Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




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Thursday, June 7, 2018

HI JINKS ON A HIGH WIRE, WITHOUT A NET


Faithful readers of this blog are aware that I have made my long and reasonably successful career as a performance athlete, skating on thin ice.  I started, fifty-five years ago, by publishing an ambitious book on the Critique of Pure Reason, despite the fact that I could scarcely read German.  Having gotten away with this fraud, I went on to write two books and half a dozen articles about the thought of Karl Marx, even being so presumptuous as to offer a literary analysis of the language of the opening chapters of Das Kapital.  It is as though a wannabe literary theorist were to base a deep study of Dostoyevsky on the old translations of Constance Garnett.  Not content with this performance, I abruptly transferred to an Afro-American Studies department and assumed directorship of its cutting edge doctoral program.  You might plausibly describe me as the Wile E. Coyote of academia, blithely racing off cliffs, only to look down too late to discover that there is nothing holding me up.

Thus set in my ways, I started this blog, and last February 20th, on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever, I advanced a theory as to why Robert Mueller had chosen to indict an obscure young identity thief, Richard Pinedo, along with some Trump campaign bigwigs.  I got lucky, and enjoyed about fifteen seconds of fame as a consequence.  So here I go again.

This morning, while having a cup of coffee and listening to cable news before going on my walk, I heard extensive coverage of some appalling remarks made by Rudy Giuliani in Israel yesterday.  Giuliani went on for some time about the Stormy Daniels matter, stating that Melania Trump did not believe for a moment that Trump had had sex with Daniels and then proceeding to say, with much smirking and sneering, “Look at Trump’s three wives.  They are classy women.  Just look at Daniels.  I mean, really [smirk, smirk], can you imagine it?” and so forth.  This came on the same day that Trump wrote a bizarre long tweet repeating all the conspiracy theories someone or other had advanced to explain Melania’s month long absence from public view.  Giuliani went on to claim that after Trump’s cancellation of the summit with Kim Jong-un, Kim had been “on his hands and knees” begging for a summit, “which is just where you want him,” Giuliani said.

All of this was bizarre, even for Rudy.  The bloviators on Morning Joe tut-tutted and tsk-tsked but offered no coherent explanation for Rudy’s behavior.

Enter the thin ice skater.  As I prepare to leave for Paris tomorrow, where I will be without access to my blog, save to read comments, I herewith offer two explanations and a prediction.  If I am right, I shall return to cheers of the Cloud.  If I am wrong, by the time I return everyone will have forgotten.  Win-win.

First, Melania and Stormy.  I think [on the basis, you understand, of absolutely no evidence] that Melania is livid over the public humiliation caused by the endless public discussion of her husband’s affair with a porn star.  I think she has threatened to take her son and walk out of the marriage, invoking the clause in the pre-nup that gives her big bucks if Trump cheats.  [How do I know there is a pre-nup?  I don’t, of course.]  I think behind the scenes Trump and his inner circle have been desperately trying to dissuade her from this action, and Trump’s tweet plus Giuliani’s remarks are part of a deal struck to keep her in the marriage.

Now, Kim.  Giuliani’s language was pure Trump.  You recall his outrageous statement about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.  In Trump’s narcissistic pre-adolescent brain, the ultimate victory is to have your enemy on his hands and knees begging.

Well, it is an absolute certainty that Kim heard of these statements by Giuliani within ten minutes of their being aired.  But thus far he has not responded.  Herewith my prediction:  Kim will say nothing.  The planning for the summit will proceed.  Trump and his entourage will board Air Force One with much hullabaloo and fly off to Singapore, where he will make a big show of deplaning.

And Kim will not show up.  Trump will be left high and dry, stood up, humiliated, made to look the fool with the whole world watching.  At this point, my crystal ball grows cloudy.  Perhaps Kim will show up after an excruciating delay.  Perhaps he simply will not show up.  Either way, Trump loses.

Well, I am now so far over the edge of the cliff that there is nowhere to go but down, so I shall return to packing and tweaking my Belgian talk.  I wonder whether I am right.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

GOOD READ

In an email, Professor David Auerbach sends me a link to this clarifying and valuable essay on the subject of norms.  It is worth reading.

My post has, as I hoped, provoked a stimulating discussion.  Let me expand on one point that I think was not at all clear in the original post.

My discomfort does not arise from the hypocrisy of those who piously profess a commitment to the rule of law all the while undermining and violating it.  As Jesus did not say but might have [see Matthew 23:27, for example], the hypocrites we always have with us.  I was troubled by the thought that the norms themselves are ideological rationalizations and mystifications of the exploitative structure of capitalism, and hence have no independent status.  Although it is, alas, much too early for such thoughts, we need to think through what the norms of a socialist society would be, grounded in a collective, non-exploitative economic order.

In the meantime, I am enormously relieved that the California Democratic Party has survived the jungle primary and has a serious chance of contributing six, seven, or more flipped seats to the 23 we need in order to take control of the House.

Sufficient unto the day.

Monday, June 4, 2018

NORMS


I remarked several days ago that there were two things on my mind that seemed to call for blog posts, one about which my thoughts were clear, the other not.  I have blogged about the first – the deep state.  Now Todd Gitlin’s reminder of C. Wright Mills’ observation that an independent civil service is necessary for a liberal democracy has prodded me to address the second.  The topic, in a word, is norms.

The assaults by Trump on the Justice Department, his calls for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, his egregious and seemingly endless efforts to monetize the office of the Presidency, and of course his bullying tweets, have all provoked a wide-ranging discussion among the commentariat about Trump’s violations of long-established norms of public conduct and decorum, norms that are not codified in federal law but which are appealed to as universally acknowledged constraints on the actions of public officials.  Now, I am constitutionally sympathetic to any attack on Trump, but this appeal to norms has made me uncomfortable.  For some time now I have been trying to articulate to myself just precisely what causes this discomfort, and although I am not at all satisfied by what I have told myself during my early morning walks, I am going to try to put my thoughts in some order in hopes of stimulating a discussion in this space.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this:  For virtually my entire adult life, reaching back now more than sixty years, I have been calling out and condemning the hypocrisy of public officials who wrap themselves in the flag and congratulate themselves on their embrace of the ideals of “The American Experiment,” all the while spying on Martin Luther King, buying the nomination of JFK with ten dollar bills passed out in the West Virginia Democratic primary, overthrowing governments, covertly or overtly in the Old and New Worlds, torturing captives, lying the country into wars, gerrymandering Congressional districts, and generally violating every principle of justice and humanity ever articulated.  Over time, the invocation of norms has come to trigger a gag reaction in me.

And yet, and yet. 

Do I really reject the very idea of an impartial system of justice that protects the rights of the accused and imposes standards of evidence and due process in legal proceedings?  Oh, I am well aware of the ways in which ostensibly impartial laws are crafted to protect the interests of the wealthy.  Do not tell me that the rule of law is a bourgeois mystification of the class interests of capital.  I have written books about that.

And yet, and yet.

Would I want to live in a society, even a socialist society, that dispensed with blind justice and instead dissolved all questions of law into debates over public policy?  Do I imagine that once the excitement of the transformational moment had passed, routinized revolutionary fervor would serve as a satisfactory substitute for a public spirited commitment to norms of fairness, objectivity, and due process?

The answer is no.  A liberal democracy does indeed need an independent civil service, a liberal socialist democracy more than any other.

And so I am left with my problem.  How can I embrace the current condemnation of the violation of norms while at the same time insisting in calling to account those norm celebrators who were themselves, in better days, violators of those same norms?  How on earth do you put an essay in a tweet, let alone on a bumper sticker?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

QUICK ANSWER TO SOME QUESTIONS


One of the anonymati [is that even a word?] asks this:

 “What is the best Marxian argument for affirmative action?

Is there a Marxian response (or how would one approach if making one) to the current health-care system in the U.S.?”

In their different ways, these questions pose interesting problems for someone like myself who finds Marx’s analysis of capitalism insightful, powerful, persuasive, and in its central thesis true.  By “Marxian argument” or “Marxian response” I take it the reader means either “Marx’s argument,” “Marx’s response” or else something like “an argument implied by Marx’s arguments” and “a response likely to be given by someone who finds Marx’s analysis of capitalism persuasive.”

I say this, clunky as it sounds, because I reject the widespread tendency to treat Marx as akin to a religious prophet, as though one were asking “What is a Christian argument for affirmative action?” or “Is there a Muslim response to the current health care system in the U. S.?”

The simple reply to the first question is that Marx has no argument for affirmative action and his critique of capitalism does not seem to imply one.  Why not?  For two reasons:  First, Marx was convinced, on the basis of his deep study of the development of capitalism in England, that capitalism was rapidly destroying the distinction between the city and the country, between craft labor, agricultural labor, and factory labor, between the roles of men and of women in the working class, and between national, religious, and ethnic identities.  This root and branch revolutionizing of established society, along with the absorption of small businesses into large ones, was rapidly replacing the complex status divisions of pre-capitalist and even early capitalist society with a stark confrontation between big business and a working class.

Second, the modern movement for affirmative action or “liberation” of African-Americans, of women, of gay and lesbian Americans is, at base, an attempt to perfect the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist social formations, not to move beyond capitalism.  The fundamental demand of African-Americans is that they be treated legally, politically, economically, and socially exactly as White Americans are treated, and analogous demands are made by women and by the LGBTQ community.  These demands are thoroughly legitimate, but they have nothing to do with Marx’s critique of capitalism.  [The reality is a bit more complicated, I know, but I am not trying to write a book, just a blog post.]

An analogous response would be given by Marx or by someone like me to the second question.  Affordable, available, guaranteed health care is one element of what has been called The Welfare State or the Social Safety Net.  It is pretty clearly a capitalist effort both to buy off the working class so that it will not revolt and to handle one aspect of the problem of inadequate market demand that has bedeviled capitalism since its inception.  Marx was not interested in proposing fixes designed to shore up capitalism.  Since I have no expectation of a socialist transformation of capitalist society any time soon, alas, I am deeply committed to making capitalism as livable as possible for the mass of human beings, but I do not imagine that I am doing this in Marx’s name.

Does any of that help to answer the questions?

Friday, June 1, 2018

QUICK RESPONSE


S. Wallerstein remarks, a propos my post Deep State, “I'm no fan of the FBI, but in general, they may well be generally conservative people …”  This called to mind the hilarious old 1967 film, “The President’s Analyst,” starring James Coburn.  The FBI agents are portrayed as uptight boy scouts in coats and ties and hats, and the CIA agents are portrayed as laidback academic types in tweed jackets with elbow patches smoking pipes.  Spoiler alert:  the real villain turns out to be AT&T.

THE DEEP STATE


We have heard a good deal lately about the Deep State, a cabal of career government officials in the Justice Department, the State Department, and other federal agencies who are opposed to the presidency of Donald Trump and are using their powers secretly to undermine his authority and resist his executive will.  The term “Deep State” seems to have been given currency by Steve Bannon, although I am sure it predates him.  References to the Deep State apparently abound in right wing media circles and form a part of conspiracy stories circulated on the Right.

Is there in fact a Deep State?  Of course there is, but not only in the Federal Government.  There is also a Deep State in the military, in the Catholic Church, in every university, in every corporation, in the Boy Scouts, in every state government, even in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and of course there is a Deep State in the Internal Revenue Service.  All of these Deep States, and many others besides, have a name, made current in intellectual circles by the greatest sociologist ever [save for Marx], Max Weber.  They are called bureaucracies.

Let us remind ourselves of the etymology of the term “bureaucracy.”  A Democracy is a state ruled by the Demos, the people.  An Aristocracy is a state ruled by the Ariston, the best [never mind the truth.]  An Ochlocracy  is a state ruled by a mob.  And a Kleptocracy is a state ruled by thieves.  A Bureaucracy is, by extension, a state ruled by the Bureau, which is to say by the faceless occupants of government offices, or bureaus, the career employees, the paper pushers, the rule promulgators, interpreters, and enforcers.

A charismatic leader may succeed by force of personality in bending a band of followers to his or her will.   But inevitably, ineluctably, as Weber shows in brilliant detail, there is a regularization of decision making, what Weber calls in an exquisite turn of phrase the routinization of charisma.  It could not be otherwise.  Consider.

In an organization of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals, an extensive division of function becomes necessary in order to achieve and maintain an acceptable and sustainable level of coordination.  Some people in the organization make their careers by filling the positions charged with keeping track of procedures, codifying them into organizational rules, applying the rules, answering questions about the rules, enforcing the rules, interpreting the rules.  Efficiency and fairness require that these rules in general be applied uniformly.  Otherwise, others in the organization would not know what to expect in any given operational interaction.

The rule keepers, interpreters, and enforcers stick around for thirty years or more, as senior management personnel come and go.  Some top managers come up through the ranks, and along the way acquire experience in using the rules to advance their policy preferences.  Other senior managers come in at the top from other bureaucratic organizations and are forced to rely on the advice of the career bureaucrats.

From time to time a senior manager adopts a new policy to which the career bureaucrats are opposed [either for ideological reasons or simply because the policy is a break with settled practices with which the career bureaucrats are comfortable.]  The careerists, the members of the Deep State, have enormous on-the-ground power to frustrate the new manager, either by slow walking the objectionable policy, or by invoking obscure regulations that undermine its implementation.  Rather like the mountains in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, who measure time in eons, they are in the organization for life, and know that if they can stall an unwanted innovation long enough, the senior manager will retire or move on and a new senior manager will be appointed, at which time the entire process starts anew.

All of this has been well known and understood for a century or more.  It is true of the American government, it is true of the British, French, German, Chinese, and Indian governments, and it would, alas, be true of a socialist government were one ever to come into existence.  Mao tried to inhibit the routinization of charisma by a policy of permanent revolution, but he failed, predictably and inevitably.

At the moment, we can all be grateful for the Deep State.  When we take power, it will be our sworn enemy.  Such is life.

FORTHCOMING

Well, I have told the NY TIMES and the post office to hold my paper and mail, I have alerted my credit card company that I am going abroad, and my Brussels talk is prepared, so a week from today I can fly off to Paris.  Later today, I should like to write about two subjects I have been turning over in my mind during my morning walks, one of which is clear in my mind, the other of which is quite murky.  But first, an observation about the supposed tribalization of American political discourse.

As I watch cable news discussions, I sometimes wonder idly what I would say if I were invited to be a guest on one of them, but I realize after a bit that it would be hopeless.  I would feel like a modern astrophysicist invited to engage in a discussion with a group of Ptolemaic astronomers having a vigorous debate about the precise arrangement of the epicyclic structure of the heavens.  This morning on Morning Joe the discussion centered on Trump's disastrous undermining of America's leadership of the Free World.  Had I been at the table, I would have raised doubts about the phrase "the Free World" and the others would have looked at me uncomprehendingly and continued with their discussion.  Then, as actually happened, Mike Barnacle would deliver a moving speech about the American Experiment, and when I called that phrase into question, I would have been politely but firmly removed from the table during the next commercial break.

Any useful discussion rests on a set of background or foundational shared understandings about the world.  You can only call those assumptions into question so many times before everyone else gets exasperated and tells you to shut up.  So, if you are a Copernican in astronomy, you start talking only to other Copernicans, because it is exhausting and fruitless to keep saying, "But the sun does not revolve around the earth."  And if you are like me, your eyes glaze over when yet again someone refers in passing to the obvious and unquestionable fact that America is the Leader of the Free World.  Oh, I try, I really try, but you cannot get supposedly serious people to think openly about a set of world-defining assumptions that shape every moment of their deep engagement with the surfaces of American public life.  Nothing short of a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus is called for, and an argument, no matter how powerful, is not likely to trigger such a bouleversement.

Phooey.  I am going to trim my beard.  I will be back later.