Category Archives: AM - Blog 2007

Wednesday, November 21, 2007- Kiva — A New Twist on Micro-lending.

The Micro-lend­ing Rev­o­lu­tion has done more to improve the lot of ordi­nary human beings than any oth­er social move­ment. It has many anti­ci­dents, since rotat­ing cred­it asso­ci­a­tions and fra­ter­ni­ties have a long, though most­ly undoc­u­ment­ed his­to­ry. The island of Oki­nawa, for exam­ple, has had mul­ti-pur­pose, demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly man­aged co-oper­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions called moai for cen­turies, which oper­ate as effec­tive micro-lenders. [1] The moai are such con­vivial and effec­tive insti­tu­tions that many Oki­nawans attribute their unusu­al good health and long lifes­pans to par­tic­i­pat­ing in them [2]. Nine­teenth cen­tu­ry pio­neers of sav­ings-and-loan co-oper­a­tives in Scot­land, Bohemia (Raif­feisen), and Cana­da (Des­jardins) were at first involved in the kind of small scale pro­duc­er-cred­it that is today called micro-lend­ing, and it was this ele­ment in them that helped cre­ate aston­ish­ing leaps in social equal­i­ty and pros­per­i­ty in those places, though the insti­tu­tions they found­ed grad­u­al­ly came to be con­ven­tion­al con­sumer-ori­ent­ed banks. In 1976, Muham­mad Yunus found­ed the Grameen Bank, which began as a research project by Yunus and the Rur­al Eco­nom­ics Project at Bangladesh’s Uni­ver­si­ty of Chit­tagong to test his method for pro­vid­ing cred­it and bank­ing ser­vices to the rur­al poor. The first loan was for only $27.  Read more »

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 — What’s So Simple?

Many things irri­tate me when I read anthro­po­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, and the work of his­to­ri­ans who absorb the premis­es of anthro­pol­o­gists. Ter­mi­nol­o­gy is every­thing, and no ter­mi­nol­o­gy is “neu­tral”. All names for par­tic­u­lar behav­iour among humans car­ry with them imag­is­tic over­tones and unspo­ken val­ue judg­ments. Some­times I learn, dis­con­cert­ing­ly, that many schol­ars cus­tom­ar­i­ly use a sim­ple term with an implied mean­ing entire­ly oppo­site that which seems obvi­ous or nat­ur­al to me.

One of those terms is “indi­vid­u­al­ism”. Time and time again, I’ve read some aca­d­e­m­ic paper, book, or arti­cle in which the term “indi­vid­u­al­ism” is used with overt or sub­tle hos­til­i­ty. When the hos­til­i­ty is overt, the terms “self­ish” (bad) and “atom­istic” (under­stood to be very very bad) are added in sprin­kles. Since “indi­vid­u­al­ism” is, in my mind, a word that des­ig­nates the most pro­found­ly moral and pos­i­tive of human atti­tudes, this usu­al­ly leaves me some­what baf­fled. Many schol­ars (espe­cial­ly, it seems, British ones) seem to use the word “indi­vid­u­al­ism” to mean “self­ish­ness”, and to asso­ciate things like class dis­tinc­tions, cru­el­ty, dis­hon­esty, theft, and bul­ly­ing with the word. This, to me, is incom­pre­hen­si­ble non­sense, since the word “indi­vid­u­al­ism” means “the prac­tice of respect for all human beings as equal, autonomous, self-gov­ern­ing indi­vid­u­als, with con­sis­tent respect for their rights”. Class dis­tinc­tions are the prod­uct of col­lec­tivist thought, and indi­vid­u­al­ist thought requires, by def­i­n­i­tion, a total and absolute rejec­tion of class dis­tinc­tions. All forms of bul­ly­ing are vio­la­tions of indi­vid­u­al­ist morality.

Often, I’ve seen writ­ers con­trast “indi­vid­u­al­ism” and “co-oper­a­tion”… entire books being some­times built on the premise that they are oppo­sites. Again, this defies any ratio­nal def­i­n­i­tion of indi­vid­u­al­ism, or any use of the word that I would endorse or find nat­ur­al. Co-oper­a­tion is some­thing that only indi­vid­u­al­ists do. No col­lec­tivist ever prac­ticed co-oper­a­tion. Co-oper­a­tion is the nat­ur­al, log­i­cal, and nec­es­sary rela­tion­ship between indi­vid­u­al­ists; it is how things are done by indi­vid­u­al­ists when they act togeth­er. To the col­lec­tivist men­tal­i­ty, the nat­ur­al modes of inter­ac­tion are vio­lence, the threat of vio­lence, and fraud. All the crimes and hor­rors of human his­to­ry, from the slave and death camps devised by the ide­ol­o­gy of Adolf Hitler and Karl Marx, to the small­est exam­ple of bul­ly­ing in a school­yard, are the prod­uct of some form of col­lec­tivism, some sort of assault on the rights of the indi­vid­ual. All that is praise­wor­thy, and desir­able in human rela­tions is the prod­uct of the asser­tion of the equal dig­ni­ty and rights of the indi­vid­ual human being, in oth­er words, of indi­vid­u­al­ism. Indi­vid­u­al­ism, co-oper­a­tion, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, jus­tice, free­dom, democ­ra­cy, and civ­i­liza­tion are near cog­nates, that is, words that always belong togeth­er. Any con­cep­tion of human affairs that attempts to con­trast them is false. Col­lec­tivism, vio­lence, hier­ar­chy, injus­tice, oppres­sion, aris­toc­ra­cy, and bar­barism are the con­trast­ing set of near-cog­nates, words that also belong togeth­er at all times.

Anoth­er prac­tice that annoys me is the arbi­trary use of the word “sim­ple” to des­ig­nate demo­c­ra­t­ic and egal­i­tar­i­an struc­tures. I recent­ly read a paper which reviewed a vari­ety of “expla­na­tions” for egal­i­tar­i­an polit­i­cal struc­tures among var­i­ous hunter-gath­er­er soci­eties. In every sin­gle sys­tem reviewed, egal­i­tar­i­an and pro­to-demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal struc­tures were defined as “sim­ple”, as opposed to hier­ar­chi­cal, monar­chi­cal, and aris­to­crat­ic struc­tures. This usage remained unques­tioned by any of the schol­ars involved, and in fact, obtains in vir­tu­al­ly every book and arti­cle I’ve ever read that touch­es on the sub­ject. Yet it plain­ly makes no sense. What is so damn “com­plex” about a polit­i­cal sys­tem that con­sists of a bunch of ass­holes scream­ing orders at peo­ple, backed up by a bunch of thugs who beat them up? The fact that huge empires and big pyra­mids have been built by this process does not make it either com­plex or sophis­ti­cat­ed. This kind of polit­i­cal sys­tem exists, in iden­ti­cal form, among many troops of baboons. Egal­i­tar­i­an deci­sion-mak­ing, by con­trast, requires sophis­ti­cat­ed tech­niques of debate, con­cen­sus-form­ing, and accom­mo­da­tion. There is noth­ing sim­ple about it. Bash­ing in heads is sim­ple. Democ­ra­cy is sophisticated.

But, if you accept the premis­es behind the cul­tur­al clas­si­fi­ca­tions employed by most of our his­to­ri­ans and anthro­pol­o­gists, then the polit­i­cal body that I inhab­it, in which mil­lions of peo­ple with dif­fer­ent eth­nic, reli­gious, and cul­tur­al back­grounds engage in a myr­i­ad of eco­nom­ic and social inter­ac­tions with vis­i­ble har­mo­ny and good tem­per, and in which I can eas­i­ly approach a fed­er­al cab­i­net min­is­ter and argue nation­al pol­i­cy, is defined as “sim­pler” and “more prim­i­tive” than the hier­ar­chi­cal Nazi death camp at Buchen­wald, where there was no trou­ble deter­min­ing who was in charge and who was not.

This sil­ly scheme of hunter-gath­er­ers exem­pli­fy­ing a “sim­ple” polit­i­cal sys­tem which sup­pos­ed­ly inevitably evolved into a “com­plex” and “sophis­ti­cat­ed” sys­tem of aris­toc­ra­cy and inequal­i­ty is part of the over­all bun­dle of non­sense that we have inher­it­ed from nine­teenth cen­tu­ry philoso­phers. They trans­formed their wor­ship of pow­er into a frame­work of clichés, all of which re-enforced the sup­po­si­tion that indi­vid­u­al­ist-egal­i­tar­i­an-demo­c­ra­t­ic ideas are “prim­i­tive”, while col­lec­tivist ones are “advanced”. You see the residue of this in every muse­um dis­play or school text­book in which it is glibly explained that some soci­ety “evolved” into a “civ­i­lized” state by acquir­ing an aristocracy.

It is time we grew up, and real­ized that thug­gery is not sophisticated.

FIFTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Monday, November 5, 2007)

It’s my con­tention that both hier­ar­chi­cal and egal­i­tar­i­an behav­iour are equal­ly “nat­ur­al” to human beings. These two meth­ods of inter­act­ing with oth­ers in a group have co-exist­ed in all human soci­eties, from the ear­li­est stages of our evo­lu­tion as a species. It is also my con­tention that, while there is a lim­it­ed place for hier­ar­chi­cal think­ing and behav­iour in a good soci­ety, it is egal­i­tar­i­an think­ing that has cre­at­ed civ­i­liza­tion and moral­i­ty. Any soci­ety that is dom­i­nat­ed by hier­ar­chy is essen­tial­ly back­ward, self-destruc­tive, and immoral. Read more »

Image of the month: Kluane glacial merge, St. Elias Range, Yukon, Canada

07-11-01 BLOG Image of the Month - St. Elias Mountains, Yukon, Canada

Wednesday, October 17, 2007 — Some Thoughts On Burma

Neighbourhood in Yangon, Burma --- Burma (also called Myanmar) is considered one the most economically mismanaged countries on earth.

Neigh­bour­hood in Yan­gon, Bur­ma — Bur­ma (also called Myan­mar) is con­sid­ered one the most eco­nom­i­cal­ly mis­man­aged coun­tries on earth.

The great­est shame and degra­da­tion for human beings is to be ruled by an aris­toc­ra­cy. Whether one is reduced to abject slav­ery, or mere­ly forced to sub­mit to grad­ed snob­beries and unearned priv­i­lege, it all comes down to the same truth. Aris­to­crat­ic gov­ern­ment is a vio­la­tion of fun­da­men­tal moral­i­ty, and an intol­er­a­ble insult to human dig­ni­ty. It fol­lows that the heroes of our species are those who defy, resist, and over­throw aris­toc­ra­cy, and strive for the only moral­ly accept­able arrange­ment of human pol­i­tics: democ­ra­cy. It also fol­lows that those who seek to impose or pre­serve dic­ta­tor­ship over human beings are the pal­pa­ble vil­lains. And as for those who stand by while oth­ers risk their lives for free­dom, encour­age their oppres­sors, and rush to trade and social­ize with the tyrants ― well, no lan­guage is vivid enough to describe their cow­ardice and treachery.

It’s not hard to pin­point who are the cur­rent heroes and vil­lains. Read more »

Image of the month:

07-10-01 BLOG Image of the month

FOURTH MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Saturday, September 22, 2007)

Recent­ly, two Cana­di­an high school stu­dents did a remark­able thing. It was remark­able enough to gen­er­ate a large amount of com­ment in the blo­gos­phere. Accord­ing to the orig­i­nal news item in the Hal­i­fax Chron­i­cle Her­ald [1], a grade 9 stu­dent “arrived for the first day of school last Wednes­day and was set upon by a group of six to 10 old­er stu­dents who mocked him, called him a homo­sex­u­al for wear­ing pink and threat­ened to beat him up.” Any­one who has attend­ed high school knows the usu­al out­come of such sit­u­a­tions. But in this case, it was dif­fer­ent. Two senior stu­dents, Travis Price and David Shep­herd, were dis­gust­ed by this crude bul­ly­ing. “It’s my last year. I’ve stood around too long and I want­ed to do some­thing,” David explained. The two stu­dents bought 75 pink tank-tops and, ral­ly­ing stu­dents through the inter­net, per­suad­ed half the stu­dent body to wear them, or to sup­ply their own. When the bul­lies next came to school, they were con­front­ed by an ocean of pink sol­i­dar­i­ty. “The bul­lies got angry,” said Travis. “One guy was throw­ing chairs (in the cafe­te­ria). We’re glad we got the response we wanted.”

The protest rapid­ly spread to thir­ty oth­er Nova Sco­tia schools, then across the rest of Cana­da. High schools are no longer iso­lat­ed, self-con­tained, strat­i­fied, and despot­ic mini-soci­eties. Social net­work­ing media like Face­book and MySpace are enabling rapid, flu­id and demo­c­ra­t­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, not only between stu­dents in the same school, but link­ing them to every oth­er school in the world. Read more »

Image of the month: Alternating Currents

#B (5)

1956 Bal­lan­tine paper­back of Fred­erik Pohl’s short sto­ry col­lec­tion Alter­nat­ing Cur­rents. The cov­er art is by the inim­itable Richard Powers.

THIRD MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Saturday, August 18, 2007)

West­ern Europe, and lands cul­tur­al­ly derived from it, have made some rel­a­tive­ly suc­cess­ful approx­i­ma­tions of democ­ra­cy and civ­il soci­ety, and com­bined them with notice­able pros­per­i­ty. Peo­ple both inside and out­side this favoured zone won­der why, and they have often sought the answer in two par­tic­u­lar areas: reli­gious tra­di­tions, and the dra­mat­ic intel­lec­tu­al era called “the Enlight­en­ment”. As some­one who has writ­ten about the uni­ver­sal aspects of democ­ra­cy, I’ve often felt some annoy­ance at what I con­sid­er parochial views of his­to­ry, and dubi­ous ideas of causal­i­ty. I feel great sym­pa­thy for peo­ple out­side the favoured zone, who are hope­ful that they can have a demo­c­ra­t­ic future, but are dis­com­fit­ed by the “sec­ond-banana” sta­tus that it seems to imply for their cul­tur­al her­itage. This is espe­cial­ly true in the Islam­ic world, where past cul­tur­al glo­ries and present embar­rass­ments com­bine to make the search for demo­c­ra­t­ic reform a touchy sub­ject. I think that an exces­sive­ly car­toon­ish view of the Enlight­en­ment, and of the rela­tion­ship between reli­gion and democ­ra­cy, is part of the problem.

I recent­ly read two arti­cles by Tas­saduq Hus­sain Jil­lani, a supreme court jus­tice in Pak­istan. Though Pak­istan has mil­len­nia of cul­tur­al achieve­ment — it was one of the ear­li­est cen­ters of urban civ­i­liza­tion — and it has a well edu­cat­ed pop­u­la­tion, it lan­guish­es under a crude mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship. It has expe­ri­enced much strife from con­flict­ing reli­gious fac­tions. While its econ­o­my is a sham­bles, the mil­i­tary thugs who run the place take pride in their pos­ses­sion of nuclear weapons. Read more »

SECOND MEDITATION ON DEMOCRACY (written Monday, August 7, 2007)

Civ­i­liza­tion is the process in which one grad­u­al­ly increas­es the num­ber of peo­ple includ­ed in the term ‘we’ or ‘us’ and at the same time decreas­es those labeled ‘you’ or ‘them’ until that cat­e­go­ry has no one left in it.” — Howard Win­ters, an Amer­i­can archael­o­gist who stud­ied ancient set­tle­ment and trade pat­terns [quot­ed by Anne-Marie Cantwell in Howard Dal­ton Win­ters: In Memo­ri­am]

“Voice or no voice, the peo­ple can always be brought to the bid­ding of the lead­ers. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the paci­fists for lack of patri­o­tism and expos­ing the coun­try to dan­ger. It works the same in any coun­try.” — Her­mann Wil­helm Göring, sec­ond in com­mand to Adolf Hitler.

What most telling­ly dis­tin­guish­es demo­c­ra­t­ic from non-demo­c­ra­t­ic thought is its respect for human beings. By this, I don’t mean respect for some neb­u­lous abstrac­tion called “human­i­ty” or “the peo­ple”, which is all too eas­i­ly trans­formed into a mys­ti­cal col­lec­tivism. It’s a respect for real-life indi­vid­ual human beings, who live, fall in love, have chil­dren, and strug­gle to find secu­ri­ty and hap­pi­ness. In demo­c­ra­t­ic thought, the well­be­ing of indi­vid­ual human beings is the pur­pose and mea­sure of polit­i­cal choic­es. Well­be­ing, to the demo­c­rat, is defined first in terms of what mat­ters most to con­scious beings — lib­er­ty, self-respect, dig­ni­ty, con­trol over their own lives. The phys­i­cal neces­si­ties of life, such as food and shel­ter, are mean­ing­less to human beings except with­in the con­text of those val­ues. We are not cat­tle. Read more »