The Math of Repression and Exploitation

The Math of Repression and Exploitation

The Mathematics of Repression and Exploitation

by Michael Novick, Anti-Racist Action/People Against Racist Terror

 The New York Times a few years ago ran an interesting series about mathematics — “Me, Myself and Math”  — how numbers appear in and affect our lives, by a mathematician, Steven Strogatz, skillful at explaining abstract ideas in concrete ways. The whole series is well worth reading and following up on the source material he cites.

I want to suss out some key points that he glosses over too quickly in a couple of the pieces. They touch on issues of probability, of weighted averages, and of scale that show how flawed “common sense” can sometimes be without the study of reality.

There are other segments too, such as “catastrophe” theory, that he relates to the outbreak of uprisings like the Arab Spring, and to sudden economic disjunctures where government policies seem to have little or negative effect, and the economy drops precipitously or stagnates.

Those are also worth study and analysis, and I may come back to them to comment further and another time, but I’ll stick with two points here. One is some insight into ‘networks’ that suggest a counter-insurgency strategy that is probably already well along, and  the other is the difficulty of getting people to grasp just HOW unequal economic inequality really is.

The first requires a longish excerpt from Strogatz’s writing, which starts out about social networking, and gets to the juicy point in a footnote. Here’s the link:

Me, Myself and Math September 17, 2012, 9:00 pm

Friends You Can Count On By STEVEN STROGATZ

You spend your time tweeting, friending, liking, poking, and in the few minutes left, cultivating friends in the flesh. Yet sadly, despite all your efforts, you probably have fewer friends than most of your friends have. But don’t despair –­ the same is true for almost all of us. Our friends are typically more popular than we are.

Don’t believe it? Consider these results from a colossal recent study of Facebook by Johan Ugander, Brian Karrer, Lars Backstrom and Cameron Marlow. (Disclosure: Ugander is a student at Cornell, and I’m on his doctoral committee.) They examined all of Facebook’s active users, which at the time included 721 million people ­– about 10 percent of the world’s population ­– with 69 billion friendships among them. First, the researchers looked at how users stacked up against their circle of friends. They found that a user’s friend count was less than the average friend count of his or her friends, 93% of the time. Next, they measured averages across Facebook as a whole, and found that users had an average of 190 friends, while their friends averaged 635 friends of their own.

Studies of offline social networks show the same trend. It has nothing to do with personalities; it follows from basic arithmetic. For any network where some people have more friends than others, it’s a theorem that the average number of friends of friends is always greater than the average number of friends of individuals.

This phenomenon has been called the friendship paradox. [He explains the math.] Like many of math’s beautiful ideas, the friendship paradox has led to exciting practical applications unforeseen by its discoverers. It recently inspired an early-warning system for detecting outbreaks of infectious diseases. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler monitored the flu status of a large cohort of random undergraduates and (here’s the clever part) a subset of friends they named. Remarkably, the friends behaved like sentinels –­ they got sick about two weeks earlier than the random undergraduates, presumably because they were more highly connected within the social network at large, just as one would have expected from the friendship paradox…

Then here’s the footnote:

Besides suggesting a strategy for detecting infection, the friendship paradox suggests a strategy for combating it. The idea is to immunize the friends of random nodes, rather than the nodes themselves. See R. Cohen, S. Havlin, and D. ben-Avraham, “<>  Efficient immunization strategies for computer networks and populations,” Physical Review Letters, Vol. 91, No. 24 (2003), 247901. Using computer simulations, the authors find that this approach is much more effective than random immunization at halting an epidemic. The technique achieves herd immunity when around 20 to 40 percent of the friend population is immunized, as opposed to the 80 or 90 percent coverage needed when the population at large is immunized. And in a chilling final sentence, they suggest that their strategy might also be relevant to dismantling terrorist networks: “Our findings suggest that an efficient way to disintegrate the network is to focus more on removing individuals whose name is obtained from another member of the network.”

You can be sure if some mathematicians have thought of this, the state has been applying it in strategic game-playing and in counter-insurgency practice in the real world for some time. This applies to both the “dis-integrating networks” strategy, for trying to dismantle potentially threatening groups, and to the “immunization” strategy, since state planners always see the spread of resistant cultures and oppositional ideas as infectious, and not just on the level of a verbal analogy.

The state always tries to introduce ideological “killed viruses,” safely corporate versions of liberation movements and theories, in order to inoculate people who could be “infected” by revolutionary struggles and ideologies. That’s why we have seen bourgeois feminism, business trade unionism, reactionary nationalism even among oppressed nations, reformist communists, “national socialism” (nazism) and even so-called “national anarchism,” gangsta rap, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. How did the liberation efforts of LGBTQ people get sidetracked into “gays in the military” and “marriage equality”? These pseudo-movements and denatured struggles are designed to prevent the spread of authentically revolutionary approaches to women’s liberation,  decolonization, social-ecological maintenance of the commons, and the expropriation of the expropriators.

The question is whether would-be or actual insurgent networks can apply this more sophisticated analysis and its tactical application to strengthening our own networks or our fledgling resistance. Can we use it to figure out how to undercut support for the state and the corporations among key constituencies, just as they are using it to try to throttle our movements? How can we apply it to understanding and dismantling the real terrorist networks of economic hitmen, CIA-trained torturers, and other political or uniformed operatives of the national security state and the corporate string-pullers and shot-callers? How can we use it to find ways to strengthen the mental and spiritual immune systems of our communities, especially of our youth, against the seductive, infectious offers of the Empire? Those questions are for us to answer. The NY Times is not going to provide solutions to them.

What follows is from another piece in the NY Times series, about the differences of scale involved in the solar system, or the subatomic system, or other large (economic) systems: linear vs. logarithmic variation, and powers of 10. It illustrates why people don’t really “get” exactly how “unequal” the US colonial capitalist system really is.

Strogatz opines: “A contentious example, especially in this election season, is inequality. The distribution of wealth in the US spans at least 10 powers of 10, ranging from people whose net worth is measured in tens of billions of dollars, to those with barely a dollar to their names. This disparity dwarfs even the six powers of 10 in the solar system [between the size of the sun and the planets, or between the orbits of the inner and outer planets]. As such, the distribution is extremely difficult to depict on a single graph, at least on the standard kinds of plots with linear axes, which is why you never see it displayed on one page.

“Depending on your politics, you may think that wealth inequality is a problem to be solved, or irrelevant, or an encouraging sign of a free society. But whether you believe we need more inequality or less, I think we can all agree that it would be helpful to understand the actual distribution. Unfortunately, its multi-scale character confounds us.

“This is clear from the work of Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely. In 2005 they surveyed a representative sample of more than 5,500 Americans ­ men and women, rich and poor, conservative and liberal, young and old ­ and asked them two questions: How much wealth inequality is there in America? And how much should there be, ideally?

“Norton and Ariely found that people on both sides of the political spectrum grossly underestimated the extent of inequality. The typical respondent believed that the top 20 percent owned 59 percent of the nation’s wealth, much less than the 84 percent the top quintile actually owned (at the time of the survey). Respondents also thought the two quintiles at the bottom ­ the poorest 40 percent ­ owned 10 percent of the nation’s wealth, when the reality was that their two slices totaled 0.3 percent of the American pie, the two nearly invisible slivers in the chart.

<<see attached graphic pie chart

“Yet surprisingly, when asked to describe the ideal distribution they’d like to see, respondents of all ages, classes, genders and party affiliations agreed. They’d all prefer a distribution much less extreme than the status quo: the top quintile [20%] would hold about 32 percent of the wealth, while the poorest quintile [20% of population] would have over 10 percent.”

It’s nice we can all agree about something for once, even if it happens to be a more equal distribution of wealth than exists in any country on Earth and probably in our solar system. I am highly doubtful whether really “we all agree” about “liking” a less-unequal wealth distribution as somehow “ideal,” in which the richest would still have 50% plus positive disproportionality in their wealth, and the poorest a 50% negative disproportionality. But that’s not the main point. There are some interesting things to consider about the proportions and proportional differences of the REAL, current wealth distribution among the “quintiles” (one-fifth of the U.S. population, 20%) in terms of WEALTH (not income).

The bottom 20% essentially have nothing, in US terms, and the next 20% has next to nothing (although it’s twice as much as the bottom 20%). That means 40% of the U.S. population has nothing or next to nothing, so little it barely registers on the pie chart, even combined together.

However, the next quintile up, the “middle” 20%, has more than 12 times as much wealth as the bottom 40% combined. And there’s your “lower middle class” — objectively with not much, and a disproportionately very small share of the total wealth, but looking down and seeing a vast gap, and feeling, relatively speaking, pretty good about where they are in comparison, and worried about falling into that abyss of deprivation through bad luck or bad choices at any given moment. Looking up, they see the next higher 20%, doing only about 3 times better than they are, and maybe within reach if they’re lucky. Just pick the right stocks or get the right stock options, buy the right home, “get in on the ground floor” of an IPO (initial public offering of stock) or the latest crypto-currency.

The next higher quintile, the second-wealthiest 20%, is the “upper middle class.” Even that privileged group still has less than its proportionate share of the total wealth (which under conditions of equality, or wealth proportional to numbers, would be 20% of the wealth for each 20% of the population). The second-richest 20% still has only about half its “share” of the national wealth. Also, they have only about 3 times more than the “lower middle class” quintile below them, and they are aware of the vast disparities (both between themselves and the richest 20% above them and between themselves and the bottom 40% below them). That’s why the “upper middle class” feels economically aggrieved, like “they are barely keeping up,” and are at least as fearful of a class fall as the lower middle class below them. It’s also why “the 99%” (or even “the 80%”) never unites.

It would be useful to translate the percentages into dollar figures of actual accumulated wealth. In not exactly congruent figures from 2009 (about 4 years later, and in the depths of the Great Recession), wikipedia gives the following figures:

“Wealth is unevenly distributed, with the wealthiest 25% of US households owning 87% of the [personal] wealth in the United States, which was $54.2 trillion in 2009.”

“Including human capital such as skills, the United Nations estimated the total wealth of the United States in 2008 to be $118 trillion.”

The UN may monetize our skills and “human capital”, but in the real capitalist world, the rest of us can’t do so except by selling our labor power to the capitalists.

The $54 trillion dollar cash value total of assets (residences and land, stock and bond portfolios, and other personal possessions) minus liabilities (debt and other obligations) is roughly in line with IRS estimates of total personal wealth. Let’s say $50 trillion for ease of calculation of a rough estimate dollar figure.

That means the top 20% have $42.25 trillion in total wealth combined, the next 20% about $5.52 trillion, the middle quintile holds about $2 trillion in total. Those three together account for roughly $49.8 trillion of our estimated $50 trillion, so below that level, the “trillions” disappear, precipitously.

The next lowest quintile (that’s about 63 million people) together hold about $100,000,000 (one hundred million dollars) in total wealth. That’s about $1.50 each (per capita, total dollar wealth for the group divided by the total number of people in the group). And for the poorest fifth or 20% of the U.S. population, that’s “six bits” — 75 cents per person in “total personal wealth.” For those of you too young to remember, “two bits” (25 cents) was the price of a shave and a haircut in the “da-dada-da-da-boom-boom” ditty and car horn sound.

That’s right, the individual “personal wealth” on average of 40% of the U.S. population is a buck and half max, half of that for half of them. Remember we’re talking assets minus liabilities here. People might have some cash in their pockets, or even “own” a house, but they owe as much or even more than they make or own in a year. As the seven dwarfs used to sing, “I owe, I owe, so off to work I go.”

And that’s not even talking about the billions of people elsewhere on the planet who get by on a dollar a day, or 50 cents a day, of income, or less.

What usually “goes without saying,” but shouldn’t, is the racial and colonial component of all this. Wikipedia acknowledges the racial disparity in wealth, which it attributes mostly to home ownership differentials. But of course the multi-generational consequences of chattel slavery, genocide, colonization and racial oppression, persist and actually deepen and grow wider over time. In good times, better off groups add more to their wealth. In bad times, less well-off groups lose more of their wealth. Government programs to ameliorate these problems usually incorporate a racial bias (as the GI Bill benefits after World War II and the Korean War favored white GIs). Land the US stole from Native people was given away to white homesteaders. The US Department of Agriculture eliminated thousands of Black subsistence farmers with the stroke of a pen in favor of policy definitions and subsidies for corporate agribusiness, swiftly resulting in the physical dispossession of many Black farmers from their land.

Government programs to enforce compliance usually disproportionately punish and repress Black, Brown, Asian and indigenous people (as the war on crime, the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration do).

The reality of these economic inequalities, which are understood better by those on the top of the pyramid and see the whole picture, explain why the state and the corporations are happy to divert us with electronic “friends” so they can gather more data about our every move and desire, and why they are quick to apply the insights gained about how people network and associate, for the purposes of more effective intelligence gathering on and disruption of networks that might breed resistance. Since they have acknowledged that they have been going through a FISA court for at least seven years to keep track of who EVERYONE in the U.S. is talking to on the phone and for how long, do you imagine they are not tracking every “friend” you have and who the “friends of your friends” are, when they can do it without even a “by-your-leave” from Facebook or FISA?

Everyone who imagines that these economic and social disparities, and the wars, prisons and exploitation-enforcement mechanisms that cause them and maintain them, will be eliminated through rational persuasion or moral suasion, raise your hand.

And if you can’t honestly say that appeals to reason or conscience will prevail upon those capitalist leeches who have leached and continue to leach all this vast wealth from the land and people at the expense of the planet and its inhabitants, then you need to get with a strategy and approach that will prevail, before physical and cultural genocide and ecocide proceed any further.