Sunday, June 28, 2015

The working class in fantasy and reality

The working class in fantasy and reality

by Frank Brenner

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras addresses Parliament during stormy debate on the referendum
Two recurrent threats to a revolutionary policy are opportunism and sectarianism. And both entail distorted – read non-dialectical – conceptions of the revolutionary potential of the working class. For the opportunist the working class has a past but no future. For the sectarian the working class has a future but no past.

If you want a textbook example of sectarianism, read the World Socialist Web Site on the crisis in Greece. We already did a breakdown of this political disorder (as Lenin would have called it) back in January, when the latest phase of the Greek crisis began with the election of SYRIZA. (See “Experience in scare quotes”). Back then, the WSWS was categorical in insisting that nothing had changed with that election:Syriza’s election victory does not express a political development, a step forward, progress or anything of the kind by or for the working class.”

If this were true, then the crisis now gripping Europe makes absolutely no sense. If Syriza were no different than the previous regimes of Pasok or New Democracy, they would have agreed months ago to the latest austerity blackmail measures demanded by the European financial elites.

Of course Syriza is not a revolutionary party, as anyone with even the barest understanding of Marxism could have figured out. But neither is it just more of the same, one more bourgeois regime among others. The difference lies precisely in the role of the masses.

Syriza was elected on an anti-austerity program by the votes of millions of working class and middle class people. For the past six months it has tried desperately to find some middle ground between the financial vampires in Frankfurt and the aspirations of its electoral base. But unlike its predecessors, Syriza cannot totally ignore those aspirations. Which is why, in the end, it had to say no to a deal and call a referendum.

To a revolutionary, this matters enormously because it opens up possibilities for the growth of revolutionary consciousness. Workers are learning THROUGH THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES that capitalism and democracy are mutually exclusive, and that only an end to the system will bring an end to austerity. For the first time in generations, socialism can come to be seen as a PRACTICAL PROJECT by the masses. The road to revolution in Greece lies through the electoral base of Syriza. A revolutionary party that can exploit the fissures between that base and the Syriza leadership can win mass support for socialism.

But none of this matters to sectarians. The WSWS reaction to the referendum was that it was “a reactionary fraud, designed to lend a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the looting of Greek workers and middle-class people by the banks.” (See the WSWS article "Greek prime minister calls for referendum on EU austerity demands".)

This makes no sense. Having failed to get even the most meager concessions from Eurozone officials, the government has turned to the Greek people and asked them to decide: yes or no to more austerity. There is no indication the referendum has been fixed in any way; if anything, the government is the underdog in this campaign and it may well lose, which would immediately bring about its collapse. In what sense is this a fraud? On the contrary, this is a very rare occasion when bourgeois democracy actually lives up to its hype. Which explains why the European elites are furious at the Greek government: how dare the people be allowed to have a say when it comes to something as important as cold hard cash! The opportunities for revolutionaries to intervene in such a campaign and raise revolutionary consciousness would be evident to anyone not blinded by the sickness of sectarianism.

The WSWS contends that not only is the referendum a fraud but the government is maneuvering to get a yes vote: “Broad sections of the Syriza-led government and of the Greek ruling class as a whole are pushing for capitulation to what Tsipras acknowledged were humiliating demands. After Greece’s central bank came out with a call to remain in the euro, Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis stressed yesterday that Greece was doing everything it could to satisfy the 'strange demands' of its creditors and was determined to remain inside the euro zone.”

This too is nonsense. It would be impossible for Syriza to continue to govern if the referendum vote is to accept ongoing austerity. If this really was the secret agenda of Tsipras and company, they could have just made a deal and tried to ignore the outrage on the streets. In fact, reports from Athens say that the cabinet was unanimous in backing a No campaign.

Sectarians live in a fantasy world. Bereft of any dialectical understanding of how political consciousness develops, they change facts to fit their 'perspective'. Here is one such example:"The Financial Times recently reported on a pool party held in the 'leafy, affluent northern suburbs' of Athens and attended by a pro-EU crowd of 'well-heeled businessmen, politicians, academics, and socialites.' For these layers, the FT noted, 'life without the euro is almost unimaginable. The single currency made it easier for them to send children to study abroad and purchase property and luxury goods elsewhere in Europe.' Given that Syriza largely consists of similar affluent middle-class academics, politicians, and socialites, divorced from and hostile to the working class, similar moods are well represented inside Syriza itself.”

This is a rather crude example of guilt by association: the quote from the Financial Times says nothing about this pool party being a gathering of Syriza supporters, but somehow in the WSWS article they become exemplars of that party's political base. In any case, this is an article of faith in all WSWS coverage of Syriza: that the party's base is bourgeois and upper middle class.
A pool party in the affluent Athens suburb of Kifisia
But what then becomes of the Greek working class? Who exactly did they vote for in January? If not Syriza, who then? The mainstream bourgeois parties? The fascists? Did the workers not vote at all – were there mass abstentions? To ask such questions is to answer them. But sectarians never ask them.

For sectarians, the only working class that matters is the working class of their fantasies. All this fantasy working class needs to be woken into revolutionary consciousness is the 'magic touch' of the sectarian's propaganda. You might call this a 'Sleeping Beauty' approach to revolutionary politics.

And so, in the end of the article, you get what is a ritual incantation in all WSWS propaganda: “The only way forward for the working class is to set its policy independently of all the factions of the capitalist class, whose social order has utterly failed. The critical task is to prepare to mobilize the working class in Greece and across Europe in revolutionary struggle against the reactionary intrigues of Syriza and the EU.”

How any of this is to happen is a total mystery because this isn't about real Greek workers who really voted for a party called Syriza. Rather it is about a fantasy working class that only exists in the heads of sectarians – a Sleeping Beauty with a glorious future and no past.

Workers who were not invited to pool party in Kifisia reading about referendum at kiosk

Monday, June 22, 2015



του Φρανκ Μπρέννερ

Στη λαϊκή συνείδηση, ο καπιταλισμός είναι η πραγματικότητα και ο σοσιαλισμός είναι ουτοπία. Ή, για να το θέσω διαφορετικά, η αδράνεια λειτουργεί πάντα υπέρ της διατήρησης του συστήματος ως έχει και αντιστέκεται στη ριζική αλλαγή. Αλλά σε μια κρίση, ορισμένες αλήθειες σαν αυτή ανατρέπονται. Και πουθενά στον πλανήτη ο καπιταλισμός δεν βρίσκεται περισσότερο σε κρίση απ’ ότι στην Ελλάδα.

Μόλις αυτή την εβδομάδα [4 Iουνίου], η Ελλάδα δεν προέβη στην προγραμματισμένη πληρωμή του χρέους προς το Διεθνές Νομισματικό Ταμείο, και τώρα η αντίστροφη μέτρηση πάει για το τέλος του μήνα, όταν η Ελλάδα μπορεί και επισήμως να προχωρήσει σε αθέτηση της αποπληρωμής των χρεών της. Αν συμβεί αυτό, η χώρα θα πρέπει πιθανότατα να βγει από την Ευρωζώνη, ξεκινώντας μια αλυσιδωτή αντίδραση που θα μπορούσε να σπείρει τον όλεθρο, όχι μόνο στην Ελλάδα, αλλά και στην Ευρώπη στο σύνολό της. Το ευρώ ως νόμισμα θα μπορούσε γρήγορα να κατακερματιστεί και άλλες χώρες που βρίσκονται σε οικονομική δυσχέρεια -την Ισπανία, την Ιταλία, την Ιρλανδία, την Πορτογαλία, ενδεχομένως ακόμη και τη Γαλλία- θα μπορούσαν να κατακρημνιστούν.

Η αριστερή ρεφορμιστική κυβέρνηση του ΣΥΡΙΖΑ, η οποία εκλέχθηκε με ένα πολιτικό πρόγραμμα ενάντια στη λιτότητα τον Ιανουάριο, υπέθεσε ότι οι ευρωπαϊκές ελίτ θα ήταν πρόθυμες να δώσουν στην Ελλάδα κάποια ελάφρυνση χρέους για να αποφευχθεί αυτό το καταστροφικό σενάριο. Δεν ήταν μια παράλογη υπόθεση, αλλά οι καιροί δεν είναι λογικοί. Στο οποίο πρέπει να προστεθεί: Ο ΣΥΡΙΖΑ δεν θα είχε εκλεγεί εξ αρχής ποτέ αν βρισκόμασταν σε λογικούς καιρούς.

Όπως έχουν επισημάνει πολλοί σχολιαστές (ο Τάρικ Άλι για παράδειγμα), αυτό που νοείται ως η κυρίαρχη πολιτική τάση στις δυτικές χώρες έχει μετατραπεί πλέον στο «ακραίο κέντρο», έτσι ώστε αυτό που μοιάζει με "πολιτική ως συνήθως" να έχει γίνει ριζικά αντιδραστικό. Η θέση της γερμανικής κυβέρνησης για την Ελλάδα είναι ακραίες κεντρώες πολιτικές σε εφαρμογή. Λόγω της αδιαλλαξίας της -πρωτοφανής για τη Γερμανία από την εποχή των Ναζί- η ΕΕ αρνήθηκε να υποχωρήσει, ακόμη και στη χορήγηση στην Ελλάδα μερικών συμβολικών παραχωρήσεων. Αυτή η σκληρή γραμμή σήμανε τον κώδωνα του κινδύνου διεθνώς, με τον Υπουργό Οικονομικών των ΗΠΑ να προειδοποιεί για το καταστροφικό ενδεχόμενο ενός ευρωπαϊκού «ατυχήματος» και τον αρθρογράφο των Times της Νέας Υόρκης Πωλ Κρούγκμαν να μιλάει για «αυτήν την αίσθηση του 1914», παραλληλίζοντας την τρέχουσα κρίση με το πώς η Ευρώπη προχώρησε σαν να υπνοβατούσε προς τον Πρώτο Παγκόσμιο Πόλεμο.

Αλλά η απλή αλήθεια είναι πως οτιδήποτε συμβεί στις 30 Ιουνίου -χρεοστάσιο ή κάποια πρόχειρη συμφωνία την τελευταία στιγμή- η Ελλάδα θα παραμείνει σε ένα κοπρόλακκο. Το χρέος της χώρας είναι 180% του ΑΕΠ της. Πρόκειται για ένα δυσθεώρητο ποσό, πολύ πέρα από τη σφαίρα του λογικού. Θα μπορούσατε να το σκεφτείτε κατά αυτόν τρόπο: αν όλοι στην Ελλάδα εργάζονταν για σχεδόν δύο χρόνια, αλλά ΔΕΝ ΚΑΤΑΝΑΛΩΝΑΝΕ ΤΙΠΟΤΑ, αυτό θα εξοφλούσε το χρέος. Φυσικά θα πέθαιναν όλοι επειδή δεν θα μπορούσαν να αγοράσουν καθόλου τρόφιμα. Είναι περίπου σαν να είμαστε στη σφαίρα της Αλίκης στη Χώρα των Θαυμάτων, μόνο που το σενάριο είναι πολύ πιο σκληρό και πολύ λιγότερο διασκεδαστικό.

Φυσικά, δεν είναι αυτό ακριβώς που οι ευρωπαϊκές ελίτ ζητούν από την Ελλάδα. Όχι, το μόνο που θέλουν να κάνει η ελληνική κυβέρνηση είναι να δημιουργήσει ένα ετήσιο πλεόνασμα 2% ή 3% για το άμεσα ορατό μέλλον και αυτό το πλεόνασμα να ξαφρίζεται για να αποπληρωθούν οι τράπεζες. Αυτό ακούγεται λογικό, αν και είναι το είδος της λογικής που μόνο η Βασίλισσα Ντάμα Κούπα της Αλίκης θα εκτιμούσε.

Αυτό σημαίνει ότι η κυβέρνηση θα στερηθεί το σύνολο των διαθέσιμων εσόδων της: δεν θα έχει τίποτα να επανεπενδύσει, σε μια χώρα που έχει ήδη υποστεί ύφεση για έξι χρόνια και όπου η επίσημη ανεργία βρίσκεται στο 25%. Σημαίνει, με άλλα λόγια, συνεχιζόμενη λιτότητα για το ορατό μέλλον. Πόσο καιρό θα κρατήσει αυτό το μέλλον; Να μία απάντηση από ένα πρόσφατο σχόλιο του οικονομικού συντάκτη του BBC, Ρόμπερτ Πέστον: «Θα χρειαστεί περίπου μισός αιώνας για να πέσει το χρέος του ελληνικού δημόσιου τομέα σε ένα επίπεδο που να θεωρείται βιώσιμο». Έπειτα ο Πέστον προσθέτει: «Μισός αιώνας λιτότητας; Σε ποια σύγχρονη δημοκρατία θα θεωρούνταν αυτό ρεαλιστική επιλογή;»

Είναι εξωφρενικά -βάναυσα- μη ρεαλιστική, αλλά είναι επίσης Η ΜΟΝΗ ΕΠΙΛΟΓΗ ΣΤΟ ΤΡΑΠΕΖΙ. Πράγμα που με φέρνει πίσω στην αρχική μου παρατήρηση. Η ιδέα ότι η Ελλάδα μπορεί να συνεχίσει να είναι και μια καπιταλιστική χώρα και μια «σύγχρονη δημοκρατία», έχει γίνει εδώ και πολύ καιρό ευσεβής πόθος.

Λοιπόν, οι ευσεβείς πόθοι δεν είναι πάντα κακοί. Οι ευσεβείς πόθοι της Αριστεράς μπορούν να διαδραματίσουν ισχυρό ρόλο στην ανύψωση της πολιτικής συνείδησης των καταπιεσμένων και στη διατήρηση της ελπίδας τους για ελευθερία. Αλλά οι ευσεβείς πόθοι μπορούν επίσης να οδηγήσουν στο παραλήρημα - να είσαι σε άρνηση, ενώ βρίσκεσαι στο χείλος του γκρεμού. Τέτοιοι ευσεβείς πόθοι βασανίζουν τα μεγάλα πολιτικά κόμματα στην Ελλάδα - συμπεριλαμβανομένου του κυβερνώντος ΣΥΡΙΖΑ. Η μόνη εξαίρεση είναι η φασιστική Χρυσή Αυγή, η θέση της οποίας συνοψίζεται στο εξής: αν ο καπιταλισμός και η δημοκρατία δεν μπορούν να διατηρηθούν και οι δύο, τόσο το χειρότερο για τη δημοκρατία.

Για οποιονδήποτε στην Ελλάδα που δεν είναι φασίστας η μόνη ΡΕΑΛΙΣΤΙΚΗ διέξοδος από την κρίση είναι ο σοσιαλισμός. Οι επαναστάσεις δεν είναι μαγικές: μια κυβέρνηση που έχει ανάλαβει να εφαρμοσεί σοσιαλιστική πολιτική, δεν θα κάνει τα πάντα καλύτερα εν μία νυκτί. Ούτε οι επαναστάσεις έρχονται με κρυστάλλινες σφαίρες, αλλά αυτό τουλάχιστον μπορεί να ειπωθεί με επιστημονική ακρίβεια: ο σοσιαλισμός ΔΕΝ θα καταδικάσει τους Έλληνες και τις Ελληνίδες σε πενήντα χρόνια αίμα, ιδρώτα και δάκρυα. Το σοσιαλιστικό πρόγραμμα συνοψίζεται σε αυτό: λιγότερος πόνος, πολύ περισσότερο όφελος. Αυτό μπορεί να είναι ένα ισχυρό μήνυμα σε μια απελπιστική κατάσταση.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Crisis in Cosmology

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The Crisis in Cosmology

By Alex Steiner

Lately we are hearing more and more dissident voices from within the community of theoretical physics challenging the dominant view that has defined cosmology for the past 30 years. That paradigm, known as “eternal inflation”, has many variants, but all of them paint a very odd picture of our universe.  The most popular model of eternal inflation hypothesizes that the Big Bang was the start of everything, including Time. The universe was born in a flash –in a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second. Even more fantastic is that the inflation which got the ball rolling cannot stop and therefore countless numbers of other universes have since come into existence.  Thus eternal inflation theory argues that we live in a multiverse, i.e., our physical world is just one of countless universes none of which have any interaction with other universes.  This idea, while derived from physics, is in all respects the same as that old chestnut of science fiction stories – the phenomena of parallel universes.  And it is not accidental that some commentators have dubbed the theory of eternal inflation and the multiverse “postmodern physics”. The most radical proponent of the multiverse,  the theoretical physicist Andrei Linde, claims that in fact there is no such thing as a “universe” at all.  The belief in a universe, according to Linde, is little more than a prejudice we have acquired as a result of the limitations of our imagination.   If Linde is right, then the philosophical implications are staggering.  As one writer observed,

If the multiverse idea is correct, then the historic mission of physics to explain all the properties of our universe in terms of fundamental principles—to explain why the properties of our universe must necessarily be what they are—is futile, a beautiful philosophical dream that simply isn’t true. Our universe is what it is because we are here.  [1]

Andrei Linde, supporter of the multiverse thesis 
One might think that such a radical theory of the origins of the universe that has gotten so much support within the community of theoretical physicists comes with an impressive list of observations backing up its findings.  One would think that but one would be wrong.  There is in fact no confirmation of inflation theory and it is arguable whether such confirmation is even possible in principle. [2] Not only that, but the picture of the universe – or multiverse – drawn by inflation theory overturns some very basic ideas about space and time.  If inflation theory is right then the most fundamental concepts that  scientists and philosophers have employed to comprehend the world must be thrown out.  We can no longer even maintain that the totality of everything, the universe as a whole, is a viable concept. If the multiverse hypothesis is true, then we would have to say that there are an infinite number of realities and all of them are in principle “unknowable” except the one we inhabit.  Philosophically, this is a close cousin of the arguments of subjective idealists. 

Both subjective idealists and proponents of a multiverse stake out a claim that there is no single “objective” reality but rather an infinite number of such realities.   The main difference would be that the subjective idealist would identify “reality” with his own subjective experience and suggest that every subject has their own version of reality, one that is unique for each individual.  Since each individual experience is unique and cannot be shared it is therefore impossible in principle to reference a single objective reality common to all. The inflation theorist, on the other hand, while also positing a multitude of possible universes, derives his beliefs, not from an act of reflection on his individual experiences, but from the mathematics of quantum theory.  Rather than identifying reality with experience as the subjective idealists do, inflation theorists are closer to the spirit of Plato and suggest that experiences provide us with but a vague “shadow” of reality.  The Platonic tradition maintains that the underlying structure of reality cannot be grasped by experience but only becomes accessible to us through timeless mathematical laws.  Inflation theorists therefore may seem to be more scientific and more “objective” than the subjective idealists in the tradition of Berkeley.  But despite these differences, the conclusions drawn by inflation theory lead one philosophically into a position not so different than those of the subjective idealists.  For if reality is fragmented into a multiverse there is no longer any philosophical justification for claims about objective reality since it is not at all clear what “objectivity” means in a multiverse.  After all, to put forward the proposition that a multiverse exists implies that somehow we are able to climb outside of our own universe and take a god’s eye view of everything including other universes.  But the ability to step out of our universe is precisely what the multiverse proposition denies.

Alan Guth: founder of eternal inflation theory
The contradictory nature of claims about reality as a whole was first explored by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in his Antinomies of Pure Reason. An example was Kant’s discussion of the whether the universe had a beginning.  He first assumes that it does have a beginning and from there by a series of logical steps proves that this premise leads to absurdities.  Therefore, by indirect proof, he concludes that the universe could not have had a beginning.  But this opposite premise also leads to absurdities.  So Kant concludes that the question of whether the universe had a beginning or not is an illegitimate question because it asks something that is beyond the limits of our understanding.  Hegel, commenting on this discussion of Kant’s, noted that Kant here came to the very threshold of the dialectic, but like Moses looking out on the Promised Land, could not cross over to it.  Hegel thought that the contradictions introduced by these antinomies can be resolved, but only if one gave up the rigid dichotomies of the understanding that sees a beginning as an absolute point in time completely different than the continuous flux of physical processes. 

The problem that Kant encountered was that the categories that are adequate to explain phenomena when considering a part of reality isolated from the whole break down when one is trying to apply them to the whole. 
Immanuel Kan
A great deal of the progress of modern physics has been as a result of thinking about systems isolated from their larger environment. In that way we can study the effects of certain properties upon other properties while disregarding other factors. This method has been called “doing physics in a box” and in its own terms it is perfectly legitimate. The problem comes in when that method is applied to a study of the universe as whole. This point was eloquently expressed a number of years ago by Stephen Toulmin,

Our cosmological ambitions have, in practice, too often deceived us into accepting fallacious or nonsensical inferences, incautious extrapolations, premature generalizations, or sheer confusion of category.  The whole expanse of Space, for instance, is not just one more volume, which simply happens to be larger than all other volumes.  Nor is the totality of Time just one more historical period, longer than all other periods, but otherwise comme les autres. So we cannot just extrapolate our familiar ideas about smaller regions of space and shorter periods of time and apply them directly to Space and Time “as wholes”. Nor, for that matter, can we use our everyday discoveries about each and every limited particular kind of thing as a secure foundation for conclusions about “the All” or “the Whole.” [3]

 When you theorize about the universe as a whole, the categories that one employs to describe different parts of the universe are no longer adequate and the attempt to conceive of the universe as a whole in terms of those categories leads to contradictions.  This is exactly what Kant discovered in his discussion of the cosmological antinomies.  But he drew the wrong conclusion from it – citing the antinomies as proof that it is illegimate to speculate about the universe as a whole.

Cosmologists have in practice ignored Kant’s injunction since they do think it is legitimate to ask questions about the Universe as a Whole. One of the questions Kant asked, whether the universe had a beginning in Time, is in fact one of the most widely discussed questions among cosmologists today. Hegel, contrary to Kant, maintained that it is legitimate to think about an all inclusive reality -ie. the Universe as a Whole, but that endeavor cannot be successfully accomplished by employing the non-dialectical categories borrowed from thinking about the parts in isolation from the whole.  Contemporary physicists, with few exceptions, have adopted a number of logically incoherent theories in the past few decades, of which eternal inflation is a prime example, because they have not thought through the epistemological and ontological consequences of the models they have developed.

But if we are to take seriously the demands of reason, namely that there is indeed one reality, a universe, an idea that has been the guiding thread of all  scientific and philosophical discovery up till now, then we must conclude that something has gone terribly wrong in the direction of modern physics in the past 30 years.  It seems that physics has become unmoored not only from empirical observation but also from logical coherency. 

And this is precisely the point that a number of dissident voices have begun to raise both within the community of theoretical physics as well as among philosophers who are concerned with fundamental problems of the natural sciences. One of the first of the dissidents was Lee Smolin, who in his 2007 book, The Trouble With Physics, first raised the alarm about the tendency of physicists to ignore fundamental questions of philosophy.  He noted that all the great pioneers of the revolution in physics of the earlier years of the 20th century, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Planck, were concerned with fundamental philosophical questions and looked to philosophers like Leibniz for insights.  By way of contrast, most of the physicists of the last 50 years have been concerned less with speculation about fundamental laws and concepts than with the resolution of practical problems.  While he grants that both tendencies have made contributions to physics, he thinks that the pendulum has swung too far away from concern with philosophical issues and his book can be viewed as a call to arms for his fellow physicists to return to the concerns that motivated Einstein and the other pioneers of the earlier part of the 20th century. He argued that the near total exclusion of philosophical concerns from theoretical physics has led to a dead end whereby theories are brought forth strictly as a result of their mathematical coherence with no concern for their conceptual or empirical validity.  The result has been in his view the kind of absurdities that Kant exorcised in his Antinomies of Pure Reason. And nowhere are those absurdities more apparent than in the branch of theoretical physics that deals with the universe as a whole, cosmology. 

Lee Smolin, a critic of the turn away from philosophical considerations by physicists
Still another voice raised in opposition to the prevailing views among physicists as well as philosophers of science has been Thomas Nagel’s 2014 book, Mind and Cosmos.  Nagel approached these problems as a philosopher rather than a physicist.  And his focus was not cosmology, but the overall question of how the contemporary philosophy of scientific naturalism conceives of consciousness. He is led to speculate that there is a fundamental inadequacy in the way our current scientific materialist outlook conceives of reality.   His indictment of the near sighted dogma of his fellow philosophers recalls Smolin’s indictment of his fellow physicists. In both cases, there is a recognition of a basic epistemological crisis that hampers further progress.

And just this month, an essay appeared in the online periodical Aeon that once more questions the viability of the paradigm of eternal inflation and suggests that the failure to illuminate speculation about cosmology with the insights gained through the history of philosophy leaves scientists prey to the very same kind of antinomies described by Kant.  The article, In the Beginning, written by Ross Andersen, quotes the dissident physicist Paul Steinhardt, who was one of the pioneers of eternal inflation theory and is today one of its chief critics.

‘The last 30 years is a very unusual period in the history of fundamental physics and cosmology … There’s confusion, and maybe even a certain amount of fear. People are wedded to these ideas, because they grew up with them. Scientists don’t like to change ideas unless they’re forced to. They get involved with a theory. They get emotionally attached to it. When an idea is looking shaky, they go into defensive mode. If you’re working on something besides inflation, you find yourself outside the social network, and you don’t get many citations. Only a few brave souls are willing to risk that.’ [4]

When asked what should be done about this state of affairs, Steinhardt replies,

‘I wish the philosophers would get involved.’

Paul Steinhardt, critic of inflation theory

And this indeed is the issue.  Yet there is a rich tradition in the history of philosophy that offers the kind of conceptual tools contemporary cosmology requires to overcome the paradoxes into which it has become enmeshed.  That tradition is the one identified with philosophers such as Heraclitus, Leibniz, Hegel.  It is the tradition of the dialectical philosophy of nature that was championed by Frederick Engels. It is this tradition that provides the only consistent account of motion and change and provides the necessary corrective to the illusion of an eternal, static and timeless reality first championed by Plato. And in recent years a number of contemporary scientists and philosophers who are reflecting about the Universe as a Whole have turned to that tradition, if not always consciously and deliberately. We will have more to say on this topic on another occasion, but for now we wish to encourage some thinking on these issues. For that reason we are publishing a few excerpts from the recent essay In the Beginning and encouraging readers to follow the link to the entire essay.

[1] The Accidental Universe: Science’s crisis of faith By Alan Lightman, Harpers, December, 2011. 
[2] The sole piece of evidence adduced for it so far is the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down as previously thought. 
[3] Stephen Toulmin, The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature, University of California Press, 1982.  Page 1,2.


In the Beginning

Cosmology has been on a long, hot streak, racking up one imaginative and scientific triumph after another. Is it over?

One crisp day last March, Harvard professor John Kovac walked out of his office and into a taxicab that whisked him across town, to a building on the edge of the MIT campus. People were paying attention to Kovac’s comings and goings that week. He was the subject of a fast-spreading rumor. Kovac is an experimental cosmologist midway through the prime of a charmed career. He did his doctoral work at the University of Chicago and a postdoc at Caltech before landing a professorship at Harvard. He is a blue chip. And since 2009, he has been principal investigator of BICEP2, an ingenious scientific experiment at the South Pole.
Kovac had come to MIT to visit Alan Guth, a world-renowned theoretical cosmologist, who made his name more than 30 years ago when he devised the theory of inflation. Guth told Kovac to take the back steps up to his office, to avoid being seen. If Guth’s colleagues caught a glimpse of the two men talking, the whispers swirling around Kovac would have swelled to a roar.
The science of cosmology has achieved wonders in recent centuries. It has enlarged the world we can see and think about by ontological orders of magnitude. Cosmology wrenched the Earth from the centre of the Universe, and heaved it, like a discus, into its whirling orbit around one unremarkable star among the billions that speed around the black-hole centre of our galaxy, a galaxy that floats in deep space with billions of others, all of them colliding and combining, before they fly apart from each other for all eternity. Art, literature, religion and philosophy ignore cosmology at their peril.
But cosmology’s hot streak has stalled. Cosmologists have looked deep into time, almost all the way back to the Big Bang itself, but they don’t know what came before it. They don’t know whether the Big Bang was the beginning, or merely one of many beginnings. Something entirely unimaginable might have preceded it. Cosmologists don’t know if the world we see around us is spatially infinite, or if there are other kinds of worlds beyond our horizon, or in other dimensions. And then the big mystery, the one that keeps the priests and the physicists up at night: no cosmologist has a clue why there is something rather than nothing.
To solve these mysteries, cosmologists must make guesses about events that are absurdly remote from us. Guth’s theory of inflation is one such guess. It tells us that our Universe expanded, exponentially, a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. In most models of this process, inflation’s expansive kick is eternal. It might cease in particular parts of the cosmos, as it did in our region, after only a fraction of a second, when inflation’s energy transformed into ordinary matter and radiation, which time would sculpt into galaxies. But somewhere outside our region, inflation continued, generating an infinite number of new regions, including those that are roaring into existence at this very moment.

Not all these regions are alike. Quantum mechanics puts a slot-machine spin on the cosmic conditions of every region, so that each has its own physical peculiarities. Some contain galaxies, stars, planets, and maybe even people. Others are entirely devoid of complex structures. Many are too alien to imagine. The slice of space and time we can see from Earth is 90 billion light years across. Today’s inflationary models tell us that this enormous expanse is only one small section of one tiny bubble that floats along in a frothy sea whose proportions defy comprehension. This vision of the world is wondrous, in its vastness and variety, in the sheer range of possibilities it suggests to the mind. But could it ever be proved?
John Kovac had come to MIT to deliver good news. In 2009, Kovac and colleagues installed a telescope at the bottom of the Earth, and with it caught some of the oldest light in the Universe. He’d come to tell Guth that this light bore scars from time’s violent beginning, scars that strongly suggested the theory of inflation is true.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

50 Years of Austerity

"--Should I pay the rent and not pay  the electricity, or should I pay the loan and not eat?

-Jack, what are you doing?
-I'm negotiating."

by Frank Brenner

In popular consciousness capitalism is reality and socialism is utopia. Or, to put this another way, inertia always works in favor of preserving the system as it is and resists radical change. But in a crisis, some truths like this get overturned. And nowhere on the planet is capitalism more in crisis than in Greece.

Just this week Greece didn't make a scheduled debt payment to the International Monetary Fund, and now the countdown is on to the end of the month, when Greece may well officially go into default on its debts. If this happens, the country will likely have to exit the Eurozone, setting off a chain reaction which could wreak havoc not just on Greece but on Europe as a whole. The euro as a currency could quickly unravel and other countries in economic trouble – Spain, Italy, Ireland, Portugal, possibly even France – could be pushed over the brink.

The left reformist government of Syriza, elected on an anti-austerity platform in January, assumed the European elites would be willing to give Greece some debt relief to avoid this catastrophe scenario playing out. It wasn't an unreasonable assumption, but these aren't reasonable times. To which one should add: Syriza would never have been elected in the first place if these were reasonable times.

As a number of commentators (Tariq Ali, for example) have pointed out, what passes for the political mainstream in Western countries has now become the 'extreme center', so that what looks like politics as usual has become radically reactionary. The position of the German government on Greece is extreme center politics in operation. Because of its intransigence – not seen from Germany since the Nazi era – the EU has refused to budge, even to the extent of granting Greece a few token concessions. This hard line has set off alarm bells internationally, with the US Treasury Secretary warning about the destructive potential of a European “accident” and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman talking about “that 1914 feeling”, drawing a parallel between the current crisis and how Europe 'sleepwalked' its way into the First World War.

But the plain truth is that whatever happens on June 30 – default or some patched up deal at the last minute – Greece will still be in a shithole. The country's debt is 180 percent of its GDP. That is a staggering number, far beyond the realm of the reasonable. You could think of it this way: if everyone in Greece worked for nearly two years but CONSUMED NOTHING, that would repay the debt. Of course they'd all be dead because they couldn't buy any food. It's almost as if we're in Alice in Wonderland territory, except the story line is much starker and far less entertaining.

Of course that isn't quite what the European elites are demanding of Greece. No, all they want the Greek government to do is generate a 2% or 3% annual surplus for the foreseeable future, with that surplus being skimmed off to repay the banks. Which sounds reasonable, except it would be the kind of reason only Alice's Queen of Hearts would appreciate.

It means the government will be stripped of all its disposable income: it will have nothing to reinvest in a country that has already endured a depression for six years and where official unemployment sits at 25%. It will mean, in other words, ongoing austerity for the foreseeable future. How long is that future? Here is an answer from a recent comment by the BBC's economics editor Robert Peston: “It would take around half a century for Greek public sector debt to fall to a level regarded as sustainable.” Then Peston adds: “A half century of austerity? In what modern democracy would that be regarded as a realistic option?”

It is wildly – brutally - unrealistic but it is also the ONLY OPTION ON THE TABLE. Which brings me back to my initial point. The idea that Greece can continue to be BOTH a capitalist country and a “modern democracy” has long since become an exercise in wishful thinking.

Now wishful thinking isn't always bad. The wishful thinking of the left can play a powerful role in arousing the political consciousness of the oppressed and sustaining their hope for freedom. But wishful thinking can also be delusional – being in denial while on the brink of falling off a cliff. This is the kind of wishful thinking that afflicts the major political parties in Greece – including the governing Syriza. The only exception is the fascist Golden Dawn, whose position amounts to this: if capitalism and democracy cannot both be sustained, so much the worse for democracy.

For anyone in Greece who isn't a fascist the only REALISTIC way out of this crisis is socialism. Revolutions aren't magic: a government committed to socialist policies wouldn't make everything better overnight. Nor do revolutions come with crystal balls, but this much can be said with scientific precision: socialism would NOT condemn Greeks to fifty years of blood, sweat and tears. The socialist program amounts to this: less pain, much more gain. That can be a powerful message in a desperate situation.