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Rebuttal to Tom Suarez’s article entitled “Chomsky and BDS”


This will most likely be the first of many articles addressing the political views expressed in a WordPress blog called “Ravithinks”.[1] This blog was brought to my attention by certain friends who noticed that the views espoused therein, belonging to a blogger called Ravi Kiran,[2] are quite different to my own sociopolitical views. In presenting Kiran’s ideas to me, my friends and I began to have a quite prolonged discussion that they thought deserved a more formal exposition. I hope I can offer that here.

CONTENTS

1. ENTER AYN RAND

In his blog post entitled “There is no poverty except thought poverty”,[3] Kiran essentially suggests that sharing with one another is not an altogether desirable goal. He claims that, in attempting to address poverty, we would “stop progressing” as a society, “[merely] so that all people can be at one level.” Kiran describes how, “[l]ike a lot of people in society, [he] too used to dream of totally eliminating poverty”, and how he once “used to advocate sharing” as a solution. But alas, no more: “with the entry of Ayn Rand into [his] life”, “all this has changed”.

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2. NAIVE BEGINNINGS LEAD TO HOPELESS WANDERINGS

The first concern I have with Kiran’s views is the wild switch from completely naive and overambitious notions of “eliminating poverty” on the one hand, to the extremely isolationist notion of “[o]ne must never seek or grant the unearned and undeserved”. There is a middle ground to be found here that Kiran does not acknowledge. This is an especially significant oversight because virtually all progress in human civilisation has been achieved by facing up to realities,[4] patiently struggling against them, and accepting compromises and intermediary victories when necessary.[5] It would seem that Kiran, in struggling to achieve the impossible (“eliminating poverty”), has quickly frustrated himself, and instead of rationally seeking a compromise position (reduce poverty where we can, and recognise that social justice is marathon endeavour, not a sprint), he has catapulted himself all the way over to the far right of the political spectrum, and is fortifying himself on his objectivist island of one.

It is quite naive to expect that poverty, violence, disease, or indeed any of life’s ills, will ever be “totally elminiat[ed]” as Kiran once “dream[t]“. This is just common sense. However, it does not follow that we should then spitefully reject any possibility of working towards social justice asymptotically. Just because we can’t achieve the overall (utopian) goal does not mean that we should give up trying, because real gains can, and have, been made in the process. As is often the case in life, the journey is more important than the end goal.

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3. BASIC NEEDS AND BASIC RIGHTS

Kiran begins his argument by “defining poverty”, for which he relies on Wikipedia. He questions the very idea of “basic human needs”, because what we currently call “basic needs” (“clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter”), were, he says, not basic needs at one point in history. Long ago, we did not have any of these things, yet humans “survived during that period too”. He clinches his argument by concluding that the things “we consider . . . [to be] basic needs [today] only represents the progress we [have] made [since ancient times]“, so those things “are not a must for human survival.”

Therefore, according to Kiran, “clean water, nutrition, health care, education, clothing and shelter” are “not a must for human survival”. Needless to say, this is just flat wrong. Clean water and nutrition are biological needs, and the rest are quite important for survival if one intends to live long enough to do anything meaningful with one’s life, i.e. just surviving beyond infancy for starters. Kiran just ignores the concept of a decent quality of life, and what any reasonable person would consider the purpose of life to be—raising a family, understanding and engaging creatively with the world around us, helping others, and leaving a better society and ecology for our descendants. Subsistence living cannot provide the opportunity for such a life.

Kiran points to the “[m]obile phone” to illustrate his point, an object that “decades back was only meant for VIPs”, whereas “today even a rickshaw puller has one”. Well, I’m not sure how he decided that mobile phones were “only meant for VIPs” when they were first introduced. They were only affordable for “VIPs”, but that is not the same thing. And this was not because of some law of nature, rather the corporate sectors of our society demanded it. Profit cannot be made by providing phones to all who may use them regardless of their wealth. Therefore, a conscious decision was made to initially market these phones exclusively to the privileged classes. It didn’t have to be that way, except for the capitalist trends in our society that deem an object of no value if it cannot be marketed and sold successfully (mobile phones, as well as human beings[6]).

Kiran mockingly submits that mobile phones will be, or perhaps already are, “inducted in to [sic] the list of basic needs”. Here Kiran seems to confuse the idea of a “basic need” and a basic right. Human rights are not the same as human needs. Human rights are a bigger group, and within that big group there is the sub-group of human needs. Mobile phones may not be a human need, but they may well be a human right—just like free speech and access to the Internet.[7] A human right is necessary for a good quality of life, a human need is necessary for survival.

But Kiran is not finished yet, he continues, “electricity or for that matter anything in that basic needs list is not ones [sic] birth right. One has to earn it.” So, according to Kiran, newborn babies are not entitled to anything, if they do not have parents to work for them and “earn” the right for their babies to be given the basic needs (because, Kiran would say, the rest of society has to sacrifice to allow for the provision of those needs), then the babies must be allowed to die. Similar rules would presumably apply in Kiran’s world for people with physical disabilities and illnesses that render them unable to “earn” the right to life (because without nutrition, clean water, electricity, and shelter, what ‘life’ would be left for them to lead?).

Kiran declares that “maybe” not “all those who [currently] enjoy these so called basic needs have earned it”. For example, those born into wealthy families, or in wealthy states that seek to automatically provide these basic needs to their population. But regardless, Kiran says, “that does not give [poor people] the right to beg or loot or expect someone to sacrifice for you”. Well certainly no one has the right to “loot”. However, surely we have the right to demand that those who haven’t “earn[ed]” those basic needs be stripped of them? Otherwise, Kiran seems to allow for exceptions in his own rule about “earn[ing]” one’s basic needs. He seems to be advocating that those who, by chance, happen to be born into privilege, and those who, by chance, happen to be born into poverty, need to work equally hard to “earn” their basic needs. But this is problematic. Even if the rich person does not work, they will be able to find means for the basic amenities of life, whereas the same cannot be said for the poor person. In Kiran’s world, the criteria by which basic needs are “earn[ed]” differ from case to case. This is unfair. Kiran cannot simultaneously complain of unfairness in one context (“expect[ing] someone [else] to sacrifice for you”), all the while ignoring unfairness in another context (you cannot control where you are born, yet that would determine your accessibility to basic needs in Kiran’s world).

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4. TAKING FROM THE RICH TO GIVE TO THE POOR

Kiran produces the following unsourced quote from Rand that “made [him] think very deeply”:

When people ask isn’t it desirable to clean up the slums, they conveniently drop the context of what happens to the next income bracket

As hard as I tried, I couldn’t find the source for this quote, and Kiran doesn’t care to provide one. In any case, I am happy to give him the benefit of the doubt, because I believe the quote’s general sentiment is quite recognisable as being based in objectivist philosophy—namely, a philosophy that recognises every person as an island, and says altruism shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself.

Indeed, “clean[ing] up the slums” may well take some time, effort, and injection of “income” from other “income bracket[s]“. But does this actually produce overall negative consequences for society and for the individuals in it, which is presumably what Kiran and Rand are insinuating? I do not know upon what evidence or reasoning Rand could have based this nugget of wisdom. In any case, recent economic data released by the IMF[8] (hardly a radical socialist institution) clearly suggest that helping to better living conditions for the poor does not detract from the wealth of society as a whole, quite the contrary in fact. Of course, this is to leave aside philosophical arguments calling into question whether the amassing of wealth and personal privelege should be the highest goal in life, and thus whether sharing wealth and helping “clean up the slums”, even if it severely affects our income, is really such a bad thing.

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5. PUBLIC SUBSIDY AND “FREE ENTERPRISE” CAPITALISM

Kiran seems to think that whatever progress we have made as a society in technology and innovation comes simply from “put[ting] our brains to work” and finding nifty solutions to problems:

The number of mobile phones available in the market has increased drastically over the last decade, and like I said even a rickshaw puller owns one if not two. This is not because the so called rich shared their mobile phones with the poor, but it is because we have advanced in technology and discovered cheaper ways of producing mobiles.Sharing won’t double the item, where as [sic] if we put our brains to work, we can produce two at just the cost of one.

This is a grossly over-simplified and incomplete view of how high-technology industry functions. For, in reality, to develop technology one needs funding, and the funding has, for the most part in the preceding century, not been provided by individuals or private entities. Instead, the required money is taken from taxation and given to research and development projects that start in the public sector and move slowly over to the private sector with increasing profitability and success of prototype models. This is neatly summarised by Noam Chomsky in this extract taken from a 1996 interview:

Telecommunications and every other part of high technology is a result of public subsidies. This was developed through the [Pentagon] system. Then after the public pays the cost, it gets privatized. Turning it over to private enterprise to collect the profits. That’s what we call free enterprise around here. And if the private enterprise gets in trouble [e.g. with misplaced investments in failed experimental models] the public bails them out. Capitalism is supposed to be risk free and public subsidized while profits are private. Telecommunications is a dramatic example of that. The reason you have sattelites [sic] and computers is because you had a Pentagon and NASA cover for it [i.e. funding allocated to 'national security' and 'defence' research and development gave birth to mass telecommunications]. It’s now getting to the stage where it’s profitable. So therefore it’s getting handed over to big private corporations.”[9] (my emphasis)

In this way, we can see that Kiran’s approach of saying “[s]haring won’t double the item” is quite beside the point. The key point is, those who paid the taxes that contributed to the mobile phone’s technological underpinnings are justified in having a mobile phone. In fact, if we determine that access to the Internet, most easily done through mobile phones nowadays, is a human right, then all human beings should be provided with one, then even the ‘taxes in, mobile phone out’ calculus becomes irrelevant, doubly undermining Kiran’s point.

As much as Kiran may like to deny it, his much-detested “giving” and “sharing” is right at the root of social progress and so-called capitalist technological endeavour. The “giving” goes one way however—from the poor to the rich, and the “sharing” is done by the rich among themselves. Kiran should acknowledge that he, wittingly or unwittingly, is in favour of socialism, though only for the rich. The conditions he proposes setting up in our society will favour close ties between state power and corporate power (that is, even more than we see currently), allowing for co-opting of state resources for the benefit of the rich. The ‘successful’ rich will not have behaved in any more of a Randian fashion than the ‘lazy’ free-loading poor, yet Kiran will admonish only the poor. Kiran, by virtue of the easily predictable consequences of his proposals, is thus evidently in favour of a nanny state for the rich, though I doubt he would approve of my putting it in such terms.

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6. NOTES

[1] Kiran, R. Ravithinks. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://ravithinkz.wordpress.com [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[2] Twitter. Ravi Kiran. [Online] Available from: https://twitter.com/ravithinkz [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[3] Kiran, R. There is no poverty except thought poverty. Ravithinks. Weblog. [Online] Available from: http://ravithinkz.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/there-is-no-poverty-except-thought-poverty [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[4] infiniteinfiniteinfi. Noam Chomsky: What Can I Do?. [Video; time reference: 02m17s] 2012. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScMySLaRWzA&t=2m17s [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[5] Noam Chomsky Videos. Angry Chomsky Vs Spartacist. [Video] 2013. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg1_EIzQmSk&t=2m14s [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[6] argusfest. Noam Chomsky – Interventionism, Free Trade and Democracy. [Video] 2013. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kKShzOa0Uk&t=1h37m30s [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[7] Wikipedia. Right to Internet access. [Online] Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_Internet_access [Accessed 1st July 2014].

[8] Inman, P. IMF study finds inequality is damaging to economic growth. Guardian. [Online] 26th February 2014. Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/feb/26/imf-inequality-economic-growth [Accessed 1st july 2014].

[9] Chomsky, N. Interviewed by: Hirsh, J. 8th June 1996. Z Media Institute, Wood’s Hole, MA, USA. Transcript available online from: http://jessehirsh.com/chomsky-technology-and-the-pentagon-system [Accessed 1st July 2014].

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