Wednesday, December 11, 2019

semaphores to live by1

The purpose of education is to help us understand, and subsequently question, our own intuitions and desires, and be able to articulate them to other beings. We read, write, watch, discuss to be able to create/ update models of the world that we carry in our head. From a Biological perspective, I assume we do this to navigate the world better and increase chances of life and comfort. But I also think humans sometimes do things that cannot be explained by simple self-interest and that is fascinating. For instance, how does a soldier negate the urge of every cell in his body and give up his life for a cause he believes in? We regularly fight for something we believe in even if it means making ourselves more vulnerable in the process. This is because of a faith in something more powerful than physical existence- traditionally a god, more recently a more secular religion like maatrubhoomi or justice.

I once read somewhere that "for Marx, everything was money; for Freud, everything was sexuality; for Foucault, everything was power. You can take any powerful motivator and replace God with it to explain human behaviour". In similar lines, these days I'm thinking that the fundamental atom of a human society is justice2. As much as I understand the problems caused by such reductivism, I think it actually is a core component of what makes otherwise competitive humans cooperate. Karma is the highest form of justice, able to quantify and balance actions across lifetimes3. Liberalism is about justice; It argues that you have as many rights as anyone else and because we live in a just society, if your autonomy is being snatched away from you, we will come and ensure you will be given it back.

Ofcourse, this is mostly just promise because as (I've been told) Marx points out, there can be no real freedom as long as a person is driven by economic necessity. As Pankaj Mishra, who's Age of Anger I absolutely enjoyed reading, points out, powerlessness, usually economic, is the root of the conflict most nations are facing right now. Modern nation states promised equality and liberty to all its citizens. But in a society where there is such income inequality, any promises of social equality cannot be fulfilled. And pulling a thread from Vivek Chibber, what right now across the world seem like communal differences is essentially economic dissatisfaction forced to transmogrify into other shapes. Actually this is also the central argument of Rana Dasgupta's essay in the Guardian on the future of the Nation State. He argues that the Nation State, which promises equality and justice on the basis of birth in a certain region cannot hold its own when facing the promise by global Capital of economic equality.

The reason for the exploration of these concepts is that Sravani follows a lot of Indian journalists and politicians on Twitter and we discuss major actions by the government frequently. From what she tells me, and from the general perception of Twitter, we seem to have given up all pretensions of finding compromises for differing viewpoints and fight tooth and nail for beliefs we espouse. I can understand this behaviour. As much as I know that it is imperative for me to keep updating my models to stay relevant, probably because of how intellectually and emotionally exacting it is, I find it easier to stick to them and convince myself that the new data points are aberrations until I absolutely have to retire the old models and install the new ones. So this is not unusual behaviour. But it got me to thinking then why do we have this belief that we should always strive to be objective, rational and try to see the world from the other's point of view. I like the philosophy of liberalism because, fundamentally, it says that you are free to do as you please as long as you don't trespass on others' rights. Yes, there are many problems with some of its aspects but it is a good starting place. Many people subscribe to it in principle. The problem comes in application. Because as much as its easy to espouse such ideas, it becomes incredibly hard to practice it because we as many people must learn to co-exist and share limited resources.

In his brilliant Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, Pankaj Mishra writes, and decades later Yogendra Yadav too mentions the mentality, of the noeveau rich, and their desperate need to gain self-esteem, after becoming unexpectedly rich in India's privatization (falsely called liberalization) project, by reaching back to old traditions and religious practices. Evidently the next step in Maslow's Hierarchy. I have also been thinking about what Dr. Velcheru Narayana Rao garu must have meant when he said, "What we call modernity is the separation of a man from the society" and the sense of alienation that it creates and which religion can soothe temporarily.

This has been a muddled, meandering post, more of an unburdening of thoughts and concepts that have been swirling in my mind of late and less of a point to make. Now that I read what I've written, it makes me happy to see the esteemed company I've been keeping and as much as the roaring river of information that I've been scooping from intimidates me, it also rejuvenates me.

1 Semaphores are variables which Operating Systems use to allocate common resources to multiple competing programs. Our rulebooks, a clear example of which is the Constitution, are designed to perform the same function. On another note, I highly recommend Ian Cheng's Worldling Raga on Ribbonfarm to anyone interested in how new 'worlds' are created and how we access so many of them almost simultaneously.
2 " order to read Ambedkar as a thinker is to go with him on a journey of force, is to understand what really force is. Not what power is, not what violence is, not what non-violence is, not what inequality is, not what equality is, but rather what force is and this ability to comprehend equality in terms of force is radical equality." - Aishwary Kumar
3 Obviously, from what I see, all beings are not the same. Some are more compassionate than others, some more productive etc. Maybe by imposing justice, we try to shave off their edges. 

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