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.  The faraway places under scrutiny are, among others, small_wars_burleighKorea, 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]

Una nota di Pier Paolo Pasolini

Apparsa sul Il Reporter del 19 gennaio 1960, col titolo “La comicità di Sordi, gli stranieri non ridono”, questa interessante nota di Pier Paolo Pasolini sembra, al solito, capace di una penetrazione psicologica straordinaria. Riproduco qui sotto la nota per intero,  a seguire un breve commento.

Dicono che, finora, Alberto Sordi non abbia avuto successo all’estero: può darsi che il successo venga, presto, e che questa situazione sia smentita da una inaspettata «scoperta» (e l’auguro all’attore): comunque non si può non meditare su questo fatto. Alberto Sordi è stato quest’anno al centro del cinema italiano: c’era Alberto Sordi nei Magliari, c’era Alberto Sordi nella Grande guerra, c’era Alberto Sordi nel Moralista, c’era Alberto Sordi in altri tre quattro filmetti di cassetta (vedi Costa Azzurra); in gran parte della produzione italiana c’era Alberto Sordi. E ci sarà. In questo momento la comicità nazionale coincide in gran parte con quella di Sordi. Totò e Fabrizi invecchiati e cadenti, gli altri quasi tutti fuori moda (a parte, più aristocratico, il caso di Eduardo De Filippo), è Sordi che ha il monopolio del riso. Ma all’estero non fa ridere. Bisognerà pur chiederci il perché.
Vediamo un po’: in fondo il mondo della Magnani è, se non identico, simile a quello di Sordi: tutti due romani, tutti due popolani, tutti due dialettali, profondamente tinti di un modo di essere estremamente particolaristico (il modo di essere della Roma plebea ecc.). Eppure la Magnani ha avuto tanto successo, anche fuori d’Italia: il suo «particolarismo» è stato subito compreso, è diventato subito, come si usa dire, universale, patrimonio comune di infiniti pubblici. Lo sberleffo della popolana di Trastevere, la sua risata, la sua impazienza, il suo modo di alzare le spalle, il suo mettersi la mano sul collo sopra le «zinne», la sua testa «scapijata», il suo sguardo di schifo, la sua pena, la sua accoratezza: tutto è diventato assoluto, si è spogliato del colore locale ed è diventato mercé di scambio, internazionale. È qualcosa di simile a quello che succede per i canti popolari: basta trascriverli, aggiustarli un po’, toglierci la selvatichezza e l’eccessivo sentore di miseria, ed eccoli pronti per lo smercio a tutte le latitudini.
Alberto Sordi, no. Parrebbe intraducibile. Lo si direbbe un canto popolare che non si può trascrivere. Ce lo vediamo, ce lo sentiamo, ce lo godiamo noi: nel nostro mondo «particolare».
Ma di che specie è il riso che suscita Alberto Sordi? Pensateci bene un momento: è un riso di cui un po’ ci si vergogna. E il massimo di questo senso di vergogna viene raggiunto, (ricordate?), nella risata angosciosa e un po’ isterica che Sordi strappa al pubblico nei due episodi dei Magliari in cui vende la mercé della povera ingenua gente tedesca, per di più colpita dal lutto. E vero che il «magliaro» è stata la più brutta interpretazione di Sordi: e non si capisce come egli sia così sfuggito di mano a un regista di buon gusto, anzi, di gusto raffinato, come è Rosi. Tuttavia, appunto perché è la più brutta, questa interpretazione può essere presa ad esempio, perché, nel suo eccesso, mostra con chiarezza l’intelaiatura della comicità di Sordi: è la comicità che nasce dall’attrito, con la variopinta e standardizzata società moderna, di un uomo il cui infantilismo anziché produrre ingenuità, candore, bontà, disponibilità, ha prodotto egoismo, vigliaccheria, opportunismo, crudeltà. Alberto_Sordi_I_vitelloni_bisÈ una deviazione dell’infantilismo. E quando uso questa parola, la uso in senso clinico (il lettore mi perdoni), nel senso che le danno gli psichiatri; la uso cioè molto seriamente. Il referto dei medici su Proust era, per esempio, infantilismo. L’infantilismo presiede a qualsiasi operazione artistica moderna, è il dio del decadentismo: cioè della grande arte borghese di questo ultimo secolo. Anche la comicità rientra in questo enorme schema fenomenologico. Da Charlot a Tati, per citare solo i grandi, i personaggi comici sono in realtà dei bambini (e ricordate pure Pascoli: ne siete storiograficamente autorizzati), bambini cresciuti, magari allampanati, magari pelati, ma sostanzialmente bambini: o, che sarebbe lo stesso, poeti. Anarchici, giramondo, nostalgici, scapigliati, spostati, falliti ecc., sono fondamentalmente inadatti a un rapporto normale con la società: in continuo urto con essa, e, nella fattispecie, con le sue convinzioni mondane, col suo tacito galateo di ipocrisie. Nessuno dei grandi comici del nostro tempo è un vero rivoluzionario: ma semplicemente un umanitario, un moralista, che, della società, indica i mali senza indicarne i rimedi. Il «ragazzine» che è in ogni comico non ne sarebbe capace.
Comunque resta un dato di fatto: in ogni comico vero del nostro tempo (e di tutti i tempi, del resto) c’è una profonda rivolta morale, che, se implica l’ingenuità inabile e improduttiva dell’infanzia, ne implica anche la bontà.
La bontà: ecco quello che manca totalmente in Sordi. Charlot ha fatto ridere tutto il mondo perché era buono; Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel e Oliver Hardy hanno fatto ridere tutto il mondo perché erano buoni; Tati fa ridere tutto il mondo perché è buono. La Magnani – che tuttavia non si può dire una «comica», nel senso stretto della parola – è piaciuta a tutto il mondo, pur essendo così particolaristica-mente italica, perché è generosa, appassionata.L'arte_di_arrangiarsi
Alla comicità di Alberto Sordi ridiamo solo noi: perché solo noi conosciamo il nostro pollo. Ridiamo, e usciamo dal cinema vergognandoci di aver riso, perché abbiamo riso sulla nostra viltà, sul nostro qualunquismo, sul nostro infantilismo.
Sappiamo che Sordi è in realtà un prodotto non del popolo (come la vera Magnani) ma della piccola borghesia, o di quegli strati popolari non operai, come se ne trovano specialmente nelle aree depresse, che sono sotto l’influenza ideologica piccolo-borghese. Alberto Sordi, come Cioccetti, è stato educato in sacrestia, da piccolo ha fatto il chierichetto. Cresciuto, si è trovato a doversi adattare: non c’è stata soluzione di continuità morale: ogni atto, che il bambino onesto educato dal prete riproverebbe, è tacitato, è giustificato dalla necessità. Un malato ha la necessità di essere sano, e, preso da questa necessità improrogabile, non hatempo e modo di occuparsi dei mali degli altri. È questo infantilismo come malattia, diventato cattiveria, che commuove in Sordi noi italiani: possiamo perdonarlo, perché sappiamo tutto, cosa c’è dietro e sotto.
Ma fuori d’Italia non sono cattolici: sono protestanti, puritani, o sono dei cattolici rigorosi senza compromessi. Capisco come per pubblici simili sia difficile ridere su un modo di vita che è il peccato stesso, è il male stesso, senza rimedio, senza contraddizione. Essi non conoscono l’arte di arrangiarsi, o, se ne hanno sentore, la vedono molto più romanticamente. Tanta ferocia, tanta viltà è inconcepibile. Noi possiamo riderne, amaramente: ma a loro chi glielo fa fare?
Questa comicità di Sordi piccolo-borghese e cattolica, fondamentalmente senza nessuna fede, senza nessun ideale, non urta e non urterà mai la censura italiana: urta e urterà sempre chi possiede una sensibilità civica e morale, cioè la media dei pubblici francesi e anglosassoni.
Non vorrei che questa potesse parere una eccessiva «stroncatura» di Sordi: in fondo, probabilmente senza rendersene conto, il tipo che egli così intelligentemente e vividamente ha inventato, era necessitato fuori da lui, dalla società in cui egli vive in assoluta acribia. Per diventare un vero grande comico, «universale» (come si dice) gli ci vuole un po’ di senso critico: un po’ di cattiveria intellettuale, finalmente, dopo tanta cattiveria viscerale! C’è infatti la possibilità di inserire nel suo personaggio quel tanto di pietà, cioè di conoscenza di sé e del mondo, sia pure irrazionale e sentimentale, che gli manca. Egli deve essere meno ellittico, meno ammiccante: noi, che ci siamo in mezzo, lo capiamo subito, gli stranieri (cioè il mondo, cioè lo spettatore in assoluto), no. Egli deve rendere esplicita quell’estrema ombra di pietà che nel suo infantilismo pure permane e può commuovere, malgrado le mostruosità di cui è capace.La_grande_guerra
E dico che tutto questo è possibile perché due volte Sordi c’è riuscito: una volta per merito del dialogo, una volta per merito del regista. Intendo riferirmi a una particina indimenticabile, a una specie di «a solo» che Sordi ha eseguito nel Medico e lo stregone; e, soprattutto, alla Grande guerra. In questi due casi, finalmente, Sordi vive di due elementi, entrambi operanti: il Sordi bebé antropofago, cattivo, amorale, e il Sordi poveraccio morto di fame sostenuto suo malgrado da una forza morale, dalla pietà che in infinitesima parte sente e per il resto incute.
Se in Sordi entrasse definitivamente questa contraddizione, se egli capisse che non si può ridere se al fondo del riso non c’è della bontà – pur esercitata o repressa in un mondo nemico – la sua comicità finirebbe di essere uno dei tristi fenomeni della brutta Italia di questi anni, e potrebbe, nei suoi modesti limiti, contribuire almeno a una lotta riformistica e morale.

Le categorie gramsciane (“particolare”, “una lotta riformistica e morale” etc) sono totalmente in chiaro nello splendido tessuto della prosa di Pasolini, come pure l’analisi materialistico-storica della societa’: una vera delizia intellettuale. In progresso di tempo, il Sordi di cui parla PPP si sarebbe affrancato da questa stroncatura per mano di ben piu’ sofferte interpretazioni (si veda per tutti il film di Scola “Riusciranno i nostri eroi“): ma il tipo umano rappresentato dall’attore e’ ancora con noi.  Ancora agli inizi degli anni`80 Calvino poteva scrivere il suo “Apologo sull’onestà nel paese dei corrotti” cogliendo pienamente nel segno.
Mi chiedo che cosa scriverebbero oggi autori dotati della finezza psicologica di PPP o dell’intelligenza delle cose di Italo Calvino sulla societa’ italiana. Mi chiedo se la scomparsa di questo genere di analisi sia da imputare al mutamento “molecolare” della natura stessa della comunicazione (pubblica) o al discredito che codeste categorie (“particolare” etc) incontrano nel discorso pubblico. Piu’ probabilmente, la qualita’ stessa del dibattito intellettuale nel paese Italia e’ cosi’ vistosamente precipitata che l’uso stesso di simili – ma aggiornate – categorie  interpretative  (si pensi al lavoro dell’ultimo  Zygmut Baumann) risulta impervio. In fin dei conti, Pasolini era buon conoscitore di Eliade e Malinowski, della sociologia anglosassone, oltreche’ ovviamente della filosofia classica tedesca.

Chua-Rubenfeld: The Triple Package


Historical inaccuracy aside, the ads for a variety of butter you could see in London few months ago was truly great – it stressed a point tripel_packagedeeply at variance with the liberal consensus. Of course ‘building empires’ is not exactly on the agenda of the democratic & liberal discourse: but that may still be the best way to introduce (and quickly review) an interesting book that has come out recently – to a host of acrimonious denunciations. Let us see what and why.
In ‘The Triple Package’1, tiger mom Amy Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld– both law professors at Yale – argue that  the success of all (census) groups that outperform the median American in terms of income is predicated on three traits that crucially run counter to today’s liberal thinking:
1. (personal) insecurity
2. superiority complex
3. impulse control
As regards 1) – insecurity means nurturing a deep-seated sense of unease towards his/her own personal achievements. The authors are fond of the intuitions of a subtle French observer: “American suffered, said Tocqueville, from a ‘secret restlessness'” (pg. 85).
As regards 2) – superiority complex, our culture, observe the authors, cannot even make passing reference to such obvious facts as that Jewish people (with 0.2% of world population) have amassed ca. 20% of all Nobel Laureates to this day, or that ‘Asians are now so overrepresented at Ivy League schools that they’re being called the ‘new Jews'” (pg. 7). That is not to say that they are superior indeed, but that they entertain a deep sense of superiority compared to other groups.
As regards 3) – impulse control (famously captured by the Stanford marshmallow test), its force lies in the fact that ‘Drive predicts accomplishment better than IQ’ (pg. 195).
The conclusion from all this is quite stark: the whole liberal educational project whiplash_imageappears then vastly overrated and (judging from the authors’ findings) clearly underperforming in the type of results it delivers.
What can we make of those suggestions? Discarding them as tautological – surely immigrants coming into US from the top percentile of the original societies, where cultural, social and economic capitals reinforced each other, would outperform most other people – does not appear intellectually honest. Surely the sample is biased, but cultural traits like those analyzed in the book seem to be sensible regressors on personal achievements. That begs of course the question: based on which metric? ‘Triple package cultures tend to channel people into conventional, materialistic careers’ (pg. 159).  In any event, pace Baruch Spinoza, who maintained that that certain social traits like greed or ambition can be irrational passions and not display of active -ie rational -behaviour 2,  those traits engender drive which translates into lust for the new & uncharted which propels our society forward.

On a more fundamental level, the book is a very intelligent variation on Max Weber’s ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism‘ (indeed, the authors refer to it towards1529MartinLuther the end). ‘Christianity eccelled at teaching the poor to seek security in faith, love and salvation, not in wordly possessions. A theological revolution was required to bring the Triple Package into Christianity, and […] precisely such a revolution took place at the time of Reformation’ (pg. 185). This is quite a novel reading of Weber’s central thesis – interpreted as one of the first accounts of disproportionate group success. ‘Protestants success in America was a version of Triple Package success. The reason the Puritans toiled and saved (impulse control) was that they simultaneously believed they were special (superiority) and literally had something to prove (insecurity) at every moment of their lives’ (pg. 185).  Schuld is famously the same word – in Luther’s German – for debt and sin.

The choice of a metric by which to orient each one’s existence is surprisingly difficult:
the fact that our newly polytheistic world assigns such a huge premium to conventional, material targets & careers confirms on the one hand the authors’ central thesis – ranks do exist, judgements and comparison between individuals make sense – but betrays on the other hand a fundamental nervous breakdown: that of a half backed theory of modernity – whereby the liberation from old burdens has not accrued into a renewed -more powerful – vision of man. But here Chua & Rubenfeld’s book is out of its depth and so we leave this suggestion for more extensive discussion on another post.  

The conclusion, in any case, is very powerfuls and refreshing. We ought to thank the authors for their message of hope and generosity:

‘Triple Package driveness by definition makes it difficult to live a non-driven life. A simple, decent existence, – with no scrambling to climb any ladder, without caring whether anyone thinks you’re successfull enough – may be the most admirable life of all. But it is rarely available to people afflicted with the Triple Package’  (pg. 166).  But finally: ‘this cultural edge has its own price, exacting its own psychological toll, but it may be one of the most liberating and creatively productive places a person can inhabit’ (pg. 164).

Thanks again for your splendid book – tiger mom.

1. [ Chua, Amy; Rubenfeld, Jed. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. Penguin Press 1]
2.[ Ethica, IV, Prop. 44, Scolium]

Edward Wilson: ‘On Human Nature’

The book “On Human Nature” 1 by Harvard myrmecologist Edmund O. Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize (1979) in consideration of the deep questions it poses and the preliminary answers it tries to furnish.On_Human_Nature,_first_edition.jpg It revolves essentially around the idea of sociobiology – the attempt to apply a reductionist agenda to the social sciences and hence to link them with biology. The underlying assumptions are clear: Homo Sapiens is a mammal and for most of its evolutionary history has been characterized by behaviours learned and perfected as hunter-gatherer. The invention of agriculture ca. 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and the Industrial Revolution ca. 300 years ago have not fundamentally changed those deeply ingrained patterns. The first dilemma Wilson wants to discuss in the book is that ‘we have no particular place to go. The species lacks any goal external to its own biological nature’ (pg. 3). The second dilemma can be articulated in the following way: is human behaviour controlled by the species biological heritage -and if so, does this biological heritage limit human destiny? Can science peer through the mist of explanations which do not possess the correct level of abstraction and contribute to a better framing of the problems at stake?

The first dilemma is essentially a reassessment of the problem first raised by Nietzsche in his investigation on European Nihilism, the second is a way to characterize a family of scientific answers to Nietzsche’s deep question (Gay Science, 3, Etwas fuer Arberitsame) whether science could one day be brought to the investigation of the human behaviour.

Wilson analyzes four of the elemental categories of behaviour:

  1. Aggression
  2. Sex
  3. Altruism
  4. Religion

Two of them (Aggression & Religion) are reviewed below


We already know a poetic expression of the problems Wilson addresses in this chapter: when Sam Peckinpah was filming in St, Burian, Cornwall, his infamous “Straw Dogs” or Stanley Kubrick was realizing “A Clockwork Orange”, they were both coming to terms with the same problem – are human being innately aggressive? can the territorial imperative (and its contemporary offsprings, the rituals of modern property ownership) as a variant of aggressive behaviour be controlled?

In the experiment filmed below, John Calhoun showed how a peaceful ecosystem of rats was severely disrupted by the combined force of uncontrolled demographics and spacial confinement. Male aggressivity & female maternity patterns changed – triggering cannibalism, overactivity & huge increase of infant mortality.

As the above laboratory experiment (by now a classic in urban sociology) showed and as Wilson stresses in the book, biology can illuminate just how deeply ingrained human behavioral patterns are the result of vestigial responses to bygone ways of interaction with the surrounding environment. The example of the Mundurucu’ populations of Brazil (pgg. 111ff) is just a case in point: ‘the Mundurucu’ populations were apparently limited by scarcity of high-grade protein, and they perfected head-hunting as the convention by which competition was diminished on the hunting ground‘. The conclusion is clear: ‘The learning rules of violent aggression are largely obsolete‘ (pg 119).


Coming from the frame of reference of scientific materialism, the deep current of Western thought that permeates all of the scientific enterprize, Wilson’s opening is very refreshing if sad – as the image shows. ‘Our schizophrenic societies progress by knowledge but survive on inspiration derived from the very beliefs which that knowledge erodes‘ (pg 172). skypereadings-button  In Genealogy of Moral, III,1, Nietzsche rightly said that ‘men would rather have void as purpose than be void of purpose‘. But the Enlightenment dogma that growth of scientific knowledge would progressively dispel religious superstitions is also criticized by Wilson – and rightly so. From a sociobiological perspective, religions provide a way to organize the social structure of the group (or tribe or ethnic family etc), they mediate the needs of war and peace, by virtue of complex ceremonies and rites of passage they mobilize primitive societies in ways that are ‘directly and biologically advantageous‘ (pg. 180). Nothing is then left to cold and dispassionate analysis? Not so, as science -according to W. – can now conquer religion as an object of investigation, in the sense that it can now shows whence religion (as a wholly material phenomenon) comes from. Science can now try to answer questions like the following: ‘Is the readiness to be [religiously] indoctrinated a neurologically based learning rule that evolved through the selection of clans competing one against the other?’ (pg. 184). When moreover he says: ‘Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline‘ (pg. 192), Wilson is opening a vista that has been later expanded by Francis Crick’s ‘neurotheology’ or by similar analysis by Daniel Dennett.

The conclusion – articulated in full force in the last chapter: ‘Hope’ is truly poetic. Its main message is: ‘make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism‘ (pg. 192). Modern life is surely but ‘a mosaic of cultural hypertrophies of the archaic behavioural adaptations‘ (pg. 196) but -refreshingly – ‘this circularity of the human predicament is not so tight that cannot be broken through an exercise of will‘ (ibidem). This is scientific humanism at its best I find.
A final remark. Wilson has an interesting suggestion:

‘I believe that a remarkable effect will be the increasingly precise specification of history. One of the great dreams of social theorists – Vico, Marx, Spencer, Spengler, Teggart and Toynbee, among the most innovative- has been to devise laws of history that can foretell something of the future of mankind. Their schemes came to little because their understanding of human nature had no scientific basis. It was […] orders of magnitude too imprecise. […] Now there is reason to entertain the view that the culture of each society travels along one or the other  of a set of evolutionary trajectories whose full array is constrained by the genetic rules of human nature.’ (pg. 207) .

In other words,  Wilson is hinting at a scientific framework which can come to grips with the problem of social necessity and the mechanistic interpretation of it. His message of hope  is surely needed, as the failure to make Kant’s practical reason tractable can precipitate the prediction of physicist Seth Lloyd: “any species stumped by an intractable problem does not cease to compute, but it would cease to exist”. As intractable problems, read for example the environmental one.

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

1. [Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature, Penguin Books 1995 (original Ed. Harvard University Press, 1978)1]

On Chomsky and Hobsbawm (cont’ned)


Upon visiting the splendid mosaics in Villa Romana del Casale (Piazza Armerina), one is reminded very clearly of the intelligent remark made by Karl Marx  according to which work had no social relevance in the ancient world. Because of oversupply due to slave labour, no place for the creative activity of man was on display in the ancient world – there simply was no place for it.

Take now another of Marx’ great insights (from the ‘Grundrisse’, as quoted in George Lichtheim, ‘A Short History of Socialism’ pp. 100-101):

What appears as surplus value on the side of capital, appears on the workers side as surplus labor … beyond the immediate requirement for the maintenance of his existence. The great historic side of capital is to create this surplus labor, superfluous labor from the standpoint of mere use value, mere subsistence; and its historic destiny is fulfilled as soon as, in the one hand, needs [wants] have been so far developed that surplus labor beyond necessity [subsistence] has itself become a general need [want] … on the other hand, the general disposition to work [industriousness] has, through the severe discipline of capital … been developed into the general property [possession] of the new breed of men [ des neuen Geschlecht] – finally, when the development of labor productive forces … has reached the point where the possession or maintenance of societal wealth requires a diminishing quantity of labor time, and where the laboring society takes up a scientific attitude to the process of its progressive reproduction … where consequently the kind of work man does, instead of letting it be done by things on his behalf, has come to an end.

Again quoting Lichtheim (loc. cit. p. 101) ‘from the standpoint of the mature Marx, capitalism appears as a historically conditioned mechanism for developing society’s productive power to the point where the subordination of labor to capital, of living people to dead matter, will become unnecessary’. A splendid contribution on this direction, focusing in particular on the changing nature of ‘time’ in the upcoming industrial society is in the influential article by Edward P. Thompson “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967).

The question is then: what can we do with Noam Chomsky’s remark about distributed, horizontal, vertically-free organization of social labour? The global supply chain that I hold in my hand when I use my Android – can we really do without the kind of pressure that capitalism extracts from the worker? the kind of productivity tyranny it imposes on the men and women composing the human mass it insists upon?