“There are two kinds of justice: one for the rich and powerful, and another for everybody else.”

Who wrote that? You may be tempted to say Karl Marx – it has in a way a quasi-Marxist ring about it. I actually don’t know who originally said it but it has been repeated many times, in one form or another by critics of contemporary western economy and society.

This particular quotation in fact is drawn from an article by Joe Nocera in the New York Times, reprinted in The Age on 16 April. Times have changed! Current attacks on the world-wide economic system, capitalism (the term ‘free/private enterprise’ is underused in critical moments like the present), have never been as pervasive and emotive since the days of the Great Depression.

Attacks seem double-pronged: the excessive greed of the very wealthy, and the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. The ‘rich’, significantly, been frequently differentiated between the ‘rich’ and the ‘extreme rich’. General comparisons abound: one being that the richest one percent of the population ‘earns’ 460 times more than the average family. The term ‘class’ is rarely employed; even less so is the author Karl Marx – despite his analysis been considered by many still the most accurate and comprehensive on how the capitalist ‘system’ operates, and systematically dysfunctions.

Joe Nocera writes as he does having read a history of BP which apparently overwhelmingly demonstrates that the recent spill off the American coast was no accident but a patterned consequence of BP always cutting corners in pursuit of greatest profit. The question is ‘when’ not ‘if’ the next ecological disaster will strike. And it coolly follows that policy, the book argues, because it knows that whatever huge compensation repayments recur it can still make the profits it desires. Nocera urges jail sentences rather than court fines as the only effective real deterrence. But how likely it that? Thus two kinds of justice. The BPs of the world will continue to laugh all the way to the bank. And the poor will become homeless.

John Lanchester writing ‘Marx at 193’ in London Review of Books on April 5 reminds us that the once witty expression ‘socialism for the rich’ is in fact a perfect description of how capitalism works. And it continues to survive because of its effective globalisation (which Marx foresaw): flourishing, in fact, because it hides the operation of ‘surplus value’ – tens of thousands of third world labour scanning the contents of ‘hygienic’ Facebook for ‘offensive images’ – working for wages as low as one dollar per hour. And it is now ‘worth’ $100 billion.

It continues to flourish for the major reason, according to Lanchester, that it has ‘flourished’ in even more complex ways than Marx expected. The working class or proletariat has not become the strong, centralised, solidarity group or movement as originally assumed: ‘it’ is complex in itself, a heterodoxy. It is also spread out – around the world. Interests are many, loyalties are many – and transient. A government, even a state may be confronted perhaps overthrown – witness the Middle East last year – spontaneous unity, apparent success, then promptly disunity again. But how much more complex and difficult against an ‘economy’. It has no head-quarters to storm. And the IMF and WTO are secure in the hands of their patrons.

Society and individuals, affecting each other, become infinitely complex. Each forms the other into multi-classifiable labyrinths. It is not quixotic that the notion of ‘complexity’ has become the most common and telling description of modern society and life. Everyone militates against a common ‘consciousness’. And that is before we consider the many cultural seductions of modernity which easily distract us from more ‘serious’ concerns. We are too busy on tour and detours.

We can go even further, I think, in explaining the continued absence of a unity, a solidarity, a classness. The culture of thinking, eduction, does little to discourage narrow thought: we think at a shallow level, on immediate concerns, in local circumstances. Our curiosity is circumspect, through a narrow lense. We think, feel, identify and have compassion only close to home, to ourselves, for tomorrow. We remain as uncommitted to class conflict as we are to global warming. In each, pleasure and immediacy reign supreme.

Marc, once again, predicted that the efficacy of capitalism and its spirit would expand our consumption without end. We steadily become more and more glutted. And never satisfied.

But Lanchester’s final observation is that in factt no-one could have been expected, one hundred years ago, to realise that the earth is actually finite in all its resources. There is not enough to go around – let alone remove or even reduce the consumption gap between the rich and the poor. Or even between the poor in the wealthy western countries and the poor in the non-western world. His telling sample: the average consumption of water in America is one hundred gallons a day. There is not enough fresh water in the world to satisfy everyone on that need alone. Will it ever be likrly?

Is ant greater equality further doomed to fail? Can we expect people to limit their wants, he wonders. Can the rich reduce their desires?

Don Miller


Hard Science and Soft Science

Those practising the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, geology, chemistry, astronomy know (or believe) they are being rigorous, rational, thorough and patient in their pursuit of truth. A goal reached only now and then to scientists – it is hard won, but practitioners are not deterred. They know science calls for such dedication; they are proud of themselves. By and large the public holds a similar picture of scientists; it respects them (ill-tempers over the proof of global warning notwithstanding). They are the experts after all. Only they represent Science and its dedicated search for knowledge. It is interesting to think that the word ‘scientist’ automatically carries with it the word ‘expert’. We do not conceive of a scientist being an inexpert or amateur.

On the other hand, those engaged in human and social studies, such as history, anthropology, psychology, literature, philosophy are seen and labelled differently. This separation is based on the view that they are not sciences, as we know the word. Nor do practitioners ‘appear’ rigorous, testing, patient, objective researchers of the truth. Rather they are seen as amateurs, speculative, imaginative. To be enjoyed – surely at times; to be taken seriously as purveyors of knowledge and truth – infrequently. At best they are artists. They may be deemed to represent the ‘soft sciences’ – an ambivalence – both pejorative and charitable a judgment surely.

But an alternative vision is possible. ‘Scientists’ by their own admission follow strict procedures. This may be their strength – it provides a clear guideline for young scientists, to begin with. It can also be their weakness. A formula, a standard, a rule which restricts, inhibits, controls – all features limiting new, yet to be considered possibilities. Imagination, speculation, sudden inspiration are absent, disallowed. Research under restraint. It is only the exceptional scientist (usually renowned and retired) who concedes that speculation and imagination play an important role in the best scientific research.

But science can’t have it both ways: its formula is the ‘scientific method’; its (occasional) imaginative behaviour is not. Is it an aberration, which sometimes pays off?

Consider the humanities scholar: provided one does not try to ape the stereotype of the hard scientist, she is wracked with problems all the time. Beginning with language itself, with all its ambiguities, allusions, and hidden implications. None of which can be solved or resolved before you proceed; and they haunt you always.

Their studies target, in one way or other, the human condition, whether the subject matter is history and its wars, cities and their rise and fall, the quest for political power, women’s repression, and economic cycles. Human beings are always, no matter how implicitly, the subject matter. And humans change yet remain the same; they are knowable yet remain a mystery. In all, they are full of contradictions, denials, deceptions – to others and to themselves. How do we make these fitful, capricious beings an object of rigorous study? Let alone an object of ‘scientific’
study’? [The effort to square the circle may be the cause of psychology’s poor repute, and its retreat into a ‘testing’ institution].

How do we ever ‘know’ human beings in all their machinations and manoeuvres ? Can we ever ‘understand the truth’ of love, hate, fear, joy – in all their guises ? Surely these studies are the real ‘hard sciences’. And there can never be the ‘last word’ on any element of the work. In comparison the exciting subjects of physics, astronomy and hydraulics pale into ‘softness’ – there the scientist has her ‘marching orders’, they know what they have to do, and they get on with the job, in a certain pure innocence.

Pity the poor poet or ‘student’ of politics (note we never say the ‘student of the galaxies’); they rely on little helpful directions on how to manage their work. Nothing instructs them; everything obstructs them. They grope and struggle for every insight in their practice of ‘hard science’.

Don Miller


Anders Breivik: sane or insane?


Talk soon turns to a discussion of the probable state of mind of a murderer whenever the crime is extreme in form or size. It was inevitable that the tragic mass slaughter of Norwegian youth would be no exception. Within a week, before we know much at all about the young man, debate had started. ‘He has to be mad or insane to perpetrate such a heinous act’ was likely to be the initial stance – and the evidence seems obvious. To be quickly followed by a seemingly wiser observation. ‘The man had to be sane – think of the months of detailed preparation Breivik undertook to become perfectly prepared to execute his plan – that can only the work of a sane person’.

As material grows over coming months, with written extracts from his voluminous ‘manifesto’, and verbal assertions and defences from his court appearances, people around the world will consolidate their position, or make a dramatic conversion from one to another camp. And whichever position one is in, everyone will be armed with more and more ‘conclusive’ evidence that the man was sane, or insane, as the case may be. Dictionaries are likely to be consulted to buttress a case; experts in the area will be seized upon or ignored

according to their supportive usefulness. Nothing is likely to be settled before public interest in the issue will begin to fail or until it is usurped by another horrendous, violent tragedy.

Some people will eventually question the debate. They will begin to challenge the framing of the issue and the silent assumptions behind the two opinions. ‘Perhaps an otherwise ‘sane’ person can carry some ‘insane’ qualities as well? Perhaps we should not assume mental states or qualities as ‘pure’ entities (like billiard balls for example) – here, of something labelled ‘insanity’ and ‘sanity’ which by definition are mutually exclusive, any co-existence being inconceivable, inexpressible’. Perhaps we have been tricked by our language: we have two opposing words which make us think they represent two opposing ‘realities’. But are there two things? Could we be composed of different complex mixtures; after all, many writers stress the complexity, disharmony, inconsistency, contrariness of any human psyche – such as the observation of Peter Steele when he says: “Show me a person and I will show you a labyrinth”. And if so, why only two names/ two words? Why do we so easily talk as if everything comes in two’s? And then we could change the imagery of concrete billiard balls bouncing off each other to something more like varieties of clouds moving in and out and between each other. We may need to enrich our vocabulary; to search for different complexities and avoid the temptation to simplify everything. Why do we always descend into crude pairs of opposing things, about which we assume we must make a clean choice: is it right or wrong, yes or no, black or white, good or bad, with us or against us?’

Why do we feel obliged to make judgments? To defend a position and attack another? Why do we get satisfaction from reaching a conclusion, better still, of winning some battle. Are we capable of appreciating another default game – of leaving open-ended an exploration of human behaviour about which we are happy to admit we know and will continue to know little, and that an exhibition of certainty is not a sign of strength but a weakness. And to agree that the discussion was enjoyable and valuable to all parties.

NOTE to readers. You may be interested to read my blog titled  “Going Sane” on the website, and also an article on ‘lessons’ from the Norwegian massacre in the current, July, issue on MCI enewsletter.

Don Miller, 28 July 2011