Dr Ambedkar’s ‘Who were the Shudras?’

August 12th, 2020


IMAGE/Snap Deal

Babasaheb Ambedkar’s prefaces to his works were often as penetrating and incisive as the main body of the work that followed. His book, Who Were the Shudras? How they came to be the Fourth Varna in the Indo-Aryan Society, published in 1946, was dedicated to Mahatma Phule: “Inscribed to the Memory of  Mahatma Jotiba Phule,” runs the dedicatory line in the book.

For Dr Ambedkar, Phule was the “Greatest Shudra of Modern India,” of course, “because he made the lower classes of Hindus conscious of their slavery to the higher classes” but more specifically because he “preached the gospel that for India social democracy was more vital than independence from foreign rule.”

Babasaheb had already set forth this argument in his book from the 1930s, Annihilation of Caste, where he had stressed the need for social reform to precede political reform. It was in the spirit of searching for ways to get to the bottom of social deformities and emerging with clues towards social reform that he had undertaken the project of investigating the history of the Shudras.

Who Were the Shudras? was written before Dr Ambedkar embarked upon the successor volume, Who Were the Untouchables?, which appeared in 1948. As the title of the former book makes it clear, it was regarding the Shudras, who were, in the caste hierarchy, a rung above the Untouchables, Ambedkar’s own people. Yet, in the overall spirit of seeking justice from the Hindu social order, in tribute to the groundwork laid by Jotiba Phule in the anti caste struggle, and to address the “problem of the Shudras,” as he calls it, he undertook the remarkable project of researching and writing Who Were the Shudras.

He explained the seriousness of the problem at hand to justify a penetrating study into the historical background of the problem:

“Under the system of Chaturvarnya, the Shudra is not only placed at the bottom of the gradation but he is subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities so as to prevent him from rising above the condition fixed for him by law. Indeed until the fifth Varna of the Untouchables came into being, the Shudras were in the eyes of the Hindus the lowest of the low. This shows the nature of what might be called the problem of the Shudras. If people have no idea of the magnitude of the problem it is because they have not cared to know what the population of the Shudras is. Unfortunately, the census does not show their population separately. But there is no doubt that excluding the Untouchables the Shudras form about 75 to 80 per cent of the population of Hindus. A treatise which deals with so vast a population cannot be considered to be dealing with a trivial problem.”

What mattered to Ambedkar was the fact that the Shudras were “subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities,” and given their large proportion in the population of Hindus, their condition pointed to the severity of the social ills within Hinduism – and thus the crying need for social reform.

But, being a brilliant legal mind, he also undertook this painstaking study based on empirical evidence of the fact of the Shudras’ and Untouchables’ actual prevailing condition as proof of the continuance of the Varna system, despite what someone might have claimed. “The best evidence to show that the Varna system is alive notwithstanding there is no law to enforce it, is to be found in the fact that the status of the Shudras and the Untouchables in the Hindu society has remained just what it has been. It cannot therefore be said that a study such as this is unnecessary,” he observed.

He repeated his conviction about the primacy of social reform at different places over the years. In the preface to Who Were the Shudras, he once again alludes to it explicitly, when he describes the possible reactions from his Hindu readers to his book. Speaking about the “politically minded” class of Hindus – surely an influential class of Hindus – Babasaheb felt that they would be “indifferent to such questions” because for them, “Swaraj [was] more important than social reform.”

His book, with its deep interrogation of Hindu sacred literature, was directed at scholars too, since Ambedkar knew that his thorough engagement with that literature had scarcely been carried out by anyone else – either by the Brahmanical Hindus for whom the literature was sacred, or by the Indological scholars who had pioneered the study of India’s past by utilising its Brahmanical literature.

Ambedkar was confident of the fruit of his labours, for he felt that even his scholarly critics would “have to admit that the book [was] rich in fresh insights and new visions.”

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Why capitalism is in constant conflict with by democracy

August 12th, 2020


The capitalist economic system has always had a big problem with politics in societies with universal suffrage. Anticipating that, most capitalists opposed and long resisted extending suffrage beyond the rich who possessed capital. Only mass pressures from below forced repeated extensions of voting rights until universal suffrage was achieved—at least legally. To this day, capitalists develop and apply all sorts of legal and illegal mechanisms to limit and constrain suffrage. Among those committed to conserving capitalism, fear of universal suffrage runs deep. Trump and his Republicans exemplify and act on that fear as the 2020 election looms.

The problem arises from capitalism’s basic nature. The capitalists who own and operate business enterprises—employers as a group—comprise a small social minority. In contrast, employees and their families are the social majority. The employer minority clearly dominates the micro-economy inside each enterprise. In capitalist corporations, the major shareholders and the board of directors they select make all the key decisions including distribution of the enterprise’s net revenues.

Their decisions allocate large portions of those net revenues to themselves as shareholders’ dividends and top managers’ executive pay packages. Their incomes and wealth thus accumulate faster than the social averages. In privately held capitalist enterprises their owners and top managers behave similarly and enjoy a similar set of privileges. Unequally distributed income and wealth in modern societies flow chiefly from the internal organization of capitalist enterprises. The owners and their top managers then use their disproportionate wealth to shape and control the macro-economy and the politics interwoven with it.

However, universal suffrage makes it possible for employees to undo capitalism’s underlying economic inequalities by political means when, for example, majorities win elections. Employees can elect politicians whose legislative, executive, and judicial decisions effectively reverse capitalism’s economic results. Tax, minimum wage, and government spending laws can redistribute income and wealth in many different ways. If redistribution is not how majorities choose to end unacceptable levels of inequality, they can take other steps. Majorities might, for example, vote to transition enterprises’ internal organizations from capitalist hierarchies to democratic cooperatives. Enterprises’ net revenues would then be distributed not by the minorities atop capitalist hierarchies but instead by democratic decisions of all employees, each with one vote. The multiple levels of inequality typical of capitalism would disappear.

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The stupidity of Artificial Intelligence

August 12th, 2020


Silver didrachma from Crete depicting Talos, an ancient mythical automaton with artificial intelligence IMAGE/Wikipedia

Pursuing the weaknesses of present-day artificial intelligence – what I have called the “stupidity problem” – takes us into the fascinating field of neurobiology, which in recent times has experienced a series of revolutionary discoveries. These discoveries have overturned many of the dogmas about brain function which shaped the early development of AI, at the same time suggesting revolutionary directions for AI in the future. 

AI, the brain and the mind

How does the human brain function? Needless to say, attempts to answer this question have shaped the development of artificial intelligence from its beginnings in the 1940s and 1950s until today. The same goes for the somewhat different question: how does the human mind work?

The early expectation, that one might actually be able to build machines possessing human-like intelligence, found encouragement in three main directions.

Firstly, evidence that the functioning of the human brain and nervous system, while staggeringly complicated from a biological point of view, is based on elementary “all-or-nothing” processes of the sort that can easily be imitated by digital electronic circuits (see below).

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The nationalist unconscious

August 11th, 2020


‘Skulls with real names’. Tijuana border wall. PHOTO/Quim Gil.

To fully grasp the rise of the new authoritarians, we must engage with psychoanalysis as well as economics

‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ This was the brash, buoyant, campaigning slogan of Bill Clinton in 1992. The slogan seemed to summarise the prevailing Weltanschauung of a neoliberal order, a vulgarised version of ‘enlightened self-interest’ inherited from classical political economy. More than a quarter of a century later, amid neoliberal collapse, nothing could be less apposite. Enlightened self-interest, from London to Mumbai, no longer rules. It isn’t the economy, stupid.

Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have been re-elected with a big majority after a decade of austerity and income stagnation, as though Johnson were not the incumbent. His almost sole promise was to ‘get Brexit done’, a goal for which 60 per cent of Leave voters say they would be happy to see the economy damaged. Forty per cent even say they would be willing to lose their own jobs.

These are minorities, but minorities of millions, enough to make the bedrock of the Conservative vote. Tory activists are a smaller minority, but more influential. When asked what they would sacrifice to ‘get Brexit done’, they answered clearly: the economy, the union, even their own party.

Much was made of Brexit voters being ‘duped’ by promises of more NHS spending, but the collapse of that claim hasn’t damaged Brexit. And in any case, this is not what the Leave campaign led with when it was winning. Vote Leave talked about the threat of migration from Turkey and, implicitly, Iraq and Syria. Leave.EU compared immigration to an ‘invasion’. The infamous UKIP poster unveiled by Nigel Farage, who had previously argued that he’d rather be poorer if it meant fewer migrants, represented a brown mass of humanity driving Britain to ‘Breaking Point’.

Nor is this effect local to Britain. Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist leader of India, has been re-elected with a bigger majority after a dire economic record, on a promise to invade Kashmir and repress Muslims. Rodrigo Duterte, the ‘thug life’ president of the Philippines, was elected in a country with growth at over six per cent. His main promise was to fight the ‘war on drugs’ by unleashing death squads. At one stage, he even promised he would kill up to three million, comparing himself to Hitler. After two years of death squad chaos, he won the mid-terms. Benjamin Netanyahu, up to his neck in corruption and war crimes, opposed even by Israel’s notoriously racist courts and military, keeps squeaking back in by calling his opponents ‘Arab-lovers’, allying with the far right and promising the annexation of West Bank settlements. ‘It’s us or them,’ Likud’s posters say.

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Shoot the looters?

August 11th, 2020


Mayor Richard Daley stands at the microphone during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. PHOTO/Struggle/La Lucha

I remember first hearing the phrase, “Shoot the looters to kill” in 1968, with its parent being the then despicable Mayor Daley of Chicago.

I was young, incredibly angry, and very militant. I remember my first thought was okay, but which looters? Shooting people is outrageous, but I wondered does “looters” include corporate heads, real estate moguls, those who invade and plunder? If not, why not? They are mega looters. The only bad looter is a little looter?

I remember my second thought too. Some things stick in the mind, I guess, especially after you set them to paper, as I did then. The second thought stemmed from an essay I had read. The title was “Why don’t hungry people steal?”, or something very close to that.

The point of the essay was why don’t people made hungry by injustice steal? Shouldn’t they?

Some looters are rich and powerful. They perpetually seek still more wealth and power. They steal from those below to rise higher above.

Other people are poor and denied influence. They choose between food and medicine. Sometimes they loot. They do it typically from stores and institutions wealthier by far than themselves – and to get something instead of nothing.

And the article was wondering what psychological and material factors prevented more people who had incredibly strong reasons to do so, from looting in order to better survive, or even to be a little better off, or even just to exert influence, albeit of a constrained sort. I wondered the answer to that too. Yes, I felt, it is partly repressive power waiting to punish those below for any deviation from docility. But I thought, and still think, it is even more so an inclination to be civil even while enduring perpetual incivility.

Consider a seemingly minor but perhaps instructive couple of examples. It is 2 AM. Why pay off-ramp highway tolls if no one is there? Isn’t that just an inclination to civility?

Or, it is a soul-meltingly hot midday. You are walking down the street alone. You see a young child with an ice cream cone. You are parched. Why don’t you approach the child, take the cone, swat him out of the way, and walk on? You don’t do it because you are not a thug. You are civil. You are moral. But Donald Trump and the big looters, they do that all the time. It is their profession. But they do it for big wealth, big power, not an ice cream cone. Their direct victims are only rarely children, but their direct victims are always folks unable to resist.

So then some blue-shirted thug puts his knee down through a life and anger explodes. And in the next instant the blue shirted gatekeepers are outnumbered at the gates of rooms full of otherwise out of reach food or merchandise. More, the moment seems one in which real civility, real attention to morality, is on the side of resistance. It is in the streets. Looting follows.

Little looters. Shoot them? Hate them? Revile them? Use them as an excuse to bolster big-scale looting? Use them to grow forces of repression? Use them to hail big chiefs? All that is disgusting, but it is deemed appropriate in our upside down world.

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US cold war China policy will isolate US not China

August 11th, 2020


An F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet is seen on the deck of the U.S. Navy USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea, 2018 PHOTO/AP/Kin Cheung/World Socialist Web Site

Tensions between the United States and China are rising as the U.S. election nears, with tit-for-tat consulate closures, new U.S. sanctions, and no less than three U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups prowling the seas around China. But it is the United States that has initiated each new escalation in U.S.-China relations. China’s responses have been careful and proportionate, with Chinese officials such as Foreign Minister Wang Yi publicly asking the United States to step back from its brinkmanship to find common ground for diplomacy.

Most of the U.S. complaints about China are longstanding, from the treatment of the Uighur minority and disputes over islands and maritime borders in the South China Sea to accusations of unfair trade practices and crackdowns on protests in Hong Kong. But the answer to the “Why now?” question seems obvious: the approaching U.S. election.

Danny Russel, who was Obama’s top East Asia expert in the National Security Council and then at the State Department, told the BBC that the new tensions with China are partly an effort to divert attention from Trump’s bungled response to the COVID-19 pandemic and his tanking poll numbers, and that this “has a wag the dog feel to it.”

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has been going toe-to-toe with Trump and Secretary Mike Pompeo in a potentially dangerous “tough on China” contest, which could prove difficult for the winner to walk back after the election.

Elections aside, there are two underlying forces at play in the current escalation of tensions, one economic and the other military. China’s economic miracle has lifted hundreds of millions of its people out of poverty, and, until recently, Western corporations were glad to make the most of its huge pool of cheap labor, weak workplace and environmental protections, and growing consumer market. Western leaders welcomed China into their club of wealthy, powerful countries with little fuss about human and civil rights or China’s domestic politics.

So, what has changed? U.S. high-tech companies like Apple, which were once only too glad to outsource American jobs and train Chinese contractors and engineers to manufacture their products, are finally confronting the reality that they have not just outsourced jobs, but also skills and technology. Chinese companies and highly skilled workers are now leading some of the world’s latest technological advances.

The global rollout of 5G cellular technology has become a flashpoint, not because the increase and higher frequency of EMF radiation it involves may be dangerous to human health, which is a real concern, but because Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE have developed and patented much of the critical infrastructure involved, leaving Silicon Valley in the unfamiliar position of having to play catch-up.

Also, if Huawei and ZTE instead of AT&T and Verizon build the U.S. 5G infrastructure, the U.S. government will no longer be able to require “back doors” that the NSA can use to spy on us all. So, it is stoking fears that China could insert its own back doors in Chinese equipment to spy on us instead. Left out of the discussion is the real solution: repeal the Patriot Act and make sure that all the technology we use in our daily lives is secure from the prying eyes of both the U.S. and foreign governments.

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Apocalypse then

August 10th, 2020


Yosuke Yamahata took 119 photographs in total. The above picture he took on August 10, 1945, a day after the US dropped an atom bomb on Nagasaki. August 6, 1945 saw Hiroshima razed to ground in a similar atom bomb attack by the United States. PHOTO/copyright Shogo Yamahata/provided courtesy of Bonhams/The Independent

It may be an exaggeration to say the world lost its innocence on July 16, 1945. On the other hand, it would probably be an understatement merely to claim that something changed that day when, at 5.29am local time, a device containing about 6kg of plutonium exploded in a desert in New Mexico.

It has been claimed that the flash of light generated by the explosion, equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT, would have been visible from Mars. The reactions among the Manhattan Project scientists witnessing the Trinity test varied from euphoria to panic.

A few people laughed and a few people cried but most of them were silent, the director of the project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, recalled 20 years later. Oppenheimer was well-versed in Sanskrit, and the phrase that flashed through his mind came from the Bhagavad Gita, where Vishnu informs Arjuna: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” More prosaically, test director Kenneth T. Bainbridge reputedly muttered a profanity: “Now we are all sons of b——.”

It wasn’t years or months but just weeks before the destructive power of the deadly discovery was demonstrated in very different circumstances. Fat Man, the device dropped on Nagasaki on Aug 9, was a replica of the test weapon. Three days earlier — 75 years ago tomorrow — the uranium-based Little Boy had devastated Hiroshima.

On the day after the Trinity test, a petition signed by 70 scientists had been sent to president Harry Truman, imploring him to give Japan another chance to surrender instead of immediately authorising the use of atomic weapons. “A nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale,” it said.

In the event, the US not only used the weapons but has worn the responsibility lightly ever since, insisting (despite evidence to the contrary) that the nuclear carnage was necessary for the conclusion of World War II. In fact, Japan was already willing to surrender; the only condition its military hierarchy insisted on was that the emperor, Hirohito, potentially culpable as a war criminal, remain on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

The US insisted on an unconditional surrender — but left Hirohito in place anyhow. The bombing of Nagasaki coincided with the Soviet Union’s declaration of war against Japan, in keeping with Stalin’s promise to his American and British allies that Moscow would rescind its neutrality on the Pacific front three months after victory in Europe.

Japan threw up its hands on Aug 15, and historians remain divided over whether it was the atomic apocalypse or fear of invasion by Uncle Joe that proved to be the last straw. The more than 200,000 mostly civilian deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a consequence of Fat Man and Little Boy also tend to obscure other Allied war crimes in 1945, including the destruction of Dresden in February and the fire-bombing of Tokyo in March. The latter is estimated to have killed up to 100,000 people in one go, and involved the sprinkling of napalm, which acquired far greater notoriety after its widespread use in Vietnam.

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Donald Trump: A study in leadership

August 10th, 2020

World leaders, including Donald Trump, describe the coronavirus pandemic.

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The History Channel’s Grant

August 10th, 2020


Justin Salinger as Grant

“Labor disgraces no man; unfortunately, you occasionally find men disgrace labor.” —Ulysses S. Grant, remarks to Birmingham workingmen, England, 1877

Any honest effort to bring to a popular audience the life of Ulysses S. Grant, who led the Union army to victory in the Civil War and became the 18th American president, is welcome. It is all the more timely with the fascist ignoramus Donald Trump occupying the White House, and with the liberal “newspaper of record,” The New York Times, in its 1619 Project, promoting the old Jim Crow myth that whites and blacks are pitted in endless race struggle.

Grant has struck a nerve. Over 3 million households watched the History Channel series’ first episode when it aired on Memorial Day, the same day coronavirus pandemic deaths in the US hit 100,000. It was one of the largest-ever audiences for a historical documentary premiere. Millions more watched the second and final installments of the series, produced by actor Leonardo DiCaprio.

The film follows Grant from his youth in rural southwestern Ohio in the 1820s to his illness and death in 1885. Over four hours long in its three episodes, the program intersperses expert commentary—of varying quality and interest—with reenactments featuring the English actor Justin Salinger, who effectively portrays Grant’s legendary humility and directness. There are numerous battlefield scenes including, tediously, many with graphic violence.

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Weekend Edition

August 7th, 2020