of it — and yet once torn away from nature, he cannot return to it; once thrown out of paradise — a state of original oneness with nature — cherubim with flaming swords block his way, if he should try to return. Man can only go forward by developing his reason, by finding a new harmony, a human one, instead of the prehuman harmony which is irretrievably lost.

When man is born, the human race as well as the individual, he is thrown out of a situation which was definite, as definite as the instincts, into a situation which is indefinite, uncertain and open. There is certainty only about the past — and about the future only as far as that it is death.

Man is gifted with reason; he is *life being aware of itself*; he has awareness of himself, of his fellow man, of his past, and of the possibilities of his future. This awareness of himself as a separate entity, the awareness of his own short life span, of the fact that without his will he is born and against his will he dies, that he will die before those whom he loves, or they before him, the awareness of his aloneness and separateness, of his helplessness before the forces of nature and of society, all this makes his separate, disunited existence an unbearable prison. He would become insane could he not liberate himself from this prison and reach out, unite himself in some form or other with men, with the world outside…

The deepest need of man, then, is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness… Man — of all ages and cultures — is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one’s own individual life and find at-onement…

The question is the same, for it springs from the same ground: the human situation, the conditions of human existence…

The unity achieved in productive work is not interpersonal; the unity achieved in orgiastic fusion is transitory; the unity achieved by conformity is only pseudo-unity. Hence, they are only partial answers to the problem of existence. The full answer lies in the achievement of interpersonal union, of fusion with another person, in love.

The desire for interpersonal fusion is the most powerful striving in man. It is the most fundamental passion, it is the force which keeps the human race together, the clan, the family, society. The failure to achieve it means insanity or destruction — self-destruction or destruction of others. Without love, humanity could not exist for a day.

Love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality. Love is an active power in man; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity. In love the paradox occurs that two beings become one and yet remain two.

Envy, jealousy, ambition, any kind of greed are passions; love is an action, the practice of a human power, which can be practiced only in freedom and never as the result of a compulsion… Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for.” In the most general way, the active character of love can be described as stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving…

For the productive character… giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness…

Beyond the element of giving, the active character of love becomes evident in the fact that it always implies certain basic elements, common to all forms of love. these are care, responsibility, respect and knowledge.

Love is the active concern for the life and the growth of that which we love. Where this active concern is lacking, there is no love… Care and concern imply another aspect of love; that of responsibility. … Responsibility, in its true sense, is an entirely voluntary act; it is my response to the needs, expressed or unexpressed, of another human being. To be “responsible” means to be able and ready to “respond.” …

Cain could ask: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The loving person responds. the life of his brother is not his brother’s business alone, but his own….

Responsibility could easily deteriorate into domination and possessiveness, were it not for a third component of love, respect. Respect is not fear and awe… Respect means the concern that the other person should grow and unfold as he is. Respect, thus, implies the absence of exploitation. I want the loved person to grow and unfold for his own sake, and in his own ways, and not for the purpose of serving me. If I love the other person, I feel one with him or her, but with him as he is, not as I need him to be as an object for my use. … Respect exists on the basis of freedom: “l’amour est l’enfant de la liberté” as an old French song says; love is the child of freedom, never that of domination.

To respect a person is not possible without knowing him; care and responsibility would be blind if they were not guided by knowledge. … There are many layers of knowledge; the knowledge which is an aspect of love is one which does not stay at the periphery, but penetrates to the core. It is possible only when I can transcend the concern for myself and see the other person in his own terms…

Knowledge has one more, and a more fundamental, relation to the problem of love. The basic need to fuse with another person so as to transcend the prison of one’s separateness is closely related to another specifically human desire, that to know the “secret of man.” While life in its merely biological aspects is a miracle and a secret, man in his human aspects is an unfathomable secret to himself — and to his fellow man. We know ourselves, and yet even with all the efforts we may make, we do not know ourselves. We know our fellow man, and yet we do not know him, because we are not a thing, and our fellow man is not a thing. The further we reach into the depth of our being, or someone else’s being, the more the goal of knowledge eludes us. Yet we cannot help desiring to penetrate into the secret of man’s soul, into the innermost nucleus which is “he.”…

[The] path to knowing “the secret” is love. Love is active penetration of the other person, in which my desire to know is stilled by union. In the act of fusion I know you, I know myself, I know everybody — and I “know” nothing. I know in the only way knowledge of that which is alive is possible for man — by experience of union — not by any knowledge our thought can give.

Love is the only way of knowledge, which in the act of union answers my quest. In the act of loving, of giving myself, in the act of penetrating the other person, I find myself, I discover myself, I discover us both, I discover man.


Written by dan

January 28th, 2016 at 1:29 pm

More excrement

(A technical term – see Le Guin.)



The economy pumps more excrement.

So the exhaust fumes suffocate,

So the carbon accumulates,

And the mercury rises,

And the science advises

Panic! in cold blood,

Beware the great flood,

That raises the ocean

In decades slow motion

And swamps the islands

Unleashes the violence

Of cyclonic depressions

Imperial aggressions

Extinctions of species

And dreams smashed to pieces.

Problems unseen

in media smokescreen,

the rulers deny,

the consumers buy,

And the economy pumps more excrement.




Written by dan

January 27th, 2016 at 2:24 pm

Force and restraint

Simone Weil wrote about the Iliad, how it dealt so beautifully with the notions of force, how force crushes the soul, turns the body to stone, renders life into death.

But our morality has moved on from the time of the Iliad, though foreign policy largely has not. Warriors in war no longer carry automatic heroism. Their weapons are too lethal, their causes too unjust.

Today, the great cause is not in fighting the good fight in war; there are no good sides in wars. Perhaps not every armed conflict in the world today is entirely a clash of the equally bad; the world is plagued with enough violence that among them a few less-evil causes can be found — perhaps even one or two good ones. Among every thicket of bleeding thorns there is a rose whose struggle one may cheer on, depending on one’s inclinations. But the general fact remains.

The great cause in war today, in almost every case, is not in winning the war, but stopping the war, preventing the war, civilizing the vengeful and callous impulses of the great leaders of the world. The great cause is ending the senselessness of death and destruction among groups having no good reason to kill each other, and in crushing the nonsense that justifies it, whether claims of ethnic or religious superiority, national exceptionalism, or murderous foreign-policy cynicism.

The drama and the poignancy of the Iliad — which, like all ancient texts, comes at once from a cultural origin now buried in the collective subconscious, speaking in the language of a darker and simpler age — reverberated to Weil writing in the midst of Nazi occupation in 1940. One can only imagine, now, how force and violence then hung in the air, turning the world to stone and rubble — the stone no longer then the body of the vanquished, or the suppliant to Achilles with their life in his hands, but the citizen before the air raid siren signalling random sky-drawn death-blows, the village lined up before the machine gun, the Jew facing industrial extermination, the family in the wooden firebombed house, the Japanese schoolchild splattered into atoms.

For those in the global north, the west, Europe, North America, Australia, even there in the supposedly richest, cleanest, privileged nations, force remains today. Just causes still often retain the character of a struggle involving violence. Nothing, of course, compared to those actually facing war. But it is a different type of force; or rather, it is a type of restraint that turns us to stone.

Struggle leads, in one direction, straight into the streets where it is met with, if it is at all effective, force. And it leads, in another direction, straight into a pit of snakes. A media, a trolling ground, a culture that functions as one head with a thousand snakes lunging, biting and spitting venom.

It is not Achilles, but it is enough to turn the contemporary citizen — weakened, compromised, ashamed, guilty, knowing too much, doing too little — to stone. We have seen the medusa.


Written by dan

December 28th, 2015 at 10:26 pm

Forty years on

It is forty years on from the Dismissal, or coup, that ended the Whitlam government.

Forty years ago, to the day, Australia learned it would not be permitted to have an effective progressive government. The fires of change were extinguished, stamped out, and the old dead certainties returned.

A government that caught Australian society up – to some extent – from its benighted past, that brought it into the present, and even threatened to push it forward into the future, was cut down in its prime, aged not yet three years. For a short while, at least in one part of the world, despite obstructions and turbulence every step of the way, and despite numerous imperfections, another world seemed possible. This world was possible, she was breathing, but she was attacked, mercilessly, until she was killed.

I was not yet born. Hope was killed before I was born, and I grew up with innate desires for justice, equality, dignity and sanity in a society that acknowledged nothing of them. It professed amnesia on the topic; instead there were shiny toys, consumer goods, grades, jobs and mortgages. I did not know for a long time that such beliefs were what is called “politics”: I grew up in a society where “politics” was the bickering of boring men in suits on TV about issues so far from the central, real ones that I could not even recognise what the subject was. Only much later did I realise they were debating the ramifications, the elaborations, and the fine parameters of the solutions imposed in previous generations to foreclose on the real questions. It was precisely the hope of optimistic answers to these questions that had long ago been killed.

So one thing is not in doubt as to what the Dismissal represents, forty years on: its crushing of the human spirit. Forty years on we are afar and asunder.

It is important to understand such a crucial historical event. And so I would like to present a summary of my understanding and its significance, so that others might learn about it and what it means, and I might learn from others what it means to them, in terms of history, law, culture, and politics, from the small-P politics of the technicalities of the coup through to the capital-P politics of covert intervention and geopolitical significance. For the episode is simple in many ways, complicated in others; clear and well-documented in some ways, murky in others; subject to much controversy, but some parts are less controversial than others.

For three brief years, 1972 to 1975, a society tucked at the corner of the world, a backwater country in the bottom right corner of the world map, a long-time colonial outpost of various empires, with an appalling history of genocide and racism but an admirable supply of salt of the earth, caught up with history.

As elsewhere in the world, a cold conservative establishment had ruled for generations. With important exceptions, and occasional interruptions, Australian society had maintained its backwards, consumer capitalist, depoliticised, conservative culture. To a large extent it sleepwalked through the cultural change experienced elsewhere in the 1960s. It entered the 1970s largely left in the 1950s.

Those years have become in some ways a myth; in some ways romanticised; no doubt I am, to some extent, propagating myths and romantic notions of a time that was, in many ways, not particularly different from all the other years of Australian history. But those years have had such a definite and lasting impact on Australian institutions and politics, at least, that some of the awe expressed at the rapidity and extent of the change is justified.

* * *

The Australian Labor Party was the first labour party ever to take charge of any nation in the world (in 1904), but after the second world war steadily lost both its ability to win elections and its ability to hold itself together. Whether because of internal strife, ideological schisms, factionalism, too many moderates and too much compromise, too many hardliners and too much radicalism, poor leadership, poor institutional structures, an implacably hostile media, structural opposition to entrenched economic and political power, strategic ineptitude, proximity to communism, hostility to communism, significant economic growth, comfort and complacency, or a federal Constitution that stymied every plank in their programme, they spent decades in the wilderness. To some extent all of these causes played a role; there are certainly others too. It is an interesting and important task to untangle them.

But that does not change the fact: for the entire postwar era, from 1949 to 1972, the Australian Labor Party fought nine elections and lost them all. Nor was it a quixotic era of romantic, valiant efforts and tragic losses; it was continual bitterness, division, and infighting.

Whitlam emerged as a leader from the centre and the right of the party. Politically he was far removed from the idealists that sought the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Socially he was born into a privileged family; his father was the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor and he grew up in Canberra surrounded by erudition, bureaucracy, politics and law. He studied law and became a barrister practising in Sydney; far from a classic Labor background and far from working class.

With a mixture of eloquence and arrogance, punctilious legalism and reckless brinkmanship, strategic politicking and passionate crashing through, movement-building and legal creativity, he became leader of the party and united it around a programme that was both a pale shadow of the party’s official socialist programme and a blueprint for a revolution in Australian society.

Whitlam was relatively conservative, as far as Labor party ideology went, but the official party ideology was staunchly socialist – though of course the practice by elected politicians was very different. He was legalistic to a fault, but specialised in finding creative legal means to establish Labor party policy within the constitution, which like in many other places essentially outlaws many progressive reforms (especially socialist ones) – or at least places great constraints on them. It took a Queen’s Counsel like Whitlam to come to centre the party’s policies around loopholes in the constitution. Whereas previous Labor governments had tiptoed for a few years, then tried something bold like nationalising the banks, only to have it struck down by the High Court, Whitlam was much more politically and legally effective.

In practical effectiveness and impact, if not in ideology, Whitlam remains perhaps the most revolutionary democratically-elected reformer in the Western world. The country really did change more in 3 years than in the 20 years previous. When he passed away last year, Australians were inundated with enormous lists of the reforms achieved: universal health care, consumer protection, Papua New Guinea decolonisation, no-fault divorce, redistributive school reforms, commitment to international law, recognising China, abolishing conscription, getting out of Vietnam, free university education, massive arts programs, legal aid, urban development, a national sewerage program, territory representation in Parliament, removal of British remnants in governmental structures, anti-discrimination laws, abolition of the racist White Australia immigration policy, the beginnings of indigenous land rights, welfare for the homeless, legislating equal pay for women, abolition of the death penalty, the list goes on. I know of no equivalently broad and rapid set of reforms anywhere in the world achieved by constitutional legal means. This was not the whole of the programme on which the government was elected, but it was most of it. Some of it has been rolled back, but much of it remains. Australian society is enormously better as a result.

One can imagine, with such a torrent of change all occurring in an historical instant, after long sleepy decades of conservative rule, the reaction of elites. It was absolute screaming paranoia and anti-communist hysteria. The conservatives – the Liberal and National parties – in Parliament tried fervently to block all the legislative change; they were implacably obstructionist and irredeemably hostile to all this change as they saw their relaxed comfortable country fading away before their eyes. The country was simply having a catching-up with history, but for them it was like the end of the world.

They blocked everything. Labor did not control the senate and instead of just blocking standard legislation, in 1974 the Liberals threatened to block the supply bills – the ones that provide the supply of money so that government can function. This tactic is subversive of the parliamentary order: it puts a figurative gun to the government’s head, and says that as long as the government does not command unusually large majorities it will not be permitted to function. It is a method approaching the level of a constitutional coup; within the system, it could only be legitimate, if at all, when a government had committed a vast crime or abuse for which no other means of accountability were available. Whitlam, of course, had merely passed progressive legislation. Moreover, he held his government accountable to high standards, and sacked ministers when they failed to meet such standards.

In any case, as a result of such obstructionism incompatible with representative democracy, well short of having run a full first term, in 1974 Whitlam performed a constitutional manoeuvre. In the Australian constitution there is a special provision to dissolve both houses of parliament, and then both houses sit together in a joint session and their vote overrides any previous blockage. Despite all the hysteria and fanatic hostility from the media, Whitlam won the double-dissolution election convincingly with a 5-seat majority (marginally reduced from 6) and got his program through in the joint sitting. Triumph.

Into 1975 the conservative paranoia turned maniacal. Despite the Whitlam’s government’s clear and renewed electoral mandate, the Liberal s again found an excuse to block supply. Their excuse was the so-called “Loans Affair” – see below. It was a scandal which engulfed the government, but what is clear is that it was far from any sort of crime of impropriety which would justify the extreme action of blocking supply. The media, hostile as always, became especially vicious, and the matter escalated and escalated. The crisis continued and deadlines for supply loomed, with the possibility of the government shutting down for lack of money. Finally Whitlam decided, against the entrenched obdurate opposition, to call an election of half the senate, which would resolve the impasse and decide the issue. As Australia is a monarchy, he had to formally advise the Queen’s representative, the Governor-General, John Kerr, who by constitutional convention would then issue writs for the election.

One very poor design fault in the Australian constitutional system is that these two people – the Prime Minister, and the Governor-General – each have the authority to sack the other with immediate effect. In 1975 there was an even greater design fault: not being designed at all. Because the Australian constitution is largely unwritten, deriving from convention and ultimately from British tradition, it was not clear exactly what the Governor-General’s powers were or how they should be used.

Whitlam went to Kerr’s “palace” (Government House) on November 11, 1975 – forty years ago to the day – and met Kerr to call the election. But before Whitlam could pass Kerr the document advising the election, Kerr passed Whitlam a document which was his letter of dismissal. Whitlam was sacked as Prime Minister with immediate effect.

It was a carefully premeditated plan: Kerr had known exactly what Whitlam’s plans were, but had kept his own plans secret and indeed had been conspiring in secret with the leader of the opposition and two High Court judges.

Immediately after Whitlam was sacked and, shell-shocked, left Government House, Kerr called on the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Fraser. Fraser had in fact hidden himself in another room, at the opposite end of Government House, while Whitlam had come and gone. In a pure moment of palace intrigue, Fraser literally emerged from the shadows, was ushered up the hallway, whereupon Kerr appointed him Prime Minister with immediate effect.

Tragedy. And it continues to burn in the heart of every progressive Australian ever since.

* * *

It is a sore point – and an expressly partisan political one – in Australian electoral politics ever since, to respectively denounce or justify Kerr’s actions. At the time little was known about the exact thoughts, meetings and communications of Kerr and Whitlam, but more has come to light over the years. Amazingly, more continually comes to light, right through to the last few days. But as the historical evidence has accumulated, all arguments in defence of Kerr have been comprehensively demolished by the facts.

In the Australian government, the Prime Minister is the head of the government and, as in Westminster-style parliamentary systems, by convention is the politician who is the leader of the political party with a majority in the lower house. The Governor-General is a largely figurehead position: their signature is required for laws to come into effect, and to appoint governments and call elections, but they essentially act as a rubber stamp. Unlike the Prime Minister, the Governor-General is not elected – they are appointed by the Prime Minister – and has no democratic legitimacy to set any policies of the government, nor (essentially) any discretion in following the government’s wishes to sign legislation or call elections. As a vestige of the British constitutional monarchy, the Governor-General does however act as Head of State (representing the Queen) and does have some so-called “reserve powers”, including the formal ability to sack the government in a constitutional crisis. The extent of these powers is debated, but it is clear that such powers, so far as they exist, are only to be exercised in the most extreme of circumstances; and in any other case they remain a mere figurehead.

Kerr had met with Garfield Barwick, the Chief Justice of the High Court – which is supposed to be an absolutely independent body from both the executive government (which included Kerr and Whitlam) and the Parliament – the day before the sacking. Twice. This was done in explicit defiance of unqualified advice given to Kerr by Whitlam not to do so. Kerr and Barwick had in fact met several times over the preceding months to discuss the issue. Separate from these meetings, Kerr had also established a “seminar” group at the Australian National University several months earlier to advise him on his powers. This again was done in secret, without Whitlam’s knowledge, and even worse, the meetings were attended by another sitting High Court justice, Anthony Mason, who was an old friend of Kerr’s. The “seminar” was hardly an academic exercise in archaic constitutional law and its conventions: it happened through the period that Liberal senators threatened, then outright refused, to vote on supply bills. By October the attendees had become acutely uncomfortable, as the issues – and possibly illegitimate readings of them – were being practically considered by Kerr.

Nonetheless, Kerr continued to confide in the High Court judge Mason every step of the way. Mason even wrote a draft letter sacking Whitlam (Kerr eventually used his own version). Kerr also sought out the Queen’s private secretary to discuss his own position, again in secret, without Whitlam’s knowledge. None of this was known at the time, and has only come to light as Kerr’s papers have been released and read by historians, and discussed in the most recent and leading historical work on the topic, Jenny Hocking’s two-volume biography Gough Whitlam: His Time. (Much of my account here is based on that book.) Mason put out one statement on the issue but still refuses to talk about it. To call this a “conspiracy” is not hyperbole or rhetorical – it is simply to state what happened. Kerr took some pains not to explicitly tell his co-conspirators, particularly Barwick, to his precise plans, but compartmentalisation of knowledge and deniability are standard features of conspiracies.

It gets worse for Kerr. On 6 November, Whitlam told Kerr of his intention to call an election, with the formal written documents to be presented on 11 November. So Kerr knew the crisis would be resolved by an election, and knew exactly what Whitlam would do. Incredibly, on the same day Kerr decided, and wrote in his diary, that “no compromise could be found” – even though Whitlam had just found one, and explained it to him – and that he would have to act on the advice of the Liberal opposition leader Fraser. The “independent” Governor-General Kerr – supposedly in a position above electoral and party politics – was thus in active allegiance with the Liberal opposition to the elected government, despite having direct and first-hand knowledge that any political crisis would be averted, right down to the exact details of the election and its date of announcement. While Whitlam was making arrangements to resolve the crisis, keeping Kerr fully apprised of developments, Kerr instead drafted a letter of dismissal. This 14-page draft, never used but found later in Kerr’s papers, gave the official reason for dismissal as Whitlam being “unable to obtain Supply from the Parliament” – just as Whitlam had just told Kerr of his plan to hold an election so as to resolve the impasse and pass supply. Not even these basic facts could stop Kerr writing down falsehoods as an excuse to sack Whitlam. In fact, much of Kerr’s draft focused on himself, his own sense of personal affront, and the “public criticism” he had “endured”. Kerr did this all in secret. Kerr’s reasoning was factually wrong and completely indefensible as a matter of both constitutional law and political legitimacy. Whether he was deluding himself or simply unable to comprehend Whitlam is an interesting question of forensic psychology, but in any case his written self-justifications fail for the most elementary of reasons.

Whitlam, sadly, never got wind of Kerr’s subterfuge, missing several hints along the way. The first Whitlam knew of it was being peremptorily sacked in Kerr’s office. But Kerr did tell others of his plans – including the High Court justice Anthony Mason, to whom he mailed directly various documents of advice. And Kerr met the High Court Chief Justice Barwick on the 10th – the day before the dismissal – twice.

A combination of naiveté, attendance to protocol, and legal formality meant that the very idea of a “palace conspiracy” was unthinkable to Whitlam. Whitlam simply took the view that the Governor-General could only act on the Prime Minister’s advice. Whitlam had told Kerr as much, advised Kerr not to do otherwise, and assumed that was that. And Kerr knew this; he used Whitlam’s innocence against him. Incredibly, Kerr wrote in his diary that Whitlam “was not entitled to know… my thinking… because he was not open to reason”. Kerr’s attitude to Fraser, the Liberal leader, was of course entirely different, and demonstrates his true allegiance.

On the very day of the dismissal, Whitlam, in blissful ignorance and on the(poor) assumption that his opponents were minimally reasonable, quite rightly sensed complete victory in the Labor Party’s continuing parliamentary impasse with the opposition. When he explained his plans to the party room his colleagues erupted in cheers. He telephoned Kerr to tell him what time he was coming – 10 am – and Kerr pushed back the meeting time to 1 pm. Whitlam even triumphantly started debating Fraser in Parliament, as it was a Parliamentary sitting day. When Fraser, without notice, walked out of the chamber to hide in the shadows of the “palace”, Whitlam had no inkling of what was going on. When Whitlam later of course also went to Government House, and was sacked, he left without any knowledge that Fraser was hiding in the shadows down the hallway. Even many Liberals who were happy that Whitlam had been sacked were shocked to find that Kerr had gone further and actually appointed Fraser Prime Minister – a clear usurpation of parliamentary democracy, forming a government clearly against the electoral will, and rewarding years of Liberal obstructionism with government.

There has been considerable speculation that Whitlam could have manoeuvred to reinstate himself. Perhaps he could have refused to accept Kerr’s letter of dismissal. Perhaps he could have torn it up in front of Kerr. Perhaps he could have, as his wife suggested shortly afterwards, slapped Kerr in the face and told him to pull himself together. But a stickler for protocol, and unwilling to take any steps that might escalate into a potentially violent confrontation and rupture the decorum of parliamentary procedure, Whitlam immediately returned to the Parliament to pass a motion of no-confidence in Fraser’s supposed new government. The lower house passed a resolution advising the Governor-General to form another government under Whitlam.

Perhaps the most effective way Whitlam could have fought back would have been for Labor now to defer or block a vote on supply themselves; Labor did not have an effective majority but with some independent or opposition votes they could. Labor senators had been instructed previously to try to pass a supply bill again. Incredibly, due to a tragic lack of communication, Labor senators voted without knowing Whitlam’s government had been dismissed hours earlier. (Incomprehensibly, at least one senator did know but said nothing.) Liberal senators could not believe their luck as supply was passed, and with supply secured, Fraser returned to the Governor-General.

A final unprecedented scenario then occurred – another rush to the palace. Fraser raced there with supply secure, while the Speaker of the House took the house’s no-confidence motion advising (arguably, legally forcing) the Governor-General to sack Fraser and re-appoint Whitlam. Fraser arrived first; Kerr promptly dissolved the Parliament and his plan was complete. The Speaker’s no-confidence motion then stood for nothing. This final, shocking usurpation, was far beyond any constitutional conventions regarding the Governor-General’s powers – not just dismissing the government in a crisis, not just appointing a Prime Minister who had no mandate, but also dissolving the entire Parliament once the vice-regal representative’s policy wishes had been achieved. That is why we it deserves the title of a coup rather than simply a dismissal.

Thus hope was killed in Australia.

* * *

Putting aside the minutiae of Parliamentary chicanery, and the intricacies of palace intrigue, one sees in hindsight a clear common set of values and interests among the elite sectors of Australian society. At one level this clear set of allegiances was expressed in the meetings and understandings between high-ranking officials such as Kerr, Barwick, Mason and Fraser. At another level such allegiances were expressed between Liberal politicians, with all their old-boys-clubs and connections, the business establishment, and other privileged and reactionary sectors of society which united against the government. And at yet another level it was expressed through cultural conservatism, in the media screaming for Whitlam’s head, the hysterical fears of socialism and communism, and the horror at the old world giving way to the new. These elite and conservative sectors were united in their preference to overthrow a legitimately elected government rather than endure progressive reform.

This was an elite that could not believe it no longer ruled, that still believed it was born to rule, and acted to reinstate the correct order of nature. And in so acting accordingly they managed to obstruct, to destabilise, to plunge into crisis, and finally to remove an elected government. It was, in the final analysis, a coup of the elites.

One interesting question that arises – one that is particularly important to the Left – is to what extent this elite opposition included, or was assisted by, military and intelligence services, domestic and international. Many, particularly on the Left, described it as a CIA coup and many still do.

So let us examine this question – to some extent, at least, and to the level of my own understanding.

* * *

Anti-communism and US subversion. At that period of time throughout the world, US foreign policy, and especially intelligence activities, were primarily, at least by their own account, motivated by anti-communism and containment of Soviet influence. This anti-communism regularly bordered on paranoia. Where that paranoia existed, and where it was in US interests to do so, governments were subverted or even overthrown. Reformist, social-democratic or independent nationalist governments were regularly painted as “communist” as justification for US intervention – from Iran, to Indochina, to Brazil, to Nicaragua, to Greece, to Indonesia and many other lands. It is not at all surprising that they would take an interest in a government committed to such rapid social change as Whitlam’s – no matter how meticulous its adherence to constitutional parliamentary practice and democratic processes. It did not stop them destabilising the democratically elected governments of Italy, British Guiana, Chile, or Guatemala. Neither being a Western democracy nor an American ally provided immunity against such actions. So there is no reason the US would not take a similar approach in Australia – indeed, it would be surprising if it were otherwise.

In 1974, true to form, the US appointed Marshall Green as ambassador to Australia. Green had played an important part in overthrowing Sukarno’s government in Indonesia, and the massacre of hundreds of thousands of left-wingers. No doubt he was trying to influence matters; he is reported to have made incendiary speeches against the government.

Whitlam, the privileged Queen’s Counsel, committed as he was to the Westminster Parliamentary system, to representative democracy and social-democratic reforms without altering the basic economic framework of capitalism, was about as far from a communist as it was possible to be, among reforming politicians. Whitlam explicitly eschewed the old-school Labor party programme of socialism by nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange; never did anything of the sort; and never so much as suggested it. But Arbenz in Guatemala was equally non-communist; as was Mossadegh; as was Lumumba. A rational evaluation of the policies of any of these politicians would have revealed their distance from communism and the Soviet Union, but that did not stop intervention, and nor did it with Whitlam.

To some extent, no doubt, CIA officers were deluded by their own propaganda that Whitlam represented another menacing domino in the communist march through south-east Asia. But there are also more rational reasons for US intervention in each case. There were threats to US interests. Arbenz was a threat to the United Fruit company; Mossadegh to BP (then AIOC) of which the US wanted a cut; Allende to Anaconda. And all of these examples, further, constituted the potential threat of a good example, an alternative model of development, an alternative economic system, beyond the domination of the US and capitalism more generally.

Whitlam equally represented the threat of a good example; indeed, an exemplary one, of progressive change within the existing system. He also, certainly, attempted to pursue a more independent foreign policy, by recognising China, forging closer ties with Japan, opposing nuclear testing in the Pacific, and in general reorienting foreign policy with Asia. But beyond extricating Australian forces from Vietnam, however, he did little to oppose US policies in the region. Indeed he defended the brutal US-backed Indonesian dictator Suharto, and his attitude towards the genocidal Indonesian invasion of East Timor was based on staying out of the problem. As he put it to the Indonesian government, his aim was to “minimise the public impact in Australia” – and this attitude, according to Australian diplomatic cables, helped to “crystallise” the thinking of the Indonesian government, “now firmly convinced of the wisdom of this course”. Of course a green light from Ford and Kissinger meant far more to Suharto than Whitlam closing his eyes, but Whitlam’s effort, or lack thereof, was not inconsequential.

So, while independent by some measures, Whitlam’s foreign policy hardly presented a threat to US interests, and even descended to an acquiescence in US-supported Indonesian genocide. But there were also more specific threats.

Refusal to cooperate in subversion. Whitlam also had a troublesome propensity to disapprove of his government’s intelligence services being used to subvert democracy abroad – a disturbing level of independence. In 1973 he was informed that two officers of ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, were stationed in Santiago working with the CIA in their program of subversion of the democratically-elected left-wing Chilean government of Salvador Allende. It has been argued that the ASIS officers were “only” collecting intelligence from CIA agents in the field, rather than actively engaging in subversion. But the distinction is minimal; Australia was actively participating as a proxy in the CIA’s covert program of destabilising democracy. Whitlam ordered the ASIS station to be closed in April 1973.

Incredibly, ASIS defied the orders of the government they were supposed to serve. ASIS took months to remove the ASIS officers from Chile, continuing to collaborate in overthrowing Allende. Later, ASIS also misled the government about its operations in what was then Portuguese Timor.

The domestic intelligence agency, ASIO, was no better. ASIO had long served as a political police, amassing vast files on left-wing activists and politicians, including a significant proportion of the Labor party. Many literary, cultural and political figures in Australian life have been subjects of ASIO surveillance; a recent documentary series details the relentlessness and depths of their invasions of privacy. This included an especially large file on Jim Cairns, who became Whitlam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Treasurer. As soon as Cairns assumed the role ASIO promptly leaked his file to a favoured journalist, scaremongering about Cairns’ alleged communism. This was nothing new. The previous Liberal government had a longstanding arrangement with ASIO to feed damaging information on left-wing figures to favoured media contacts. (As it turns out, this arrangement was approved by Garfield Barwick, who was then Attorney-General, before he went on to become Chief Justice and conspire with Kerr to sack Whitlam.) As a Royal Commission later found, ASIO had also been providing such information to the CIA.

While ASIO had been carefully surveilling social democrats, Labor politicians and non-violent activists, it had ignored actual terrorist threats like Croatian fascists, who had been conducting bombings and arson attacks on Australian soil for a decade – leading Attorney-General Lionel Murphy to raid ASIO offices in early 1973.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Whitlam felt that ASIO’s relationship with the US was too close, and eventually in September 1974 ordered ASIO to sever ties to the US. Again, incredibly, the order was defied. According to ASIO’s own official history, the head of ASIO, Peter Barbour, “felt this would be harmful to the nation”, and so decided to maintain relations, albeit less formal ones. Whitlam finally sacked Barbour in September 1975 on the recommendation of a royal commission into the Australian intelligence community.

The only conclusion is that the allegiances of the intelligence community to their US counterparts were stronger than their allegiances to their own government.

Pine Gap. Primary among US interests in Australia was intelligence infrastructure crucial to American signals intelligence collection. The US base at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs, was essential to US communications with its satellites, whether for spying, nuclear weapons verification, or otherwise. The US lease over Pine Gap was due for renegotiation in late 1975, and US officials were deeply concerned about losing this base.

On 3 November 1975, barely a week before the Dismissal, Whitlam accused the CIA of channeling funds to the National Country Party – the Liberals’ Coalition partner – via an agent in Australia. Though Whitlam did not name the agent, it soon came to light the Whitlam was alleging a CIA operative named Richard Stallings had provided funds to Doug Anthony, the leader of the National Country Party. The revelation was made by Anthony himself in Parliament on November 4. Unfortunately for the CIA’s efforts to protect Pine Gap, Stallings had been the first head of the Pine Gap base. It was not previously known at that point that Pine Gap was a CIA base, and US officials were alarmed at their cover being blown.

Ted Shackley, who was head of the CIA’s East Asia Division, berated ASIO representatives in Washington in a meeting a few days later, on 8 November, declaring that the “the whole Australian intelligence relationship with the US” was “under threat”. It was later reported that Kerr “sought and received a high-level briefing from senior defence officials” about this threat the same week, apparently at the Defence Signals Directorate in Melbourne, while he was there for the Melbourne Cup. (In subsequent years Kerr was to make a very public drunken fool of himself at this horse race.) But Kerr and others denied it, and Hocking in her book, having examined Kerr’s copious diaries and papers, reports nothing further of it.

On 10 November – the day before the dismissal – Shackley sent a secret cable on a dedicated CIA-ASIO link. It was not intended to be seen by Whitlam. This cable warned that Whitlam’s statements on CIA agents threatened to “blow the lid” on CIA operations in Australia, and ended ominously: the “CIA feels that everything possible has been done on a diplomatic basis… if this problem cannot be solved they do not see how our mutually beneficial relationships are going to continue”. The CIA essentially viewed Whitlam as a security risk. However, by this time the previous head of ASIO, Peter Barbour, who had defied Whitlam’s orders, had been replaced by Frank Mahony, whose loyalties lay with the Australian government. He immediately took the cable to Whitlam, but Whitlam intended to reveal the connection between Stallings, hence the CIA, and Pine Gap on the next day, November 11. Events, of course, intervened.

The incredible timing – Whitlam sacked on the very day he was due to report the Pine Gap-CIA connection – of course, looks deeply suspicious.

Funding opposition parties. Funding the opposition would certainly reflect a common CIA tactic. It had been used in Chile, for instance, in the 1964 and 1970 elections – indeed, in 1964, the CIA spent more per voter on the campaign of Eduardo Frei in the Chilean election, than was spent by the Johnson and Goldwater campaigns per voter in the US Presidential election of that year. The allegations made by Whitlam of CIA funding of opposition parties are certainly not unique to him; Victor Marchetti, an ex-CIA officer, has claimed that the CIA funded both Liberal and National parties; and it has been alleged the CIA offered the opposition “unlimited funds”.

Union influence. Attempts to gain influence within the union movement around the world, in order to promote anti-communist, ideologically moderate forms of trade unionism, were run by the CIA and its fronts throughout the Cold War period. A long-running scheme of “Leadership Grants” brought talented, more conservative trade unionists from around the world to the US where they were given “leadership training”, inculcating into a “labour elite” and inoculated against communist ideas. Clyde Cameron, Whitlam’s Minister for Labour and Immigration, testifies of first-hand experience of the CIA funding opposition tickets against him in internal elections of the Australian Workers Union.

In this Australia appears to have been treated similarly to other Western nations; however, more serious and specific allegations of US influence over Australian unions were made by Christopher Boyce. Boyce worked in the “vault” at a CIA subsidiary in California, a communications relay room which received messages from Pine Gap, and read telex messages which implied the CIA had infiltrated leadership of Australian unions and were able to exert influence to achieve their own aims. Specifically, Boyce read a telex from Langley at a time when shipments from the US bound for Pine Gap could have been disrupted by imminent strikes by Australian pilots and air controllers. The telex stated that the CIA had suppressed the strikes and the shipments would continue. Boyce was outraged and lashed out, attempting to sell secrets to the USSR; he was eventually convicted of espionage; later he escaped from prison and committed several bank robberies. Today, having served his time, his story remains consistent.

Boyce also relates first hand the culture of the CIA contempt for Whitlam – and how his CIA employee workmates referred to the Governor-General as “our man Kerr”.

Kerr’s CIA connections. Kerr was quite deeply involved with several organisations connected to the CIA. Despite being a Trotskyist in the 1940s, Kerr worked as a barrister specialising in representing anti-communist unionists in their internal union battles. He then moved from the Labor to the Liberal party and became heavily involved with the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom, the local branch of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, a CIA-financed anti-communist cultural organisation. Kerr also became president of the Law Association for Asia and the Western Pacific, another CIA front. As such, the CIA was paying for Kerr’s travel.

These associations prove only that Kerr mixed in some social, political and cultural circles which were sympathetic to the CIA’s anti-communist stance. They could have also provided a social milieu in which he would have developed personal connections to those close to the CIA. Quite likely they would have tried to court him as best they could.

It has been alleged that a deputy CIA director said that Kerr “did what he was told“.

Tirath Khemlani and the Loans affair. There are significant allegations about CIA involvement in one of the scandals that enveloped the Whitlam government, the so-called loans affair. This affair concerned efforts by the Whitlam government to obtain loans for an ambitious development project for the Australian resources sector, the “magnificent obsession” of Whitlam’s Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor. The government approved an authority for Connor to seek a $4 billion loan; it was an unusual procedure, to vest authority in the Minister for Minerals and Energy rather than the Treasurer, but Treasury was resolutely opposed to the loan and the government circumvented it. It was a creative financial strategy for a government, and in its legal creativity followed other political strategies of the government, but was not improper or illegal. Connor soon came into contact with a London-based Pakistani commodities dealer named Tirath Khemlani. Khemlani was a rather dubious character: he made various demands of the government but was rebuffed; he sought loan funds from various governments and eventually announced that funds were available; and interminable delays followed, with the money never materialising. Connor could have refused to deal with him, but having spent his whole life dreaming of his development projects, he was desperate to get the loan. Eventually Whitlam had to call off the search for loan funds, causing great damage and embarrassment to the government. It has been alleged that Khemlani relied on a company with CIA links, Commerce International to supply the funds, and indeed that the whole affair was a setup by the CIA.

The loans affair however did not end there, because a similar situation then occurred with the Treasurer, Jim Cairns, who sought funds via a Melbourne businessman named George Harris. Cairns insisted on various conditions in their agreement, including the condition that no brokerage fee be included. Some weeks later newspapers published copies of a letter purporting to be signed by Cairns and promising just such a fee. It is possible the letter was a fabrication; or that Cairns signed a letter containing a paragraph in error; or that the letter was drafted maliciously; there are other possibilities also. The published letters were dubious in origin; the CIA’s Daily briefing report on the matter noted that “some of the evidence had been fabricated”.

Meida attention on the loans affair intensified, leading to escalating, wild allegations and assertions circulating in the media. It has been alleged this media circus involved “a welter of supposedly incriminating documents forged by the CIA”. A CIA employee Joseph Flynn later claimed he had forged some of these documents, having been paid by Michael Hand of the infamous Nugan Hand bank. (Michael Hand, having been living under protection under an assumed identity in the US for many years, has been found as of only a few days ago.)

The loans affair was seized upon by Fraser as an excuse again to attempt to block supply. In this way, the loans affair directly destabilised the government. But Fraser had been constantly scouring the government’s activities for a “reprehensible circumstance” it could use for this purpose, and no doubt if Khamlani had not come on the scene they would have found an alternative. The Whitlam government committed no great impropriety, but handled the matter with great ineptitude.

* * *

Covert intelligence operations, by their nature, are difficult to assess in detail. They breed rumour and innuendo – indeed, misinformation is often a crucial component – and usually involve unreliable or otherwise dubious characters.

The above is not meant to be comprehensive, or complete, but a summary of some evidence in relation to CIA activities against the Whitlam government.

But it does make clear that the CIA threatened action against Whitlam to potential co-conspirators, did in fact view Whitlam as a security risk, and sent a secret cable to ASIO which was meant to be kept secret from Whitlam with sinister implications. The CIA expressed every intention to move beyond “diplomatic means” in Shackley’s cable, one day before the dismissal.

Moreover, there is evidence that the CIA engaged in disinformation – producing false, forged, and incriminating documents for the media – in the loans affair, and possibly even deliberate fraud against the government, if Khemlani had a direct CIA connection. This affair successfully destabilised the Labor government, since Fraser used it as an excuse to withhold supply – but Fraser would likely have found some excuse in any case.

There is also evidence of funding opposition parties and conservative tickets in union elections. And there are less specific allegations of a closer CIA connection: that Kerr was “our man” and “did what he was told”.

Thus, we say for sure that the CIA wanted Whitlam out. We can say for sure that the US government was alarmed at the highest levels about the possibility of losing Pine Gap, crucial as it was (and remains) to signals intelligence and spying capabilities. We can say that Australia was not immune to worldwide CIA tactics of anti-communist influence, for instance through its trade union leadership program, and that its anti-communist cultural institutions included within their orbit the key figure of John Kerr. We can say for sure that Australian intelligence agencies were more aligned with their US counterparts than with the Whitlam government whose orders they were required to follow, but which they instead defied; although Mahoney appears to have been a loyal replacement.

There is also evidence of CIA activities to destabilise the Labor government, whether by funding opposition parties, spreading misinformation or forged loans affair documents. They no doubt did what they could to advance their own interests.

It is clearly fair, then, to say that it was the coup was actively supported by the CIA.

* * *

Less importantly, it is not so clear that Kerr was in direct contact with the CIA or other intelligence agencies or their agents, or followed their orders in any way. The strongest argument here is Kerr’s character and the extensive self-documentation he provided throughout the period.

Kerr’s personality was well known. He was a haughty, arrogant caricature of an elite who wore a top hat and essentially lived as if he were in Victorian England; the associated politics go without saying. He was thin-skinned, insecure and an inveterate drunk. After 1975 he was wracked with guilt and loathing for the rest of his life, continually trying to justify his actions for decades afterwards. Given his propensity to self-justify, his stream-of-consciousness diaries, and his lack of discretion, it seems unlikely he could have failed to mention or kept a secret of any direct CIA contact.

Moreover, Kerr’s own papers show that he had made up his mind to act, even writing a draft letter, several days before the dismissal and several days before the Shackley cable – which appears to have been taken directly by the loyal ASIO replacement director Mahony straight to Whitlam. If he had shared a briefing from the DSD, it may have been of some influence, but not enough to mention in any of his notes. As far as the former barrister and judge Kerr was concerned, the issue allowing him to sack Whitlam was inability to obtain supply – however false that argument was – not any national security or intelligence considerations.

The coincidence between the Shackley cable and the dismissal the next day may be less incredible than it seems. There were many dates in that period that had special significance to the intelligence community. Had the dismissal occurred on a day where an intelligence official was sacked, or a particular CIA activity took place, or an announcement made by Whitlam on foreign policy, the dismissal may have seemed equally suspicious. Given the government’s turbulent relationship with the intelligence agencies, there were many such days during its term of government.

For CIA operatives to describe Kerr as “our man” is quite possibly simply an expression that Kerr shared their anti-communist and conservative values. He even mixed in some of their cultural circles, and they were cheering on their man in Australian politics, as they would cheer on their football team. Kerr proved his anti-communist credentials while sitting as a judge on the Commonwealth Industrial Court, where he sentenced a communist union member, Clarrie O’Shea, to an indefinite prison term for contempt of court, for refusing to turn over the accounts of his union.

It appears that Kerr acted to achieve the CIA’s desired result, for his own independent reasons.

The allegation that Kerr “did what he was told” is emphatic, but it is an isolated assertion, and intelligence officials are renowned for braggadocio. There remain, however, many things we do not know.

* * *

There are still many things we do not know, but amazingly, more evidence comes to light each year. Christopher Boyce, released from prison, gave a rare interview only last year. ASIO’s official history of the period has only been released this year. A declaration by Malcolm Fraser as the events on the morning of the dismissal was released only last week. Michael Hand’s whereabouts were discovered just a few days ago. And the correspondence between Kerr and Buckingham Palace –with the Queen and her advisors – has not been released, and is not due for release until 2027.

Much evidence remains in the shadows. Some will remain there, and some will see the light.

For many purposes, however, it is enough to know that the CIA wanted to remove an elected Australian government, and acted accordingly.

There was domestic opposition to Whitlam, and it was fanatical, hysterical, powerful, and ruthless. The Liberal party, business, and other elites had governed the country for the previous 23 years, and for a majority of the time since federation. An entire class had developed with the arrogant belief it had a right to rule; a tradition inherited from British colonialism. And when an upstart government started to be effective in implementing progressive reforms and social change, it broke all of its own established rules and conventions in a ruthless attempt to overthrow them. Their rage snowballed into crisis after crisis. The intelligence agencies, including the CIA, were enthusiastically all in favour, and enthusiastic participants, but domestic opposition was likely sufficient on its own account.

In the end, who precisely bears the responsibility for killing hope in Australia is not the most important question. It is enough to know what was done and who was involved.

It is important to understand that a rich, western, parliamentary democracy like Australia is not immune from the subversion of foreign intelligence. No doubt the CIA (and, for that matter, MI6) were doing so as they pleased. They have done that everywhere they can, especially when there’s a government left of Genghis Khan. The dismissal of the Australian government in 1975 earns its place in the long lists of US military and CIA interventions. Indeed it appears as one of the 56 chapters in William Blum’s chronicle of the subject.

I avoid calling the Dismissal a “CIA coup”, however. A more accurate phrase might be “CIA-supported coup”, but the more important reason is that when Australians say that the dismissal was a CIA coup, it lets Australian elites off the hook.

Australian elites – from the Liberal party, to various organs of government, to the media, to business owners – were united in their hatred of the Whitlam government. They, as much as any subversive foreign intelligence organisation, should not be let off the hook. They have crushed our dreams once, and we should not let them do it again.

* * *

Hope was killed by elites who could not bear to see progressive change, even in its most legitimate, democratic form.

This all happened before I was born. There has never been such hope in Australian society as there was in that period. It is not romanticising the period to say so. We are all tired of this hope-starved world.

Whitlam moved the Labor party rightward, away from nationalisations and on a more moderate, more creative, social-democratic course. After the dismissal, subsequent leaders moved the party further rightward, in parallel with other social-democratic parties around the world. It has long been a pale shadow of its former self.

As the party moved right, those of its dreams which had been implemented became routine and part of the basic minimum of a civilized society: who could now imagine a society without no-fault divorce, consumer protections, anti-discrimination laws or a public health system?

But those of its dreams which never came to fruition were forgotten, consigned to oblivion along with all those dreams which were more distant utopias, those which had never even been dreamed. The light on the hill became indistinct, faded away and in the end became nothing more than a bigger, better, shinier, electronically-glowing version of the ever-consuming present.

With the collapse of communism around the world, an authoritarian yoke was lifted off a vast portion of the world’s people. But with its collapse and social democracy’s retreat, the promise of a world not based on rapacious individualism, the very idea of a better world disappeared too.

Social movements still maintain that a better world is possible. It is an admirable and necessary position, but it is minimal. To insist something is possible is merely to remind ourselves of the idea, to guard against amnesia. The struggle of people against power is often the struggle of memory against forgetting, but it is also more than that.

These forty-year-old memories must be replaced by another flourish of progress, to renew the hopes of the next generation.

Hope was killed by elites before I was born, but I was not born then to have my hope killed.

They did not kill my hope.


Written by dan

November 11th, 2015 at 12:32 pm

Paranoid defence controls could criminalise teaching encryption

(This article was also published at The Conversation.)

You wouldn’t think that academic computer science courses could be classified as an export of military technology.

But unfortunately, under recently passed laws, there is a real possibility that innocuous educational and research activities could fall foul of Australian defence export control laws.

Under these laws, despite recent amendments, such “supplies of technology” — and possibly a wide range of other benign activities — come under a censorship regime involving criminal penalties of up to 10 years imprisonment.

The Defence and Strategic Goods List

How could this be?

The story begins with the Australian government’s list of things it considers important to national defence and security. It’s called the Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL). Goods on this list are tightly controlled.

Regulation of military weapons is not a particularly controversial idea. But the DSGL covers much more than munitions. It includes many “dual use” goods – goods with both military and civilian uses – including for instance substantial sections on chemicals, electronics, and telecommunications.

Disturbingly, the DSGL veers wildly in the direction of over-classification, covering activities that are completely unrelated to military or intelligence applications. To illustrate, I will focus on the university sector, and one area of interest to mathematicians like myself — encryption — which raises these issues particularly acutely. But similar considerations apply to a wide range of subject material, and to commerce, industry and government.

Encryption: An essential tool for privacy

Encryption is the process of encoding a message, so that it can be sent privately; decryption is the process of decoding it, so that it can be read. Encryption and decryption are two aspects of cryptography, the study of secure communication.

As with many technologies subject to “dual use” regulation, the first question is whether encryption should be covered at all.

Once the preserve of spies and governments, encryption algorithms have now become an essential part of modern life. We use them almost every time we go online. Encryption is used routinely by consumers to guard against identity theft; by businesses to ensure the security of transactions; by hospitals to ensure the privacy of medical records; and much more. Given that email has about as much security as a postcard, encryption is the electronic equivalent of an envelope.

Encryption is perhaps “dual use” in the narrow sense that it is useful to both military/intelligence agencies as well as civilians; but so are other “dual use” technologies like cars.

Moreover, while States certainly spy on each other, essentially everyone with an internet connection is known to be spied on. Since the Snowden revelations — and much earlier for those who were paying attention — we know about mass surveillance by the NSA, along with its Five Eyes partners, which include Australia.

While States have no right to privacy — this is the whole point of Freedom of Information laws — an individual’s right to privacy is a fundamental human right. And in today’s world, encryption is essential for citizens to safeguard this human right. Strict control of encryption as dual-use technology, then, would not only be a misuse of State power, but the curtailment of a fundamental freedom.

How the DSGL covers encryption

Nonetheless, let’s assume for the purposes of argument that there is a justification for regarding at least some aspects of cryptography as “dual use”. (Let’s also put aside the efforts of government, stretching back over decades now, to weaken cryptographic standards and harass researchers.)

The DSGL contains detailed technical specifications covering encryption. Very roughly, it covers encryption above a certain “strength” level, as measured by technical parameters such as “key length” or “field size”.

The practical question is how high the bar is set: how powerful must encryption be, in order to be classified as “dual use”?

The bar is set low. For instance, software engineers debate whether they should use 2048 or 4096 bits for the RSA algorithm, but the DSGL classifies anything over 512 as “dual-use”. It’s probably more accurate to say that the only cryptography not covered by the DSGL is cryptography so weak that it would be foolish to use.

Moreover, the DSGL doesn’t just cover encryption software: it also covers systems, electronics and equipment used to implement, develop, produce or test it.

In short, the DSGL casts an extremely wide net, potentially catching open source privacy software, information security research and education, and the entire computer security industry, in its snare. This is typical of its approach.

Most ridiculous, however, are some badly flawed technicalities. As I have argued elsewhere, the specifications are so poorly written that they potentially include a little algorithm you learned at primary school called division. If so, then division has become a weapon, and your calculator (or smartphone, or computer, or any electronic device) is a delivery system for it.

These issues are not unique to Australia: the DSGL encryption provisions are copied almost verbatim from the Wassenaar Arrangement, an international arms control agreement. What is unique to Australia is the harshness of the law relating to the list.

Criminal offences for research and teaching?

The Australian Defence Trade Controls Act (DTCA) regulates the list, and enacts a censorship regime with severe criminal penalties.

The DTCA prohibits the “supply” of DSGL technology to anyone outside Australia without a permit. The “supply” need not involve money, and can consist of merely providing access to technology. It also prohibits the “publication” of DSGL technology, but after recent amendments, it only applies to half the DSGL: munitions only, not dual-use technologies.

What is a “supply”? The law does not define the word precisely, but the Department of Defence seems to think that merely explaining an algorithm would be an “intangible supply”. If so, then surely teaching DSGL material, or collaborating on research about it, would be covered.

University education is a thoroughly international and online affair — not to mention research — so any such supply, on any DSGL topic, is likely to end up overseas on a regular basis.

Outside of academia, what about programmers working on international projects like Tor, providing free software so citizens can enjoy their privacy rights online? Network security professionals working with overseas counterparts? Indeed, the entire computer security industry?

Examples of innocuous, or even admirable, activities potentially criminalised by this law are easily multiplied. Such activities must seek government approval or face criminal charges — an outrageous attack on academic freedom, chilling legitimate enquiry, to say the least.

To be sure, there are exceptions in the law, which have been expanded under recent amendments. But they are patchy, uncertain and dangerously limited.

For instance, public domain material and “basic scientific research” are not regarded as DSGL technology. However, researchers by definition create new material not in the public domain; and “basic scientific research” is a narrow term which excludes research with practical objectives. Lecturers, admirably, often include new research in teaching material. In such circumstances none of these provisions will be of assistance.

Another exemption covers supplies of dual-use technology made “preparatory to publication”, apparently to protect researchers. But this exemption will provide little comfort to researchers aiming for applications or commercialisation; and none at all to educators or industry. A further exemption is made for oral supplies of DSGL technology, so if computer science lecturers can teach without writing (giving a whole new meaning to “off the books”!) they might be safe.

Unlike the US, there is no exception for education; none for public interest material; and indeed, the Explanatory Memorandum makes clear that the government envisions universities seeking permits to teach students DSGL material – and, by implication, criminal charges if they do not.

On a rather different note, the DTCA specifically enables the Australian and US militaries to freely share technology.

Thus, an Australian professor emailing an international collaborator or international postgraduate student about a new applied cryptography idea, or explaining a new variant on a cryptographic algorithm on a blackboard in a recorded lecture viewed overseas — despite having nothing to do with military or intelligence applications — may expose herself to criminal liability. At the same time, munitions flow freely across the Pacific. Such is Australia’s military export control regime.

Now, there is nothing wrong in principle with government regulation of military technology. But when the net is cast as broadly as the DSGL — especially as with encryption — and the regulatory approach is censorship with criminal penalties — as with the DTCA’s permit regime — then the result is a vast overreach. Even if the Department of Defence did not exercise its censorship powers, the mere possibility is enough for a chilling effect stifling the free flow of ideas and progress.

The DTCA was passed in 2012, with the criminal offences schedule to come into effect in May 2015. Thankfully, emergency amendments in April 2015 have provided some reprieve.

Despite those amendments, the laws remain paranoid. The DSGL vastly over-classifies technologies as dual-use, including essentially all sensible uses of encryption. The DTCA potentially criminalises an enormous range of legitimate research and development activity as a supply of dual-use technology, dangerously attacking academic freedom — and freedom in general — in the process.

This story illustrates just one of many ways in which basic freedoms are being eroded in the name of national security.

Unless further changes are made, criminal penalties of up to 10 years prison will come into effect on 2 April 2016.

The day after April fool’s day. Jokes should be over by then.


Written by dan

May 9th, 2015 at 5:12 pm