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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Thursday, December 9, 2010

LET'S ALL BACK OFF

OK. I am sorry, Chris, if I seemed to make this personal. I apologize. I don't like it when I feel pushed, and I push back. The truth is that we are all on the same end of the political spectrum, where there are all too few of us, in fact. So let us not reproduce the fratricidal in-fighting of the historical left. That is why I like the labor movement -- it always remembers who the real enemy is.

I shall return to my philosophical postings, and we shall see how things work out. If anyone has an idea how to change the fundamentally reactionary orientation of American politics, speak up.

4 comments:

Chris said...

No hard feelings on my end ;)

Feel free to post, and blog, about anything and everything. As expected, in one of the last vestiges of free-speech, you'll have replies; some positive, some negative. We have our disagreements, but, so far as I can tell, we have exponentially more agreements.

English Jerk said...

We cannot answer the question of what we should do without deciding on our aims. Action without an aim is, as Kant says, a “mere doing,” not a “practice.” So it seems to me that the first step is to decide on specific long-term goals (what kind of society do we want to actually bring into being?), then on specific short-term goals (what are the present evils we should seek to eliminate?), and only then on what specific means we should use to achieve those goals.

Needless to say, doing anything at all requires that we not adopt Johnson’s despairing point of view (here with respect to language change, though it reflects his general attitude): “If the changes that we fear be thus irresistible, what remains but to acquiesce with silence, as in the other insurmountable distresses of humanity? It remains that we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure.” Humans are infinitely ingenious and incorrigibly social, so no distresses are insurmountable in the long run. Believing otherwise is the essence of conservatism.

So what kind of long-term goals should we adopt? We probably don’t need to have an exact blueprint for the society we want (in fact, I’d say flexibility would be highly desirable, so we wouldn’t want the sort of society that runs on blueprints, constitutions, etc.). We could use Dr. Wolff’s credo as a starting point: we begin with the fact of sociality and the necessity of cooperation, and then we see what we need to make it as easy as possible for people to cooperate (and thereby, presumably, to flourish). If we accept Dr. Wolff’s argument in the little anarchism book, then it seems that some kind of direct (not representative) consensual (not majoritarian) democracy is in order. Direct consensual democracy hardly seems feasibly on a large scale, so it seems like what we ought to have is relatively small autonomous communities, collaborating on a more-or-less ad hoc basis with other communities. There are, of course, many specific models for implementing this sort of notion, but it may not be necessary to make those engineering decisions at this point—the key is just the general picture. And we need to have some discussion of that picture to the extent that any of us think (as Dr. Wolff has indicated he does) that the only conceivable future society is run by a centralized state apparatus (a socialist one, say) and that small-scale social organization is inherently incompatible with advanced technology.

As for short-term goals, the list of problems that might guide us is well-nigh endless. We might take Chomsky’s view (in Hegemony or Survival) that we should focus on the biggest threats first: nuclear proliferation and environmental catastrophe. Then again, those issues are so large that it’s hard to organize people to deal with them (since one’s actions, however dramatic, seem to have no effect, and since the looming catastrophe is so horrible to contemplate that it saps the will). So we might say instead that we should focus on local issues: those things that directly affect ourselves and the people we directly interact with in our communities (perhaps even virtual communities). The risk there, of course, is that the local focus will perpetuate the oft-lamented fragmentation of the left. [Continued below…]

Chris said...

Society doesn't need a state to embolden institutions of direct democracy.

English Jerk said...

As for short-term goals, the list of problems that might guide us is well-nigh endless. We might take Chomsky’s view (in Hegemony or Survival) that we should focus on the biggest threats first: nuclear proliferation and environmental catastrophe. Then again, those issues are so large that it’s hard to organize people to deal with them (since one’s actions, however dramatic, seem to have no effect, and since the looming catastrophe is so horrible to contemplate that it saps the will). So we might say instead that we should focus on local issues: those things that direct affect ourselves and the people we directly interact with in our communities (perhaps even virtual communities). The risk there, of course, is that the local focus will perpetuate the oft-lamented fragmentation of the left.

Consequently, it seems to me that we should select issues that have both local and global bearing, since the local bearing will keep it practical and the global bearing will keep the movement coherent. Consider, for example, the tactics of the IWW, in contrast to the tactics of unions like the AFL (or virtually any of today’s big unions). For the AFL-type union, the point of a strike is that it gives the lawyers leverage: its point is to force a better contract, and its presupposed ideal is a situation in which capitalism continues but it offers workers tolerable conditions in which to be exploited (a living wage, health insurance, etc.). By contrast, the IWW always conceived of a strike as preparing workers for taking control of society: through striking, the workers discover that they (not the boss) have the real power, that they can survive without the boss’s paycheck if they just work together, and that by resisting the boss they can materially improve their lives. The contract negotiation still matters, in the IWW framework, since achieving the short-term goal of improved conditions is essential to showing workers that, as the old song goes, there’s power in a union. But that short-term goal is subordinated to the long-term goal of abolishing the wage system. Similarly, the solidarity among workers in one factory is designed to cultivate solidarity across the entire working class (“one big union”). So although the IWW was very focused on specific situations (organizing a specific group of workers), that specific focus always kept the larger (and longer-term) aims in view.

I don’t mean to indulge in Wobbly nostalgia here, though recalling the heroism of ordinary people is a good cure for despair. The point is that we should look for ways in which we can act at a local level and have a direct significant impact on actual people but still be advancing a coherent set of larger goals. “Socialism,” “anarchism,” and most of the vocabulary of union organizing has been so effectively demonized by the culture industry that those notions will not help us with ordinary people. One kind of language that does work, though, is the appeal to the “local,” and ordinary people can, I think, most effectively empower themselves though engagement in their communities. (The details, of course, will be different in every community, and our response to a specific situation should always be determined by that situation and by our long-term goals.) This works well with a long-term goal like direct consensual democracy. And if that’s our goal, then we should start by just ignoring virtually everything that happens on TV or in national newspapers. Those who feel like they ought to vote, go ahead and take the half an hour every couple of years to do so; but then get back to the real political work of teaching, organizing, building, and resisting. Of course, if what we want instead is a big socialist state running a planned economy, then we’ll need quite different tactics. So first we need to work out the long-term goals.