Another uncomfortable truth

Ever since 2018 began, more articles than usual have been dedicated to Karl Marx. It shouldn’t be a wonder, since May 5th this year will be the 200th birthday celebration of the renowned mathematician/economist/philosopher/journalist. People’s opinions are divided, of course, from one extreme to another. And that’s just scratching the surface of his genius: he did not leave anybody indifferent, so even those who were against his scientifically-based analyses got themselves thinking.

Marx’s disciples are quick to defend, while his detractors are happily rubbing their palms in delight. Okay, that last one might be an exaggerated caricature… but kidding aside, his detractors must at least be smirking because evidently, the global community has not evolved into a socialist system (even though some countries are leaning  towards this tendency). Their enthusiasm is such, that they are willing to throw away a solid, logical framework explaining (and pointing out the weaknesses of) the capitalist system, just because his ‘prediction’ is not yet coming true.

Regardless of whether Marx (and Engels, and Co.) predicted or strongly wished for a global socialist system (socio-econo-politico), there was one thing that everybody’s overlooked: the fact that even before the invention of private property, human nature has always been frameworked by greed (need for survival?). This means that regardless of the prevailing system, as long as it risks falling into the hands of a human being, it will always be doomed to failure. So let us leave the socialist aspiration aside and discuss this topic with the least possible “noise”. Let us only refer to a global community. Bear with me, my point will come in 2 minutes (3, if you’re a slow reader).

Remember in history class? when our teachers would point out that in pre-historic times, everybody had a function in the community? Every member: man, woman, any child that has undergone his or her rite of passage, would contribute to everybody’s well-being. It might be as a hunter, a gatherer, a builder, a witch doctor, etc…

Do you remember when we were taught that back then, vulnerable groups such as children, old people, the sick and pregnant women were protected and prioritized during the distribution of food or resting area?

When private property was invented, people started to increasingly go berserk accumulating, using their talents and abilities for the purpose. It didn’t matter whether it be for their family’s security, or for the joy of it because it had become the standard for success. This way, the concept of “common good” started to be pushed back to satisfy individual interests, something still strongly rampant until now.

So, how can we currently aspire for a society (that doesn’t even have to be global) that protects the weak, when we are made to understand that doing so could go against our best interests?

This pursuit has crossed borders, spreading worldwide, inciting men to take ownership of lands (and other resources) not their own and making them resort to plunder, leading to oppression.

Historical events have eventually shaped the world as we know it, and have allowed for material accumulation be enough to end hunger, poverty, and guarantee education and free health for all- maybe threefolds, even. So if the global material requisite is already present, why the delay in evolving into a society concerned with the common good?

Becuase of us. People. The ones that make up a community. Competition had gotten us scared to the point of resisting wealth redistribution, and insecurity had convinced us to support leaders who will defend our current and comfortable status quo.

How can there be a global community (socialist or otherwise) when each time a revolution is won, its leaders seem to forget about the people whom they fought for?

Furthermore, it must be recognized that this material accumulation we are witnessing have been achieved at the price of great pain and injustice (slave-trading, economic protectionism, illegal occupation, etc). And no matter how far back we trace, its implications are still carried around genetically, socially and culturally by the exploited populations.

So again: how can there be a global, humanitarian community when people are hesitant to be united because there has not been/is not a sincere desire for closure for past hostilities? How can this closure be achieved in the first place, if aside from not owning any accountability, the offenders have not shown/do not show an earnest intent for restitution?

Why is this even important? for the simple reason that for a global community to function, people must be convinced to participate and commit to it, worldwide.

So if we can’t even count on people’s interest to advance the common good under “normal” conditions, within their immediate environment, how could we aim for the same after a great change such as a systemic shift on a global scale?

I guess Marx had too much faith in mankind: he really believed we would evolve to become these compassionate, critical and “learned” race, who would not tolerate inequality and social injustices. But the truth is that we are only replicating past mistakes. Worse, those mistakes haven’t really been solved in the first place, they were just well-hidden from the ever-insensitized public.

Did he consider ceteris paribus with regards to the society’s disengagement to a capitalist system? He clearly didn’t expect the rise of the numbed middle-class, lured into consumption, competition and accumulation. Numbed to the point of believing that they too, are rich and belong with the elite; sedated to being oblivious towards their surroundings, let alone their neighbor’s suffering.

In effect

Marx’s prediction is not yet coming true. But will it ever come true? Some people, in their own little ways are individually exerting an effort to break away from the current systemic order. Some countries seem to be keen to experiment with the idea of wealth redistribution as the base for progress. It just might work. Who knows?

 

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Beyond feminism

Last month, people everywhere, everyway have been unstoppably discussing feminism: its current state, desired state, history, anecdotes, personified examples dead or alive, individual views, etc… It is so empowering to see so many support, or at least debate about the topic. We are silenced no more. And by “we”, I mean EVERY SINGLE WOMAN on the planet: from the Alaskan tundra to the lone Pacific Islands; from the ignored and unwanted baby girl somewhere in Sri Lanka, to the trans woman beside me, struggling for inclusion. It matters not where we come from, what we do, what we think of or how we choose to fight and be heard. We are being heard. So, thank you, sisters.

This got me to start thinking about the origin of the feminist movement. Although the dynamics are very complex and specific geographically and historically, the root is simple, really: an oppressed population group who started to join forces to fight for their own rights. A population group deemed weak by other members of the society- an idea that was spread throughout time and space. Until this group’s supposed “weakness” was encouraged, fuelled and even expected.

The deeper I meditated about this and the more I read about it, the more I collided with other materials which showed me the ugliest façade of human nature: the desire to conquer and of power. In their search to transcend their own time and limited space, humans have always sought to overpower those they considered as weaker members of their communities. Hence the wars, pillaging, colonizations, and treacheries, to name a few. Just then, dear reader, it was during this journey when I realized that throughout the history of mankind, women are not the only victims of social injustice and neglect.

Without going very far back in time, nor having to enter certain latitudes, let me introduce to you the first two most neglected members of the society: the children and senior citizens. In this order, because at least senior citizens could vote, therefore, some politicians would actually include their interests in their platforms. But children (minors)? what good are they? and if what I’m saying were a lie, then why isn’t there a serious effort from governments/societies to care for the environment, the heritage of today’s youth?

Next in line: the indigenous communities.

Followed by: people experiencing adapted mobility (I can’t think of a better way to say “disabled”).

Then we have: the youth.

Then there are our LGBT neighbors…

People with rare diseases…

Does the list go on? I certainly hope it does because it would mean we are more aware of their existence and perhaps society could start including them in making decisions. And I hope that in time, we would stop making this list and start making up other kinds of lists…

The injustices suffered by these groups could not be equated to what women have experienced all throughout the existence of written language. But shouldn’t this be the very reason why we should empathize with them, and make their struggle a bit easier along the roads we have tread before? liken it to an older sibling, who has paved the way for the younger ones’ lives to be a bit less difficult.

A friend told me once that it’s such a pity the term “feminism” is having a negative connotation, when all it really wants to convey is “equality”. I respect and believe this. I am an advocate of this, and my conscience is clear, my soul proud, and my heart grateful when I declare myself a feminist.

But I strive to be more than a feminist. In my narrow point of view, defined by my scarce time here on earth, beyond feminism, is humanism.

A tale as old as time…*

“As long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily; not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few, the rest being left to be absolutely miserable.”

“It was evidently quite obvious to a powerful intellect like his that the one essential condition for a healthy society was equal distribution of goods – which I suspect is impossible under capitalism. For, when everyone’s entitled to get as much for himself as he can, all available property, however much there is of it, is bound to fall into the hands of a small minority, which means that everyone else is poor.”

Can you guess who penned these words?

Adam Smith?

David Ricardo?

Karl Marx?

Rose Luxemburg?

Noam Chomsky?

NO.

It was Saint Thomas More, in the 16th century.

Think about it.

 

*Title borrowed from the “Beauty and the Beast” theme

 

 

Hidden-nomics (4): Cleopatra

So many legends and anecdotes have enveloped the historical person that is Queen Cleopatra, and I think that what fascinates most of us are the ones that refer to her great beauty and charm– qualities that were able to get the better of not one but TWO mighty conquerors, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Just how beautiful was this woman? Her adversaries have referred to the leader as a genuine femme fatale who used seduction as a means of getting her way. This derogatory title, coupled with the Hollywood movies that cast beautiful women to portray her, made it very easy to make people believe that she was indeed goddess-like in appearance.

However, recent evidence shows that she was not as physically attractive as people thought. Images of the late queen imprinted on coins or reliefs show a woman with a prominent nose and a protruding chin. While one could argue that beauty standards might have changed overtime and Cleopatra could have been truly considered beauteous back then, is physical appearance enough to seduce two of the smartest, most strategizing and cunning men of her time?

Some of the more “practical-minded” readers would say to themselves that sexual prowess could’ve been the key. But bear in mind that she was with Julius Ceasar for four years and with Mark Antony for a decade… sexual satisfaction alone wouldn’t have sustained such long-lasting relationships. (Ask around, if you must!)

So, for the sake of fun, imagine for a minute or two that the ancient ruler was more plain-looking than what we have been told… What then could she possibly have possessed to catch the interest of these two powerful men? to make great warriors bend their knees before her?

Could it be the same thing that made her the leader that we know she was?  the thing that made her gain so many enemies who tried to destroy her reputation by calling her of a sl*t?

She must have been a vessel filled with something truly valuable, but at the same time intangible! While that would be what historians and aficionados call “charm”, we economists label as “human capital”. In Cleopatra’s case, a magnificent and high-yielding one.

The World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Report defines it as:

the skills and capacities that reside in people and that are put to productive use.  This resource must be invested in and leveraged efficiently in order for it to generate returns.

First of all, when it comes to the initial investment, think about it: as a princess, her health was in the hands of the best doctors, she was well-fed, fiercely protected from the smallest mosquito to other lurking dangers (be it natural or man-made), she was exquisitely clothed and guarded from cold or heat, she was sheltered in palaces and this humble servant would dare bet that she was loved and spoiled by the people who surrounded her. Thus, the physical wellbeing she gained from these attentions have made her strong, less sickly, and have allowed her brain to develop well enough to absorb the many lessons she was taught.

As one would expect, her formation and training was certainly top-level as she was well-educated in maths and sciences. She was also well-versed in politics, spoke several languages and had access to the works of the greatest thinkers, so most probably she was also well-read. All of these experiences in turn must have worked their way into her mind, encouraging her creativity.

Accordingly, when it comes to the returns on these investments,  BBC History mentions that “she was a highly intelligent woman and an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war.” These are impressive returns for a thriving society!

Lastly, as human capital is also comprised of personality attributes, it must be mentioned that many Egyptologists agree on her having been a witty woman with a good sense of humor. Add to that the strong personality of anybody belonging to her social and economic class and you have the perfect ingredients for a woman who could easily disarm you after 2 minutes of meeting her. I rest my case.

Cleopatra might have or might not have looked like Angelina Jolie, but as looks are subjective (aside from the fact that they fade), we could be sure that she offered more than just a pretty face.

As for being a man-eating, seducing and devious tramp? nothing but venomous words from someone envious. Perhaps a man.

 

 

“One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present”- Golda Meir

Two things came to my mind upon reading Meir’s words:

  1. The past as we know it, has been documented and told by those who were “left standing” long enough. Others would simply say that “history is written by winners”.
  2. The only permanent thing in this world is change, so why shouldn’t we expect history to change as well? I’m not saying that it’s right, I’m saying it’s how things are.

On February 1944, George Orwell wrote a piece on how history is written by the winners. In it he stated that should his side win the war, they would tell fewer lies than their adversaries. Because the reality, as a TV show protagonist once said is that, “Truth is a battle of perceptions.”

Orwell further added that he would choose the most verifiable among the millions of instances which must be available. But wouldn’t the process of verification also be subject to the particular point of view of those participating in it?

The problem with the past as we know it is that no matter how many “facts” and “objective” measurements we are presented with (eg: the fact that a country had been under martial law, and the number of people who disappeared during the same period), they will always be laced with human perception. Such perspective will always try to slip past our critical and analytical minds, to reach our hearts and stir equally human feelings of either affinity or disdain to the initial observation.

The humanity in us easily makes us forget about the numbers, the facts, the objectivity of the past as we know it. And that is how we end up fighting and sometimes even insulting others- not to establish a fact, but to prove that we are right: that what we feel is THE legitimate and correct feeling, that what we believe is THE thing to believe in… within the uncontrolled realm of social media*, the famous “keyboard warriors” make it seem that suggestion outside of what others perceive is a lie, an idea forced through bribery or worse, a mere invention of creative minds.

Isn’t it sad? that instead of enriching ourselves in debate and trying to learn from an opposing perspective, our discussions on socio-econo-politic and especially in historic topics end up tallying who’s right and who’s wrong?

However, going back to erasing the past to fit the present…

On the one hand, I don’t agree it cannot be done. As a matter of fact, even if what already occurred can’t be undone, those living in the present can still modify data and information bit by bit until the desired effect is achieved. Even in those cases when data can be maintained intact, the interpretation of the said information can still be subject to the analyst’s own thinking (or agenda). So yes, this CAN be done.

On the other hand, no matter how improper it is to erase or alter the past as we know it, well, who doesn’t do it? the human mind is feeble and highly suggestive, while the soul can harbor various motives as well. And so no matter how many registered facts there are, no matter how many recorded events are available, people will always choose to believe what is convenient for them. So, even if it MUST NOT be done, human beings will always serve their best interest at the end of the day and overlook this little misdeed. (In fact, who’s to say that Meir was not guilty of this type of act?)

Dear reader, you might not notice it now but allow me to save you time: everything boils down to resource allocation. 

The “winners” who will proceed to write the story– ultimately turning into history- possess the power to influence which portions of the society get what percentage of resources. These could be time, money, attention, alliances, exposure, etc…

A very good example of this is the passing of the Spanish “Historical Memory Act”. Without embarking on a discussion of its relevance or utility, suffice it to say that this law was able to channel Spain’s limited resources into sectors which would otherwise be left in a state of disremembrance. (Some examples are: the identification and eventual exhumation of common graveyards, granting the Spanish nationality to families of the exiled and the removal of any symbol commemorating the military uprising.)

Due to the very nature of history (or the past as we know it), different interest groups will always resort to revisionism to establish their own version of truth.

This is what’s currently happening in the Philippines, where young Filipinos are being taught that the Marcos regime of dictatorship was the most glorious period of the country. Once again, it simply boils down to resource allocation; this time the resource being a seat in the political arena. For why else would these parties bother to convince a whole generation about the goodness of the former dictator, if not to reinstall his family and allies back to the Philippine politics?

The lesson I gather from this reflection is that we must be very vigilant of the kind of past being insisted as “what really happened”. We cannot and must not change the past what about the rest? we don’t hold anybody’s deeds and desires but our own. Yet, we can exert a small leverage in our communities even as we are neither historians nor big influencers.

Starting with ourselves, we should never lose sight of our past: the past as we were told, and the past as it is currently being recounted. Let us be indefatigable seekers of information, and let us be annoyingly non-conformists with the kind of facts lain before us.

More importantly, let us take ownership of that history. Let’s make it ours: just as we find ourselves to be part of a family, let us also make ourselves part of a town, a country, a global community.

With the knowledge that we have, we can then proceed to inquire, debate and refute any efforts of revisionism that we feel is not right.

Finally, let us exert a massive effort as a community, to reach out to the children- our future. Not only must we pass on to them the gathered knowledge that we have. We must also teach them how to collect the necessary information, where to get it, what questions to ask, to whom they should ask, how they should ask and to never be afraid to politely discuss anything that doesn’t satisfy them.

Golda Meir was a diplomat, politician and the fifth Prime Minister of Israel. Not wanting to question neither her sincerity nor her intentions for uttering those words, it is obvious that she has every interest in wanting to preserve the historical memory from her ancestors. But she was not alone in this task. Ever since the post-war period, every awareness creation effort has been made so that this dark chapter in human history will never be forgotten. And it must be said that this kind of tenacity is admirable, considering how many generations have passed and nobody has ever questioned the integrity of records about the violent pursuit of the Jewish community.

The past of her people, as well as her very own, made her understand the importance of preserving history: to learn from the past as we know it, allowing for hope in the achievement of a greater future.

 

* Social media is a fantastic platform for knowledge-distribution and idea-sharing initiatives.

Sources:

  1. The Economist quotes, available at: https://goo.gl/vWzDx3
  2. “History is Written by the Winners”, by George Orwell, available at: http://alexpeak.com/twr/hiwbtw/
  3. “All People are Living Histories- which is why History matters”, by Penelope J. Corfield, available at: http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html
  4. “The Face that Launched a Thousand MiGs”, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/aug/16/biography.politics