The dilemma of neutron stars: socialist democracy against political experts.

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A common trope about Americans is their  supposed predilection for cranks and pseudo-science, as opposed to experts and technocrats – hence the common stereotype of Americans as dumb. Nowadays,  the discourse gravitates around  Trump, who equates climate change to some Chinese conspiracy, and filled his royal court with cranks and billionaires.  A couple of months ago this protest against Trump’s idiocracy  took a street-activist form, with rallies  under the banner of “March for Science” – a reaction to the  “anti-scientific” excesses of Trump.  This narrative of anti-scienific authoritarians is a  very common progressive  shibboleth. After all, the radicals of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century used the discoveries of Darwin, Maxwell and Newton to struggle against kings, priests and emperors. In the late 90s, and early 2000s, science and expertise was contrasted against a conservative right that denied evolution,  abortion rights, and justified  islamophobia with fevered dreams of biblical apocalypse.  Yet  this narrative, of “pro-science” liberalism opposing a pseudo-scientific conservatism is very limited.   Although in the current era, “pro-science” and “pro-expertise” statements may seem progressive, given the right wing’s  love for radio cranks, oil engineers masquerading as climate scientists, and youtube racists,  “scientism” by itself can only lead to the mediocre centrism typified by the Democratic Party – a technocracy staffed by teachers’ pets and Lisa Simpsons,  specialists  that produce stacks of white paper and graphs to justify war, austerity, and ecological annihilation.  Furthermore, scientism leads to the unwarranted rule of  the credentialed, professional and managers – a hierarchy based on  claims of expertise and knowledge that are epistemically shaky.  In other words, technocratic managers claim  mastery  on subjects where study and experience lead to diminishing returns in knowledge, given the extreme difficulty of modelling political and economic phenomena accurately.  Because study and experience on politics and economics will only lead to authentic knowledge up to a certain low threshold, it follows that  educated civilians have the necessary understanding to rule themselves, which contrasts with the current outsourcing of  political administration to career-politicians and technocratic specialists.  I will sketch in the following paragraphs why political expertise is dubious at best, and why the fetishization of it can be politically reactionary.

Political and economic phenomena are extremely complex and non linear systems that are opaque to rigorous, careful study.  I’ve written a couple of posts on this subject matter.   To summarize, in linear systems, the behaviour of a system can be deconstructed into the behaviour of its units. For example,  white light can be decomposed into various colors.  Two water ripples can interfere and create another ripple that behaves as the sum of its parent ripples.  Therefore, careful study of the unit will reveal also the behaviour of a larger  linear system that is composed by those units.  Much of the physical sciences reduce to the research of linear systems, precisely because they can be rigorously studied. Yet most of relevant systems are  nonlinear, therefore they cannot be understood as  a sum of their parts. For example, understanding the individual human psyche will not extrapolate to an accurate picture of society. Furthermore, socio-economic  systems are  complex because different units of the system influence each other even when the distance between the units is large.  A tweet by Donald Trump, typed  from his Tower in New  York, could affect the global  stock-market, and increase the price of  tortillas in Mexico the next day.  The complexity and non-linearity means that  returns in  the study of  that system diminish sharply.  For example, it seems unlikely that someone with a PhD in economics will predict better the onset of the next economic crisis than someone with just a bachelor’s in economics, simply because these systems are so complex and vast,  and therefore some understanding, while possible, is severely limited beyond a couple of heuristics.  Paper-pushers in the Pentagon thought in 2003 that the Iraq war will be a clean, smooth  and fast operation, yet, many untrained, liberal teenagers sensed  intuitively that it the war was going to be a mess – as we know from hindsight, the intuitive teenager was more correct than the trained, military “scientist”.

So if what is knowable is severely constrained, what is expertise?  Much of professional and academic expertise is not necessarily about the dominion of true  facts, but in understanding a method. In  other words,  advanced credentials train you to do things a certain way,  regardless if that way reveals the truth or not.  This is true, even in the physical sciences.  Theoretical astrophysics is a good case study of this phenomenon. For example,  neutron stars,  the zombie remnants of  massive stars that have depleted their fuel, are very extreme and compact objects, given that they are so dense  that their gravitational field distorts space and time, and the laws of nuclear physics as we understand them start to break down. For example, it’s theorized that the neutron stars’ core densities are so extreme   that  exotic phases of matter appear, such as the melting of neutrons into quarks.   However, the interior of these objects are almost epistemically opaque to us, given that these extreme densities cannot be recreated in labs, the astronomical observations  are poor, and quantum chromodynamics, the theoretical framework that studies matter at those extreme conditions,  faces computational  problems in that regime, such as the so called “numerical sign problem”.  Yet, these large obstacles and uncertainties do not not stop scientists from creating their own models and equations to study the interior of the neutron star. These scientists follow an identifiable method for their models, which not only respects the known laws of physics, but also uses specific forms of scientific activity, such as computer simulations, mathematical descriptions,  and peer-review publishing. In other words, although it is very hard to prove the veracity of these models, given that many different  approaches can  reproduce the scarce observational data of neutron stars,   “model-creation” is done in a scientifically valid matter, respecting all known physics, publishing in the right journals, and containing certain quantitative rigour.  In that sense, this research is scientific, yet, just because it is scientific, does not mean it reveals an accurate description of reality.

My point is not so much to debunk expertise, or the study of neutron stars (research that I find fascinating), but that sometimes expertise in a specific field will not necessarily lead to factual knowledge, but instead, training in a way of doing things that has an ambiguous track record in delivering accurate descriptions of reality.  This implies then that up to a certain  point,  training and experience will deliver diminishing returns of knowledge about the world, given that further study and experience will only lead to understanding of a particular way of doing  and seeing things – a method, not necessarily into the mastery of world-facts.    So to return to the example of the bachelors in economics versus the PhD economics, although the PhD spent six more years in school than the bachelor’s, both will probably have a similar track record in predicting the next economic crisis, given the diminishing returns of knowledge.

The difficulty of studying neutron stars is revealing, because the problem of the political adminstration of society is orders of magnitude harder. Thus, it follow that the point at which credentials and “experience” stops returning  knowledge about true economic and political facts, but instead only returns understanding about the particular method, is a very low threshold, lower than the one for theoretical astrophysics.  This is because the problem of political adminstration is much more nonlinear, uncertain and complex, than the problem of neutron stars.  If the threshold is low, then it means that any reasonably educated person should be capable  of reaching this threshold, and participate in the political administration of their reality with  the same competence than heavily groomed polticial-careerists that spent all their life padding their resumes.  Yet, the current capitalist state is an opaque machine where experts with impressive credentials operate largely without the input of their subjects – directing their white paper and conferences at each other, only receiving input from a minority of politicized civilians (in the U.S., only about 35 percent of the population votes) in the form of a mediocre vote for a roster of choices filled by career-politicians, who justify their positions through the language of expertise and science. Yet, up to a certain point, they are merely experts at “expertise” and “careerism”.  Finally, not only these “experts” know very little more about the political  and economic realities of the world than the educated civilian, but they transform the State into their own image. This is what is commonly referred as “rule of law”,  where administrative transactions that should be straight-forward become bureaucratized as they most follow a set of labyrinthine laws and regulations only accessible to specialists and lawyers.  So rather than the State accomplishing things in the most effective and leaner sense, it needs to incorporate other “specialists” to navigate the labyrinthe of laws, regulations, and forms, created by  specialists themselves.

The right-wing has so far incorporated a critique of the specialist, albeit from a crack-pot and cynical perspective.   We see this in the stereotypes of the leftist as an “ivory tower academic” that doesn’t actually know the true facts of the ground. This vulgar criticism of the specialist is weaponized by the  right also against scientists that endanger  reactionary beliefs, such as climate scientists or pro-choice biologists.  However, socialists shouldn’t  fall into the uncritical defence of the political specialist, such as the weak-kneed centrists do.  Nor we should embrace uncritically the idea of “scientists” ruling the world, as Neil Degrasse Tyson recently did, given that the problems studied by scientists do not give them more expertise about our political reality than the average, educated worker. We should instead argue  that there is no legitimate expertise that justifies the rule of unaccountable specialists. Instead, any reasonable educated population should be  able to rule itself through transparent, democratic mechanisms; political administrators should be  democratically chosen from the population of workers, be accountable, recallable, and have stringent term-limits. Furthermore, such a State, instead of being structured in the image of the specialist, with complicated and opaque regulations and laws, and therefore, always chained to lawyers, courts, and judges, should be transparent, lean and de-emphasize “rule of law”.  Finally, higher education, which is nowadays chained to the imperatives of the division of labour and the  market, should be  used to create a rounded, well educated population, in contrast to how capitalists use universities as outsourced job-training centers that they do not have to pay for,  shifting the financial burden on workers and tax-payers.

 

 

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The tragedy of the socialist atomic bomb.

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One of the  biggest ironies of history is that many of the scientists hired by the  State to build the atomic bomb were communists, socialists and pacifists – people who rejected the first world war as an inter-imperialist massacre of workers.  Many of the individuals that solved the  equations of nuclear scattering in their day jobs, read Karl Marx at night.   The House Un-American Activities Committee summoned many names immortalized in physics textbooks: Oppenheimer, that loathsome  snitch that outed his communist friends to the Feds just to save his career; David Bohn, a Communist Party fellow traveller that self-exiled to Brazil after any possibility of a career in America was destroyed because he refused to tattle his comrades to Hoover’s dogs.   Across the sea, in the gulag, the brilliant mind of Lev Landau clicked with theorems about liquid helium and neutron stars, condemned to  prison because he denounced Stalin as a fascist traitor to communist principles. After his colleague pleaded to Beria for Landau’s freedom, Landau was released, turned into a “learned slave” that solved the mathematics of nuclear destruction.

Yet, the biggest socialist name behind the atomic bomb was Einstein.  Einstein had shown that a tiny morcel of matter could turn into immense amounts of kinetic and thermal energy through his theory of relativity.  Relativity applied to the heavens revealed that the Sun was not powered by coal or gravitational contraction – but by  the fusion of hydrogen into heavier elements. Yet, the second world war forced Einstein to consider the laws that regulate the starry night to the science of human massacre.  According to relativity, the fissioning of an Uranium-235 nucleus would  release large amounts of kinetic energy through  high energy particles and heat. The human body, which to zeroth order approximation is water, could be boiled into instantaneous evaporation by the electrons, neutrons, and gamma rays ejected from nuclear fission.     The same  man that had a thousand page FBI file for his left-wing and pacifist sympathies, called for a socialist world government, and  broke bread with spanish anarchist-communists, was now an acolyte  of  the cult of nuclear death.

The atomic bomb had domesticated the brightest minds of the world into becoming the mercenaries and slaves of presidents and politburos.     The world had turned the rebel scientist that had hurled  Diderot’s encyclopedia  against  popes and kings, into the priest of the new epoch unfolding: technocratically  managed capitalism in the west, and bureaucratic centralism in the eastern  stalinist states.  Thomas Kuhn, the physicist turned into a philosopher of science,  argued that the Manhattan Project was a turning point, a phase transition of the scientific community – the State, now became the largest financier and organizer of science, as generals, secretaries, and presidents discovered that they could incorporate relativity and quantum mechanics into the science of war.   The scientist was transformed from a casual and diffuse intellectual that survived from the generous patronage of some rich person or king, into another cog or spring of the State.  As the material means of scientific self-reproduction became increasingly tied to a racist, war-mongering State, the scientist became more conservative.  The scientific imagination that once dreamed of utopian communism in Mars, became chained in its left side by liberalism and in its right side by fascism. The only caveat was that the aparachnik must have the scientist’s ear – the opaque empire of  class stratification, technology and information was satisfactory only if it ran in a scientific and efficient manner.

Today,  the  ideological putrefaction of the scientist is revealed  in the imminent danger of climate change.  The old covenant that required the scientist to have the aparachnik’s ear  was broken by anti-scientific barbarians like Trump. Yet, as the ideology of “apolitical” technocracy and management chipped away the political consciousness of scientists,   they are only able to see all solutions to the problem of Earth as simply a question of the  presidential “great man” , the modern version of a monarch, taking scientific council seriously.     Those who are pro-science simply have to back the right politician –  such as Obama or Macron, that will hopefully apply the right scientific formula that will phase carbon fuels out of the market,  and develop enough solar panels, nuclear power pants, and wind turbines.

However, the technocratic dimension of the problem is simply a flimsy wrapper around a corrupt core. We live in a world-system fractured into competing nation-states, each side compelled by economic survival into cheap resource extraction and hyper-exploitation of human beings. The imperialist countries (e.g. USA, France, the Netherlands, etc,)  will simply transfer ecological damages into the third world, where lack of regulations allows the destruction of human bodies and the earth through overwork, cheap resource extraction, and pollution.  The imperialist states will bring the profit squeezed from the periphery into  the “regulated” global north, in order to build bike lanes, solar panels, and nuclear power plants. Although climate change is a worldwide phenomenon, the people that will experience massive casualties are the world’s poor in the global south, because the infrastructure of the imperialist countries can partly  sustain the abrupt change. The developing countries such as India, Mexico, etc are also forced to exploit their own natural resources and pollute their atmosphere to squeeze a profit margin that makes them  stay afloat in the merciless world market. Capitalist competition will always drive firms to wear and tear the Earth and human beings; to disengage in this ecological and human destruction is to become uncompetitive against the agents that actually choose to play this rigged game. A couple of “progressive” presidents scattered in various nation-states, having the responsibility to remain competitive in order to generate profits that lead to more jobs, roads and social programs, are  toothless before the blind, idiot god of capital.  Symbolic supra-natural organizations such as the United Nations and the Paris Agreement, which lack executive and legislative powers, cannot turn the tide.

After scientists turned into mercenaries and slaves of the State, many Leftists have grown suspicious – hence the modern phenomenon of Luddism, “small and local”, and Primitivism.  But, unless the world faces a horrible cataclysm that renders most of humanity into bands of hunter-gatherers, a post-capitalist world will be a technological civilization that shall require planning and scientific expertise.  If scientists want to save the world from ecological catastrophe, then their imagination has to transcend the current rules of the game – rules bounded by presidentialism, capitalism  and technocratism. Instead, scientists need to find inside their hearts that Einstein that penned “Why Socialism?” and called for a world, democratic government. Einstein referred to current class society as  “predatory human phase”, and therefore considered the economic rules that regulated capitalism to be void when imagining a  world without gods and masters. Perhaps, because we are living in a dark age of reaction, scientists haven’t awaken the Einstein inside them. Yet as crisis summons socialism into the minds of humans again, a new Einstein may emerge from the world-spirit, that will not only bring a new social revolution, but a scientific revolution that shall upend our notions of reality, space and time.

Edit: Some readers have pointed out that Einstein wasn’t directly involved in the Manhattan Project.  This is true to the extent that he wasn’t working in a lab, or scribbling equations for it, but he wrote the letter that was decisive in prompting Roosevelt into developing the Manhattan Project. In that sense, he is arguably one of the most responsible, perhaps even more than many of the people directly employed, in the development of the atomic bomb. In fact, Einstein regretted writing that letter. I also edited the wording of the article a little bit to reflect the fact that nuclear fission isn’t the same as relativity, given the comments of the readers. Relativity is “agnostic” to nuclear physics – although relativity predicts that conversion of mass to kinetic energy is possible, it doesn’t explain by itself the mechanisms (e.g. nuclear fusion, fission) of the conversion. However, the theory of relativity was still crucial in the development of the atomic bomb (and much of nuclear physics in general), because it’s through energy-mass equivalence that we can predict the kinetic energies and masses of the particles emitted in a nuclear reactions.

Against Chavez, heroes and all great men.

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The economic crisis in Venezuela has dealt a mortal blow to the Bolivarian project, with the popular support previously enjoyed by Chavismo dissolving under the weight of immiseration and authoritarianism.  The streets have became war-zone, where the police and the armed colectivo gangs gun down protestors and rioters. The  Bolivarian project failed, which wasn’t socialist in the first place, but another iteration of  what Marx called Bonapartism – the concentration of power into an autocratic but “benevolent” military leader that distributes some of the surplus generated by oil rent to the underclasses in order to secure a power base. The collapse of the Bolivarian project after death of their larger than life figurehead – Chavez, confirms that working class power was not institutionalized, but instead, the political foundation of Bolivarianism  was in Chavez’s charismatic persona – a scaffolding built upon his television show, his broad shoulders and thick wrists, his mesmerizing speeches against the imperialist yankees.  Yet, in order to advance the socialist project worldwide it’s necessary to understand the complex racial, social, and class divisions that gave rise to not only Chavismo, but the other charismatic (and sometimes autocratic) left-leaning politicians that recently emerged in Latin America – the Correas, the Lulas, and Morales. Furthermore, we must dispel the myths created by the right-wing opposition – the organized expression of a a racist, light-skinned and elitist alliance of  managers, professionals, and businessmen.  Finally, we should point out the limits of Chavismo:  which are nationalism, career bureaucrats,  and the fetishization of “larger-than life” men and their political form – the presidency, the latter which is nothing but a term-limited and sterilized variation  of the monarchy.

Chavismo cannot be understood without looking at the complex power differentials between classes and races in Latin America. Latin America suffers of stark economic  and political inequalites that are scaffolded by  complex racial  and social stratifications, many of these hierarchies inherited from the colonial era. Light-skinned latinos, or “whites”  are overrepresented in the managerial, professional, and wealthy demographics, while amerindians, blacks, and the dark-skinned make the bulk amongst the poor, the working classes, and the peasantry.  These class and racial divisions create a very tense political landscape.  In the last decade,  due to these social and class contradictions, a group of charismatic, left-leaning politicians took power in many south american countries – a phenomenon referred as the “pink tide”.  These larger than life figures –  Morales, Lula, and Chavez to name a few, were elected by  workers and slum-dwellers at the dismay of the largely white managerial and business castes.  While in office, many of these left-leaning politicians, such as Lula in Brazil and Chavez in Venezuela, rode a spike in prices of their countries’ export commodities. They used these surpluses to finance all sorts of social services and subsidies that made them very popular.  However, once the world-economy became unfavourable to their exports, the national economies suffered and thus their popularity waned.  In Brazil, this emboldened the right wing and culminated in the undemocratic coup against the Worker’s Party (PT), with the ousting of Dilma Rousseff and the sentencing of Lula.  In Venezuela, the traditional strongholds of chavismo, such as the urban slums, have eroded under the weight of shortages and economic crisis.

The organized opposition to this pink tide is largely reactionary and loathsome.  They are the political representatives of the credentialed, the managers, and the rich – a caste that was previously politically dominant, which oversaw the inequality and corruption that fuelled the current populist wave.   Their  elitist contempt for the impulses of what made chavismo, and the rest of the pink tide possible, is palpable. They think of  the working poor that supported  the leftist politicians as a largely ignorant,  lazy and amorphous mass –  a genetically inferior race that  lacks the white skin that the ruling classes inherited from their brutal and violent ancestors.   Within the opposition’s pathetic cries for democracy and freedom, and the dramatic stories they feed to their western audiences in Canada, the United States and Europe, there’s a concealment of the privileges they enjoyed as petroleum engineers, landlords, and businessmen.

The racist and incompetent capitalist class made the impulses behind the pink tide very legitimate.  However, these impulses weren’t  channeled  into the building of independent, democratic  and working class organizations that want to do away with the power of bureaucrats and managers, but directed into left-leaning  and “benevolent” career politicians.   Therefore, the success or failure of these leftist project were tied to the rise and fall of this leftist bureaucratic class – a managerial caste that had to consolidate  power for themselves in order to guarantee  social programs and wealth distribution. With this consolidation of power, comes autocracy, corruption, and embezzlement (hence the rise of the bolibourgeosie).   Once the world-economy triggered the  collapse of value of the export commodities these career politicians and caudillos used to extract a surplus,  their power base dissolved. Because these politicians  made themselves the rulers responsible for the fate of the nation-state, then the blame of all their country’s ills naturally fell on them.

Just as in the case of the venezuelan PSUV and the brazilian PT,  every leftist party that takes power through the ordinary means of the office, without eroding the narratives and foundations that give rise to the career-politician,  will ultimately be fragile, as it will take responsibility for all the liabilities of managing the nation-state.  Some of the structural beams that support political careerism are:  inflated salaries,  unelected and unaccountable officers,    aparachniks that make  a livelihood out of wielding bureaucracies, a judiciary branch appointed from above, and ultimately, the existence of an executive power personified in a “great man” – the presidency. These mechanism that concentrate power in a largely identifiable center, are not meant to empower the general populace, but instead create a bureaucratic caste that  maintains the status quo – a machinery that will sooner or later veto socialist policies.  In contrast, if the working class actually took power, by abolishing the presidency and creating a truly democratic republic that replaces career politicians with elected and recallable worker-officers  – a republic that merges the legislative and executive power into a federation of  democratic councils – then the success and failure of socialism will be the responsibility of the working class, and there will not be a larger than life hero to deify or demonize.

Finally, the nation-state cannot support  socialism, for the nation behaves as a firm connected to the world-economy.  The nation-state must remain competitive in a capitalist way in order to provide its subjects with clothing, shelter, and food – all which is largely produced by a complex global assembly line that couples all the workers of the world.  The leftist bureaucrats that took power in Venezuela made the nation-state uncompetitive, which ultimately caused a lack of basic goods and mass immiseration. Anti-capitalists cannot make the nation-state competitive in a capitalist market, therefore latin american socialists must fight for democratic forms that consolidate the whole continent into one polity, while aspiring to create a global, democratic and socialist republic in the future.  This vision heavily contrasts the nationalism that has infected most of modern latin american leftism.

Many leftists will say that the Bolivarian project failed because  it wasn’t sufficiently socialist – that the state didn’t expropriate private property or “abolish money” or some other leftist platitude. Yet chavismo was doomed to fail since the beginning, because it didn’t consist of the people taking power for themselves through democratic, transparent structures that they can wield, but instead, the workers  made nationalist politicians responsible for their livelihood and liberation. Some leftists will say that the communal councils and mass organizations are proof that Chavez was actually empowering workers, but if anything, these organizations served as a way to consolidate the power of career politicians on the shoulders of the proletariat. A socialism in Latin America will be continental, transparent, and democratic, or it will be surely overthrown by the pressure of the world-economy and degenerate into corruption and authoritarianism.