Weekly Impressions

  • Jovo Bakic is perhaps the only left wing, by that I mean genuinely socialist, public intellectual in the Serbian public sphere. That’s most unfortunate, however, there is a flip side to this. Although Bakic, who describes himself as anarchistic, is not in good company among his fellow intellectuals he is by far the most popular public intellectual in Serbia. That tells you something about the anti-oligarchic and anti-systemic mood that pervades the society. Bakic argues that the regime of Aleksandar Vucic is a clientelist-authoritarian regime rooted in a sort of state-mafia nexus. That, he argues, follows on from Serbia descending, post Yugoslavia, into the periphery of the world capitalist system. The Vucic regime is functional for that system to the extent that Serbia, like the rest of the Balkans, remains a stable neocolonial dependency. That has always been my impression.  I disagree with Bakic on two things, however. Bakic has often called for the formation of an activist left party consisting of cadres rather than mass membership to confront the Vucic regime. His argument for this at first blush seems plausible; membership of political parties in Serbia is clientelist with people changing parties depending upon which way the wind blows and the benefits flow. To arrest the danger of a left party being dominated by opportunists it should be cadre based, Bakic argues. However, there really is very, very, very little that a cadre party would be able to achieve in a society like that of Serbia today. In the dispute between Bakic and Borko Stefanovic (of The Left Party which Bakic helped form prior to his disassociation with it) on this question, I think Stefanovic has the better of the argument.

That said, Bakic is noted also for making the argument that the real opposition to the regime in Serbia consists of activist groups based in the cities which engage in mutual aid, solidarity actions with the poor especially those facing evictions, actions against privatisations of public corporations and utilities, actions against grand neoliberal white elephant schemes of glitz and glamour that favour the tiny oligarchic elite, and the like at the local level where their voice and presence can be prominently seen and felt. Such groups can be found most especially in Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad, Valjevo, and Zrenjanin.  They are dominated by young, intelligent, and energetic activists who adhere to ideas of autonomous self-governance.   These groups could develop into a political party to be sure, better not cadre if so, but the astute reader can detect here more than a whiff of the anarchism of Murray Bookchin.  In Serbia such ideas have a long tradition going back to the rural self-governing communes known as the Zadruga (like the Russian Zemstvo)

The other area of disagreement I would have with Bakic, perhaps disagreement is too harsh a word, is with his frequent calls for revolution. I think he is definitely right to make those calls, however we might argue about the character of that revolution. Bakic argues that a clientelist-authoritarian regime, especially one that draws roots to the mafia, does not relinquish power voluntarily. The regime of Aleksandar Vucic, which controls the state, the media, and much else besides, needs to be chased on the streets. Even if they lose an election they won’t leave voluntarily, as the regime knows jail beckons. A revolution, or better still an insurrection, is necessary, I agree, however it is not sufficient. What is needed is action in the workplace, that is action motivated by the same ideas and same ethos of the municipal activist groups. There’s a certain misreading of the October 5, 2000 revolution that overthrew Milosevic which still retains currency and that colours, in part, Bakic’s call for insurrection. Milosevic fell not just because of the mobilisation on the streets but because of the widespread worker occupations of industry. The directors and the wealthy elite around Milosevic feared that they would lose the source of their wealth and power, and so they turned on him.  The regime should be chased on the streets, yes, but also in the workplace.

  • Graham Farmelo has written a book that explores why nature is mathematical that is attracting reviews. The book is entitled The Universe Speaks in Numbers: How Modern Maths Reveals Nature’s Deepest Secrets. The title gives you a flavour of the argument. The nature of mathematics is something that has interested me for most of my life and there’s been a lot written lately about the interface between mathematics and nature. There’s the ideas of Max Tegmark and Nima Arkani-Hamed, for instance, that see the universe as being essentially mathematical in nature. Then there’s critiques of the role that mathematical beauty has played in theoretical physics most especially coming from Sabine Hossenfelder. She argues that ideas of mathematical beauty have led physicists astray to be “lost in math” as she puts it. That argument has been made before, in the context of general relativity. It’s been argued that French physicists, unlike their American, British, and Russian counterparts, did not make signal contributions to the renaissance of general relativity because they too were “lost in math.”  Of course, at the time French mathematics was dominated by axiomatic programmes such as that of the Bourbaki group. It would appear that rubbed off on the physicists. Others argue that exploration of the underlying mathematical structure of general relativity and quantum field theory might provide insight into how theoretical physics might be made more consistent.  That’s kinda ironical as one is reminded of the great French mathematician Alexander Griothiendeck (also an anarchist) who uncovered many of the deep structures of algebra and that during the hey day of the renaissance in general relativity. My own view is that we are asking the wrong question when we look at these matters. The question shouldn’t be why nature is mathematical but rather why physics is mathematical. Those questions appear the same, but they are subtly different. Physics does not reveal nature’s deepest secrets. They remain in that obscurity to which they ever were and ever shall remain, to borrow from David Hume. Physics gives us theories of the world that are understandable to us, and it is mathematics to no small degree that makes our theories understandable. It is not then that we might say of the universe that it speaks in numbers, rather it is we that speak in numbers and to make ourselves understood we naturally speak in our language not the universe’s. Of the all the positions spoken above it is the search for shared mathematical structure underlying fundamental theory that is the most consistent with the view I have just articulated.

“The world’s seed-bearing plants have been disappearing at a rate of nearly 3 species a year since 1900 ― which is up to 500 times higher than would be expected as a result of natural forces alone, according to the largest survey yet of plant extinctions.”

Further,

“A map of plant extinctions produced by the team shows that flora in areas of high biodiversity and burgeoning human populations, such as Madagascar, the Brazilian rainforests, India and South Africa, are most at risk.”

We should remember that the most significant impact of global warming upon diversity, both flora and fauna, is projected for the future. On the one hand we marvel at the patterns, structures and subtleties of nature yet on the other we are destroying nature. Go figure.

I’m sure we’ve seen the stories about the recent deaths of climbers on Mount Everest, largely due to the large standing lines from base camp up to the summit. The reports emphasise how this follows on from the commercialisation of the mountain, in which case Mount Everest has become a type of commodity, not just a geological structure, the climbing of which has been turned into a fetish. That’s a type of commodity fetishism. The deepest point in the Earth’s oceans is the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean, where deep sea explorers not long ago found plastic waste. That’s a neat symmetry that symbolises the Anthropocene. One of the most important questions we face is; what are the most appropriate social, political, economic, and cultural forms for the era of the Anthropocene and how might we bring them into being?

  • Finally, events post the 2019 federal election support my contention, made in a post to more detail below, that its central message was that class war is reserved for corporate power and wealthy investors not for workers and the poor. They also underscore the further Americanisation of Australian society. I’m not speaking here just of the role of religion, and miracles, in Australian politics. The Morrison Government’s proposed tax cuts have two interesting, and revealing, features to them. Firstly, the tax cuts represent a significant shift toward instituting a regressive flat tax regime in Australia. The third tranche of the tax cuts seek to bring about a 30% flat rate for incomes from $45,000 to $2000,000 per year. Flat income taxation has always been associated with hyper Reaganite flat taxers like Grover Norquist in the United States. That third tranche is geared toward the rich, and by far most of the Government’s proposed tax cuts come from that regressive third tranche. The politics of this also comes straight out of the Republican playbook, for example George W Bush instituted his administration’s regressive tax “reform” in stages by first offering modest cuts for low income and wage earners before bringing on the big party for the rich. The Liberal Party, notice, is doing the same thing. Secondly, economic growth in Australia is below expectations which means that budget forecasts of a surplus might not eventuate even in the absence of tax cuts. Now the Liberal Party in its election propaganda emphasised that it’s the more responsible economic manager on grounds that the Liberals are superior to Labor when it comes to balancing the budget. Putting aside the false equation of the government budget with the household budget, what we see here is the Government’s determination to go ahead with its tax cuts skewed toward the rich despite the likely impact on the budget bottom line. It is low income earners and wage earners that must disproportionately sacrifice their interests for the budget not the rich. The common good is for you not for them. That’s class war precisely, yet we’re told the 2019 election represented a rejection of class war. Actually, the message was; class war is for us not for you.

On top of all that the financial press, but also the corporate press and the ABC more broadly, has been dominated by various calls for what can be termed supply side economics to boost productivity. As noted, the Australian economy is growing below expectations, and the demand is for supply side measures such as tax cuts for the rich, deregulation, flexible work arrangements, and infrastructure spending to kickstart productivity. What is being explicitly rejected is redistributive measures to low income earners and workplace laws giving labour more bargaining power to encourage economic growth through greater spending (the economy is in a retail recession). Not only is that Reaganite voodoo economics, notice how the tax cuts for the rich in this scheme functions as a type of trickle down economics, but it so obviously is class war. A feature of the neoliberal era has been rising labour productivity but a lower take for wages in the wages-profits share. The proceeds of rising labour productivity go disproportionately to corporate profits and wealthy managers and investors. That’s class war, and one important reason for rising inequality. What much of commentary has been calling for since the election is boosts to labour productivity but not in ways that lead to higher wages for workers and more spending on the poor through the social wage. That’s because class war is for us not for you.

A big debate in Australia focuses on US-China rivalry in the Asia-Pacific and what that means for Australia. Must Australia choose between America and China, asks Hugh White. What that all ignores is that we are more and more becoming America.

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