The Worst Crisis…

A couple of days ago, the UN released a report saying the COVID19 crisis is the worst crisis the world has faced since World War II. Of course, that depends on what we mean by crisis and who is impacted by it. We often measure global impact and influence of an event by who it affects.

For example, everyone will agree that 9-11 changed the world for ever. The mainland of the US was attacked by a foreign belligerent for the first time ever and its aftermath has seen a never ending war in the Middle East, a permanent surveillance infrastructure and trillions of dollars in expenses. The death toll that day was about 3000.

Not to discount the horror of attacks, but let's contrast 9-11 with the second civil war in the Congo that killed about six million people between 1998 and 2003. Further, Wikipedia says that "despite a formal end to the war in July 2003 and an agreement by the former belligerents to create a government of national unity, 1,000 people died daily in 2004 from easily preventable cases of malnutrition and disease."

Chances are that six million people aren't going to die of the COVID19 crisis so we will have to look elsewhere to gauge its influence. The cynical response is that the COVID19 crisis is the first post WWII crisis that's impacted the first world. Italy and Spain are close to collapse. New York might be close to collapsing. Other parts of Europe and North America aren't doing that well.

That's surely one part of the story but it's not just only about what's happening to rich people. Everyday life has been disrupted elsewhere too. India has been in lock down for a week. We still have another two weeks to go at the very least. There are plenty of people living at the edge of destitution, not knowing where their next meal is coming from. The lock down is imposing enormous hardships on poor people, especially migrant laborers who have to leave their urban homes while losing their already meager means of livelihood. And when the make the long trek home, they are often treated like:

People being hosed down with chemicals. It's a shocking image. And yet, the government defends its actions by saying this was the only way to maintain public safety – how else will they prevent the migrants from spreading the disease in their villages? Many Indians agree with the government's actions. The Corona virus has strengthened the state's hand. Its capacity – and moral legitimacy – to intrude in our lives has greatly expanded. How will that increased authority manifest over the coming months and years?

Then there's the impact on our food systems. The coming harvest is being delayed and farmers are dumping their produce. There will be enormous suffering if they can't bring their crops to the market – both to the farmers themselves who lose their only source of income and consumers who will likely see food price inflation or worse, severe food shortages. How are we going to avoid mass starvation? Alternately, will this crisis help reverse the marketization of agriculture? Will we be more willing to adopt local economies of food?

The crisis has also triggered a major economic downturn worldwide, arguably a recession worse than the 2008 one. Who knows what the next year brings? Whatever else the COVID19 crisis might be, it's exposed the underbelly of the global economy. Climate change campaigners have been shouting for years that the global capitalist system creates instabilities for the planetary system as a whole but those arguments have sounded abstract until this year. No too long ago, Branko Milanovic was able to argue convincingly that capitalism remains unchallenged and supreme. Now more people will be willing to listen to alternatives to the entire system, not just one piece of it.

New Imaginations

In short, the crisis is throwing up any number of dystopian as well as utopian possibilities. While we can sit in judgment on any number of those, can we adopt a speculative rather than analytic perspective? Can we look for openings rather than closings? Since we are all stuck at home with remote work and online learning being the future, I asked myself if it was possible to explore new possibilities online – bring COVID and video conferencing together to create Covideos. The idea being:

  1. How to use online spaces for witnessing rather than agenda setting?
  2. How to grasp pathways that weren’t acceptable (or even imaginable) before?
  3. How to bear witness to the possibility (fact?) that the crisis reveals an interconnected and cascading series of failures across the entire earth system, from climate change to pandemics to factory farming etc.
  4. How to use freely available tools as aids for speculation and imagination? Which is to say, wow to use video conferencing tools such as Zoom to share ideas with friends across the globe. How to use conceptual drawing tools such as Sketchup to imagine new worlds?
  5. How to do all of this in the spirit of 'offering' rather than 'solving?'

All constrained by the fact that free Zoom gives you forty minutes of talk time. That's a hard constraint.

I am inspired by XKCD author Randall Munroe’s "What If.” In that spirit of crazy questioning can we play a month long game of 30 questions? The covideos we create over a month or more should be a tapestry of witnessing the outbreak, somewhat like this Reddit graffiti exercise. Here’s the flow:

  1. A prompt is circulated in advance so that each one of us can prepare for the next covideo.
  2. We convene online for the extent of a zoom call.
  3. First ten minutes of the call is about hanging out.
  4. Riff for 30 minutes or less and record while doing so.
  5. Rinse and repeat.
  6. Share the video.

It's a crazy hokey idea, but I got my friends Alok and Ram to go along with it. Here's our first covideo:

The Sketchup model is Alok's. It's stripped down representation of the event shocked me more than the real life video, for it reveals the essence of the decision to hose people down.

The Empire Strikes Back

Sketchup models are great because every view inspires a new reflection. Depending on how you frame the scene, it privileges one actor in the drama over another. Like this:

Or this

When I first saw Alok's model, it was in the second of the above two frames, and the policemen in hazmat suits struck me as being like Star Wars storm troopers. Both foot soldiers of the empire.

The empire gets a bad rap in my Jedi circles but remember that the majority supports it unless its shown to be incompetent or unnecessarily evil. In fact, the Empire sees itself as an instrument of progress. The suits are guarding a power line stretching to industrial heaven.

It's a pity the unwashed masses are an obstacle to fulfilling this glorious vision. They don't have the skills to produce the goods the system wants and they don't have the money to buy those goods produced by other imperial outposts. Either way, there's no chance they will be let into the gates of industrial heaven.

What if they resist being herded this way? What might that resistance look like? What if the policemen switch sides? Questions worth exploring…..


All’s Fair in War and Disease

Lost in the wilderness
Photographer: Stijn Swinnen | Source: Unsplash

A Germ of a Theory

There's nothing quite like a pandemic other than a war. I should say civil war, since diseases spread from neighbor to neighbor before the cross national borders. In what ways are war and pandemics similar?

  1. Identifiable adversary – there's a known enemy, whether a bug or a bomb.
  2. Existential threat – the enemy routinely demonstrates the capacity to kill you and your loved ones.
  3. Dramatic response from the state – governments adopt emergency powers in pandemics as well as in wars, telling people how to live their lives, what to eat and how and make decisions about whom to save and whom to abandon.

The similarity between these two situations is reflected in two-way metaphors: we fight wars on cancer and we want to wipe out the enemy, suggesting that the two form part of a larger system of understanding of existential threats. We don't use war metaphors with earthquakes – there's no war on tsunamis for the forces unleashed by seismic activity are well beyond human control for now.

As it turns out, I am not the only person making this comparison – earlier today, Trump invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 to intervene directly in the US economy, calling himself a wartime president to boot (and I swear I wrote most of this essay before learning about Trump's decision). Wartime presidency looks much better for his re-election chances than millions of people getting sick and tens of thousands dying because of a creaky healthcare system. Electioneering aside, what both war and pandemics share in the 21st century is the perception of an existential threat that:

  • offers the possibility of control and agency on our part and
  • often due to mistaken or malicious agency on our part

In both cases humans mobilize technologies and institutions to address a problem that threatens to veer out of control. While the mechanics of fighting a disease is nothing like the mechanics of fighting a war – we don't shoot bullets at germs – we can reason about the two situations in similar ways. That's because the analogy between war and disease is at the level of structure; there are common patterns that can be identified and become tools for thought.

Photographer: Natasha Connell | Source: Unsplash

I like to classify patterns in terms of frames and models. A (mental) frame is an overarching perspective that helps us grasp an entire domain of interest – such as 'people are inherently good.' It frames the big picture. In contrast, a (mental) model is a specific pattern that helps us reason about a more fine-grained context: 'friends help each other in times of need.' Of course, if my friends are more likely to take advantage of me when I am suffering, they aren't good, so the model supports the frame.

In the case of war and pandemics a frame that helps us grasp the essence of war and disease without denying the substantial differences between the two – is the contagion frame.

Coronavirus coverage as of 3/15/2020. Heatmap by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at John Hopkins University  - (IG: @clay.banks)
Photographer: Clay Banks | Source: Unsplash

The Contagion Frame

Mental models and frame are easy to grasp; all of us have the cognitive capacity to understand and use a mental model. Of course, that basic capacity can be greatly expanded by tools that refine the basic insight, just as there's a difference between number terms that are there in most languages and advanced calculus. But before we build those tools, we need to catalog the models and frames available to us.

The common sense behind contagion is that a small spark that could have been stamped out in retrospect – note the emphasis on 'could' – starts occupying territory and requires massive mobilization of institutional resources led by the state. In the process of doing so, the state and its citizens have to make tough moral choices about whom to protect.

The contagion frame has three major pieces, each one of which comes with a mental model that helps us reason about it:

  1. Spark – where did the conflagration start and why? Who was responsible for it? That spark could be an anarchist who shoots the archduke of the Hapsburg empire (which led to the first world war) or a virus that jumps from wild animals to humans. Mental Model: "Tinderbox." 🎇
  2. Spread – how does the conflagration occupy new territory? What does it take to get rid of the occupier? It could be airborne germs from an infected person's sneeze or a poisonous slogan that spreads from one rioter to the next. Mental Model: "Arms Length." 📏
  3. Suffer – who is more likely to be a victim of the spreading disease or armed violence? Do we have equal obligations towards everyone or do some people have more moral weight than others? For example: if you had to deliver life-saving drugs to one person in a pandemic, would you give them to a doctor or to a mother of young children? Mental Model: "Scale of Justice" ⚖️

These are questions and intuitions that arise in all situations that fall within the contagion frame. Why did Hitler invade the Soviet Union? Why did he sign a treaty with Stalin just before doing so? Where and how did the COVID19 virus jump from animals to humans? Switzerland tried to protect itself from the second world war by calling itself a neutral state. Worked for them, but only because they made deals with the Nazis. We can try preventing a pandemic by stopping all flights. Chances are it's too late and then we have to decide as the health system collapses around us: who is worth treating and who isn't?

We can make these life and death decisions on instinct or leave them to experts whose instincts are (presumably) backed by data. A third way is through the judicious use of frames and models – which is my preference since it's the only solution that can scale to a population as a whole.

Dependent Arising

Mental models aren't theories – they help us grasp a complex phenomenon, but are equally in danger of being misused. To use a Buddhist mode of explanation, mental models

  • are contingent upon the world they seek to simplify and
  • we have to be watchful of the causes and conditions in which they arise.

Consider the tinderbox model for how pandemics and forest fires start: yes, it's true that the virus jumped from a wild animal to a human and that bush fires in Australia start because lightning struck a dry patch. Understanding those factual circumstances is always useful, but can hide a deeper truth: why are human beings in constant contact with wild animals and why is the climate changing so that forests are dry and waiting to burn?

In both cases, the ultimate underlying cause is anthropogenic: deforestation, constant human encroachment and the capitalization of wildlife leads to wild animal markets in which viruses find an opportunity to jump hosts. It's because of carbon emissions, climate change and indiscriminate water use that droughts become longer and forests become dryer. In other words, it's because we have forgotten the dependent arising of human societies with respect to the rest of the nonhuman world that we are faced with the dependent arising of particular pandemics or forest fires.

Behind every phenomenon is a condition that makes that phenomenon possible.

For the same reason, we have to dig deeper into the call for social distancing. The further we stand from others, the less likely they will infect us; while taking a brisk walk today, I found myself stepping off the sidewalk several times in order to pass other pedestrians instead of brushing past them as I would normally do. But that's because I have the flexibility and the autonomy to distance myself from others and work remotely if I so desire. There are plenty of people who don't have that liberty or autonomy.

By Kounosu – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Consider the inhabitants of Dharavi, 700,000 of whom occupy 2.1 square kilometers of space, i.e., 3 square meters/person. Or put another way, if every inhabitant of Dharavi had a rigid circle of radius 1 meter (~ 3.2 feet) around them, they would collectively run out of space in the slum to park themselves. Which means the average distance between people in Dharavi is half the recommended social distancing protocol (CDC says ~ 6 feet).

This is the figure for the entire slum! Where can a Dharavi resident go to increase social distance? What's true of Dharavi is true of many (most?) poor Indians in one way or the other: if you're a driver, a maid or a construction worker, your livelihood depends on being close to other people, usually people who have power over your life. And not just poor people – the gendered hierarchy of India means that women have less autonomy and spatial freedom than men and they are more likely to be in enclosed spaces with other people.

Moral of the story: social distancing won't work for poor and vulnerable people in India and elsewhere. Chances are that if a few people in Dharavi get infected, it will spread very quickly to everyone else. I don't see any way to avoid that situation. We have to create health systems catering to a very different demographic than the recommendations coming from the CDC in the United States.

Photographer: Nagy Arnold | Source: Unsplash

Planetary Failure

I started this essay by comparing war with disease, an analogy that's been stolen by the occupant of the White House. While I will never make money patenting that idea, the similarity between the two shows they are both types of system failure that follow the contagion frame of spark-spread-suffer.

The ongoing pandemic is an example of a planetary failure, i.e., the simultaneous failure of social and technical systems across the world. It's the new normal. Just this past year alone we have had worries about climate change induced fires and floods in both hemispheres, now we have a pandemic and of course, we have the ongoing tacit/explicit collaboration between authoritarian regimes across the world.

What's interesting is how the normalization of planetary failure also makes it less apocalyptic. It's no longer something that can be ignored either out of fear or out of neglect. The new reality needs new imaginations of life on earth and new models for how we will respond to situations halfway across the globe.

Much social imagination is circumscribed by the nation state – which itself is an accomplishment of another era; otherwise why should I, sitting in Bangalore, care about events in Bhopal? Information flows within national boundaries are taken seriously, included within everyday political discussion in tea-shops and Whatsapp groups. In contrast, international information flow is primarily left to technocrats and market analysts.

That situation is changing as a result of the Corona Virus outbreak and will continue with any number of other events whose impact crosses national (or even species) boundaries. I believe that good frames and models can help us grasp planetary complexity but at the same time, they have to be used with caution.


The Bug is a Feature

The fish avatara of Vishnu saves Manu during the great deluge

We are in global lockdown. It’s a human first – people across the planet staying home or curtailing work for the same reason. That’s just a few months after humans and wildlife across Australia, the Amazon and the western United States lost homes and lives due to fires. One month we are forced to stay home and the next month forced to to flee. When nature knocks, you never know what you have to do.

But this isn’t pure nature; neither the fires nor the pandemic happen in the absence of complex human systems that lashes every species together on this planet. If it’s not climate change or the collapse of bee populations, it’s the flu – tomorrow’s disaster will be different from today’s. And yet, we are high on the illusion of control.

Pardon my pun: the bug is a feature.

Complex systems fail in mysterious ways. Human beings – I know, not all humans – have cheapened nature, turned it into widgets sold as the fulfillment of our desires while making money for a chosen few. Looks like nature is striking back. A hundred plus years ago, unions arose as humans banded together to demand a better deal from capital. While they succeeded somewhat – hello five day workweek, hello collective bargaining – capital has only grown and grown since. This time, the protests will be led by a wilder menagerie. From microbes to mountains, the non-human world is striking against human-made systems. We have no clue how to respond. Put another way:

The single biggest challenge of the 21st century is planetary governance, of creating systems that help human and nonhuman beings flourish everywhere on earth.

I have written about planetary governance on other occasions – here and here for example – but it’s been sporadic so far. The challenge requires consistent concern even to understand what we are facing let alone respond with wisdom. Being a nerd, my way of expressing concern is to read books in order to read the world. Here are some books I want to read:

and of course:

And not just them – there will be others shining a light further down the road. It’s a deliberately eclectic list of compelling visions. They don’t have a monopoly on the truth but I will be thinking with them and thinking through them. What’s not in the list: the usual suspects talking about the end of nature or the climate emergency. Everyone knows what they are saying.

Goal: write an essay one or two times a week connecting the reading of these books to a reading of the world hoping the weekly meditation will clarify the question of planetary governance.

The Snake Sacrifice

Week One: Infecting India

The WHO declared a few hours ago that the COVID 19 infection is officially a pandemic. Every pandemic lives in the shadow of the Spanish Flu towards the end of the first world war. That was quite the terror – killing between fifty and a hundred million people worldwide, more than the war itself, the bloodiest affair in human history until then.

There’s a lot to be learnt from that sorry episode. For one, it’s called the Spanish Flu not because the disease originated in Spain, but because Spain was neutral in the first world war and therefore didn’t censor news about the disease. In contrast

President Woodrow Wilson was so focused on winning World War I that he would not listen to repeated warnings about the pandemic from the chiefs of the Army and Navy, or even from his own personal physician. The U.S. ended up losing 675,000 lives to influenza, compared with 53,000 killed in combat in World War I.

However, like much else, the impact of the disease was greatest in poorer countries, especially ones that couldn’t control their destiny. The country that suffered the most was (British) India, where estimates of mortalities run from ~ 14 million to ~20 million. There are doubts about the higher end of the estimate, but even at the lower end the Spanish Flu killed about 5% of the Indian population a century ago.


I have been hearing since high school that the first world war was a turning point in the Indian freedom struggle, that soldiers returning from the killing fields of Europe wanted a nation of their own and when that demand was refused the mass independence struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi went from strength to strength. It’s not as if we don’t remember other incidents from that period: everyone has heard about the massacre in Jallianwala Bagh on 13th April 1919 and how that shook the legitimacy of the empire. I bet more Indians died of the Spanish Flu that day and every day for a few months before and after. We have also heard in more recent years about the famines that accompanied colonial rule, ending with the Bengal famine during the second world war.

In contrast, the Spanish Flu isn’t taught in school history, it isn’t part of our collective consciousness of colonial rule and its deep impact on Indian demography is mostly unknown. The brutality of colonial rule, its impoverishment of the Indian countryside, its racial and cultural hierarchies have all been assimilated into the folklore of independent India, but the pandemic that killed one in twenty Indians is not mentioned at all. I find that surprising. Not only did the Flu kill by the millions, it struck able bodied adults as much as the old and the young, which means it must have caused immense economic damage too. Chances are if I dig into my family history, there will be a death or two in it. Yet there’s no public memory whatsoever.

I had no reason to think about the Spanish flu and its impact on India until two years ago, when the hundredth anniversary of the pandemic brought a flurry of media attention. Among the many pieces written then was this one by Laura Spinney in the Caravan. Spinney says in her article

When the second wave of the flu arrived in Bombay in September 1918, almost certainly with an infected troopship returning from Europe, the data revealed a big spike in mortality in the Bombay Presidency.

Jallianwala Bagh happened a few months after the most brutal phase of the Spanish Flu. Surely the spread of the disease must have stressed a British administration dealing with hundreds of thousands of returning soldiers who were asking for freedom and infecting the population. Was there a relation between the outbreak of disease and the intensification of authoritarian impulses in the colonial regime?

Spinney wrote a book on the Spanish Flu where she says

The flu resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death. It influenced the course of the First World War and, arguably, contributed to the Second. It pushed India closer to independence, South Africa closer to apartheid, and Switzerland to the brink of civil war.

Interesting. The modern world was made by epidemics, starting with the Colombian Exchange. Jung wrote about the “collective unconscious;”perhaps it’s time to write about the viral unconscious – a deep link between bugs, guts, brain and society that shapes our views over time and space. Should be part of any exploration of the nonhuman background of the human world shouldn’t it?

Let’s place a bookmark there and get back to India and influenza.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the Spanish Flu informed how British authorities approached colonial governance. Epidemics were a known spur for draconian behavior: as it so turns out, just yesterday Karnataka invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, a British law created to address the plague of 1896. The British invoked the full force of the state to respond to epidemics, both to show they were on top of things and to strengthen their authority over the Indian population. China is doing the same thing today. Spinney sayeth:

As for the Indians on the receiving end of these measures, they came to see hospitals as ‘places of torture and places intended to provide material for experiments’. Indeed, in 1897, the head of the Pune Plague Committee, Walter Charles Rand, was murdered by three local brothers, the Chapekars, who were hanged for their crime

What’s it about natural disasters that provokes political violence? What does that mean for our future? India is going through an authoritarian phase right now: will the fear of a pandemic be used as an excuse to tighten the screws on the populace? Will it work?

We can’t answer these questions today but what we can say for sure is that the “real” epidemic is being accompanied by a virtual epidemic of fake news. Social media, especially YouTube and Whatsapp are playing an immensely harmful role in driving paranoid ideas about the Corona virus into the public sphere. The paranoid public sphere was in full display a week ago during the Delhi riots incited by ‘viral’ messages about Muslims. The COVID 19 outbreak is acting as a positive feedback loop for that paranoid outlook, which is in danger of becoming a generalized worldview.

No surprise there: the connection between disease metaphors and authoritarian politics is deep and what better when the two are juxtaposed in the real world?

I will turn to the deep and troubling relationship between virality in the real world and virality in the virtual world in my next essay.


The Demented Style of Politics

Photographer: TETrebbien | Source: Unsplash


The creepiest man I ever met was a CIA officer turned academic scholar of terrorism. We sat across a table on a couple of occasions in the early 2000s; even his presence in the room was disturbing and every time he spoke, I felt a shiver passing down my spine.

It's not as if he was saying the most evil things; in fact, some of what he said was factual and much of the rest was reasonable, if on the conservative end of the spectrum. It's just the way he expressed his opinions – no scratch that – it was the way he carried himself in the world that was the problem. Like everyone and everything was suspect and it was his job to wring the truth out of the world. Quite different from a regular thug or a mafioso – there was no bullying – just a presumption that very bad things exist and it was his job to be worse in response.

I can still picture his way of smiling at the stupidity of others; it was a dementor’s sneer. The dementor is the bad guy on the good side – please don't ask me to define who is good and who isn't; that's beyond this essay's pay grade. But however you define it, and "good" is felt viscerally rather than intellectually, there's often a person or an institution whose job is to be bad in the service of that good.

What was once the province of the secret police has now become a standard function in our social network driven world – every Whatsapp group has its own dementor, a man (it’s always a man) who takes upon himself to channel the dark side.

Why do such dementors exist? Why are they (sometimes) celebrated?

My friend was very ill, he called me and said: it’s enough to sit and do nothing, let’s do something at least. The main motivator was my friend, who saw in me the potential that I do not use. He was forbidden to go out into the cold, but he took the all  medicines in his fist, drank and said: Photography is more important than illness!
Photographer: Elijah O'Donnell | Source: Unsplash

Public Emotions

First, a digression on knowledge, power and emotion.

Starting with the work of Foucault, social science scholarship focused on the intimate relationship between knowledge and power in the modern world – my favorite in the genre is Ian Hacking’s Taming of Chance. Their argument was that modern societies gain legitimacy by exercising control over the processes of life (what Foucault calls biopower) through the collection of a certain kind of knowledge and the creation of new categories such as “population.”

For example, birth and death statistics are collected so that policies targeting population averages (public health policies for example) can be used to legitimize state power. Today’s breathless reporting about the Corona virus is a classic example of biopower and the Chinese state’s success & failure in exerting it. In other words the exercise of power demands certain knowledge regimes.

What’s happened in the last three decades is both an evolutionary growth of knowledge as power and a dramatic transition in its exercise. It’s no longer knowledge that’s being collected and categorized – it’s emotion as well. The technologies of surveillance can now directly access our limbic brain and don’t need to stop with rational categories such as population averages and GDP. Knowledge is often replaced by emotion because the technologies of control, surveillance etc have become more fine grained. The circling of information and emotion is subtler than the knowledge regimes of the past and can no longer be understood within what Foucault termed as “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations.”

In short: emotion is more important than knowledge and populations are no longer the unit of control.

For example: while I (try to) make the entire Hindu population fearful of Muslims, I can also use Whatsapp messages that target this particular village to lynch that particular Muslim. That combination of emotion, information and chaotic control is rather new and it's spawning a demented style of politics.

Photographer: William Krause | Source: Unsplash

What's the need for Dementors? Do they have a legitimate place in the world?

Of course I understand the strategic reason for having dementors on your side – the logic of every arms race forces all sides to acquire as big a weapon as possible, and dementors are powerful weapons. I get that. But are there are other reasons? Perhaps even more important ones?

For example: do dementors bring insights into the world that would otherwise not be available using "good" methods alone?

These arguments have several analogs. Let me recount two – one more innocent than the other:

  1. Do critics perform an important function? Consider the poisonous reviewer who routinely makes directors quit their profession and become insurance salesmen. Is that person really necessary? What good comes into the world as a result? One obvious answer: sharp criticism raises the level of the art as a whole, and since that world is rife with subjective insider assessments, it's not a bad thing when someone raises a stink (assuming it's a fair stink). The world doesn't need any more bad movies than it already has.
  2. Is torture ever justified? Let's say you catch a man who has smuggled a nuclear bomb into your country and has the key to turning it off but isn't divulging the key upon ordinary questioning. Is it OK to extract the information via torture?
    Most people – or so I suspect – will be fine with extracting the information via torture. But people under torture say anything to stop the pain – truth isn't their main concern. You really don't want the man telling you a falsehood that has you chasing the wrong corner of the city when the cloud goes up in the air. In any case, that information might be even more forthcoming if you drugged the man with a mind-loosener, so to speak. Torture as an instrument of knowledge strikes me as inherently flawed.

Nevertheless, from just war theory to pre-emptive strikes, there's a sense that not only is violence justified under certain circumstances, it is both prudent and ethical to invest in the means to conduct such violence. Iron fist within the velvet glove and all that.

My take: while the existence of bad people arguably justifies generals, it doesn't justify dementors. What's the point in a moral community having people who view their own community with suspicion, even malevolence? People who will reliably and routinely harm innocent citizens because they don't care who they hurt.

And yet, dementors are all too common. Sometimes the person at the very top is themselves a dementor but more likely than not, the dementor is an employee rather than a boss. My suspicion is that every large organization – whether country, company or political party – has a known dementor on its payroll; in some organizations, even a mid-level boss has their own dementor. Drug cartels come to mind. Every Don needs a Luca Brasi, if you know the reference; that person is usually the boss' man and travels (or dies) with the chief.

Secret police, assassins, enforcers – the list of dementors is long. I can think of only one reason why they need to exist: the world is a genuinely bad place, or at least parts of it are.

There's been an explosion of literature on the authoritarian mind of late. Not surprising, given the recent successes of authoritarian politics. Everybody agrees that authoritarians both cultivate a climate of fear and use that climate to amass power. But what are the origins of fear and suspicion – and especially – what if there's existential grounding to those feelings?

Anxiety, paranoia, hate and other negative emotions are standard in all social networks. There's money to be made with those emotions and elections to be won. Plus, it's not only right wing nuts who use negative emotions as a lever: climate catastrophe and the fear it inspires is a standard tool in the progressive toolkit. Dementorship is a respected social role in today's world. It's the dementor's job to detect and amplify fear and suspicion as an existential mood, which is another way of saying the dementor is the yang to the authoritarian's yin.

Paranoia is common and spreading. If the success of right wing politics throughout the world is any sign, the public in many countries has been successfully convinced that they are surrounded by clear and imminent dangers. It's likely they trust the dementors more than the visionaries of a better future. There's every reason to believe the demented style of politics will find more takers as our system lurches from depression to climate collapse. All the more reason to identify the emotional core of the dementor's view of the world and find an antidote. But first, it has to be understood seriously and objectively.


Political Thought(s)

1ZWI Poetry Jam is a Christian Spoken Word event! The name translates to One Voice! Thusly, it’s a gathering of poets with one objective - to be one voice! What voice right? The notion behind this movement is to model a youthful culture in Zimbabwe of poetry and spoken word! A young people whose actions are a mere manifest of the Word Of God! Thusly 1ZWI then becomes a community of young people that meet every fortnight at different locations in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Photographer: Trust "Tru" Katsande | Source: Unsplash

Three Models of Philosophy: Bureaucracy, Catalysis and Poetry

Much philosophy today is the bureaucracy of the mind; checking to see if scholars and laypeople are following the rules of reason, punishing them when they trespass the boundaries, cleaning up academic disciplines and making sure their concepts are well defined and deployed with the rigor appropriate to the discipline. Philosophy performs a policing function, regulating how concepts should be 'correctly' deployed in the sciences and the humanities.

Nothing wrong with being a babu, but kind of boring.

Then there's philosophy as catalysis, a model that goes all the way back to Socrates, who said he was the midwife of wisdom, i.e., not wise himself but capable of evoking wisdom in others through the process of Socratic inquiry. Collective catalysis is a particularly urgent need today to rid ourselves of mass superstitions and worse. I have much to say about philosophy as a catalyst for change but that's for another time and place.

Finally, let's come to philosophy as poetry.

Poetry is the crucible of language, drizzling new sensibilities into the river of words. Shakespeare alone is responsible for a substantial percentage of the English language, or what's more likely, he 'borrowed' those phrases from his forgotten contemporaries.

What poetry is to language, philosophy is to thought, a craft that brings new concepts and ways of thinking into the scholarly disciplines. That's the optimistic version; too many poets on the streets often attract the attention of the police, as we are finding in India today.

Don't get me wrong, there's reason to maintain law and order on the streets and in the classroom, but when the conditions of the world change, the regime's idea of order is felt by everyone else as oppression. That's when poets and philosophers should be ready to introduce new forms into the world.

Political Cognition

Sanjeev Yadav ,DiplomatTesterMan

I have been thinking these thoughts because conditions in India are changing faster than what anyone might have thought even a few months ago.

There's a widely told story about the shift: that the RSS and its right wing family never bought into the idea of India as a constitutional democracy for all people. Instead they want a Hindu nation in which all other communities live at the sufferance of their majoritarian masters.

The street has other ideas. Muslim women and men, students, activists and liberal Hindus are marching on the streets with the Indian flag in one hand and a copy of the constitution in the other. That solidarity gives us all hope.

Nevertheless, there's reason to believe that conditions have changed for good, that constitutional democracy may be in a state of crisis. We know that authoritarians aren't interested in securing everyone's flourishing, but is it possible that constitutional democracy is also in terminal decline? Last week, I wrote about three keystone crises: authoritarianism, climate change and extinction. Can constitutional democracy combined with neoliberal capitalism tackle any of these crises?

I am skeptical.

We need new political thoughts. We need new ecological thoughts. We need new planetary thoughts. For example:

  1. We need to rethink the concepts of identity that inform political life, citizenship being a prime example.
  2. Even more radically, we might have to rethink the concept of society itself.

Citizenship and Identity

Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

Let's start with the first claim. A famous question in political philosophy asks: what's a just society?

Liberal democracies used to feel they've figured out a reasonably good answer to that question; after the Soviet Union fell, everyone agreed that liberal capitalism offers a universal framework for a just society with some quirks differentiating the Indian version from the Australian version. We are still stuck being human and have to go through the cycle of birth and death, but while we are alive, it sure seems like a life in Sweden or New Zealand is a good life.

Once liberal democracy is entrenched, it's a self-correcting mechanism. Today's injustices are corrected by expanding the circle of justice, which is how – the story goes – slavery ended, women were given the franchise, gay marriage was legalized and perhaps one day, animals will also have rights. The claim is that a liberal society will constantly try to erase inequalities between its citizens, or at least keep them within acceptable boundaries. In its self-correcting and self-healing capacity, liberal democracy resembles nothing more than the practice of science, which too (slowly) rejects faulty hypotheses and embraces a larger, more general view of the universe.

Clean air, clean streets, two cars and a nice house: the material basis for this assertion are clear enough, but what's the theoretical basis for this confidence?

The philosopher John Rawls suggested an answer by conducting a famous thought experiment that he called the veil of ignorance. He said imagine a society in which everyone wears a veil preventing them from knowing their own conditions: they could be rich or poor, female or male, Dalit or Brahmin but they have no way of knowing their fate.

Suppose you're wearing the veil and are asked to distribute 100 rupees amongst the population where you have the choice of distributing some subset to Dalits and the rest to Brahmins.

How will you do it?

The obvious answer is: equal division amongst everyone, for while wearing the veil you don't know whether you're Dalit or Brahmin.

Rawls suggests that while we don't wear veils in the real world, we formulate laws and policies as if we are doing so. Such idealization is common in the sciences too – we imagine planets and atoms as perfectly round balls even though they aren’t in practice. Veiled thinking is a form of political cognition. It doesn't work all the time, but it's a useful posture while designing a political system. Just as Galileo invites us to imagine dropping a heavy iron ball and a feather in the vacuum and asks us: "do they fall at the same rate?", Rawls asks us to wear a veil while thinking political thoughts.

In the Rawlsian system, the society is in equilibrium, e.g., a nation with fixed boundaries, a well established political and legal system whose edicts are enforceable by the state. Equilibrium doesn't mean the society is static – it could be a highly dynamic society with new technologies coming into being all the time. Nevertheless, the assumption is that the political and social rules of the game are well established and accepted by everyone. The veil of ignorance helps model the just society in equilibrium as a closed system with perfect symmetry between its citizens.

The 'society in equilibrium' is one style of political thought. Are there others?

No real world system realizes the Rawlsian ideal, but the western liberal democracies have come closest to doing so. Increasingly, even in those societies, there's a widespread worry that the 'equilibrium society' is a poor assumption.

The first problem with equilibrium is that we can get stuck in a sub-optimal equilibrium before we arrive at the just equilibrium. Some entrenched divisions have proven harder to remove than the self-correcting character of liberal democracy might imply. The treatment of minorities and oppressed populations is a good example. The United States started with genocide and slavery and continues to treat its minority populations atrociously, suggesting that social institutions aren't able to implement principled changes (such as the veil of ignorance) as they might desire. Assuming they desire so.

It's all well and good when technology helps you replace your current computer with one twice as good every two years, but what happens when after ten years, the 32 times better computer can perform your job better than you? What happens when all the toxins from billions of thrown away computers start poisoning your water? What happens when the owners of computer companies use surveillance based on the data they collect to prevent you from agitating for equal treatment? Instead of constantly progressing towards a just equilibrium, the dynamics of the liberal system might lead to entrenched power structures that prevent further progress.

In fact, as the ongoing protests in India show, these entrenched power structures might try to redefine the idea of citizenship itself. In a liberal society, citizenship is an attribute of individuals, i.e., a direct relationship between the individual and the state, but illiberal societies might say that citizenship is defined by membership in a community, so that Muslims are lesser citizens than Hindus in India ( and the opposite in Pakistan). In other words, social changes can lead to disputes over features that were considered fixed i.e., in equilibrium.

Second, externalities to the system – i.e., processes that aren't accounted for in our imagination of the political system (or of society as a whole) – might become too large and disrupt the system as a whole. Carbon molecules weren't part of anyone's idea of justice, but here we are, climate change induced bushfires threatening the existence of one of the wealthiest societies on the planet.

Which brings me to the second point: even society might be too restricted a political category for the future. Once carbon molecules and flu viruses become constant presences in our political sphere, we need to account for them somewhere in our calculus. The idea of society doesn't have the resources to deal with these agencies knocking on our door.

What comes after society?


Terrestrial Science

Ocean clouds seen from space
Photographer: NASA | Source: Unsplash

Buddha before Theology

If you have read some of my other writing, you know that the Buddha fascinates me. I am not the first person to be so fascinated; after all, Buddhism was the first organized religion and until the mid-twentieth century, it was the world's largest religious tradition. That's almost two thousand years of spreading the Dharma in a mostly non-violent manner.

But it's not the Buddha as the Buddha who fascinates me as much as the Buddha as Siddhartha. The Buddha is the enlightened one who found the ANSWER. Siddhartha was the sensitive prince who left a comfortable life in search for answers. The Tathagatha worshipped by billions is cool, but not available in any creative sense. I mean, how can you draw inspiration from a semi-divinity? Like Jesus as Christ, it's possible to admire the son of god but it's harder to see how a human being could model her or his life on the one being who's both human and divine.

I am going to stick with the fully human pre-divinity instead. Looking at the afflictions of our age, I don't ask: what would the Buddha do. Instead, I ask: what would Siddhartha do? He was a clever guy, channeling the intellectual and spiritual currents of his time into a coherent view, and creating a social structure – the famous Sangha – that replicated his insights over generations.

Also, he wasn't a theist. He created a religion without belief in god. I got to say, the idea of a divine being separate from his creation doesn't appeal to me. In fact, the idea of a divine being doesn't appeal to me. Before we get all excited:

  1. That doesn't make me into an atheist. Atheism is structured around the refutation of the existence of divine beings, while I find divinity irrelevant to questions of religion. Strange, right?
  2. I am not an agnostic either, for an agnostic either ignores the question of divinity or is undecided about its merits.

What's left?

We can't stop asking ultimate questions, but we don't have to invoke a deity (or demolish one) in order to answer them. Isn't that what the Buddha did, charting a middle way between agreement and denial? If Siddhartha were to be born today, he would reject the pursuit of theology in both its religious and its scientific versions.

For much of the last two thousand years, theology was considered to be the first science, for the study of the divine being precedes the study of all his creations.

That was then.

Theology had a good run, first as religion and then its science (see below) but it has reached a creative dead end.

Why so? Read on….

Theological Science

All human societies are knowledge societies and our modern society is no different, but you have to be careful about how you count knowledge. Here's a common philosophical definition:

Knowledge is justified true belief.

Some beliefs are more justifiable than others. Open any science 1o1 book and it will tell you that the earth rotating around the sun is justifiable true belief while the sun going around the earth is not, even if it might have been the status quo for centuries. The Copernican shift from geocentrism to heliocentrism is considered to be the defining mark of the scientific revolution, with science replacing religion as the definitive source of knowledge.

I have a slightly different take: instead of marking the division between science and religion, the Copernican shift marks the division between Theological science and Theological religion.

Q: Isn't theology associated with religion by default? A: Yes, but I am playing with words, so humor me.

I am using 'theology' in a metaphysical manner, as a way of knowing ultimate and absolute truths. In this scheme, theological religion hypothesizes the divine as the ultimate basis of reality; theological science hypothesizes natural principles as the ultimate basis of reality. In other words, theology places itself at the roots of the tree of knowledge – god in religion, fundamental principles in science – and says everything else is an outgrowth of what's at the bottom.

But there are trees and there are trees. What if the tree of knowledge is a Banyan tree?

In contrast, there's everyday religion where a community might worship local deities and spirits without attributing any ultimate significance to those deities and spirits. Similarly, in everyday science I might investigate the medicinal value of a local herb without attributing ultimate significance to that herb.

Historically, Euclid's Elements is the archetype of theological science, since it develops geometry from a few self-evident principles. Never mind that one of those principles turns out to be not-so-evident, leading to the explosion of non-Euclidean geometries, and a theological style of writing that was copied by Newton in his Principia, Spinoza in his Ethics and even leaves its traces in the American Declaration of Independence which starts with "We hold these truths to be self-evident," about as Euclidean a framing as one might imagine.

Aside for another occasion: What is self-evidence?

In the modern era, physics is the theological science par excellence and the Copernican revolution followed by Kepler, Galileo and Newton firmly established the science of mechanics as the theological science of ultimate reality – the physicist's dream being the complete "theory of everything" that explains all natural phenomena as being the outcome of a few physical principles.

Lake Tekapo in New Zealand is one of the best places on Earth to see the night sky. Boy where we in for a surprise, with no clouds and sub-zero temperatures, the milky way just seemed to pop like I have never seen it before.
Photographer: Graham Holtshausen | Source: Unsplash

Theological religion is a faded carpet. Yes, there still are people writing books about the divine nature of reality but to a substantial extent, theological religion has lost its hold upon our sense of the ultimate. Especially among the elites who have always dominated theological activity, whether in science or in religion.

I wouldn't weep too much – theological religion had a long run; several thousand years in several civilizations. Not too shabby. What happened with religion is now happening with science. In my view, theological science is entering a period of terminal decline. Some signs of why the dark ages are imminent:

  • if the physicists arrive at a string-theoretic theory of everything the quest will end – no more work left to be done.
  • if the current debacle of "fundamental physics" continues the field will lose interest and funding.

Meanwhile, a terrestrial science is emerging as an alternate articulation of our deepest knowledge needs. Its conception of knowledge isn't justified true belief.

Brown and green fields
Photographer: elizabeth lies | Source: Unsplash

Terrestrial Science

Very few of us practice theological science or theological religion. They have always been a specialized fields of expertise. If you take theological investigation as your model of knowledge seeking, you will condemn most human activity as being inferior, or in Rutherford's infamous words "all science is either physics or stamp collecting."

By way of comparison, almost everyone practices everyday science, seeking answers to questions that range from "how do I make money by playing the stock market" to "what do I need to do lower my plastic consumption." These are practical questions with practical answers that can make you rich one day and ruin your retirement the next.

Until recently, these practices of everyday science were local: the herb that cures fevers in my village isn't the same as the root that cures fevers in yours. What's happened over the last two hundred years is the integration of these local practices into a global system of knowledge that's the beginning of terrestrial science.

The process by which local knowledges have been integrated into a global system goes by many names, but I will use the most provocative: capitalism. That name may not cover every mechanism through which knowledge is integrated (what would you call Wikipedia for example?) but it covers the most important cases and illuminates the underlying means of knowledge production and accumulation.

Ever since the industrial revolution, there's been a continuing process of capitalist integration through which local knowledge practices are absorbed within the capitalist system so that local Indian strains of rice become globalized and one Chinese breed of banana becomes the de-facto fruit everywhere in the world. As Branko Milanovic says in his important new book "Capitalism Alone," we now have a universal system of knowledge driven production with the only variations between liberal capitalist models of which the US is the most important exemplar and authoritarian capitalist models of which China is the most important exemplar.

Unlike the theological tree of knowledge that aims to be a pine, the capitalist tree of knowledge is a banyan tree, taking root in multiple places and bringing them into the orbit of the tree as a whole. No wonder, many people think capitalism is the ultimate answer to the questions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. State socialism certainly appears to be less efficient than market capitalism in providing those benefits. Of the various problems with state socialism, let me point out one: the Soviet Union was an exceptionally inefficient emitter of carbon, with its emissions per capita of GDP much greater than those of the US. The same pattern is replicated in China since state enterprises don't have the same incentive to be efficient as private enterprises.


I am reluctant to nominate capitalist modernity as the end of history. We make a mistake in thinking state socialism or socialism of any sort is the real challenger to capitalism as the most important system of terrestrial knowledge. The real challenge comes from ecology, not from economy. To give just one example: the mania for growth built into capitalism isn't compatible with the steady state nature of ecological systems as a whole.

The conflict between economy and ecology is a symptom of a bigger problem: capitalism is an anthropocentric discipline at its core. It's only concerned with human life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. However, humans aren't a divine abstraction unconcerned with the other beings on this planet – we are entangled with all of them.

Capitalism is fast approaching its Copernican moment: just as theological science replaced theological religion by rejecting geocentrism, I believe that a true terrestrial science will start with replacing anthropocentric capital with something else. For example, consider the rushing development of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is likely to be one of the dominant forms of knowledge production in the near to middle term: what's the current "Holy Grail" of AI? It's Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI, i.e., a robot that's intelligent in the ways we are.

Isn't that anthropocentric? Why is intelligence synonymous with certain kinds of human cleverness?

This child was delighted when a butterfly landed in her hands.
Photographer: David Clode | Source: Unsplash

Instead, let's also note that AI might help us inhabit the minds of other creatures way better than we have been able to so far. In the famous Turing test, the Computer Science and AI pioneer Alan Turing imagined a world in which we won't be able to differentiate humans from computers if we only had access to their behaviors.

Instead, imagine a world in which we won't be able to tell the difference between a monarch butterfly and an artificial butterfly based on their behaviors. Even better, imagine a world in which monarch butterflies aren't able to tell the difference between other monarch butterflies and a robotic butterfly.

Popular Buddhism spread through stories as much as high minded philosophical doctrines. The Jatakas recount the previous lives of the Buddha. It's amazing how often that prior birth is as an animal; the literature of that time was keenly aware how human beings are deeply entangled with other creatures. What would a modern day Jataka look like? How can we travel in and out of the minds of other creatures? This strikes me as a pre-eminent problem for terrestrial science.

Of course, emulating the minds of other creatures will be one of many future challenges. Much more effort will be spent on ensuring the viability of the various ecologies that currently support life on earth and are increasingly under threat because of climate change and general ecological collapse. Also, the Turing test is too low a bar. We are easily convinced by seemingly trivial displays of intelligence. There's no reason why monarch butterflies are better than us: perhaps they too will be easily fooled into treating a robot as a conspecific, a fellow butterfly.

Those problems lie in the future – for now, let's just acknowledge that we need to imagine a new terrestrial science that embraces all the beings on this planet and launch a million speculations on what it's like to go beyond the human world.