Some remarks on basic income and social democracy

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With a basic income, it wouldn’t be so easy for the Company to bully this crew into stirring up all that trouble on LV-426

I’ve been following with interest some of the pushback from the left on the idea of a basic income — especially in Ontario, where the long-awaited terms of a basic income pilot project were announced on Monday. The backlash has been building for some time, and in this post I’ll be reviewing a few important considerations that have been raised, jumping off from a critical piece by Michal Rozworski published last April.

Naturally, one of the biggest worries about basic income (equally applicable to any other scheme for abolishing poverty) is the matter of cost. As Rozworski demonstrates, however, costs are easily exaggerated. His estimated net cost for full blown implementation of a province-wide basic income program— $200 billion — assumes a $15,000 transfer to each person, regardless of age and other sources of income. However, the program piloted in Ontario will have a 50% phase-out rate for employment income (meaning that the basic income payment is reduced by 50 cents for every dollar earned from employment) and a 100% phase-out rate for EI and CPP income. It will only be paid out to Ontarians who are between 18 years and 64 years old (inclusive), and the base transfer for couples is smaller than the base transfer for two non-cohabiting individuals (the base transfer for couples is $24,027 as opposed to $16,989 for individuals). When Rozworski wrote this piece, neither the details of the pilot program nor Hugh Segal’s recommendations for the pilot’s design had yet been released. However, Segal’s recommendations didn’t come out of the blue; for the most part, they seemed to follow the dictates of common sense. This being the case, I find it puzzling that Rozworski devotes three paragraphs to discussing the relative cost of basic income programs under various different parameters without stumbling on any design that even remotely resembles Ontario’s pilot program.

Taking into account the specifics of the Ontario pilot program, Kevin Milligan — an equally sharp critic of basic income — has produced a more realistic figure, estimating the net cost of a province-wide basic income modeled on the pilot scheme at between $15-30 billion, equivalent to the revenue from raising the HST by 5-10 points. That is a very large tax hike, but even at the high end it would only bring the HST in line with the equivalent value-added taxes in the Nordic social democracies (25% in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, and 24% in Finland and Iceland). A basic income program would not be cheap, but it is fiscally feasible.

But even if a basic income is fiscally feasible, is it politically viable? Probably not in the near term. For proponents on the left, part of the appeal of basic income seems to be that it also attracts the support of some people on the right. To some extent, perhaps this is because a lot of people on the left are really demoralized these days; they feel like we on the left are the perennial losers, and those people on the right basically can’t lose. But I think Rozworski is correct to point out that the kind of basic income program that’s likely to attract support from the right is not the kind that deserves any support from the left.

From a social democratic perspective, there is a deep affinity between the justification for a basic income program and the justification for other elements of the welfare state. We grant that the market economy is very good for some things, but it’s not good for everything. The free market fails to deliver such things as effective universal access to comprehensive health care, high-quality basic education, and protection from natural and human-caused threats to our health and safety. Quite sensibly, therefore, we have government-funded health insurance and service provision, public school systems, and emergency services. For all its virtues, the market has proven equally incapable of ensuring that no one will end up in poverty. The natural conclusion is that the government ought to assume responsibility for what the market is incapable of doing, and implement a basic income scheme or something very much like it. But the reasoning that leads to this conclusion is fundamentally at odds with the goal of replacing any significant part of the welfare state with a basic income, and it cannot justify neglecting the protection and expansion of other worthwhile government programs. This shows, I think, that there is no alliance to be had between left and right proponents of basic income after all.

So a basic income worth wanting depends on the left making a strong case for it and organizing around that goal all on our own. The boast that basic income has supporters across the political spectrum strikes me as self-defeating, because this is only true of policies that are so vaguely defined that they cannot possibly begin to attract the real political support needed to launch such an expensive kind of social program. We should not exaggerate the associated costs, but we can’t pretend they don’t exist either. Nor can we be singleminded about pursuing this particular goal, neglecting more immediately achievable objectives such as increased welfare rates, universal childcare, and better drug coverage. This kind of narrow focus contradicts the logic that supports basic income in the first place; it also probably means passing up opportunities to build the kind of coalition that would be needed to successfully push through such an ambitious program.

Some comments on Stoljar’s case for a new physicalism


Recently Daniel Stoljar posted a short piece on consciousness in which he provides a brief explanation of his novel variety of physicalism, which departs from traditional physicalism while maintaining a position distinct from dualism.

Like panpsychists, Stoljar appeals to intrinsic or constitutive properties of the physical to explain how complex consciousness can be produced by certain physical processes. Unlike panpsychists, he denies that these constitutive properties include consciousness (or any other mental property). But he gives no real argument against the intrinsicality of consciousness; he just says it’s not consistent with his new model (which to me sounds an awful lot like another variety of neutral monism anyway). The perceived need for a new model seems to follow from denial of the intrinsicality of consciousness though, so the demands of the new model can’t provide a reason to deny the intrinsicality of consciousness.

Later he addresses the objection that explanations based on any unknown (but definitely non-mental) constitutive properties of matter postulated by the new model will run into the same problems (knowledge arguments, conceivability arguments, inverted spectra etc.) as explanations based on familiar features of the physical. But his response is apparently just to stipulate that the unknown constitutive physical properties are sufficiently dissimilar from known physical properties that these familiar arguments against physicalism will fail. Not very satisfying! Not very likely either, I think, because the familiar arguments do not cite any specific features of known physical properties except for the fact that none of those properties include consciousness. So Stoljar’s stipulation that his unknown non-conscious constitutive properties of the physical will be sufficiently dissimilar from known properties of the physical seems to involve a paradox — those non-conscious properties would only be sufficiently dissimilar from known properties if they included consciousness! If this stipulation really is paradoxical, clearly it cannot save his new physicalism from the standard arguments against the old physicalism.

Does panpsychism have any religious implications?

omegadirective_116.jpgThe Borg had a religious attitude to the perfect order of the Omega molecule, but the Federation thought it was more trouble than it was worth

At the end of a recent post responding to Philip Goff’s simplicity argument for panpsychism, Jerry Coyne notes:

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude. Some, for instance, consider the “mind of the universe” to be God—that God is a mind that pervades the entire Universe.

That, at least, could be one explanation for the penchant for magazines like Aeon, or philosophers like Nagel with a teleological bent, to argue for panpsychism.

Coyne makes this point independently of his critique of the simplicity argument, and I take it that Coyne doesn’t think it has any bearing on the success of his critique or the merits of the argument he’s responding to. However, the point does open a useful line of inquiry. Would panpsychism justify a numinous attitude on the part of those who accept it? Does panpsychism have a religious aspect? And what religious implications might it have?

Religion, as I understand it, involves more than just a package of metaphysical beliefs. It also includes, at the very least, a set of individual and social practices (such as prayer, ritual observances, communal worship, and recognition of some sacred authority) which are regarded as appropriate (and possibly obligatory) in light of certain metaphysical facts, and a guiding ideal of transcendence or liberation (e.g. salvation, moksha, tikkun olam, nirvana). On this understanding, it’s not immediately clear that panpsychism has any special relevance to religion. The truth of panpsychism might rule out certain religious beliefs, such as those that are predicated on the existence of a substantial soul (at least where the soul is understood to be the seat of consciousness) or the attribution of conscious experience to human beings alone, and it would appear to be consistent with certain other religious beliefs, such as those predicated on denial of a substantial soul or on the claim that there is a deep unity underlying the superficial appearance of diversity in the world. But the same could be said of a more conventional kind of strict materialism, which people normally think of as having an anti-religious aspect.

I’m having trouble seeing the religious aspect of panpsychism which is so immediately obvious to Coyne, but it could be that I’m just not trying hard enough. So here’s an attempt to work up a panpsychist foundation for religious belief.

The universe is developing towards a state of maximal entropy. Entropy is associated with disorder in a system, and with diminishing amounts of useful energy. This implies that the universe once existed in a state of perfect order and maximum potential for creation. Panpsychism holds that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, so it follows that the universe once existed as a perfectly ordered consciousness with maximum potential for creation. The universe today expresses the unfolding of that perfectly ordered consciousness’s creative potential. Conceivably, the perfectly ordered consciousness is infinite in extent and exists eternally beyond our universe, which may not be the whole of what exists.

Now this is somewhat more recognizable as a religious view, although it arguably relies on some equivocation about the meaning of technical terms like energy and entropy. Leaving that aside, “perfectly ordered consciousness with maximum potential for creation” may describe some gods of religion pretty well. But the reverse doesn’t hold; various Christian conceptions of God, for example, possess many important qualities (e.g. personality, moral perfection, a penchant for intervention) that do not follow from the reasoning given above. The divine qualities that are missing from the “perfectly ordered consciousness” are the ones that matter most from a religious perspective. Without those qualities, panpsychism commits one to nothing further than Natura naturans: “Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world“. From the standpoint of the committed atheist, this result should seem fairly benign.

National Poetry Month

Pictured: The god of poetry

On Facebook, I’ve been posting a poem a day for National Poetry Month. I don’t know anything about poetry, so I’m uncomfortable reading it, and the point of this exercise is to get a little more comfortable with it and develop an idea of what I like. The idea for this post is to collect all the stuff from my daily Facebook posts in one place so it’s easy to find (and for the benefit of friends who aren’t on social media. When the poem is short and in the public domain, I’ll just post the whole thing here. I’ll just link to the longer poems, and those still under copyright.

Day One

“The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

Day Two

The Tithonus Poem by Sappho

Alternate translations are available here.

Day Three

First poem from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.

At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.

Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.

Day Four

“Requiem for the Spanish Dead” by Kenneth Rexroth

The great geometrical winter constellations 
Lift up over the Sierra Nevada,
I walk under the stars, my feet on the known round earth.
My eyes following the lights of an airplane,
Red and green, growling deep into the Hyades.
The note of the engine rises, shrill, faint,
Finally inaudible, and the lights go out
In the southeast haze beneath the feet of Orion.

As the sound departs I am chilled and grow sick
With the thought that has come over me. I see Spain
Under the black windy sky, the snow stirring faintly,
Glittering and moving over the pallid upland,
And men waiting, clutched with cold and huddled together,
As an unknown plane goes over them. It flies southeast
Into the haze above the lines of the enemy,
Sparks appear near the horizon under it.
After they have gone out the earth quivers
And the sound comes faintly. The men relax for a moment
And grow tense again as their own thoughts return to them.

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

Then quietly at first and then rich and full-bodied,
I hear the voice of a young woman singing.
The emigrants on the corner are holding
A wake for their oldest child, a driverless truck
Broke away on the steep hill and killed him,
Voice after voice adds itself to the singing.
Orion moves westward across the meridian,
Rigel, Bellatrix, Betelgeuse, marching in order,
The great nebula glimmering in his loins.

Day Five

“Overture” by Diana Khoi Nguyen

Day Six

“Mary, Color Scientist” by John Beer

Day Seven

“Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance” by Osip Mandelstam

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.

Alternate translation:

Into the distance disappear the mounds of human heads.
I dwindle – go unnoticed now.
But in affectionate books, in childrens’ games,
I will rise from the dead to say: the sun!

Day Eight

“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –” (236) by Emily Dickinson

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Day Nine

“Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks

That time
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

Day Ten

“In Cabin’d Ships at Sea” by Walt Whitman

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Day Eleven

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Day Twelve

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W. B. Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate  
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Day Thirteen

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes


Day Fourteen

A haiku by Shiki Masaoka

entangled with
the scattering cherry blossoms—
the wings of birds!

Day Fifteen

“Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Day Sixteen

“A Barred Owl” by Richard Wilbur

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Day Seventeen

“Random Notes To My Son” by Keorapetse Kgositsile

Beware, my son, words
that carry the loudnesses
of blind desire also carry
the slime of illusion
dripping like pus from the slave’s battered back
e.g. they speak of black power whose eyes
will not threaten the quick whitening of their own intent
what days will you inherit?
what shadows inhabit your silences?

I have aspired to expression, all these years,
elegant past the most eloquent word. But here now
our tongue dries into maggots as we continue our slimy
death and grin. Except today it is fashionable to scream
of pride and beauty as though it were not known that
‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’

in me and around me
confusion. This pain was
not from the past. This pain was
not because we had failed
to understand:
this land is mine
confusion and borrowed fears
it was. We stood like shrubs
shrivelled on this piece of earth
the ground parched and cracked
through the cracks my cry:

And what shapes
in assent and ascent
must people the eye of newborn
determined desire know
no frightened tear ever rolls on
to the elegance of fire. I have
fallen with all the names I am
but the newborn eye, old as
childbirth, must touch the day
that, speaking my language, will
say, today we move, we move ?

Day Eighteen

“Spinoza” by Jorge Luis Borges

The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
that whitens at the Ghetto edges
do not quite exist for this silent
man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
undisturbed by fame, that reflection
of dreams in the dream of another
mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
a stubborn crystal: the infinite
map of the One who is all His stars.

Day Nineteen

“So We’ll Go No More a Roving” by Lord Byron


Day Twenty

“To My Retired Friend Wei” by Du Fu

It is almost as hard for friends to meet
As for the morning and evening stars.
Tonight then is a rare event,
Joining, in the candlelight,
Two men who were young not long ago
But now are turning grey at the temples.
…To find that half our friends are dead
Shocks us, burns our hearts with grief.
We little guessed it would be twenty years
Before I could visit you again.
When I went away, you were still unmarried;
But now these boys and girls in a row
Are very kind to their father’s old friend.
They ask me where I have been on my journey;
And then, when we have talked awhile,
They bring and show me wines and dishes,
Spring chives cut in the night-rain
And brown rice cooked freshly a special way.
…My host proclaims it a festival,
He urges me to drink ten cups —
But what ten cups could make me as drunk
As I always am with your love in my heart?
…Tomorrow the mountains will separate us;
After tomorrow – who can say?

Day Twenty-one

“The Solution” by Bertolt Brecht

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Day Twenty-two

“Song of Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.

I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.

No numbers have counted my tallies,
No tribes my house can fill,
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;

And ever by delicate powers
Gathering along the centuries
From race on race the rarest flowers,
My wreath shall nothing miss.

And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.

I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.

And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;

What time the gods kept carnival,
Tricked out in star and flower,
And in cramp elf and saurian forms
They swathed their too much power.

Time and Thought were my surveyors,
They laid their courses well,
They boiled the sea, and baked the layers
Or granite, marl, and shell.

But he, the man-child glorious,–
Where tarries he the while?
The rainbow shines his harbinger,
The sunset gleams his smile.

My boreal lights leap upward,
Forthright my planets roll,
And still the man-child is not born,
The summit of the whole.

Must time and tide forever run?
Will never my winds go sleep in the west?
Will never my wheels which whirl the sun
And satellites have rest?

Too much of donning and doffing,
Too slow the rainbow fades,
I weary of my robe of snow,
My leaves and my cascades;

I tire of globes and races,
Too long the game is played;
What without him is summer’s pomp,
Or winter’s frozen shade?

I travail in pain for him,
My creatures travail and wait;
His couriers come by squadrons,
He comes not to the gate.

Twice I have moulded an image,
And thrice outstretched my hand,
Made one of day, and one of night,
And one of the salt sea-sand.

One in a Judaean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over against the mouths of Nile,
And one in the Academe.

I moulded kings and saviours,
And bards o’er kings to rule;–
But fell the starry influence short,
The cup was never full.

Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more,
And mix the bowl again;
Seethe, fate! the ancient elements,
Heat, cold, wet, dry, and peace, and pain.

Let war and trade and creeds and song
Blend, ripen race on race,
The sunburnt world a man shall breed
Of all the zones, and countless days.

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew

Day Twenty-three

“Informant: The Belt of Venus” by Renée Saklikar

Day Twenty-four

“The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedman

Day Twenty-five

“Recreation” by Audre Lorde

Coming together
it is easier to work
after our bodies
paper and pen
neither care nor profit
whether we write or not
but as your body moves
under my hands
charged and waiting
we cut the leash
you create me against your thighs
hilly with images
moving through our word countries
my body
writes into your flesh
the poem
you make of me.
Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love you flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
into me.

Day Twenty-six

“Guernica” by A. S. Knowland

Irun – Badajoz – Malaga – and then Guernica
So that the swastika and the eagle
might spring from the blood-red soil,
bombs were sown into the earth at Guernica,
whose only harvest was a calculated slaughter.
Lest freedom should wave between the grasses
and the corn its proud emblem, or love
be allowed to tread its native fields,
Fascism was sent to destroy the innocent,
and, goose-stepping to the exaggerated waving
of the two-faced flag, to save Spain.
But though the soil be saturated with blood
as a very efficient fertiliser, the furrow
of the ghastly Fasces shall remain barren.
The planted swastika, the eagle grafted
on natural stock shall wither and remain sere;
for no uniformed force shall marshall the sap
thrilling to thrust buds into blossoms, or quicken
the dead ends of the blighted branches;
but the soil shall be set against an alien crop
and the seed be blasted in the planting.
But strength lies in the strength of the roots.
They shall not pass to ruin Spain!

Day Twenty-seven

“Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath

Day Twenty-eight

“The inner light” by Harry Martinson

Day Twenty-nine

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Day Thirty

Last poem from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

In one salutation to thee, my God, let all my senses spread out and touch this world at thy feet.

Like a rain-cloud of July hung low with its burden of unshed showers let all my mind bend down at thy door in one salutation to thee.

Let all my songs gather together their diverse strains into a single current and flow to a sea of silence in one salutation to thee.

Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day back to their mountain nests let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home in one salutation to thee.

Did Leibniz influence Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”?

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From an article on “Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination” by Jonathan Gray for Public Domain Review:

Ultimately [Leibniz] hoped that the combination of a perspicuous thought language of “pure” concepts, combined with formalised processes and methods akin to those used in mathematics, would lead to the mechanisation and automation of reason itself. By means of new artificial languages and methods, our ordinary and imperfect ways of reasoning with words and ideas would give way to a formal, symbolic, rule-governed science — conceived of as a computational process. Disputes, conflict and grievances arising from ill-formed opinions, emotional hunches, biases, prejudices, and misunderstandings would give way to consensus, peace, and progress.

Jonathan Swift’s satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels (1726) parodied the mechanical conception of invention advanced by Llull and Leibniz. In the fictional city of Lagado, the protagonist encounters a device known as “the engine” which is intended by its inventor to enable anyone to “write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study”:

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Now here are the three references to the “kaleidoscopes” used in the manufacture of prolefeed in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

1. And the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, plays, novels — with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling-book to a Newspeak dictionary. And the Ministry had not only to supply the multifarious needs of the party, but also to repeat the whole operation at a lower level for the benefit of the proletariat. There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section — Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak — engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.

2. A solitary figure was coming towards him from the other end of the long, brightly-lit corridor. It was the girl with dark hair. Four days had gone past since the evening when he had run into her outside the junk-shop. As she came nearer he saw that her right arm was in a sling, not noticeable at a distance because it was of the same colour as her overalls. Probably she had crushed her hand while swinging round one of the big kaleidoscopes on which the plots of novels were ‘roughed in’. It was a common accident in the Fiction Department.

3. [Julia] had always borne an excellent character. She had even (an infallibIe mark of good reputation) been picked out to work in Pornosec, the sub-section of the Fiction Department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles. It was nicknamed Muck House by the people who worked in it, she remarked. There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.

‘What are these books like?’ said Winston curiously.

‘Oh, ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit. Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes. I was never in the Rewrite Squad. I’m not literary, dear — not even enough for that.’

There seems to be a striking resemblance between Orwell’s kaleidoscopes and Swift’s satirical “engine”, so I wonder if the resemblance is intentional.

Election season in BC


  1. Off we go! The writ has dropped, as they say, which actually means that writs of election have been issued for each riding in the province. If you’ve ever wondered what a writ of election looks like, wonder no longer. Here’s the writ for my riding as an example:17879806_10156385755719848_5321754950932001254_o.jpg
    After the vote has been held and the final count completed, the District Electoral Officer fills out this part and returns it to the Chief Electoral Officer:17917149_10156385770369848_4456877336051644196_o.jpg
  2. You can help your party or candidate of choice in a small but concrete way by voting early, either on one of the advance voting days (April 29-30 and May 3-6) or any day Monday-Saturday at a district office (up until 4pm on May 9). Every supporter who votes early is one less supporter the campaign needs to spend time getting to the polls on election day. You can use Elections BC’s Where To Vote tool to find nearby polling places and the district office for your riding.
  3. If you’re not sure who to vote for, the Vote Compass tool might be of some help. It’s pretty bare-bones at the moment, but I expect they’ll be adding to it a bit as the various parties’ platforms become clearer. Here’s where the Vote Compass says I stand at the moment.17880285_10156385688859848_4015955397222034428_o.jpg
  4.  Finally, watch out for dodgy civics in the press. Recently I was pleased to see the Georgia Straight correctly applying the term “hung parliament” to describe a situation where no party has an overall majority, instead of describing this outcome as a “minority government.” Progress! But I expect to see a lot of other basic errors in the media in the weeks to come. Philippe Lagassé’s thread here clears up some common mistakes:

A note on the revised national anthem


I don’t understand Senator MacDonald’s complaint about the grammar in the national anthem’s revised lyrics (“in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”):

“The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase ‘All thy sons command’ is ‘All of our command,'” MacDonald said. “This is not opinion. This is fact.”

I don’t think so. The meaning of the verse that goes “O Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love in all thy sons command” is “O Canada, our home and native land, command true patriot love in all thy sons.” It’s a sentence. The revised lyrics beseech Canada to command true patriot love in “all of us”, which is a perfectly acceptable substitution; it is grammatically correct and it perfectly preserves the meaning of the original. MacDonald’s complaint only makes sense if there’s an apostrophe in the original (“sons'” instead of “sons”). It’s a good thing there isn’t one, because that really would be a grammatical disaster! “O Canada, our home and native land, true patriot love in all thy sons’/in all of our command” makes no sense as a sentence.

Bottom line, Senator MacDonald does not actually know the anthem he is ostensibly trying to save. This is not opinion. This is fact.