7. Exploring the Unknown

New worlds are opening up for us in all directions: from the galactic to the sub-microscopic, from global communications to interplanetary ones (like the report from the Martian robot about the existence of water there in an earlier era). The impact of these broadening vistas should be highly positive, but instead it is falling somewhat flat. In one of its latest issues, the New Scientist claimed on its cover that: “We’ve run out of explanations for the universe.”1

My immediate response to this was: Could this really be true? Is this a reflection on our current human condition: namely, are we running out of explanations of how to correct the global economic picture? It would seem that our approach to understanding the universe is not only influenced by our training and profession (depending on whether we are mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, chemists, cosmologists, radiation specialists, or even philosophers or astrologists) but also by what the Germans call our Zeitgeist (the spirit of our times.)

Hardly had I started writing this blog when on March 21st the front-page digitized images came with the startling news of the recordings of the Planck satellite launched in 2009 to examine background radiation in outer space. 
Here suddenly were new explanations of the evolution of the universe.

The vastly different renditions of the map of space provided by the Planck team would appear to be mosaics of two dimensional images of various parts of the heavens at the wavelength of the cosmic microwave background radiation. The interpretations of such images are inevitably fraught with uncertainties, because much of the energy has been curved by gravity as it traveled for billions of years and was most probably affected by other forces (such as “dark energy”) of which we have little understanding. To conclude at this early stage that the observed “cool” and “hot areas” would eventually grow into galaxies seems presumptuous. The large, international team of scientists involved have analyzed less than half of the data gathered by the space telescope which is not programmed to monitor other particles, such as neutrinos. But the bold and startling conclusions drawn from the haze of space radiation appear at this stage to be more the result of rash interpretation than of serious scientific examination.

It seems to me that our perspective on the universe is still  profoundly affected by a variety of unknown factors. We have no idea of what the impact of gamma rays, x-rays, radiation from uranium, the incredible stream of neutrinos, gravity or even speed is having on our mental processes. Yes, because our sun is making a gigantic orbit of our galaxy and we are orbiting around the sun and our planet is spinning all the time, we are in fact moving at speeds of thousands of miles per hour without us having any idea of the impact on us. And when we are informed that untold billions of neutrinos are “harmlessly” passing through our brains (and bodies) every second of the day, we accept this amazing information with little concern!

Neutrinos are minute particles traveling at close to the speed of light but unlike light have no electrons and possess only the tiniest mass. Most of those that pass through us (as well as through the core of our planet!) originate from inside the sun. Others come from stars in our galaxy and even other galaxies. Indeed some physicists speculate that the gradual decay of neutrinos may provide a clue to the origin of matter. A long-time friend, the astronomer Lord Martin Rees, has written that “It is embarrassing to cosmologists that 90 percent of the universe is unaccounted for.”2 Finding out exactly what the universe is made of remains a nagging problem for astronomers. Martin has been optimistic for nearly two decades that we are on the verge of finding out the so-called secrets of “dark matter” and “dark energy.” (Both of which are terms used to identify what we don’t know.) Ordinary atoms, of which we and our planetary system are made, are likely to account for only about 4 percent of the mass of the entire universe.

Optical observation alone cannot give us an adequate perspective on the cosmic scene, Martin tells us. X-ray telescopes have been an amazing improvement, but “the whole electro-magnetic spectrum emitted by cosmic objects ranges over more than 100 octaves.” In Martin’s analogy, “visible light, from the red to the blue, is just a single octave… of the broad range of frequencies that most objects actually radiate.”3

James Clerk Maxwell discovered that light is an electromagnetic wave over 100 years ago. But who has discovered how gravity, the force that ultimately overwhelms all the other forces in the stars, actually operates? Speculation is rife about how a “graviton”, possibly a quantum particle, could be the force behind the attraction exerted by mass. Frankly, I feel quite entangled by quantum weirdness.

The Nobel prize winning physicist, Eugene Wigner, was concerned about “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the physical sciences.” In astronomy, because of the absence of verifiable experimental results when considering black holes, how the universe might have begun, the possibility of multi-universes, “empty” space, or even “time,” the only way forward in our understanding is by resorting to mathematics. And that maybe where we may come to an end of explanation as suggested by the New Scientist.

To repeat, part of the problem facing us is with the limitation of our perspective. We think of existence in terms of a beginning, middle and an end (of our lives, and of this planet, the sun and our immense galaxy.) But perhaps our universe does not follow such a story line.  It could be that there is no beginning and no end — only the continuity of a string theory kind of a loop. And back in 1895 the American philosopher and psychologist William James coined the word “multiverse” in which our universe is part of an interpenetrating system of universes. Here we enter into the spheres of fantasy, the quantum, and infinitely varied and complex super-string theories reinforced by ad hoc postulates.

The cosmologist Max Tegemark suggested that of all the various forms of multiverses, the simplest and most elegant involved parallel universes. “Perhaps we will gradually get used to the weird ways of our cosmos and find its strangeness to be part of its charm.”4 And that may be the best counter-point to the proposition of the New Scientist for it is unlikely that we are ever going to run out of explanations for charm.

1New Scientist, 2 March, 2013)

2Martin Rees, Our Cosmic Habitat, (2001) p.75

3op.cit.p.58

4Max Tegemark, “Parallel Universes,” (2003).

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6. The Unacceptable Face of Change

There are days when I don’t think I can face the highly intrusive pace of change anymore. And then The Economist (usually a right of center magazine) places a parody of Rodin’s thinker sitting on a toilet seat on its cover suggesting that “Modern science has failed to make anything with such a powerful impact, and that is why a growing band of thinkers claim that the pace of innovation has slowed.” I only wish this were true.1

The day has started with my mobile ringing just as I was opening the morning flood of Yahoo emails. Then the land-line rings and while I am pleased to hear breathing at the other end, the incoming tide of communications, like the pace of daily life, is overwhelming. I cannot be alone in worrying how this on-line flood will affect billions of people around the world.

The editors of the Economist seriously under-estimate the scale of the computer revolution. Not only is it changing our ways of payment and banking, of sending information, and of shopping, but it also is deeply affecting our daily lives. Our personal privacy is diminishing, our free time is being infringed upon, and our imaginations are being corrupted. All this is happening without any genuine public or political discourse. The all-powerful corporate world propagates the belief that the technological advances  pushed by market forces are both inevitable and benign.

The daunting question arises: how much longer can we keep up this pace of ever faster and more invasive and intrusive communications? The challenge is enormous because the impact is already taking its toll and the long-term effects are not only unknown, but are not even seriously considered.2

Who is responsible for the avalanche of verbal messages to my brain? Not the government. Not some subversive brain-washing group. One cannot place all the blame on Network Orange or Yahoo, Wikipedia, Facebook, Linked-in or Twitter. All companies not even in existence a few years ago. And now I am even launching my own blog. Am I abetting this electronic tsunami of technology? What surge of new devices and apps will come next?3 I hate even to think about it.

More important than the yet unstudied effects of the internet is the concern that this new technology is undermining our mental processes, such as memory, imagination and attention spans. The internet is also making dramatic intrusions into our personal lives, diminishing our traditional forms of communication — like eye-to-eye contacts and — yes — smell.

While the introduction of computers, mobiles, texting, the internet and global communications are all changing the daily lives of adults at an unprecedented pace, the new formats are accepted as normal by the younger generation. An emerging teenager cannot even recognize that the nature of her or his friendships are changing. The visual introduction of sexuality is coming at ever earlier stages. 10- and 12-year-olds are ‘sexting’ and transmitting images of their genitals to each other.

Social relations for those who are now in their twenties and thirties are equally disrupted by the ease with which new relationships can be entered through thousands of contact sites. Making new acquaintances in pubs or parks or museums is becoming distinctly unfashionable.

And the pace (or should I say “threat”} of change is far from diminishing: we may soon be faced with another radical industrial revolution with unknown consequences, namely nanotechnology. This will use molecules as our building blocks and create computers the size of a blood vessel. The implications of the immense potential for military, medical and commercial applications are staggering.

Indeed, nanotechnology may eventually overwhelm the next stage of civilization. However, this will be at a microscopic level and will not create any new employment opportunities. Some may come to see it as a chance to insert truly micro-devices into our brains.

As it is, I find the excess of information being produced for consumption alarming. There is no way I can keep up. Much of this material can swiftly be classified as “rubbish” but I see it as gradually overwhelming our human capacity to think with clarity and perspective. There will be little space for the development of wisdom — not to mention insight or the establishment of priorities. Might trying to pass on wisdom on the internet become something of an oxymoron?4

We are rapidly moving further and further away from the natural world of which we used to be a part. We are now in almost constant touch with the mechanical world at our fingertips.5 Even if we were to stand still in terms of further technological breakthroughs we can only guess how long it would take future generations to acclimatize to the social changes brought about by the mobile electronic communications of the past thirty years?6

How can we slow down the advance of ever more intrusive technology? Canute could not stop the waves; mass protests on the streets could not affect the speed of the impending advances in technology.

A decisive global slow-down could come from a shift away from capitalism towards a less money/profit driven economic system. But alas, a less greedy, less commercialized, less unequal, less competitive and also less environmentally polluting economy is not being seriously contemplated.

I tried to present such an option with an alternative I named the “Incentive Economy” in my book, Dollars or Democracy. However, this more cooperative and less corporate controlled system has yet to be considered by the hordes of micro-economists and election-focused politicians.

Change also could come through any number of possible catastrophes: Like an accidental nuclear war, an unstoppable pneumonic plague, or a major flare coming from the sun which would down all our electrical appliances. But when I see quite another form of communication in trouble, namely the endemic congestion on our roads, I feel there may be different natural ways in which advances in technology might “slow down.” Perhaps the congestion of the various forms of electronic communication could eventually overwhelm our internet and its storage capacity as well. Luddites please take note.

1The Economist, January 12, 2013

2Where’s IT Going?” Ian Pearson & Chris Winter

3http://gizmodo.com/5976659/what-happened-on-the-internet-in-2012-in-numbers

4“Digital Revolution” The Observer, March 10,2013, p.40

5“Scanning The Future,” (1997) Edited by Yorick Blumenfeld

6Towards the Millennium, Optimistic Visions for Change,(1996) Yorick Blumenfeld

5. Enhancing the Unions

When you shop at Walmart are you aware of their anti-union position?

Does the abuse of migrant workers upset you?

Do you believe that unions have a place in society?

Are you aware of the range of corporation hostility to worker rights?

I don’t know about you, but I have always felt uncomfortable crossing a union picket-line. The good news for me has been that this has become an infrequent challenge. But the steep decline of the unions has not been good for workers nor for any nation.

I believe that the power gap between government and  representatives of the work force (however this may be defined) has become critical. The unions — in part as the result of corporate inspired legislation, to some extent because of the often inept union leadership, and in large measure because of the nature of capitalism itself- have become disenfranchised. The unions in the US and the UK no longer constitute an effective force against the corporations. Their members who, in response, have left in large numbers have become unrepresented and lower paid.

This steady dis-empowerment of the work force is not being properly addressed by anyone, not even by some politicians who are indebted to union support, like Britain’s Labor Party leadership. The question of how to redress the serious plight of the mass of unrepresented workers was not even brought up as an issue at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.

In capitalism the rich have the legislatures, the banks, all the corporations and most of the media on their side. The weakened unions have a small percentage of workers and a handful of politicians favorable to them.  Money and corporate profits, in this scenario, usually have the upper hand over fairness. Under the aggressive anti-union policies of ruthless companies like Walmart, corporations have been able to keep wages down while raising the remuneration of management. But these advances against unionism have  not resulted in any advantages to the now economically struggling national economies in the US or the UK.

The global economy is dependent on the balance of labor, capital and resources. As Al Gore cautions in his latest book: “the fundamental role of labor in the economy of the future is being called into question.”1 In the 21st Century capital has emerged triumphant, but the imbalance has caused massive failure on all three fronts: labor has become abused, the natural resources are being over-exploited and capital investment has become shaky.

This erosion of the power of organized labor has been long in the making. The trade unions have been vilified in the United States for the past two generations. The once progressive American unions, were infiltrated by corporate agents and by agents-provocateur of the police and FBI. In addition they also have been steadily undermined by Republicans in the name of “labor flexibility”. As a result of the inability of the2 politically harassed unions to protect jobs or pay, membership in such groups as the AFL-CIO is at a nearly 100 year low of ll.3 per cent of the work force, down from about 35 per cent 50 years ago. Anti-union right-to-work legislation in the US has left former blue-collar workers to compete for lower-skill and lower-pay jobs at the same time that computer driven technologies are throwing the American labor unions into an existential crisis.3

In the UK the current situation of the unions is hardly any better. Unions have been systematically dis-empowered by the provocative policies and tactics of politicians. Margaret Thatcher was an outstanding example of a politician intent on decimating the unions in the UK. When the unions still had power in the 1970’s their leadership was over-reaching and self-destructive in their tactics as well as in their demands. As a consequence when Margaret Thatcher became PM in the 1980’s she was determined to combat the power of the unions — using the police and the army against the miners and other groups. She pushed for the privatization of the national rail services because she saw its unionized work force as an organized opposition.

The job situation of workers in the UK in the 21st century has been spiraling downwards. The New Trade Union Congress chief, Frances O’Grady, has said that the Tory-led government has made it easier for employers to sack workers and more difficult for employees to get justice in the courts. Michael Gove, the abrasive Education Secretary and close, long-time friend of Rupert Murdoch, wrote to all the school heads in the British state schools last autumn urging them to take strong action against teachers involved in industrial disputes and to dock their pay. This caused an uproar in the highly unionized teaching profession which has still been able to respond effectively.

The Unions in the UK continue to be the principal paymasters of the Labor Party. On the other hand, the Labor Party leaders of recent years have felt constrained by the sense that they must never appear to be in the pockets of the TUC .

The four day work week and the 35 hour week, which have been tried in France and elsewhere in Europe are not regarded as a likely experiment in the UK which has some of the longest working hour levels in Europe. Prime Minister David Cameron and his inept Chancellor, George Osborne, have given the impression that in the future employees will have to work longer and later-on in life at lower pay. Pressured by small and large businesses, the Tories would very much like to abandon the maximum 48 hour week currently demanded by European labor legislation.4

The International Monetary Fund now admits that one of the chief causes of the global crisis is the decline of trade union bargaining power. The global squeeze on the real wages of the workforce is certainly indisputable. Arguing against the corporate propaganda that high union wages necessarily make manufacturing uncompetitive in a globalized economy has been a labor lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan. The American way of emasculating the trade unions over the past decades in order to become more competitive with goods produced China, India and in developing states has not proved effective. On the contrary, social democracies such as Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, that kept on paying high wages, now have healthier industries than the U.S. or the UK. which have seen their industrial base damaged.

The economic analyst, Will Hutton, writing in The Observer suggested that Trade unionists should refocus their demands and push for real change in the entire fundamentally bankrupt capitalist system.5

My own proposal to correct this increasingly problematic situation is that the labor movement should demand an end to global corporate hegemony and shift the economy to  cooperative employee ownership of the means of production. Such a revolutionary shift should come in well-planned stages.6 The first legal step would be to change the laws so that it will be far easier for corporations to transform themselves into cooperatives. Cooperation has not been a welcome word in the competitive world of capitalism. It was David Ricardo who argued back in 1817 that in capitalism competition drives wages down to the subsistence level and pits worker against worker and producer against producer. The role models I have in mind for the 21st Century include such successful cooperatives as the globalized United Parcel Service, The John Lewis Partnership (UK) and Mondragon (Spain).

Varied studies have shown that women are naturally more inclined to cooperation than the men who are so competitive in mismanaging the global economy. Listening more closely to the cooperative aspirations of most women would be a positive step towards the transformation of our entire socio-economic system.

We also must end decades of union bashing and find new ways to give the workers the means not only to further their interests but also to find more charismatic and intelligent leadership in the global union movement. While unions are trying to organize at a global level and proclaim their belief in global solidarity, they still act mostly in their national self-interest. The global differentiation of production processes has led to diverging strategies and interests between the northern tier of industrialized nations and the developing countries. Obviously such differences tend to derail any  hopes unions may have of creating broader universal policies.

For the Unions the time for direct confrontation with the police, the military or other governmental forces is over. Modern protests must come via the internet. In Germany the labor unions have taken on Amazon’s anti-union stance by the use of filmed staged protests. A coordinated and carefully planned internet assault on a corporation (e.g. Amazon or Walmart), an elected government (like 10 Downing Street or The White House), or a media body (such as FOX News in the US ) could help to bring the embattled worker unions to the forefront again. And that, in itself, is of the essence.

Footnote

Historically, the long term effects in the US of the 1947 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taft-Hartley_Act Taft-Hartley Act which first slowed, then halted labor’s growth and ultimately, over many decades, reduced it have been crucial. This legislation stopped mass organizing on the 1930s scale, outlawed mass picketing, secondary strikes as well as sit-downs. Wikipedia details how The Taft-Hartley enactments required hearings, campaign periods, secret-ballot elections, and sometimes more hearings, before a union could be officially recognized.

 It permitted and even encouraged employers to threaten workers who wanted to organize.

This legislation ultimately led to the “union-busting” that started with Nixon in the late 60’s. Corporate heads now feel they can violate the pro-labor provisions of the 1935 Wagner Act by firing workers at will, or firing them deliberately for exercising their legal rights.7

Illegal union firing increased during the Reagan administration and continued under the last Bush Administration. Labor strategist Kate Bronfenbrenner claims that the federal government in the 1980s was largely responsible for giving employers the perception that they could engage in aggressive strategies to repress the formation of unions.

1Al Gore, The Future, (2013) p.6

2Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality, (2012) p. 282

3Adam Davidson, “Unions play every card to stay relevant,” International Herald Tribune, February 2, 2013.

4Andrew Simms, “Less Is More,” The Guardian Weekend, 23 February 2013

5Will Hutton. The Observer, “Capitalism is bust for all but our elite.” January 20, 2013

6Yorick Blumenfeld, Dollars or Democracy. (2004)

7F.  Yorick Blumenfeld,  “Unemployment and New Jobs,” Editorial Research Reports, February 1, 1961.p.88