This is an archive of the former website of the Maoist Internationalist Movement, which was run by the now defunct Maoist Internationalist Party - Amerika. The MIM now consists of many independent cells, many of which have their own indendendent organs both online and off. MIM(Prisons) serves these documents as a service to and reference for the anti-imperialist movement worldwide.

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk
by Peter L. Bernstein
NY: John Wiley & Sons
383pp. pb.

With the largest petty-bourgeoisie in history worrying about its mutual funds, the time was right for a best-seller highly approved by bourgeois newspapers and economists on the question of risk. Not surprisingly, as a book written by an investment counselor, this is a story of heroes and geniuses--not the masses. Despite its basic bourgeois appeal, MIM considers this book mildly progressive as the best that bourgeois science has to offer in its attacks on religion and its dragging of the Western individualist into scientific subject areas that are necessary for the abandonment of individualism.

Bernstein takes us through history in search of the development of the idea of probability with a special focus on what is relevant to investors. We learn that the Hindus passed along the very concept of numbers we use today to the Arabs, who passed it along to the Europeans. Not until then were major advances possible in mathematics.

The history of probability that Bernstein narrates shows that it has become increasingly possible to talk scientifically about the effects of humyn actions in dollar amounts. For MIM this figuring is useful because it helps us argue to people that participating in revolutionary struggle is "worth it," and not just from a moral standpoint. Anti-militarist activism may have a very small chance of making nearly infinite gains for human productivity. Faced with this equation, even the Amerikan petty bourgeoisie should be able to relate to the politics of revolution as the risk-gain ratio is certainly more favorable to humanity than investing in retirement accounts.

Various European mathematicians developed the concept of probability, but not till this millenium, because the ancient Greeks apparently believed mostly in deductive reasoning and could not come to any conclusions about the gambling games they played. MIM cannot vouch for this book as being accurate on which culture came up with which idea first. To study Chinese culture's math and science alone to answer Bernstein would take a lifetime--which is not to say that someone somewhere does not know the answer better than MIM does now. That's not to mention the many lost cultures whose works are still being dug up and translated.

Gender and gambling

Bernstein does not mention gender oppression anywhere in the book, but MIM reads it between the lines. According to Bernstein, gambling was a major contributor to mathematical advance, and we find this aspect of his story credible, because it confirms what we Marxists believe to be true--that usually an economic activity exists first and then a major thought system revolves around it.

MIM finds gambling to be of interest, because along with liquor, it has figured into the leisure-time of men for thousands of years of recorded history. Wine, wimmin, song and gambling-- these go together.

Although the intellectuals Bernstein talks about all had sources of money, and none were professional gamblers, they were interested in gambling, sometimes moreso than their academic work. If it were not for this fact, it might be dubious whether they would have set about solving certain scientific problems according to Bernstein. That is to say an aspect of leisure-time influenced the advance of science.

Gambling and drinking by men traditionally have been thought of as ruinous to families. The image of a womyn at home waiting for a drunk and impoverished husband to come home is not without basis. This is especially ruinous in exploited families, less so in the kinds of intellectual elite families that Bernstein is talking about. Nonetheless, the elite men shared in the same culture of the exploited men.

Gambling is an activity that occurs outside the sphere of the family, outside of reproduction. Hence, it occupies the same location as the major and defining part of gender--the part that men and male pleasure-identified wimmin consider fun.

In part, gambling and drinking are expressions of the alienation of work in class society. Marx believed that eventually humyns would take control of their work and find it more enjoyable and not need so many escapes from it. It would be interesting to know to what extent primitive non-class societies gambled, maybe only by "playing with fire"!

World-famous mathematicians like Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) credited with developing probability theory lived on that edge between reckless leisure-time abandonment and strict religious self-control. In fact the picture emerges that the harder some of these mathematicians including Pascal worked, the less they got done. The more they worked, the more they stood as pillars in their churches.


The book is titled "Against the Gods," because probability has to do with prediction. Being able to quantify some things for prediction cut into the role played by the gods--that according to all good scientists of the Enlightenment tradition including Marxism. We do not have to know what will happen in every instance, but being able to say something will happen a certain percentage of the time was a great advance that meant humyns could perform something formerly reserved for oracles and gods.

The first astronomers, physicists and mathematicians of modern Europe had heavy ties to the Church. When Pascal looked to do his godly duties, he got no work on probability done. Indeed, the health of statisticians seemed to deteriorate the more religious they were. Today we might say this of anyone who "doesn't get out much."

In fact, Pascal abandoned science completely despite his leading achievements and took up the church full time. One probability question that we appreciate was central to this decision: given the choice between the possibility of God and no possibility of God, choosing to believe which has what consequences? Believing in God promised eternal life and freedom from hell, while not believing in God just meant having more fun temporarily. When the question is phrased this way, MIM has to agree that with no bias or information on which choice is correct(50-50), Pascal took the right choice and become ultra-religious.

For MIM, Pascal started the question of evaluating the future ideologically from the point of view of probability. We all have the choice to do drugs and just live as pleasurably as we can and die fast or we can live long and act toward the planet's living even longer. It's an ideological decision, but there is a scientific way to put this decision together. As soon as we start to place value on the future, the short-sighted failures of the class society's philosophy of "pragmatism" become clear.

As MIM recently pointed out in an article about Kosovo, if there is a (statistically independent) one percent chance of utter nuclear war destruction each year, the probabilities of surviving start to become less than half in 70 years or less than a lifetime. If we value the lifetimes of our children or friends' children or just our own "posterity," then it becomes even clearer that we must insist on an anti-militarist solution of the utmost stability and certainty. Certainly a system where it is possible to make profits selling arms or through "ethnic cleansing," cannot be a part of the future.

Whereas Pascal concerned himself about his own afterlife, MIM concerns itself concretely with the next 50, 75, 175 or more years on this Earth. It is possible to say that both Pascal and MIM might be considering something in the future of infinite value. The difference is that MIM would say that there is no doubt that what it is considering is of near-infinite value, because MIM is considering the future of the proletariat and basically the whole humyn species as it exists now. At best, an agnostic reading would be that Pascal has a 50 percent chance of being right about God and we atheists would say Pascal's pursuits get in the way of action protecting something definitely of near-infinite value. Pascal's own life is the proof, since he gave up science for religion. Pascal should have focussed his brain on the posterity of this existing Earth and not the afterlife.

Classical economics

Bernstein comes up with a couple cliched sentences saying that socialism failed because it did not allow risk and tried to stamp it out. What he means is that socialism did not have heroic entrepreneurs taking investment risks and so there was no innovation.

Rocket-science advanced under Stalin and allowed the world's first satellite shortly after his death and other military science advances defeated the most powerful army in history up to that point, but somehow, these ignorant bourgeois critics say socialism disallowed risk. Quite the contrary, socialism plans risk and does so on behalf of the whole society. Socialism does not allow individuals to risk large amounts of property that they become irrational about from self-interest. It is true the risk of violent irrationality is not worth taking.

Readers of Bernstein's book may be surprised how much the great European mathematicians of history also inclined toward classical economics and the MIM sort of Enlightenment thought. Classical economics focuses on the physical world, such as labor, products and the future of the planet; whereas starting in the 1800s "neoclassical" economic thought introduced the concept of individual subjectivity as important.

Survival of the species became unimportant to neoclassical economics and instead, we were handed a pseudo-science of individual, subjective "utility." After a somewhat self-critical phase, the bourgeois economists landed in a somewhat more logical "marginal utility." This philosophy was specifically devised to prevent the comparison of physical realities with physical realities without the subjective opinion of individuals intervening. To MIM, this is generally not a useful approach, especially in any approach concerning militarism or the environment.

The species either dies from war or it does not. That should be the goal of inquiry and not what people think of actions as individuals, consciously or unconsciously leaving out war and environmental risks.

Physically speaking, handing someone a dollar or handing them a pair of dice in a game with a one percent chance of winning $100 is the same thing. That scientific notion is a probability notion called "expected value." Expected value=(probability of winning)times(the value of the object won).

Because of how individuals feel about $100 versus the possibility of $0 or $1, neoclassical theory asks individual subjective questions about such dice games. Such questions prove that even when two things are of equal value, individuals pick one over the other, because they have subjective preferences. The neoclassicals thus develop their ideas further in their pseudo-theories of rational actors.

The bourgeoisie generally argues that the chance of revolution in the activist's lifetime is small and the value of it is also small, because it mostly affects the future. Hence, the view of the bourgeoisie is usually short-sighted "pragmatism."

Evaluating the physical possibility of species self-annihilation is far outside of neoclassical economic or financial theory possibilities. It is silly. Brokers will concern themselves with the risk that their bonds or dividends will not be paid and how they feel about that in various quantitative degrees, but not the risk that a bomb might land on their house and blow up their assets. Suburban Amerikans will pay thousands of dollars in commuting and burglar alarm systems to avoid an infinitesimal chance of murder (that surveys show are overestimated by the public by more than a factor of 10 as Bernstein shows.) Worse still, war-inflicted deaths might be insured against in some rare cases, but a notion of how to calculate war's prevention and acts against it does not exist in bourgeois economic thought.

That's why MIM prefers Pascal and even moreso the mathematicians after him who leaned as most intellectuals did to classical economics concerned with physical reality without intervening subjectivities. Such ideas of subjectivity are easily food for thought for individual investors, hence their popularity. They help investors evaluate their own preferences for risk and return on investment consistently, but they do nothing more.

As Mancur Olsen wrote in the "Logic of Collective Action," a bourgeois economics inspired question that might be more interesting is whether the individual benefits from social movements the individual participates in and how much can the individual make a difference? Since MIM takes the perspective of classes, nations and genders and not individuals, it is difficult for us to answer the question.

Nonetheless, what MIM says boils down to the fact that an individual is part of a family, class and nation. All of those are threatened by capitalism. If all we need to know about is how to spend the next dollar in the next minute, then perhaps there is not much beyond neoclassical economics. If the individual places any value on the future of any length--as Pascal did or as MIM does--then it becomes impossible to defend capitalism and therefore neoclassical thought is of little value. Even a small chance of affecting the future when the future holds infinite or close-to-infinite value will immediately dictate a choice of political activism even by neoclassical theory so expanded.

If the future is discounted but still weighs more than the next 70 years of an individual's life, then the only rational choice is a system with a less than one percent annual chance of nuclear catastrophe each year. The pragmatists would say we do not get this choice to impact such a decision, because the individual does not contribute to revolution.

It's a curious argument that the pragmatists make, because so many revolutions have happened in the 20th century. They must have happened by someone's actions. Let us simplify this question down to the level the individualists are asking us: Lenin and Mao certainly did have a chance to impact the system. Let us take the pragmatists seriously and say that most anti-militarist efforts will fail, but let's say that there is a chance that someone will come up with a revolution like a Lenin or Mao and be effective against militarism.

What is the value of taking a chance that "you" might "be the one" as they said in the "Matrix"? If we knew your action prevented nuclear annihilation for a year, your action would be worth at least the product of 5 billion people--something in the trillions of dollars. So by the old probability formula, we would multiply (probability of your success (winning)) by the (value of your success in dollars(jackpot)). Your probability of success may be very small but your value of success or jackpot is very high. The result of the multiplication would be the monetary value of your anti-militarist actions. If a ticket has only a 1 in 1,000 chance of winning a lottery, but the jackpot is $1 billion, then the ticket is worth $1 million, not subjectively, but actually. It seems to MIM that such a ticket would be worth considerable effort to obtain, unless there are even better ones to be found for the same effort.

The humyn species has only lived about two million years. Many species last hundreds of millions of years. Anti-militarist action has that possibility of prolonging species existence not just a year or two. It becomes very clear, very quickly that unless one subjectively discounts the future of the Earth beyond's one's own life completely, the expected value of anti-militarist action is very high, even if one's probability of success is one in a billion. Hence, although probability theory is not taught this way in college, MIM is tired of all the stupid textbooks and political pundits placing little value on our future. If they attached any reasonable value to the future, they would not tolerate the least bit of militarist motivation from the organization of their society.

MIM does not believe the necessary stable system could possibly be a class system, since all class systems so far have gone to all-out war, sooner or later, twice or more this century already. Only primitive communist tribal societies have records of no war.

In the last chapters of the book, Bernstein reviews some of the work of social psychology which shows that individuals do not answer the questions put to them on their subjective preferences consistently. Thus from our perspective, there is another reason neoclassical thought is a dead-end anyway.

Neoclassical and associated finance theory ends up asking investors their subjective opinions about how much they are risk "averse" and how much they "discount" the future. If such questions are subjective for the individual, we might as well proceed from objective realities and present them for evaluation to the individual as MIM does in its educational work. People with a long-run view will tend to agree with us.

Buy this book

Back to bookstore Home page