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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Saturday, September 4, 2010

A REPLY TO MY CRITICS

As I see it, the various criticisms posted in response to my recent political comments come down to this: How can a guy who makes a big deal about being an anarchist and a Marxist carry water for tools of the Establishment like Obama and his administration? There is a lot more detail, but that is pretty much what it comes down to. OK, let me respond. This is going to take a little while, so be patient.

I am going to start, not with abstract principles or world-historical ideological analysis but with my own personal life situation, because that really shapes the way in which I view politics. I retired two years ago, after a fifty year career in which I enjoyed ever-rising salaries, life tenure after the first six years, first-rate medical insurance and a secure pension. These facts alone place me in a distinct minority in American society -- a privileged minority. I and my wife are supported now by money from four sources: My University of Massachusetts pension, provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and quite secure, if for no other reason because it is part of the same pension system that provides for politicians and the state police; a small TIAA-CREF pension from my thirteen years in the private higher education sector; my Social Security payments; and Susie's Social Security payments. Our medical needs, which of course grow more urgent with advancing age, are met by a combination of Medicare and a supplementary plan associated with my Massachusetts pension. Our annual income is significantly smaller than it was when I was working full-time at UMass, but it is more than adequate to support a comfortable, secure life style. Despite the fact that Susie has suffered from Multiple Sclerosis for twenty years, we have never had to worry that her disease would, as a "pre-existing condition," threaten our medical insurance, and thanks to our supplementary insurance, the sometimes very expensive medications that have been prescribed for her are always available for a nominal co-pay. In short, we are living exactly the life that seventy-five years of progressive state and federal legislation was designed to ensure.

There are scores, if not hundreds, of millions of Americans who do not have the actuality or the promise of this sort of a secure old age, and what security they do have is under constant threat by right-wing ideologues and politicians who seek to limit or privatize social security, terminate Medicare, and convert all pension plans into gambles on the stock market. At this moment, scores of millions of Americans are losing their homes, watching their pension plans evaporate, flocking to homeless shelters and free food pantries, and running out of even extended unemployment benefits.

Unfortunately, we have no convenient social metric for quantifying the human misery that is building up in this country, alongside the obscene enrichment of the self-styled Masters of the Universe whose annual bonuses are larger than the lifetime earnings of most Americans. [Lest this seem a bit of inflated rhetoric, reflect that a fifty year working career at an average salary of $50,000 is, in toto, $2,500,000 in earnings -- well below what countless Wall Street types are taking home each year as bonuses.]

When I look at the current political landscape, at the people who are now serving in the U. S. House and Senate or who seek to do so in the upcoming elections, there are, it seems to me, essentially three points of view I can adopt as someone whose political commitments and beliefs are very far to the left.

First, I can adopt what might be called an exalted version of the old British slogan, "I'm all right, Jack." Comfortable in my secure old age, I can cry "a pox on both your houses," and refuse to dirty myself by consorting with anyone in the public sphere, because none of them embraces my politics and therefore all of them, so far as I am concerned, are unworthy of my respect or my political support. This is a very noble stance, one quite consonant with my reputation as an uncompromising radical. And best of all, it is cost-free! My pensions and my medical insurance will be completely unaffected by this attitude. If the Republicans take over the House and Senate, indeed if Sarah Palin is elected President of the United States, absolutely nothing in my personal life will change one bit. The only problem is that there are scores, perhaps hundreds, of millions of Americans whose daily lives will be dramatically altered by such a rightward lurch. The health reform bill that radicals and progressives scorn will be repealed, and millions of Americans will lose their new won protection from "denial for pre-existing conditions." Medicare will start to evaporate, and millions of Americans will find that in old age, they cannot afford the medications that can so dramatically ameliorate their suffering and prolong, as well as enhance, their lives. Any hope for the re-expansion of labor unions will die, and those unions now in existence will be eviscerated by Federal legislation. Not my problem, of course, UNLESS I CARE ABOUT SOMETHING OTHER THAN MY OWN WELL BEING.

Is there a difference between the two parties with respect to this sort of social safety net? Be serious. Of course there is. You want a single-payer health care insurance system? In the absence of the Republican Party, it would have been part of the bill recently passed. You want Social Security protected? It is not the Democratic party that is threatening it. Do I have to hold my nose when I vote for, work for, give money to, a Party with which I have such deep disagreements? Well, secure in my comfortable old age, that is not a terribly high price to pay for trying to help millions upon millions of Americans to gain some measure of the security I enjoy.

Second, I can take the position that from where I stand, there is no discernible difference between Barach Obama and Sarah Palin. They are all war criminals, all scoundrels, all pimps for Finance Capital, and nothing is to be gained by helping one rather than the other seize power. For reasons that I have already made clear, I do not actually believe that. But if you do, at least have the honesty and courage to stand up and embrace the implications of that position. Find a husband and wife whose child is dying because she had a pre-existing condition that denies her insurance coverage for the expensive operation she needs, and tell them, looking them right in the eye, that although you could of course fight for the preservation of the health care reform bill that the Republicans want to repeal -- a bill that will give their child the insurance for the operation -- you believe as a matter of principle that it would be wrong for you to do so, and you think they ought to be willing to lose their child in order to allow you to preserve your principles. What? you say. You alone cannot make the difference? My word, what a terrible pity for you that you are not, all by yourself, able to control the world. And that excuses you from doing what you can? I don't think so.

Third, I can adopt the position that the only way to dramatically change the lives of all Americans is to fight for a Socialist revolution, even if that means that along the way there will be "collateral damage" in the form of broken lives, miserable old age, higher unemployment, and the attendant unhappiness. Things must get worse before they can get better. That is always the price of revolutionary progress. Now, if I truly believed that such a revolution were possible in some not impossibly distant future, I might just conceivably consider this course, although I think that I would have an obligation to cut myself off from that benefits I now enjoy [although how I could do that without depriving my wife of them as well, I do not know.] And if someone wants to undertake a serious, fact based argument in support of that hypothesis, I would be eager to hear it. But the fact is I do not think we are at the brink of a Socialist revolution, and frankly, I do not know what one would look like in 2010.

So that leaves me, in effect, embracing what might be called a variant form of noblesse oblige. Since I am secure and comfortable, I believe I have an obligation to fight for the needs and welfare of those less fortunate. If someone can show me that withdrawing support from the Democratic Party and waiting for the victory of the Republican Party is the best way to do that, I will be happy to change my modus operandi.

5 comments:

Brenda said...

As my Socialist grandfather might have said: gut gesagt! (Yiddish for well said, exactly.) Altruism beats moral superiority any day. That same grandfather had no Socialist qualms about pinning an FDR button on me when I was about 4 years old,and I still have it.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

If I had a Wallace button, I would offer to trade [but alas I don't].

High Arka said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
High Arka said...

Another grammar repost. WTB edit.

Again, I'm struck by the fact that, even if everything you were saying was correct, you're fine with the continuing mass slaughter.

To employ just one subgroup: how many dead Iraqi prepubescent girls are you willing to condone in exchange for your marginal improvements in the social safety net? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000?

Is there any number of dead bodies, from that subgroup or any other, which will give you pause, and make you consider that perhaps you are supporting something a little too evil to justify the ends? (Even such noble ends as the "socialist revolution" you say you are working toward by supporting the [longest-lived political party on the planet] [massively capitalist, corporate funded] Democratic party?)

How many dead Iraqi girls are your promised benefits worth?

Scott said...

I highly recommend this three-part article by Kevin Carson, who not so long ago commented on this blog:

http://c4ss.org/content/2117
http://c4ss.org/content/2135
http://c4ss.org/content/2138