The Nature of Human Knowledge

Published in Express Tribune on August 18, 2011

The Nature of Human Knowledge
Asad Zaman

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 that poverty is caused by the excessive breeding of the poor. To prevent a replication of the French Revolution, British aristocracy initiated many welfare programs 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 curtailment of welfare programs, and introduction of new harsh measures aimed at eliminating the poor, rather than eliminating poverty. Even though it is easily refuted, Malthusian theory continues to command widespread support because it relieves the rich and the powerful of the responsibility for 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 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 favor 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 favor 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 industrialization. Application of this theory led to expansion of English trade, together with recession in Europe. German economist 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 USA led an invasion by four powers (Germany, England, France) 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 this word ‘democracy,’ which became popular only after USA 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 USA 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