Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are You a Survivor?

“Deep Survival – Who Lives and Dies and Why?” by Laurence Gonzales, 2005

Hikers lost.  Boats sinking.  Survivors on life-rafts.  Climbers falling or breaking legs.  Plane crashes on mountains and on aircraft carriers.    Snowmobilers under avalanches.  The kayaker in a flooded gorge.  Scuba divers trapped in an underwater cave.  A swimmer lost in the riptide, or one that fell out of a boat on a fast river.  A wrong turn on a mountain road in a blizzard. 

We all think we are survivors.  But we’re not.  Though, ultimately, none of us are.  Its just the timing that counts.  No matter how quiet a life you lead, even the most sheltered person can encounter extreme conditions or an accident waiting to happen.  Laurence Gonzales was inspired by the life of his father, who, during World War II, fell out of a B-17 at 27,000 feet and survived, and lived a full life, even reading “Finnegan’s Wake.”  This book reads as a paean to him.  Gonzales seems to have dedicated his life to living on the edge, and studying the conditions under which some die and some live. 

For instance, the average middle-class person  thinks that ‘risk’ can be totally eliminated – which is why they are such good candidates for insurance products.  They, on average, never, ever do anything ‘risky.’  However, that is actually impossible. Ultimately, being inured to risk actually increases their risk by hiding the real difference between risk and danger.  They don't know the difference, which means they fear more than they have to.  And when bad things happen, they are less prepared.

Gonzales quotes liberally from various sources – Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher; Erich Remarque, the author of “All Quiet on the Western Front:” Saint-Exupery on flight; Zen and the I-Ching; even Marcus Aurelius, for chrissakes.  He also refers to many individual written stories of survival.  He tracks the relationship between emotions and mental attitudes, and their relation to different parts of the brain – the fear-based amygdala, the cerebral neo-cortex, memories in the hippocampus.  He shows how accidents are inevitable.  The only issue is whether you, as an individual, will be in that accident or not.   

Lawrence relates this to criticality and chaos theory.  (Criticality theory was reviewed below, in the book, “Ubiquity.”)  Chaos theory posits that there is a pattern even among the most disparate effects; and that small events can sometimes have large consequences.  In his discussion of internal critical states, he covers the same ‘rice grain pile’ game discussed in “Ubiquity” and agrees that accidents are internal to every system, just as ‘catastrophes are.  For every 100 climbers up a mountain, some percentage will fail to get down.  Clausewitz called it “friction” – all the innumerable events that can impact an army, for instance, throwing off the best-laid plans.  Some conditions are even more precarious.  A ‘tightly-connected system’ – lets say the world financial market – will ricochet damage everywhere in the system.  A more loosely connected system, with a separation between components – can slow the damage down, or isolate it. (Glass-Steagal, anyone?)

So what are the secrets to survival? When you get in your car on that snowy day, and drive off, are you ready for what might happen? 

Two of the most common reactions to immense stress are panic and complete immobilization.  Thinking too little and thinking too much.  If you stay in these states for too long, you are toast.  Another is over-confidence or ‘irrational’ exuberance.  As he quotes in the book, “The Rambos always go first.”  The ability to retreat intelligently is a mark of a survivor.  Another fatal quality is rigidity.  A person or group who have a plan and a time-table and are going to stick to it, even if concrete conditions are changing, are in for trouble.  There must be many plans.  Another is inattention.  Gonzales repeatedly points to the ‘zen’ of ‘being there.’  And this is not a passive state, but an active one. You must be aware of everything that is happening around you, to the smallest detail, and then act from that.  He also spends a lot of time on ‘positive mental attitude,’ which sounds corny, but basically revolves around being cheerful, seeing the humor in even the most fucked-up situation, and being able to enjoy the mess you are in.  Survivors do that, according to him.  People who babble too much – bad sign.  Calmness is the essence of surviving.  He contends that a balance of intellect and emotion – with intellect in control – will result in the best outcome. 

Gonzales discusses lost and partly lost hikers who make the main mistake of continually moving forward, when they should backtrack.  He of course covers the practical skills and equipment people should have – which gives them a handle on the material world when it goes south.  Many people think bringing home a paycheck or cleaning their house is all they need to know in real-world mechanical skills.  These people are doomed in certain situations, as they have no practical skills.  He maintains that being able to act when you need to – many times quickly – can be key.  Successful survivors are able to plan, carry out and achieve small successes, which allow them not be overwhelmed by their situation.   He also understands that being able to accept a certain level of pain and discomfort is essential to survivors. (see "Reinventing Collapse," by Dimitri Orlov, reviewed below, who also discusses this issue.)

Gonzalez points out that sometimes attempts at increasing 'safety' actually lead to more dangerous conditions.  The rule that lost people should ‘wait for rescue’ is one embedded in much traditional training for disasters.  However, Gonzales points out that it can also lead to being lost permanently.  Every situation has to be evaluated independently, not by a set of rules good for all occasions.  He cites people on 9/11 in New York who followed instructions to stay put, and, instead of moving, waited for fireman, only to die.  A plane crash in the Amazon also resulted in the same thing – 25 adult plane survivors wasting away while not moving an inch - expecting someone else to show up.  Even the most famous crash, cannibalism and all, depicted in the book, “Alive,” only ended because some went for help.

Besides his main skill, ‘being there,’ Gonzales says a key to avoiding accidents is to plan that everything will take 8 times longer than the plan allows.  In other words, people who do not plan for fuckups, which are inevitable, ultimately run late, and lateness can be fatal – snowstorms, river floods, lightening, exhaustion, lack of food, fatigue and hypothermia.  Timing is sometimes everything.  This might also be a note to the people who never get anywhere on time – even those not trying to scale a mountain. 

Why am I reviewing a book on survival?  Well, as you might be able to tell, many of these processes might be good in a riot, or a demonstration, or in arrest, or on a picket line, or in any stressful situation, like your job or even your political group.  It also relates to the ability to survive in a general economic or environmental disaster – the ones that are moving over us like slow-motion avalanches.  And perhaps in your daily life, as you enjoy the woods or waters of this world.

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
February 27, 2013

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Female John Reed

“Daughter of the Earth,” by Agnes Smedley, 1929

Agnes Smedley is a mostly forgotten left-wing American activist and writer.  She is best known for her reporting about the Chinese revolution.  Her second book, “Battle Hymn of China,” serves as a sequel to “Daughter of the Earth.”  Until the Nazi’s closed the paper, she reported for the Frankfurter Zeitung on the Chinese Red Army, and met Mao, Chou En Lai and Chu Te.  She then reported for other western publications, and wrote other books about the revolution there.  She is really the female John Reed of the Chinese revolution, and was later black-listed for this in the 1950s. 

‘Daughter of the Earth’ concerns itself with the American period before World War I until 1927.  It is a powerfully written semi-autobiographical novel of a working-class woman growing up in a brutal, poor and conservative society.  It is as plainly written as Maxim Gorky or Jack London might do, missing the similes or metaphors that litter more middle-class writing.  There are no ‘the sun rose like the headlight on an on-coming train’ in this book.  Her raw emotions and anger provide the fuel which carries you through most of the book.  She is an inchoate Emma Goldman, a political Calamity Jane, her own person. 

The fictional Marie Rogers was the daughter of poor farmers in Missouri.  Her father got sick of living that grueling life and convinced the family to move to the mining towns of Colorado.  There they encountered the world of the mining companies – company stores, militia, poverty, class arrogance, sickness, flooding and cold.  Later she moves, patterned after her father's wanderlust, alone to Arizona, New Mexico, San Francisco, then Kansas City, and ultimately New York City, leaving her drunk father, soon-to-be-dead mother, her mother’s sister, her two brothers and one sister behind. 

The most striking part of this book is how it describes a young woman trying to keep her dignity in a society that just sees her as a sexual target, a baby-maker or a weakling.  Marie has to fend off the advances of various drunks and those men drunk on their own personalities. She avoids sex like the plague because she knows it will lead to having a houseful of kids, beatings and misery.  She hates marriage because she wants no man telling her what to do.  She is forever being thought of as a prostitute or loose woman because she is not married.  The Christian religion is a foreign thing to her, and she knows it to be hostile to the poor.  She knows that only earning her own living will give her independence.  She dresses atrociously, from both poverty and choice.  She carries a small gun and knife and travels from town to town searching for knowledge – attending various schools, becoming a hardscrabble teacher, trying to find someone she trusts.  She meets the various leftists of the day – working-class IWW members, parlor Socialists, middle-class liberals and a few Communists, and has a natural class feel for all of them. 

Marie also feels the guilt of someone who wants to help her family, but basically abandons her siblings and relatives to pursue her life.  There is a lot of ‘I’ in Marie, which might have been her salvation.  Her emotions are always on the surface, she sees insults easily and deeply, she is not afraid to tell people what she thinks without sugar-coating it.  What she sees among the majority of working people is that they do not have a clue why the world is the way it is.  Food, drink, warmth, sex, money and music are sufficient balms and concerns.  Yet the miners strike time after time against the bloodthirsty mining concerns.  She slowly comes to a political consciousness through study, her contact with leftists and the very material roots of her miseries. 

Marie eventually moves to New York where she works for a book-reviewing publication, then “The Call” – a socialist newspaper, and also, oddly, for the Indian independence movement.  Through her work with the Indians, she is arrested and sent to the cold Tombs Prison – which she wryly notes is very close to Wall Street.  There she is starved, interrogated and incarcerated as a ‘spy.’  It is only with the end of World War I that she is released.  The socialists in New York can’t understand why she would work for nationalist Indians, but she (as Lenin would also have agreed) argues that freeing India from British rule advances the cause of world revolution.  Later she gets several high-profile scoops for the Call, including one where she accompanies an Irish Communist to an upstate prison pretending to be his girlfriend.  She eventually gets caught up in a jealousy triangle after finally marrying an Indian, and to avoid conflict within the Indian independence movement, leaves for Denmark.

This book follows on the heels of the earlier American working-class feminist classic, “Life in the Iron Mills.”  Novels by working-class people are rare, and ones that are political are rarer still.  This book is unique in its class and feminist stance.  It portrays a lonely and tough female personality that one rarely encounters, except, perhaps, in the pages of books.  It is our way of meeting Agnes Smedley herself, a real person.

And I bought it at May Day Books used/cutout book section.
Red Frog
February 23, 2013

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Only Good South Vietnamese Farmer is a Dead South Vietnamese Farmer

“Kill Anything That Moves – the Real War in Vietnam,” by Nick Turse, 2013

This book recounts a tragedy so horrible, an experience so destructive, that a simple book review does not suffice. This is a book that shows the American War in Vietnam to be what it was – a high tech slaughter of millions of South Vietnamese civilians. For the generations of clueless Americans who vaguely know Vietnam was ‘bad’ – you don’t know how ‘bad.’  It will cure anyone of the Democratic or Republican parties.  It will cure anyone of praising the military machine.  It will cure anyone of simplistic thoughts about the innocence of good ‘ol U.S. boys.  It was free-fire, unadulterated mass murder, organized from the top.  The title of this book is not a ‘leftist’ generalization – it is a quote, a thought, a practice, repeated time and time again.

Body Count
Free-Fire Zones
Protected Hamlets – mass removal to squalid huts
Overkill; kill over and over
Kill prisoners – can’t take them along
War Criminals:  Westmoreland, McNamara, LBJ, Nixon, Kissinger, Singlaub, Laird, etc.
‘Scientific’ warfare methods
Industrial slaughter
Random murder
Orders from on High
Democrats and Republicans
Holocaust of Vietnamese

3 times more dead than the so-called ‘killing fields’ in Cambodia
Statistics:
58,000 dead Americans
304,000 wounded Americans
254,00 ARVN killed
783,000 wounded
1.7M Viet Cong / NLF dead
? VC / NLF wounded?
65,000 North Vietnamese civilians dead
2M South Vietnamese civilians dead – Harvard Medical School
7.3M Vietnamese casualties overall – Dead, KIA and wounded, Levy, Govt. of Vietnam
South Vietnam’s Population:  19M

Cluster bombs
White phosphorus
B-52 strikes
F-4 Phantoms
Napalm
Huey’s spitting bullets
Agent Orange defoliant
Friendly fire

South Vietnam is the most bombed place in history.
Orders
Destroy all buildings
Burn the ville
Fire the hooch
Level the rice, the fruit trees, the cane
Sink the sampan
Kill anything that moves, including the animals
Every bomb shelter hole in the ground is a VC bunker – grenades for all
Bomb craters in the paddies
Search & Destroy
Black pajamas are VC
Anyone who runs is VC
Little kids grow up to be VC
Water buffalo are VC
The “mere gook rule.”
Random shelling – use up your ammo
Ecocide
Pacification
The real Wasteland

Destroying the country to ‘save it’
They are not called Vietnamese, they are called ‘gooks’
Get the South Koreans to do it
Get the South Vietnamese Army to do it
CIA Operation Phoenix
Tiny 'Tiger' cages for humans; Tiger Force killers
Ewell:  Butcher of the Delta
A My Lai every week
What Geneva Convention?

Highway accidents; no speed limit
Leveled neighborhoods
Records of atrocities destroyed
West Point Protection Association
No one prosecuted
Cover-ups standard
Plant a Chi-Com grenade
Rape SOP
Torture normal – 93%
Trophy strings of ears around necks

War Pigs
The U.S. government and military - war criminals
Where is a Nuremburg when you need one?
Loser’s injustice wins.

(Other books about the Vietnam War, reviewed below:  "Into the Crossfire:  Adventures of a Vietnamese Revolutionary," and "Peoples' History of the Vietnam War.")
And I bought it at Mayday Books – and you should too.
Red Frog
February 17, 2013
The February Revolution in Russia has started, 1917

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Aren't You Glad Capitalism Has Been Restored?

Latest Developments in Hungary

#1.  On November 27, Marton Gyongyosi, one of the fascist Jobbik's 44 lawmakers in the 386-seat Hungarian parliament, said during a debate on violence in the Gaza Strip that it would be "timely" to draw up a list of people of Jewish ancestry who posed a national security risk for their pro-Zionist views.  This illustrates that while some think defense of Palestine is an exclusively ‘left’ issue, ant-Semites use it to slander Jews. 

Gyongyosi was denounced even by Victor Orban, the rightist prime minister of Hungary, who prefers soft anti-Semitism, though it took him a week to do so. On December 2nd, 10,000 demonstrators converged on Budapest's Lajos Kossuth Square, next to the Parliament on the Danube, to protest Jobbik and anti-Semitism.  Jobbik has encountered little resistance from the government to its animosity toward the Roma (gypsy) minority and its efforts to rehabilitate unsavory figures such as Admiral Miklos Horthy, the country's pro-Nazi leader during World War II. 

The fascist Arrow Cross organized the deportation -- and subsequent murder -- of at least  430,000 Hungarian Jews in 1944.  The Nazi’s did not carry out the deportations, but relied on ethnic Hungarians.  Horthy was in power from 1919, when he took over after the destruction of the Hungarian Soviet Republic under Bela Kun by the Romanian Army.  He stayed in power until 1944, when he was deposed by the German Army for being insufficiently fascist, which put the Arrow Cross in power.  Kun himself was killed during one of Stalin’s purges in 1937, allegedly for being a ‘Trotskyite terrorist’ or some such fabrication. While Horthy was not instrumental, as far as I know, in the final roundup of Jews, his policies had been anti-Semitic for years, and laid the ground work for what happened.  He put Hungary in the Nazi camp, after all.  Horthy was a witness at Nuremberg, but was not indicted.

The Hungarian Communist Party eventually replaced this tradition of reactionary politics in the 1949 elections - elections which were never held again for the majority of people, in any form.  The Hungarian CP, which had been heavily Stalinist and repressive, eventually was schooled by the 1956 workers rebellion, and developed ‘goulash communism’ as a response.

#2. - Imre Kertesz, who wrote the great book “Fateless” about his experience in the concentrations camps as a 14 year old, has decided to move his archive to … Germany, not Hungary.  Yes, the organizer's of the camps.  He feels it will be more respected there.  This after a complete takeover of the art world in Budapest by Orban’s Party, which  is turning each venue into an exemplar of nationalist piety – the New Theatre, the Hungarian Academy of Arts and PEN.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti recently turned down a large cash award from the Hungarian PEN.  Elie Weisel has also returned a Hungarian award due to their laudatory reburial of a fascist writer.  Bela Tarr’s  premiere of “The Turin Horse” has been canceled by its Hungarian distributor.  And so it goes.    

#3. - At least someone is fighting back. December 19, 2012, thousands of high school and university students rallied in Budapest at the Academy of Sciences building, shutting down the Chain Bridge for a time.  They opposed education ‘reforms’ which would have severely cut 55,000 scholarships offered by the government.  The government later relented.   The students also opposed requirements that they be required to work in Hungary for several years after graduation if they accepted state funds. They also called for the resignation of the Education Secretary, so there are clearly a broad list of demands.  Orban’s intention was to put higher education in Hungary on a ‘self funding’ basis – an impossible goal unless all students are wealthy.  As if education is now a profit-making pursuit.  Student protests continue.

#4. – A third of the staff of one of the top universities in Budapest is being laid off.  The Orban government says they were appointed under ‘other administrations’ and therefore are illegitimate.  So much for freedom of research and freedom of thought.  A purge of the universities is under way.

#5. - Zsolt Bayer, a prominent conservative commentator, has sparked outrage in Hungary and abroad for comparing Roma to animals and saying they "shouldn't be allowed to exist." Criticism of the remarks has grown, but Prime Minister Orbán will probably keep silent.

Quote from Hungarian/English sources:  “Zsolt Bayer always pipes up whenever the Hungarian media mentions that Roma are suspected of involvement in a crime. Usually, he spares no words in his hate-filled tirades against the ethnic minority, regardless how ugly. For example, he has written: "Whoever runs over a Gypsy child is acting correctly if he gives no thought to stopping and steps hard on the accelerator." Bayer's most recent outburst came last Saturday after a bar fight and stabbing on New Year's Eve in which some of the attackers were reportedly Roma. Writing in the ultra-right-wing newspaper Magyar Hirlap, which has close ties to the conservative government, Bayer argued for what amounts to genocide.

Bayer wrote:
"A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to live among people. These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the 'achievements' of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn't be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved -- immediately and regardless of the method."

Bring back Bela Kun, Gyorgy Lukacs and the workers' councils!

 

Red Frog
February 12, 2013

On Salutations and Signatures

Dear Fellow Commodity,

Throughout the years I have had numerous people inquire about the salutations and signatures I use in articles, e-mails and posts. Here is a brief explanation:

In 1974 I joined the New Union Party, a pro-worker, anti-capitalist group. I wrote a column for their paper The New Unionist which had the title NO NEED FOR SLAVES, NO ROOM FOR MASTERS. My salutation for the column (resurrected for my posts to this blog) was Dear Fellow Commodity which angered “individualists” who resented being called a commodity even though any thinking person would realize that workers are commodities;  they are bought and sold on the “labor market” just as slaves in the American south were bought and sold on the slave market.

I use the signature “AWAY WITH ALL BORDERS” on my email messages because I believe that citizens of the world should not be atomized by lines on a map drawn by world “leaders” in part for their personal glorification. (Capitalists have already done away with borders for the most part,) It's only workers who are still not internationally-minded and kill each other in wars that benefit the capitalists. A bayonet is a weapon with a worker on each end.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

He Used To Be A Radical

“The Conspiracy,” by Paul Nizan, 1938, forward by Jean Paul Sartre, 1960, afterward review by Walter Benjamin

Paris is the brooding presence under every novel or film set in that city.  Its streets, history, river, monuments, neighborhoods and personalities soak the narrative.  For good reason.  Paris has been a center of philosophy, an archive of history, a birthplace of revolution.  ‘The Conspiracy’ is no different – it is set in Paris in the late 1920s, but the city plays a role in the shaping of its characters and the novel itself  This is a book written by former Communist Paul Nizan, who quit the Party upon hearing of the Molotov/Von Ribbentrop pact in 1939.  He wrote for L'Humanite, the Party newspaper.  He died at the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940.

Many Americans dislike Paris, due to their own chauvinist or provincial upbringing, or perhaps plain ignorance.  Yet Paris is a city of the world, not just of the French.  At one time in the ‘20s and ‘30s it was the center of world intellectual life in almost every discipline – writing, painting, dance, sculpture, music – even haute couture.  It gave rise to the phenomenon of the ‘bohemian,’ which morphed into the beats, which begat the hippies, and then the punks, grunge and now in its most pale commercial reflection, the ‘urban hipster.’  Black people like Josephine Baker and Cole Porter fled to Paris, as did Irish writers stifled by Catholicism.  American artistic expatriates started bookshops and wrote books; Spanish painters mixed with French surrealists.  One might say these events in Paris were one of the great renaissances of culture in the capitalist world, if not the greatest.  (see reviews of the importance of geographic ‘location’ in the formation of culture, in this case American music in “Laurel Canyon,” “Just Kids,” “In Search of the Blues” and the Grateful Dead, all below.)

It is 1928 and 1929.  The main characters of this book are the privileged sons of the local bourgeois – dissatisfied with a conventional life, unserious, yet committed to revolution.  Bernard Rosenthal is their leader – his father a stockbroker (yes, before 1929), his brother one too.   Of their families, though against them.  Nizan examines these inter-war youth and their desire to mean something.  Something other than a professional job, a boring wife, their fated elegant Parisian row-house on Rue Berlioz and their summer chateau in Picardy.  Why Nizan, a Party communist at the time, spends so much time on this sliver of the class is somewhat odd – unless it is part of a polemic against their influence on the revolutionary youth of the time. 

In order to encapsulate some of them, Nizan writes in the shade of Proust, and walks with him on the Channel beaches and into the country homes of romance and dull upper-class pleasures.  His portrayal of Rosenthal could be a disturbed 20-year-old student of that milieu.  They easily study for the Sorbonne and the Ecole Normale in the Quartier Latin and the Faubourg St. Germain.  Rosenthal, with 4 others - Pluvinage. Laforgue, Bloye and Jurien - start an overly-intellectual magazine for this rebellious generation.  Then, bored, he theorizes that ‘sabotage’ (a term that originated from the shoes of rebellious workers) is the real road to affecting change. The book sets you up to expect an early anarchist re-run of “The Invisible Committee.” (Reviewed below.)  Some plans for the defense of Paris and the location and structure of a large boiler in the city are stolen.  Instead, the ‘conspiracy’ Rosenthal really gets involved in is the seduction of his brother’s wife – his way of ‘overthrowing’ bourgeois morality and his family.  And the second conspiracy is that one of their number – Pluvinage, a son of a Parisian cemetery bureaucrat – turns informer on a ranking member of the Communist Party.  The Communist Party itself in 1929 was being accused of a an immediate ‘conspiracy’ to overthrow the French Government by force that fall, and hundreds were jailed.

The group had considered joining the Party to be in an intolerable affront to their independence, and hence had never joined.  Pluvinage, oddly, was the first to join, though he was the weakest in commitment.  

Nizan describes some scenes within a Party cell of working-class Parisians in the Belleville / Pere Lachaise area of the 20th Arrondissment.  He tracks the rich people on Avenue Mozart in de Passy.  Pluvinage, the informer, haunts the bars and prostitutes of Montmartre and Pigalle.  Pluvinage always felt socially inferior to Rosenthal and the rest, and eventually understands that the Communists would not come to power, and decides to stay with the ‘powerful’ on the Ile de la Cite and become a policeman – to do the ‘dirty work’ of Paris his own father did.  A third character, Laforgue, becomes very ill, and returns to the bosom of his bourgeois family.  Rosenthal himself commits suicide due to his grief at eventually losing the battle for his shallow paramour, his brother’s wife. 

An odd book, a snapshot of a faded time.  Well written, somewhat poetic, aimed at the untrustworthy petit-bourgeois youth who predictably give up on Left politics - then and in later ages.  And set in Paris, the city of much greater light.

And I bought it in the progressive literature section at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
February 9, 2013

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why Revolutions Might Be Inevitable

"Ubiquity – Why Catastrophes Happen,” by Mark Buchanan, 2001

Buchanan is a theoretical physicist who, in this book, writes easily about scientific disciplines that concentrate on evolution, earthquakes and avalanches, forest fires, animal extinctions, nuclear reactions - and human history.   He, like many, is seeking a logic beneath the myriad faces of complexity in science and human behavior, and thinks he has come up with an outlook that seems to explain change – especially quick change.  The first thing Buchanan posits is that sometimes complexity blinds us to the simplicity behind events.  The second thing he suggests is that change cannot be studied without a concept of time, so history is the basic characteristic of almost anything out of ‘equilibrium.’  Equilibrium is essentially the disappearance of change and time…though even things in equilibrium might have subtle changes that we don’t notice.

Buchanan's book starts with a computer simulating the dropping of sand (and later rice) grains to mimic avalanches – a rather simple ‘game.’  The sand pile game indicated that a tiny event can precipitate many kinds of events – mostly miniscule changes in the pile, but sometimes large avalanches of sand from the pile.  Each drop changes the interaction of the grains to each other.  The question is why?  The game discovered a geometric rule – ‘the power law” – which is a certain inverse mathematical relationship between the size of an avalanche of sand grains and its likelihood of happening.  (For instance, doubling the size of an event results in it becoming 4 times as rare.)  Buchanan then travels through other fields studying earthquakes, forest fires, freezing substances, magnets and species extinctions to figure out when and why they happened.  He concludes that this ‘power law’ is true across every one of these events, and others like solar flares, disease transmission and traffic jams.  In essence it explains the ‘critical state’ of any system out of equilibrium – he calls it ‘self-organized criticality’ – which inhabits the system itself, and the influence of its internal component parts on each other.  So, in essence, 'catastrophe' - or sudden change - is built into everything.

He furthermore maintains, against those that argue these game models are ridiculously simple, that knowing every detail of a system is not essential, that, if you have the physical dimensions or size of something in your model, and also its shape or frequency, you have everything you need to create a model that conforms to actual data already gathered by scientific means.  In the study of ‘phase transitions’ (like between cold and boiling water) the phrase describing this state of simplicity is a ‘universality class.’ 

Now, what Buchanan seems to be getting at in these scientific thoughts is an approach that parallels aspects of dialectics – time, matter, quantity into quality, and also, negation of the negation – the internal contradictions within systems affecting how much and how quickly they change.

So what about the 1987 stock market crash or World War I, some so-called ‘Black Swans’ of reality?  Can the ‘power law’ and critical state universality be found in human affairs?  Buchanan starts his book with description of the random 1914 assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand by a Serbian anarchist, and a description of the supposedly unpredictable October 19, 1987 U.S. market crash, where the stock market lost a 1/5th of its value, over $500 billion dollars in one day on a wave of panic selling.  Why did these events happen in such a way? 

Buchanan cites many surveys of economic predictions by bourgeois economists.  He quotes John Kay of the London Business School in 1995:  “Economic forecasters …all say more or less the same thing at the same time; the degree of agreement is astonishing.”  “…what they say is almost always wrong… the consensus forecast failed to predict any of the most important developments in the economy over the last 7 years…”  In 1999, Robert Schiller called the ‘efficient market hypothesis’ ‘the most remarkable error in the history of economic theory.’   And these guys aren’t even Marxists! The ‘efficient market’ is a market full of perfect and equal information, where everyone acts absolutely rationally, the government has no role, and no one influences anyone else – an idea which is still taken seriously to this day by the business press.  

According to Buchanan, studies of daily price movements on the Standard & Poors 500 and other markets over many years shows that the ‘power law’ continues to apply even there.  Price spikes are inversely proportional to their occurrence, but they happen frequently enough because every market is not a stable system of equilibrium, as capitalist political theory hopes.  Short and even long-term investors influence other investors, and so trigger panics.  Information is imperfect.  People trade for emotional reasons or even financial desperation, thinking this will lead to profit maximization.  It is not primarily outside events that impact the markets, according to Buchanan, but the existence of flaws in the market itself. 

Buchanan cites a famous 1961 book by Thomas Kuhn called, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which traces in what way Newton, Darwin, Einstein and Heisenberg upset the traditional conservative paradigms of prior ‘normal’ science.  Kuhn carefully delineated how scientists, being human and tied to the secure structure of academe, did not automatically accept these new paradigms – and resisted until it was obvious that the new ideas were right.  Of course, the occurrence of these theoretical revolutions and new ideas are inversely proportional to their frequency again.  Yet they occur inevitably. Kuhn also points out that ‘revolutions’ in an idea might occur to as small a group as 25 – which totally changes they way that small group does something. 

Buchanan finally addresses the issue of social change.  The power law is even found in the frequency and scope of wars, calculated by the number of dead.  However, social revolution is not quite so mathematically trackable – or perhaps no one has done it.  The trick would be to define lower stages of revolution - strikes, general strikes, demonstrations, occupations, street fighting, guerrilla war - then to various larger upheavals like political revolutions and social revolutions - by their number and timing, and see if that corresponds to the automatic power law.  I suspect it might.

According to him, social revolutions are caused by extreme ‘maladjustments’ that lead to the overthrow of the prior order – sort of like the geologic stress exerted by passing tectonic plates that cause earthquakes.  In the process he eviscerates the ‘great man’ theory of history using this approach – as no ‘one’ stress actually causes movement, unless conditions are right.  He quotes E.H. Carr, “History is to a considerable extent a matter of numbers.”  “Great men,” according to Buchanan, are those who can give voice to great mass movements.  He also takes apart the method of history that concerns itself with the accretion of random facts.  Carr pointed out that there is a ‘natural hierarchy of facts.’  Historians and students of history who get bogged down in minutiae, who cannot choose the more important facts to analyze and hence have no ability to generalize, will be lost in the thickets of time.   Perhaps a re-creation of a nostalgic lost world, but not an understanding of this one. 


My thumbnail of Dialectics:

  1. Time is a constant.
  2. Quantity turns into quality. 
  3. Negation of the negation - there are contradictions within everything.
  4. Contradiction takes the form of thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis, and repeat.
  5. Internal contradictions are the motor of economics, history, science, social relations, even thought.  Class struggle is the motor of society, as class is the main internal contradiction. 
  6. Materialistic dialectics is based on matter – hence materialism - and its internal motion, not pure ideas.  Material things are not static, and ultimately lead to change in the realm of ideas.  

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books, but Craig might order it.
Red Frog,
February 3, 2013
Loser-Bowl Sunday

P.S. - The 'Global Database of Events' and John Bieler's "Protest map" could possibly be analyzed to see if social protest is following the power law.  This is a listing of protests/strikes/revolutions etc. since 1979 based on news reports.  From a casual tour, it seems the pace of protest is picking up across the world.  However, something more long term - going back to the American Revolution, for instance - might shed even more light.