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.
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:
How to use online spaces for witnessing rather than agenda setting?
How to grasp pathways that weren’t acceptable (or even imaginable) before?
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.
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?
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:
A prompt is circulated in advance so that each one of us can prepare for the next covideo.
We convene online for the extent of a zoom call.
First ten minutes of the call is about hanging out.
Riff for 30 minutes or less and record while doing so.
Rinse and repeat.
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:
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…..
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?
Identifiable adversary – there's a known enemy, whether a bug or a bomb.
Existential threat – the enemy routinely demonstrates the capacity to kill you and your loved ones.
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.
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.
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:
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." 🎇
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." 📏
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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:
We need to rethink the concepts of identity that inform political life, citizenship being a prime example.
Even more radically, we might have to rethink the concept of society itself.
Citizenship and Identity
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.
After the recent actions in Kashmir, I have read numerous comparisons between India and Israel, of turning Kashmir into Gaza. Not surprising, since both the Indian and the international left have historical sympathies with the Palestinian struggle and perhaps more importantly, know the Middle East well because of their personal and intellectual networks. I think they are looking for explanations where the light is shining rather than searching for the truth.
Look East towards China instead.
What China is doing in Xinjiang is the model, both as explicit inspiration and for structural reasons. Let’s start with the latter — there are approximately as many Palestinians as Israeli Jews, i.e., a ratio of 1:1. The ration of Indians to Kashmiris is more like 1:200, similar to the ratio of Uighurs to Han Chinese. Demographics is destiny. And of course the Chinese system of surveillance and “re-education” has got to be an inspiration.
China’s occupation of Xinjiang is remarkably successful when looked at from the perspective of the nation state — blanket surveillance, neutralization of any capacity for mobilization, the use of overwhelming force with minimal lethal violence and so on. I can see the appeal to everyone else dealing with a wayward province.
The age of political violence by non-state actors is over, i.e., Islamic terrorism as a proxy strategy is done. Of course there will be attacks here and there and god forbid one of them gets hold of a nuclear weapon, but I don’t see these networks having international importance as they have for the last forty years. There are several reasons for the end of terror as a powerful force:
States are willing to be far more ferocious in their response than they were before. That newfound appetite for ruthlessness started with the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, continued with the end of the Arab Spring when Sisi came to power in Egypt and reached a new level in Syria and the Assad regime’s response to protest. Not yet the Mongol execution of every inhabitant of a city that resists, but much closer to that end of the spectrum than Kumbaya. The international system with the US at its head is much more willing to accept brutality.
Satellite based surveillance, monitoring of social networks and other forms of information warfare have made it much harder for non-state actors to organize. Just as the internet has centralized business power in the FAANG companies, it has greatly strengthened the state’s hand vis-a-vis its challengers.
Non-state violence thrives on attention and publicity; unfortunately, state actors are better at spectacle than they are. Trump and Modi suck attention out of the oxygen of terror. Isn’t that what happened with Pulwama, where the narrative of a traditional terror strike was replaced with the narrative of a nation state’s response? The media war is being won by nation states.
For these reasons, I believe the era that started with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is ending with the US withdrawal from that country.
With the end of non-state political formations, we are back to great power rivalry. India rightly sees the “solution” of the Kashmir problem, or at least its containment, as table stakes for being considered a great power. After all, which great power will accept checks on its authority within its boundaries?
Seen this way, the bifurcation of J&K into two union territories is a clever move. It separates India’s problems with China from India’s problems with Pakistan and severely constrains Pakistan’s room for maneuver, since both of its patrons, i.e., the US and China are unlikely to support too much adventurism. The US wants an end to the Afghan crisis and China can hardly object to an Indian move that’s inspired by its own actions in Xinjiang. Who knows, India might even let the Taliban take power in Afghanistan as a face saving measure for Pakistan; or the converse, India may not be able to prevent the Taliban’s rise to power and the Kashmir occupation might be its tacit deal with the US (and Pakistan?) for not being invited to the Afghan table.
As part of asserting its great power status, India will want to consolidate its “one nation, one market, one law” narrative. There’s no guarantee that any of these has even the semblance of democracy; we have entered a zone in which the old rules don’t apply and new forms of democratic engagement are necessary to prevent the state-market combo from bulldozing all opposition.
This is how I read the tacit, if not explicit, consensus within the Indian political elite, the bureaucracy, big business and the security establishment.
The great game has restarted. Nation states are unstable and deeply insecure creatures and we are approaching an era of conflict between them. The last time around, the great game ended in WWI and WWII. This time we have nuclear weapons and climate change.
Why is it that at a time when the future of human existence is threatened by climate change, the future of work is threatened by automation and the future of every other living being is threatened by humans, why is it that we are increasingly electing regimes guaranteed to destroy life as we know it?
That question haunts me everyday.
There’s a frightening answer: that without careful design and collective struggle, our default state might be to increase authoritarianism, clamp down on dissent and erect new borders while strengthening existing ones. That technology, which was supposed to make our lives better, is making it worse.
I have no doubt that technology plays a big role in making the authoritarian camp stronger; the romantic in me thinks it will also play a big role in imagining a better future, but the current moment belongs to those fighting for their share of a shrinking pie. One way they’re able to take more than their fair share is by drawing our attention away from where it needs to be, shifting our gaze towards powerless victims instead of tackling the problems created by the powerful.
Nevertheless, the authoritarians get it right in one respect: they articulate a world in crisis better than anyone else; their atmosphere of fear is more believable than the liberal intelligentsia’s vague pronouncements of universal humanity. It’s only when that fear congeals in the form of immigrants and traitors rather than corporations and the 1% that a falsehood is perpetrated. Whatever its problems with facts and reason, the right wing understands emotion better than progressives.
Not all progressives though — the school kids who are on strike saying “You will die of old age, we will die of climate change” are getting the emotional register exactly right, which is why their movement is spreading without having any money or power or central leadership. Unfortunately, having money and power makes it easier to spread your emotional register; recent events in India being a good case in point.
Algorithmic Politics in Kashmir
If you’re from my part of the world, you know that the Modi regime has changed the equation between the state of Jammu and Kashmir and the central government. I don’t have anything original to say about the politics of the event — read Srinath’s piece if you want a deeply informed overview — but instead, I want to direct your attention at how the event was managed.
In case you didn’t know it, India leads the world in temporary shut-downs of the internet. From local bureaucrats to the Home minister, government officials cite public security as a reason to suspend what’s become the normal mode of communication for most Indians. Since the medium is the message, the politics of free speech is the politics of the internet. The shut down of whatsapp, however temporary, is how the government controls people’s minds.
Moreover, the shut down is temporary by design.
Attention being the scarcest resource today, the way to control our minds is done by controlling our attention, whether by making us focus where businesses and governments want us to (let’s call those white holes) or by creating black holes of information where they would rather we didn’t look. There’s absolutely no advantage in making that black hole permanent because attention is fickle and it keeps shifting from one spectacle to the next. Smart governments and businesses are constantly creating and destroying white holes and black holes. From managing expectations about jobs to creating new images about anti-nationals, every modern state is in the business of constant focusing and refocusing of our attentions. Incidentally, the Chinese version of attention management during crises is subtler than the Indian version — instead of shutting down the internet, they have hundreds of thousands of people whose only job is to deflect attention away from the crisis by flooding social media and bulletin boards with innocuous posts.
The decision to shut down the internet in any district or state is an impromptu decision by some official who is handling many different pressures. Which is why I am skeptical of conspiracy based causal explanations: that there’s a hyper-intelligent cabal of scheming businessmen and politicians who are directing our minds as they see fit. Instead, I am more likely to believe that the rapid shifts of collective attention are systemic properties that can’t be ascribed to individual manipulators. The human visual system saccades every 300 milliseconds without any underlying motive or purpose. The winners at algorithmic politics are those who understand the inherently complex nature of the underlying system, just as the control systems in our brains that direct intentional visual search are built upon a layer of random saccadic movements.
In hindsight, it’s clear that print and broadcast media — newspapers, radio, TV etc — created new forms of democratic politics as well as new forms of authoritarianism. Why would it be any different with algorithmic media? Of course we are going to see new forms of politics — both the Arab spring and the Kashmir crisis are political responses to a new technological condition.
Question: Is resistance futile?
Answer: yes unless the treehuggers figure out how to capture and manage attention as well the treecutters, and in order to do so, they have to grasp how the attention economy differs from ideology and propaganda.
Now I come to the central point of this essay: the algorithmic management of attention is substantially different from what we used to call propaganda, just as paying money to Google to rank highly on certain keywords is substantially different from launching a traditional print ad campaign. Yes, both are forms of advertising but there’s a world of difference in how the ads are placed in front of a customer and what the customer does with the ad when they are attracted to its message. Similarly, political advertising is also much more targeted today. Propaganda identifies a uniform, faceless threat. It’s the Jew, the communist, the Muslim. In contrast, the ideal algorithmic violence is personalized, localized and context dependent.
It’s about identifying a specific yet random individual who carries an unwanted identity. Specific in that it’s a particular black or Muslim or LGBT person who happens to be in your vicinity. Random in that the perpetrators of violence couldn’t care less about that person’s individuality as long as they belong to a certain target identity. Specific yet random is the logic of “personalized” attention in the age of machine learning. When someone says personalized medicine is coming, they don’t mean that doctors will learn who you are as an individual and prescribe medicines accordingly. Instead, they will use patterns of genetic data, dietary habits and life history to prescribe medicines. That personalization will work reasonably well for another person whose genetic patterns are close enough to yours.
Similarly when Google shows ads based on your browsing history, it uses your statistical footprint as the input to its predictive engine, without caring whether you are a real person or a robot. The statistical person is often a reasonable proxy to a living, breathing individual but important principles are lost in translation.
Specific randomness is the underlying model of the gig economy. When I order a cab on Ola or Uber, I am getting a specific driver, an actual human being who sits behind the wheel. At the same time, I don’t care much about him besides the fact that he’s a qualified and licensed driver and that the car is reasonably neat and functional. He can be replaced by another person without any loss of customer experience. To the extent that the gig economy is the future of employment, specific randomness tells us where jobs are going until they are all replaced by robots.
In any case, the widespread availability of the specific randomness is impacting politics as much as business. That’s one reason why we are seeing new forms of political violence emerge as a result of algorithmic media — in India, we see it in the eclipse of the riot and the emergence of lynching as the chief instrument of street violence. In the US you’re seeing increasing numbers of mass shootings. In both cases, it’s as if a machine learning algorithm infected the brain of a lynch mob or a gun toting avenger and turned his mind to violence. In propaganda there’s a strong connection between the official party line and the violence on the street. Intellectuals were murdered during the cultural revolution because Mao said so. In contrast, there’s a tenuous link — if any — between the pronouncements of Trump and the shooter in the street.
We don’t know how deep learning algorithms identify the features that make them good at identifying cats in videos. As Judea Pearl keeps saying, causality is a hard problem for the AI that drives machine learning. I believe that understanding the causes of spontaneous violence is an equally hard problem for algorithmic politics. For the same reasons. And it’s obviously more important to understand the emotional causes of algorithmic politics than the causal structure of cat videos.
Google doesn’t care whether they understand the causality behind their models as they are predictive. Every once in a while their algorithms will make obvious mistakes or contribute to racial profiling but that’s the price of doing business. In contrast, progressive politics of any kind will have to care about real people (or real animals if you’re an animal rights person like me) and therefore, questions of causality are crucial.
Let me end this essay with a provocative possibility: that the future of politics isn’t between left and right, but between predictors and explainers. Predictors use data to drive people’s emotions in the direction they want without care about who is hurt and how. Their target is the specific yet random person. Predictive politics is the political equivalent of Google’s ad words. In contrast, explainers care about the actual people behind their statistical signatures. Progressive politics should privilege explanations over predictions. It’s harder in every sense of that term.
One of the characteristics of the modern era is the importance of politics. We expect it to give us freedom and equality, prosperity and progress, and in a dystopian mode, fear and destruction. It’s a heavy lift, combining the job of religion and community with generous servings of science and technology.
Which is why I am skeptical when someone says we have found the answer to the question of politics. It’s like a physicist saying they found the theory of everything and now it’s only a matter of dotting the i’s. Chances are they overlooked an important parameter, a fact when discovered will overturn whatever conception we have about the universe.
Fukuyama and his fans thought that liberalism was the final political state of humanity, that political liberalism combined with economic globalization will make us all converge towards some form of market democracy the world over.
Physical reality is somewhat harmless. The universe might end in a heat death in a few billion years but it’s not going to prevent my startup from going public or save me from the barbarian hordes when they come knocking. Political reality is more immediate; I better cover my ass or be ready to be bitten if I am not looking out. That what happened with liberalism didn’t it?
One of the great puzzles of modern times is how liberalism went from unquestioned success to abject failure in the span of thirty years. The first George Bush was the president of the US when the Soviet Union disbanded; a Republican but liberal by today’s standards. He was soon followed by Bill Clinton, a liberal (though conservative by most objective metrics) who had two terms and after the second Bush — also a liberal by today’s standards — two more terms of Obama, the great hope of the world. Whatever their other faults — and there were many — they were not illiberals in the way Putin, Trump, Xi, Modi, Bolsonaro and Erdogan are.
How did the liberal empire fail so fast?
If this was a rhetorical question, there would a simple answer along the lines of:
The liberals turned out to be imperialists ruining Russia as it transitioned away from Communism, invading Afghanistan and Iraq and fomenting civil wars in Libya and Syria. In their infinite wisdom they sucked money away from the poor and the middle classes and handed it over to the rich, whose greed caused a depression. The liberals are no liberals.
My political sympathies are such that I want to believe that answer. However, I am not asking a rhetorical question. I am not going to string you along for a few hundred words and spring an answer at the end. I know that I don’t know. I also doubt there’s a simple answer.
What I can confidently say is that politics has won even if liberal politics has lost. Every aspect of our lives is visible to the political gaze; from one’s love for animals to hate for strangers, to be is to be political. What’s the answer to any problem: make it political. You want to combat climate change: fight for a green new deal. You want to keep immigrants out: pass legislation to build a wall. Right or left, everyone agrees the most important venue for success is the political arena.
To be is to be political
Religion is the biggest loser. Intellectuals complain about the ongoing struggle between science and religion over truth, but that’s a sideshow. A few people get bent out of shape if you tell them they are bipedal apes but for the most part, everyone pops the same pills as you and I do and forward their alternate facts on the same social networks.
I can’t speak with assurance about other religious traditions, but based on my limited understanding, a substantial chunk of Hinduism has been reduced (or is it transformed?) to a political ideology: Hindutva. It’s not that Hindutva Hindus don’t go to temples or they have stopped celebrating festivals. They might do both with even more fervor than their non-Hindutva counterparts, but those rituals are now part of their political identity. That’s why festivals are loudly celebrated in public.
Contrary to the liberal belief that religion is entering the political sphere, what’s happened is the exact opposite: politics has colonized religion which has to speak the language of politics in order to thrive. Consider this tweet from Pakistan:
So many liberal rulers came and went in Pakistan but this temple stayed closed. It was re-opened by the government of the man and party Pakistani liberals demonize as jihadi, anti-minority and all sorts of other horrible things. Pakistani liberals are shithttps://t.co/y6EjZHLrik
I bet there’s an identical bhakt tweet with Muslims replacing Hindus as the oppressed minority. My social media feeds are full of posts that carry the same message:
Liberals think so and so.
But look at how they butcher my religion/ look how they underestimate my generosity.
Liberals are shit.
Vote for my guy.
With barely a gesture towards the faith of the majority or the minority. Theological questions are secondary to this debate; what’s important is scoring political points. In this scheme, religion is just another factory of political identity, competing with caste, region and class for attention.
How much more secular can we get?
Most of the illiberal heroes wear the the cloak of religion. Putin: Russian Orthodox; Bolsonaro: Evangelical Christianity; Modi: Hinduism; Erdogan: Sunni Islam. Xi can’t profess a religion since he’s still nominally communist and Trump is Trump but they are exceptions rather than the rule.
What’s clear is that religion is central to illiberal identity politics. I want to understand why. Putin gives us a clue:
The Russian leader detects a shift in the political balance of power from traditional western liberalism to national populism, fuelled by public resentment about immigration, multiculturalism and secular values at the expense of religion.
The crucial phrase in this passage is “fuelled by public resentment.” “Public” is a political category — there’s no public without a nation or some other political formation. The illiberal hero Putin recognizes that the real battle is over the hearts and heads of the public, with religion playing a role today but that’s a strategic rather than a principled stance. His Chinese counterpart can’t use religion so he doubles down on nationalism instead.
politics is a debate about who a) the public is, b) what it wants and c) who gets to shape those wants.
In the liberal imagination, the public is all of humanity with some concession to national boundaries, its wants are primarily material and those wants are best shaped by market forces.
It turns out the liberal imagination is both too small and too big.
Too small because it excludes the entirety of the nonhuman world, and the rising oceans are registering their complaint. Too big because the identities it seeks to erase or subsume — religion and nation in particular — aren’t amenable to erasure. Both are systemic failures: of underestimating the external complexity of our dependence on the nonhuman world and underestimating the internal complexity of the dynamics of social systems.
That poverty of the imagination gives us an entry into understanding the liberal’s predicament: that liberalism is only one of many possible political visions and instead of settling down into comfortable adulthood, we are at the beginning of a great political debate, one in which carbon and oceans and trees and cows and tribes and faiths and markets will all compete for our allegiance.
India has a renewed government with a few new faces, the most unusual of whom is the new minister for external affairs, Subramanyam Jaishankar, a career diplomat who is now in the Cabinet Committee on Security, which instantly makes him one of the most powerful people in the country.
He’s known to be an incisive thinker, an important quality at a time when India faces many external challenges — from the vagaries of the Trump era to the rise of China to international negotiations on Climate Change. It’s a tough neighborhood that’s only going to get more complicated.
China sees Modi as a decisive leader and supported him by throwing him two pre-election lifelines. First, a day before the commencement of the Second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing on April 25–27, China removed the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in the north and Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast of India from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) map on its website. New Delhi has boycotted the forum since China launched the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which New Delhi says violates India’s territorial integrity.
Second, China reversed its decision to oppose the designation of Masood Azhar as a global sponsor of terror, which is an emotional issue for Indian voters. Azhar, the founder and leader of the Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, has been active mainly in the Pakistani-administered part of Jammu and Kashmir.
I am not a fan of the current Indian PM, or of Xi Jinping, but the Chinese “adjustments” reinforced my belief that the 2019 election was an international event. If you set aside specific governmental structures — multiparty (authoritarian?) democracy in India and single-party authoritarian rule in China, what I see is a return to the historical norm where the Eurasian landmass is governed by one of four civilizational configurations: China, India, the Middle East and Western Europe. If you add Russia as a distinct configuration different from Western Europe (being Orthodox rather than Catholic-Protestant) you get five.
Surely each configuration has its theory of statecraft; both the formal institutions that guide the configuration (constitutions, parties, elections etc) and the day to day intuitions through which decisions are made. Should we make a deal with the protestors on the street or send men in tanks to shoot them? History matters while making these choices. Of course, configurational influences are only one among many — the psychology of individual leaders matters, who they trust matter. The configurational culture is just one among many influences.
Whatever happens in one of these configurations impacts the others. Russia, China and India straddle the old and the new — they are civilizational configurations that also happen to be nation states. Western Europe was inching towards that goal for a while but recent events are working against increasing political unity. Like every other aspect of the networked era, size matters when it comes to geopolitics. It’s not clear that the nation state is a viable political unit in the long run, but to the extent it is, India, China and Russia have an advantage over the other two in that they have the political heft to resist the vagaries of globalization and climate change.
A configuration is a loose unity: its parts come and go. They are also porous — both historically and contemporaneously — and by marking these distinctions, we aren’t committing ourselves to a clash of civilizations thesis. Nevertheless, each configuration gives us access to distinct perspectives on the pursuit of life and liberation. I believe the keystone concepts of every configuration are of importance to the others. Equally importantly, every configuration can use its engagement with other configurations to develop and transform its keystone concepts. Kautilya would have learned a lot by reading Aristotle. Aristotle would have learned a lot by reading Kautilya.
We can learn a lot by reading both of them. Like Gandhi said:
I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible.
He also ended that quote with
But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any
We will ignore that ending; it’s OK to be blown off our feet every once in while. But not at gun point and not for five hundred years. European domination saw certain keystone concepts such as democracy and capitalism spread across the world. Has the time come for keystone concepts and ideas from other configurations to travel the world? If so, which ones?
I am keeping my eye on two Indian concepts circumnavigating the earth:
Perhaps I should say: navigating the world once again, since both of them are central to Buddhadharma and have inspired poets, philosophers and yogis from India to Japan for a couple of thousand years. We can learn a lot from that era of globalization of Indian ideas when Buddhadharma was transformed in China and Japan.
It’s a pity that Indians don’t know much about China. We keep looking west. I wasn’t exposed to Chinese ideas or literatures growing up: no Romance of the Three Kingdoms, no Dream of the Red Chamber, not even Journey to the West, despite it being a mythologized version of Xuanxang’s (Hiuen Tsang) trip to India way back when. I had a vague impression that Vikram Seth had translated Chinese poetry and that the beat poets were inspired by Zen, but that was the extent of my understanding.
I read Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind sometime in the mid nineties, a couple of years after I left India for graduate school. It blew my mind. Here was a book written in precise, modern language talking about ideas originating in my part of the world, ideas that I had imbibed as a child but didn’t know how to articulate as an adult. Suzuki Roshi taught me that Dharma has a way of transcending its spatial and temporal boundaries. Since then Zen has been replaced by Tibetan Buddhism in the march of Buddhadharma in the modern world. While I deeply appreciate Tsongkhapa, I like the beginner’s mind even more.
ZMBM also introduced me to an East Asian sensibility, the cultural watershed of Chinese civilization. That aesthetic has a long shadow from literature to painting to the design of the Mac. I am particularly attached to classical Chinese poetry. These lines of Tu Fu (in David Hinton’s flowing translation here):
So different from the images in classical Indian texts, spare rather than flowery, minimalist design a millennium before the Mac. Buddhadharma’s encounter with China birthed a subtle beauty. Makes me think it’s smart to use another tradition’s classics to clean my glasses than to wipe the dust on my own.
But you need a lineage worth reorganizing first. I am fortunate in having two. From my grandmother I inherited India, faith and stories. From my grandfather — numbers, bookkeeping and argument. They were both obsessed with form: the shape of things, sitting up straight and when to eat a ripe mango. More than enough material even after the dust is removed.
I believe philosophy is created in the street, in the hustle of ideas. Some of those ideas make their way into the tower where they are bottled and sold to the whole world. Makes money for some but boring for the rest of us. Indian philosophy has spent too many years in the tower. It needs to travel to China and America, not to Harvard and Tsinghua but the streets of Shanghai and San Francisco.
Inherited words bite you young and recruit your brain into singing their tune. The womb precedes the street. I have a couple of those: Dharma is one, Samsara is another. More may be lying dormant, waiting for the right moment to capture a brain area.
Samsara is an interesting term. It’s simultaneously concrete and abstract. Concrete because it’s a word for the world around us, the world of heart breaks and passion and dew drops reflecting the morning sun. Abstract because the word comes packaged inside a theory that claims a cyclical pattern of existence trapping us for eternity.
Why was I born human in this lifetime? Now that I am here, what will make me thrive?
Those are some questions about Samsara people from my part of the world have asked over the years. They are natural questions; questions about our fate, about the human condition. You may not be interested in multiple lifetimes. Fine, stick with this one. Still: why the human birth? What makes the ape go nuts?
Which is why Samsara is eminently suited to replace the universe as the object of intellectual concern.
Why eminently suited? Because it is a collective term for all the beings who occupy a portion of our reality.
Why replace? Because the universe is the world seen through the eye of god, the view from nowhere. The universe belongs to no one. Samsara, on the other hand, is our world. It belongs to all of us.
Here’s this rather wild idea I have: why not study the form of the world, i.e., the contours of Samsara just as scientists have studied the forms of the universe, especially through mathematization?
It’s not an outlandish idea if I may say so myself. I can even think of a couple of reasons why it’s an idea worth exploring. . A line from the Heart Sutra ( Prajnaparamitahrdya Sutra in Sanskrit) says:
Form is Emptiness, Emptiness is form.
Let me offer a quick pointer as to why I find this phrase an important entry into the form of the world. Consider how “form” is used in two important modern knowledge systems:
Form as in formal, as in the formal sciences such as logic and mathematics.
Form as in information.
In both of these uses, form denotes a way of “capturing” the world, or what’s known as carving the world at its joints. In formalizing the world, we believe we have distilled its essence. That’s the dream behind the physicist’s “theory of everything” isn’t it, of a small set of laws that captures everything there is. It’s the human version of god, who doesn’t need laws because he can see the whole universe. We get the second best experience: as his chosen species, humans are allowed to grasp the code of creation.
But emptiness in the Buddhist usage of that term points to an entirely different insight: that there’s no possibility, even in principle, of capturing everything. It says that nothing exists on its own; it’s always dependent on something else. Combining emptiness and form leads to a radical claim: not only is it impossible to capture everything in a single law or set of laws, it’s in the very nature of form to be elusive.
The formal sciences fail at the task of capturing the world not because they have reached their limits but because form resists capture at its core. And form eludes capture because the world eludes capture — the view from nowhere can never succeed. The Buddha used that argument to deny the existence of the self. We can use a variation of the same argument to undercut the foundations of the formal sciences and venturing further, to undercut the foundations of all science.
I find that interesting.
The first sign that forms might be empty is noticing how many there are. In Darwin’s famous words:
Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Traditionally, biology is a science of form, of which there are many even as all organisms share a genetic code. Why are there are so many forms? What makes some thrive and others disappear? How does a form of life fit its circumstances? This is the question of Samsara in evolutionary disguise. As far as I know, there are two deep, scientifically grounded approaches to these questions:
Statics. The approach favored by D’Arcy Thompson in his monumental “On Growth and Form.” Thompson’s approach is to explain the form of an organism (say, the shape of an Amoeba) as an equilibrium of forces that impinge upon the organism. The static theory is centered on matter and forces.
Dynamics. This if of course the far more famous answer, the one initiated by Darwin in his Origin of Species. Darwin focuses on change, i.e., how does one type of organism arise from another? In the gene centric view, the theory of change is primarily one of information and how it’s transmitted.
So there you go: two theories of form, one privileging matter, the other privileging information. Can the two be combined? If so, how? That’s the question.
Forms show up in the social sphere too, where they manifest as new institutional structures: startups, networks, companies, platforms and variations on those themes.
If anything, we underestimate the diversity of social forms, confusing labels for the underlying structure. Consider the all too common question: why do some companies thrive while others fail? Why did Microsoft beat IBM? Why did Google beat Microsoft? And so on. The assumption being that all companies have the same form, like teams playing a cricket match.
Is asking “Why did Microsoft beat IBM?” the same as asking “Why did CSK beat KKR?” Of course not. Sports teams are constrained to having the same form. We don’t have eleven member cricket teams playing twenty one member cricket teams. Companies aren’t like that; neither are organisms. They differ in size, shape and structure. Amazon is a company, Walmart is a company and Costco is a company but one is a platform while the other two are not.
What happens when two forms collide? Who wins? Is it possible for multiple forms of social organization to thrive simultaneously?
The Road Ahead
That’s it for today’s tour of endless forms most beautiful. I am not interested in finding the one form that rules them all; much better to sketch the forms of the world and trace their connections with a light pencil.
Sorry if it meandered from one topic to another and even more sorry if it introduced abstract arguments without substantiating them. There’s a method behind the madness. Imagine phenomenology if it arose in Gaya instead of Gottingen and you are halfway there.
I wanted to give you sense for the landscape I am going to cover over the next few months — future essays won’t be as scattered. I also expect to add a podcast at some point.
Buyer beware: this essay has a higher than usual ratio of speculation to explanation. I am playing with two central ideas (illustrated in the flowchart below):
What? The modern system — with the state and the market being its standout institutions — destabilizes traditional categories, breaks them apart, swallows the pieces and finally assimilates tradition within its schemes. As I will argue below, that’s what’s happening with religion in India. The ascent of the Sangh Parivar isn’t a sign of a premodern tradition winning over liberalism, but of the modern system assimilating “Hindu ways of life,” whatever that might mean.
How? The merger of space and code (geometry and programming) is the best available language to understand the dynamics of the modern system.
One line summary of this essay: the information geometry of secularism. Thankfully, I am burying that pompous phrase here instead of elevating it into a title or subtitle.
The Secular Socialist Democratic Republic
The Idea of India is over. Way back when we used to be a Secular Socialist Democratic Republic. It’s been a while since we have been socialist; the collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent liberalization ended that dream. With this election, we can conclude that secularism is dead, and it’s only a matter of time before we stop being a democracy and become a theocracy.
That’s what I am reading.
Not a day goes by before some well known academic or writer pens a eulogy for an India that’s no longer to be seen. Here’s one that’s being widely circulated. Here’s another. Then there are the whispers saying we can still revive that Idea if we play our cards right (Rajeev Bhargava’s article in the Hindu, for example). The world hasn’t ended yet. Cheer up!
Is secularism dead? Is it alive? Is it on life support? Is it worth supporting? Some answers to these questions arrive while reading an article by Faisal Devji, which has an important line:
“unlike Islam in Pakistan, there is nothing theological about Hindu nationalism. It is a secular movement (my emphasis) for which religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.”
Devji is right. Hindutva is a secular movement and most of the Sangh Parivar, including the RSS consists of secular organizations. But in order to understand that, we need to interrogate secularism first.
What is Secularism?
Secularism is usually understood as one of three things:
The Euro-American version which demands the separation of Church and State. Usually understood to mean that the Church shouldn’t interfere in state affairs.
The Indian version in which the State shouldn’t favor one Church over another. All Churches are equal in the eyes of the state.
I guess for sake of completeness I should include the Communist version: there’s no Church.
Note: I use the term Church in the most generic sense as any organized system of religious practice and/or belief.
There are (at least) two dimensions in which the Church and State intersect with each other:
Belief: As in what we think is true or valuable and who gets to regulate those truth and value assertions. Does the sun go around the earth or the earth around the sun? Who gets to decide what’s taught to our children? In a liberal secular society, you’re theoretically allowed to believe whatever you want in private while your public beliefs are supposed to conform to reason and facts. Of course, we know that the reality is much more complex; modern societies have overseen an enormous expansion of beliefs. Some of them are scientific or rational, but most of them are effervescent; beliefs about what’s cool, what’s hot, what’s trending and so on, that are mediated by advertising more than science. In other words, neither is our private sphere free, nor is the public sphere shaped by reason, but it’s a mark of secularism that we pretend that it’s so.
Power: Like any other institution, the state wants to maximize its power and doesn’t want the Church around as a competitor. The state has a native advantage — it has a monopoly over violence. As Stalin once said about the Pope “How many divisions does he have?” One of the signs of secularization is that we no longer accept the Pope’s claim to power. To be honest, he can’t compete. The world of nuclear bombs and predator drones is beyond his pay grade. Much better to sit in his ivory tower and tell the world to behave. Gently. If you notice, there’s already a tacit shift in power between the Euro-American and the Indian versions of secularism. While Euro-American secularism treats the Church as a potential rival that needs to be kept out, the Indian version treats religions as supplicants. It’s the state that’s the prize, not the Church. The communist version doesn’t even let the Church supplicate.
Combining these two threads, we arrive at a higher-order understanding of secularism as a process than as a feature: the process of secularization is the steady privileging of this worldly needs and values over absolute or transcendental needs and values. When scholars talk about truth, they are asserting transcendental values. In contrast, when governments direct science funding towards monetizable research and hand out promotions based on impact factors, they are asserting this-worldly values. Secularization in the domain of belief says truth doesn’t have cash value while innovation does.
Note how this concept of secularization in the domain of belief covers a much wider territory than the relation between the Church and the State; it recognizes that beliefs proliferate in modern society and that the real battle is over the regulatory ideals (truth versus success) that govern which beliefs receive state or market support.
Similarly, the secularization of power means that traditional sources of religious authority are destabilized in favor of new political identities. As Devji says “religious belief, however genuinely held, possesses political meaning only as the majority’s culture.” We need to read this statement at two levels:
After the process of secularization, only those beliefs that possess political meaning have a chance of flourishing. I may believe in 330 crore gods. You may believe there’s only one. We might even come to blows on that account if we had an argument about the correct numerical measure of godliness. However, neither of us is going to go viral on Whatsapp. Theological disputes don’t have direct access to political meaning. Of course, as the Shia-Sunni dispute shows, it’s possible to channel theology into politics, but that always requires a this-worldly feature (inheritance and lineage in the case of the Shia-Sunni conflict).
Religion’s usefulness is only restricted to those elements that manifest as cultural identity. What’s left unsaid but is crucial for secularization: identity can be mobilized for political purposes while truth or faith can’t.
So to ask whether some seemingly religious entity is secular, we need to ask: does its politics dictate its theology or the other way around? The answer in the case of the RSS is clear: it’s only theology is a political theology and therefore it’s an archetypal secular organization.
Who does the RSS worship?
Traditionally, RSS shakhas had only one deity: Bharat Mata, a picture of Mother India. None of the other Indian deities had a place in the room; no Krishna or Rama, no Lakshmi or Durga. The only deity was a representation of the nation.
It’s not that there isn’t religious precedence for making the nation sacred. In Hindu societies, every village and locality has its own deity, a local guardian who represents that place. In the divine economy, deities make places as much as the place marks the deities’ influence. The Vaisnava tradition has the 108 Divya Desams, temples that mark pilgrimage spots across Indian subcontinent.
So place and geography have a prior association with divinity, but the Sangh act of turning India itself into a deity is an interesting move, simultaneously investing the nation with sacred values and making it possible for the secular to dominate the sacred.
Answer: because the (re)production of space is one of the key acts through which the State supplants the Church. The Church has only symbolic control over a territory while the State has both material and symbolic control. The Church can only mark some spots as Divya Desams but it can’t build the roads that connect the Divya Desams. In contrast, the state can lay the roads and dot the highway with statues of dead politicians.
spatialization favors secularization.
Don’t believe me: consider an analogy to the other major institution of the modern world: the market. Let’s say there’s a village in which people barter goods with each other and no cash is ever exchanged. Then modernity arrives in the form of a market selling widgets from across the world. Unfortunately, the market sellers don’t accept offers in kind; you got to pay cash in order to acquire the goods on offer. So the villagers decide to switch.
No more barter. For a while it works well — they continue bartering with each other but use the market for goods that can’t be sourced internally. Makes sense right?
As the villagers get accustomed to the joys of buying and selling, the market goes from a sporadic affair to a permanent presence in the village. One day the market has a new seller. He’s got fertilizer at rock bottom prices, because he can afford to purchase fertilizers at scale from China. Can the local fertilizer supplier — the cowherd — compete with the new entrant? Not a chance. The new space — the market village — systematically favors the cash player over the barterer.
New spaces = new relations. The nation as a space inherently favors the state and makes it possible for the state to swallow religion.
Let’s say you are with me so far, that you agree that space favors the state and those who nationalize religion are state actors in saffron. You might still wonder: what’s the mechanism through which the state surrounds religion and then swallows it?
The answer my friend is coding in the wind. The algorithmic machines of the 21st century are very good at tapping into emotional networks that were once deployed in acts of faith, remapping their connections and redeploying those emotions in the service of political acts.
The computer is key to the commodification of religion.
We think bots might have tipped the polls in the UK and in the US, but will South Asia host the first “war of the bots?” If you had asked me even two days ago, I would have laughed at the possibility, but having experienced how the recent India-Pakistan crisis was amplified on social media, I am not so sure.
India runs on Whatsapp. My parents text me if they are going to a concert or staying home for a quiet dinner. Friends send the same joke from three continents. There’s a group for every progressive cause. Climate change: check. Gender violence: check. Animal rights: check. Then there’s the message I received a few days ago saying heavy fighting has been reported at the Sialkot border. It’s the day after Indian aircraft bombed positions in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and a little over ten days after an Indian convoy was bombed in Kashmir. The clock’s been ticking. Has it struck twelve?
The friend was alarmed. Why wouldn’t he be? Sialkot is in Pakistani Punjab, not Kashmir. Fighting there meant the conflagration had expanded beyond the disputed boundary into the “real world.” Of course, the first thing I did was to google Sialkot. It’s a wonderful city in Pakistan, razed to the ground by Alexander the Great himself but none the worse for that ancient slight. Wikipedia says “it’s a wealthy city relative to the rest of Pakistan and South Asia.”
I don’t know how much of that wealth will survive tanks and terror, but I need to know what’s happening first. Google isn’t much help since searches for breaking news invariably take me to Twitter. Which is where my friend asks me to go as well. That’s where it’s happening.
Entering “Sialkot” in the Twitter search box opens a rabbit hole. One says:
Disturbing if true. Further down is a video of an injured Indian Airforce man lying on the ground. The tweet says something unprintable about sex and death.
Then I realize the men in the video are speaking in Kannada, a South Indian language unknown to Pakistanis. It’s a video taken after an accident at an air show in Bangalore. Nothing to do with the crisis raging at the border.
A scroll or two below the injured soldier are videos of Pakistani tanks trampling over fields and sirens in Amritsar. Are these as fake as the airman?Has the war already started? Where did they get these videos from? Mostly, I want to know if any of this is true. Where do I go to find the corroborating evidence?
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Meanwhile, back on Whatsapp, a mini-battle has broken out in the group. Some of my friends are as alarmed as I am. “War is not the answer.” Going after terrorists is one thing but starting a nuclear war is a different matter. Others are cheering. “A lesson has to be taught once and for all.” Everyone is forwarding messages from their favorite sources. One forward from a retired Madras Sappers colonel warns about escalation. Another from a proud Indian says we are ready to shed as much blood as needed to wipe out this menace. Chances are the blood to shed won’t be his but why quibble when the nation is under attack.
These Whatsapp fights seep into other Zuckerberg colonies. A good friend posts on Facebook saying the airstrikes were right but there’s no reason to gloat. “War is a serious matter.” If you ask me, it’s a mild statement in the annals of pacifism. Not in today’s social media. He is immediately flamed. Some unfriend him. Others are unfriended. Then there’s Instagram, which I fear to open and don’t even ask me about Snapchat. I am too old for it.
TV is sedate in comparison. A professor at a university in Odisha has been fired for suggesting India shouldn’t go to war but otherwise it’s tame in contrast with the raging stream on my phone. Even Arnab (India’s Sean Hannity) is placid compared with the young men itching to perform obscene acts on their neighbour’s mothers and sisters.
The bombing of the CRPF convoy in Pulwama was heinous and despite my pacifism, I understand that no nation state will accept an attack on its soldiers. Public outrage is equally understandable. Unfortunately, social media concentrates and circulates these emotions at an unprecedented speed and scale. It doesn’t give us time to take a deep breath and shed our outrage.
Fake images were circulating from the very beginning of this crisis. Some are obviously fakes, such as Rahul Gandhi photoshopped next to the terrorist who attacked the CRPF in Pulwama. Then there is recycled footage of tanks going to forward positions, perhaps not even in India, and videos of injured airman, but after an accident at an airshow in Bangalore. To paraphrase, Tolstoy, every truth is the same as every other, but falsehoods replicate in unique ways.
We imagine malicious bots as pieces of software, perhaps written by a hacker in Russia or an analyst working for Cambridge Analytica, but bots don’t exist without people. Someone has to tweak a bot so that it triggers our emotions. Remember that people use social media to connect with other people. Bots are the medium, not the message. That’s why Facebook enforces real identities. Fake news can be instigated by software, but it’s spread by people.
The news may be fake, but the people are real. That’s why cyborg politics is so dangerous:
One, our emotions are curated and condensed, packaged for release in many theaters at once.
Second, the emotional contagion reinforces our human need for connection.
Third and most important, it creates an unstable cycle connecting politics, media and identity.
A little over a century ago, an assassination set of a war that was supposed to end in a few months but lasted five years and killed millions. Imagine something similar today — governments will find it impossible to contain public anger and unscrupulous politicians will make sure they can’t.
Software can be fixed, but people trapped in algorithmic bubbles with commercial and political interests keeping them that way are harder to change. I am hoping that the condensed anger of South Asians isn’t catastrophic. The crisis seems to be abating with the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan and chances are the leaders of India and Pakistan will step back despite having electoral and strategic objectives. But you never know when you’re surfing a crashing wave.