Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Legacy of Gandamak and the Crisis of Counterinsurgency

“Where there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, the answer is not so difficult. Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediately visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” – President John F. Kennedy to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1962.

"The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gandamak" painted by William Barnes Wollen in 1898 depicts the last stand near Gandamak village on the 13 January 1842 by the survivors of the British retreat from Kabul.

In 1839, British forces invaded Afghanistan and captured Kabul. By 1842 the occupation sparked uprisings by the Afghani population which soon routed British forces. The commanding officer of the British Garrison in Kabul, Major General William Elphinstone, planned a retreat of the garrison which consisted of British and British Indian soldiers and their wives and children. The retreating column was continuously harassed by Afghani tribesmen and they were all eventually either massacred in the valley pass of Gandamak, died from the harsh wintery conditions and lack of supplies, or were captured. Only one member of the garrison, an assistant medical officer by the name of William Brydon, both survived the ordeal and made it back to the British garrison of Jalalabad.

Ever since this massacre near the village of Gandamak in January 1842, Afghanistan has proved the setting for risky geopolitical jousts, dangerous strategic manoeuvring, and folly military interventions by global great powers. Whilst the motives for the invasions of Afghanistan were different for each superpower, the course and outcomes of their conflicts have all arguably been analogous – indeed such is the legacy of Gandamak. The British invaded for strategic and imperial rationales – seeking to counter Russian influences in Central Asia and to protect Imperial India. The Soviets invaded for strategic and political rationales – seeking to counter American influences on the southern flanks of the USSR and to support the Afghani communist regime of the Saur Revolution. The Americans invaded for security and political rationales – seeking to rid the world of the Taliban that were supporting Al Qaeda, to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, and to bring capitalism and democracy to the country. Indeed the imperial and military misadventures by the great powers profoundly reflect an ignorance and misunderstanding of the diversity of Afghani political and cultural dynamics. Suffice to say, as Seth Jones has termed, Afghanistan has been the Graveyard of Empires through changing international and regional strategic, military, demographic and socioeconomic factors - the Great Game of the 19th century, the Cold War of the 20th century, the concurrent War on Terror or Global Counterinsurgency as per David Kilcullen, and the emerging New Great Game.

Afghan children beneath graffiti of a crossed out pistol with writing that reads "freedom" in Kabul (20 June 2012 | Associated Press / Ahmad Nazar).

Now in 2012, 170 years since the withdrawal of British forces and their massacre in the First Anglo-Afghan War and 23 years since the withdrawal Russian forces and their loss of the Soviet invasion, the troops of the 2009 surges by the United States have been demobilised. Indeed the history of Gandamak has been stirring up similarities between the Afghani ventures by British forces and ISAF forces. The United States Secretary of Defence, Leon Panetta, announced the finalisation of the withdrawal whilst in New Zealand in September without pomp or circumstance in the American or international media. At the NATO Summit in Chicago in May this year, an exit strategy and transition were planned entailing decreases of the NATO led ISAF troop commitments with incremental handovers to Afghani security forces. Other member nations of ISAF, such as Australia, have also begun to scale down operations and troop commitments. There is seemingly recognition by the public and governments of ISAF member nations that a continued prolonged and sustained military presence in Afghanistan has become too detrimental due to overriding political, financial and human costs.

Indeed, the international military presence in Afghanistan, which has been a continuous conflict since 2001, has largely turned into a quagmire. Efforts to train Afghani forces have resulted in growing numbers of “green on blue” attacks. Levels of corruption and obstruction in the Afghani authorities have been ride. The increasing utilisation of drone strikes, surgical or not, as well as extrajudicial killings as tools of statecraft to fight insurgents in the contested Federally Administered Tribal Areas and in the Afghani-Pakistani border more broadly have killed civilians, categorically exacerbating existing conflicts and facilitated radicalisation. Continued deaths and wounding of troops by Improvised Explosive Devices have been unforgiving. The noted troop surges, whilst may have appeared an effective strategic decision hoping to mimic the success seen by the Iraq troop surges, have operationally manifested as poor tactical deployments that have been proven ineffective at stemming the flow of violence and Taliban movement.

Recent phenomena, such as the Arab Spring, along with long term economic trends, namely the Asian Century, have profound geopolitical and strategic implications for the conflict in Afghanistan. The pivot that Central Asia has historically offered is drastically changing due to economic, technological and social change in the wider Middle East and Asia Pacific regions. The British made this mistake through pouring troops in from India in the nineteenth century as did the Soviets from their border in the 20th century. Now the Americans and ISAF are scaling down troops whilst attempting to train Afghani security forces and bequeath a new self-dependence. The Soviet campaigns of carport bombing of villages with attack helicopters and plane strikes are analogous to current drone strikes by the United States. Indeed a tragedy presents itself – Mikhail Gorbachev couldn't win the war in Afghanistan and yet couldn't acknowledge this fact. Although Gorbachev, a moderate in the politburo, planned a withdrawal deadline of Soviet forces, military expenditure actually increased until Soviet forces crossed the last bridge out of Afghanistan. Similarly, Barack Obama faces an increasingly unwinnable conflict and yet steadily increased American forces until scaling back the troop surges just last month. Indeed, Afghanistan is a war without an end. Fundamentally, Afghanistan proves unstable and, as David Petraeus notes, any progress that has been actualised is fragile and reversible.

"Remnants of an Army" painted by Lady Elizabeth Thompson in 1879 depicts William Brydon, an assistant medical officer, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of the British retreat from Kabul of 1842. 

Theorised, developed and put forth by maverick military commanders and strategists thinking outside of the box at the Pentagon, counterinsurgency strategy was hailed as a panacea and game changing for the future of warfare. The pioneers of counterinsurgency, figures such as David Petraeus, John Nagl, David Kilcullen, and Herbert McMaster, have marked the rise of a new intellectual warrior class: combat soldiers with doctorates and higher academic qualifications. Counterinsurgency at its crux is an operational strategy centred on protecting population centres from insurgents, civil institutional capacity building, and information operations. Indeed the work by former Australian Army officer, government advisor and political anthropologist Dr David Kilcullen on counterinsurgency strategy has been fundamentally important. His theory of the “accidental guerilla  is a key to understanding the insurgencies around the world throughout modern history. A complex range of diagrams and flow charts explained in verbose management language with a focus on quantitative methods are all now part and parcel of the strategy of counterinsurgency as it manifests in the academic literature and military strategy. The pioneers of counterinsurgency led the charge for counterinsurgency strategy to be adopted by the United States Military as official doctrine by presenting it as the grand unified theory of everything for the unconventional warfare. Consequently the United States Military formulated the Counterinsurgency Field Manual and the Army and Marine Corps have implemented training programs, established research centres, and formulated operational tactics guidelines for small frontline units. The United States Department of State formulated a counterinsurgency guide for the civil agencies of the United States Government. The NATO led ISAF commanders have also established counterinsurgency manuals. Indeed, counterinsurgency strategy has become the orthodoxy for unconventional warfare for the United States Military.

Fundamentally though, counterinsurgency has largely failed at countering the widespread insurgency in Afghanistan and yet it is becoming almost dogmatic and a “one size fits all” strategy for commanders, planners and policymakers. Critically, counterinsurgency is largely becoming the unquestioned orthodoxy and an institutionalised narrative of unconventional warfare for the United States Military. However there is an ongoing debate surrounding the effectiveness of counterinsurgency inside the United States military and government and outside in academia and think-tanks. Even President John F. Kennedy warned the graduating class of the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1962 that counterinsurgency is problematic: “Where there is a visible enemy to fight in open combat, the answer is not so difficult. Many serve, all applaud, and the tide of patriotism runs high. But when there is a long, slow struggle, with no immediately visible foe, your choice will seem hard indeed.” Indeed, unsatisfying wars are the stock in trade of counterinsurgency; rarely, if ever, will counterinsurgency end with a surrender ceremony or look akin to the victories of conventional warfare of history. And yet, unconventional operations, from counterinsurgency to foreign military assistance, have been the operations almost exclusively waged by the United States Military since the Vietnam War though with the notable exception of the First Gulf War. Comparative to other operational doctrinal changes in the United States Military, counterinsurgency largely went unquestioned during its emergence and adoption. The doctrine of AirLand Battle was the official doctrine for the United States Military from 1982 to 1998 and over 110 articles were written for military journals fundamentally questioning it from 1976 to 1982. Up until its adoption in 2006, there was marginal questioning of counterinsurgency with only significant critiques occurring during its operational and doctrinal implementation. The paradigms of counterinsurgency that originated with the Boer War, were developed during conflicts in Malaya, Algeria, Vietnam and Northern Ireland, and then redeveloped for the insurgency in Iraq have largely failed in Afghanistan. Moreover, it is still questionable to assume that counterinsurgency and the associated operations were a success in Iraq. For Afghanistan, counterinsurgency has been inadequately implemented due to practical failings, ignorantly theorised through dogmatic assumptions, and fundamentally been an ineffective foil against the blades of cross cutting ethnic, religious, political conflicts.

There have been scathing criticisms against counterinsurgency since the official adoption of it as a doctrine of the United States Military. There is seemingly a schism in command structure over the validity of counterinsurgency with a number of active United States Army Officers openly critiquing their superior officers. United States Army Colonel Dr Gian Gentile and retired United States Army Colonel Dr Douglas Macgregor are emblematic of this increasingly present schism within the United States Military. Outside of the military there have been systematic articles criticising counterinsurgency. Adam Curtis, a documentarian with the BBC, wrote a very insightful examination of counterinsurgency theory critiquing the American redevelopment of it for Iraq and Afghanistan. Sean Liedman, a United States Navy Officer and Fellow of the Weatherhead Centre for International Affairs at Harvard University, writes a dissertation entitled “Don’t Break The Bank With COIN: Resetting U.S. Defence Strategy After Iraq and Afghanistan” which offers an insightful critique of counterinsurgency. The website Reassessing Counterinsurgency also provides a comprehensive library of articles evaluating counterinsurgency operations and strategy. Critically, counterinsurgency strategy as has been practiced in Afghanistan is flawed - the troops surges have failed, the ethics of counterinsurgency operations are questionable, and counterinsurgency has become more or less a paradigm of armed nation building. 

A bullet-riddled map of Afghanistan painted on a wall of an abandoned school in Zharay district of Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan (9 June 2012 | Reuters / Shamil Zhumatov).

Within the context of the recent demobilisation of the troops from the 2009 surge in Afghanistan order by Obama, it is important to examine the impact of surges associated with counterinsurgency operations and strategy. The primarily rationale for the Afghanistan troop surge in 2009 stemmed from the seemingly successful troop surge in Iraq in 2007 where violence significantly declined. Military commanders and counterinsurgency strategists complained that it was the troop surge that led to the declines in violence however on closer examination that a range of other factors were at play. Certainly there was a decline in violence in Iraq in 2007 coinciding with the troop surge, but this does not equate to causation. The Sunni Awakening, the cease-fire by Mahdi Army, the progressive sectarian segregation of Sunnis and Shiites, and the positive inroads of United States Military, are all critical factors in explaining the decline in violence. Moreover, comparative to Afghanistan, Iraq was more conducive to counterinsurgency operations due to the largely static population centres, working urban infrastructure, relative ethnic homogeneity and better economic conditions. The population of Afghanistan, conversely, is far more rural and sparsely located with more ethnic heterogeneity in Iraq.

Thus the starting rationale for the troop surge in Afghanistan wasn't as clear cut or significant. Failings of the Afghanistan troop surge stem from this misunderstanding of the flaws on the Iraq troop surge, but also from the misunderstanding of the dynamics of the Afghani insurgents or "accidental guerillas"  as per Kilcullen. Increasing troop commitments exacerbated unrest and consequently more accidental guerrillas were killed through the superior fire power of the United States Military forward operating bases and patrols. Efforts to protect population centres with increased security failed simply because an increased troop presence didn't deter the Taliban from making threats and carrying out punishments with those that explicitly and implicitly cooperated with ISAF. Moreover, cross cutting ethnic and political conflicts were further exacerbated by increased presence of ISAF troops and their efforts in civil cooperation and capacity building. Afghani civilians didn't attend marketplaces patrolled by ISAF troops and migrated away from their troop bases. Thus the crux of counterinsurgency of population centric operations failed either because increased troops simply deterred civilians before engagement or killed the farmers that infrequently fired at ISAF troops (the "accidental guerillas") thus fostering further radicalisation or alienation. The civil programs of the United States Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development were simply not effective, coordinated or specialised for Afghanistan. There was no sustainable socioeconomic development or long term institutional capacity building by such civil programs which were critically important for support the military operations in the overall counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. 

For the surge and its accompanying counterinsurgency strategy to prevail in Afghanistan, four main things needed to occur: The Afghan government had to be a willing partner, the Pakistani government had to crack down on insurgent sanctuaries on its soil, the Afghan army had to be ready and willing to assume control of areas that had been cleared of insurgents by American troops, and the Americans had to be willing to commit troops and money for years on end. Fundamentally, the aforementioned were not attained. 

A graph from a ISAF Report in September 2012 measuring Taliban and associated insurgents launched against NATO forces, month by month from January 2008 to August 2012 (obtained via "Military's Own Report Card Gives Afghan Surge an F" from Wired.com).

Coinciding with the rise of counterinsurgency, there has been a militarisation of the social sciences by the United States Military. The relationship between the social sciences, particularly anthropology, and the military has a contentious history since the Second World War with Iraq and Afghanistan proving flashpoints. One of the pioneers of counterinsurgency, David Kilcullen, completed his Doctor of Philosophy in Political Anthropology at the University of New South Wales with a thesis entitled “The Political Consequences of Military Operations in Indonesia 1945-99: A Fieldwork Analysis of the Political Power-Diffusion Effects of Guerrilla Conflict” in 2000 utilising ethnographic methods.

Indeed there has been an acknowledgement of the importance of cultural intelligence in counterinsurgency and the United States Military have established the, horrifically named, Human Terrain System Project staffed by social scientists and deployed with combat forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Attempts to rectify crosscultural problems and teach intercultural understanding to the military commanders of ISAF have been made by anthropologists and other social scientists. Also, there has been extensive writing on the critical importance of understanding local and regional cultural dynamics with ethnographic depth for counterinsurgency strategy and peacekeeping operations. Whilst individuals such as Kilcullen have indeed made constructive inroads in achieving a cross-culturally competent American military establishment, a range of external and operational factors have contributed to renewed failings of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.

Yet this militarisation of the social sciences to enhance counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has been met with scepticism and controversy. Ethical objections by the American Anthropological Association and various social scientists have also been made. Legal questions pertaining to the combat status of non-military members of the Human Terrain System Project and their ability to engage with aspects of war fighting are also important. Organisations such as the Network of Concerned Anthropologists and Anthropologists for Justice and Peace have been active and vocal in criticising counterinsurgency and the Human Terrain System Project. The Network of Concerned Anthropologists has even published a book entitled The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual that systematically critiques counterinsurgency strategy and the employment of social scientists by the Military. David Price, a Professor of Anthropology at St. Martin's College has also written the comprehensive book entitled Weaponising Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State which also rebukes the militarisation of the social sciences. 

United States Army soldiers of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, carry a wounded colleague after he was injured in an IED blast during a patrol in Logar province (13 October 2012 | AFP / Munir Uz Zaman).

The paradigm of nation building is arguably a valid concept of international development; however within counterinsurgency operations it is pursued primarily by the military. This is only inevitably due to the massive difference between funding and resources of the United States Military and the foreign civil development programs of the United States Government. Yet such a situation is not ideal. Thus it is accurate to classify counterinsurgency as armed nation building conducted by an organisation not versed in civic development. 

Such coincides with the existential crisis the United States Army is going through over what role it is to take in a post-Cold War and post-911 world. Pentagon officials and strategic theorists believe the future will be dominated by sea-air warfare, cyberwarfare, and unconventional warfare. Indeed the historical role of the Army of infantry operations and conventional warfare is now defunct. Therefore, the top United States Army officers believe that they must adapt to the changing strategic and security environment or risk decreased funding and irrelevancy. Though whilst adapting to unconventional warfare may seem a critical and imperative decision for the United States Army and military at large, it is merely a superficial approach and ignores the underlying factors for such conflict in the first instance. Moreover, the adaptation to counterinsurgency and asymmetrical warfare by the United States Military arguably incentivises and fosters an interventionist posture. A change of posturing of the United States Military from conventional forces towards a holistic counterinsurgency doctrine will likely incentivise continued entrances into unconventional conflicts that would traditionally not have been a consideration. Gian Gentile, a United States Army Colonel and History Professor at West Point, posits that overconfidence in the validity of counterinsurgency incentivises future interventions into conflicts but also prevents the development of capabilities to counter conventional threats.

A United States Army soldier of the 1st Airborne Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division fires a machine gun at insurgent forces in Ghazni province (15 June 2012 | U.S. Army / Mike MacLeod).

Rather than have the United States Military adapt to asymmetrical warfare, efforts must be taken to increase the funding and resources of civil and humanitarian programs such as USAID and various organisations of the Department of State. Only then can the underlying conditions that foster radicalisation, extremism and the accidental guerilla syndrome be dealt with. Insurgencies will continue to exist despite the exertions of counterinsurgency operations by the United States Army and Marine Corps. Thus rather than increasing military presence, non-military humanitarian and development capabilities need to be favoured. Rather than having the capabilities of drone strikes and counterinsurgency operations, the United States and ISAF as a whole should be focusing on civil, stabilisation and capacity building programs. Indeed, whilst military forces will be required to provide security and protection to such civil programs, the military option should not be the first option of choice or even the tenth. Rather than drone strikes and troop surges, ISAF must focus on civil capacity building through education and social, economic and infrastructural development projects, and through stabilisation policing and security assistance. Indeed ISAF should be focusing on security assistance and socioeconomic development, rather than combat operations with drones and troops. All other avenues are akin to attempting to crack a nut with a jackhammer.

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Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland and is currently undertaking a Summer Research Scholarship at the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland. He is interested economic, evolutionary and medical anthropology and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing piano. 

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Review: 'Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain' - David Eagleman


About four years ago I went under the knife for a procedure many teenagers will endure; wisdom teeth extraction. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about what it might be like – stories about dentists who need to stand up on the chair to get leverage, for instance; gruesome descriptions of the cracking noise that comes as teeth are wrenched from their sockets one-by-one; etc. etc.

My actual experience, however, was somewhat enjoyable. Plainly, I don’t remember much. What I do remember is a cold feeling running up my arm (after an injection of general anesthetic in my wrist), and waking up (seemingly only a moment later) feeling awfully cheerful and relaxed, and dribbling uncontrollably. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘That’s what a good night’s sleep should feel like!’

You might not have had a general anesthetic before, but I bet you’ve tried alcohol (or other substances) and experienced a shift in your consciousness. Drugs work. But why? The insight my wisdom-teeth experience afforded me, and which David Eagleman expounds upon in his new book Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, is that thoughts are physical.

Eagleman is a neuroscientist at the Baylor College of Medicine, where he directs the Laboratory for Perception and Action, as well as the Centre for Neuroscience and Law. Incognito is his elegant attempt to lampoon the dualistic view (that the mind and body are separate) that has dominated western thought for centuries, and to demonstrate how truly bizarre the three-pound bag of goop inside your skull is in its operations.

Consider this: there are a disproportionate number of people named Larry and Laura (and other names starting with L) in the legal profession. Similarly, the average person is more likely to marry someone with a name beginning with the same first letter as his or her own. But if you ask Leonard why he married Leanne and decided to go into the landscaping business, don’t expect him to own up to the powerful influence of the alphabet.

Some more surprises: men consider women far more attractive just before they ovulate. No one knows why, exactly, but it could have something to do with pheromones – chemical messages secreted by the body that signal fertility. The effect is pronounced: one study in New Mexico found that female strippers raked in an average of $68 per hour during peak fertility, compared to a normal average of $52 (and only $35 during ovulation).

What these examples, and dozens more in Eagleman’s book highlight, is that the conscious aspect of our cognition is by no means the most central to our actions and choices. Although he lacked the tools that we have today to get inside the head, it seems that Freud – despite some questionable forays into unfalsifiable theory creation (e.g. the Oedipus complex) – was essentially right to believe in the paramountcy of the unconscious.


Incognito offers an enjoyable amble through social psychology and modern neuroscience, but many will have heard about much of this material (about our non-rational side etc.) before. The most intriguing insights – at least for me – come, instead, in the form of Eagleman’s musings on neuroscience and the law; principally, about what a deeper understanding of the biological bases for our actions means for concepts like culpability and punishment.

In 1966, a 25 year-old engineering student at the University of Texas, Charles Whitman, opened fire on his fellow students from the heights of the main building’s tower. Only shortly before, Whitman – who had an IQ of 138, and had been previously known as an intelligent and friendly young man – had killed his mother and wife (stabbing the latter while she slept). As the nation grieved, many asked a simple question: ‘Why?’

A note Whitman had composed the night before, offered some answers:

I do not really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I cannot recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.

Also in his note, Whitman asked that an autopsy be performed after his death to determine if something had changed in his brain. And in an eerie harbinger of what was to come, he asked that his money be donated anonymously to a mental health foundation; “Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type.” Whitman’s intuition was spot-on: an autopsy, performed shortly after he was killed at the scene, revealed an aggressive brain tumour known as a glioblastoma, which had compressed his amygdala – a region of the brain associated with emotional regulation.

What can cases like Whitman’s tell us about our criminal justice system? At first glance, not much – our system already enables such people to get off the hook, if it can be shown that their actions were not, for instance, voluntary. But if neuroscience is beginning to explain how all of our behavior is caused by our biological states – and that, consequently, we have no meaningful ‘free will’ (because such states are influenced by factors beyond our control) – shouldn’t we be letting everyone walk free?

Eagleman outlines an evidence-based approach to criminal justice that is forward-looking, and which acknowledges the incoherency of retributivism:

While our current style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, the present line of argument suggests an alternative. Although societies possess deeply ingrained impulses for punishment, a forward-looking legal system would be more concerned with how to best serve the society from this day forward … Prison terms do not have to be based on a desire for bloodlust, but instead can be calibrated to the risk of reoffending.

Of course, that is only the beginning of a rich conversation. But it suffices here for me to say that I think Eagleman’s approach is persuasive. If we take it seriously, it could require no less than a fundamental restructure of our criminal justice system. Such blue-sky thinking, besides the elegant descriptions of our brain’s ins-and-outs, makes Incognito a worthwhile read.


An interesting presentation by David Eagleman on ‘The Brain and the Law’ can be found here.

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William Isdale is a law and arts (politics and philosophy) student at the University of Queensland, where he is an Academic Excellence Scholar and TJ Ryan Medallist and Scholar. He is the President of the Australian Legal Philosophy Students' Association and Editor of the Justice and the Law Society's journal 'Pandora's Box'. In early 2012 he was a visiting student at Oxford University's Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.

Friday, 24 August 2012

The Contentious History of Evolutionary Theory in the Anthropological Academy: From Boasian Historical Particularism to Wilson's Sociobiology



With the publication of On the Origins of Species, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has been one of the most profound theories in the biological sciences in expounding and analysing the physical, genetic and behavioural diversity of animals. Indeed Darwinian evolution has been a profound theory outside of the biological sciences – namely it has had remarkable impact in the social sciences throughout its history. During the nineteenth century, “versions of Darwinian evolution took centre stage in political and social philosophy and in the human sciences.” A number of anthropologists came to understand cultural variation in terms of a linear progression to a cultural apex, then considered Western civilisation. This interpretation was rebuked by the anthropological school of cultural relativism and it became essentially taboo by the academy to utilise evolutionary theory in the social sciences. That said, during the early to mid-twentieth century a number of sociopolitical movements, such as the Nazi party and the eugenics movement, appropriated Darwinism to justify the genocide of certain deemed “unfavourable” and “subhuman” demographics. Such justifications were strongly condemned by evolutionary scientists as pseudoscientific and immoral but such utilisation of evolutionary theory in the social sciences still remained seriously contentious. Then in 1975 the American entomologist Wilson developed the field of sociobiology as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behaviour in the context of evolution” and in 1976 the British zoologist Dawkins developed the gene-centred view of evolution based on “selfish genes” determining natural selection and consequent behaviour of an organism. Whilst both Wilson and Dawkins primary aims were with the study of non-human animals, their theories flowed over into the realms of the social sciences. Indeed there was a profound backlash in the social sciences academy claiming that sociobiology and the gene-centred view were ethnocentric, reductionist, determinist and flawed in explaining human nature. By the 1990s, the debate over human sociobiology culminated in the development of evolutionary psychology as attempting to respond to the criticisms against evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Led by Barkow, Cosmides, and Tooby, evolutionary psychology aimed to understand the “neurobiology of the human brain as a series of evolutionary adaptations and that human behaviour and culture thus stem from the genetics and evolution of the brain.” Yet there still exists and persists contentions from the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. This essay will examine the history of the contributions and criticisms of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, from its racist and pseudoscientific past to its current contributions. Then it will examine the contributions and theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as applied to anthropology in explaining human nature and also examine the contentions and controversy in the anthropological academy in response to such. Overall this essay will not delve into the technical details and scientific theory of evolutionary theory, but rather examine its claims and responses to and from in the anthropological academy.

Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has presented an interpretation of human nature that has been at odds with prevailing theoretical paradigms throughout its history. The theorisation of human nature through conceptions of evolution and instinct has been undertaken by such figures as Darwin himself, Hume, Smith and Huxley who have proposed that the mosaic of human nature stems from innate human instincts. Whilst this paradigm of evolutionary social science culminated as essentially “passive and benign contemplations”, the theory of evolution of natural selection also manifested as bigotry, racism and the apparent justification of white Anglo male supremacy based on a linear interpretation of history. The school of social evolutionism in the anthropological academy led by Tylor, Morgan and Spencer became the dominant paradigm in the late ninetieth century and became appropriated as Social Darwinism in popular discourses. This paradigm utilised the framework of evolution to describe the differences between developed Western civilisations and non-developed “savage” cultures as stemming from the biological inferiority of the “savages” who were considered more related to chimpanzees than the superior Anglo-Saxons. Social movements also took up this school of thought and supported social policies of eugenics and forced sterilisation of certain demographics such as those in low socioeconomic statuses, those with disabilities or mental illness, or those from non-white ethnicities. Key responses to this school came from Boas and Kroeber in the anthropological schools of historical particularism and cultural relativism. These schools posited that the history of humanity is not a linear progression to the technological civilisation of the West but rather that each culture must be understood by “its own conditions and own particular cultural history.” Yet, there have still been individuals and groups that support Social Darwinism, culminating in cases such as the forced assimilation of Australian Aboriginals in the early twentieth century and the genocide committed by the Nazi regime during 1933 to 1945. After the Second World War, as Degler posits “the utilisation of the theory of the biological sciences in the social sciences and the ‘biologicisation’ of human nature became a taboo” due to the profound consequences of its appropriations.

During the 1970s there was a revival in the theory of evolutionary theory with advances in molecular biology, genetics, computer science and mathematical game theory. This revival was primarily aimed at explaining non-human animal behaviour and was largely led by Wilson and Dawkins along with other evolutionary theorists. Although this was the primary aim of the science, both Wilson and Dawkins still theorised on the evolution of human behaviour using the same paradigm of evolutionary theory of the study non-human behaviour. There was profound backlash in the social sciences, primarily by Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin and Sahlins with the scientific reductionism and biological determinism of sociobiology in explaining culture, but also controversy surrounding the ideological and ethical implications of such. Thus the theorists of sociobiology then responded to such criticism and controversy with the development of the field of evolutionary psychology. Led by Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, evolutionary psychology attempted to redress the claims of reductionism and determinism by focusing on the dichotomy of nature and nurture through holistically studying the neurobiological, cognitive and psychological factors of human nature. Yet, the paradigm of evolutionary psychology has also too been met with profound criticism from the anthropological academy. Despite such criticism over legitimacy and usefulness, the fields of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and the general application of evolutionary theory in the social sciences, have been increasingly taken up in the biological and social sciences academies.



The majority of ethical, practical and theoretical contentions in the anthropological academy surrounding the application of evolutionary theory to explain human nature stem from the reductionism and genetic determinism of evolutionary theory. Indeed the question of how in the confines of the so perceived savage, impersonal and selfish world of Darwinian natural section can complex social structures and cultural norms come about is indeed important. Sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as they manifest in the academic and popular literature have been rebuked by anthropologists and other cultural theorists as being “ethnocentric, reductionist, determinist, and philosophically reprehensible.” Critics level evolutionary theory “is merely academic fancy foot work away from the archaic and pseudoscientific” school of social evolutionism of the nineteenth century, that it explicitly and implicitly makes “false, flawed and unsubstantiated assumptions about social, political, economic, and cultural processes”, and that even the presumption of a “human nature itself is flawed.” Indeed as Sahlins has stated, evolutionary theory in the social sciences is “at its worst pseudoscientific and racist and at its best it is quasi-scientific based on flawed principles and methodology with a profound misunderstanding of the dynamics of culture.” The responses to these claims by evolutionary theorists have centred on pointing out the “fundamental biological basis of humans, being an animal species just like any other” but also pointing out the “naturalistic fallacy between making descriptive and normative judgements."

The theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is predicated, by definition, on reducing human behaviour to an evolutionary and biological basis. According to Lewontin and Sahlins this does away with the cultural forces of acculturation and diffusion and other social, economic and political dynamics. Indeed explaining human behaviour by “reducing it down to the genes of the body and modules in the brain” fundamentally “neglects to recognise the power of culture in shaping and reshaping the human mind.” Thus the theorisation of the gene and or the brain being the paramount determiner in human behaviour is flawed as it “restricts the interpretation of behaviour and its cultural context.” Rather, Lewontin propounds a dialectical and interactionist interpretation of human behaviour in response to the reductionism as “it is not just that wholes are more than the sum of their parts, it is that parts become qualitatively new by being parts of the whole.” Lewontin propose that dialectical explanations are more effective and holistic in explaining human behaviour in contrast to the “reductionist calculus of the evolutionary neurobiological and gene-centred view of culture.” In response, evolutionary theorists propose that reductionism is an “important scientific principle.” Moreover such theorists as Barkow and Wilson propose that the theory of evolutionary psychology also seeks a holistic interpretation of human nature via genetic, cognitive, neurobiological and psychological processes “based on the fact that humans have evolved to environments with culture – that culture is not independent of evolution, but rather biology is the precursor.” Indeed “culture is sometimes advanced as competing with explanations that invoke evolutionary psychology, most frequently when cross-cultural variability is observed” and these “cultural explanations invoke the notion that differences between groups are prima facie evidence that culture is an autonomous causal agent.” Evolutionary theorists respond to these criticisms by stating that “cultural explanations are more or less cultural reductionism” and “ignorant of the role of biology and innate characteristics” that have evolved in the human species.

Along with the claims and criticisms of reductionism against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is biological determinism. The critics label sociobiology and evolutionary psychology as biological determinist and that evolutionary theory is ignorant of the forces of nurture and the capacity of culture and social environments to shape and reshape human nature, but also that evolutionary theory facilitates and entrenches racism, sexism and prejudice. Indeed major criticism against sociobiology and evolutionary psychology that stems from the ethical, political and social implications of their theoretical underpinnings and findings. The critics of evolutionary psychology propose that evolutionary theory promotes or at least enables racism and sexism and does to re-entrench out-dated perceptions of sex and race. This criticism came from key findings in evolutionary psychology that the male and female brains evolved differently and thus possess different cognitive and behavioural hardwiring and that certain ethnicities are more likely to behave in certain ways or are more susceptible to certain diseases. Indeed, some evolutionary theorists, such as Jensen have even claimed that that intelligence is inheritable, that certain races are more intelligent than others, and that racial economic equality is unattainable. Thus it is proposed that just as the historically dominant class ideologies that supported the oppression of women and ethnic minorities had strong pseudoscientific justifications, in the form of assertions that women and ethnic minorities were genetically inferior, sociobiology and evolutionary psychology makes it possible again to hold such beliefs.

All this criticism has been strongly responded to by evolutionary theorists primarily based on pointing forth the naturalistic fallacy and that “sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are scientific disciplines with no social agenda.” It is also put forward that the frameworks of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology dissolve dichotomies of nature versus nurture, innate versus learned, and biological versus culture. It is not biological determinism but rather an understanding that genes and other biological factors predispose certain behavioural traits and therefore culture. Moreover, it is proposed that the biological determinism perceived of evolutionary theory in the social sciences “as being seen to be antithetical to social or political change is evidently historically falsified.” Evolutionary theorists respond with that evolutionary psychology does not privilege or prejudice individuals or groups but rather just seeks to describe and that the claims on racial inequality being inevitable by Jensen and Herrnstein have been discredited in the evolutionary theory by fellow theorists such as De Waal and Pinker. Indeed, it has been asserted that critics have been putting forth critiques based on personal political and ethical values rather than any empirical or explanatory factors and thus the attacks against evolutionary theory have been made on “non-scientific grounds”. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists “should and do acknowledge the role of ideology and politics in the formation and support of scientific paradigms” but do not let it influence their own paradigm. Moreover it is noted that “genetically determined mechanisms do not imply genetically determined behaviour” and thus the theory of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology is not predicated on genetic determinism. Fundamentally critics do not recognise the naturalistic fallacy in their critiques of the ethical implications of evolutionary theory. Indeed “an explanation is not a justification” and neither sociobiology nor evolutionary psychology attempt to justify the existence of social hierarchies, racism or sexism – “when they are and have been used to justify such than evidently that is not scientific.” It is posited that any “politically incorrect assertions of evolutionary psychology are based on considerable empirical evidence” and indeed critics are welcome to challenge the evidence or provide testable alternative explanations. Overall it is a profound misunderstanding of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology to claim it is biological determinist when it takes in genetic, neurobiological, and cultural evolution of human behaviour. Thus when the theoretical paradigm fails to achieve such a spread of looking at genetic, neurobiological and cultural factors, theorists agree with critics that such a paradigm is indeed flawed.


The resurgence of evolutionary theory in the social sciences has indeed been a contentious and controversial one with much criticism being levelled against it but it also has managed to make constructive contributions to the anthropological academy. With its archaic and pseudoscientific beginnings in the schools of social evolutionism and Social Darwinism of Tylor, Morgan and Spencer arguably behind it, Wilson and Dawkins and then Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby and others transformed the application of evolutionary theory in the social sciences. Yet indeed the theory of sociobiology and evolutionary theory was met with critical claims of ethnocentrism, determinism and reductionism by Sahlins, and Lewontin, Rose, and Kamin and others, it responded with arguments stemming from the naturalistic fallacy and that it is a misunderstanding of the theory to label it determinist. Indeed the majority of theorists, both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, acknowledge that it is flawed and invalid to make purely reductionistic and biologically determinist explanations for human nature, specifically culture. Thus evolutionary theory attempts to employ a holistic interpretation based on neurobiological, genetic and cultural factors whilst firmly grounded in the understanding that humans have evolved with culture. Overall, whilst evolutionary theory in the social sciences, particularly cultural anthropology, has been and still largely is contentious, it is becoming the popular and prevailing paradigm once again. Thus sociobiology and evolutionary psychology must not revert to their natal beginnings in the application of the human sciences through justifying racism and sexism and other forms of violence and prejudice of the times of Social Darwinism. Fundamentally evolutionary theory must progress cautiously in explaining the politically, socially and morally sensitive issues that exist. Indeed making politically incorrect findings through evolutionary theory is essentially inevitable and should not be refrained from, but its theorist must recognise the consequences as they manifest in the social environment that it exists in. 

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Tasman Bain is a second year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology) and Bachelor of Social Science (International Development) Student at the University of Queensland. He is interested evolutionary anthropology, social epidemiology and philosophy of science and enjoys endurance running, reading Douglas Adams, and playing the glockenspiel.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

'In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes': Why Popularity has become More Concentrated not Less


Reflecting on Warhol

Andy Warhol's prediction that everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes was intended to undermine the idea that anyone 'deserved' to be famous and highlight that with modern media a broader collection of people could be known by everyone (for only a little time, admittedly). This is related to the broader idea that globalisation and the end of the old media etc. would lead to more voices being heard and a decrease in the dominance of cultural conversations by a few individuals. I have highlighted before (in my post http://reciprocans-reciprocans.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/is-trade-in-ideas-free-interrogating.html) that the marketplace for ideas is fundamentally unfree and in this post I wish to examine whether the broader idea that we have a more pluralistic (or less 'concentrated' perhaps) culture is at all valid. I can't help myself, I'm addicted to a life of material

So this begs two questions: How do people get famous? And is this more or less concentrated than before?


I don't mean I want to examine the marketing of celebrity (which is detailed for those interested in a reasonably old Economist post: http://www.economist.com/node/4344144) nor do I want to get into a debate about the merits of Madonna or Lady Gaga etc (which I have previously defended at http://reciprocans-reciprocans.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/baby-im-your-biggest-fan-ill-follow-you.html), I mean the process by which the works, knowledge of their lives or writings of famous individuals spread in society.

I want to make two claims: really famous works (or the fame of celebrities) tend to spread at a slow rate until they reach a 'critical mass' at which point they spread exponentially (seemingly without effort) and that this and the processes of globalised capitalism make a 'winner take all' culture more pervasive (with qualifications) than before. 

Warhol may have been right that many people are famous for short periods, but it is still true that there are particular subjects whose fame does not fade as easily who still dominate our culture.

How Things Get Popular

Gabriel Rossman in his excellent book Climbing the Charts discusses how most ideas (or works etc.) either spread 'within' a social network (think of your friends recommending a song or a new cardigan) or 'from without' (e.g. promoting the Batman film with a huge advertising release). The latter type produces the more predictable pattern that the work will do huge business initially but then fade away quickly, for example with Twilight box office sales.


Charts courtesy of Sociological Images

Now, most works function like this- they have some initial scales (which are obviously scale variant) and then peter off. But some films or songs etc work in the first way- they become 'viral' which means that their sales are 'S-shaped', they are unpopular initially and then suddenly when they reach a critical mass of popularity, spike! As an example: the box office results for My Big Fat Greek Wedding:


This even applies to baby names, as you can see in the chart below, Isabella spiked as a social phenomenon from without whereas Madison spiked initially due to the movie Splash (released in 1984) and then became a runaway success until fading in the late 1990s.


Now, what does this all mean? Well, if you do get famous, with the exception for those whose 'fame' is the very brief glimpse on the nightly news- you tend to become famous for a longer period than Warhol's quip might suspect- see the Kardashians, for instance. Once you get people initially interested in a product, work etc. it can spread 'virally' throughout social networks till the popularity of that product, work etc. is self sustaining, at least for a time.

But, since I'm an economist at heart, what are the consequences then for the monetary side?

The Rise of Winner Takes All Markets

As Adorno puts it in The Culture Industry, previously you might've had a tenor for each major town and a group of tenors in a major city- but now, thanks to technology, everyone can listen to Pavarotti- who is almost certainly not so much better than other tenors that he deserves most of the attention/profit but might be a bit better and able to be marketed more easily. With the invention of the internet in particular, it is very easy now for the works of certain people to spread through the whole population without limitations on say actually being able to go to a concert hall or wait for a new print run of Harry Potter etc.

Now, this is obviously not entirely the case- 'within' trends do exist as I noted, as evidenced by the explosion of new acts and writers who have risen from the internet (for example Justin Bieber). But the idea that new technology was solely going to lead to pluralism or the demise of persistent celebrity is false- indeed popular Western acts like Madonna etc. have displaced some locally famous acts across the developed and developing world. As there is an ability to reach more people, the 'market' for fame and status can devolve into a 'winner takes all' market. In economics, you can have a market where scaling up actually increases the returns you make on an investment (as opposed to what you might think is more intuitive- where scaling up decreases efficiency). If this is the case, then superstars can basically extract a lot of profit when they get to a certain critical mass of popularity.

What are the limitations on this? Well, most new adaptions only get to a certain level of popularity before they peter out- with the exception of televisions, there is almost no technology owned by close to the whole population of the United States, for instance. Also, as we have seen time and time again (particularly with the youth), people will either intentionally or otherwise break the mould of the system- perhaps creating alternative or subculture communities as a consequence. 

Conclusion

The tide of any cultural change is hard to predict- who would have thought that 'Call me Maybe' would become so popular or that a book about a boy wizard who goes off to wizarding school would enthral a huge reading public? But the general outline of the complex and varied system that is 'culture' can be at least traced. Fame might be quicker to obtain now than before, but it still often lasts and can provide particularly high profits. In the end, some people are still famous for a lot longer than 15 minutes and most people are only noticed for fifteen seconds, at best.

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Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Communist Countries: Crisis, Contradiction and Collapse

Introduction: A Beautiful Idea, Really?
I've often had people claim to me that communism would be a great idea, if only human nature let it work. But I don't think that Marxist communism in particular would work on even a theoretical level- the idea of a 'dictatorship of the proletariat' ever seeding power is beyond comprehension. Were then communist systems always doomed to fail, or might they have survived if not for a few historical quirks?

Marx claimed in Das Kapital that “capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation”. His argument was that because capitalist societies relied on social production to create wealth but private appropriation to obtain wealth, they were fated to collapse. However, communist systems also suffered systemic crises, from the failure of the New Economic Policy to the USSR’s fall. Indeed, communist systems suffered from the same internal contradiction as capitalist systems, notably an exclusive extractive class which took profits away from socially productive workers. Communist systems in fact fared worse than capitalist economies from this because they entrenched party apparatchiks at the head of their economies and lacked the 'creative destruction' of capitalism. As a consequence,   they suffered systemic crises, to which unlike capitalist democracies, they could not adapt. I want to make two points in this post: first, that the autocratic nature of communist parties lead to the creation of a new extractive class, that of autocratic party bureaucrats and second, that this internal contradiction lead to crises in communist nations, leading to their eventual collapse. Thus, it will be proven that not only did communist systems contain internal contradictions; they suffered worse from them than capitalist systems.

Party Bureaucrats: The World's Best Rent-Seekers
Communist systems lead to the substitution of Marx and Engel’s bourgeois class who aimed for the “accumulation of wealth in private hands” for a group of party bureaucrats who were equally extractive, thus leading to an inherent contradiction. Official Soviet propaganda espoused that the regime was leading the USSR to a “brilliant future… one of liberty, equality, fraternity, guaranteed employment”. However, because of the inherent vagueness in Marx’s idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” which he claimed would lead to the “abolition of all classes” after a transition phase of socialist rule, all communist systems in reality did not transition out of bureaucratic socialism. As Olson notes, under Stalin this meant that the party expropriated all natural resources and capital to add to its yield to its tax collections and also directly controlled consumption and investment for its own benefit. 

Party members were rewarded from this expropriation with special stores, health care facilities and vacation spas in return for loyalty to the party. CPSU members were paid 127 per cent of the average wage of a government worker and their pay was one third of the government administration budget. Further, there was systemic soliciting of in-kind payments and direct stealing. They also engaged in what Verdery terms “political capitalism”, that is bureaucrats used the shortages inherent to the system to make a profit from selling scarce goods. Party “apparatchiks” thus became the class of rent-seekers that Marx railed against because the command economy allowed them to do so. They constituted a class both in terms of political power, economic capital and the ability to consume both more goods and those of a higher quality. Communist systems became a form of what Clark and Wildavsky call “vulgar capitalism” or “profit-making without competition… based on corrupt personal relations”. Simultaneously, bureaucrats were rhetorically devoted to “large-scale heroic means of production”, production based around work done cooperatively. Therefore, so-called communist systems suffered from the same internal contradiction as capitalist systems: while production was (at least initially- black markets eventually flourished) social and cooperative, the accumulation of wealth was private and worked by class expropriation.

Tear Down That Wall!
Further, this inherent contradiction led to inevitable crises in communist systems, to which they could not adjust unlike capitalist systems, which led to their collapse.  Marx believed that the inherent contradiction in the expropriation of workers by the bourgeoisie would eventually lead to a decline in the “rate of exploitation” because “vampire-like, the capitalist only lives by sucking labor”. His argument was that eventually this would lead to recessions and the awakening of class-consciousness. This problem was also present in the Soviet Union, where the extraction of wealth by members of the CPSU helped to slow economic growth to the point where in 1967 the GNP of West Germany was larger than the entire Soviet Bloc. In particular as Maier outlines the extractive process of the communist system hampered the social production of the workers on which it depended. 

Somewhat fittingly, this led to the class conflict that Marx had predicted capitalism falling prey to, especially the rise of the Polish trade union Solidarity that was integral in the USSR’s collapse. This was worsened by the chronic shortages of basic goods which led to worse recessions than those experienced in capitalist systems. Capitalist systems did not suffer as badly because, as Marx was unable to foresee, the welfare state was developed, which redistributed profits to the working class because it was in the bourgeois political class’ interest to avoid class conflict. In contrast, the extractive behaviours of communist party members were only possible through continued coercion of those they were apparently serving. As soon as communist regimes faced crises they could not adapt except by further coercion and entrenchment of expropriation behaviours. Thus, as soon as communist regimes were opened to partial openness such as under Gorbachev’s glasnost in order to create more profits to expropriate, they began to collapse under the weight of their own internal contradictions. This has occurred not just in the Soviet Union, but also in the fall of Yugoslavia, the transformation of the People’s Republic of China and recent partial reforms in the collapsing Cuban economy. Thus, the inherent contradiction in communist systems and their inability to adapt to the crises resulting from it led to their eventual total collapse. 

Conclusion and Consequences
In conclusion, contrary to Marx’s predictions, this essay has shown that the autocratic nature of communist “dictatorships of the proletariat” created the same inherent contradiction between the social production and private extraction and accumulation of wealth inherent in capitalism. Further, it has shown that this led to crisis and eventual collapse of communist systems because the extractive class in the communist system could not allow for it to be adapted unlike the capitalist bourgeois class. Thus, Marx’s proposed solution to capitalism became self-defeating in practice for precisely the reasons Marx felt that capitalism would fail.

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Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.

Friday, 27 July 2012

'It is the morality of altruism that men have to reject': Why I find Rand's Objectivism Objectionable


"I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine"- John Galt, Atlas Shrugged

Most philosophies, even those who are particularly detrimental in their consequence, have redeeming features: nihilism (broadly the idea that life has no meaning) provides an interesting criticism of the concept of meaning and anarchism validly points out that states have overreached boundaries in many circumstances. But Rand's Objectivism, cannot be redeemed as it is founded on the premise that, to quote Rand of "the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute". This sounds fine on the surface- why can't we be self-interested? But instead of justifying this belief in self-interest via the outcomes it produces or recognising its limitations, Rand's idea just attempts to cut off all that is good about human beings (charity, altruism and cooperation) and replace it with a cold, calculating society. Indeed, Rand is so devoid of feeling- the despondency of nihilists, the anger of reactionary conservatism or the somewhat na├»ve hopefulness of communitarianism- that it is difficult to tell on reading her whether she is talking about the same species of Homo sapiens that I interact with daily. 

I want to chart my objections to Rand on two levels: a slightly more esoteric look at why I think Rand's ideas are morally bankrupt and a pragmatic look at why Rand should never, ever be used as a basis for policy making.

'To say "I love you" one must first be able to say the "I."'- The Sterile Self Interest of Rand's Philosophy
In the Groundwork, Immanuel Kant conceived of humans as the ends in themselves- that is we should treat other people (and ourselves) as ends, rather than means to an end. Now Kant's philosophy obviously has problems- what about in purely economic transactions? Why is it silent about animals? But it brings up the important point that to be moral in any sense, we can't just aim for ourselves and ourselves alone. Yet Rand would have the individual only ever act for themselves- when it is clear that human society is based on cooperation and reciprocity. It is worth presenting a more detailed rebuttal of this kind of individualism before I get to why I find it to be morally reprehensible rather than just incorrect.

Rand argues that by choosing to think, humans can liberate themselves from the tyranny of being yoked to others, a logical consequence of a person's primary obligation which she thinks is one's own wellbeing. She believes that humans have a choice to think, and rational thought will necessarily lead them to Rand's philosophy. Setting aside this supreme arrogance, one of the examples she cites is that "He cannot obtain his food without knowledge of food and of the way to obtain it. He cannot dig a ditch––or build a cyclotron––without a knowledge of his aim and the means to achieve it. To remain alive, he must think" (Atlas Shrugged). Now this is odd- because her examples are all examples of what we need other people for - gaining knowledge and tools to survive in the world. All human societies, but especially the capitalist societies Ayn praises are rooted in trust and cooperation- because the market isn't a natural state- it relies on trust for its very survival. Indeed contra Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society- it is based in the cooperative social relations of semi-autonomous semi-rational individuals with overlapping state, market and social institutions. Humans cannot reason just for themselves- both because we have evolved to be happier when other people are (so called other-regarding preferences) and because as I will later elaborate on, to do so would be a disaster.

But why is this immoral, rather than just factually inaccurate? I will borrow another of Kant's ideas as an 'intuition pump' (i.e. my argument will not rely on it, but it helps to illustrate a point), that of the 'categorical imperative' or basically that any moral law should be universal, without regard to circumstance. Now, if everyone applied Rand's morality or i.e. if Rand's thoughts were taken to be universal- the consequences would be monstrous! We have enough problems in our society as it is with self-regarding people (think of the consequences of crime or unrestrained uses of power). We would have no regard for the vulnerable, or disadvantaged- no social progression, only the inevitable march towards violent anarchy. This is important because Rand wants her principle to be universal, rather than say historically contingent on post-industrial capitalism. Even if it was contingent, this presents even larger problems for her philosophy, it is empirically true of modern society even more than every previous society that it can only function by cooperation- meaning the application of any of Rand's principles would not lead to more freedom, but rather societal collapse. 

Further, if morality is 'having a good will' or doing what is 'right', the ability to fully determine that for ourselves despite the consequences for others- seems both contradictory and downright criminal (why can we just disregard all others?- Rand is not particularly clear on this point). Now, I would not claim that everyone should follow Comte's maxim that we should all live for others, but any practical morality must include both other- and self-regarding components, otherwise in my view we may as well give up on humanity. 

But the lack of moral value aside, what briefly are the pragmatic outcomes of Rand?

"Wealth is the product of man's capacity to think"- The Practical Consequences of Randian Thinking
I want to briefly illustrate now three ways Objectivism is a real-life disaster: what would happen if some people took on Rand's worldview, what would happen if everyone did and some actual examples of Objectivists as policy-makers.

In Anthem, Rand acknowledges that the earlier is more likely as "The truth is not for all men, but only for those who seek it" (Rand also acknowledges that in various places not all people will 'think' enough to embrace her ideas). This would likely lead to Objectivists trying to manipulate others as to increase their own happiness- as without proper regard for others or society at large, many of our innate moral precepts cease to have real meaning. On a policy level, Objectivists would agitate for the abolition of 'coercive' government structures- such important social mechanisms as any kind of welfare, public goods: indeed most things that governments do. While it is their right to do so- these policies would lead to the kind of outcomes detailed in the next paragraph.

If for some horrible reason we all became Objectivists, something similar to what I discussed earlier would happen- the state would retreat into such minimalism that it could not function (Rand wants the slow abolition of all taxes) and society itself would never be able to fill the gap that the state previously had. Especially when all members of society now treat themselves as the only end to any means. But what has this looked like before?

Two prominent disciples of Rand are Paul Ryan (although he's released contradictory statements to try and hide this) and Alan Greenspan. Ryan's budget, drawing on Rand's principle of pulling back any coercion of individuals, would fundamentally wreck the balance of income distribution in the United States and would ruin the already struggling United States healthcare system. Greenspan, the former US Federal Reserve chief cited Rand as one of his primary influences in his stewardship of the US economy towards the oblivion of 2007 by pursuing ruthlessly pro-business and anti-regulation policies.

Conclusion- Where to from here?
I should note at this point that I don't find Objectivists themselves immoral- many of them are quite lovely people, partly because I've never actually met anyone who acted as Rand would have them do in real life (even if it affects their political views). But I do think that Rand's thinking is a dangerous virus that can infect the impressionable and ruin political debate with its dogmatic insistence on the primacy of individual self-interest. We should all inoculate ourselves against such thinking.

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Dan Gibbons is a third year Bachelor of Commerce (Economics) student at the University of Melbourne. He has a forthcoming publication in Intergraph: A Journal of Dialogic Anthropology (about memory and nationalism) and is currently submitting papers on the rise of modern consumerism, the role of criminology theory in literary criticism and the institutional theory of nationalism. Dan is a keen debater and public speaker.