Saturday, 31 December 2016

Yearning For Consciousness--Part IV

What is experience? [Excerpts Only]
[….]

Tonini and Koch claim that their theory successfully answers questions about nonhuman animals, people in coma, digital computers, etc.; for example, they ascribe consciousness to nonhuman animals, even ‘some very simple ones,’ but not to digital computers […] Block also contends that ‘mice or even lower animals might have phenomenal consciousness.’ It appears that, independently of whether they adopt functionalist or biological theories of consciousness, researchers agree on the application of the concept of consciousness to nonhuman animals, perhaps going down to ‘lower’ and ‘simple’ life-forms.
    On the face of it, such a large agreement on lower animals having phenomenal consciousness—along with humans—carries much physiological basis. Phenomenal consciousness seems to be a property of organisms that marshal some or other sensory system. As some stimulus triggers the sensory system under appropriate ‘non-anesthetic’ conditions, the organism attains a state of phenomenal consciousness as it undergoes the stimulus-experience. So, if the organism is endowed with receptors that detect specific colours such as orange, the organism will undergo an orange sensation, just as David Chalmers did […] 
    Let us grant, therefore, that most organisms, by virtue of being an organism, have or undergo experiences; when they do so, they are in a state of phenomenal consciousness. Needless to say, all the accompanying problems of the first person and explanatory gap continue as before. We will never know introspectively what it feels like to be a bat even if, incredibly, we have fully charted out that unique state of the bat’s brain. But then, as noted, if we do have a unique chart, it is unclear what else there is to know.
  As far as I know, the 17th century French philosopher Rene Descartes was well acquainted with whatever was then known about the anatomy and physiology of brains. Yet, according to standard interpretations, Descartes insisted that only humans are conscious; all other organisms are mere automata, machines that push and pull but don’t feel anything […] But what did Descartes in fact say and mean? In his famous letter to Henry More, dated 5 February 1649 (Cottingham et al. 1991, 366), Descartes categorically asserted that ‘I do not deny life to animals […] and I do not even deny sensation, in so far as it depends on a bodily organ.’[…] Thus, Descartes kept cognition (=thoughts) and consciousness (=sensations) strictly separate for animals, as recommended by Block and others. However, Descartes did not keep cognition and consciousness separate for humans; earlier in the same letter, Descartes stated that ‘thought is included in our mode of sensation’ (365) […]
    Do animals, to whom Descartes cheerfully assigned the property of undergoing sensations, also find themselves absorbed in those sensations? Descartes would have answered in the negative since, for him, animal mode of sensation does not include thought, the thought that I am having orange sensation. We know that humans do because humans say so […] Several centuries later, Donald Davidson (1975) reached the same conclusion with more sophisticated arguments: animals don’t have thoughts because they don’t talk. It could be that both Descartes and Davidson are using unnecessarily narrow conception of talk and speech to exclude the animals. May be there are gentler notions of (structured) thought that might favourably apply to some animals of sufficient neural complexity […]
  The basic issue is not whether the notions of experience and phenomenal consciousness legitimately apply to nonhuman animals. The Cartesian point is that these notions legitimately apply to thoughtful modes of sensation. Since a sensation, by definition, pertains to individual organisms, a thought of that sensation can only be a first-person thought marked by the use of the pronoun I or its equivalent. This roundabout way of bringing out the Cartesian point basically means that an organism needs to have the concept of sensation, experience, consciousness, and the like to find that something is going on; otherwise, something just goes on. Strictly speaking, undergoing an orange sensation is not an experience, finding oneself so undergoing is. Obviously, what one finds is not the heightened state of the brain, but the resulting feel […]  
   Is the feel entirely a fiction? I am unsure what the answer is. I just said that the subject does not have introspective access to the state of the biological system while undergoing a specific orange sensation. That seems to be the typical case. But it does not rule out the possibility that, on occasion, subjects may even have introspective access to the brain itself. We do have introspective access to states of other organs such as heart and stomach, not to mention the obvious case of genitals. Anecdotally, I can report that, on several occasions during particular phases of high fever, it appears as if the brain itself is the object of experience. While one is still fully awake, one is unable to focus on any specific object of thought through standard perceptual means due to high fever; in fact it is difficult to keep one’s eyes open. Yet there seems to be the experience of a dark void pulsating in the head; it is very different from even crushing headaches felt in localised areas. […]
   The shift of talk, as above, from visual experience to painful experience could be an indicator of how the fiction arises. We genuinely report feels when in pain because we have at least partial introspective access to the state of the body. In those cases, the conception of the feel could be viewed as a response of the body itself to some (injured) state of the body. That is why when we are in (physical) pain, we visit the doctor, not the psychologist, without taking a stand on dualism. However, talk of feel when looking at my computer screen sounds a bit odd, unless the screen is glowing or something such that it hurts […]
    To sum up, the concept of phenomenal consciousness seems to have a variety of conflicting pulls. In some form or other, phenomenal consciousness is inevitable for organisms with developed sensory systems. The first problem is with its inherently first-person character. It arises because the occurrences of experiences are subjective in the sense outlined. When we try to overcome this problem with, say, a (third person) biological story that correlates a unique state of the brain with occasions for subjective experiencial states, an explanatory gap shows up. Since the problem sounds more empirical than conceptual, suppose the gap is somehow bridged in some future science, perhaps in the form of a complete description of the underlying biological system.

    Even then it appears that the purported biological explanation will have the wrong grain because the first-person states are the states of a subject as a person, rather than the states of the subject’s brain. Keeping exclusively to subject’s reports, it is also extremely unclear what the report of experiences are about once we have de-linked those reports from the unique brain-states correlated with those experiences. In fact, in some cases, it would seem that the reports are about nothing, the ‘feel’ involved in experiences could be fictions. Yet, and this is the near-fatal point, the talk of experiences just cannot be given up or eliminated because the talk simply reflects the structured thought that is included in subjective experiences, at least in the human case. […]

(To be continued)

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Yearning For Consciousness--Part III

Problem of explanatory gap [Excerpts only]
The general difficulty with the problem of consciousness—unlike the very similar problem of God as we will see—is that its solution seems, at once, to be urgent and elusive. In other words, it seems that we cannot do without the concept of consciousness while, despite voluminous discussion especially in recent years, the concept continues to resist elucidation. It is this apparently ‘unsolvable’ aspect of the problem that interests me in this paper…
  To bring out the ubiquitous character of consciousness, David Chalmers (1996, xii) introduces his influential work on the conscious mind as follows:
‘I find myself absorbed in an orange sensation, and something is going on. There is something that needs explaining, even after we have explained the process of discrimination and action: there is the experience.’
Since experiences are both subjective and ubiquitous part of our lives, their occurrences call for explanation. The question arises as to what can legitimately be the form of such as explanation. Since, by the nature of the case, there is no third-person description of the phenomenon itself—that is, I cannot describe what it is for Chalmers to undergo the reported sensation, I can only describe mine—all we can do is to look for the unique conditions that are ‘objectively’ satisfied at the locus of the concerned sensation…
    So, what is it that we need to show? Here Chalmers says that it is not enough that we have explained the ‘process of discrimination and action,’ we need to explain the (qualitative, subjective) experience itself. For example, Ned Block (2007) reports interesting work by Nancy Kanwisher and colleagues who showed that there is strong correlation between face-experiences and the activation in a very specific area of the brain located at the bottom of the temporal lobe in the right hemisphere, called the fusiform face area. Block views the fusiform face area as an informationally encapsulated Fodorian module (Fodor 1983), a view that raises problems for the reportability of these experiences according to Block; I set such problems aside. Suppose there are other ‘modules’ for experience of fruits, canines, fuzzy drinks, etc. The working of these modules then would count as discriminating various stimulus items, if any, and constitute the neural actions that lead to these discriminating representations…
  Still, a description of a module in a particular state does not amount to a description of the resulting experience—what it feels like—of faces, fruits, fuzzy drinks, and the like. That is the problem raised by Chalmers: there is a crucial residue… In a later paper, Block (2009) restates Huxley’s problem by observing that ‘we have no idea why the neural basis of an experience is the neural basis of that experience rather than another experience or no experience at all.’ Block calls this the problem of explanatory gap. Let us assume that the state of the art is such that we have no clue as yet to the real ‘hard nut’ of the problem of explanatory gap: the problem of residue, that something is going on
    But suppose that, contrary to the state of the art, some detailed account of the activation of the brain does furnish a satisfactory account of the feel of what it is like to experience the computer screen. Will that count as an account of phenomenal consciousness, even if we have given up any form of dualism to agree that the brain is the seat of consciousness if anything is? Is the brain the right object to which the concept of consciousness legitimately applies? Is the brain, at that unique moment, undergoing phenomenal consciousness?
  Concerning the old issue of whether computers think, Noam Chomsky replied that legs don’t walk, people do, even if people walk with legs; similarly, computers or brains don’t think, people do. The trouble with neural correlationism is that it simply misses the grain of explanation that involves the entire organism to which the concept of consciousness typically applies. The objection is bolstered by the fact that the common notion of consciousness, which is the only notion currently at issue, does not refer to states of brains at all. It is not at all implausible to think of people correctly applying the notion of consciousness in a variety of circumstances without any knowledge about underlying brains; otherwise, most fables will not work. Of course, neuroscientists are free to use technical terms to denote the relevant unique activation states, if any, of the brain, which they believe instantiate conscious states of a subject. But that nomenclature will apply to the subject’s brain, not to the subject herself. Having noted the crucial distinction, we may as well hold on to biological correlation as the only physical basis of consciousness.
(To be continued)


Monday, 26 December 2016

Yearning for Consciousness--Part II

[This is the second section of the paper reproduced here in full. Unfortunately, the subsequent sections are too long for a blog-page. Hence, I will only post excerpts for those sections]

The sentient subject
The study of the thinking, sentient human subject has always been a central concern in philosophy in any tradition. However, only with the Cartesian rationalist tradition did the concern directly relate to the concept of mind as a seperate substance, an additional joint of nature. As the Cartesian tradition of substance dualism lost its appeal in subsequent centuries due to serious challenges to the idea of a separate substance by empiricists like David Hume and John Locke, the discussion of mind itself, as a substantive concept, was progressively abandoned. In contemporary times, the situation for the Cartesian tradition worsened even further after Gilbert Ryle’s influential critique of the concept of mind as the ghost in the machine (Ryle 1949).
 Nonetheless, the concern about the sentient thinking subject remained, especially after the work of Immanuel Kant, because the subject was viewed as the center of the complex network that related language, thought, and reality: the domain of human knowledge. Thinking of human belief as a fact about humans, it is natural to view human belief as the content of mental states, states that humans attain when they have belief. Beliefs thus are viewed as contentful mental states par excellence of a subject. The step from belief to knowledge is deemed natural since knowledge is taken to be a species of belief: knowledge signals the attainment of a restricted kind of belief-state, namely, a state of true belief for which the subject has evidence.
It was then thought that specific beliefs can be identified in terms of structured meaningful propositions such as that the earth is round. The proposition, a linguistic entity, represents the belief that the earth is round by a systematic grammatical construction out of individual meanings of words such as earth and round. These sounds are phenomena in the external world to be accessed by perceptual systems, but the meanings of these words must themselves be mental entities since they constitute the mental states of the typically sentient subject: the content of the belief that the earth is round is constituted of mental entities EARTH and ROUND; these entities endow the sounds earth and round with meaning. We thus have a set of mentalistic concepts: belief, knowledge, meaning, consciousness. The ‘Cartesian’ angle on these concepts is hard to miss.
Since the concepts of belief and knowledge in their ordinary usage are taken to denote mental states, some notion of mind is at least indirectly implicated, although a direct mention of it is forbidden due to Rylean strictures. In this indirect sense, concepts of belief and knowledge define the contours of contemporary philosophy of mind, and some of cognitive science, that takes the form of (study of) folk psychology. I will discuss the concepts of belief and knowledge more fully in the next two essays.
  Similar remarks apply to the concept of consciousness. It is a ubiquitous part of folk psychology that we view human subjects as beings which routinely attain states of consciousness. For example, John Searle (1992, xii) declares at the very beginning of his study of the mind that we ‘all have inner subjective qualitative states of consciousness, and we have intrinsically intentional mental states such as beliefs and desires, intentions and perceptions.’ Colin McGinn (1989) opens his influential paper on the mind-body problem with the observation that philosophers have been trying for a long time to solve the specific problem of consciousness which continues to be ‘the hard nut of the mind-body problem.’ We need some explanation of why we have these mentalistic concepts—belief, knowledge, meaning and consciousness—and what they do for us. The study of these concepts then qualify as a study of the mind, in the indirect sense outlined.
Cutting through many-dimensional controversies covered in a vast literature, two broad perspectives have emerged in the philosophical literature. These perspectives are in serious conflict. The first perspective, often called folk psychology as noted, says that the availability of these concepts in fact points towards an implicit and largely correct theory of mind; the task is to make it explicit. In their ordinary usage, these concepts are already laden with explanatory value; all we need is to make proper scientific use of them. The neuroscientific perspective says, on the other hand, that these concepts have a value at most as components of a false theory; a genuine theory of cognition will dispense with these concepts. Each of the ordinary concepts of belief (Stitch 1983) and consciousness (Dennett 1991) are to be eliminated from a putative science of the mind (Churchland and Sejnowsky 1992).
The debate has been stultifying since, while folk psychology is untenable at various points (Mukherji 2006, this volume, Essay 8), neuroscience has done nothing to replace it in the critical cases (Mukherji 1990; Bennett and Hacker 2003). In particular, as we will see, fatal problems of explanation seem to block any coherent neuroscientific account of consciousness, not to mention beliefs and meanings. Although a careful review of the (astronomical) literature is warranted at this point—a task that is beyond the scope of this essay—it is not entirely unfair to surmise that neither folk psychology nor neuroscience has much explanatory chance for the mental domain as commonly envisaged. Suppose so. Nevertheless, these concepts are here to stay with us in ordinary discourse. What do they do for us?
What I propose to do is to move away from the folk psychology/neuroscience debate, and launch an independent philosophical examination of these concepts to see if a general account of their value can be extracted outside the theory of mind. One option that seems particularly promising in the given historical scenario is that these concepts are not designed to play (genuine) explanatory roles in naturalistic theories at all; their value appears to be located elsewhere. As noted, I will concentrate on the concept of consciousness for the rest of this essay; concepts of belief and knowledge will be taken up in the next two essays.
  The strategy adopted here is different from other attempts to set the problem of consciousness aside. For example, in the paper cited earlier, McGinn (1989) suggests that the problem of consciousness falls under what he calls the principle of Cognitive Closure: ‘A type of mind M is cognitively closed with respect to a property P (or theory T) if and only if the concept-forming procedures at T’s disposal cannot extend to a grasp of P (or an understanding of T).’ McGinn thinks that consciousness is a property that we are cognitively incapable of understanding; in that sense, consciousness is not a problem, but a mystery.
   Following Thomas Nagel and others, I have myself suggested a more general version of the closure principle earlier to raise the design problem: our grasp of the world is restricted to what kind of creature we are (Mukherji 2010, Chapter One; also, this volume, Essay One). However, I do not think that consciousness is a mystery that cannot be understood by the human mind. As proposed, consciousness can well be understood as a normative/ascriptive concept; to view consciousness as a real/naturalistic property of human nature is probably not warranted. However, several qualifications are needed to properly articulate the suggestion, as we will see.

(To be continued)

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Killing Fields of Dandakaranya

Discussion with Justin Podur, York University, Canada
Maoists in India: Tribals under siege


[Soon after this book was published, Prof. Justin Podur conducted a written discussion on the book as a preparation for his own succinct review. As winter sets in, killings are on the increase in the Maoist areas. By now it is almost like a natural order, like the seasonal hurricane or the debilitating drought. Killings on both sides will continue for years unless the civil society intervenes.]

Would you say your motivation to write this book was primarily humanitarian, or political, or would you reject that distinction?

I won’t reject the distinction since it is possible to intervene in a situation of conflict with purely humanitarian aims, such as supply of medicine, potable water, blankets, etc. without commenting on the forces engaged in the conflict. This is what Amnesty International and other organizations do. However, in the conflict involving adivasis under discussion, almost the entire effort is spent on critiquing/defending the forces without due attention to the adivasis themselves in terms of what they are going through due to the conflict. I am appealing for a political understanding of the humanitarian disaster to highlight why adivasis are the principal victims without being participants in the conflict. In that sense, the political and the humanitarian converge.

Although your book isn't heavy on theory, there is an interesting political perspective about political strategy in an electoral context like India's. It seems that your strategic disagreement with the CPI (Maoist) stems from these ideas. Could you summarize your perspective on what kind of left and movement strategies make sense in this context, and why?

This is related to the point about humanitarianism raised above. Too often, in fact almost without fail, insurgent movements are launched only with a political end in view, such as seizure of state power, without factoring in the immense cost to the populations. Suffering of populations is considered only as a tactical issue, not a fundamental political issue. The moral omission is even more glaring in cases such as Indian republicanism where not only alternative and less traumatic means are available to address and progressively ameliorate the misery of the masses, the professed political end itself is questionable. Since this general point applies to cases much beyond the Maoist insurrection, it is a theoretical point to that extent, drawing obviously on Gandhi’s thoughts on ends and means.

Related to #2, what do you say to those who, looking at the insurgencies in the northeast and Kashmir, the package of laws that enables the government to restrict fundamental freedoms, corporate control of the political process, the economic disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the population, say that the system is broken, and that trying to work within or use the system is bound to fail?

The operative clause is whether any effort, including massive resistance to the oppressive actions you list, is ‘bound to fail’. It is unclear whose prediction is the professed determinism here that over-rules acts of resistance as yet organised or even imagined. Insurgencies in Kashmir and the North-East lie in ruins now after decades of genocidal violence. In fact, some form of dialogue, some show of determined resistance, is beginning to generate solution spaces in favour of the population. But, as ever, there is a long way to go. I return to this.

South Africa and much of Latin America perhaps represent even more notorious histories of prolonged oppression than Kashmir and the North-East. Yet the end of apartheid in South Africa, and progressive electoral outcomes in Latin America, show how militant but peaceful mass resistance can achieve radical goals for the masses even in those brutal circumstances. As Chomsky has pointed out, the US was compelled to pull out and something like an elected government was installed in the ruins of post-Saddam Iraq. These things happened not due to guerrilla attacks on US forces but by militant movements often organised by the workers.

To get back to your specific point, as violent insurgency largely fizzled out, dazzling street movements have filled the Kashmir valley in the last six years or so. This has had a wider and more lasting effect in compelling the Indian state to take urgent measures to address each of the oppressive acts you mention. It is still a long way to go, but Kashmir today carries at least some measure of hope that was unthinkable a decade ago. Not surprisingly, the ‘radicals’ of all hues are not very pleased.

The debate around the CPI (Maoist) is completely polarized, but in your book you refuse the dichotomy, taking strong exception to the CPI (Maoist) and to those who are calling for the state to repress them. Do you think the polarization will mean that readers will miss the point of your book?

The rejection of the suggested ‘binary’ is a crucial point of the book. A polarized discourse is an inevitable consequence of insurgency when it is ruthlessly attacked by the state. This is not by itself a moral or a political problem if the insurgency is vastly popular and has genuine mass support, as in Vietnam and more recently in Nepal. Historically it means the emergence of a barricade. It is a huge problem when the insurgency itself is ‘predatory’ with vast masses of people caught in the crossfire. I discuss several cases in the book arguing for the required distinction.

In fact, a ‘predatory’ anti-state force can also precipitate polarisation in the face of massive counter-insurgency. As many authors including Robert Fisk had pointed out, there was a perceptible and growing opposition to ‘jehadi’ politics in the Islamic countries right after 9/11 despite decades of massive attacks by the US in the area. All that changed dramatically once the US attacked Afghanistan and recruitment for terrorist networks jumped many fold.  The horrible consequences are still playing out as the drone attacks continued.

At a much lesser scale, this has happened with the Maoist insurgency. It did not have a popular face until the Indian state attacked it around 2005 with a series of atrocious actions leading up to the operation green hunt. Maoists must have been waiting for this for decades. The inevitable polarisation followed as a consequence.

However, even if there is some popular support for the Maoists in some sections for reasons explained in the book, it is really a reflection of a genuine concern about the plight of the adivasis, not a political support to the party per se. Also, there is a growing discourse, outside the mainstream and the Internet (both accessed primarily by the elite sections of the population), in local papers and magazines, political handouts, forum reports and the like, which rejects both the statist and the Maoist options as tools of social justice for the poorest of the poor. Importantly, much of this critique ensues from radical grassroots forums who are parts of the generic naxalite framework to which Maoists also belong. In that sense, there is a serious internal criticism. I have taken some pains to unearth this literature and present it in the book to suggest where radical priorities currently reside.

The basic concern for the adivasis thus translates into a vast audience for the book if proper light is thrown on the predatory character of both the state and the Maoists from within the radical perspective itself. It is a thin line but worth consolidating in view of the grim consequences of the polarized discourse.

To put it another way, what would you say to those who think your book, in this context, helps the state? What about to those who say you should have gone to the area yourself?

The two questions are separate. So let me address them in turn.

(1) The polarized discourse does have the consequence of postulating a thick, monochromatic notion of state such that all non-Maoists are agents of the state. In this discourse, even naxalite critics of Maoists, some of whom initiated the original naxalite movement, and have spent their lives either in prison or in villages with people, are all agents of counter-insurgency. Several issues arise. I go into them in some detail in the book.

In contrast to totalitarian states, republican states with universal franchise are extremely complex entities either with zones of relative autonomy or, as some authors put it, a conglomeration of a variety of sub-states. The generic state is often in an unsteady equilibrium in turmoil both from the above and below. The simultaneous (and conflicting) existence of repressive and welfare aspects just highlights part of the complexity. So it is possible to occupy one zone of the state, such as the autonomy of the legal and electoral systems, to challenge some other zone, such as the police and the corporate system. Maoists themselves frequently demand strict adherence to law and human rights as the state deals with their arrested comrades. This picture is particularly valid for the plural complexity of the Indian state, ‘unmanageable’ from a classical European perspective.

No doubt the neo-liberal era, which unfolded around 1990, has led to a rollback of some of the welfare aspects of the state and a consolidation of the ruling classes. But the electoral system continues to place obstacles to further consolidation of capital and power as the parties are compelled to hand out progressively richer welfare measures to wider sections of the people to offset possible electoral reverses. In that sense, the electoral system is increasingly playing the role of advancing class war. Some telling cases are discussed in the book. It is possible even to argue that the state is turning out to be a hindrance to the globalised ruling classes.

From this perspective, Maoists are most welcome for the regressive aspects of the state. For the Maoists help create insurrectionary conditions in which people essentially lose their voice and all people’s forums, except those sanctioned and conducted by the Maoists, come to a halt. Again, several cases are discussed in detail in the book. There is then, some truth to the view that the Maoists are a mirror-image of the most ferocious aspect of the state, giving some indication of the prospects for a projected Maoist state.

(2)  There is a useful distinction between report and analysis. An analysis of a phenomenon, based on authentic, comprehensive, and timely reports from the ground, need not itself be based on its own “field-studies”. Excellent analysis of Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and even Vietnam are available where the authors based their analysis on diligent perusal of a variety of reports and historical studies.

In fact, there is no objective, "neutral" field-study of Maoist territory by any social scientist, anthropologist etc. simply bacause the Maoists won't let you in unless you agree to undertake a guided tour and report verbatim what they tell you. The only rigorous study of Bastar, Sundar (2007) is really more historical and is based on limited interactions with Adivasis in the non-Maoist areas. Even this much is no longer possible as Sundar has found out repeatedly. The recent books Chenoy & Chenoy (2010) and Padel (2010) claim some field-studies, but these are mostly for other areas and insurgencies.

Thus, the strategy adopted in the text is to cull whatever one can from four sources: (a) travelogues in Maoist territory by authors sympathetic to Maoists, (b) talking to and studying the reports of other naxalites who have some degree of ground-level contacts with Maoists historically, (c) seemingly reliable journalistic reports by reputed reporters of reputed newspapers (Aman Sethi of Hindu, Supriya Sharma of TOI, etc.) who have some real access to both Maoists and the police, (d) the Maoist documents themselves. A very determined effort was made to stay away from State-sponsored reports, and reports of parliamentary left, both of which are likely to be biased. The evidence in (a) to (d) was then cross-checked with each other to extract some stable facts. I do not know of any literature that has attempted this rigorously.

Unlike the mainstream discussions, which use the terms interchangeably, you make a distinction between Maoists and Naxalites. Why?

As noted, the distinction is already well-attested in the relevant radical literature. It is just that it is largely unknown to the general public and even to some of the recent writers on the topic who are not fully conversant with the history of the naxalite movement. So the first reason for making the distinction is to supply relevant information.

A second reason is to expose the Maoist claim that they are the true inheritors of the original naxalite movement, a massive peasant uprising in the late 1960s, that still justly fascinates radical imagination in India. The distinction highlights the fact that the peasant movement itself need not be equated with the communist organisation that followed since many democratic and revolutionary aspects of the original movement were vulgarized by the party which broke into many factions very soon as the movement fizzled out. Maoists represent perhaps the most despotic chain of factions that ensued from those divisions. The distinction thus empowers the analysis to use the views of the other factions as a critique of Maoists from within the naxalite movement itself, not from a statist point of view.

A third reason is that the state and the mainstream media routinely conflate the distinction. This enables the repressive arms of the state to target the entire spectrum of militant resistance as naxalite and attack a vast range of democratic movements accordingly. A clear articulation of the distinction thus opens some space for resisting these attacks.

One very interesting aspect of your book is that you use the most sympathetic accounts of the Maoists to criticize their practice. Specifically, their economic practice, their developmental practice, and their use of child soldiers. Can you talk about this analysis and has anyone tried to refute your analysis based on these sources?

As noted, an important political task was to criticize the Maoists from a radical point of view, that is, without falling into statist propaganda. The task of course is best carried out by examining the claims advanced in the most sympathetic accounts of the Maoist insurgency in the work of prominent and respectable authors through the internal details of the accounts themselves. Then the analysis becomes automatically immune from the charge that it is based on statist material. Notice that the accounts themselves are based on tall claims by the Maoists themselves. If their tallest claims reveal a dismal picture of their practice, it is easy to infer what the real picture is like. You thus get a hold on the reality without going there.

I am aware that this part of my analysis, originally published in various versions in ZNet, Outlook and Economic and Political Weekly, has been widely read and discussed. To an extent, it contributed to the turn-around in the otherwise polarized discourse. Given its textual basis, it is hard to refute it, and I know of no sustained attempt to do so. One argument somewhat apologetically suggested is that, in the condition of insurgency, it is hard to devote much attention to the welfare of the people. It is more of an admission than refutation.

To my mind the most important part of your book is the proposal for a way out of this war, which you acknowledge is grasping at straws, but which you argue is the only option left. Can you talk about this proposal and why you think all other options are no longer viable?

I go into much historical and ideological detail to argue that the basic problem is that the Maoist leadership will never give up arms and join democratic struggles, and the Indian state will use this opportunity to continue with counter-insurgency operations. In fact, the violence on both sides is likely to increase, and democratic movements on the ground have no means to thwart the escalation of arms. The clue to any solution to a ‘war’ between two predatory forces is to pay attention to the people caught in the crossfire, in this case millions of hapless adivasis spread over a vast area of dense forests. One general feature of any sustained insurgency is that they are able to entrench themselves in some stretch of population to acquire the foot-soldiers.

In the Maoist case, these soldiers happen to be young adivasis, often minors. A massive democratic effort to secure their meaningful rehabilitation with full dignity and livelihood could be the straw you mentioned. To emphasise, the effort has to be democratic, and not based on surrender to the security forces. The guerrillas will justly never give up arms en masse to the police given the brutal history of the conflict. A range of other measures are needed to lend democratic confidence to the process.


Yearning for Consciousness--Part I

Introduction

The philosopher of mathematics Hao Wang once observed that certain human inquiries reveal more about ourselves—for example, our interests and obsessions—than about the object inquired into. Wang made the suggestion as follows.
Einstein’s brain turned out to be no bigger than normal. What do these findings reveal about the origin of genius? The most important question may be why we perform these analyses at all, and what we really hope to find. Just as Einstein captured the essence of energy and matter in his famous equation, so we seek to capture the essence of genius. Our pursuit perhaps reveals more about ourselves than about the nature of genius (Hao Wang, 2000, emphasis added).
In such cases, the possibility remains open that the inquiry is pursued relentlessly even if there is no object to be investigated. This may be characterised as ‘Wang’s Puzzle’: why do serious inquirers spend so much effort on possibly nothing?
   While Wang posed the issue for the concept of genius, I will argue that a very similar suggestion is likely to hold for what some philosophers and psychologists characterise as mentalistic concepts. In particular, I will suggest that the concept of consciousness, as commonly envisaged, is something we need even if nothing in the world falls under it. In subsequent essays I will show that similar remarks apply to the concepts of belief and knowledge. In the context of contemporary philosophy, the suggested shift in the form of inquiry arises as follows.
The contemporary discipline of philosophy of mind, as the name suggests, may be viewed as a conceptual investigation of the mind in terms of its ‘mentalistic’ aspects. These mentalistic aspects include consciousness, perception, knowledge, belief, and intentionality. Sometimes some of these concepts are examined in terms of analysis of the linguistic contexts which appear to exhibit the need for these concepts. For example, putative mental states like belief and knowledge are examined via what have come to be known as ‘propositional attitudes’ like Galileo believed that the earth is round. It is thought that a detailed understanding of what such linguistic expressions mean in their standard contexts of use will throw light on the character of the corresponding mental states.
  It might seem that the suggested philosophical study of mind, especially the study of ‘mentalistic’ language, falls under the study of what maybe called the linguistic mind, the mind as shaped by, and represented in, language. With the focus on language, the study of mind becomes species-specific, as desired in the Cartesian angle on this topic (Mukherji 2000; see this volume, Essay 2). Also, since the proposed philosophical study is focused on ordinary, daily uses of the listed mentalistic concepts, it might appear to throw light on the common, universal—folk psychological—aspects of human nature.
However, such linguistic approaches do not exhaust the philosophical study of mind. Even though consciousness as a mental state is often studied via analysis of (first person) reports of experience such as I am in pain, the concept is seldom viewed as language-related. Sometimes mental concepts are studied more directly through introspection and analysis of specific states of experience, and reflections, including behavioural experiments, on the role of these concepts in human thought and action. In recent decades, some of these concepts—especially the concept of consciousness—have been vigorously studied via experimental investigations on the brain. These approaches appear to hold the promise of a genuine science of the mind.

 Despite these appearances, my contention is that such philosophical and scientific studies, focused on ordinary mentalistic concepts, cannot really be viewed as a naturalistic study of the mind. I will suggest that a biologically-anchored, theoretical concept of mind requires the mind to be a (genuine) property of every individual mind/brain of a species—often known as the requirement of methodological solipsism (Fodor 1981). In contrast, the philosophical concepts of consciousness, belief and knowledge are primarily interpersonal social devices; these are more likely to be normative concepts for that reason, on par with concepts used in enquiry of values such as ethics and aesthetics, rather than in naturalistic enquiry like physics and biology. 

(To be continued)

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Everybody Loves a Good Fascist--Part VI


[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]
The Indian scene

Some of the aspects of the new authoritarianism can be briefly illustrated in the special case of neoliberal politics in India (see Mukherji 2007, 2014 for fuller discussion). I must add that what follows is merely a selective description of a complex social scene in a specific country. No attempt towards a general theory of neoliberal autocracy should be read in these remarks.
As a grossly unequal society divided into a complex array of class and caste, the Indian scene always included a variety of regressive, fundamentalist, and obscurantist groups often based on contrived religious doctrines. One of the most stable and influential organisations representing some of the archaic and distorted aspects of the hindu culture is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS. With ups and downs, this organisation has been active for nearly a century. It is perhaps not just a co-incidence that RSS came into being more or less simultaneously with the emergence of Mahatma Gandhi as a mass leader of the freedom movement, and the beginning of the communist movement in India soon after the formation of the Soviet union. The RSS played an ambiguous, perhaps duplicitous, role in the freedom movement. Although it always attracted a dedicated group of hindus from the traditional middle classes related to trade, bureaucracy and the academia, it seldom played any significant role in the public domain, until recently. Similar remarks apply to its political wing, the erstwhile Jan Sangh, now Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP.
Cutting a long and complicated story short, both RSS and BJP strongly emerged in the national context in the late 1980s along with two events that changed the course of Indian and world history: introduction of full-fledged neoliberal economy in 1991 in India, and the collapse of the Soviet block accompanied by establishment of capitalism in erstwhile communist China. Interestingly, neither BJP nor RSS had any significant presence in the states of Bengal and Tripura which were under the left-rule. They also had only a marginal presence in the state of Kerala until very recently as the regime in Kerala alternated between left- and Congress-rule. But they spread like wild-fire in the rest of the country where the left had no presence at all.
The Indian polity had already become fragmented into a variety of regional formations by the late 1980s, even though the Congress party, once nurtured by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, retained power in a number of states and the center. As the political wind shifted rightward under neoliberal policies, the BJP started to gain control basically in areas held earlier by the Congress. These developments led to the formation of a right-wing coalition government in 1999 with the BJP as the major partner. Near the middle of the tenure of this regime, a massive pogrom of Muslims was organised in the state of Gujarat where Narendra Modi was the chief minister.
During this period, Indian economy registered rapid growth of nearly 7% with the usual neoliberal features: progressive concentration of wealth in the top 5%, emergence of a small but aggressive middle class, rapid expansion of imperial collaboration, and large-scale impoverishment of people. The coalition government was not fully capable of handling the vicious conflicts, and it lost the elections to a center-left combination led by the Congress. The neoliberal agenda, however, continued unabated.
However, to regain some of its lost popular base, the Congress initiated some welfare programmes unprecedented in recent history. No wonder it won the elections for a second time. By now, both the extreme rich and the middle classes had expanded their wealth and power in a booming economy, while much of the rest of the world went through a long recession. Hence the Indian scene was exactly opposite of that of Europe, especially Germany, in the 1920s. The popular measures brought in some limited redistribution of resources and lifted a section of the population out of abject poverty. These effects had a range of progressive consequences such as reverse migration of labour, raised wages, growth in resistance movements, and the like.
The captains of neoliberal economy reacted sharply by aggressively funding and promoting Narendra Modi and the BJP. It is important to mention that by now the left-rule in Bengal had become unpopular and the left started losing elections in this major state. By the time Modi advanced in the national scene to capture central power in 2014 with a majority of seats for his party (but with just 31% of the highly fragmented popular vote), the left disintegrated in Bengal. Subsequently and for the first time in history, the BJP made rapid inroads in Bengal. Needless to say, a variety of right-wing forces raised their ugly heads in the social and cultural scene, attacking poor muslims and dalits, beating up opponents, attempting to enforce reactionary codes, etc.
So the crux of this phase of Indian social history is that an India-specific (= hindutva) form of authoritarian rule has emerged in a booming economy. It is also the context in which the left no longer plays any significant role in national or regional politics, and a spectrum of central-right forces occupy the political space, with Modi’s BJP dominating the scene. 
In my view, the current authoritarian rule has major fault-lines, and is not likely to survive beyond its current term. This is because, one the one hand, the ruling cluster of big business will want the government to provide measures to accelerate economic growth and concentration of wealth even further; but they also do not want the government to take measures that significantly disturb the ‘peace’ of the existing neoliberal market. While the regime, with a thin popular mandate struggles to find a balance between the conflicting demands of the ruling order, the progressive withdrawal of welfare measures will compel the resistance to gradually unite and grow. After a point, the big business will not care about supporting the BJP-rule since several other choices are available to them from the wide political spectrum.
However, the grim reality is that the present right-wing authoritarian regime has already damaged a range of democratic institutions, including welfare institutions for the poor. As long as this regime is allowed to operate without significant resistance from the ground, it will cause further erosion to democracy and the justice system, while increasing the attack on the livelihood of the poor. As I attempted to highlight throughout, the presence of this force is inversely proportional to the influence of the forces of the left. Therefore, despite inadequate understanding of the new phenomenon, the form of resistance to it continues to be classical:
A core part of a progressive program is to rebuild the organized structure of the labor movement, which throughout modern history has been in the forefront of progressive change. … It’s been beaten down pretty severely in past generation, but it’s been worse before. If you go back to the 1920s, the labor movement was virtually destroyed. … By the 1930s, it revived. … That can happen again. No reason why it can’t. (Chomsky 2016)

(Concluded, but postscripts will follow)


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Everybody Loves a Good Fascist--Part V

[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]

The neoliberal turn
My own view is that it is misleading, both historically and politically, to cite classical fascism to understand the recent rise of despotic and demagogic political leaders, and their typically reactionary fundamentalist organizations. As discussed so far, several crucial factors rule out any significant material similarity with original fascism: (1) global dominance of neoliberal capital after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods regime; (2) continuation of significant prosperity of developed economies with US in the lead, (3) almost total absence of any form of socialist or communist resistance. In a strong sense, the structure of political economy, especially in the West, is directly opposite of the conditions in Weimar republic in the 1920s.
The combined effect of these factors has led to an unrestricted capitalist world order in which astronomical increase in concentration of wealth has fostered unprecented inequality. As a result, even though the capitalist ruling classes are secure in their historical role unlike German big business in 1920s, increasing sections of the impoverished masses are beginning to be restive without access to classical forms of resistance. The global scale of concentration of wealth, and the absence of structured mass resistance to it, have created historically novel conditions of class war. As desperate sections of impoverished masses are trying to find new forms of resistance, conventional democratic forms are beginning to collapse.
Thus, to sustain the immensely unequal neoliberal order, new forms of authoritarian rules have emerged to control the restive masses within the structure of formal democracy, wherever available. It stands to reason that deeply inegalitarian societies, devoid of progressive forms of mass resistance, will exhibit sharpened forms of existing regressive fissures and conflicts inherited from their cultural history. It is no wonder that essentially unpopular authoritarian regimes will try to exploit these regressive conflicts—by promoting one side and intimidating others—to forestall united resistance. The character of these cultural aspects naturally varies widely across national communities, and within communities: Hindu vs Muslim vs Sikh in India, Immigrants vs blacks vs whites in the US, etc. It is natural that some of these regressive forces draw their inspiration from the cultural history of fascism and display some of its cultural practices expressed in looks, attitudes, ill-concealed feelings, ‘dislocation of language,’ and the like.
Much of the dynamics of this new neoliberal order is poorly understood. Therefore, conventional political thinking is often stumped with ‘surprising’ developments in the otherwise familiar post-Bretton Woods world order. Sometimes entire populations are characterised as racist, even fascist, if political outcomes do not match elite liberal expectations. In my view, the inability of the intellectuals to fully understand the political meaning of these new authoritarian forms leads to facile reference to handy historical precedence such as European fascism. Appeal to fascism by current political commentators is akin to the appeal to ‘dark matter’ by physicists; both appeals are expressions of ignorance.
Moreover, the neoliberal scenario, while causing progressive impoverishment of vast masses of people, has also given rise to a wealthy and powerful body of intelligentsia in the emerging ‘knowledge’-order. It not only includes establishment intellectuals directly serving the neoliberal order, but also a powerful section of elite left-liberal intellectuals who offer critiques of the order in an otherwise subservient academia. They enable the neoliberal order to highlight its sanctioned free democratic space. Given their elite location, it is plausible to infer that, as a subclass, they are not only unaffected by the neoliberal growth in inequality, they are in fact beneficiaries of the system. In that sense, their concerns about democracy and justice are far removed from the concerns of the basic masses.

As a consequence, they are likely to make fine distinctions within the ruling order to mark their progressive preferences: distinction between Microsoft and Monsanto, and Obama-Hilary and Trump in US; between Tata and Ambani, or Indira Gandhi or Narendra Modi, in India. Since the opposing ‘signifiers’ agree on the basic material order, intellectual attention is naturally focused primarily on the regressive cultural aspects of authoritarian regimes. In some cases, these regressive forces might even disturb the comfort-zone of the elites, such as attacks on freedom of speech, imposition of archaic rituals, or vilification of dissenters.
This is the general global picture in the 'democratic' world. Following Dimitrov's advice that the conditions in each country must be specifically investigated to understand the character of power, we turn briefly to the Indian scene in the next concluding section.
(To be concluded)

Monday, 12 December 2016

Everybody Loves a Good Fascist--Part IV

[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]

Ur-fascism: Eco, Chomsky, Nandy
Badiou’s paranoia about global rise of fascism is shared, in a variety of forms, by other influential authors. A full review of this problematic literature is beyond the scope of this short, polemical essay. Yet, at least a quick mention must be made of Umberto Eco’s celebrated piece on what he called ‘Ur-Fascism’ (Eco 1995). It is possible that Badiou and other ‘continental’ authors possibly draw their inspiration from Eco. In this very problematic yet manifestly absorbing piece, Eco readily agrees that Nazism and the attendant form of fascism was a unique historical phenomenon. Even the historical context of Italian ‘fascism’—his topic—did not really qualify as fascism by Nazi standards. Eco warns that historically incorrect use of the concept of fascism might actually pave the way for ambiguous, even opportunistic, ascriptions:
It is worth asking why not only the Resistance but the Second World War was generally defined throughout the world as a struggle against fascism … for FDR, “The victory of the American people and their allies will be a victory against fascism and the dead hand of despotism it represents.”
The conjunction of ‘fascism’ with the ‘dead hand of despotism’ enabled America and its allies to continue the ‘struggle’ for freedom and democracy across the world; apparently, the struggle included the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Ngasaki against fascist Japan. Chomsky throws furtherlight on FDR’s concern about fascism and the dead hand of despotism it represented: in 1937 when FDR was the president of US, ‘the State Department described Hitler as a kind of a moderate who was holding off the dangerous forces of the left, meaning the Bolsheviks and the labor movement’. Thus, Eco is fully justified in opposing the use of the notion of fascism beyond its original context.
Nonetheless, Eco’s otherwise salutary and deeply human essay begins to get problematic with his suggestion that, when he was growing up as a boy in Mussolini’s Italy, his personal experiences reflected that unique historical moment. Thus, his aim in the essay is to form a literary record of the experience of fascism. In that sense, Eco’s aim is not really to engage with the actual social history of Nazism. His goal is artistic, in the literary mode. According to Eco, fascism, like any other ruling order, can be so experienced, because
behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there still another ghost stalking Europe (not to speak of other parts of the world)? Ionesco once said that ‘only words count and the rest is mere chattering.’ Linguistic habits are frequently important symptoms of underlying feelings.
Thus, even if Eco warned us earlier about not venturing beyond the original example of fascism, his experience of linguistic and cultural habits during the fascist period suggests to him, after over half a century, that the ‘ghost’ may still be ‘stalking’ the globe. This is not the place to examine these loaded remarks for their empirical and conceptual validity. I just wish to point out a few incongruities.
First, as Eco himself narrates the story of Italian fascism, it was not a well-organized ideology at all with a master text and the like. The rule of Mussolini, for Eco, was basically aggressive corporatism, and had little resemblance to Hitler’s rule of Germany. According to Eco, much of what was articulated in the name of fascism, including Mussolini’s own writings (such as ‘Doctrine of Fascism’), was not meant to be taken seriously. So, which ‘feelings and thoughts’ are to be identified to suggest the specific form of the Italian regime rather than the obscene reactionary behaviour of, say, British skinheads or the Bajrang Dal in India? How is reactionary behaviour related to specific forms of fascism?
Second, and more fundamentally, even if some cultural habits etc. were displayed prominently during a certain rule, how do we link these habits to the historical basis of the regime itself? Suppose that Mussolini was fond of humming Brahms because his mother did so; assume further that followers of Mussolini started humming Brahms too. Will the musical habit of humming Brahms, or even the cultural habit of imitating the leader, signal the onset of fascism? For a real example, Eco emphasizes the fact that Mussolini’s goons wore black shirts. Does the mass cultural habit of wearing black shirts signify advent of fascism? In that case, does it follow that the Ku Klux Klan in US fails to qualify as fascist because its members wear white robes instead?
Third—the reason why I mentioned Eco’s piece in the context of my detailed criticism of Badiou—fascism is essentially a very specific economic phenomenon accompanied by a certain form of class-war; it is just facile to think that such material bases of a social order are causally reflected in the linguistic and cultural habits of the society. After all, Karl Marx and Adolf Hitler basically spoke the same German language. Cultural and linguistic habits of a community typically have a much larger historical—in fact, evolutionary—spread than the emergence and disappearance of specific political regimes. For example, it is often said that fascism is associated with subjugation of women. Following our descent from chimpanzees, rather than from bonobos, it is hard to find a social form where such an association is missing. So, the relation, if at all, between the actual power-plays of the regime and the deep-rooted cultural practices of a community can only be tenuous. In India, for example, classical Oxford-style liberals, Parisian postmodernists, and Hindu fundamentalists, all flaunt the greatness of ancient Indian culture.
Apart from cultural and linguistic habits, Eco also mentioned ‘obscure instincts and unfathomable drives’ as sure manifestations of fascism. Such features usually belong to an individual and are thus studied in individual clinical psychology. In an influential essay, Ashish Nandy (2002) applied these disciplinary tools to portray an individual called Narendra Modi. Nandy pointed out that Modi appeared to be a ‘classic, clinical case of a fascist.’ On the basis of a prolonged, ‘rambling’ interview with Modi in the early 1990s Nandy elaborated on the ‘clinical case’ as follows in an oft-cited passage.
He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence—all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.
It is important to note that Nandy made these highly technical remarks—‘puritanical rigidity,’ ‘ego defence of projection,’ ‘paranoid and obsessive personality traits’—in 2002, more than a decade after the said interview took place, after the world was made to witness the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was its chief minister. In that sense, Nandy’s remarks have at best a post-facto ‘predictive’ value, speaking empirically.
When Nandy interviewed Modi, Modi was just a pedestrian, mid-level, right-wing activist among hundreds of others. Setting aside the issue of why Modi in particular was picked, from among a large number of qualified candidates sharing similar beliefs and attitudes with Modi, it is reasonable to assume that the ‘textbook case’ could well apply to hundreds of fellow sanghchalaks in the RSS, unless the disciplinary methods championed by Nandy are able to relate such dark traits to very selective individuals ostensively picked by such clinical psychology. Indeed, even a casual inquiry in the labyrinths of urban dungeons teeming with contract killers, drug mafia, prostitution rackets, gangsters, addicts, and the like, could well reveal hundreds of thousands of ravaged individuals with such personality traits. From such psychological studies, will Nandy make a forecast of an entire army of mass murderers waiting in the wings? Why aren’t they showing up periodically? Why is it that only Narendra Modi turned out to be the preordained one?
I must hasten to add that I am not trivializing the monstrous killings conducted under Modi’s rule and the danger to democracy posed by his advent to power. Just the opposite in fact (Mukherji 2014). The historical gravity and the political meaning of the genocide are in fact trivialized if we are asked to focus instead on the eye movement, the tone of voice and the linguistic habits of an individual, no matter how intimidating his behaviour. In any case, to return to the topic in hand, tracing the source of a calamitous historical phenomenon like the emergence of fascism to some ‘paranoid and obsessive personality traits’ of an individual is at best politically suspect in that it misses out on the tumultuous material events that gave rise to fascism with its catastrophic consequences. I return to Modi and his rule briefly in the next section.
It is interesting that, from a very different direction, some of Noam Chomsky’s recent views are also problematic in the perspective on fascism I am trying to develop. In a discussion some years ago (Hedges 2010), Chomsky observed that the general politico-economic situation in the US ‘is very similar to late Weimar Germany; the parallels are striking.’ He gave two basic and related reasons: economic deprivation of large masses of people and loss of faith in the parliamentary system.
As with many liberal observers, Chomsky reports that the ‘American dream,’ that fostered much faith and hope in the American political system in the 1950s and 1960s, has progressively eroded for vast number of people. This is specially the case with white blue-collar workers whose post-war prosperity was the driving force behind the earlier boom. With much recent damage and closure of US-based classical industrial structure, wages and standards of living have fallen rapidly since the 1980s. The situation has been aggravated with astronomical rise in the wealth of the top 1% as American capital moved abroad to off-shore domains of cheap labour. Naturally, as low turn-outs in national elections show, large sections of wage-earners have lost faith in the political system that is viewed as serving only the rich.
These are well-known facts for several decades by now despite much effort in the mainstream media to conceal them. In fact, the general spread of these facts is not restricted to the US alone as the phenomenon has progressively affected much of the rest of the world, especially the earlier rich countries in Europe and Asia. The current scene in the US reminds Chomsky of the last days of the Weimar republic because
not [only] that the Nazis managed to destroy the Social Democrats and the Communists but that the traditional parties, the Conservative and Liberal parties, were hated and disappeared. It left a vacuum which the Nazis very cleverly and intelligently managed to take over.
Similarly, for the US, Chomsky predicts darkly that
There it was the Jews. Here it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force … I don’t think all this is very far away.
From this grim vision of an imminent future, Chomsky concludes, ‘it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.’
However, Chomsky notes that the ‘United States is the world power.’ The US continues to be not only the most powerful economy in the world, it has an absolute military control over the planet. Consequently, the ruling classes of US will not want any drastic change in the reigning political order even if sections of the relatively impoverished people express some resentment. This is the basic difference with the late Weimar republic. The other big difference is that there is not even a remote threat of communist take-over; in fact, there is not even the prospect of classical European social democracy in US. As Chomsky himself observed in another discussion, the recently popular democrat Bernie Sanders can at best be viewed as a ‘new deal democrat’; as subsequent events proved, Sanders is very much a friend of corporate America. Even then the establishment preferred Clinton over Sanders.

The recent election results validate the preceding picture. No doubt, a somewhat deviant character Donald Trump won the elections with electoral college majority, even if he lost the popular vote. The entire military-industrial complex aggressively backed Hilary Clinton who won the popular vote. As for Trump, he is at best a republican outsider, not the ‘crazy’ insider Chomsky had in mind in 2010. Finally, with some irony, Chomsky remarked in his 2010 discussion that ‘The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen … Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like McCarthy or Nixon or the evangelist preachers.’ Fortunately, as a well-known real estate tycoon and an accomplished crook, Trump doesn’t qualify either; Trump will have to perform on the model of earlier distinguished crooks. Speaking literally, the only political leader of stature in US today who meets Chomsky’s conception of a fascist as an ‘honest, charismatic figure’ is Bernie Sanders.
(To be continued)

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Everybody Loves a Good Fascist--Part III

[A slightly shorter version of the full paper will appear in French and English from France in January]

Badiou’s Determinations
In a recent lecture, the French philosopher Alain Badiou (2016) suggested that ‘in some sense, this new polit­ic­al fig­ure—Trump, but many oth­ers today—are near the fas­cists of the 30s. There is some­thing sim­il­ar.’ Badiou does admit that the current near-fascists are without ‘their strong enemies of the 30s, which were the com­mun­ist parties.’ As we saw, the real prospect of a communist take-over, in the face of near-total collapse of bourgeois democracy and economy, was a critical condition for the rise of fascism in Germany. Badiou recognizes that the condition is totally absent in the American scene because the US continues to be the biggest superpower with near-absolute military control over much of the planet; also, the specter of communism has essentially disappeared from the planet, especially in the countries that concern Badiou. The military-industrial complex that dictates the terms of political arrangement, say in US, will not allow any significant changes in the character of power that has made the world-domination possible. These facts alone are enough to reject any meaningful ascription of fascism to the political authority in the US and the West. I return to this later in the essay.
Nonetheless, the lure of a grand philosophical category leads Badiou to invent a new political concept: ‘democratic fascism,’ which he calls a ‘paradoxical determination.’ So, how is democratic fascism both a fascism and different from the original one? What are its distinctive features? Badiou’s response is that it ‘plays something different,’ a ‘different music’ perhaps. Having thus secured an artful—almost musical—category, Badiou begins to play on its tonal possibilities. After dispensing with critical economic and historical features of classical fascism, he now portrays the character of democratic fascism with dark features of individual psychology such as racist, machiste [macho], and viol­ent.
He also stresses the ‘fas­cist char­ac­ter­ist­ic’ of thought and speech that operate ‘without any con­sid­er­a­tion for logic or ration­al­ity.’ He is able to stress it because he takes it for granted that ‘demo­crat­ic fas­cism’ is characterized by ‘dis­lo­ca­tion of lan­guage,’ such that ‘the lan­guage is not the lan­guage of explan­a­tion, but an affect­ive lan­guage which cre­ates a false but prac­tic­al unity.’ I hope the feature of dislocated language is one of the ‘differences’ from the original case. Otherwise, it will mean that the holocaust was partly caused by linguistic misunderstanding.
Once the idea of fascism is thus detached from its historico-economic context and attached to menacing foul-mouthed faces, many more details come into view. For example, Badiou is now able to enlarge the list of characteristics of democratic fascism to include: vul­gar­ity, a sort of patho­lo­gic­al rela­tion­ship to women, and the pos­sib­il­ity to say and to do, pub­licly, some things which are unac­cept­able for the big part of human beings today. On this count, fortunately, female democratic fascists are ruled out by definition since the criterion of women having ‘pathological relationship’ to other women is rarely met, if at all. So, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi, Maggie Thatcher, and lesser figures like Maya Kodnani escape Badiou’s philosophical grip.
Clearly by now, Badiou’s vision of fascism is almost totally covered by Donald Trump. So the list of male democratic fascists expands rapidly because Trump is no exception. Thus beginning with Hitler and Trump, Badiou takes on other men ‘progressively,’ as he says: Ber­lusconi in Italy, Orb├ín in Hun­gary, Sarkozy in France, and the shady characters in India, Philippines, Poland and Turkey. Basically, the idea is that if you are a male leader who has won elections, your chance of being a democratic fascist sharply increases if you are also violent, machiste, vulgar, pathologically related to women, and you say whatever you like without attention to consistency. Once you satisfy these conditions, you become a ‘paradoxical determination,’ a fig­ure who is ‘inside the demo­crat­ic con­sti­tu­tion but who is in some sense also out­side: inside and out­side.’
The trouble with this artistic portrayal of fascism is that Benito Mussolini, the suave gentleman, doesn’t fit. Instead of being a raging psychopath frothing in his mouth, Mussolini was actually something of a scholar and a novelist, a thoughtful atheist who also despised racism. He translated excerpts from Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kant, and wrote poetry and published a novel, L'amante del Cardinale (The Cardinal's Mistress).
Further, Badiou’s ‘determination’ fails to explain how his sketch of a pathological monster like Donald Trump—with his violence, vulgarity, irrationality, and ‘dislocation of language’—was able to painstakingly build a global, multibillion dollar real estate empire almost single-handedly, and then ran a skillful presidential campaign against Hilary Clinton, the favoured candidate of the military-industrial complex. Similar remarks apply to Badiou’s characterization of Silvio Berlusconi as a democratic fascist.
In the other direction, Badiou’s method of characterizing fascism seems to apply to the revolutionary general Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the most respected leaders of Vietnamese communist movement. In fact, in a prominent, seemingly respectable pro-US monograph on the Vietnam war published by the Oxford University Press (Davidson 1988/1998, 12), it was categorically stated that ‘Vo Nguyen Giap was definitely not your “Mr. Nice Guy.”’ The learned author disclosed that ‘reports in the hands of the US intelligence agencies depict Giap as somehow combining the worst personality traits of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.’ Incidentally, according to The New York Times Review of Books, Davidson’s book ‘is widely regarded as one of the most comprehensive accounts of the Indochina wars’ (Mirsky 1991).
Now Giap was depicted as a combination of Hitler and Mussolini because one of the reporters covering the Vietnam war characterized Giap as ‘a peasant, a surly boor.’ ‘Like Der Fuhrer,’ Davidson added, Giap ‘is impulsive and sometimes irrational,’ and ‘like Mussolini, he is vain and self-indulgent.’ For example, Giap ‘wore button shoes,’ ‘sported tailored Western suits’ and flaunted his young second wife, Davidson reported with disdain. My point is that, if the intelligence reports on General Giap’s personality hold, Alain Badiou has no means of denying that Giap was a fascist, and not even a ‘democratic’ one since the structure of political consent in Vietnam doesn’t exactly mimic Westminster. It is of some interest whether Badiou’s conception of fascism matches that of the CIA’s for much of the non-Western political leaders, especially the communist ones with Joseph Stalin, Mao ze Dong and General Pol Pot leading the pack.

In the cited lecture, as uploaded in the internet, Badiou does not mention the sources of his creative inspiration. Net-addicts might form the irreverent impression that Badiou’s political philosophy is constructed under the influence of Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator, and the dozens of lists of fascism-features that inundate the internet these days. For example, one of the more popular lists with thousands of approvals includes the following items among others: Hitler had not got married, Hitler had come to power campaigning that he would end all problems in a jiffy, Hitler used to love getting photographed, Hitler used to call his rivals anti-nationals/traitors, Hitler used to love dressing up and look good.
(To be continued)