You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2007.
Now that I’ve established my radical-left and nutter credentials, I’m going to talk about something ordinary people can relate to: trying to win a large sum of money. In 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute stated seven “Millenium Problems” in mathematics — modeled after the famous open problems posed in 1900 by David Hilbert — and offered prizes of $1,000,000 for the solution of any of them. One of the problems (the Poincaré conjecture) has apparently already been solved, although the cash award was declined. I’m personally in no position to turn down any kind of money, and in an excellent position to engage in mathematical crankery, so the risk-benefit profile for such an undertaking is good: and one of the problems, the question whether the computational complexity classes P and NP are equivalent, would be at least good practice for my more quotidian tasks.
As most people know, computers operate using algorithms: strict procedures for manipulating data. Any computationally effective procedure is an algorithm in theory, but not all algorithms are created equal: some are vastly more efficient than others, which can make a big difference in how fast computer programs using them run. Algorithm efficiency is measured by the “rate of growth” in the number of steps necessary to execute an algorithm for a given number of inputs: an algorithm that quickly sorts 64 items, but chokes on 2048 items, would generally be reckoned inferior to one that handled more elements with greater ease. This is formally represented using one of several similar notations giving upper and lower bounds for the rate of growth: in “big-Oh” notation, the steps in an O(n) algorithm grow linearly, proportional to n, as the inputs increase (in the worst case).
Because of the finite resources actual digital computers have, only algorithms where the rate of increase in steps can be represented by a polynomial — O(n), O(lg n), O(n^2), etc. — are actual candidates for employment in programs. Such algorithms fall into the computational complexity class P, for “polynomial time”. But there are a lot of “in-principle” computational algorithms that do not obviously fall into this class. The “classic” example, and the one which I have the most to say about, is determining whether a sentence in the propositional calculus is “satisfiable”, that is whether or not it can be true under some assignment of truth-values to propositions. Now, Satisfiability (SAT) clearly has a simple subproblem: once truth-values have been assigned to the propositional atoms, determining whether the sentence built up from those atoms using truth-functional connectives is true is something a computer could easily handle.
But satisfiability, rather than “being satisfied”, requires considering a number of different assignments of truth-values until the “correct” one is found, or none is found and the sentence is determined to be unsatisfiable. This part of the problem is licked by human beings testing satisfiability by, well, guessing: and if the computer could do the same for assigning truth-values to atoms, the problem would be easy to solve. This need for an element of randomness makes the obvious solution nondeterministic, and so satisfiability (and problems equivalent to it) are in the complexity class NP, for “nondeterministic polynomial time”. So it would seem that satisfiability is beyond the digital computer’s ken. Or is it? Although the “obvious” algorithm is not in P, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no polynomial algorithm for solving an NP-hard problem. And if the problem is NP-complete, meaning that any problem in NP can be reduced to it, a polynomial-time algorithm for it would show that P=NP (since NP includes P and P would also include NP).
Such a result would change the world as we know it. I doubt one is forthcoming, though, and so do most computer scientists. Many people have tried the traditional approaches to tricky computational issues on NP-complete problems, without success. But one area where, as far as I know, less ingenuity has been used to tackle the P vs. NP problem is in finding a logical shortcut — a formal property of NP-complete problems that just shows us they can’t be reduced to P. Satisfiability, since it is basically a piece of ordinary logic, would be the problem best suited to such “cheating”: and I’ve identified at least one feature of satisfiability that I think might be relevant. The formula being considered in satisfiability problems is usually required to be in “conjunctive normal form” (CNF), where the “literal” propositional atoms or their negations are combined in disjunctions (“ors”), which clauses are combined at the toplevel using conjunctions (“ands”). CNF looks like this:
(~p v q v r) & (~q v s v t) & (r v t v ~x)
This formula is satisfiable under a couple interpretations, but the important thing to notice is that the CNF formula is equivalent to several separate assertions (the disjunctions), and satisfiability of the formula would be equivalent to saying that these assertions do not jointly imply “bottom” or falsum, the propositional constant which is always not true. If there was a way to mechanically draw such a conclusion from the assertions, we would be on our way to an algorithm; and in a special case, there is. It has been known for many years that satisfiability in 2-CNF, where there are two literals in each of the disjunctions, is in polynomial time: by doing “random walks” through the formula, guessing and refining an assignment, satisfiability can be relatively easily determined. But this result has a more “logical” explanation, too. Since there are only two possible items in one of the conjuncts, their logical relationship can be unambiguously represented without negation by one of the eight possible truth-functional binary connectives. (Although we typically only operate with four binary connectives — disjunction, conjunction, material implication, and equivalence — and combine them with negation to represent other truth-functions, the more exotic binary connectives like the Nicod and Sheffer strokes shouldn’t be forgotten).
If we replace the CNF disjunctions with binary connectives, we have a series of implications, equivalences, etc. that are easy to reason with: and what we’d be doing in seeing whether they collectively implied falsity would not be very different from “type-inference”, the perfectly tractable procedure some languages use to determine the unspecified type of a function. But if we move to 3-SAT, with three literals, such a procedure no longer works. The relationship between three items in a disjunction cannot be unambiguously represented by binary connectives, and we don’t have a clear understanding of how reasoning could proceed with ternary connectives: so it perhaps is unsurprising that 3-SAT does not yield to the procedures that solve 2-SAT. And although this is very far from a proof, I think that some such logically comprehensible feature of 3-SAT (which is itself NP-complete, since the general SAT can be reduced to it) must mean that we can’t have a polynomial-time algorithm for solving it.
Recent responses to the blog have been gratifying, so I’m taking a big step and putting another item on the conversational table. If you know me, or know of me through some medium other than this blog, you might know that I am a paid-up paranoid schizophrenic (I hope that the number of junior Kraepelins who have arrived at this conclusion based on the material previously available here is small). I became seriously troubled in the fall of 1999, and was diagnosed with a schizophreniform illness the following spring: in 2001, this was upgraded to full-on schizophrenia, after a court-mandated hospitalization following some foolish behavior on my part. I suppose you might be surprised to hear that someone with this diagnosis has “heard voices” exactly twice and never found them compelling: the primary symptom of my seriously ill years (right up into 2004) was a little more unusual than that.
Under the impression that a philosophy professor of mine had taken an ill-considered “romantic” interest in me, I became convinced that she and people in league with her were trying to communicate with me through the juxtaposition of books left out in libraries and bookstores. The very first time this thought occurred, I was in the Barnes and Noble in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh. Having been having a stressful time dealing with this woman, and believing that she (or a woman looking exactly like her) had stared me down in the same bookstore some months previously, I was at the bookstore (under the pretense to myself of buying a Karl Marx reader) hoping to meet up with her in a less fraught environment. Entering the philosophy aisle, I saw two books removed from the display and lying in front of the other books on the shelves: Atheism: The Case Against God and a book on the German political theorist Carl Schmitt.
At that moment, I was off. I had expressed an interest in Schmitt to a friend of hers, and the atheism book might be a sign that her Nietzscheanism wasn’t all that anodyne; suddenly I knew, or strongly surmised, that those items had been left there to get my attention. I knew that this wasn’t something that “normal” people did; but she seemed far from normal to me, and if there was even a chance that I would be being harassed in such a fashion, I concluded I was really in for it. Once these kinds of thoughts get started in a susceptible person, they’re hard to uproot, and as the pieces of my life began to fall apart I spent more and more time in bookstores and libraries (first only in Pittsburgh, then later on in Portland as well) looking for ominous signs of this nature. I felt incredibly afraid, and concluded that this was in fact the point of such an exercise: and why, even if such things weren’t going on at a particular time, they could always start up if I attempted to confront my “oppressors”, couldn’t they?
Today, I know it’s an anthropological invariant that people don’t do things like that: nobody in their right mind, no matter how twisted, would waste time and energy on such a practice. So, although I’m generally open to all corrections and criticisms here, I would suggest that stating the obvious (which facts have probably occurred to a severely mentally ill person, without their finding them appropriately compelling) is not necessary. But, having considered it for a long time, I think there may be some value for people in having a venue to find out what the “weirdest of the weird” think, and so I intend to maintain as a sideline explaining and answering questions about the unobvious facets of severe mental illness. There are other things to talk about; in a way, there are only other things to talk about. But I think it’s almost as important to hear about the real mental existence of the afflicted, as to read their slightly tendentious interpretations of philosophical topics; of course, you’re welcome to do neither if you so choose.
Well, I complained about the lack of sociological material on the Web, so I might as well do my bit by saying something about Niklas Luhmann’s use of logical concepts.
Luhmann was a contemporary of Jürgen Habermas, a youth during the second World War: after the war, he took a law degree and worked in the civil service of Lower Saxony. In the 1960s, Luhmann made a career change, studying for a year with Talcott Parsons at Harvard and later being appointed to the faculty of the new University of Bielefeld (his writings having been accepted as qualifications in lieu of a proper credential). From that point on, he was perhaps the most influential sociologist in the Bundesrepublik, eclipsing his disputant Habermas (co-author with Luhmann of a book Systems Theory: Social Technology or Theory of Society? — Habermas taking the former position and Luhmann the latter) . But although Luhmann’s ideas were a common currency among large sectors of the educated German public, his domestic popularity never translated into overseas notoriety: in the US, Luhmann’s work is the exclusive property of “theorists” in specific social-scientific and humanistic fields, not for the most part a subject of serious or widespread sociological attention.
There are reasons for this. A lot of people are put off by Habermas’ syncretism, his blending of a hundred and one approaches from seemingly widely disparate areas of inquiry: it’s too much to ask that someone be able to apply speech-act theory to the theory of social differentiation, they think. Although he was a little more selective in his reference points, Luhmann’s writing style is even more off-putting; he explicitly stated an aim of making his works difficult to read, such that they might not be comfortably read and misunderstood. But Luhmann’s attempts at a more “technical” sociology through the use of formal methods have been questionable (and although this is a common enough complaint in the “soft” sciences, Anglophone interest in Luhmann has not been great enough to generate or propagate such criticisms).
Luhmann published many books, but his mature theory can be found laid out in two of them: Social Systems, a metatheoretical introduction to the methods of analysis Luhmann proposed to apply to social phenomena, and Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, published a year before Luhmann’s death in 1998. This second book is one in a series of books titled “______ der Gesellschaft“, which constitute a Realphilosophie of sorts, applying systems-theoretic methods to various aspects of society. The most general of social systems being society as a whole, the two-volume “Society of Society” explains how “second-order cybernetic” mechanisms for the ability of a social system to remain stable, act, and evolve are actually reflected in contemporary world society.
Since “first-order” cybernetics was quite the fad in early postwar social science, one quite thoroughly done with, there might be an expectation that a “second-order” variant incorporating the ability of systems to observe themselves, generalizing Kant’s famous transcendental unity of apperception to systems other than individual minds, would prove problematic. And indeed, one of Luhmann’s most-cited authors in Social Systems is the much-maligned George Spencer-Brown, whose Laws of Form has been described on the Internet as “just for laughs” and demonstrated in print to contain an idiosyncratic notation for the propositional calculus in its talk of “drawing a distinction”. But the enterprising reader of social theory could put all that together for themselves: what I would like to comment on is Luhmann’s use of logic in his untranslated “magnum opus“, since I have been working through it a little bit at a time (I’ve had the Suhrkamp paperbacks for a couple years, but they collected dust awaiting a passable facility with reading German on my part).
One might think that the “concrete” character of Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft would make for easier going in this respect, since Social Systems attempted to lay down rules all systems operating with meaning must follow; and this is partially true, since Luhmann is not forced to say anything implausible or falsifiable about “psychic systems” to make his points. Unfortunately, Luhmann seems to have graduated to a more common sort of error in operating with formal concepts, making “philosophical” points out of formal results — the oft-decried “Gödelization” of meaning is in full effect in several passages. But what is perhaps even less fortunate is the lack of attention to concepts that are rightfully connected to formal systems: Luhmann borrows a colleague’s description of some social systems as “autological”, with nary a mention of the origin of this term in Grelling’s paradox.
Luhmann’s argumentation concerning the structure of society is (by the standards of sociology) quite rigorous, raising the question whether significant logical savvy is really a precondition for “exact” work in the human sciences. But I think it is still unfortunate that Luhmann’s systematic works are not echt logical, since his theory of “society without people” would have provided a nice counterpoint to the heavily “humanist” tilt of most formal reasoning.
Mr. Waggish has had a fine series of posts provisionally assessing the legacy of the recently departed Richard Rorty. I don’t think now is the time for me to say anything comprehensive about Rorty, if there ever will be a time: but something Waggish says about a way analytic philosophers have of holding fast to their ideas deserves a little consideration. He cites two examples of the seriousness with which analytic philosophers have taken their arguments to heart: “Derek Parfit’s views on (lack of) personal identity, by his own admission, brought him great comfort in facing death. David Lewis, to cite an extreme example, truly believed in an infinite number of alternate worlds for modal purposes.”
As for the first example, I am a little puzzled: Derek Parfit is alive, and I have never heard of any serious challenge to this state — perhaps there was indeed an illness, or maybe Waggish is just invoking the ordinary concerns about mortality most people have. But Lewis’s modal realism is what I want to talk about. Not really the pros and cons of the argument: I’m not a huge fan of Lewis’s oeuvre, and so not much hinges for me on a close reading of On The Plurality of Worlds, or (should the decision go against modal realism) showing how the rest of Lewis’s analyses can be saved from falling with it. What I want to consider is what it would really mean to be a modal realist, in terms of the intellectual environment against which such a view can be defined.
As the reader may know, the formal logic of necessity and possibility was a field that had, until the early 20th century, lay fallow for some centuries. But starting with a few scattered figures (Hugh MacColl, C.I. Lewis), some axiomatic systems for reasoning modally started to appear. In the late ’40s, Rudolf Carnap tied together such research with the already-existing Fregean philosophy of language to develop a semantics that made use of “state-descriptions”, ways of describing how the world might be. A little over a decade later, a very young Harvard student named Saul Kripke rigorized Carnap’s theory by casting it in a purely mathematical form.
Taking a clue from a famous expression of Leibniz, Kripke restyled state-descriptions as “possible worlds”: sets of propositions and valuations for them, which could be collected together in a model and used to evaluate the truth or falsity of modal sentences — a proposition being possible if some world in the model had it as true, and necessary if all worlds in the model did. Modern modal logic, a rich and diverse field, was born. Now, a quick reading suggests that what Lewis did, in saying that possible worlds were as real as anything, did is to take a metaphor and cash it in an inappropriate way — but I think that is imputing a certain unseriousness to him. Let me explain.
Some readers may know that Lewis did not “really” use Kripke-style modal logic, but instead preferred a system he called “counterpart theory”. Counterpart theory was intended, in part, to do away with the problems about identifying objects in different possible worlds as the same thing: instead of worrying about “transworld identity”, one could consider “counterparts” in different worlds that would to a certain degree be like or unlike. However, what Lewis did take away from mainstream modal logic was what, in a manner of speaking, we might call the “concreteness” of possible worlds. Such possible worlds are perfectly determinate, even from no particular point of view; their contents are not relativized to our interests or theories, excepting the incorporation of possible interests and theories in the slightly more complicated “two-dimensional” semantics.
So, it seems to me that Lewis is making a metaphysical argument for a feature of reasoning implicit in the formal apparatus: and this, I think, is a good thing to take “seriously”. When the apparatus one is employing is supposed to have only a heuristic value, perhaps it is harder to really accept its results.
Yesterday I came up with a formula covering the divisions of the Wissenschaft der Logik. It’s a little pat (the way distinctions people used to work pretty hard were), but it’s more than an analogy or “homology”. Both Hegel’s “Major Logic” and the Encyclopedia Logic have three main parts: sections on Sein (“Being”), Wesen (“Essence”), and Begriff (“Concept”). Just looking at the headings, you can’t quite see what Hegel is going to talk about, and delving into the text isn’t initially much more help. Under the heading “Being” we have being, non-being, generation and corruption, number, and measure; “Essence” deals with reflection, cause and effect, appearance and reality, and the absolute; “Concept” covers subjectivity, objectivity, and the Idea. On the face of it, this looks like an unorganized welter of logical and metaphysical concepts answering to no logical division of labor we could recognize today: and even the biggest contemporary Hegel fans don’t have much to say about such efforts.
But if you really think about the topics covered under each heading, a fairly “natural” or at least recognizable order appears. Here’s the “notion”: the tripartite division of the Logic is equivalent to the modern logical distinctions between extensional, intensional, and intentional discourse. When all terms for something are interchangeable without affecting the truth of sentences containing them, a context is extensional. The early analytic philosophers viewed extensionality as a highly desirable property, and found it in set theory (the Zermelo-Fraenkel formulation of which contains an “Axiom of Extensionality”, stating that two sets containing the same members are equivalent): on such a program, concepts that can’t be stated in the idiom of set theory are second-class at best. Well, is extensionality not what we find in Hegel’s discussion of what we can say about something that simply is: all the determinations that we can make of an object without relating it to others in a way that requires reflection, that is to say the setting-up of “levels” where some features of an object are important and others not — an “essentialist” metaphysics.
Now, a while ago I had something to say about Wesen or “Essence” in the Phenomenology; which is interesting enough, but the concept has a much amplified role in Hegel’s logic. What he has to say about traditional metaphysical concepts involving essence might look like regression from Kant, who systematically defines them in terms of synthesized experience. But we are, after all, living in a newly metaphysical era: and causation and the like are all commonly understood today to be modal notions. Another name for modal logic is intensional logic: so called because modal discourses exhibit intensionality, being “aspect-dependent” and “referentially opaque” in not permitting uniform substitution of terms (even if Aristotle was the greatest philosopher of antiquity, “it is necessarily so that the greatest philosopher of antiquity was the greatest philosopher of antiquity” and “it is necessarily so that Aristotle was the greatest philosopher of antiquity” mean different things — one is a tautology, and one is a matter of some kind of metaphysical discernment). So there is a purely discursive or logical progression at work in Hegel’s presentation here, not merely the ringing of metaphysical changes.
Finally, intentionality. Logical assessments of “intentional idiom” place it one beyond intensionality, in being not only modally aspect-dependent but also knowledge-dependent: we could have two names which are intensionally equivalent, having the same values in all possible worlds, and yet not achieve “intentional identity” of the names because we could be unaware of their modal equivalence. Now, Hegel’s Begriff is declared to be the logical “union of being and essence”; this is perhaps a more useful item for greater sublators than me, but in it is certainly the denial that a “Notion” is directly equivalent to either a statement of a pure “state of affairs” or any set of modally expressible “rich” relations between objects. So if both sorts of reduction are denied, I think that Hegel can be most charitably expounded as having the Notion be the central element of what is today called “linguistic intentionality”, the complex set of attitudes and relations a conscious, reasoning subject can have to the world — without making it appear that the human ability to have complex conscious “object relations” itself denies the importance of “objective” structures.
Well, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids have come to Portland in a big way. Portland mayor Tom Potter expressed displeasure with the raid on a Del Monte processing plant in North Portland, a stance which would be apparently no great political liability in a state which has relied for decades on migrant labor: but the opinion pages of the Oregonian are full of people (mostly from the Portland area) venting about his disrespect to the laws of our country.
Being mostly from the Portland area, I see the things these people see. People of Mexican or Central American background who don’t speak good English have come to dominate some occupations, especially the less glamorous sectors of construction and foodservice. They are a numerous presence in towns which once had a paler complexion; they interact with you on the street using a curious mixture of brinksmanship and reticence.
Is this one of America’s top problems? Like most such “problems”, it is if you’re concerned about the money aspect. But apparently very few are concerned enough about the economic story of immigration to draw a few unpalatable conclusions.
1) Illegal immigration is a straightforward consequence of US economic imperialism, agreed-to by both parties.
One of the holdover ideas from the “New Economy” — especially among Democrats — is that to maintain its high standard of living in a competitive economic world, the US must trade in high-skill goods and services. To anyone with sense enough to consider all the occupations there would have to be in the “busy, busy world”, this is a pipe dream engendered by extrapolating from the limited experiences of privilege: obviously most jobs in any country (no matter how rich) will require vocational training, not advanced academic qualifications.
But the flip side of such a project adds injury to insult: it involves the continued immiseration of “underdeveloped” countries, as sources for parts and labor. The tenability of this plan is engendered by the slightly more widespread experience of a consumer market: but it, too, is unrealistic. There simply aren’t enough affluent people in the world to buy things such that other countries can prosper in raw materials and manufacturing for export: countries have first and foremost to make stuff for their domestic markets.
The “enlightened” plan of creating dynamic Third-World economies according to the spec of the “Asian Tigers”, as applied to Mexico — as it certainly has been for decades — is a major cause of Mexico’s immiseration and a major impetus to illegal immigration to the US. If we are unwilling to let Mexico’s economy serve Mexico (and both parties show an unwillingness to do this), we shall surely reap the harvest.
2) The idea that anyone performing socially necessary work could be a “drain on the system” for using public benefits is laughable. Necessary jobs cost what they cost.
Now for the “unenlightened”: the America-Firsters who are afraid that the teeming brown masses are going to take over their culture and bankrupt their local, state, and federal governments. Unrestrained breeding and knife fights will fill the hospitals, while providing a lavish K-12 education to the children (some of whom are even citizens) will put the property taxes of little old ladies through the roof — all so a couple Mexicans can send remittances to Guadalajara from their landscaping jobs.
This is dangerously close to the logic of slavery: why, it’s almost like we were doing the illegals a favor by letting them putter about, while we paternalistically care for their needs. Of course, it is the most patent garbage. If illegals’ wages are sometimes lower than their benefits usage, this tells us more about the wages than the benefits: somebody has to do what they are doing, and so the total cost of maintaining them — whatever it may be — is a given for any non-chattel economy.
3) Illegal immigrants are used as tools to antagonize other workers, but they’re not the ones making the hiring decisions.
Now on to the observation unpopular with immigrants’-rights activists: that these workers must affect working conditions for non-illegal workers in the same fields. Some studies have been done which find that illegal immigration does not negatively affect economies, and there’s a logic to that: the more people of any kind you have, the more goods and services they have to buy (unless they’re also locked out of the consumer market, as per #2).
But I suspect that if you’re a worker in one of the industries where bosses have gone in a big way for illegal employees, this isn’t the total story. The story that employers tell about illegal immigrants — that they “have a great work ethic” — is patently an indication that they are not just a supplement to the legal population interested in a certain career, but a spur or even a replacement for the less tractable naturalized workers who used to ply the trade.
However, there’s only one realistic choice for such “natives” who are employed among illegal immigrants: to join in solidarity with them. And this is exactly what they do if given a choice, and one of the things the “law and order” ICE raids intend to prevent. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle: immigration is here to stay. Whether or not this means a pacified workforce is what is in play today, and as always it’s partially up to you.
A taste for “classic” R&B, once a standard feature of tepid white liberalism, seems to have come to be a near-militant position as time has progressed. Maybe it’s just that I now prefer the more “conscious” material of the ’70s to the Big Chill-esque ’60s Motown they used to play on oldies stations; at any rate, it goes over like I named my kid after Louis Farrakhan. But I’m not sure what kind of consciousness Chic‘s taste for Depression-era tropes (“yowzah, yowzah, yowzah”, “stomping at the Savoy”, etc.) displays: was it an attempt to ingratiate themselves with a “mainstream” audience? A joke? Alternative history?
In the latest of a series of “undemocratic” moves, Hugo Chavez has closed the television station RCTV, on the grounds that their indirection during the 2002 coup attempt was inappropriate for a body serving the public interest. A “student movement”, clandestinely supported by other anti-chavista media outlets, has risen up to protest this and other abuses. Is it 1917 all over again, where an autocratic leftist crushes dissent in the name of freedom? Well, maybe it is, but not in the way that those liberals nervously eyeing Chavez’s regime might think; the “Bolivarian Revolution” and the Bolshevik revolution do indeed have a filiation, but the connections are perhaps more surprising than one might expect.
In fact, it seems to me the two deserve to be considered together because of their vast differences. Chavez’s rule is democratically vetted and gradualist, two characteristics Lenin’s bold stroke did without: but even with this more “human face”, the Chavez regime attracts the same kinds of positive and negative attention, which should tell us that there was more to October 1917 than the dictatorship of (certain self-appointed representatives of) the proletariat, and distaste for the methods employed by Lenin cannot completely efface the relevance of the historical occasion. Chavez’s “Twenty-first Century socialism” cannot, and ought not to, totally escape the shadow of the Russian revolution.
What do I mean? Well, Chavez’s concrete program has been described by Tariq Ali as a sort of New Deal for the Southern Hemisphere; smoothing the rough edges of Venezuelan capitalism, with the government providing services and tools where the economic order did not direct its attention. But even more than this, Chavez has worked a deep transformation in the ideological role of the government, the slogan Venezuela para todos and the like filling the space of the “rationalistic” attitude towards things like austerity measures previously assumed by both the right and “social-democratic” governments. The Communists talked a good game, too: their abstract programs for governing people contained much that would be considered “forward-thinking” by consciously anti-Communist leftists today, with e.g. rights for women and minorities given a prominence that they have only regained in the last few decades.
Now, a great deal of ink has been expended over the decades on how “the god that failed” made the most entrancing promises, then crushed people under the weight of a nightmarish regime totally unable to honor the spirit of those promises. But I think recent years have shown this viewpoint to be limited in scope, the product of the Keynesian West’s partial acceptance of the utopian vision of the Communists. Looking backwards in time from 1917, and forwards to this decade, we see that capitalist ideology need not make concessions to the idea that the world should ideally be one, or that nobody should go hungry, or that all work is honorable and deserves just compensation: today, it simply doesn’t. In such a context, the enduring importance of the “utopian” Communist claims, and their echo by the quite different people at work in Venezuela, cannot be ignored: for perhaps it is not the “collectivistic” policies, but the universalistic principles, that the enemies of Chavez find distasteful.
My suburban residence is served by two buses. I ride one or the other for almost every trip anywhere; their routes are the same in Beaverton, so it doesn’t make a difference for most trips which one I ride. Still, I was a little surprised to start getting the 78 when I was expecting the 76. I figured they must have changed the schedule, and I was right; TriMet has switched the 78, which left the Beaverton transit hub on the hour and half-hour, with the 76, which left at fifteen and forty-five minutes after the hour. But here’s the thing: this is only for southbound trips, as the northbound buses still hit the stop at the same time. I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around how you can add fifteen minutes idling to one of two trips otherwise equal in length and make everything come out even.
Whatever it is, you can find it on the Internet. Right? Except sociology, that is. Sociology used to be one of my favorite things to read: exciting and realistic, like journalism, but enriched with a theoretical scaffolding, like philosophy. In fact, under the influence of anti-metaphysical and pro-proletarian writers, I thought sociology would supplant most kinds of philosophy: why would anyone read normative political theory, when you could find out about the actually existing “wretched of the earth” and see how they got that way (as well as how they might get out of their predicament)? It all seemed so unimpeachably modern and relevant, it did; however, apparently this fancy was really just “so 20th century”. Although most disciplines have extensive (and educational) web presences by now, teaching the masses about trolley problems and string theory’s flaws and the contemporary novel, the sociological impact on the Web is minimal. Crooked Timber is the dubious exception that proves the rule: there are two sociologists, and a raft of other bloggers and commenters who are all trying to put the lie to their statistical analyses of behavior. (They’re special, and they need to have some of your attention — and yes, I’ve been and may be being that kind of person, too.)
I have a theory about why this is: I think it has to do with the structure of the Internet. The Internet makes miniature Margaret Thatchers out of us all: there is no society online, there are only individuals and the family. This is not only in the choice of means, but also in the sphere of ends: what possible value could a theory of group solidarity have for someone writing scripts in Python for a website? They deal only with individual transactions, both in the form of an atomized public clicking through and in the form of their “fun” boss. It’s much more important to have justifications in hand: political, literary, and yes, metaphysical reasons that serve both as ammunition and as bargaining chips in dealings with other “independent operators”. So prescriptive discourse, which seemed useless in “the lonely crowd”, becomes the coin of the realm. Perhaps the Internet is not the end of society, or sociological interest: there are “mass phenomena” too, MySpace with its “literacy of a new type” and the scriveners of Wikipedia. But I’m not sure that exotic excursions to the land of bad spelling will be as inspiring as analyzing institutions that could only be comprehended reflexively.