Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Many of you have read the first two parts of William Polk's important essay on the history of the Palestinian situation, archived on August 8, 2014 and September 1, 2014 on box.net, accessible via the link at the top of this page. Earlier today I received part three. I have now read it and uploaded it to box.net. It is I think essential reading for anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My thanks go out to Bill for the enormous labor he has put into this three-part essay.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Observing capitalism in its earliest stages, Marx argued correctly that it was the most revolutionary force ever unleashed on the world. He saw that as it expanded and displaced previous social relations of production, capitalism eroded religious, ethnic, cultural, national, racial, and gender divisions, seeking always to reduce the labor force as far as possible to a homogeneous mass of workers who could be exchanged for one another readily on the factory floor or in the office. Although he fatally over-emphasized this tendency, as I have argued in my essay “The Future of Socialism,” his insight was correct.
Sitting in a café in the Marais after a visit to the Jewish Museum here in Paris, I found myself reflecting on the way in which Marx’s insight helped me to make sense of the frustrating limitations of the dramatically successful liberation movements on which liberals have focused so much of their energy in the past fifty years or so. For someone of my age, the social changes in America since the forties and fifties have been astonishing and exhilarating. The Black Liberation Movement, the Women’s Movement, the Gay Liberation Movement, and now the nascent Hispanic movement have changed the cultural and political life of America in ways that are clearly non-reversible, for all the desperate efforts of hysterical reactionaries.
But during that same period, economic inequality has steadily increased, the labor union movement has all but died, and the public discourse has moved markedly to the right on all matters economic.
The simple truth is that none of the “liberation” movements had an economically radical thrust. In effect, their demands were variations on the same theme: We Want In! We demand to be and to be treated as first-class citizens, not second-class citizens, of this capitalist society – which is, after all, just another way of saying We Want To Be Exploited Just Like White Men!
Although this thrust of capitalism is universal, there are always local variations. In nineteenth century America, for example, Capital struck a deal with white men, including immigrants. In return for excluding Black men freed by the Civil War from the better industrial jobs, thereby reducing the threat of unemployment to White men, owners were able to hold down wages. Black women were excluded even from such jobs as department store salesperson until after the Second World War, and in the successful drive to gain the vote for women, the White women who led the suffrage movement deliberately excluded Black women from their demands.
But generally speaking, Capital favors the inclusion of excluded sub-populations in the labor force, for the increase in the numbers of those looking for jobs keeps wages low. It was not at all surprising that when the Supreme Court weighed the constitutionality of the consideration of race in the admissions processes of the University of Michigan, large corporations filed amicus briefs in favor of the university’s practices.
We now find ourselves at a moment when the last great liberation movement, for the LGBT community, is on a clear path to success, but there is very little evidence of a powerful groundswell of support for economic justice. To be sure, the obscene rise in the inequality of income and wealth in America has finally become a subject of public discussion. But at least thus far, even such brilliantly theatrical efforts as the Occupy Movement have had little or no impact on electoral politics. We will soon see a successful effort by Hillary Clinton to secure first the nomination of the Democratic Party for the presidency and then the presidency itself. I would be quite surprised if Clinton is not president for the eight years following the Obama presidency. And yet there is not the slightest hint of anything remotely progressive about Hillary Clinton’s economic beliefs, commitments, or programs.
Liberation politics has run its course in America. Where the demand, the energy, the drive for economic progressivism will come from, I do not know. As for socialism, don’t get me started.
Monday, October 20, 2014
We are now just two weeks from the midterm elections, and it is becoming clear that the Democrats are likely to lose control of the Senate. It is not a done deal, were the feckless, ne’er-do-well Democratic base to get off its collective duff and just wander over to the polls to vote, we could avoid the unpleasantness of Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, but I am afraid the outcome universally considered most likely will in fact be the outcome that we get, so it is not too early to speculate on what it will all mean. Herewith some idle guesses, worth roughly as much as the effort they cost me to put into words. Treat them accordingly.
First of all, I think we can assume the day of the filibuster is over, so the Republicans will be able to pass any legislation they wish. Getting it signed is of course another matter. This will present the Senate Republicans with a very difficult problem. The House Republicans will certainly wish to repeal the Affordable care Act and pass all manner of anti-abortion legislation, etc. But in 2016, the electoral map will as unfavorable to the Senate Republicans as the 2014 map is to the Democrats, so the vulnerable Republican senators will not wish to have their fingerprints on a good deal of reactionary legislation that could come back to haunt them in 2016. Some very interesting fights may spring up within the Republican Party.
There will be two months between the loss of the Senate and the installation of the new Senators, so there is in fact time to fill some more vacant federal judgeships. Unfortunately [and quite incomprehensibly] Obama has been derelict in nominating candidates for District Court and Appeals Court judgeships. The Bush White House was quite industrious in this regard, with a large staff in the White House Counsel’s Office devoted to the matter. Under Obama, this function has been understaffed and neglected. Why? It beats me. Doing that would have been a freebie. It is an example not so much of ideological failing as sheer malfeasance.
In the wake of a loss of the Senate, Hillary Clinton will move up the announcement of her candidacy for the presidency in order to present herself as the salvation of disheartened liberals. This will be a fraud, but it will work, and as liberals watch the efforts of a mobilized and energized Republican Party to dismantle the last tottering structures of the New Deal legacy, they will allow themselves to be conned into thinking that Clinton is in some manner a savior. In the absence of a real liberal candidate, she will waltz into the nomination and win the 2016 Presidential race against some far right crazy put up by Republican right wingers convinced their moment has come.
The next ten years – my eighties – are going to be unusually difficult for someone of my persuasion. But with any luck, my nineties will be more cheerful. Since the Tigger in me is irrepressible, I shall approach my centenary with a light heart. Of course, by then my morning walk may take me most of the day.
Sunday, October 19, 2014
I have on occasion spoken disparagingly of the quality of classical music in Paris, but last night Susie and I went to a simply lovely concert that forces me to withdraw my disapproval. An organization of early music ensembles formed by young students and graduates of music schools in France has been putting on something called Festival Marin-Marais after the great seventeenth century viole player who was played by Gérard Depardieu in the beautiful film about Sainte-Colombe, Tous les Matins du Monde. [In the film, Depardieu’s son plays Marin Marais as a young man.] The festival consists of eighteen concerts, between September and November. We went to the Temple du Foyer de l’Ȃme on the curiously named rue du Pasteur-Wagner just north of Place de la Bastille. The concert, devoted to music of the seventeenth century, combined the efforts of two groups: Atys, six young women, three of whom play baroque violins and three of whom play violas da gamba, and Quadrivium Consort, five young men who play natural trumpets [no valves or keys] and a variety of oddly shaped cornets. The concert featured music by several composers of whom I had never heard, such as Johann Vierdanck and Pavel Josef Vejvanovsky. It was a delight. Early music is alive and well in Paris.
To get into the concert, I had not only to pay for tickets [dirt cheap – ten Euros each] but also fill out a form which asked, among other things, what instrument I play! This got me two cards, with our names on them, which apparently will gain us entrance to the remaining concerts. I was so delighted that as we left I dropped a fifty Euro bill in the collection basket.
Because we got there early, we were able to sit in the front row, and once again I observed something I have noticed before. What follows is a bit of inside baseball, so those not enamored of early music can surf on over to the Huffington Post. Baroque violins [and violas] differ from modern instruments in three notable respects. They use gut strings, not metal strings; they use bows differently constructed; and they do not have chin rests. The consequence of the first two differences is that they make a softer, less brilliant sound. The absence of the chin rest makes it harder to play in the higher positions. [In first position, the player makes use of the open strings and supports the instrument with the thumb under its neck. To shift to higher positions, you must move the left hand up the neck, until finally, in the very highest positions, it looks as though the performer is trying to stick her finger in her right ear. The chin rest is designed to allow the performer to clamp the violin between the chin and the shoulder and hold it so that the left hand is free to move up and down between positions.] I watched the three women playing baroque violins, and I think I am correct that not once did they ever have to play in anything but the first position, even though the music they were playing was on occasion quite complex. I came away thinking that with a little practice I could play that music.
Saturday, October 18, 2014
It has been pointed out to me that it is probably a bad idea to talk on my blog about my concerns regarding the course, as the students will find their way to my blog and read what I have written. So I am going to remove my posts [including this one after a few days] and the comments and talk about something else. You can always contact me by e-mail.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
Ian Seda-Irizarry, Professor of Economics at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and one of a number of fine young scholars educated in the University of Massachusetts Amherst Economics Department, poses a rather technical question grounded in the approach to Marx of Louis Althusser, and follows it up with an e-mail request that I say something about my take on Althusserian Marxism. In keeping with my long-established practice of offering my opinions on matters about which I know next to nothing, I shall strive to accommodate the request. First let me reproduce his comment so that it is before us:
“Professor now that I read your post, and after recently reading your book on "Money Bags must be so Lucky" I wonder if it is not more precise to speak of "essence vs appearance" instead of "reality vs appearance" given that the latter implies that appearance is not true or real. My understanding is that these terms have very precise philosophical meanings, something that implies that they go beyond the mere literal sense. And well, this of course happens with other concepts that Marx deploys like the concept of "abstract"...If one doesn't understand that he is using it following Hegel's deployment then, for example, reading the German Ideology would probably not make much sense.”
When one is about to risk making a fool of oneself, confession is good for the soul, so let me explain that I have not read anything by Althusser in roughly thirty-five years. I can date the event because it coincided with a trip I took with my two young sons to DisneyWorld in Orlando, Florida. I brought along Althusser’s best known work, Reading Capital. In the evenings, after a full day of rides and such, I would put my two young sons to bed in the Howard Johnson motel room and then sit under the light over the washbasin outside the bathroom reading Althusser. I think I may be the only person in the world with a copy of Reading Capital that has a Porky Pig sticker on the cover.
Back in Amherst I attended a graduate course for a while taught by Richard Wolff, a brilliant, charismatic Althusserian Marxist who was one of the leading lights of the UMass Economics Department. After several classes in which I got into arguments with Rick about “overdetermination” [a favorite Althusserian category], I stopped going because I feared I was simply being disruptive.
I will confess that I found Althusser obscure and unhelpful in my quest to understand Marx and stopped reading him. This, as I have explained several times, has been my practice all my life. When I find a text that seizes me, enlightens me, opens ideas for me, I read it with a ferocious intensity, ripping from it by main force whatever can help me in my intellectual quests. But when I find a text that does not seize me, as indeed most do not, I cast it aside and forget about it. I am thus deeply but very haphazardly or spottily educated. For example, I have a modest reputation as a Kant scholar, but there are books by Kant I have not read because one look was enough to tell me that they contained nothing I really needed to know. I make no apology for this habit of mind, and am quite happy to forego whatever recognition I might thereby sacrifice.
Althusser simply did not interest me when I read him, so I stopped. Let me expand on this just a bit by responding to Professor Seda-Irizarry’s comment about essence and appearance versus reality and appearance, and then call up from the bowels of my memory my dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination. I borrow the Appearance/Reality distinction from Plato, of course, who originated it in Western Philosophy [though the distinction must surely have been around long before Plato wrote.] As my little book, Moneybags, makes quite clear, I understand Marx to be saying that the surface appearances of Capitalism are powerful and capable of distorting and indeed destroying our lives, for all that they exist at the level of Appearance. I bring my book to a close with an extended analysis of Marx’s puzzling statement that “The categories of bourgeois economy … are socially valid, hence objective forms of thought” despite having just said that they are verrükt. This is a very deep utterance by Marx and requires an elaborate explication [which I give it.] I can see absolutely nothing to be gained by substituting “essence” for “reality” in my discussion, nothing at all. I am afraid [and I realize that I risk giving offence here] that I am sympathetic to the scathing evaluation of Althusser offered by Leszek Kolakowski, who wrote, as quoted on Wikipedia: “I will argue that the whole of Althusser's theory is made up of the following elements: 1. common sense banalities expressed with the help of unnecessarily complicated neologisms; 2. traditional Marxist concepts that are vague and ambiguous in Marx himself (or in Engels) and which remain, after Althusser's explanation, exactly as vague and ambiguous as they were before; 3. some striking historical inexactitudes.”
My dispute with Rick Wolff about overdetermination is a good case in point. The term “overdetermination” has two well-established meanings. The first is from mathematics, where a system of n linear equations in m unknowns is said to be overdetermined if n>m. An easy way to think about this is to imagine each linear equation as defining a line in a space. Two such lines in two-dimensional space will intersect somewhere if they are linearly independent [otherwise they will be parallel and never intersect, in which case one equation is actually a scalar multiple of the other.] Each pair of three lines in three-dimensional space will define a plane, assuming once again that no two of the lines are parallel to one another. Each pair of planes intersect to define a line, and the intersection of all three will identify a point. The point of intersection in each case is the solution to the set of equations – the point whose coordinates satisfy all n equations simultaneously. When there are three lines in two-dimensional space, in general they will not meet at a single point [instead they will define a triangle, with each pair of lines intersecting at one of the vertices.] So when three lines meet at a point in two-space, their equations do not determine a point, they overdetermine it.
The other meaning of “overdetermine’ is to be found in Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. In attempting to arrive at an interpretation of a patient’s dream, Freud would have the patient free associate to each element of the dream until the flow of associations played out, thereby discovering the meaning of the dream element in the dream. But as Freud engaged in this therapeutic practice, he made a striking discovery. Sometimes, the process of association would yield a completely adequate interpretation of a dream element, and yet by continuing the associations to that very same element, Freud would come upon a quite different, but also completely adequate interpretation of the element. It was not at all the case that the first stream of associations had explained some of the aspects of the dream element while the second stream had explained other aspects, nor was it the case that both streams of association were needed to make sense of any single aspect of the dream element. Each process of association was fully adequate to the explanation of the entire dream element. Freud called this curious phenomenon “overdetermination.” Althusser claimed to derive his notion of overdetermination from Freud.
In his lectures, rick Wolff seemed to me to be using the term “overdetermination” for something totally different, namely multiple determination, which is to say determination of a multiplicity of causes rather than by one cause alone. And he was invoking this of multiple determination – quite legitimately in my opinion – to counteract the tendency of some readers of Marx to think that Marx was saying something simplistic and wrong, namely that the law or religion of a society had one single simple cause, namely that it was a reflection of the social relations of production in the society, rather than being a complex phenomenon with many causes, principle among which but by no means alone, were the social relations of production.
I tried without any success whatsoever to get Rick to see that he was misusing the term “overdetermined’ when what he really meant was “multiply determined.” After a while I gave up and stopped bothering him and his class.
Well, that is about as much as I know about Althusser. I hope someone found it interesting. Ian, if you see Rick, give him my regards. He is a class act.