The nature of human knowledge

Published: August 18, 2011
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The writer is professor of economics at the International Islamic University, Islamabad
asad.zaman@tribune.com.pk

The writer is professor of economics at the International Islamic University, Islamabad [email protected]

It is widely believed that human knowledge captures truth. Influential French philosopher Michel Foucault proposed the startling alternative that power creates and shapes knowledge. This article illustrates theories which relate to power rather than truth.

Our first example is the theory of Malthus which states that poverty is caused by excessive breeding of the poor. To prevent a replication of the French Revolution, the British aristocracy initiated many welfare programmes for the poor. However, the budgetary burden and consciences were relieved by Malthus, who argued that the poor were to blame for their own poverty. This theory became widely accepted and led to the curtailment of welfare programmes and introduction of new harsh measures aimed at eliminating the poor, rather than eliminating poverty. Even though it is easily refuted, the Malthusian theory continues to command widespread support because it relieves the rich and the powerful from the responsibility of helping the poor and the oppressed.

A related second example is the widely believed theory that famines are caused by the scarcity of food. Amartya Sen won a Nobel Prize for showing that this is not true. Multiple famines leading to millions of deaths and the annihilation of villages and communities were caused by stringent British enforcement of free market principles in India. At the height of the famines, with streets littered with starving people, grains guarded by soldiers were shipped to distant locations for profits. These inhumane policies were supported by Malthusian assertions in favour of weeding out the unfit portions of humanity.

As a third example, consider the theory that free trade is in the best interest of all nations, which is widely believed and touted by economists. Instead of examining evidence in favour of or against this theory, let us look at how it serves the interests of power. The theory of free trade first became popular in England in the time of Adam Smith, when England had a 50 year lead over other European countries in industrialisation. Application of this theory led to the expansion of English trade, together with recession in Europe. German economist Friedrich List developed the ‘infant industry’ argument to justify protective tariffs in Germany. He argued that free trade was fine among equals but infant industries needed protection to survive and grow. Tariffs in Europe did, in fact, lead to recovery of the European economies by protecting them from British competition. If free trade does provide equal benefits for all, then it is a mystery why all the English demanded from China after winning the Opium Wars was the ability to trade freely. Similarly, Admiral Perry of the US led an invasion of Japan for the sole purpose of obtaining the rights of free trade. This historical context provides far greater illumination than hundreds of dry technical papers full of arcane mathematics in current economic journals which prove that free trade is beneficial for all parties.

As a fourth example, consider the issue of democracy and Pakistan. Instead of the stale debate evaluating the relative performance of political parties and military regimes, let us consider the historical context. The Encylopedia Britannica of 1930 does not contain any entry for the word ‘democracy,’ which became popular only after the US became a world power. Once we go beyond slogans, there are serious disputes on the definition and complete agreement that an ‘ideal democracy’ has never actually existed in the world. Examination of history reveals that democracy is used as an image and to project power, without ever coming in touch with ground realities. A prime example is the contrast between the image of bringing democracy to Iraq and the reality of the Iraq war. Similarly, democracy, or its lack, has been used as an excuse for political interventions, coups and wars all over the world. The image of the US as a democratic country is very popular and useful to those in power. There is a serious question of how much democracy exists in a country where millions are homeless, hungry and without adequate healthcare at the same time that trillions are being spent on foreign wars.

The invisible chains which bind us to colonial patterns of cheap raw material exports and high priced final good imports are forged by power structures and masquerade as knowledge. Liberation requires the ability to see through these structures and the capacity for independent thought.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 19th, 2011.

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Reader Comments (22)

  • TANOLI.
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:45PM

    @ Professor sahab
    wonderfull article written ever by some one i wanna add some thing few years ago some
    peoples give a idea to open intrest free or shria,s comply bank in u.s.a but powerfull lobby
    and also fundamentalist chriistian pressur they could not succeed it freee market is in
    intrest of one specific tribe.

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  • TANOLI.
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:52PM

    One thing i dont get it there are 63 so called muslim countries in the world but no one
    has real islamic financial system professor asad zaman sahab can explain it next time
    we know there big pressure from free world also come when some where some one try
    to impelement those kind of banking but then they got so much money in trillions i think
    what a shame is iin it.

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  • Mirza
    Aug 19, 2011 - 8:59AM

    You wrote about the imperfect democracy in the US. “There is a serious question of how much democracy exists in a country where millions are homeless, hungry and without adequate healthcare at the same time that trillions are being spent on foreign wars.”

    First of all democracy is not an economic system of social justice and equality. In fact it has nothing to do with providing people with any kind of social guarantees. If people decide to elect rightwing parties who only favor rich people then it is their own choice.
    As far as the homelessness is concerned the home ownership in the US has historically been highest in the world. In fact many middleclass people own a second/vacation home/boathouse in addition to their primary home.
    The US govt spends many billions of $$ each year on the school and child nutrition program including food stamps. Social security, welfare and Medicare and Medicaid are some of the programs that are for poor, disabled, sick and older people. These programs consume most of the US budget and there is an active debate on debt ceiling to cut these down. No country in the world spends this kind of money on social programs. In over 30 years I have not heard a single case where a person died outside a hospital because of no money. “No hospital can refuse a patient, whether he/she has money or not”.
    Like any other society, in the US there are some people who are drug addict and always short of cash and live on the streets. Like a fascist country the govt cannot force people not to become homeless and they cannot put them in an institution. In fact when the weather becomes really cold or hot the govt, and other institutions volunteer and open up places for the homeless people to come and stay safe.
    What I am trying to say is that no system of govt is perfect and flawless. However, I have to agree with Winston Churchill who said about democracy “the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

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  • observer
    Aug 19, 2011 - 10:14AM

    Sir,

    I think this entire article was more about the Nature of the Ruling Ideas, than about the Nature of Knowledge. A discourse on the nature of ‘knowledge’ will also have to encompass the physical and biological sciences.
    Coming to the nature of the Ruling Ideas, Karl Marx realised long long ago that the ‘ruling ideas of the day are the ideas of the ruling class’. So all the ideas that you mentioned, including the idea of free trade are accepted as ‘truth’ because these ideas support the interests of the ruling classes.But then this is true of so many other ideas too.

    It can easily be argued that slavery was required by a feudal society and therefore, slavery was construed to be divinely ordained in medieval feudal societies. Then came the industrial revolution which required hourly wage workers who were free to move from a mine to a plant and a plant to a construction site and where ever so that uninterrupted supply of labour at ‘competitive costs’ could be ensured. And that led to the idea ‘equality of human beings’ and abolition of slavery.

    Once we start examining the role of these ideas sooner or later we will be forced to examine the mother of all ideas i.e. the idea of religion, for many concepts of self, right in people and things and ways of ordering different classes and nations are rooted in religious philosophy.

    The million dollar question is, Are we willing to go all the way?

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  • Haider Hussain
    Aug 19, 2011 - 12:20PM

    Examination of history reveals that democracy is used as an image and to project power, without ever coming in touch with ground realities

    Democracy is a flawed system. Two wrong combined cannot make one right, and guidance can only come from divine authority. Although there is a dispute on it, I always find Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem (1951) refuting the very basics of so-called democracy….

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  • Zahid Qureshi
    Aug 19, 2011 - 12:38PM

    @Mirza: Your argument about homelessness in US is invalid and kindly don’t just start ranting without pondering about what is being said, you are like a person who listens so that he can reply not think about what is being said, grow up a little.

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  • Rational Mind
    Aug 19, 2011 - 12:39PM

    Dr. Sb, we need more such eye opening articles from you

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  • Batool
    Aug 19, 2011 - 1:05PM

    Wonderful article, Dr Zaman. I love the way you build your case.

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  • sameer
    Aug 19, 2011 - 1:17PM

    Mirza, apparently you did not even get the gist of article. Article never claimed democracy is an economic system. It says democracy was never even popular before US became world power, thus it is used to project power.
    Since as per your claim a lot of people owned second home, probably that is why significant number of people lost their home

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  • malik
    Aug 19, 2011 - 2:31PM

    So, reading between the lines, what you essentially mean is this:

    1.) Don’t think that democracy is the panacea for all ills of the society, just because US is having it.

    2.) Stop glorifying democracy because democracy is not suitable for countries where large population is illiterate and poor and not capable of deciding for themselves what is good enough for them.

    3.) If some countries want to have any other system (other than democracy), even though it means living under brutal, dictatorships, then, so be it. Others should not bother about it. Because, other countries bother about it only due to self-interests and not out of any humanitarian concern.

    4.) Extrapolating all above, it is not a bad idea at all, to suspend the experiment called Democracy and bring back Army Rule for a while, till the problems of homelessness,illiteracy and healthcare are addressed.

    Way to go, professor !

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  • manfriday
    Aug 19, 2011 - 3:30PM

    “a wealthy person is beautiful, and is always right” says some old saying in India. Only wealth attracts and nothing else. The whole world, including the strongest US bashers, wish to settle in US, not in Ruwanda. People would choose the strongest like US, to hate but not Ruwanda. Ruwanda too has so many problems, but no body wishes to discuss about their economic or democratic models. They may have good points too, but who cares? There are theories for and against the rich, but not about the poor. because, no thinker or writer wish to discuss about Ruwandans, except the painter, for whom the poor are picturesque to be painted for a price.

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  • Aug 19, 2011 - 4:57PM

    Excellant article.

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  • Abhi
    Aug 19, 2011 - 6:34PM

    @sameer

    I agree with Malik. This could be good for a theoratical debate, but many people who are not really inclind towards open thinking can take this as supportive argument for dictatorship and authoritarian regime.

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  • Mirza
    Aug 19, 2011 - 7:33PM

    The author says “There is a serious question of how much democracy exists in a country where millions are homeless, hungry and without adequate healthcare at the same time that trillions are being spent on foreign wars.”

    Sorry, my fault that I have quoted the author’s words and explained the facts. The author had combined the “crimes and faults” of democracy with the economic evils of USA I only tried to separate them. I have not only read it but was amazed about the simplicity of his statement. Pakistan is one of the only countries in the world where Muslim citizens are not safe even in mosques and we are making democracy responsible for US social problems! Let us keep living in la la land and close our eyes toward the cancer that is eating away our society.

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  • Cynical
    Aug 19, 2011 - 8:23PM

    Dear author,

    Human knowledge is not something that is fixed in time and stuck in space.
    It is in a constant state of motion.Newer,better more efficient ideas,methods make room for old ways of looking at things,doing things. Democracy is no exception, as @mirza and @malik very eloquently put.
    Just because it is not perfect doesn’t mean we should shun it.Actualy perfection is not even the goal.It is the constant struggle to find and nurture the right kind of democratic institutions, which will meet the socio-economic aspirations of it’s people, that is the goal.
    It is a dynamic process not an end.
    Also your 2nd example of Amartya Sen’s treatise on famine is misplaced in context.
    He didn’t disprove, as you claim, “the widely believed theory that famines are caused by the scarcity of food.He used the instance of great bengal famine to illustrate the point that it was not scarcity of food per se (in that instant), but British policy that caused the famine. And it had nothing to do with free market principles, it was to boost the supply to the war effort in 1st world war.
    For the locals it was still the ‘scarcity’ that mattered and didn’t become any less scare because it was man made.
    I fail to fathom how someone can disprove ‘that famines are caused by the scarcity of food’, when, whether man made or because of natural disaster a scarcity of food will always cause a famine.

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  • Jami
    Aug 20, 2011 - 12:51AM

    I think Mirza has not understood what Dr. Sahib is saying.
    USA may be having more democracy than most other countries he mentions, but it does not mean that people in other countries will necessarily be happier and more content with more of the same cure. Same is true for a free Trade / Economy.
    If we look in the past, disposal of Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein , King Zahir Shah and those who followed him in quick succession, was to have more democracy, assuming it would mean a better living for their people. All these countries today are worse off than before. And worse is yet to follow when occupiers leave Iraq and Afghanistan after installing their own governments, ostensibly a more democratic one.
    Iran’s government today is no doubt more democratic than Shah’s.They have elections at regular intervals and, save a few incidents, most foreigners have observed that people vote quite freely. But are people happier or economy any better than they were then in Shah’s time? Same fate is going to attend if people blinded by democracy topple over Kingdoms and Shiekhdoms in the Middle East. On the other hand, China, still claiming itself to be a modified communist government, but has all the indicators pointing up since a long time.

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  • mind control
    Aug 20, 2011 - 12:48PM

    @Asad Zaman

    The Encylopedia Britannica of 1930 does not contain any entry for the word ‘democracy,’ which became popular only after the US became a world power.

    The Encyclopedia Britannica was perhaps supportive of Pax Britannica and the British Empire and hence was not interested in promoting a subversive idea like ‘democracy’ to the colonies. The ommission therefore, had little to do with the status of America.
    And didn’t America become ‘the world power’ only after the demise of the USSR in the 1990s. Are you saying that all democracies that came into being between 1930 and 1990s, India and Bangladesh included, were anticipating the rise of America? Are we trying to twist the facts a wee bit to fit a preconceived notion?

    there are serious disputes on the definition and complete agreement that an ‘ideal democracy’ has never actually existed in the world.

    Come to think of it ‘an ideal’ nothing has ever existed in the world. Not an ideal ‘Socilalist State’, nor an ideal ‘Communist State’, nor an ideal Empire, nor an ideal Kingdom of God and not an ideal Caliphate. So what exactly are we trying to prove?

    A prime example is the contrast between the image of bringing democracy to Iraq and the reality of the Iraq war.

    That would have been certainly true had the US decided to establish a colony in Iraq. But the US withdrew after implementing the one man one vote system, even if it led to the rise of the Shias, who are likely to be sympathetic to America’s enemy Iran.Could the Shias ever dream of controlling their own destiny under Saddam?

    The image of the US as a democratic country is very popular and useful to those in power.

    It is equally useful for the disempowered and the disenfranchised of the world.Tell me how many people belonging to the persecuted minorities or even majorities chose to migrate to destinations other than democratic destinations.To make it clearer how many Muslims Shias, Sunnis, Ahmadias, Ismailis all included, migrate to the US,UK,Australia and rest of Europe and how many to biradar Islamic mumalik? Again facts are at variance with the thesis.

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  • Frank
    Aug 20, 2011 - 5:02PM

    What an absolute gem of an article! I’m sorry I didn’t see it earlier. This is the kind of thinking we need in Pakistan. We need to discard irrational ideologies like Political Islam and Liberal Idealism built on comforting myths rather than facts and we need to adopt rationality and pragmatism. We have to learn to use our brains and see beneath the surfaces of things. This is something neither the Islamists nor the Liberals are capable of, but the author of this article does it magnificently.

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  • Muhammad Aftab
    Aug 21, 2011 - 11:48AM

    Really nice awesome of thought

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  • Muhammad Ayub Siddiqui
    Aug 22, 2011 - 1:29AM

    An excellent article. Dr. Sahib you must arrange a training programme of teaching faculty of universities under the cover of HEC containing 4-6 modules. This will really help our teaching community building their arguments about the purpose of this universe and above all the purpose of our creation.

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  • SK - Salman
    Aug 24, 2011 - 5:17AM

    @Zahid Qureshi & @Sameer: I have read many posts of Mirza Sahib and have concluded that he takes the first opportunity to tout how beautiful the U.S. is and how everything is hunky dory there. And, if by chance, there are any problems in the U.S. then of course it is only because it is not a fascist country and cannot impose solutions on anyone. Drone attacks??? Hey they pay for their own bombs, so they can drop it wherever they wish, can’t they??? And since you are a beggar nation, you have lost your right to humanity also. And, after all, they invented Democracy, just like Al Gore has invented the internet. As one of you have stated Mirza Sahib needs to grow up and notice that there are equally worthy points of view worth consideration. Trust me, you could live there for the entire lifetime but you will not be accepted as one of them, just like Fareed Zakaria, no matter how brilliant he is, is always taken as dispensing a foreign point of view.

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  • Zehra
    Sep 3, 2011 - 10:19PM

    A good read, though the writer’s composition skills could be improved to allow greater clarity. This is obvious in the comments as the writer’s subtle criticism of the knowledge and power structures of today has been read as another populist tirade against the free market.

    The criticism of modern economics, as evinced in the first three examples, is valid and obvious to anyone who has delved into the capitalist system and economics practised in the academia (western.) However, the author’s criticism seems dated and off-balance. Surely there is selective presentation of material here, as apparent in your fourth example which relates to politics. Why do you not feel the need to critically engage with some of the equally ‘powerful’ religious narratives that are claiming heart and mind, and, body and soul, especially in Pakistan? This is not to take away from the criticism of ‘western’ modes of economics/power, but it seems intellectually criminal to ignore other facets of this ‘knowledge/power’ story more active closer to home.

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