Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2016

This has been a year of blatant contradictions. No more so than in the way politicians in the “developed” world turn cartwheels on the issues of unemployment and wealth inequalities.

We were told that both Brexit and Trump’s popularity were “populist” reactions to the elitist control of politics and the loss of jobs to immigrants. As for the latter, Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, recently announced that the government would devote 2 billion pounds to the development of robots and automated processes. So no jobs for locals, unless you happen to be non-human. And Donald Trump’s choice for Labour Secretary, Andrew Puzder, is the boss of several big fast food companies and a fan of automated customer services: “They’re always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age-, sex-, or race-discrimination case.”

Nearly half of current jobs in the U.S. will be automated by 2033. Not only will 3D printers eliminate jobs in manufacturing, but “truck drivers” (the most common job in some American states) will also become obsolete in the age of driverless cars and trucks. Algorithms are used to analyse intelligence data for the NSA and CIA, perform medical diagnoses, hire employees, trade derivatives on financial markets, detect plagiarism, develop new drugs, and change the nature of warfare. Soon computer programmers will become redundant. And once robots start being designed and repaired by robots themselves, even robotics engineers will be superfluous.

What is it that drives the quest to replace humans with “intelligent” machines? Japan has a low birth rate, an ageing population, and a traditional xenophobic hostility to migrant labour from other Asian countries. It is not surprising, therefore, that it leads the world in robotics research linked to the care of elderly patients in hospitals and nursing homes. And Japanese religious traditions do not recognize the irreplaceable dignity of a human life.

But, all over the “developed” world, the thirst for greater and greater profit margins is the principal driver. In the United States, real wages have been stagnant for the past four decades, while corporate profits have soared. Six of the fifteen wealthiest Americans own digital technology companies, the oldest of which, Microsoft, has been in existence only since 1975.

In 1964, the US’s most valuable company, AT&T, was worth $267 billion in today’s dollars and employed 758,611 people. Today’s telecommunications giant, Google, is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday.

As the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman wrote a few years ago in The New York Times: “Smart machines may make higher GDP possible, but they will also reduce the demand for people-including smart people. So we could be looking at a society that grows ever richer, but in which all the gains in wealth accrue to whoever owns the robots.”

If anybody is interested to know further my views on robotics and AI, and the moral and theological issues they raise, you can watch a lecture of July 2016 at http://www.faraday.st-edmunds.cam.ac.uk (simply go to Resources → Multimedia and enter my name).

Thus there is a strong link between unemployment and the growing wealth disparities in today’s world. And that link is going to deepen as our politicians and economists seem to be bankrupt of ideas.

As for the elitist control of politics, it is business as usual. In fact, Trump’s cabinet boasts more billionaires than any other in U.S. history. The bankers and oil men rub their hands in glee. It will not be long before the Rust Belt voters discover that they have been taken for a ride.

Banks and the IT industry are major recipients of public funds. Yet the average taxpayer is unable to afford the products that these industries sell. Similarly cancer research is heavily funded by governments and philanthropic charities. Yet the new cancer drugs are beyond the reach of most of us. The transfer of public funds into private profits (which are then salted away in offshore tax havens) is going to worsen in the current global political climate which has divorced morality from politics and economics.

But perhaps for Christians the worst contradiction of all is to see- from the United States to the Philippines- large swathes of so-called “born again” Christians electing to power men who embody everything antithetical to the gospel of Christ. It is this that must fill us with shame and call forth the apostle’s prayer for the church that crucified Christ: “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God is that they may be saved. For I can testify that they are zealous for God but their zeal is not based on knowledge.” (Romans 10.1)

It has become fashionable of late, following Brexit and the U.S election fiasco, to bemoan the corruption of democracy and the triumph of “post-truth” politics. So I found it faintly humorous to discover recently these words from the great Greek sage Aristotle lamenting the state of Athens “nowadays” by comparison with “the old days”:

“Formerly, as is natural, every one would take his turn of service [in political office]; and then again, somebody else would look after his interests, just as he, while in office, had looked after theirs. But nowadays, for the sake of the material advantage which is to be gained from the public revenues and from office, men want to be always in office.”

While those of us in the Majority World have become perhaps too blasé about politicians who tell blatant lies to win votes or stay in power, many Americans naively assume that their Presidents never lied to their publics. Hence the view expressed by many non-Americans that they preferred Trump to win simply so that naïve Americans would wake up to the rottenness at the core of their political culture.

I am not so optimistic. To begin with, a Clinton victory should surely have been no less revelatory. There seems little difference, morally speaking, between Trump money and Clinton money; or between promoting Islamophobia and being in the pocket of Wall Street and the Zionist lobby. And why was advocating mass foeticide less reprehensible in the left-liberal media than advocating a ban on free trade deals? (It is Mexicans who have suffered most under NAFTA, but that fact was of no concern to either political camp).

I suspect that the reason Clinton won the overall vote was simply because many of those who voted for her were repelled by Trump. But the terrible choice faced by American voters- and a system that does not encourage multiple contestants- is unlikely to provoke serious soul-searching, apart from in a few liberal academic circles.

In his book Nationalism, first published in 1917, the Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore went as far as to say “The nation is the greatest evil.” He boldly stated his “conviction”- formed in the context of the Indian independence struggle- that “my countrymen will gain truly their India by fighting against that education which teaches them that a country is greater than the ideals of humanity.”

Unfortunately the education that Tagore repudiates is alive and well in India today. Like their Tea Party Republican cousins in the US, Hindutva ideologues trade on mythological readings of Indian history and a search for national scapegoats. Hardly a day passes when the mainstream Indian TV and print media do not whip up frenzy over alleged Pakistani border violations in Kashmir. The Indian army is always innocent of atrocities. And any criticism of Indian government policy by students and human rights activists is labelled “sedition” by senior cabinet ministers. Christians in India, like their fellow Muslims, have been intimidated by Hindu nationalists who charge them with being agents of foreign powers. Patriotism has been reduced to the slanting of meaningless slogans (the Indian equivalents of “Make America Great Again”) while aping Western consumerist lifestyles.

Christians, wherever they live, need to cling fast to two paradoxical truths:

(a) The Incarnation declares that the “Word made flesh” within a locality, a context, a culture is no less than the Word that creates and sustains all creatures with his love.

So Christian political witness arises out of a Gospel that both affirms all cultures and nations and critiques/relativizes them at the same time. We do not have to choose between the cosmopolitan vision of Liberalism and the (historically) Conservative stress on tradition and the virtues necessary for citizenship. The Gospel unites and transcends.

(b) To fail to love (especially those who are different to us) is not to be fully alive; but to love truly and deeply will lead to death. If you cannot love you remain imprisoned in yourself. But if you do love, you will be seen as a threat by the powers of domination in your society and you will be killed. Or, be thrust out of your church.

That is what Advent teaches us.


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