Friday, December 30, 2011

The War on Information

Our age is currently experiencing the most epochal change in production that has occurred since the industrial revolution. The change presents a crisis that must be resolved one way or another but which cannot allow things to progress along the same dimension as the last 50 years.

In the period leading up to the dot-com bubble the opening of the information age was widely heralded. It was going to bring new dynamism to the economy and presented huge opportunities for profit making and expansion. It did of course lead to massive profits and massive expansion. However, a large number of companies were soon viewed by investors as vastly over-valued, leading to a contraction. The fantastic nature of the new economy did not lead to steady long-term growth in the same way that the industrial revolution had. It similarly failed to demonstrate the growth that the more recent post-war boom did. Instead it lead to a credit bubble. The first credit bust was mitigated by an expansion of cheap-credit. However, this culminated in the financial crisis of 2008.

During the French revolution, the masses demanded that there be a maximum placed on the price of bread. This was a move which they required to survive as inflation was causing the price of bread to rise rapidly. However, the repercussions of this demand were tremendous. The price of bread depended on the price of everything which was used to make the bread. In order to solve the problem of bread prices they had to solve the problem of the “general maximum”. The government constructed schedules to enforce the prices of general commodities, yet the profits which could be made from avoiding these schedules was tremendous. This created a huge incentive towards illegality. In the end, to save the general maximum required the imposition of extreme fines, and finally, at the demand of the masses, execution by guillotine. In the French revolution, to stop the manifestation of price in the capitalist system required terror.

In our new economy exactly the opposite problem will be realised. Only through treat and terror will the manifestation of price be saved. Political and economic forces are already gathering to ensure that this is the case. Something deep in the organisation of the economy will have to change. The only question which remains is: which way will we change?

Knowledge Production

The information age's capacity to change the way we live is very real. In 1983 hardly anyone would have imagined that in 2011 nearly everyone in the West would carry tablets and phones that would outperform the then-existing, and quite rare, mainframes. Even in underdeveloped regions many people have phones that outstrip the best personal computers of 1983.

The production of knowledge has become increasingly important. Software is now a large industry projected to be around 457 billion USD by 2013 [2]. Two of the most well-known companies in the world are Microsoft and Google. Both have global recognition and global power. Facebook is now a household name and the number of people on social networks today exceeds the number of Internet users in 2006 [4]. China's internet growth is so explosive that it now has internet penetration to 34% of the population and gained more users in three years than the US has in total [5]. This process of an increasingly connected world is an inexorable trend.

The entertainment industry similarly is growing at breakneck pace in the third world. India expects its entertainment industry to grow by 15% in the next three years: this despite India being one of the largest producers of film in the world. China's film market has seen 64% growth in 2010.


At the same time we have seen an enormous increase in automation. Automation has always been a major factor in generating periodic crisis in capitalist economies. The famous Luddite revolt saw 19th Century English textile artisans suffering serious lack of income due to the introduction of automated looms. The increase in productive capacity from power-looms required fewer workers. So automation is no stranger to development.

However, automation is now reaching levels never before seen. From assembly lines and powered mechanical assistance has risen a new multi-purpose automating instrument: the robot. The automotive industry was one of the first enthusiastic customers of robotics and remains a major consumer. However, the number of robots being employed in diverse production is increasing at amazing rates. China is expected to see double digit growth in its robotics industry in 2011. Foxconn, the manufacturer of the iPhone and employer of almost 1 million employees, is now planning to obtain one million robots over the course of the next three years [6]. The cost of the robots is expected to be about three times the annual wage of a worker but that cost is expected to be recouped within one year. These estimates are likely to be somewhat overstated by Foxconn; however it certainly does not bode well for workers in its workforce. The entire Pearl River Delta is seeing a booming trade in automation. As workers demand higher wages and become more discerning about working conditions, investors are searching for ways to weaken labour’s negotiating hand.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been fears that labour would have its place in the economy stolen. In the 1950s, Luddite ideas of anti-automation began to gain prominence amongst workers in the United States and elsewhere [7]. Yet while this automation certainly did lead to unemployment of particular classes of labour, the post-war period was one of the greatest periods of growth in history. While it was bad in an immediate sense for the workers in these industries, it was good in general for the working class as productivity was high and growing and unemployment remained low into the 1970s.

The increase in automation by itself does not necessarily lead to problems for capitalism. It can create "growing pains" when large numbers of workers are thrown out of productive employment. While the productive capacity per worker increases, the profits require that there are consumers of the goods produced. Automation can continue as long as new markets are available. If unemployment due to automation spreads generally, however, there is a crisis.


The greatest impediment to the stability of growth in the system, however, has to do with the interaction of these two elements. Modern automation is not exactly like the automation of the past. Modern automation is highly computerised and in ever-greater reliance on knowledge as a fundamental component of the means of production. Modern computerised mills, for instance, are very generic, requiring only a CAD (Computer Assisted Design) schematic in order to directly produce something as complex as a Geneva Moment (a very sophisticated gear assembly). Engines are assured to be within tolerances not by inspection by expert engineers but by robots assisted by laser assemblies capable of much greater coverage and precision. In the past cloth which was cut by hand for garments is now cut by robotically controlled lasers. For each of these, a new design requires little more than a schematic with a bit of supervision and testing. One can imagine that it is not long before this supervision recedes into irrelevance.

Automation can now spread more rapidly and more generally using the more general purpose tools of robotics and knowledge production efforts for software and patterns which radically increases its flexibility. Whereas the automated looms of the past required supervision and only created a textile, the current trend in automation threatens to take even very skilled jobs. The trend will not stop with manual labour. Indeed middle class service sector jobs are also being replaced. The bank teller used to be ubiquitous but the ATM has replaced her. Store clerks are being automated away by self-checkout. Manual stocking is being replaced by RFID tracked robotic stocking. How long is it before knowledge warehousing jobs such as tech-support will be automated by natural language query interfaces? Odds are good that this will happen within a generation.

The crux of the change is not simply the fact of automation itself. It is the flexibility of automation which allows innovation with information technologies to be immediately realised as new components to a commodity. What Marxists sometimes call “Deptartment I” production, that is production of commodities used by capitalists in production of commodities, is becoming increasingly dominated by designs and software, rather than the more concrete inputs of the past. Whereas in the 1950s a new commodity would require substantial changes to large and expensive fixed capital to automate a new process, it is now possible to simply change the software or the data which drives the software.

A fundamental contradiction

This meteoric growth in automation and the general economic dependence on knowledge production generates a calamitous contradiction. Knowledge itself is not a commodity. We are merely attempting to make it look like one.

Commodities are those goods which can be produced by the investment of capital to obtain some profit at the end of the production cycle by sale for a greater amount of money than went into the constituent input commodities and labour. This requires that the goods exhibit a scarcity which is limited by production. Air is not a commodity (yet) because its production simply requires breathing and as such it is difficult to sell*. By contrast, the light from street lamps is not charged for; not because it requires no productive effort, indeed it does, but rather because it is not scarce once produced. Such goods are called public non-rival goods.

Commodities really need to be private rival goods in order to serve their role of enabling profits. While in the past, knowledge in the form of books could simulate a commodity, if with some difficulty, by limiting the reproduction to relatively expensive printing presses. However, modern digital knowledge is almost a perfect non-commodity. A film costing 100 million to produce can be copied in a tiny amount of time for a tiny fraction of a cent. Once knowledge has been produced it is almost trivially possible to copy it.

We have been attempting to make knowledge look like a commodity with the use of copyright and patents. Both of these are legal means backed up with threats from the State of fines, or, likely soon, incarceration. Copyright is growing in influence and duration. There is an informal law known as the “Mickey Mouse” rule that copyright duration will always be extended to ensure that Disney has control of Mikey mouse. The rule has held thus far. Patents are also growing in their scope. They are now even being applied to mathematics itself [8].

However there are new legal trends emerging. Reverse engineering, the process of how something is done, even if not patented, is illegal in some circumstances. DRM, euphemistically known as Digital Rights Management, but which is really a strait jacket designed to decrease the usability of your knowledge by making it act as if it exhibits scarcity, has required that looking at how things are made is illegal. The reason for these legal changes is that it is technically impossible for those with access to general computation to be thwarted from sharing information provided for this general computation platform. This has led us to a new war: the war on general computation itself. Prophetically, Richard M. Stallman predicted this in a dystopian short story in 1997. At the time it was regarded by some as paranoid speculative fiction. Now we have seen the first shots fired in this war.

All of these legal forays have not yet deterred people from making use of what is not scarce. While a surprisingly wide demographic views so-called "piracy" with as much of a stigma as haircuts, teenagers are exceptionally tolerant. Fewer than 1 in 10 teenagers believe that music piracy is morally wrong [1]. The youth of this generation are growing up in a world where information is viewed as equally ubiquitous and undeserving of charge as air itself.

Capitalism requires that capital be invested for profit in order to produce commodities. Commodities require scarcity or it is impossible to charge for them. If things are not commodities we cannot invest money in their production. Such is our present conundrum.

The liberal and technological savvy spectrum of commentators has widely stated that piracy is not a fundamental problem for the production of software, music, films or really anywhere else. They have advocated for loose or non-existent patents, copyright or DRM laws and called for the unshackling of the internet. While I believe them to be on the clearly correct side of the information war, they are completely wrong in their analysis. The analysis of the right-wing and the major content producers such as publishers, software companies, record companies and film producers are all correct. The unshackling of information will lead to certain disaster for the profit motive in knowledge production.

There really are only two choices before us. There is one world in which we save the value of goods. In this world we will need to force knowledge to act like a commodity. We must bring down ever greater State coercion in fines, seizure, imprisonment, censorship etc. We will need to generously expand the security State apparatus in policing this. We will need to generously expand the judicial apparatus of lawyers and judges in adjudicating it. We will need to generously expand the state bureaucracy in order to recommend correctives.

There is another world where we abandon the profit motive and turn to a system of production which does not require it. In this world information is widely available and enjoyed. The production of information is instantly available to any who would enjoy its utility. Real goods grow in diversity and their accessible quantity. Creativity is no longer horded but can be shared synergistically.

The only reason that anyone could sensibly argue for the first world over the second world is if they are already tremendously wealthy, or they don't believe the second world can exist. Since there is no point in convincing the former, It would be better to challenge the notion that the second cannot exist. While I have in mind some ways in which this second "utopian" world could be constructed, I think that even if I did not, the former world is so dystopian that any sane person would need to look long and hard to find an alternative before simply accepting it.

* Unless it compressed but that requires productive effort and compressed air is scarce.

[1] The Barna Group, Ltd. Study on Music Piracy

[2] DataMonitor - Abstract from Global Software Industry Guide - 2008

[3] Chinese Film Industry Races Close to Bollywood - Times of India

[4] Mary Meeker: Web 2.0 presentation

[5] Mary Meeker says the web does not revolve around the USA any longer

[6] Twist their robot arm: Foxconn automation plan a forced gamble

[7] Forging America - Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution, 2003.

[8] Appeals court says only complicated math is patentable, Ars Technica

Friday, December 23, 2011

Insurrection and the Holiday Season - From Hanukkah to the birth of Christianity

Hanukkah is a rather well known Jewish holiday; however, it is less well known that Hanukkah is not an important religious holiday. Instead it gained prominence in Europe due to its proximity to Christmas, a holiday which similarly was promoted as an alternative to earlier pagan mid-winter solstice holidays. It does however have a lineal relationship with the Christian tradition.

Hanukkah is a celebration of a nationalist insurrection against the Seleucid Empire in around 166BC, known as the revolt of the Maccabees. The revolt started as a response to the perceived Hellenisation of Jewish culture under the Seleucid empire, a Greek-Macedonian state, and was initially quite conservative. However, it often happens in the course of revolutions that the population’s realisation of power can have lasting consequences. In the case of the Maccabees, what had started as a radical cultural conservatism led to a new Jewish anti-clerical movement known as the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a movement, a political party, and even a schismatic church. In traditional Judaism, overseen by the Sadducees observance of the religious law and the various religious functions was carried out by a priest class. Membership of this class was inherited - supposedly populated by the sons of Aaron, a character described in Exodus. By contrast the Pharisees were the more literate exponents of the Judean proletariat and did not have official status.

The Maccabees were eventually successful in displacing Hellenic influence and establishing the Hasmonean dynasty (during which much of the codification of the Old Testament is assumed to have taken place). It is this success which is celebrated during Hanukkah, with the Menorah representing the eight nights for which a signal lamp miraculously burned with only one day’s worth of oil. This success and the need of the revolution to have broad popular support cemented the importance of the Pharisees all the way up to the early part of the first century CE, which saw the birth of Christianity.

The Pharisees were a rabbinic tradition (rabbi meaning teacher), and as such there was much interest in discourse and debate about the correct observance of the scriptures and theology in general. In addition, Hellenic culture had introduced many new theological ideas and knowledge of other social structures. The Pharisees saw themselves as existing in opposition to the Sadducees, who had a relatively simple answer to the question of correct interpretation; namely that interpretation was performed by the priestly caste. The Pharisees, however, adopted much of what had formerly only been thought to apply to the priest caste, particularly the observance of various rituals of purity and observance which before had not been adopted by the general population.

Roman Rule and Jewish Resistance

Judea became a protectorate of Rome in 63 BC. They were allowed to retain their King and religious laws restricting their administration to taxation policy and trade law. With the Pharisees opening the door to non-priestly interpretation, together with the influx of new cultural ideas from both Hellenic and Roman rule, we see the formation of many new theological and social movements. Significant among these are the Zealots and the even more radical Sicarii.

The Zealots come out of the Pharisaic tradition, but were much less tame. They were willing to employ violent means towards their aims of liberation from Roman rule. This included everything from insurrection to the expropriation of capital from the priest caste and their supporters. It is very probable that early Christianity found its supporters largely from the Zealots. In the book of Luke, for example, we hear that Simon was a Zealot. [1]

Although much of the New Testament is devoted to polemics against the Pharisees, this is not so much because the Pharisees were the greatest perceived enemy, but because they were the portion of society which was viewed as most in need of convincing by the more radical groups. It is probably more sensible to view the criticism as attempts to move the mass of society to a more radical position. In Luke we hear: "Damn you, Pharisees! You pay tithes on mint and rue and every herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. You should have attended to the last without neglecting the first.” [1]

According to the New Testament, Capernaum in Galilee was the base of operations for Jesus. This is significant as it was only several miles from Gamla, which was rife with Zealot insurgents. The belief in Messianic assistance was widespread amongst the Zealots. Many thought that some Messiah, though most often not a divine one, would assist in overthrowing Roman rule.

Perhaps the most extreme of the religious groups was known as the Sicari. The Sicarii's major base of operations was Galilee. The historian Hayim Ben-Sasson stated that the Sicarii "were fighting for a social revolution, while the Jerusalem Zealots placed less stress on the social aspect". [2] He also states that the Sicarii "never attached themselves to one particular family and never proclaimed any of their leaders king". Some scholars have contended that Judas Iscariot was himself a Sicarii although there are debates on which period the Sicarii became significant in.

The New Testament - A Contested History

The historical accuracy of portions of the New Testament is very hard to establish. It took quite a while for the New Testament canon to be assembled; dating of authorship is spread over a fairly large period and we have good evidence that some parts of the New Testament are likely to have been inserted at a later date. Many of the individuals in the New Testament might be allegorical. For instance, some scholars contend that Judas Iscariot means "Jew from the township". Suffice it to say that a conclusive determination is impossible, but some of the interpretations are interesting.

Based on the associations with the Zealots and Sicarii and some information from the New Testament itself, some scholars believe that Christianity may have been far more insurrectionary than the portrait we now find. Among the various quotes from the New Testament that point to a possible insurrectionary history is the famous quote of Jesus from Matthew 10:34: "I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword". In Luke he says: "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Also in Luke we hear Jesus proclaim: "I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze." [1]

Just as the Zealots were not averse to the expropriation of capital, we also see vestiges of class war in the New Testament. In Luke again we find "Damn you rich! You already have your consolation. Damn you who are well-fed now! You will know hunger. Damn you who laugh now! You will learn to weep and grieve. Damn you when everybody speaks well of you! Recall that their ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way. " [1]

Although these quotes come from the canonical gospels, they are viewed by the majority of biblical scholars as being from the Q Manuscript, which is believed to have been one of the common sources for Matthew and Luke. Q would have been a radical gospel indeed, even if it was more meek than some of the radical ideas which would have been circulating around Galilee at the time. The modern polite and obsequious versions of Christianity are at least partially the result of alterations by Hellenic and Roman Christians in later years and many of those changes would have been quite conservative.

It is clear that the religions of Christianity and modern Judaism actually arose in the crucible of insurrection, even if their current forms have been moulded to buttress established power structures. Perhaps the "reason for the season" should have less to do with pious proclamations of spirituality and financial over-extension and more to do with radical change and disruptive opposition to injustice.

[1] The complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, Editor, Polebridge Press, 1992
[2] History of the Jewish People, Hayim Ben-Sasson, Harvard University Press, 1985

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Risks of Nuclear

The recent explosion and now likely meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant run by TEPCO has generated a lot of press and re-sparked the debate on nuclear safety. This is an especially important discussion in the present period as many countries throughout the world are currently assessing which potential alternatives to natural gas can serve as feasible replacements.

The current reactor design is a BWR-type reactor which uses light water as a coolant. While it share some basic features with the notorious Chernobyl RMBK plant, it also has important differences. In addition to the RMBK's many mis-features which lead to the famous accident, RMBK also suffered from an almost complete lack of passive safety systems. It even lacked a primary containment vessel for the reactor. When it exploded it shot flaming graphite and radioactive products into the atmosphere which spread over a wide area - a seriously catastrophic event.

Because of the existence of a primary containment vessel, under normal conditions the design at Fukushima should keep even a complete meltdown from causing a serious radiation danger to the public, much in the same way the Three Mile Island reactor was able to do. However, the conditions that the reactor has so far encountered are not particularly normal. After a 9.0 earthquake, it's very difficult to be sure if your design is going to act in the way you intended.

Which leads us to the primary difficulty which has plagued the Fukushima reactor. The reactor design relies critically on an active coolant system. I have read in several places where people have wondered why the reactor wasn't scrammed (scramming means implementing emergency shutdown procedures). In fact it was scrammed. The problem is that it takes a long time to cool down. During this entire cool-off period, one needs to be flowing coolant past the core to avoid a meltdown. Unfortunately the pump system were unable to function because of a failure to power them. Without coolant the core melts and the problem becomes much more complicated and dangerous. In the worse case a complete liquification of the core could even lead to a return to criticality. This would be similar to the reactor core turning back on, except this time without the designed geometry. Essentially an uncontrolled and very difficult to control reactor. If this happens, things become much more complicated and dangerous.

The assessment of safety for the Fukushima units was based on the idea that redundancy would provide sufficient safety. However, they neglected to calculate the risk of some event in which both causes were common - that the same cause of electrical failure would also knock out the generators.

A passive safety coolant system should likely have been a requirement for any reactor design as this event shows. Reactors such as the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor would not have been affected by a generator failure and would have been able to provide passive cooling for the period needed to cool the core to avoid meltdown. This would presumably lead to a greater margin of safety.

However, we should still wonder whether or not if it would be safe enough. The fact that some coolant failure could lead to a meltdown and consequently a return to criticality should give pause. A worse case scenario becomes very bad indeed.

There are many questions that are necessary to contemplate in evaluating the safety of various technologies. Nuclear designs as they currently stand, are somewhat peculiar compared to most of our other fuel technologies. Nuclear designs, have, per TWh proved to be extremely safe as compares other power generation technologies such as natural Gas. In Europe, nuclear is on the order of between 10 and 1000 times safer* in count of number of deaths per TWh from all causes than natural gas.

Should we count Chernobyl into our calculations? How do we assess risk from cataclysmic events? The assessment of risk from low probability but potentially massive events is very difficult. Very low risks are very difficult to measure accurately since their frequency is so low that our estimates tend be dominated by guesses.

In addition we need to compare the safety against other replacement technologies, or the possibilities of abandoning the technologies niche itself. In the case of nuclear power, this would be a search for baseload power replacements.

When we begin to look at technologies in comparison we find that even in this tragic and improbable event in Japan natural gas has itself not been free from problems. Many people in Japan were incinerated from natural gas explosions. There were also 1800 homes washed away by a dam failure. It's not clear how many died from that, but the number is likely to be very substantial. Which energy source turns out to be more deadly under such extreme conditions will have to wait until after the scale of the nuclear threat is fully understood.

Yet the nuclear power systems continue to drive more public fear. Some of this may have to do with the difficulty of providing an accurate risk assessment leaving us to guess exactly how bad things can get. When people look to the nuclear experts for opinion the best they can seem to do is say something along the lines of: We expect it will not be as bad as Chernobyl. Such statements are hardly very reassuring.

The character of the particular technology itself is not irrelevant in our calculations. To take a rather less charged subject than nuclear power we can instead turn to the question of Hydro power. Hydro power deaths per TWh if taken in summation over the entire world turns out to be one of the worst offending technologies. Worse than even natural gas or coal. However, almost all of the problems with hydro occurred in impoverished third world countries. A single catastrophe in 1975 at the Banqiao Dam in China left over 20,000 dead directly from drowning and somewhere around 100,000 dead from famine and disease.

No such legacy haunts Europe's dams. They have proved to be both safe and stable and hydro power in Europe deaths per TWh is effectively zero if we exclude eastern Europe. A similar truth holds for nuclear power.

Now we can perhaps say that large dams in Europe should be avoided on the off chance that some Typhoon or Earthquake hits - an event that while it may seem improbable - is not impossible. Since the potential death tolls would be tremendous, it's not totally unreasonable to overestimate the probability in order to provide some buffer of safety for ourselves.

However, this same reasoning should not cause us to avoid micro hydro power, since the possibility of massive disasters from a small water turbine is impossible to imagine (though some deaths would not be impossible). Similarly, it should not be the case that we reject all nuclear power based on specific applications of the technology in specific circumstances. The evaluations of the worst case scenarios need to be made on the basis of the implementation.

In order to understand nuclear safety, or the lack thereof, it helps to go back a bit in time to the creation of the US nuclear programme to see why we have the reactors that we do.

Light water reactors are not by any means the only type of reactor. During the course of development there were a large range of reactors which were tested. The number of types now in operation is much less diverse than when nuclear power was in its infancy.

One might suppose that this was because we have settled on what are effectively the most safe and reliable nuclear reactors with the best characteristics. Unfortunately, to assume this would be to assume wrongly.

The development of nuclear power has been closely coupled with the desire to develop nuclear weapons. Without understanding this fact it's impossible to understand the direction of nuclear development.

Several designs for nuclear reactors, including one of the first, the AHR (Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor) and a later design based on similar ideas, the MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) were dropped despite the fact that they had achieved similar potential viability as a comercial reactor technology to the now popular LWR (Light Water Reactors). Some of these designs were considered so safe that universities were given licenses to operate them for the generation of isotopes or neutron flux for experiments.

These reactors had many potential advantages including intrinsic passive safety features. They allowed designs ranging from the truly tiny, around .05MW up to large scale reactors, around 1GW. These designs allowed cheaper fuel production, since they used a fuel slurry, liquid or aqueous suspension, rather than complicated metal cladded fuel pellets. Most surprisingly, they also allowed arbitrarily high burnup of the nuclear fuel.

In a standard LWR, one can expect somewhere around 5% of the fissile material to be used. In some of the most sophisticated high temperature reactors that have been operated, solid core configurations can reach 20%. The end result of these low burnups are high production of waste, and low efficiency in the use of fuel. If you can exceed 99% then you are potentially producing very little waste.

Liquid reactors are also able to evacuate Xenon 135 by bubbling it out of the core. The Chernobyl accident was exacerbated by a lack of primary containment. However, the initial instability was due to a build up a of the neutron poison, Xe-135. This element stops neutrons in the chain reaction as its absorption profile is enormous compared to anything else. Nuclear fission can cause a buildup in a solid fuel leading to a sudden drop in neutrons. However, when the Xe-135 decays one can find a sudden return to neutrons and a consequent heating of the reactor. Xe-135 is a major difficulty in the operation of solid fuel reactors, since they are not able to evacuate it, but must wait for decay.

If that weren't enough, these reactor types could also use Thorium as a fuel. Thorium is much more prevalent in the Earth's crust than Uranium and much more evenly distributed

So why didn't the Atomic Energy Commission forge ahead with these reactor designs? As Kirschenbaum, who worked on the AHR, related, the design was rejected already in 1944 when they realised it would not produce Plutonium as quickly as the AEC wanted. The use of Thorium turns out to have been scratched for similar reasons. There is no good production pathway for Plutonium from Thorium.

The AEC was dedicated, not to finding the most efficient fuel source as the "Atoms for Peace" moniker might lead one falsely to believe, but was interested in the production of weapons grade plutonium. As such it was completely dedicated to the "Plutonium economy", which included an array of LWRs and fast breeder reactors which would allow the production of large quantities for the nuclear weapons program. LWRs were to become dominant despite their lack of inherent safety features.

During the 1960s, one of the great nuclear scientists, and lifelong proponent of nuclear power, Alvin Weinberg, was asked by the AEC to do safety assessments of LWR type reactors. What Weinberg and his team found in their assessments caused them some distress. The LWR designs indeed had very serious safety deficiencies. Weinberg then began attempting to warn the industry and the AEC about the shortcomings in the designs.

Eventually, Weinberg was sidelined. US Senator Chet Holifield, a proponent of the "Plutonium Economy", famously said: "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy."

Whether or not nuclear power should take centre stage, be a bit player, or not even make the cut is a question that can't be answered easily. As for myself, I'm sympathetic towards nuclear power as a fuel source for a world that will need ever more energy. The question of course, requires a careful evaluation of the options and the associated costs of these options.

In the last analysis however, more important even than this careful analysis of our options, are the following two points:

There is only one all important factor in which energy source we use, and that is humans. It isn't how much the plant cost and it isn't about the strict conversion efficiencies of thermal energy to electric or any other such technical parameter. It simply matters if it will improve or disimprove our lives compared to not using it.

Lastly, what makes the most sense from this perspective is irrelevant if we haven't the power to make it happen. As we see clearly with the choice to develop LWR technology, those with the power call the shots. If we want the over-riding important factor to be how things impact people, the people are going to need a lot more power.

* Figures for deaths per TWh are from ExternE, and modified to include some of the most pessimistic estimates for Chernobyl

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Knowledge Production as a Public Good

Recently, I've read through a number of proposals regarding systematic attempts to allocate labour in a post-capitalist society. Most of these share the common feature that they don't attempt to look in detail at true public goods. With a knowledge economy that is becoming an extremely large part of our overall productivity, I think this is an oversight which should be corrected.

In addition, there is a belief by many that open-source approaches can directly solve the problem even within a capitalist system. However, open-source suffers from a number of deficiencies. It does not demonstrate the ability to support the labour of people involved by providing them with livelihoods. It fails at providing necessary resources in the case of more capital intensive knowledge production, for instance chemistry, genetics, hardware manufacture or even cinema. It also is weak at signaling when labour is widely desired. This leads to a tendency to be hobbyist focused, being as it is only supported as a recreation, and not focused on providing the greatest public good.

A perfect public good is non-rival and non-excludable. A non-rival good means I can use it, and you can use it and neither of us experience any loss at the others use. Television and radio are examples of perfect non-rival goods. Internet tends towards being an imperfect, as do roads etc. Non-excludable means that it's not possible to keep you from using it. Street lights [1] are good examples of something which is very hard to exclude people from using. Knowledge naturally fits into this category provided we drop things like copyright and patent. Copyright and patent are designed in order to make a non-rival good appear to be a rival good by generating exclusion through the use of legal force.

In terms of efficiency the use of exclusionary force is purely a drag on the efficiency of the entire system. The drag on efficiency is partly due to the fact that it requires labour for enforcement - a judicial system, legal teams, police, methods of tracking use, incarceration or the levying of fines, the generation of DRM technologies, including software and specialised hardware - all of which do nothing useful (in fact they have negative use-value). In addition this enforcement has the extremely deleterious effect of reducing the free spread of useful information and concepts which can make production processes more efficient. In software and hardware there are huge levels of redundancy of research and "clean-room" designs done for no other purpose than to avoid patent suits. A new more efficient process will be kept intentionally limited in application in order to derive monopoly rents. Just looking at the list puts me in awe at the absurd inefficiencies of the capitalist system.

It's much more sensible in a post-capitalist society to treat these goods very differently. Since there is no (sensible) rivalry it doesn't make sense to try and charge some price for it. Still, in the immediate future it's not going to be possible for everyone to devote all their labour time to poetry or films. If these types of knowledge production draw voluntary labour to an extent that other basic goods production is not taking place, we need some way to see that this is happening.

Even if all labour were allocated voluntarily it would be exceedingly useful to see where labour was most appreciated to society - so unless we really and truly get to a post-scarcity society - it makes sense to worry about this.

The amount of resources that should be allocated for a piece of software, film, research and development or some other information based good is insanely hard to calculate. It requires knowing its labour cost, divide total popularity over all time - which is essentially impossible. We can however guess that the labour equivalent for a Michael Jackson song should probably be a microsecond of labour devoted from each of Michael's fan base. However, at the time of production it's entirely impossible to know this, since there is no way to know the amount of labour society would eventually like to devote. Indeed as time passes Michael Jackson's music may not reduce in popularity. Perhaps even more extreme, what value would we assign towards Newton's research into forces in physics?

If we want these sorts of endeavours to be supported beyond recreational labour and easily acquired resources*, then it makes sense to fund them socially. Past performance is no guarantee of future success, but it is some indicator. Social allocation could be described by looking at such performance.

Publicly funded information production is often done in a very monolithic fashion (but then so is private funding of films and bands in the main part). However, this need not be the case. The National Science Foundation for instance gives out grants to various institutions on the basis of evaluated past performance. It is conceivable that we could structure such an arts council and software council to do likewise.

The allocation of public funding itself might not be dictated by a board of experts as done with the NSF. It might be a delegated ministry of art/software etc, or it might even be possible to have a vote style infrastructure - which would allow people to describe the amount of their socially devoted production that should be alloted to various social goods.

The output of such an enterprise would not have to be policed in terms of consumption, but would literally be free access. By doing so it should be easier to institute methods of tracking the consumption as there is little incentive to avoid doing so. A post-capitalist youtube for instance would give good information about the number and multiplicity of views of a music video. Though it's impossible to account perfectly, and there are ways at avoidance of such, there is little incentive on the part of consumers to do so.

Because resources for institutions would be in some way tied to a reputation based on consumption, there *would* be some incentive for individuals who wanted to inflate their social importance to mislead. However, since there is no longer any reason for public funding of infrastructure like cinemas, youtube, or software repositories to have any connection with the content producers themselves, it's likely that it would be institutionally difficult to do so.

It's important to remember that individuals would be seeking the resources for necessary capital infrastructure and labour time, not pursuing actual profit. The profit motive wouldn't be a driving motivation in this scenario, even if it would likely drive certain individuals towards the reproduction of their status as reliable producers.

There are many possible ways of arranging knowledge production more cooperatively that could be explored as long as we keep in mind some basic facts:

1) Public goods are very difficult to value accurately even in a system of perfect information as they require knowledge from the future. Therefor no systematic approach is going to be perfect.

2) Public goods should not be treated like other rival-goods in almost any conceivable system of accounting. We should not create rival goods from non-rival goods by wasting resources simply so that they look like other goods.

When we work with knowledge, we should keep in mind that the model needs to be cut to fit the reality rather than the reverse.

* Think of the amount of time and physical resources devoted to Avatar or Water World for instance, and you can see the difficulty of arranging some types of knowledge production on an entirely ad hoc basis.

[1] Street Lamps were mentioned as a non-excludable public good by César De Paepe in his arguments with the Proudhonists.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

How Violence Protects the State

Recently, due to the Egyptian and Tunisian revolution there has been a lot of discussion on the question of violence versus non-violence. Because of this discussion of the use of various tactics Gelderloos' book "How non-violence protects the state" has been brought up as an antidote to those who view non-violence or pacifism as the sole legitimate tactic.

It might seem than that such a text would be useful. However, the argument provided by Gelderloos, aside from declaring that violence is sometimes a legitimate tactic, fails to explain to us the dynamics which should guide our thinking about the use of violence.

Generally non-violent approaches are preferable to violent ones for a host of reasons. These include the ability to maintain the "moral high-ground" which can be extremely useful from a PR perspective. They are less likely to carry as heavy a legal burden as non-violent actions. It also has to be remembered that extremely violent revolutions tend to socialise violence, which itself creates long standing difficulties and cycles of violence in a population that was hoping for a positive transformation.

Gelderloos does not view violence with the respect of one who understands its potential ramifications but instead tends to ignore the dangers.

We are advocates of a diversity of tactics, meaning effective combinations drawn from a full range of tactics that might lead to liberation from all the components of this oppressive system: white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and the state. We believe that tactics should be chosen to fit the particular situation, not drawn from a preconceived moral code. We also tend to believe that means are reflected in the ends, and would not want to act in a way that invariably would lead to dictatorship or some other form of society that does not respect life and freedom.

I agree fully with the sentiment expressed within this paragraph. However, the critical question at issue is the word "effective" and how we are to determine such.

While he continually vacillates using ideas such as the diversity of tactics, he clearly views non-violence as fundamentally inferior as a tactic. The list of chapter titles gives a taste of the extent to which Gelderloos does so: nonviolence is ineffective, nonviolence is racist, nonviolence is statist, nonviolence is patriarchal, nonviolence is tactically and strategically inferior, and nonviolence is deluded.

At odds with science

That Gelderloos understands much about the dynamics of violence is dubious. He makes the following assertion unsupported by any evidence whatsoever:

It is vague, meaningless, and ultimately untrue to say that violence always produces certain psychological patterns and social relationships.

Unfortunately science is not on Gelderloos' side here. The impacts of violence are physiological, real and do obtain remarkably consistent patterns and impacts on social relationships. The socialisation of hierarchy is in fact deeply rooted in violence and our pyscho-chemical relationships to it, altering everything from our gene expression to causing actual changes in brain structure [1]. Such a loose and dismissive wave of the hand is not at all consistent with a realistic and careful analysis of the role of violence.

From moralism to moralism

Instead of such a careful analysis of violence Gelderloos attempts to avoid the moralism of the pacifists by substituting a new moral precept.

In other words, the concept of hierarchy has most of the analytical and moral precision that the concept of violence lacks. Therefore, to truly succeed, a liberation struggle must use any means necessary that are consistent with building a world free of coercive hierarchies.

The irony here is that violence in itself has shown an historical tendency to push organisations towards the hierarchical. The number of examples is huge, ranging from the Russian revolution, the Spanish civil war to the Republican paramilitaries in Ireland. One might very reasonably claim that this violence could not have been avoided, and I myself would be deeply sympathetic to this view. However I suggest a causal relationship between violence and hierarchy, leading - not deterministically or inevitably - but tendentially from the former to the later.

Who is the revolutionary subject?

Even if they were, who cares if the middle and upper classes are alienated by violence?

While this is not Gelderloos' quote, it is from the book and he evidently identifies with it. I think this quote nicely pulls to the fore one of the deep problems in his analysis. The agent of positive change is not clearly understood. A class analysis where middle class is grouped with upper class and working class is the true agent of change leaves us as some minority group - perhaps 1/3 of the population which is supposed to take on an majority. The position implicitly supports a social war of the minority using violence.

A sensible approach to how activism should deal with violence very much needs to worry about whether the middle classes are alienated. If violence must be used to succeed than ways of stopping that alienation must be discovered. Otherwise the majority will back the state and one will be waging an inevitably failing guerrilla war against not only the state, but also the population.

An analysis with no explanatory power

Throughout the book he attempts to show that non-violence leads to capitulation. However his attempt is really quite unconvincing since in almost every case there was a mix of violent and non-violent tactics and in no cases have we achieved full unqualified revolutionary success. Indeed that such a thing would be possible seems dubious. Instead he merely asserts that the failures are due to the dominance of non-violence and shows that the states elevation of such figures as Gandhi is evidence that they prefer it.

The claim of a pacifist victory in capping the nuclear arms race is somewhat bizarre. Once again, the movement was not exclusively nonviolent; it included groups that carried out a number of bombings and other acts of sabotage or guerrilla warfare. And, again, the victory is a dubious one. The much-ignored nonproliferation treaties only came after the arms race had already been won, with the US as undisputed nuclear hegemon in possession of more nuclear weapons than was even practical or useful. And it seems clear that proliferation continues as needed, currently in the form of tactical nuke development and a new wave of proposed nuclear power facilities. Really, the entire issue seems to have been settled more as a matter of internal policy within the government than as a conflict between a social movement and a government.

First, the claim that this was an internal matter and not a consequence of social movements is absurd. The cost, difficulty and subsequent retreat from making nuclear power plants in the US because of social movements is well documented [2]. Secondly if it used both violent and non-violent tactics how can we attribute to the failure to non-violence?

What we need is some theory of the dynamics with some explanatory power so we can state clearly a thesis regardings when it is likely to work and when it is likely to fail. A book which seeks to have an explanation of violence is hardly worth anything but the simple platitude that absolute pacifism is unwarranted if it can not supply such an analysis.

The strategy of tension

The state in fact uses violence not only to defend itself but also to legitimate its own violence and repression against the people by engaging in false-flag and provocateur actions. Recently activists have documented a large number of cases of provocateurs everywhere from the police in Toronto to Brendan Darby.

A much more careful analysis of how the state can use violence to legitimate repression is given by Victor Serge [4]. This text is essentially a real case study of a conflict with an immensely repressive state - the Russian czarist regime. In it Serge details the methods by which the state acted as provocateur to draw out militants and eliminate them.

These actual examples, over a wide span of history, show that the state is interested very often in inducing violent actions in order to justify repression against social movements.

This understanding that violence could justify repression was used on an epic scale in Europe in the strategy of tension [5]. Funding everything from assassinations to bombings - these actions helped to create a wedge between the general public and left groups in Italy and Turkey that was in fact quite successful.

How violence can overcome the state

The dynamics of violence with respect to the view of that violence's legitimacy as a class activity in light of actual balance of forces is must be central to a theory of violence. This is what is lacking in Gelderloos' work and what is required to understand how violence actually can be used as an effective weapon against the state.

What do I mean by this? The class as an actor in revolutionary change and its self-assertion of legitimacy, its claim on sovereignty and its willingness to dissolve, sweep aside and smash the remaining state is in fact what should be the core interest of revolutionaries. If violence is to be used it must in fact appear legitimate to the class.
As Abraham Guillen puts it quite well in his book on the Philosophy of the Urban Guerrilla [6]:

In revolutionary war any guerrilla action that needs explaining to the people is politically useless: it should be meaningful and convincing by itself. To kill an ordinary soldier in reprisal for the assassination of a guerrilla is to descend to the same political level as a reactionary army. Far better to create a martyr and thereby attract mass sympathy than to lose or neutralise popular support by senseless killings without an evident political goal. To be victorious in a people's war one has to act in conformity with the interests, sentiments and will of the people. A military victory is worthless if it fails to be politically convincing.

We see in almost every successful revolution in history that the state suffers a serious blow to its legitimacy. The public no longer view it as a legitimate authority. The ability of the security services to effectively act in the states interest erodes. If at this stage the public is able to construct counter-institutions which provide a new legitimate force we have the capacity for real revolution. It's critical that violence play its role subordinate to our understanding of the absolute requirement of carrying forward a legitimate claim to power of the working class themselves.

In the current climate, with the rise in the popularity of Gene Sharp's Albert Einstein Institute and his non-violent tactics designed to protect American imperial interests and the recent history of the colour revolutions we are indeed in need of a theory of revolutionary violence. Unfortunately, I think Gelderloos' book strikes quite far from the mark of such a theory.

[1] Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State
[2] Biological Consequences and Transgenerational Impact of Violence and Abuse
[3] Critical Masses: Opposition to Nuclear Power in California, 1958-1978, by Thomas Raymond Wellock. The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998. xi, 333 pp.
[4] What everyone should know about repression
[5] Daniele Ganser, NATO's Secret Armies. Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe, Frank Cass, London, 2005.
[6] Philosophy of the Urban Guerilla, Abraham Guillen

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Alienation From Democracy

The protests against Mubarak that are occurring as I write, represent a momentous change. The overthrow of Ben Ali as dictator of Tunisia has lit a fire in the Arab world that shows every sign of spreading. It is difficult to overstate the importance of these events. At this point, irrespective of whether or not Mubarak is forced out by a popular revolution, the Middle East will never again be the same; the balance of power has irrevocably shifted.

The courage of the Egyptian people is to be greatly admired. Standing up to a notoriously violent police force which is well known for torturing political dissidents is inspiring.

However, beyond the undoubted courage of the protesters there is something which has struck me about the demonstrations which causes me to reflect upon failings that I've seen in movements in the west of which I've been a part.

The US State Department has made clear that they would like to see an "orderly transition" in Egypt. To them this means changing as little as possible and conducting a pantomime of democracy to install a minimally altered regime.

When two million Egyptian people were out in the streets calling for Mubarak to step down, and he was claiming that elections would be held at some appointed time in the future, the thought struck me: We have been alienated from democracy.

How can the great mass of the Egyptian people be demanding democracy from a dictator? The contradiction displayed by Mubarak dictating the terms of democracy shows the system for what it has become: a tool used by power to display its own legitimacy. If the people are to be sovereign, then they must display their sovereignty.

The anti-war movement in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, with its millions of protesters in the street in countries world-wide, came right up against a very similar wall. The protests in retrospect turned out to be no more than an appeal to authorities. The US and all its allies went ahead with it despite the unpopularity. The insistence that the war go ahead despite its unpopularity was a demonstration by our authorities of where sovereignty rests. Democracy was outside ourselves.

It hasn't always been like that. In Paris, on July 13th, 1789, in the tumult of grain hoarding by the government and fears of invasion by the Kings troops, crowds formed at the city hall. They formed a standing committee and took decisions to form a militia for 48,000 men for the defence of Paris against the King.

From this standing committee, delegates were sent to gain arms from the Hôtel des Invalides from which they obtained 30 to 40k rifles. Despite the fact that the Hôtel des Invalides was guarded by armed men, they were not inclined to fire on the people of Paris. They had demonstrated their legitimacy and taken democracy to be something exercised by themselves.

Furthermore, by organising popular committees and by arming themselves they had demonstrated their independence from the regime. Control of the streets passed to the people and the regime could not easily reassert its dominance. In fact it never did.

It is now that the Egyptian people could be served best by creating similar constituent assemblies (or "sections" as they were called in Paris) from which to make decisions about their own destiny. The lower ranking soldiers would be faced with a choice: to side with the people or to side with the regime. Given their stance over the last week, the prospects for their siding with the people are good.