One reader's rave

"Thanks for the newspaper with your book review. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this terrific piece of writing. It is beautiful, complex, scholarly. Only sorry Mr. Freire cannot read it!" -- Ailene

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Einstein: "Why I Am a Socialist"

This classic essay, written for the premier issue of Monthly Review, deserves to be far more widely read:

Why I Am A Socialist
by Albert Einstein

Is it advisable for one who is not an expert on economic and social issues to express views on the subject of socialism? I believe for a number of reasons that it is.

Let us first consider the question from the point of view of scientific knowledge. It might appear that there are no essential methodological differences between astronomy and economics: scientists in both fields attempt to discover laws of general acceptability for a circumscribed group of phenomena in order to make the interconnection of these phenomena as clearly understandable as possible. But in reality such methodological differences do exist.

The discovery of general laws in the field of economics is made difficult by the circumstances that observed economic phenomena are often affected by many factors which are very hard to evaluate separately. In addition, the experience which has accumulated since the beginning of the so-called civilised period of human history has — as is well known — been largely influenced and limited by causes which are by no means exclusively economic in nature. For example, most of the major states of history owed their existence to conquest. The conquering peoples established themselves, legally and economically, as the privileged class of the conquered country. They seized for themselves a monopoly of the land ownership and appointed a priesthood from among their own ranks.
The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behaviour.

But historic tradition is, so to speak, of yesterday; nowhere have we really overcome what Thorstein Veblen called "the predatory phase" of human development. The observable economic facts belong to that phase and even such laws as we can derive from them are not applicable to other phases. Since the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development, economic science in its present state can throw little light on the socialist society of the future.

Second, socialism is directed towards a social-ethical end. Science, however, cannot create ends and, even less, instill them in human beings; science, at most, can supply the means by which to attain certain ends. But the ends themselves are conceived by personalities with lofty ethical ideals and — if these ends are not stillborn, but vital and vigorous — are adopted and carried forward by those many human beings who, half unconsciously, determine the slow evolution of society.

For these reasons, we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organisation of society.

Innumerable voices have been asserting for some time now that human society is passing through a crisis, that its stability has been gravely shattered. It is characteristic of such a situation that individuals feel indifferent or even hostile toward the group, small or large, to which they belong. In order to illustrate my meaning, let me record here a personal experience. I recently discussed with an intelligent and well-disposed man the threat of another war, which in my opinion would seriously endanger the existence of mankind, and I remarked that only a supra-national organisation would offer protection from that danger. Thereupon my visitor, very calmly and coolly, said to me: "Why are you so deeply opposed to the disappearance of the human race?"

I am sure that as little as a century ago no one would have so lightly made a statement of this kind. It is the statement of a man who has striven in vain to attain an equilibrium within himself and has more or less lost hope of succeeding. It is the expression of a painful solitude and isolation from which so many people are suffering in these days. What is the cause? Is there a way out?

It is easy to raise such questions, but difficult to answer them with any degree of assurance. I must try, however, as best I can, although I am very conscious of the fact that our feelings and strivings are often contradictory and obscure and that they cannot be expressed in easy and simple formulas.

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting, strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society. It is quite possible that the relative strength of these two drives is, in the main, fixed by inheritance. But the personality that finally emerges is largely formed by the environment in which a man happens to find himself during his development, by the structure of the society in which he grows up, by the tradition of that society, and by its appraisal of particular types of behaylour.

The abstract concept "society" means to the individual being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations. The individual is able to think, feel, strive, and work by himself; but he depends so much upon society — in his physical, intellectual, and emotional existence — that it is impossible to think of him, or to understand him, outside the framework of society. It is "society" which provides man with food, clothing, a home, the tools of work, language, the forms of thought, and most of the content of thought; his life is made possible through the labour and the accomplishments of the many millions past and present who are all hidden behind the small word "society".

It is evident, therefore, that the dependence of the individual upon society is a fact of nature which cannot be abolished — just as in the case of ants and bees. However, while the whole life process of ants and bees is fixed down to the smallest detail by rigid, hereditary instincts, the social pattern and interrelationships of human beings are very variable and susceptible to change. Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human beings which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organisations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.

Man acquires at birth, through heredity, a biological constitution which we must consider fixed and unalterable, including the natural urges which are characteristic of the human species. In addition, during his lifetime, he acquires a cultural constitution which he adopts from society through communication and through many other types of influences. It is this cultural constitution which, with the passage of time, is subject to change and which determines to a very large extent the relationship between the individual and society. Modern anthropology has taught us, through comparative investigation of so-called primitive cultures, that the social behaviour of human beings may differ greatly, depending upon prevailing cultural patterns and the types of organisation which predominate in society. It is on this that those who are striving to improve the lot of man may ground their hopes: human beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.

If we ask ourselves how the structure of society and the cultural attitude of man should be changed in order to make human life as satisfying as possible, we should constantly be conscious of the fact that there are certain conditions which we are unable to modify. As mentioned before, the biological nature of man is, for all practical purposes, not subject to change. Furthermore, technological and demographic developments of the last few centuries have created conditions which are here to stay. In relatively densely settled populations with the goods which are indispensable to their continued existence, an extreme division of labour and a highly centralised productive apparatus are absolutely necessary. The time — which, looking back, seems so idyllic — is gone forever when individuals or relatively small groups could be completely self-sufficient. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that mankind constitutes even now a planetary community of production and consumption.

I have now reached the point where I may indicate briefly what to me constitutes the essence of the crisis of our time. It concerns the relationship of the individual to society. The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egoistic drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this period of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egoism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life. Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.

The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil. We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labour — not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules. In this respect, it is important to realise that the means of production—that is to say, the entire productive capacity that is needed for producing consumer goods as well as additional capital goods — may legally be, and for the most part are, the private property of individuals.

For the sake of simplicity, in the discussion that follows I shall call "workers" all those who do not share in the ownership of the means of production — although this does not quite correspond to the customary use of the term. The owner of the means of production is in a position to purchase the labour power of the worker. By using the means of production, the worker produces new goods which become the property of the capitalist. The essential point about this process is the relation between what the worker produces and what he is paid, both measured in terms of real value. Insofar as the labour contract is "free," what the worker receives is determined not by the value of the goods he produces, but by his minimum needs and by the capitalists' requirements for labour power in relation to the number of workers competing for jobs. It is important to understand that even in theory the payment of the worker is not determined by the value of his product.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labour encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of the smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organised political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the Iegislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

The situation prevailing in an economy based on the private ownership of capital is thus characterised by two main principles: first, means of production (capital) are privately owned and the owners dispose of them as they see fit; second, the labour contract is free. Of course, there is no such thing as a pure capitalist society in this sense. In particular, it should be noted that the workers, through long and bitter political struggles, have succeeded in securing a somewhat improved form of the "free labour contract" for certain categories of workers. But taken as a whole, the present day economy does not differ much from "pure" capitalism.

Production is carried on for profit, not for use. There is no provision that all those able and willing to work will always be in a position to find employment; an "army of unemployed" almost always exists. The worker is constantly in fear of losing his job. Since unemployed and poorly paid workers do not provide a profitable market, the production of consumers' goods is restricted, and great hardship is the consequence. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilisation of capital which leads to a huge waste of labour, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals which I mentioned before.

This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilised in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that a planned economy is not yet socialism. A planned economy as such may be accompanied by the complete enslavement of the individual. The achievement of socialism requires the solution of some extremely difficult sociopolitical problems: how is it possible, in view of the far-reaching centralisation of political and economic power, to prevent bureaucracy from becoming all-powerful and overweening? How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of the bureaucracy be assured?*

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.

Monthly Review, 1949

*For one answer, see this article:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The End of an Ideology? Not Quite

In its program today recalling the end of the Soviet Union, SRI's "The World" exhibited the premature capitalist
triumphalso typical of treatments of
this topic. I responded thus:

"It's perfectly absurd to call this "the end of an ideology." Parties that call themselves communist still have millions of members worldwide, counting only those that don't hold state power. To describe the breakup of the Soviet Union as the end of communism makes as much sense as calling the breakup of the Napoleonic Empire the end of republicanism."

The One Christmas Song That Rocks

When I was little I enjoyed singing "Glooooooooooooooria" to Handel's "Messiah." There days I tire of the incessant seasonal music. The one song I probably couldn't hear too much of is The Kinks' "Father Christmas."

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Quote of the Day

"China's CP is more like a chamber of commerce than a conventional political party." -- Jim O'Neill of Goldman Sachs, on NPR's "Marketplace" this morning

Philosophy/Psychology Nexus?

Here's a curious observation: with two people I've been Facebook friends with, when someone made a skeptical comment on a "spiritual" post they'd made, they reacted as if this were a personal attack. In part, this seems to reflect an attitude that their Facebook Wall is their personal property. Yet I can't recall any of my atheist or rationalist friends (who are probably far more numerous) ever reacting that way. To the contrary, like me they seem to genuinely welcome debate on threads they've initiated, just as much as on those started by others. It would seem that a certain type of spirituality is particularly attractive to people with fragile egos.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Second Date Follow-Up

It went well. She laughed a lot. Because of a change in schedules from last week, however, we saw a different movie than planned, _Tomboy_.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Quote of the Day

Should this be the first sign we see after we're born? On a sidewalk vendor's kiosk: "If you're in a hurry, you are in the wrong place."

Vote Occupy

The paper Metro is polling its readers on the Person of the Year. You can vote from a shortlist of Occupy, Steve Jobs, and Gabrielle Giffords by emailing

Monday, December 12, 2011


Scratch that last post -- it doesn't quite work. I was only half awake when I thought of it.

A Riddle

What's a palindrome to caption a painting of the Virgin Mary? Post your answer as a comment. Solution in one week.

Second Date

We're seeing _Martha Marcy May Marlene_ Thursday.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Occupy Home: The Mason Family’s Eviction and Occupy Philly's Pledge to Help

I recently met a woman whose family was illegally evicted from their home at the behest of a landlord who'd refused to make repairs. An article about their situation and their struggle to regain the home follows.

Occupy Home: The Mason Family’s Eviction and Occupy Philly's Pledge to Help

Fri, 11/25

When Florence Mason and her children were evicted from their Mount Airy home on October 15th, after multiple evictions in the previous two months resulted in their return to the house on legal grounds still knowing it might happen again, she found herself with nowhere to turn—except for Occupy Philly. On November 17th, Mason came to the General Assembly and began telling her story: the police assault on her children, the landlady who trashed her home and stole her furniture, her own steadfast litigation. The General Assembly of more than 200 people that night unanimously passed a proposal to help the Mason family get their home back and defend it.
On the inside of the Masons’ front door is an ugly, fluorescent orange poster stuck on with glue and half torn off, declaring the home unfit for human habitation. Beginning in 2004, when the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) found dangerous levels of lead paint, through February of this year, when the notice was posted on the door due to lack of heat, Mason says, “PHA told [the owners] the house was in ill repairs.” The owners’ Section 8 housing assistance payments contract was terminated in June 2010, according to a letter Mason obtained.
“When the landlord has an L&I violation, they cannot do an eviction. It’s illegal. The tenant has the right to abate rent until they fix any problems in the house,” she says. “They failed to do the work, and they kept failing the inspection. Then they decided to go into municipal court and say that I stopped paying the rent.”
When Mason attempted to get a Section 8 voucher to relocate, she says, PHA told her that because her husband’s name is on the lease, she wasn’t supposed to be there in the first place – despite his granting her power of attorney when he moved out. A Court of Common Pleas decision in July tossed out the landlady’s case, but the family’s troubles had only just begun.
“I still have nightmares about that day”

On the morning of September 1st, the police arrived, then left shortly afterward. This was not uncommon, Florence Mason’s 13-year-old son Clifton says. “It’s been a lot of times they came and harassed us, and every time we had our papers.” But that day, Florence Mason left the house to go to court, and the police returned.

“My brother [20-year-old Vincent, Jr.] was like, ‘What are you trying to do? Why are you here again?’ so they said to get off the porch,” Clifton Mason says. “So we all got off the porch, and they started to put handcuffs on us. My brother Vincent said if they were to take him, he was going to go by himself – and just leave us alone. After that, they hit him, they slammed him in the car, and they started beating him. He wasn’t doing anything.”

A neighbor, Lillian Smith, asked the police to let her take the two youngest children until their mother could get home. “They were going to take them to juvenile hall—that was what the captain said, because they were loud. They were upset.”

Smith was also concerned for Vincent, Jr: “I witnessed that the cuffs were a little bit tight, and when they were putting the young man in the van, his head got hit. I just don’t like to see anybody’s head get hit, because that’s where – he’s going to be a doctor or a lawyer or something, and you hurt that child.”

“They were just slamming him against the car,” says Smith’s granddaughter, Lisa Bailey, 15. “The older girl, Crystal [who is 18], got really upset, because they were throwing her older brother in there, so she started to flip out also. So they threw her on the floor and handcuffed her ankles and her arms.”

“The police were very rough with them,” adds a third neighbor, who does not want her name to be used. “Just like you see with Occupy Wall Street, you know, they were very rough with these kids.”

“The lady [cop] came over and tripped my sister, so she’s on the ground,” Clifton Mason says. “My 11-year-old sister [Sherriah]. She was crying. They were saying they were going to call the Department of Human Services DHS.”

“They threw the young girl [Sherriah] down in the street and handcuffed her,” the third neighbor says. “I got a paper towel to wipe her face off, and they told me to get back. She was so traumatized. She was just staring off into space with tears running down her face. They also got a moving van to take the stuff out of the house. The street was filled with cops. Everybody up and down the street was upset. One neighbor at the end of the block came out of the shower with shampoo in her hair. The police were out here constantly. They would always intimidate these kids, and they always come when the mother’s not there.”

Before police allowed Lillian Smith to take Sherriah and Clifton into her home, Clifton was sitting handcuffed in a police car. “I was like, ‘Why you all got me in here?” he says. “[The police officer] was like, ‘I’ll take off my badge and fight you.’” Clifton asked what would happen to the family dog, a German Shepherd named Sam, and the police told him not to worry—they would take care of her, he says.

Meanwhile, Florence Mason rushed home after receiving a call from Crystal. “Just imagine being on the phone and hearing your kids screaming, and you can’t do anything to help,” she says. “It still hurts me. I have nightmares about that day, hearing my children hollering, ‘Mommy, they’re arresting us!’ and my daughter’s heart-wrenching scream."

Two days later, while the family was trying to locate Sam, the police Animal Control Unit put the dog to sleep.

“They ransacked everything”

Crystal and Vincent were released, their charges were dropped, and the Masons returned to their family home. But on October 14th, they were evicted again—and this time, the family sought refuge with relatives.
On October 14th, Clifton Mason says, “there were moving trucks. They took the TVs and beds to make it very uncomfortable, because they knew that we were going to come back in the house. They sawed off the pipe inside the house so we couldn’t have water. They unplugged the gas wires and everything. They made it impossible for us to live inside the house.”

Florence Mason says, “When the chief or captain was out here, he let the landlord go through the basement, and while he was standing out there fussing with me, they were cutting the pipes and pulling out the wires to the heaters and the hot water heater. They just ransacked everything, and they took TVs, my laptops, my dishes, and my dining room set. They took my dresser drawers and threw them on the floor, and now there’s mice stuff all in there.

“We were out in the pouring rain that day. Half of us had no jackets on. And we were directly across the street. The car was right there and the police officer was just sitting there, and I went over to her to show my paperwork. She said, ‘You ain’t showing me nothing.’ So as I was walking back, the landlady comes over to her, and the guys from the moving trucks are sitting in the truck, and she’s talking to her. While I’m turning my back, my son and them start screaming, ‘Oh no, we ain’t see that! How many denominations is that?’

“I said, ‘What do you mean, denomination?’ So he’s like, ‘Mom, she just gave the cop money.’ Then all of them jumped in the car and pulled off.”

Clifton Mason says, “After they took our stuff, the owner of the house went to the front of the car, and she walked over to the window, and she came out with money out of her pocket, and she gave it to her. The cop lady rolled down the window, and she gave it to her. In front of neighbors—we all saw her. She gave the cop the money. And the cop was like, ‘I didn’t see anything. Nobody told me to do anything.’”

He adds, “If you’re going to bribe somebody, why would you do it in front of everybody?”

“This happened on October 14th, and we got back in the house, and we stayed until that morning, the 15th,” Florence Mason says. “And then the cops came, because I reported the bribe on a 911 call.”

And then, Florence Mason was arrested. She spent two weeks in the county jail.

A fourth neighbor, who didn’t want his name to be used, says that he has since seen signs of life in the house—unfortunately, however, not signs the Masons had anything to do with.

“About a week ago, while I’m out cleaning the leaves up in the back, I notice a ladder and a window open to this house,” he says. “A couple nights, I come home from work, it’s dark, and I could see a TV set or something, through the blinds. I said, ‘Wait a minute, nobody’s supposed to be there, as far as I know.’

“They’re a quiet family,” he adds. “They cause no trouble around the neighborhood. They’re a happy family.”
Florence Mason expects her next court date, in December, to confirm her right to keep her home, but until then, she doesn’t believe the house is a safe place for her children to stay—not just because it is unfit for habitation until repairs are made, but also because of the police. “I don’t want my children to go through that again,” she says. “I don’t care how many walks I have to do to county, but I don’t want them experiencing that in their young life at all.”

But she’s proud of the example she’s made for her children by advocating for her rights and theirs. And she’s determined to return to her family’s only home, despite everything she has been through. “I don’t care how much you do to me, I’m going to eventually, one way or another, find a way back.”

Friday, December 09, 2011

Someone should do a spoof of _Inspire_. It could be more honestly titled "Expire." Only problem: whoever did it would probably become their next target :-(

Thursday, December 08, 2011

YEAH! I just heard on the radio that DA Seth Williams won't seek to have radical journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal's death sentence reinstated. He suggested his motive was "closure" for Daniel Faulkner's family, rather than admit he couldn't win the appeal after all the evidence of innocence and of frame-up that's come out. And WHYY never mentioned that Mumia maintains his innocence, yet did quote Maureen Faulkner accusing federal judges of being "corrupt." I'm going to send them a note about this biased coverage.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Flame of Cthulhu!

The plaque in front of this stories-high sculpture, which dominates National Liberty Museum, calls it "Flame of Liberty." But I think we know who the model really was...

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Well, they've done it again: painted my building'sonly stairs, both sides at once. This time they didn't bother fencing off the unavoidable with yellow tape. They just put a sign saying "FRESH PAINT" on the steps -- just so we'd have warning before stepping on them, I guess.

En-Gendering Absurdity

When I bought a weekly Transpass Monday, the cashier put an "F for female" sticker on it. This seems to start happening whenever I let my hair grow past a certain length. I don't even bother pointing it out any longer. Why should I help them enforce gender norms, especiallywhen they can't even get it "right" themselves? It just shows how ridiculousthe gender sticker policy is.