Su un treno italiano

Come si era potuti arrivare a tanto? pensavo mentre guardavo la ragazza. Sui trent’anni, rossa di capelli & ben piazzata, stava telefonando. Lei un controllore di biglietti su un treno regionale della tratta Roma-Firenze: telefonava ma nessuno rispondeva. Io in uno scompartimento fra i tanti, fuori dal finestrino una stazione fra le tante, asse_roma_berlino_castiglion_del_lago.jpgun altro villaggio Potёmkim – con scritte mai cancellate di un certo Asse Roma-Berlino. Roba vecchia. Nei sedili di fronte a me, tre bei ragazzi africani. Vestiti come mille altri adolescenti Italiani – uno di loro con cellulare LG in mano, tutti con scarpe sportive di ultima generazione. Tre ragazzi Italiani di colore come tanti. La ragazza aveva intimato loro di esibire il biglietto, una, due, tre volte. Loro non si erano nemmeno voltati. Niente. Forse non capivano l’Italiano – in fondo parlavano fra loro una lingua che non capivo. Forse in Inglese avrebbero potuto capirla?
La ragazza ora ha preso il telefono – chiama il capotreno. Io intervengo, in Inglese domando loro se la ragione dell’esibita arrogante indifferenza alla di lei richiesta sia che, forse, non capiscono l’ Italiano. “Non abbiamo biglietti – mi dicono in perfetto Inglese, non abbiamo documenti, non abbiamo nulla”.
La ragazza ha chiamato il capotreno – che sopraggiunge. Un uomo spento. Li invita ad alzarsi. I tre, con postura arrogante, si fanno verso la porta. La stazione e’ arrivata. Scendono, mi salutano in Inglese, ridono e se ne vanno, forse salgono sul treno successivo.
“Non si puo’ fare niente” mi dicono i due ferrovieri, visibilmente umiliati. O forse arresi a uno stato di cose che percepiscono ingiusto ma immodificabile. Mi colpisce la ragazza a cui, ancor giovane, di certo non e’ sfuggito che e’ stata lei a perdere. La dignita’ del suo lavoro, dell’uniforme che indossa e’ stata vilipesa. “Non possiamo fare niente, non hanno documenti, non si sa dove vivano, se prendiamo loro qualcosa andiamo contro alla legge Italiana”.
Allora mi torna in mente un passo de “La Chimera” di Sebastiano Vassalli. Dove si parla delle leggi che nell’ Italia spagnola del 1600 regolavano la coltivazione del riso intorno alle mura della citta’. Le leggi prevedevano che non si potesse coltivare a meno di una distanza minima dalle mura – ma a non piu’ di una massima. Le due misure pero’ erano inconsistenti, ergo in via di legge riso non si poteva coltivare; tutti pero’ coltivavano, creando spazio all’arbitrio di chi quella legge volesse far rispettare. Una legge che creava incentivi perversi per i sudditi dell’Italia spagnola del 1600.
In quel momento ho capito che avevo perso anche io – non solo la ragazza dei biglietti. Le norme che regolano la convivenza civile nel paese Italia, anno domini 2017, non sono meno inconsistenti di quelle descritte da Vassalli. Anche quei tre ragazzi avevano perso, non era questo il paese civile che stavano cercando quando avevano lasciato il continente nero.
L’illegalita’ alligna cosi’, nell’Italia di oggi, fra l’umiliazione di alcuni e l’indifferenza di tutti.

Big Data and AI strategies

We live in the so-called dataquake:

‘A few thousands of years ago, you needed to be a god or goddess if you wanted to be painted, be sculpted, or have your story remembered and told. A thousands years ago you needed to be a king or queen, and a few centuries ago you needed to be a rich merchant, or in the household of one. Now anybody, even a soup can, can be painted.”

Thus Ethem Alpaydin, in the brisk “Machine Learning” (MIT, 2016) . JPMorgan has come up with an insightful introduction to this in the context of quant finance. Here a link to it.

China rightly prides itself of being at the forefront of AI research. Worldwide.
As a visit in one random Chinese supermarket can remind the casual observer,


they do have the biggest demographic indeed, and they cannot fail to harness that wealth of human data generating processes to train ever more advanced networks. But what if video games can be used to train networks? What if, as AlphaGo Zero has recently accomplished, there is less and less scope for human agency even at the stage of training such a network? Human data generating processes can at best inhabit a vast region of collinearity, a small spanning set of independent components. See also here.

J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

“Our elegy is a sociological one” says J.D.Vance at some point in his spellbinding book, “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis”1. Elegy was the funeral chant in ancient Greece – a place to mourn the passing of beloved ones. Vance Hillbilly-Elegy-678x1024autobiographical memoir captures the spirit of contemporary America in a rich tapestry of figures. The book is a narrative of geographic segregation, a sequence of snapshots from class-system tourism into white-trash. The real protagonist of this moving account is the loss of the white-dividend in contemporary rust-belt America.
In 2005, the equity research team in the American bank Citigroup circulated an infamous report: it gave large currency to the loosely defined concept of ‘plutonomy’, basically arguing that the world economic order had irrevocably changed: that – it said – was reflected in the emergence of a new wealthy transnational class – whose luxury needs perspicacious investors would better be long on.   Later on, in 2013, another American bank -JPMorgan- came with a report focusing on the (structural) reason of Europe economic under-performance compared with the US: it argued that Europe could not compete with US because of the dead weight of its post WWII welfare state.
During his teens in the industrial Midwest, Jack Vance was oblivious to the complex web of dependencies an economy like the US was and is deeply entrenched in. cimino_deer_hunterBut he had to look no further than into his backyard to assess the genesis of the troubles he was mired in: a dysfunctional culture. “Social class in America isn’t just about money” (pg. 63), says Vance and “[Hillbillies] were of the same racial order (whites) as those who dominated economical, political and social power in local and national arenas. But Hillbillies shared many regional characteristics with the southern blacks arriving in Detroit” (pg. 31). With precocious intelligence of his predicament, Vance bootstrapped his way to a Master at Yale Law School amidst the most unpromising circumstances; he wasted no lesson his unprivileged background could offer: a summer job in a local grocery store became an applied sociology class onto eating habits of lower-class: “The more harried a customer, the more they purchased precooked or frozen food, the more likely they were to  be poor. And I knew they were poor because of the clothes they wore or because they purchased their food on food stamps.” (pg . 132) – while the period in the US Marine Corp was a difficult but ultimately beneficial step in the direction of self-discipline, planning, commitment. No one in his close proximity had done quite anything like that before.

One of the readings that enlightened him best was a study by William Wilson, “The Truly Disadvantaged”. “As millions migrated north to factory jobs, the communities that sprouted up around those factories were vibrant but fragile: When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind were trapped in town that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could – generally the well educated, wealthy or well-connected – left, leaving behind communities of poor people.” (pg. 144). But we should not look at his book as a master class in macro-economy: Vance does not articulate the reasons such factories outsourced to Asia, he does not diffuse on China’s opening of special economic zones (1979) -whereby a  billion cheap workers entered the job market, depleting Europe’s and US’s traditional (if a bit pampered) labor constituencies2: Vance does not need to, because his elegy is a most personal cry, it is a most passionate insight into family ties crumbling, into drug addiction and steady downward movement on the socioeconomic ladder. But via his effort, intelligence and ability,  via the examined life -ie peering into  his own predicament- and via the help of valuable mentors along the way, Vance managed to escape his destiny and become a successful Private Equity operator in the Bay Area.

His book is a stark reminder that true enemies to success are within, they are complacency and delusional faiths, as well as self-serving narratives of being disadvantaged. His mentor at Yale, tiger mom Amy Chua, could not have asked more from one of his pupils.

1. [ Vance, J. D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. William Collins 2016]
2. Late Eric Hobsbawm had already charted this disarray in “The Forward March of Labour Halted?”


Art in Fractured Times

In Madrid, at the Reina Sofia Museum of Contemporary Art, a special exhibition chartsparis_1937 this year the artistic travail Picasso had to endure to realize Guernica for the World Exhibition held in Paris, 1937. Surely that was the most famous of the decade (possibly of the century). miro_spainIt displayed in adjacent order Hitler’s German pavillon, Stalin’s Soviet pavillon and (of course) the Spanish – Republican – one. As it is well known, Picasso realized Guernica for it, while Buñuel supervised the cinematic propaganda effort on behalf of the Republican government. Miro helped his way.  A wonderful book of late professor Hobsbawm – aptly called ‘Fractured Times– charts the same terrain. An exhibition held in London 1996, duly surveyed in its wonderful catalog, also explored the deeply problematic link between art and power in Europe during the 30ies. Black-Mirror-pig-350144That was an age -it seems to me – where artists could still drive the political debate with their accomplishments. Is this a hope that went irreparably lost in our time? The first episode aired by British TV series Blackmirror (deftly called “The National Anthem” ) suggests to me that – in somewhat contrived way – this is till possible in our time.
See also this link, where the ideas of Walter Benjamin are (possibly) updated.

Relentless pace of automation

It must have felt slightly odd when, at the Morreeb Dunes Festival 2017, United Arabs Emirates, robots substituted human jockeys in the camel race.
Embed from Getty Images

In his farewell speech, in Chicago, Obama explicitly said:

The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle-class jobs obsolete.

Those words were an apt reminder, if anything, of the interesting report that the White House commissioned to top experts in the field, “Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy” (link|pdf). Quite unusually in the litany of experts works on the topic, the report borders on ideas such as universal basic income, the hollowing out of middle-class as a link in the erosion of the political center, the (education) measures necessary to accompany the transition – a stark reminder of the huge increase of public spending in education at the beginning of 20th century that eased the transition in US  from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Further pointers in this previous post, on Human and Horses.

Pankaj: Age of Anger

In 1862, Dostoevsky visited London for the World Exhibition. The Crystal Palace transfixed his mind. He penned the following perceptive remarks:

“You  sense that it would require great and everlasting spiritual denial and fortitude in order not to submit, not to capitulate before the impression, not to bow to what is, and not to deify Baal, that is, not to accept the material world as your ideal”.


Genius was necessary to understand the hidden message behind that beaming facade – he had that in abundance, but crucially it took something else too. Dostoevsky came from backward Russia, where the narrow-mindedness of the ruling class kept the country in the tight grip of underdevelopment, religious bigotry, mass illiteracy if not outright serfdom: the contemplation of the Palace the_possessedfrom the remoteness of Russian spiritual and material conditions was the springboard for the revelations he uncovered in his mature literary production. In “The Possessed”, Dostoevsky explored the schizophrenic reaction of the young intelligentsia against the world heralded by The Crystal Palace. As described in another entry, czarist Russia was dangerously exposed to the main undercurrent of European civilization in the xix century- i.e. German Idealism. The intelligentsia knew just how bad things were in motherland and how the forward movement of History – so neatly exemplified by the palace in London – was restrained by the parochialism of Russian ruling class. This situation visited upon them strong, unmitigated anger.

In the riveting “Age of Anger: A History of the Present”1Pankaj Mishra moves from the same vantage point – he gives a name to the displacements that modernity has wrought on countless human masses, in the entire ‘global village’. He analyzes how the pull of backwardness and the sheer attractive force of the the modern Palace interplay in the soul of modern man. In essence, the book

“argues that the unprecedented political, economic and social disorder that accompanied the rise of the industrial capitalist economy in nineteen-century Europe, and led to world wars, totalitarian regimes and genocide in the first half of the twentieth century is now infecting much vaster regions and bigger populations: that, first exposed to modernity through European Imperialism, large parts of Asia and Africa are now plunging deeper into the West’s own fateful experience of that modernity” (AoA, pg. 10).

In order to drive home such a wide-ranging recognition, age_of_anger.jpgPankaj avails himself of the best guides. He draws heavily from Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”, Arendt’s “Origin of Totalitarianism” (see here) and of course, as an hidden undercurrent, from the Marshall Bermann’s “All that is Solid melts into air” (text). But the true inspiration for the book -what makes it precious to me – lies in the superb “From Hegel To Nietzsche” by Karl Löwith, where the Jewish philosopher – and student of Heidegger- charts the internal movements  of the German spirit in the XIX century.
German classical philosophy – which had in Hegel its final synthesis before disgregation began – is the genial culmination of the European mind coming to terms with the modern world – its main focus the critical exegesis of what modernity implies, how its potential could be realized, how its promises should not be betrayed. Referring to Hegel and the tradition spurred by him, Pankaj is adamant:

“[German philosophy’s] insights germinating during shattering historical and emotional crises were far removed from the stolidly empirical traditions of Anglo-America, or the cold objectivity prized among the ‘politically and economically sated nations’ as Weber called them” (AoA, p. 33) and moreover “The modern world’s greatest philosophical system, implicit in all our political ideas and values today, was built during this time. The French Revolution may have announced the nineteen century’s religion of the nation, and the cults of liberty and equality; but Germans brooding on their political inadequacy produced an Ur-philosophy of development: one to which liberal internationalists and modernization theorists as well as communist universalists and cultural nationalists should subscribe” (AoA, 203)

Pankaj’s real polemic target are the sanitized narratives of the last two centuries of European history. In those narratives, a humanistic, freedom-loving Enlightenment is only shaken, from time to time, by the external threat of some demagogue who takes power in Berlin (1933) or by some fanatic zealots of top-down modernization who happen to run the Kremlin from 1917, etc. You can perceive the Frankfurt School’s lesson -and Hannah Arendt’s-  in his words:

“‘Totalitarianism’ with his tens of millions of victims was identified as a malevolent reaction to a benevolent Enlightenment tradition of rationalism, humanism, universalism and liberal democracy – a tradition seen as an unproblematic norm. It was clearly too disconcerting to acknowledge that totalitarian politics crystallized the ideological currents (scientific racism, jingoistic nationalism, imperialism, technicism, aesteticized politics, utopianism, social engineering and the violent struggle for existence) flowing through the whole of Europe in the late Nineteen Century” (AoA, pg. 17)

As early as 1776, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” metaphor was duplicitous. Its first reference – to an impersonal optimization mechanism (more precisely an iterative solver of constrained inequalities) determining prices – was clear at once. But only few spirits red past that. One of those was Kant. In “Idee zu einer cosmopolitischen Regierung“, he had already recast the ‘invisible hand’ into the concept of ‘unsocial sociability’ (see Hobsbawm, Age Of Revolution, pg 58). But it was Rousseau who understood the full import of that – and built a system on it, with “[his] prescient criticism of a political system based on envious comparison, individual self-seeking and the multiplication of artificial needs”. Between the “First Discourse” (1750),  the “Second Discourse” (1754) and “The Social Contract” (1762), the Swiss thinker voiced the new category of ressentiment, or anger indeed – the anger against a state of the world which accelerates competitions on uneven playing fields – what Arendt called later on ‘negative solidarity’ (AOA, 51), i.e.

“individuals with very different pasts find themselves herded by capitalism and technology into a common present, where grossly unequal distributions of wealth and power have created humiliating new hierarchies. This proximity […] is rendered more claustrophobic by digital communication, the improved capacity for envious and resentful comparison, and the commonplace, and therefore compromised, quest for individual distinction and singularity” (AoA, 13)

Rousseau saw another thing very clearly. He understood that the ruling class, and in particular the intellectual stratum (in his time, Voltaire) would always want to dictate what is best for the common man. Most of the enlightenment philosophers and all the technocratic intelligentsia in the following two centuries, would stand by Voltaire side. Nietzsche understood the full import of that, when “claimed to identify in the battle between Voltaire and Rousseau the ‘unfinished problem of civilization’ “(AoA, pg. 94). In the posthumous “The Willpower” (123 –Spring-Fall 1887), Nietzsche wrote indeed:

The unfinished problems I pose anew: the problem of civilization, the fight between Rousseau and Voltaire around 1760. Man becomes more profound, mistrustful, “immoral,” stronger, more confident of himself—and to this extent “more natural”: this is “progress.”— At the same time, in accordance with a kind of division of labor, the strata that have become more evil are separated from those that have become milder and tamer—so that the overall fact is not noticed immediately.—It is characteristic of strength, of the self-control and fascination of strength, that these stronger strata possess the art of making others experience their progress in evil as something higher. It is characteristic of every “progress” that the strengthened elements are reinterpreted as “good.

These two strands germinating from Rousseau’s thought would undergird  every critique of modernization projects ever after- from Komeini to Brexit or Trump, Pankaj reiterates. Hence the anger as a driving force of political turmoil – spread to the whole globe by the concurrent destruction of premodern cultures and by the existence of digital platforms mirroring events in real time, with no geographical boundaries2. His conclusion is worth repeating here:

“Many people find it easy to aim their rage against an allegedly cosmopolitan and rootless cultural elite. Objects of hatred are needed more than ever before during times of crisis, and rich transnationals conveniently embody the viced of a desperately sought-after but infuriatingly unattainable modernity: money worship, lack of noble virtues such as patriotism. Thus, globalization, while promoting integration among shrewd elites, incites political and cultural sectarianism everywhere else, especially among people forced against their will into universal competition” (AoA, pgg 333-334)

We ought to be thankful to the author for his superb book. The great intellectual tradition spurred by German classical philosophy – from Hegel down to Habermas or Bauman – has in Mishra Pankaj another powerful voice.

 This book review is mirrored here as well – where its proper place in the bigger frame of DIGITAL AGE can be better perceived.

1. [ Pankaj, Mishra. Age of Anger. A History of the Present. Penguin Press , 2017]
2. See also: “The coming of Anarchy” by Robert Kaplan

Burleigh: Small wars, Far away places

This splendid book by Michael Burleigh “Small Wars, Faraway Places”1 is an intellectual delight which surely deserves to be read time and again.small_wars_burleigh  The faraway places under scrutiny are, among others, Korea, Middle East, Malaya & Philippines, Indocina, Algeria, Kenya & Congo, Cuba and dulcis in fundo, Vietnam: the intersection of the above list with the time window 1945-1965 makes for a very urgent and compelling reading. The idea which undergirds the book is ambitious, as the subtitle says: to find a common denominator into very divergent phenomena to explain the genesis of the Modern World. From Dien Bien Phu (1954) to Algeria , from Suez (1956) to Congo the book analyses the faltering French and British colonial rules with a close inspection onto the generally confused dynamics of decolonization struggles, and into the lives of the very few people that had the intelligence of the situation, be they Churchill (who “did global strategy rather than free dentures” [pg. 121]), DeGaulle, Eisenhower, Kenyatta or Krushcev.
To set the stage, a remark of Noam Chomsky which I have used in a related post is very poignant.  In “Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship“, Chomsky writes:

“The Spanish Civil War is one of the crucial events of modern history, and one of the most extensively studied as well. In it, we find the interplay of forces and ideas that have dominated European history since the industrial revolution. What is more, the relationship of Spain to the great powers was in many respects like that of the countries of what is now called the Third World. In some ways, then, the events of the Spanish Civil War give a foretaste of what the future may hold, as Third World revolutions uproot traditional societies, threaten imperial dominance, exacerbate great-power rivalries, and bring the world perilously close to a war which, if not averted, will surely be the final catastrophe of modern history.”

At the end of WWII, the societies analyzed in the book were essentially agrarian – hence fundamentally ancillary to the mechanics of industrialized countries: they were providing the raw material to be transformed by the latter. They were peasant societies, whose structure had often not changed since the agrarian revolution 10.000 years before. Even when the elites (often trained in USSR, as Kenyatta or Ho Chi Min) understood – and tried to break free from- the binding logic of international division of labour, they had to navigate between the colonial rule’s intervention, the Cold War shifting allegiances and the internal peasant resistance to change. In the words of marxist historian George Lichtheim (A short History of Socialism, pg. 285):

“However ignorant they may be, peasants are quite capable of grasping the point that the funds for modernization have to be pumped out of the villages into the urban areas. […] The real problem of every nationalist elite in a backward country  is how to get around this stubborn peasant resistance. If it is not to be done in Stalinist fashion – that is by herding the masses into collectives and shipping all opposition elements off to labour camps – it has to be done by some other means: bribery, electoral trickery, appeals to national sentiments, or the straightforward imposition of military rule”.

As said, it took the humiliating experience of Suez (1956) when Nasser nationalized the canal for Britain and France to come to terms with the end of their status as colonial powers. The US had always regarded themselves as champions of freedom: in any event, their very foundation had been an act of rebellion to the (British) colonial yoke and that experience formed the very skeleton of their self-awareness as a country. As Roosvelt wrote in October 1942, “One thing we are sure we are not fighting for is to hold the British Empire together” (SMFP, pg. 2). But, not much later, “Roosvelt […] reluctantly awoke to the probability that the colonial issue might compromise the larger security architecture he envisaged for the post-war world, chiefly by weakening the already debilitated imperial metropolises by stripping away their overseas resources” (SWFP, pg. 28). What happened in the Philippines -engineered by the good services of the “quiet American” (SWFP,pg 199ff, 250ff ) Edward Lansdale– was but an example of a pattern to be repeated in all of the subasian continent: “They [the guerrilla backed by the Americans] became a strongarm force, whose main role to reimpose the authority of the large landowners on the peasants whose campaign for social justice resumed where it had been interrupted by war” (pg. 202).

In the following, few notable cinematographic contributions depicting the liberation struggle will be given.
To follow the temporal stretch of the book articulation, Spielberg’s “The empire of the sun” (1987) (after the eponymous novel by great J.Ballard) Empire_of_the_Sunis clearly the starting point: the Japanese bombing of Shanghai was the very moment when the British empire started its inevitable demise. It was surely Gillo battle_algiersPontecorvo´s “The Battle of Algiers” (1966)  (with music by Morricone) to become the finest example of such a cinema: the Algerian struggle against the French paratroopers is captured in all the moral ambiguity of such a predicament.
In more recent times, wonderful documentaries have emerged from Joshua Oppenheimer’s effort to charter the terrain of Indonesia in the crucial period of 1965-66. act_of_killingAs already reviewed here for some connections with the ideas of Gramsci, his two films (i) The Act of Killing and (ii) The Look of Silence are huge frescos on the contemporary lacerations produced in that backward society in the period scrutinized in the book by Burleigh. Memorias_del_Subdesarrollo
Cuba features prominently in the book, hence a reference to  Memories of Underdevelopment (1968) by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea seems appropriate here. Finally, the figure of US operative Lansdale was depicted by G.Green in his book “The Quiet American”, whose 2002 film rendition is a reflection on the events that took place in the subAsian continent & on the containment theory quiet_americanthat US enforced there. Quoting Burleigh again (pg.199ff) “he [Lansdale] was about to become, on the basis of his work on the Philippines, America´s leading expert on counter-insurgency warfare. His story is so extraordinary and paradigmatic that he is almost a signature theme for much of this book“. A more comprehensive list of decolonization films is here.

Before concluding, an interesting further point is worth stressing from this book. The period chartered coincided with the post-WWII rise of the Soviet Union on the world-stage and its “willingness to kick at the rickety doors of declining British and French global rule” (SWFP,pg. 108). Since 1947, the US policy towards USSR was dictated by a lenghty and powerful report from leading Russian expert George Kennan, “The sources of Soviet conduct”. Crucially, argues Burleigh (pgg. 473-4) the early signs of a sino-soviet split as documented in the later declassified “Esau studies” were never taken into consideration2 till Nixon made his trip to China in 1971. That was too late to avoid the military involvement in Vietnam. A first hand treatment of the fateful 1971 encounter is the 2012 book “On China” by Henry Kissinger3. But this is argument for another review.

1. [ Burleigh, Michael  Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World: 1945-1965, Macmillan, 2013]
2.[See additionally this Esau Report]
3.[ Kissinger,Henry On China, Penguin 2012]