academics

MICHAEL ALBERT INTERVIEW

Just reposting the interview I did with Michael Albert here that was originally over at Bella Caledonia.

Michael Albert, along with Robin Hahnel, is one of the main developers of the idea of Participatory Economics, or Parecon. He is the co-founder of ZMagazine and South End Press and has published more than 15 books dealing principally with alternative economic systems to the rapacious capitalistic ones that most of us are now subject to.

He will be appearing in Scotland, courtesy of  The Project for a Participatory Society UK on the 29th of October at the University of Glasgow and later at RIB at the CCA and on the 30th he will be in Edinburgh at the World Power Independent Radical Book Fair. Interview by Michael Greenwell.

Have you been to Scotland before and what do you think of the place?

Yes, I was here in the course of a speaking tour once before, but like will likely be the case this time, I saw only train views, streets, and the hall where I spoke – not really anything to have an opinion about – other than the people I related to, who were exceptionally nice.

What do you know about the political situation re the independence movement and the fact that when England decides to vote Tory Scotland is left for years with a government that is has simply not voted for?

Sad to say, I must admit, I know nothing about it. When Chomsky, for example, goes places to speak he often knows more about the place, wherever it may be, than most people who live there. I have a hard time knowing a lot even about the U.S. Knowing about other countries I visit to an extent that would imply my opinion matters, is simply beyond my mental means.

Is the elimination of the nation state as it is now understood one of the aims of Parecon?

It would depend what you mean by your phrase as it is now understood. If you mean would Venezuela achieving a parecon, or becoming a participatory society, mean there was no longer Venezuela – no, it neither requires that, nor does it seek it, nor do I think that has any particular merit, though that is just my opinion.

If you mean would countries as we know them becoming participatory societies, with participatory economies, be overwhelmingly different from what we typically mean by a nation state – of course they would. The ways are too numerous to list, but, for one, instead of having a government that operates above the populace and in the interests of small elements in the populace at the expense of the rest – the polity would be the whole populace, self managing.

In a small nation like Scotland where a substantial number of the people wish to divest from the larger state system (the UK), could a parecon system help to bring this about?

Not if Scotland had great resources and England did not. That would be the same as the rich leaving the rest, and taking the wealth with them. That’s a tiny bit oversimplified, but not too much. Think of the oil counties in Venezuela deciding they want to secede and take control of the oil with them.

But in your case, my guess is, there would no longer even be an issue and if there was, by way of the norms of self management, yes perhaps it would help. That is, just as counties and states, in the U.S., say, would not want to secede from a participatory society version of U.S., because it was just, equitable, etc. – surely regions with different cultures and histories that could and would maintain those attributes, wouldn’t need to secede for any reason. Or that is my guess, at any rate.

The greater likelihood, I would guess, is that widespread participatory economy and participatory society existence would lead to real internationalism, as in, over time, regions and then the world becoming federations of ever more equal – in wealth and per capita influence – populations, often with different languages, cultures, etc.

Would it be easier for a parecon system to start in a large or small state or would there be no fundamental difference?

There are many variables. If you say everything else is the same and just size differs – still, it could go either way. A small state might well be easier and quicker to develop powerful movements and make the change. However it is also true that a small state would be easier of other states – such as my own U.S. – to subject to pressures, economic or military, preventing or overthrowing such gains. I don’t think it is possible to answer in general.

I would say, however, it is probably quite a bit easier to develop a nationally powerful movement in a small state, with not too much cultural variation, than in a huge one like, say, the U.S.

How could a parecon society defend itself against an aggressive neighbouring society?

It is probably not really neighboring that is the issue – rather a rapacious violent defended of empire – such as my country, say. And for the most part, my own view is that it can’t be done militarily. Whether a massive and incredibly powerful military apparatus can repress a small or even modest sized parecon state depends on that state’s military might, which can easily be smashed technically – but on whether social issues prevent the military power from deploying massive force. My own estimate is that the real defense of a meritorious transformation of a society, that brings it out of the U.S. web of market relations, that makes it insubordinate, and most damning from the point of view of other elites, that provides a model of how to live freely and well that still more populations might emulate (and I think a country attaining a parecon would accomplish all this), is the military commitment of its citizens (their ungovernability by empire), the extent of resistance to such carnage that other nations would display, and the resistance to such carnage that radical and progressive elements within the violent nation would unleash. I suspect the number of tanks or planes the transformed economy and society has has almost zero to do with its safety from attack, and may even be counterproductive.

Finally, can you provide examples of communities, businesses and groups using the system successfully at the moment that people could look at and contact?

There may be one or more in Scotland, I don’t know. There are certainly various operations, often media, but sometimes in other areas – travel agencies, a dentist’s office, and so on – that explicitly use the logic and methods of parecon, albeit within existing hostile societies. Then there are hundreds, actually thousands and even tens of thousands of coops and other ventures that use elements of pareconish content, though not explicitly linking what they do to parecon. On a larger scale, for example, I think many steps are being taken in Venezuela moving quite strongly in participatory economic and participatory society directions, though without saying so explicitly.

The vision is young; having taken a long time to get beyond very small circles, but now seems to be finding favor far more widely, and in a slowly accelerating pattern.

THE DEMON HAUNTED WORLD

I have just finished reading The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan and I had some conflicting thoughts about it.

Some passages are pure gold. When he speaks about the endeavours of certain scientists and activists struggling against the prejudices of their respective ages he was absolutely at his best. In this book he does this many times but most memorably with some of the people objecting to witchcraft trials in Europe and Frederick Douglass.

Also, when Sagan tried to disprove and demystify things he did it wonderfully smoothly and in a way that didn’t seem to rub so many people up the wrong way as someone like Richard Dawkins regularly does. He could actually do it in such a beautiful way that I am sure many people didn’t realise that they were being mocked, albeit gently. When he was at his best it was really poetry.

Furthermore, his pleas for improving the standard of education in general and scientific education in particular are logical, well-evidenced and to the point. The same can be said of the reasons he thinks governments do not particularly want an educated public (if they know what you are doing then they know what you are doing wrong).

However, it was when he started to talk about US government past and present that he seemed to not be taking his own advice about looking at all the evidence. Carl Sagan was involved  with the US government in some of their better projects such as SETI and had a vested interest. Nonetheless, he did speak out against many projects such as the Star Wars Defence Initiative and others and in this book launches a brilliant sustained attack against Edward Teller who was undoubtedly one of the most bellicose scientists involved with the US.

Maybe it is only me but I just didn’t like that although he appealed for more sensible behaviour by the US government it was always in terms of “please stop spending so much on the military” instead of “stop bombing people”. Surely the evidence would suggest that governments don’t change just because you ask them nicely. And when he used examples about aggression or tyranny they were nearly always about other countries.

Maybe he didn’t have the information at hand but I doubt that. Maybe even he wasn’t completely immune to the propaganda of the time of Cold War he grew up in. Maybe he just didn’t want to rub people up the wrong way.

Finally, in one of the chapters toward the end he speaks at length about Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers and points out problems in the USA today in a “what would the founding fathers make of it?” way and it all seemed a bit like a schoolboy tract. I wondered if he had ever read what Howard Zinn had had to say about the founding fathers.

There was also a small point he made about 1984 which wasn’t exactly correct. He said The Ministry of Truth in 1984 was based on the rewriting of history in Stalin’s Russia but that wasn’t really it. The Ministry of Truth was based on a number of things including the rewriting of history Orwell had seen in relation to the Spanish Civil War in which he fought, the BBC when Orwell worked there during World War II and also the propaganda in both the fascist and communist countries of Europe.

He does put forth some very radical arguments in the book, which make a lot of sense, but that radicalism tends to desert him at a couple of points.

I really don’t want to disparage Carl Sagan and I hope I haven’t. He is a hero of mine and you really should read this – the majority of it is wonderful. It is only because he set such high standards in other things (and in this) that I was a little bit disappointed with 2 small parts of a longish book.

HOWARD ZINN – 1922 to 2010

“When I was studying in college I found I was being taught basically the same world view [and] the same version of history as I had been taught in school…only with footnotes”.

Because I travel around a bit it is difficult sometimes to get books (or get decent ones) in English. Therefore I am in the habit of downloading audio books and MP3s of lectures and so on. This way I get through a hell of a lot of “reading” and it is in this way thatI have listened and relistened to everything I could get my hands on by Howard zinn, the “radical Historian” died yesterday at the age of 87 .

It was in fact lucky that I covered his work in this way because in the lectures the humour and kindness of the man really showed through even in small things like stopping to praise the little girls who brought him a bottle of water during one lecture.

“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”

“What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places — and there are so many — where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.”

The term “radical historian” is the one most used to describe Zinn and at first it almost seems to have a slightly oxymoronic quality about it when you first hear it. However, when you read Zinn’s work it seems a perfectly fitting title.

The thing is, I don’t want it to be.

Zinn’s books were full of the kind of information that the majority of history books lack. So often the history we are told is that of the great (sic) men (can I put a ‘sic’ here too?) whose deliberations controlled and shaped the times. WW2 usually being described as a sort of game of chess between Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt is one example of this disease.

He neatly points out the problem with this kind of history here…

It is possible, reading standard histories, to forget half the population of the country. The explorers were men, the landholders and merchants men, the political leaders men, the military figures men. The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status.
— Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (1980)

If you read his books they are full of small acts of rebellion that you may not have heard about. All true and all inspirational. These stories manage to provide a kind of history, not where we think about how difficult it must have been for those poor powerful men making their decisions for all of us, but rather where we see the effects those decisions had on the majority of people. And it is of course the majority of the people who lived in the times described  that are excluded from the history books. As he says in his introduction to A People’s History of the United States, “to write history in this way [omitting the vast majority of people] is not a historical necessity but an ideological choice.”

Scholars, who pride themselves on speaking their minds, often engage in a form of self-censorship which is called “realism.” To be “realistic” in dealing with a problem is to work only among the alternatives which the most powerful in society put forth. It is as if we are all confined to a, b, c, or d in the multiple choice test, when we know there is another possible answer. American society, although it has more freedom of expression than most societies in the world, thus sets limits beyond which respectable people are not supposed to think or speak. So far, too much of the debate on Vietnam has observed these limits.

So when Zinn writes about Colombus he emphasises not his “navigational fortitude” or anything of the like but the cruelty to which he deliberately subjected the natives who welcomed him when he arrived in the Americas.

Also, for Zinn but unfortunately not for other historians, these things could not be simply dismissed with a wave of the hand and the catch-all horrible line “you can’t judge the past by the standards of today” (as if the standards of today were so bloody wonderful anyway).

Zinn’s style of historical work should be the norm and not the exception. Far better his way than the fawning tributes to mass-murderers and villains that we are normally expected to read at schools and universities.

Even to the end of his life he was speaking publicly, writing and continuing to say what needed to be said.

I suggest you listen to some of it.

PODCAST TWO

In this one I speak with Professor David Miller of the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

David Miller is the author/co-author/editor of several books including “A Century of Spin: How Public Relations Became the cutting Edge of Corporate Power” and “TELL ME LIES. Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq.” He is also the co-founder of http://www.spinwatch.org and http://www.spinprofiles.org. He occasionally appears on the BBC too,  including this rather amusing one from Newsnight.

In fact, in this podcast we discuss the BBC, it’s history and origins, how it has been controlled and manipulated by governments and how all this fits into the wider media context.

I hope the production is a little better on this one than the last.

If you go to THIS LINK HERE then you can listen to it online or download it as an mp3. You want the VBR MP3 link where it says ‘Audio Files’.

You can also LISTEN ONLINE HERE

Hope you like it and thank to ourmedia.org for making a great little service.

SPINPROFILES

Just wanted to let you all know about a wonderful new resource for bloggers, journalists, activists, concerned citizens etc.

Spinprofiles.org is in the form of a wiki and as it explains on the front page…

SpinProfiles documents the PR and propaganda activities of public relations firms and the public relations industry engaged in managing and manipulating public perception, opinion and policy. SpinProfiles also includes profiles on think tanks, front groups funded by industry and industry-friendly experts who work to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of transnational corporations or other special interests.

SpinProfiles focuses on transparency issues by profiling and cataloging the activities of lobbyists, lobbying firms and other corporate lobby groups.

Propaganda in war and peace and the activities of states in deceptive communications and special interest lobbying is also a focus with major collections of articles on British propaganda, the theory and practice of counterinsurgency, the neoconservatives, the Israel lobby and the terror experts and the associated terrorism industry, which do so much to distort public policy in the ‘war on terror’. SpinProfiles also documents the propaganda, disinformation, and covert action activities of states, intelligence agencies, and their associated networks.

http://www.spinprofiles.org

GIVE ME 5 MINUTES WITH DAWKINS

Give me 5 minutes with Richard Dawkins.

He did an interview recently on BBC. The 5 minute interview thing with the person who does it [don’t know his name and don’t care] was utterly banal.

Give me 5 minutes with him.

I guarantee you would have an interesting interview.

I actually like a lot of what he says. I am also an atheist.

However, I made a mistake, which we all do, because it is only human. I made a mistake by saying I liked what Sam Harris says.

I said that because I had only watched 2 hours of him. Further investigation uncovered some pleasant facts.

Sam Harris is alluring and many of the things he says are correct. But, Harris also quotes Alan Dershowitz and quoting Alan Dershowitz basically should exclude you from credibility.

I think Dawkins has a lot of things spot on about the history of evolution [genetic and human falsification]. And obviously although this is a reasonably popular website he is obviously hugely well-known and I am not.

But he hangs out with the wrong people. Basically apologists for mass murder [Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens].

But I want to challenge his supposed humanistic convictions.

He has made statements against Iraq etc but only in the paradigm of ‘it’s all religious madness’. I can see why he would bang that particular drum given the point he wants to prove but I don’t see any genuine humanistic convictions in that kind of behaviour.

I have written many articles condemning religion, easily found on this site.

Give me the five minutes with him.

I guarantee it wouldn’t be boring.

This is the second time I have asked him to have a word with me. I haven’t emailed him this one yet but he got the first one.

JURASSIC SHERLOCK

I have been very busy so posting has dropped off. Work in general, a cold and the fact that I am working on some longer format pieces have got in the way.

Posting will be back to normal from now.

I have managed in the meantime to keep up with my the various stories going on and if you don’t know then science daily always has lots of interesting things on the go.

I don’t really like it when people guffaw at or complain about the stupidity of scientists that know far much more than they do about a subject.

One such thing at the moment is the large Hadron collider which some people seemed to think was going to make black holes that are going to eat us all. That isn’t the plan and it won’t do that.

When it is working again however, it may be able to tell us if the models of the universe and laws of physics we have are fundamentally correct.

It could also find the answer as to why gravity is much weaker than other fundamental forces like electromagnetism. If you don’t believe that gravity is weaker then go and get a magnet and hold something up in the air with it. You can then wonder why just that little magnet exerts more force on the other metal object than the entire weight of the earth trying to pull it down.

It might also prove the existence of dimensions other than the three that warped and absurd creatures such as ourselves are most familiar with, time and the one that Geoff Hoon came from.

So I do have a big respect for many scientists in many different fields but just like the rest of us, some of them are not averse to taking the propaganda buck and at other times they do make the occasional howler.

The following howler however, is not an error of fact. I would like to post it as the first entry in the 2009 Allcomers Stating the Bloody Obvious Award competition and invite other bloggers to post if they find other possibles and at the end of the year we can all see who was the winner.

So, to the story.

You see some people  have just discovered a huge kind of prehistoric snake and they have called it Titanoboa.

Titanoboa would have been about 13 metres [42 feet] long and 1140 kilograms [2500 lbs].

“At its greatest width, the snake would have come up to about your hips. The size is pretty amazing,” said co-author P David Polly, from Indiana University in Bloomington, US.

“Probably like an anaconda, it spent a lot of time in the water,” said Professor Polly.

And here we are…

“It would have needed to eat a lot.”

That particular piece of information I could probably have worked out for myself.

If anyone else wants to get involved in the competition then write about it on your own blog and email me about the entry. This is not only about science. Politics, sport anything can be in the Stating-the-bloody-obvious-award. I only prefaced it with some scientific information to show that I really do think that there are far more interesting things to be found in scientific journals and the like than in the business or sports sections of the newspapers.

THE AUDIENCE ALWAYS BUYS IT

It has been written and talked about often enough but people generally still don’t realise that the main business of the media is not to produce programmes or articles in magazines etc – it is to sell audiences to advertisers. That is the business part of it.

The propaganda part of it works slightly differently and is well explained here by the excellent Media Education Foundation

THE ‘PRIMITIVE’ CELTS

I have been waiting for someone to stick this on the internet so I could put it on here.

It is a documentary about the conflict between the Romans and the Celts, made by none other than Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame.

It is interesting from a historical viewpoint and as an analysis of how empires describe their actions…

ABHORRENT?

The most vicious argument I have ever had revolved around one simple thing I said.

I was very young too, probably about 14.

I didn’t think what I was saying was controversial at all. Not at all.

However.

The person I was arguing with really believed it was the worst thing he had ever heard said.

All I said was that I hope that my generation is better than the one before and that the one after me was better than mine and outstripped me in every way. I also said that if that is not the case then there really isn’t any point.

The person I argued with was a priest.