Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Now that I have completed work on the eleventh edition of the textbook ABOUT PHILOSOPHY, perhaps I can turn my attention more fully to blogging. We are now in the last week of the dog days of Summer. We have had the absurdity of the Glenn Beck religious revival [on which the best commentary, not surprisingly, is that of Christopher Hitchens, on], and the disastrous poll news showing the widest generic Republican-Democratic voter gap ever recorded, which suggests that the Republicans will in fact capture the House in November. The New York Mosque - Community Center hysteria seems to have died down slightly. Which leaves us looking at a truly ugly moment in American history.

I have been a faithful supporter of President Obama despite the disaster of his Afghanistan policy and many other things besides. he has one last chance to redeem himself in the present situation, it seems to me. It may well be that the White House politicos have sized up the situation and decided that it is pointless to mount an all-out political campaign until Labor Day has passed. If Obama comes out in full fighting mode after labor Day, and spends two solid months campaigning, then my faith will be restored. But if he continues in the present feckless mode, I am afraid we are in for a very bad, very ugly, time. I thought I would have the pleasure of seeing American turn to the left in my declining years, but that may be a forlorn hope.

I shall do my best to find rays of sunshine in the gloom, as befits my optimistic nature. And I shall certainly report in full on my forthcoming trip to South Africa.

Thank you for bearing with me.

Monday, August 30, 2010


Well, industry has its reward! On page 502 of Slater's biography of Dickens I came upon a nugget that made the entire slog worthwhile. Apparently in 1862, the young Fyodor Dostoevsky came to London and interviewed Dickens in his office. [Who knew?] Dostoevsky wrote the following in a letter to a friend. I think the last five words are an immortal gem:

"He [i.e., Dickens] told me that all the good simple people in his novels, Little Nell, even the holy simpletons like Barnaby Rudge [Slater comments parenthetically that this must have been Dostoevsky's description, not Dickens' -- indeed] are what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself), his cruelty, his attacks of causeless enmity towards those who were helpless and looked to him for comfort, his shrinking from those whom he ought to love, being used up in what he wrote. There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life. Only two people? I asked."


Yesterday, I took a break from my seemingly interminable reading of Michael Slater's biography of Dickens to read a short, exquisite novel, THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR, by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. It was recommended to me by my sister, Barbara, whom I always think of as my big sister, because she is three years older than I, even though she is actually a good deal shorter. The Dickens biography has only about six times as many words as the novel [I counted], but it is taking me forever to get through. As I think I have observed, I have written books in less time than I am reading this one. By the way, I have just finished the chapter in which Slater, with great reserve and a meticulous fidelity to the sources, recounts the rather scrimy sequence of events by which Dickens dumped his wife of twenty some years and the mother of his ten children. Dickens, I am sad to say, was a pig.

Anyway, the contrast between the two books [and between my sister and me] got me thinking about long and short. I write short books. Indeed, several of my books have fewer words than a law journal article by my son, Tobias. [Law professors, for reasons that escape me, refer to these excessively documented monstrosities as "notes."] My Memoir was far and away the longest thing I have ever written, and that is only about 800 pages in double spaced typescript, which probably means that it is maybe two-thirds the length of the Dickens biography. Even my first and most ambitious book, KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, is a modest 336 pages, with many fewer words on each page than the Dickens epic.

Some people seem to run on, whatever they are doing. Think of Whitman in comparison to Dickinson, Samuel Richardson in comparison to Jane Austen, Piero Sraffa in comparison to Marx, or Mahler in comparison to anyone. This is true even of personal styles -- Stanley Cavell compared to Rogers Albritten.

There is nothing particularly important or profound about this observation. I prefer Dickinson to Whitman and Austen to Richardson, but I also prefer Marx to Sraffa [although they are both very great thinkers]. Actually, this post is just a bit of procrastination. The Dickens biography sits there next to my keyboard, silently reproaching me for ignoring it, and I am trying to postpone the moment when I heft it [it must way ten pounds] and stagger on towards page 500. I am, for some reason, incapable of skimming, and to leave a book only half-read feels like a moral failing.

Sigh. Duty calls.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Noumena [love that handle] asked me a question in his/her comment on my previous post [as well as saying from very kind things, for which I am extremely grateful], and replying requires more than just a few words in another comment, so I shall try to address the question here in a separate post. The question is, What was it like during the early post-war period when left-wing intellectuals seemed to all turn anti-communist and more right-wing, and what were the root causes of this shift?

I am not sure I am the best person to answer this question, for a curious reason. While the world was busy moving to the right, I was moving steadily to the left. I was a Harry Truman supporter in '48, and during my wanderjahr, '54-'55, actually got into debates with European students defending American policy and attacking the Russians. By the time I had earned my doctorate in '57, I was being driven to the left by my fears of nuclear weapons, and, as I have recounted in my Memoir, the breaking point, when my leftward drift became a firm commitment, was the day after Kennedy invaded Cuba.

Several peculiarities of my personal history help to explain why I was not part of the general transformation of ardent socialists into cold-war liberals and Communist Party members into neocons. First of all, because my grandfather sided with the Norman Thomas Mensheviks in the great Bolshevik/Menshevik split in '17, I grew up in a fiercely anti-communist pro-socialist home. I was not illusioned by Stalin, and therefore I was not disillusioned by the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in 1939, nor by the Moscow show trials or any of the other critical moments when former communists broke with the Party. Second, although I am Jewish, in some sense of lineage, I grew up in a secular home, was never Bar Mitzvah'd, and had no special attachment to Israel [or, as my anarchist tendencies evolved, to any other nation state.] As I have often remarked, Freud says somewhere that if there is any subject that it is not permitted to discuss openly in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that subject. For several generations of Jewish intellectuals, Israel has been the subject it is not permitted to discuss openly, and so the politics of those intellectuals has become nothing but a more or less well concealed brief for the State of Israel. A great many seemingly cosmopolitan, highly literate, well-educated American Jewish intellectuals are really tribal apologists dressed up in their doctoral robes and passing themselves off as free thinkers [and if that doesn't get my blog banned somewhere, I don't know what will!]

Finally, I have never been an ideologue. My radical politics grew slowly and more or less autonomously. I did not start studying Marx seriously until I was in my middle forties, and to this day I have not the slightest idea how to distinguish a Schachtmanite from a Rosa-Luxemborgeois, or why it matters. Since I am not a joiner, I never was confronted with the question "whether to leave the Party." I am also, as I have several times observed, intellectually arrogant, with the consequence that it never occurs to me to doubt my own opinions simply because a party or a movement or some prominent left-winger disagrees with me.

I look back with a powerful nostalgia at a time in America when serious people took it for granted that socialism was a genuine alternative to capitalism, and a desirable one -- at a time when the political sentiments of large numbers of vocal and respected people were radical and socialist, not conservative and apologetic for capitalism. There have always been right wing loud mouths among us. Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly are no where than Father Coughlin and Westbrook Pegler, to mention only a few.

Noumena, I do not know whether that is any sort of answer to your question, but perhaps it is the beginning of one.

Friday, August 27, 2010


I have just returned from a wonderful start-of-the-year party thrown by the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department at the Horace Williams House in downtown Chapel Hill. To my delight and astonishment, I discovered that many of the folks there had been reading my blog. They all greeted Susie with open arms, and said, rather meaningfully, that they "know a lot about you," which made Susie a trifle nervous. As I was chatting with some of the young folks [young here means, of course, anyone under forty], a thought occurred to me that has crossed my mind many times over the years.

When I was young, in the Fifties, there were very few older academics and intellectuals who could serve as role models for young people like myself on the left. As a consequence of the disaster of Stalinist Russia and the aftermath of the Second World War, it seemed somehow that all the men and women who had been on the left in the Thirties had turned to the right. Daniel Bell, Sidney Hook, Max Lerner, Seymour Martin Lipset -- none of them had managed to stand firmly on the left as the years went by. It seemed to be a fact of nature -- as one grew older, one's hair fell out, one's belly sagged, and one's politics became neo-conservative.

There were a few, of course. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, still editing The Monthly Review, but they seemed to us to be dinosaurs. There was C. B. McPherson up in Canada, and William Appelman Williams out in the upper Midwest somewhere. And of course, there was Herbert Marcuse. no one knew what Herbie was talking about, but he was clearly an enemy of Capitalism, and that was some consolation. Then too, as Susie reminded me on the way home from the party, there were the Quakers and Pacifist ministers -- the A. J. Mustes and all. But we youngsters really had to invent a way of being if we wanted to grow old without tilting right.

I have always thought that I had a responsibility to my students and other young people to show them that their progressive politics was not merely a life stage, like the Terrible Twos and the Thirty-Somethings. Now, of course, there are lots of us who have kept faith with our radical politics as our hair has turned grey. Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn, Barbara Ehrenreich, even my old student Todd Gitlin, who qualifies as an oldster, though I find it hard to believe. I don't know whether anything I have written will outlive me, but I would like to think that there are young men and women somewhere who will learn from us older radicals that a commitment to social justice and a hatred of the inequities and irrationalities of capitalism can be the unchanging core of an entire life.


This post has nothing at all to do with politics. It is just a record of some thoughts that were prompted by materials I have been reading for the revision of my textbook. I thought it would be fun to use, as the topic for the end-of-chapter Contemporary Application in the Philosophy of Art chapter, debates about what constitutes forged as opposed to authentic art. Experts on Old Masters are accustomed to paying close attention to brush strokes, the use of light and shadow, perspective, composition, and that sort of thing. In the modern world of art auctions, tens of millions of dollars can hang on their judgment that a painting is, or is not, a Tintoretto or Rembrandt or Titian. When it comes to a Jackson Pollock, things get a trifle dicey. It is not really clear that dribbling paint on canvas requires skills mastered over a long apprenticeship. Indeed, it is not even clear that it requires a human hand. And matters get much, much worse when we come to artists who claim that the act of placing a random object in a museum makes it art. Does it cease to be art when it is removed from the museum? Do I have to buy the entire museum to truly take possession of the object as a work of art?

As I was taking my morning walk, I turned over in my mind all the old familiar arguments. If a copy can be distinguished from an original only by spectrographic analysis of paint samples and snips of canvas, why -- leaving aside considerations of auction prices -- is the original in any way superior to the copy? And if a great forger can create a canvas whose aesthetic, as well as technical, properties are indistinguishable from something from the brush of the master, why not accept it as yet another great work of art and hang it alongside works by the artist being imitated? And so forth and so on. You are all familiar with this debate, I am sure.

But then a thought occurred to me. I am not really a lover of the visual arts. [Hence, I derive a measure of schadenfreude from the debates.] There are a few paintings that give me genuine aesthetic pleasure, but for the most part, I am a reluctant visitor to museums -- a fact that tries the patience of my wife. Music, on the other hand, is an entirely different matter. There is a great deal of music -- mostly but not entirely, from the Classical period and earlier, that gives me immediate, intense, profound pleasure. Indeed, I cannot have music playing in the background when I work, because I will stop working to listen to the music. Several years ago, Susie and I went to Tanglewood and sat on the lawn during a modern dance performance that was accompanied by Yo Yo Ma playing some of the Bach Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. I discovered that I could not watch the dancing and listen to the music simultaneously. I had to shift my law chair so that my view of the dancers was obscured, allowing me to listen to the music undisturbed. It was a pity, since the dancers were quite good, but I was so ravished by the music that I could not allow any sensory distraction.

Now, the curious thing about music is that it is simply logically impossible for a question to arise as to whether something that one is hearing, for example, is the real Third Razumovsky or an imitation. Beethoven's Opus 59 #3 is a certain set of notes, organized in a determinate manner. Like the number seven, it is what it is, and can neither be forged nor faked. I have a copy of the Opus 59 quartets, and I have played them [or, more precisely, I have played the viola in a quartet playing them]. Is my copy authentic? Yes, as are all the other copies in the hands of private persons or music sellers or libraries. Now, the autograph copy of the quartet, if indeed it exists [I have no idea] is undoubtedly worth a great deal of money, market demand and rich people's fancies being what they are. But if I had that autograph copy, I would be no closer to the true quartet than I am when I put my copy on the music stand. Suppose my apartment were broken into, and the thief, having better taste than morals, were to steal my copy of the Opus 59 quartets. If I applied to my insurance company, saying that the Opus 59's are priceless, the agent would simply ask, "How much will it take to replace your copy?" "Thirty dollars," I would be forced to reply, for except for my fingerings and bowings, which are valuable to me but not exactly priceless, another copy would be just as good as the one that had been stolen. "Your deductible is $100, so you get nothing from us," would be the last word from the insurance agent.

Exactly the same thing is true of a Dickenson poem or a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play. Each is a collection of words shaped in a particular manner. It diminishes it not at all to reproduce it, duplicate it, make exact copies of it. The meaning, and hence the beauty, of a literary work may indeed be in part dependent on the historical and cultural milieu of which it is a part. The same is of course true of a painting or a sculpture, or indeed a building. The Cathedral of Notre Dame, whose beauty strikes me viscerally every time I see it down at the end of the street on which we have our little Paris apartment, would be an entirely different art object in a different place, or a different century. But whereas it seems to make a very great deal of difference, for example, whether the Gypsy Girl that hangs in the Denon Wing in the Louvre is truly by Frans Hals, it makes no difference at all whether my copy of Hamlet is an authentic First Folio or a cheap paperback edition meant for schoolboys and girls. The words are the same [leaving aside scholarly debates about variants, etc.], and that is all that matters.

My prejudices being what they are, I incline to the view that this makes music and literature purer art than painting and sculpture -- but I will not break a lance for that thesis.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


The NY TIMES today devotes its premier placement [Front Page, far right column, above the fold] to the revelation that, in the words of their headline, "Key Harzai Aide in Graft Inquiry Linked to C.I.A. Said to be on Payroll. Conflicting Goals Seen for U.S. in Its Call to Fight Corruption."

A little historical perspective is useful in processing this somewhat less than astonishing bit of information. In the seventeenth century, France was far and away the richest and most powerful state in Europe. Louis XIV secretly underwrote many of the dynastic and territorial squabbles that had the various Kings, Princes, Electors, and Dukes of Europe at one another's throats. It was not uncommon for Louis actually to funnel cash to both sides of a conflict, as a way of ensuring that however the local struggle came out, France would retain its influence.

This is what empires do. Questions of justice, rectitude, honesty, and even ideology are always secondary to considerations of power. The imperial players tell themselves comforting bedtime stories about their commitment to some high purpose, whether that be the proselytizing of a religion, the bearing of The White Man's Burden, the spread of civilization, or the building of constitutional democracies among the benighted. I have no doubt that George W. Bush believed those stories, and I think it is becoming painfully clear that Barack Obama does as well.

What is needed is not a new story, but the forsaking of the underlying imperial ambitions. The United States has been on full wartime footing for seventy-five years now, ever more determinately pursuing those imperial goals. The much maligned C.I.A. is simply doing what it was created to do. One might as well criticize professional wrestlers for playing dirty.


Lincoln Steffans, the great old turn-of-the-century muckraking journalist, tells the story in his AUTOBIOGRAPHY of the group of bored city desk reporters who created a crime wave one summer by the simple device of reporting everything that turned up on the police blotter each day. There was no actual increase in crime, of course, but the public, suddenly inundated by stories of rapes, burglaries, and murders, started demanding action from the bemused city administration. August is traditionally the silly season in American poliics and public life. The A-team of reporters are off, the public is seriously involved in going to the beach and watching the pennant races, Congress is out of session and, like as not, the president is vacationing. But the media have column inches and air time to fill, so the stories get a little wacky. Everyone understands that after Labor Day, an appropriate seriousness will descend upon the land.

It would be comforting to classify the current uproar over a proposed Muslim community center near "ground zero' as just one more bit of Silly Season news filler, but I very much fear darker angels are at work here. Xenophobic know-nothing hysteria is a constant theme in American politics. "Freedom Fries" are scarcely an innovation. Recall that when the United States entered World War I, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor fired the entire German Department. It is entirely appropriate that the most fanatical, narrow-minded medieval Christians and Jews in America should condemn all Islam for being -- fanatical, narrow-minded, and medieval. The schoolyard taunt -- it takes one to know one -- has never been more apposite.

LBJ famously said of the White House full of Harvard whiz kids he inherited from the assassinated JFK, "I just wish one of them had run for sherif." Somewhere in my heart is a voice that says of the urbane, fiercely intelligent, fundamentally decent Barack Obama, "I just wish he had once faced Bull Conner." I have given up the hope that this ugly strain in America will ever disappear. It seems to be a permanent motif of the national grand opera. Over and over again, we are forced to confront it, fight against it, beat it back, and try for a few sane moments to engage with the real world, not the world of over-heated sectarian fears and hatreds.

Perhaps there is an element of summer silliness in the current hysteria. If that is so, all I can say is that I have never looked so longingly to labor Day.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I am still proceeding, in slow and stately fashion, through this enormous biography of Dickens. As I remarked to my sister in an email I just sent to her, I have written books faster than I am reading this one. But a few moments ago, I came across a paragraph that Slater quotes from one of Dickens' letters, and it resonated to powerfully with me that I thought I would share it. The year is 1852, and Dickens, in addition to writing Bleak House, is editing and writing for a magazine he has started called Household Words. many of the articles in the magazine are impassioned condemnations of the many social evils that Dickens saw in English society and that he propagandized against both in his fictions and in his quite extensive journalistic writing. On October 31, 1852, he writes to Henry Morley, who was one of several contributors to the magazine. The essays needed, Dickens says, "are not to be done without trouble; and the main trouble necessary to them is the devising of some pleasant means of telling what is to be told. The indispensable necessity of varying the manner of narration as much as possible, and investing it with some little grace or other, would be very evident to you if you knew as well as I do how severe the struggle is, to get the publication down to the masses of readers, and to displace the prodigious heaps of nonsense and worse than nonsense which suffocate their better sense."

I cannot think of a better description of the task faced by all of us who seek to penetrate the fog of misinformation, prejudice, and sheer bile that clouds the minds of the general public today. I do not know whether I can share Dickens' faith in their "better sense," but without his powers of description and satire, I despair of dispelling that fog.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Well, it looks as though there is a good deal of work to do before these once familiar ideas are again part of the public discourse. Let me reply to the various comments one point at a time.

1. Balanced growth has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what happens to someone's portfolio. When an economy grows, what happens is that more goods [and services] are produced. Now, much of what is thus produced is used, in the next cycle of production, as input into further production. Even if the market value of the produced goods increases, the mix of actual physical goods and actual services [not the portfolio of financial instruments supposedly representing those goods and services] may not match whist is required in order to expand production. There may be too much steel produced, and not enough aluminum. There may be too many new homes built and not enough vegetables or clothing produced. In short, the growth may not be balanced. In that case, there are bubbles, bottlenecks, shortfalls, excesses, warehouses piling up with the wrong goods, etc etc. Too many arbitragers, not enough elementary school teachers. Marx observed, and experience has shown, that capitalists, responding to market cues, routinely create booms and busts because of the unbalanced nature of the explosive growth that capitalism engenders. That is what I was talking about. Today, I heard the news that new home sales fell 27%, the largest drop ever recorded. That is a case in point.

2. Contradictions, to use Marx's term, have nothing to do with the fact that people have conflicting interests. A contradiction is a structural situation that results in self-defeating actions, in actions that produce precisely the results that are NOT desired. For example, to use once again a famous example from the MANIFESTO, capitalists, seeking to increase productivity, bring workers out of their crofts and cottages and into factories, where they can be put to work on steam driven machines and move intermediate products [flax spun into thread, etc.] quickly and efficiently to the next stage of production But the unintended consequence is that workers see one another, meet one another, and begin to learn that they have common interests, which in turn leads to labor organizing. Because capitalists are in competition with one another, each of them cannot afford simply to go on in the old way, because if he does, he will not be able to sell his wares as cheaply as the next factory owner. And so forth and so on. These are contradictions, a term Marx [unfortunately] takes over from Hegel. The purpose of socialism is to arrive at social decisions about investment and growth by collective deliberation [and disagreement, of course] rather than by the haphazard accumulation of large numbers of private and independent decisions by particular capitalists. There is nothing pie in the sky about this at all. It is what happens every day that Congress is in session. It is called democracy.

3. The economic crashes that occurred before governments were bailing out corporations were just as terrible, and wreaked havoc just as surely with the lives of the defenseless millions. Please try to get a little historical perspective on these matters.

4. No, my position is not at all close to the Free Market libertarians. They are like people who say that they are all in favor of jumping off a forty story building and enjoying the ride down for the first thirty nine floors, but that they have ideological objections to that last fifteen feet. To preserve a micro-sized free market economy and not allow it to grow ineluctably into the world we now live in would require the exercise of a degree and scope of state power that would make totalitarianism look like a walk in the park. They are in the grip of a fantasy. They might just as usefully say that they really like the upswings of a seesaw but don't agree with the downswings. Let us please try to be serious about this. It is important.

5. Yes, of course, workers need factories and raw materials and tools in order to produce goods. But they don't need capitalists. What do capitalists do? Simple. Since they own the tools and factories and raw materials, and employ soldiers [the police] to protect their ownership, they must be persuaded to allow the workers to work. They do this, quite gracefully, by paying them as little as they can get away with and taking for themselves the lion's share of what the workers produce. How very kind of them. Some of the capitalists also work as managers, a useful function, for which they are, or can be, paid a reasonable salary. But profits are net of the salaries of managers as well as of the wages of workers. The capitalists, per se, perform no useful function at all!

Monday, August 23, 2010


I received a long, thoughtful email message yesterday from a young man who is entering his senior year at a small Vermont college. After making some quite intelligent observations about modern socialist struggles and the paradoxical course taken by China, he brought the message to a close with these words: "So professor Wolff, I have to ask you, where do you think we should look for hope? I don’t have an answer, but I do think there is cause for some. And perhaps concentrating on the practical (which I realize philosophers are loathe to do) might actually help to restore your optimistic disposition."

Reflecting on his question, I realized that I have been virtually frozen into immobility by the appalling irrationality and fecklessness of our public discourse. Revulsion and fulmination, though cathartic, are hardly constructive. What to do? I decided to look to the example of Marx -- always a good idea, I have found. After the young Karl Marx watched the crumbling of the great hopes of 1848 -- hopes to which he had given eloquent voice in the Communist Manifesto -- he retreated to the Reading Room of the British Museum and plunged into the study of the origins and nature of Capitalism from which DAS KAPITAL emerged twenty years later. I do not have the ability to carry out a corresponding analysis of modern capitalism, and at the age of seventy-six, I probably do not have the time either. Nevertheless, I can at least start by stepping back from the immediacy of the news cycle, ignoring for a bit the 9/11 mosque controversy and even the vulgarities and insanities of Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, and the George Hamilton of the Beltway world, John Boehner [Mr. Tan], and instead trying to get some perspective on capitalism as it has come to define and dominate our world. This will be a far cry from Marx's brilliant articulation of "the laws of motion" of capitalist economy and society, but it may help to free my mind from the constraints of contemporary discussions of public policy.

Marx was clearly right in calling capitalism the most revolutionary force in the history of human experience. Private ownership of the means of production, production for profit rather than for use, the reduction of yeoman farmers and peasants to wage laborers, and unfettered competition in a market freed of traditional and legal restraints on the pursuit of profit have, taken together, unleashed an explosion of productivity that has, in a bit more than two centuries, transformed the lives of billions of people, destroyed empires, unseated monarchs, transformed science, and given us the world in which we now live.

And yet, capitalism is clearly an unsatisfactory form of social organization of economic activity. I deliberately choose the bland and rhetorically puissant word "unsatisfactory" because I do not wish to evade serious analysis by the use of highly charged terms like "broken," or "doomed to failure." My purpose is to begin to wean myself from the unexpressed but universal presupposition that capitalism is the only possible form of organization of the economy, the question being therefore merely how it ought to be adjusted or revised or accommodated so as to soften some of its unfortunate side effects.

As I see it, capitalism is unsatisfactory for two fundamental reasons. First of all, capitalism has proven itself incapable of achieving and sustaining balanced growth, of the sort theorized abstractly in the formal models of Piero Sraffa and John von Neumann, among others. Marx was well aware of the tendency of capitalism to produce ever larger booms and busts. His analysis of this phenomenon led him to conclude that there was a "contradiction," as he called it, between the ever more rationalized process of production and the perennially chaotic or irrational system of distribution. His prediction of a calamitous world-wide crash proved correct, although it did not result in the socialist transformation he anticipated and hoped for. The response of capitalism was fiscal management of crises of over-production and inadequate effective demand by central governments, a development unforeseen by Marx. This response seemed for a while to constitute a satisfactory fix, or adjustment, to unfettered free market capitalism, but recent experience suggests that major league crises are in fact inherent in the structure of modern capitalism.

The efforts of the Obama Administration to manage the current crisis are instructive. Had the Republicans adopted a less self-destructive stance with regard to fiscal stimulation, the severity of the present crisis might have been somewhat, perhaps even significantly, mitigated. Since it is in the interest of Capital to manage such crises, this reaction by the Republicans can be put down to self-destructive, short-sighted, self-interested stupidity -- a reaction quite familiar to Marx. But the undermining of the attempts to introduce genuinely powerful and effective regulation of the financial sphere is quite another matter. This undermining was a bipartisan affair, which is a good indication that what is at work is not stupidity or short-sightedness but a genuine contradiction between the interests of Capital and the goal of balanced growth. Balanced growth is not a formula for large profits, but rather for social stability and human flourishing, neither of which is particularly in Capital's short term interest. Those who manage the daily flows of trillions of dollars of assets are well aware that they can flourish even under the threat of economic instability, because the inevitable crashes harm the defenseless hundreds of millions rather than the favored few. It is theoretically possible to manage a modern economy so that it is protected against destructive instability, but doing so requires depriving the owners or managers of capital of their control over that capital. Thus, in my view, Marx is fundamentally correct in claiming that capitalism has internal contradictions that are structural and fundamental, hence not fixable by Keynesian or other adjustments.

Just so we are absolutely clear, let me say what should be obvious: the internal problems of capitalism have nothing at all to do with the greed, or selfishness, or delusions of grandeur of the individuals who at any moment control the great accumulations of capital. The early capitalist magnates were, many of them, self-denying embodiments of what Weber called The Puritan Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Many of their descendents are pompous, narcissistic poseurs. That makes for good magazine copy and scintillating blogging, but it has nothing whatsoever to do with our understanding of capitalism. Two of the richest men in America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, are among its most admirable. That is neither here nor there.

Secondly, capitalism is unsatisfactory because it exacerbates and perpetuates poverty side by side with wealth, and institutionalizes perpetual and intractable inequality. In my paper, "The Future of Socialism" [available online, at a University of Pennsylvania Law School site], I have written about the evolution of a pyramid of unequally compensated jobs as a characteristic of modern capitalism, and I shan't repeat here what I said there. Equally important for our purposes is capitalism's ceaseless search for cheap labor, the underlying reason for what, from an American perspective, is referred to as "outsourcing." There are essentially three ways to maximize profits: controlling the market, which allows for uncompetitive pricing [monopolies, cartels, etc.], introducing labor-saving production techniques, and driving down the price of labor. The first is difficult to sustain, unless one controls a scarce resource [OPEC, etc]. The second, as Okishio [and my old friend, Sam Bowles] have demonstrates, does indeed drive up profits, at least temporarily. The third is the real secret to capitalist profitability. Profits are at base nothing more than the appropriation of a share of the social surplus by those who control the means of production. In that sense, they are a form of exploitation, for it is labor [including skilled labor and the labor of management] that actually creates wealth. Those who control capital do not, as such, perform a useful function in a capitalist economy. They simply use their control of capital to appropriate what they did not produce. [The key in that last sentence is the parenthetical aside, "as such." I will explain if it puzzles anyone.]

Almost forty years ago, James O'Connor published a very useful book called THE FISCAL CRISIS OF THE STATE. I strongly recommend it to anyone seriously interested in these issues. Let me try to state O'Connor's central thesis as briefly an clearly as I can [see pages 6-7 of his book]. State expenditures, O'Connor argues, have two quite different and fundamentally contradictory purposes, which he calls Social Capital and Social Expenses. The purpose of Social Capital, which he further divides into Social Investment and Social Consumption, have their purpose advancing the profitability of capital by taking on, as the responsibility of the state, expenditures which capital would otherwise have to undertake itself. Obvious examples are a state funded road network, state funded industrial parks, and Research and Development underwritten by the state. This improves the profitability of capital because although some of the costs of such state expenditures come from capital in the form of taxes on profits, a good deal comes from the taxes paid by the workers, thus lowering their net wages. This last is an indirect transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists. Somewhat less obvious examples of Social Capital are state funded schools, whose function is to train the labor force, and thus relieve capital of the burden of providing that training itself. The second category of state expenditures is Social Expenses, which is to say welfare programs, safety nets, and such, whose fundamental purpose, O'Connor argues, is to keep the masses quiet and sufficiently placated that they will not rebel.

O'Connor's thesis, simply put, is that Social Expenses were [in the 1970's] increasing too rapidly to be compatible with the maintenance of a satisfactory level of Social Capital. I think O'Connor's theoretical analysis was fundamentally correct. Where he went wrong was in seriously underestimating the degree of exploitation and immiseration the working class could be persuaded to accept. One way of understanding the emergence of non-economic "social issues" or "wedge issues" in American political in the last two generations is as a device by which capital could bemuse the general public so that it would accept a level of Social Expenses that is compatible with the continued profitability of capital.

Let me say, by the way, that my critical and implicitly condemnatory characterization of capitalism does not include the market driven sphere of small business. The small business sector of the American economy actually performs rather well the functions of creating jobs, satisfying consumer demand, and providing opportunities for voluntary self-exploitation. All of us are familiar with the ever-shifting variety of coffee houses, specialty clothing boutiques, bookstores, gas stations, fast food outlets and food markets that give life to the urban scene. I have not the slightest doubt that private ownership of these small businesses, in an environment of unfettered competition, is the most efficient way to satisfy consumer demand. Since I do the shopping and cooking on my household, I am daily confronted with the contrast between the supermarket a block from my apartment, which is a Harris teeter branch, and the Whole Foods several miles away where I shop only for fish [since their prices are outrageous and I detest the smug pretentiousness that oozes from the walls.] When I refer to self-exploitation, I am simply borrowing an old observation of John Kenneth Galbraith, who pointed out that if you add up the total hours worked by a family running a dry cleaning establishment or a corner convenience store, and divide it into the proceeds of the business net of materials, rent, and so forth, it turns out usually that the proprietors are paying themselves and their family members absurdly low wages.

It is enough, in this post, to argue that capitalism is unsatisfactory, and that its flaws are structural, not cosmetic or superficial. If we can simply establish that proposition, then ineluctably we are drawn to ask, What alternatives are there to capitalism? And the asking of that question is the beginning of wisdom.


Some while back, I observed that Mozart's favorite instrument was the viola. I took a certain amount of abuse for that observation. This morning, while out and about shopping, I heard a beautiful work on our local classical music FM station which I could easily enough identify as a Mozart piano quartet, but since I am not really familiar with those quartets, I was uncertain whether the instruments were a violin, a viola, a cello, and a piano, or two violins, a cello, and a piano. I listened carefully and persuaded myself that there was indeed a viola in the mix. It was Mozart's First Piano Quartet, it rurned out, and when I got home I checked. A violin, a viola, a cello, and a piano. So, faced with the necessity of replacing one of the instruments of the traditional quartet with a piano, Mozart chose to keep the viola. I rest my case.

Sunday, August 22, 2010


For the past week and a bit, I have been plowing through a very long, very detailed, and [to me at least] quite interesting new biography of Dickens. It is by Michael Slater, who is apparently the leading expert on Dickens [what do I know?]. The book focuses entirely on the minutiae of Dickens' writing and publishing career. What an extraordinary dynamo he must have been. At one point, in his twenties, he was writing Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby simultaneously, while cranking out reviews, letters to the editor, and other things. And he apparently took daily fifteen mile walks. He really makes me feel like a slug-a-bed.

If you like Dickens, as I do, and are interested in what it was like, from the inside, for him to write an endless series of great novels, I recommend the book. But fair warning, it is slow going. I read it on the plane to Seattle and back, and only managed to get through about 175 pages in twelve or fourteen hours of flying.

I mention this only so that you will not think that I spend all my time playing FreeCell and Spider Solitaire.

One other personal note, while I am in a confessional mood. Next month, I shall be going to Cambridge, MA for the 50th anniversary of the Social Studies Program at Harvard. Readers of my memoir will recall that I was the first Head Tutor of the program, back in '60-'61. I will be the only person there who was on the original committee that set Social Studies up, so I shall get to speak for ten minutes at the lunch on Saturday, September 25th. I learned to my dismay that the egregious Martin Peretz will be honored at the same lunch with a scholarship fund being set up in his name. When I knew him, Peretz was an offensive little wannabe, but he married rich, bought The New Republic with his wife's money, and turned a fine old liberal magazine into a flack for Israel. It seems there is even a Martin Peretz Chair in Yiddish Literature at Harvard. I promised Anya Bernstein, the current head of Social Studies, that I would behave myself, so I shall act the genial fossil and tell stories from the old days.

Saturday, August 21, 2010


As I think I mentioned, I am at work [hard at work would be a bit of an exaggeration] on the eleventh edition of the textbook, ABOUT PHILOSOPHY, that I wrote in the 70s so that my first wife could spend an additional semester completing her scholarly book on Edith Wharton. For this edition, I an completely redoing the end-of-chapter Contemporary Applications, sections in which I try to make a connection between some urgent problem of today and the eternal philosophical issues discussed in the text. For the chapter on Metaphysics, I decided to use the question of the ontological status of virtual reality, as it crops up in the on-line fantasy games that are now all the rage. I am leaning heavily on the skills of a research assistant, Megan Kelly Mitchell, who in real life is a bright doctoral student in Philosophy at UNC Chapel Hill.

Yesterday, Megan and I had a meeting in the Carolina Cafe, and she gave me a set of articles on virtual reality that she had found on the web. In one of these articles, I was introduced to Ric Hoogestraat, a fiftyish former college computer graphics teacher with a long gray ponytail and a mustache who has become totally invested in something called Second Life. In 2007, when the article was written, Second Life had eight million registered users, of whom about 450,000 were serious players. Ric's character in the on-line game, or avatar, as it is referred to, is Dutch Hoorenbeck, described in the article as a "six-foot-nine, muscular, motorcycle-riding cyberself."

Ric's wife put up with his obsessive involvement in the fantasy game until she discovered that in cyberspace, Dutch had met, wooed, married, and set up housekeeping with Tanej ["Janet" backwards], the avatar of a Canadian woman named Janet Spielman.

Now look, Ric has one vote in any local, state, or national election, just as I do. When a telephone survey is conducted on the advisability of the war in Afghanistan, Ric's voice weighs as heavily as mine [assuming he can be torn away from the computer screen to take a phonecall in real time and space.] Is there something wrong with this picture?


I just received a long, wonderful email message from an old student, Alan Kapilian, who took several courses with me at UMass in the late 80's. I was getting ready to respond to it, but stopped first to delete a bit of spam that had popped up in my in-box. Well, you can guess the rest. I deleted Alan's email by mistake and left the spam. Alan, if you read this -- or if anyone who knows Alan reads this -- please send me a quick email so that I can respond to the long message. No need to repeat the message, I remember it [and you] quite well.

Sigh. Will I ever get the hang of this new-fangled thing?

Friday, August 20, 2010


Faithful readers of this blog, of whom there seem to be a few, will have noticed that since ending my Memoir, I have been posting a good deal less. In part, this is because I am rushing to complete the eleventh edition of my textbook, ABOUT PHILOSOPHY [No, I do not really think the world is crying out for it, but the publisher is, and it serves to cushion my old age]. But the real reason, as I indicated in my last post, is that I have become dispirited with the seemingly bottomless depths of the public discourse. Now, I am, as I several times reported in my memoirs, a congenitally optimistic person. If you take a glass from the dishwasher and it still has a few drops of water clinging to its sides, I will view it as half full. "Where two or three are gathered together," as the Good Book says, I think I see a revolution. But even I cannot contemplate the daily absurdities and excrescences of the mindless Right without a sinking sensation in my stomach.

It would be false to claim that the public discourse forty or fifty years ago was superior in all ways. The overt racism, the condescension to women, the utter contempt for gay and lesbian men and women, the rampant hysterical anti-communism were, and need to be remembered as, permanent stains on the national conscience. And yet, and yet. Public figures spoke openly and admiringly of labor unions. It was common for those who were rich to acknowledge an obligation to those less fortunate. Even though today's Pat Buchanans and Glen Becks and Bill O'Reillys had their counterparts then, those views were not treated as respectable, as worthy of notice. I do not think I am simply getting older, although that of course is happening, irrevocably and irreversibly, when I see a thorough corrupting of speech and thought in America today.

I will try, in this blog, to express my anger politely, although not in a hedged manner. But I freely confess that in my secret fanatasies, I am not nearly so well-mannered.

Thursday, August 19, 2010


For some time now, I have been struggling to think clearly about the extraordinary debasement of the public discourse that has occurred in America over the past several years. I have remarked from time to time on the sheer craziness of what now seem to be accepted modes of speech and quasi-argument emanating from the right. No humorist would dare invent Orly Taitz, or Glen Beck, or indeed Sarah Palin, for that matter. When the Republican Party of Maine officially calls for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment, so that once again State Legislatures can select United States Senators, and the Republican Party of Iowa calls for the passage, at long last, of the now forgotten original Thirteenth Amendment, so that Barack Obama can be stripped of his citizenship for accepting the Nobel Prize, Jonathan Swift must weep in his crypt for the death of satire.

But with these effusions of wackiness there also appear outbursts so ugly, so mean-spirited, so far beneath the lowest reaches of acceptable speech, that I find myself experiencing not disagreement, or anger, or even outrage, but simply disgust. And yet disgust is an aesthetic, not a moral, reaction. How am I to think about this phenomenon? Are aesthetic responses to political speech simply inappropriate? Are they no more than barely concealed expressions of class bias?

Brooding in this manner, I found myself recurring to a passage in Plato's great middle dialogue, THE GORGIAS -- a passage that puzzled me for many years. It occurs roughly midway through Socrates' colloquy with Polus, the rather immature disciple of the Sophist, Gorgias, after whom the dialogue is named. Socrates is trying to extract from Polus the admission that it is worse to do evil than to suffer it, an admission that Polus is of course loathe to make. Suddenly, the conversation makes an abrupt turn, one that for so long puzzled me that when I taught the dialogue I tended simply to skip over it.

Socrates begins by reiterating his question: "Which, Polus, do you think is worse: to do or to suffer wrong?" As expected, Polus replies, "To suffer it is what I think." Then, to my great surprise, Socrates asks "And what do you say to this? Which is uglier: to do or to suffer wrong?" Polus answers, "To do wrong." and Socrates is off to the races.

What is that about?, I ask myself. How did questions of beauty and ugliness suddenly enter the discussion? [The Greek appears to be kalon and its antonym -- those with a proper classical training may want to correct me.] Never mind the series of logic chopping questions with which Socrates trips Polus up and compels him to acknowledge that it is worse to do evil than to suffer it -- an admission that causes the great antagonist of the dialogue, Callicles, to leap into the debate. What matters is the core idea that Plato is getting at.

As near as I can see, Plato is saying something like this: There are modes of thought and of action that are simply ugly, vile, despicable -- they are modes of thought and action that no honorable or decent man or woman would engage in. There are many forms of thought and action that, while wrong-headed or immoral, nevertheless are not utterly incompatible with our humanity. We debate these, often vigorously, but we can nonetheless honor and respect those with whom we disagree, or whose actions we think wrong. But there are some persons whose thoughts and actions are so beneath contempt that the only possible reaction is an aesthetic revulsion. We avert our eyes because they are simply too ugly to contemplate.

When Glen Beck mocks those who have run out of unemplyment insurance after ninety-nine weeks of looking for a job,I do not want to argue with him. I want to wipe him from the face of the earth. ["Have you heard of the 99ers?" Beck asked on Monday. "Some of these people, I bet you'd be ashamed to call them Americans."]

Well, fulmination relieves the pain, but does nothing to obliterate the infamy. As always, my advice is to organize. to mobilize, to bring to the polls this November every dispirited, disappointed, grumpy progressive. Get them to pull the lever or make the X for the candidate farthest to the left, and then they can return to their bad humor. There is ugliness abroad in the land, and it needs to be stopped.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


While Susie and I were in Seattle for the wedding of my son's wife's brother, we stayed at an upscale hotel that delivered a copy of the NY TIMES to our door every morning. So it was that I came across the Op Ed column by Gail Collins, one of my very favorite columnists, in last Saturday's edition. Her Op Ed was a celebration of the anniversary of Women's Suffrage, and at one point, Collins wrote, "Sometimes I fantasize about traveling back in time and telling my historical heroes and heroines how well things worked out in the end." I stopped dead in my tracks, because that is one of my favorite fantasies. In my case, it is composers and philosophers whom I would like to visit. I imagine myself returning to eighteenth century London to see David Hume. Hume, as all Hume scholars know, published A TREATISE OF HUMAN NATURE anonymously when he was still in his twenties, and it got lambasted by the reviewers. Much later in life, Hume wrote, wryly, that the book "fell stillborn from the presses." I just would like to tell him, face to face, that it is now considered the greatest work of philosophy ever written in the English language.

Then there is Mozart. I imagine myself magically transported to the court of Emperor Joseph II [and also blessed with a perfect command of colloquial German, but never mind that]. I introduce myself as a visitor from the twenty-first century, and inform him that in that far distant future, he is well remembered. As he preens himself, I add, "because of your association with a young man who is in this very room." Then I turn and say, "and that young man is the immortal composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart." After that, I pull out a battery operated CD player with great sound reproduction and slip in a CD of the Emerson String Quartet playing one of Mozart's Haydn quartets [being careful not to play something he hasn't yet composed.]

Well, you get the idea. Anybody want to join the fantasy?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010


Tomorrow morning early, Susie and I fly to Seattle for the weekend. My son's wife's brother is getting married. I am sure the anthropologists among you can name a language in which this relationship is consecrated with its own term, but not in English. I shall be out of touch with the internet until we return late Monday, so I shan't be posting. I am sure there will be a good many outrages and absurdities on which to comment while I am away.

One thought as I prepare to leave: These mid-term elections are terribly important, for all that they are local and confused and dispiriting. The United States is in very bad economic shape right now, and should the Republicans take control of the House, it will be impossible to do anything to pull us out of the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression. I abjure you to set aside any disappointments you may feel with the Obama Administration and do everything you can to elect a Democratic Senator in your state and a Democratic Representative in your House District. If you and countless others do not, we shall not have the luxury of complaining in the next two years. We will be fighting for our collective life. I shall do everything I can to elect Elaine Marshall to the Senate here in North Carolina [I have aleady given her campaign more than a thousand dollars], and since my Rep is in a safe seat, I will cast about for other things to do. It is not exciting or gratifying, but it is necessary. In an off year election, turnout is all, so persuade everyone you know to vote.

See you Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


Ok, let's talk about alternatives.

I for one think it's obvious that the world is in dire need of repair. Global inequality is indeed staggeringly high:(still think you're poor? Check this out Thousands of children die every day from ailments which could be treated for pennies. Most of humanity lives under highly corrupt or repressive governments. I honestly don’t comprehend why people shed tears over whether or not relatively poor Americans will get health insurance but don’t similarly weep for absolutely poor inhabitants of the rest of the world for whom our problems would be the least of their worries.

There's a large hostility on part of the left (yes, I mean the real left) towards the market. No, I don't necessarily mean "capitalism" as Professor Wolff defined it, but rather private property qua private property, prices and wages qua prices and wages, management qua management and other things considered market functions. Indeed author Michael Albert has written an entire book arguing for what he calls "market abolitionism".

Feel free to disagree, but attacking the market itself strikes me as absurd. Since the days of Aristotle, it's been well understood that people appreciate things more when they own them. Any decent economist will tell you that in a complex economy a price system is the most accurate way to convey information. And furthermore, anyone with minimal understanding of commerce (something that most people, myself included, have little direct experience with) know that good management is essential to run an enterprise. Lest you write this off as rightwing drivel I suggest you read socialist David Schweickart's rejoinder to Albert's defense of market abolition in which he agrees with me:
Furthermore, I'm convinced that the entrepreneurial spirit is an inherently human trait to be found across cultures and classes. The Grameen Bank and other such organizations have found tons of entrepreneurs in the poorest most desolate parts of the world.

These sentiments underlie the alternative which most Marxists have traditionally proposed. It's the market itself that is the cause of all the suffering in the world and it's the market itself that must be replaced by something superior. They correctly recognized that only thing powerful enough to get rid of the market is the state and it’s the state that must first be controlled. While Bakunin presciently pointed out that this would lead to tyranny on an unforeseen scale, the Marxists maintained their statist convictions and proceeded to take control of state apparatuses. Well, I think we can agree that state socialist alternatives to capitalism have, despite providing some benefits to be fair, largely been disastrous, tyrannical, authoritarian and in some cases genocidal. And it is precisely because they tried to do away with market mechanisms that the horrors of 20th century communism occurred. Mao’s Great Leap Forward is probably the most gruesome example.

These well-documented and well-understood failings of Marxist economics in the 20th century should make one pretty skeptical to say the least to expect Marxism to provide a beneficial alternative to the status quo.

There are other alternatives to capitalism which incorporate market mechanisms that Marxism tried to abolish. Benjamin Tucker and Kevin Carson’s mutualism is one example. Agorism, a system in which corporations and wage labor all but vanish due to nearly all agents in the economy being self-employed, is another. Economic Democracy, a system in which prices are set by and competition is carried out between democratically-run firms is another. Organizations like the Seasteading Institute, correctly recognizing that we don’t really know much about human society are helping people finance and build their own communities on the sea and experiment with all kinds of things that statist constraints prohibit on the land.

To me, this is where an alternative to capitalism will come from, not from any “dictatorship of the proletariat” or anything like the horrors that 20th century Marxist states inflicted upon humanity.

Anarchists in particular, imho, should spend less time focusing on critics of the status quo who neither offered nor tried to offer any detailed alternative (i.e. Marx) and more time learning about and discussing proposed alternatives already in motion.


Like many other seventy-six year olds, I experience what we graciously call "senior moments." This morning, for example, while working with a graduate student research assistant on the materials for the eleventh edition of my textbook, ABOUT PHILOSOPHY, I could not call up the name of the well known literary critic Stanley Fish. Since she had an IPad with her, I told her to Google "student plagiarism moral issue" [I had recently read an Op Ed piece by him on the subject] and up he came. Now, if I had worked on it by myself for a while, I probably would have remembered his name. So I would, using traditional notions, be said to "know" that the name of the person whose Op Ed I read is Stanley Fish. But if I can conjure that name instantly using Google, can I not also be said to know it? Indeed, why can I not be said to know everything that I can find, and recognize when I find it, on the Internet? Ah, you say, but that piece of information is not in your mind. But my mind is not a physical body with a spatial circumference. Can I not be said to know the propositions that follow from premises I know by rules of inference that I also know? Why not? I do not now know the product of 763 and 419, but I know that I can calculate it by following the rules of multiplication.

All of this arose in the context of thinking about writing a little end-of-chapter Contemporary Application on student plagiarism and the use of the Internet.


Once again, I have decided to respond to the general drift of the comments with a post, rather than with short individual replies. I hope this works for everyone. Let me begin with Mike's comment, which allows me to raise what I think is an absolutely fundamental point. I am going to refer everyone to my paper "The Future of Socialism." Now, I realize that this habit I have of referring to things I have written or published can be irritating -- a bit too much like Mr Toad in THE WIND AND THE WILLOWS. But I have been thinking about these issues for half a century or more, and have over that time written a good deal about them, so I hope you will forgive me.

Mike, I wish to begin by quibbling with your metaphors, because a very deep truth lies concealed in that quibble. You question the desirability of "bringing down," "scrapping," or "toppling" capitalism. Capitalism is not a tree that can be "toppled" by cutting through its trunk near the ground. Nor is it a building that can be "brought down" by a series of well placed explosive charges. It is an enormously complex system of social and economic relationships, of laws, practices, and institutions involving most of the people on the face of the earth. History records that such systems change slowly, as the result of the choices and actions and habits of countless people, but change they do. The first question we must try to answer is whether we can see changes taking place within the capitalist socio-economic system, and if so, in what direction those changes seem to be moving the system.

Now clearly capitalism has been changing rapidly since it emerged as the dominant form of society and economy more than two hundred years ago. The changes have been technical -- in the processes of production -- and organizational -- in the appearance and explosive growth of limited liability joint stock corporations along side older proprietorships and partnerships -- and structural -- in the emergence of financial capitalism alongside capitalist productive activities. Virtually all of these changes have been driven by the perceived self-interest of those in control of the means of production, save for the changes forced on them by the organized activity of their employees.

From the outset, there have been thinkers who tried to imagine better ways of organizing economic activity -- those whom Marx and Engels rather dismissively called "Utopian Socialists." Marx's disdain for these efforts stemmed not from their motivation, which by and large he shared, but from the fact that they were mere speculations, unconnected to an analysis of the actual operations of the capitalist system -- what Marx called "the laws of motion of" capitalism. On the basis of his historical study, Marx concluded that far-reaching socio-economic change is driven by internal evolutionary developments in a society and economy, not by utopian planning or by the deliberate decisions of dictators. He believed that socialism -- the collective management of capital for collective social purposes -- could come about only after the way had been prepared for it within capitalism by the capitalists themselves. To be sure, he anticipated a violent final upheaval, although later in his life he acknowledged the possibility of more peaceful transitions, but this could not happen until the structural requirements for collective management of the economy had already developed within capitalism.

Let me give you several simple examples of what Marx meant by this rather strange claim. Early in the evolution of capitalism, firms were small relative to the size of the market into which they were selling. They were run, typically, by the entrepreneurs who founded them, and they were what economists call "price takers," not "price makers." That is to say, competition forced them to pay the market price for their inputs and charge the market price for their output. This fact, which made them subordinate to forces they could not control, drove them relentlessly to enlarge the scope of their enterprises, to engage in what economists call vertical and horizontal integration, leading finally to the enormous multi-national conglomerates we see today. The internal decision making in such firms has become more and more like the central economic planning of a small state, thus preparing the way for the possibility of planned economic activity oriented to social need rather than to private profit.

A second example. Planning even a small economy clearly requires the real-time acquisition and deployment of vast amounts of information of a very particular sort, about products, quantities, potential bottlenecks, input requirements into production, personnel, and so forth. Nothing remotely like this level of information management was possible in Marx's day, nor even when I was a young man. But it is now a routine part of the operations of modern corporations. Every time you buy something at a supermarket or department store checkout, its bar code is scanned, and the transaction automatically recorded and analyzed, so that those in charge of restocking the store can keep track of which items need to be purchased from suppliers. Factories that used to stock huge piles of parts and raw materials now rely on "just in time" supplying and resupplying. Even book publishers no longer keep warehouses full of print runs, instead printing copies as they are ordered. All of these developments, spurred by hardheaded profit driven capitalists, not by utopian socialist dreamers, are creating the objective possibility of a planned economy.

If we want to know what a centrally managed and planned economy might be like, we should look not to small utopian rural enclaves engaged in sustainable agriculture, but to the most efficient large multi-national corporations. They are the innovators in information management, long-term planning, and the like.
The question for people like me, who despair at the inequities and destructiveness of capitalism, is what direction capitalism itself is evolving in, and what role, if any, I and others like me could play in applying pressure to transform it into a humane collective undertaking managed for the good of all rather than for the profit of the few. Marx believed he could see the outlines of that process of transformation in the centralization and ever greater instability of capital, and the correlative greater and greater organization of workers. For reasons I outline in the paper referenced above, I am now pessimistic about that analysis. It is for that reason that I am pessimistic in general about the prospects for a transition to socialism. But I remain convinced that Marx was fundamentally right in believing that such a transition must grow within capitalism.

Monday, August 9, 2010


There is something profoundly unseemly about a group of well fed academics debating the relative misery of billions of people, none of whom has the slightest chance of ever living in the way that we do. So, let us stop.

As a Marxist, let me stipulate that capitalism has been an enormous step forward for the human race, both by dramatically expanding the total physical output of the world's economy and by undermining religious supersititions and traditional ways of life [although unfortunately not enough]. So if anyone feels the need to give Brownie points to capitalism, to give it a gold star, feel free. No serious Marxist will dispute you.

It is indisputable that in the present capitalist world order, there are enormous disparities of wealth and poverty and very great misery abroad in the world.

If you think that capitalism is the only alternative to feudalism or slavery, then your only concern, if you feel one, will be to figure out ways to ameliorate some of that misery. If you do not feel the slightest concern for that misery, then I have nothing to say to you. Go your way, and try to stay out of trouble.

But, suppose capitalism is not the equivalent of rationality. Suppose that just as capitalism grew out of feudalism, so perhaps something different can grow out of capitalism, something even more rational, even better at serving human needs and avoiding the periodic crises, such as the one we are now in. Then I for one want to figure out what that is and work to bring it about. I do not expect those who have benefitted the most from capitalism to join me in this struggle, although some may. But I can at least hope that those harmed by capitalism, those impoverished in the face of its outpouring of goods, those who have no option but to take a bad job, rather than the even worse job or no job that would otherwise be their lot, will join with me, or allow me to join with them, in the fight.


I cannot possibly reply adequately to the many lengthy, intelligent, and thoughtful comments that were provoked by my effort to launch a discussion about ideology, but I must at least try, so herewith a series of responses. Forgive me if I fail to answer your questions or speak directly to your concerns.

1. I began with the emergence of capitalism as the dominant form of social and economic organization in Europe in the early nineteenth century for two reasons: First, because I believe it is impossible to think clearly about our situation today without coming to grips with the nature of capitalism; and Second, because I always try to understand a complicated subject by looking at it in its simplest form and then explicating the complications and elaborations of it as responses to or outgrowths of that simpler form. Speaking about philosophy, that is what I did in explaining Kant's CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON and, rather less importantly, Rawls' A THEORY OF JUSTICE, and that is what I did in my book on Marx's economic theories, UNDERSTANDING MARX.

2. The Labor Theory of Value began as an attempt by Adam Smith and David Ricardo to give a theoretical explanation of the determination of price in a capitalist market, and thereby to explain the division of the social product among landed interests, entrepreneurs, and workers. It was taken up by Marx in a brilliant, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort to demonstrate, by means of a distinction between labor and labor power, that profit, and thus capitalism, rests upon the exploitation of the working class. Marx was right about that claim, but his theoretical proof was flawed. Capitalism does rest on exploitation, and Marx is correct when he says that the exploitation is made possible by the fact that the vast majority of people in a capitalist economy have been separated from control over the means of production. I have gone into this in very great detail both in UNDERSTANDING MARX and in a series of articles, the most important of which is "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's Labor Theory of Value," which is online.

3. Capitalism depends for its continued profitability on an endless search for cheap labor, a search that today encompasses the entire world. Everything Marx said about the Reserve Army of the Unemployed in England now applies quite directly to the world reserve army of unemployed, making it possible for capital in the economically advanced countries to find cheap labor abroad. These days, this is called outsourcing.

4. The Economics profession has spent the last century and a half producing ever more sophisticated mathematical justifications for the simple fact of exploitation [such as the theory of marginal product], but the same obscene contrast between wealth and poverty that stared everyone in the face in early nineteenth century England is before us today.

5. Marx's analysis failed in several absolutely central ways to grasp the future development of capitalism. [I have gone into this in some detail in my paper "The Future of Socialism," also online.] The two most important failures are, First, his failure to foresee and to explain the emergence of a stable and seemingly permanent pyramid of wages and salaries, resulting not in every greater solidarity of the working class but in relative exploitation and the fragmentation of the working class, and Second, his failure to foresee the capacity of capital to overcome its competition sufficiently to work together to save capitalism through control of the state and through fiscal and monetary policies [Keynesianism]. Marx also failed to anticipate the inability of capitalism to eliminate or weaken the irrational forces of religious, racial, ethnic, and national sentiment in the world, a fact of which we are all now painfully aware.

6. We live now in a world in which no one seems capable any longer in even conceiving of an alternative to capitalism. Virtually everyone left, right, and center begins by singing paeans of praise to what they call "the free market," and then arguing about what small portion of the surplus social product should be shunted to the workers to keep them quiet and happy. I am not really interested in discussing the comments of academic philosophers like Rawls or Nussbaum or Parfitt et al, because they do not seem to me to be talking about the world we actually live in, the world of rampant global capitalism. We need desperately, and I am not competent to give, an analysis of the emergence of financial capitalism that will complement Marx's analysis of industrial capitalism.

7. Finally, and for me at any rate most distressingly, the many powerful critiques of the present situation share with my own feeble efforts the weakness that they are not grounded in a real world movement among the exploited to mobilize and change the social order. People like me, caustic though we may be in our criticism of capitalism, are in fact comfortably insulated from the evils we decry. This gives to what we say an airy insubstantiality that no amount of theoretical penetration can overcome,.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Well, it is pretty clear that I was overreaching when I proposed starting a conversation on the most complex and difficult questions facing a student of society. Your comments, which have been thoughtful and very intelligent, raise huge numbers of questions, and although I have answers for some of them [such as what I think about the Labor Theory of Value, or what capitalism is, etc.], I cannot imagine how to shape all of this into a coherent discourse. So I am going to have to step back and pause. Partly, I am wrung through after the effort of writing 500 pages of my Memoir in less than four months, along with the Formal Methods blog, but partly I did not realize how dispirited I have become over the appalling content and tone of the public conmversation in America these days. I am by nature a cheerful and optimistic person. If a glass comes from the diswasher with a few drops of water still clinging to it, I am likely to see it as half full. But what is going on now is so bad that it defeats both my natural sunny disposition and my capacity for satire.

I am going to try to write some responses to your splendid comments in the next few days. [First I have to print them out so that I can read them properly.] But I will also make a few comments on the passing scene.

The announced resignation of Christina Roemer as Chair of the President's Council of Economic Advisors [or whatever it is called these days} is really bad news. It seems Larry Summers shut her out from direct access to Obama, and gave Obama his own bad advice rather than her good advice. Let us be clear. This is Obama's fault. He is no fool. He chose the likes of Summers and Geithner, and then chose to listen to them rather than to Roemer and Volcker.

A propos Geithner -- I am a novice in financial matters, but speaking purely as a couch potato, I can say without hesitation that Geithner is a disaster. He LOOKS like a clueless idiot, and when he speaks, any lingering faith one had in him dissipates.

As for the Afghan war, I wrote on this blog long ago that Obama was making a terrible mistake, and that in the end his administration would be all about that war. I still think I was right.

Well, enough fulminating. It is approaching 7 a.m., and I must go for mjy morning four mile walk. I will try to post some more later today.

Friday, August 6, 2010


Herewith my effort to get a conversation going. As you will see, instead of plunging into hot button issues, I have tried to say something about the history of our modern ideological positions, and also about their underlying presuppositions.; What I say here won't look much like contemporary arguments about progressive or liberal or radical stances versus conservative or reactionary ones, but I am hopeful that by starting this way, I can encourage you to look more deeply at the underlying assumptions of your own convictions. I hope as well to be able to accomplish that for myself. At this point, I welcome both short comments and extended comments, which, if it seems appropriate, can be presented as guest posts. Let's see what develops.

Although the ideological positions with which we are all familiar have filiations with philosophical, political, and religious doctrines going back several millennia, in their contemporary forms, they all arose as reactions to the explosive development of capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. No matter how detailed our scholarly knowledge of that period may be, it remains difficult for us today to recapture the feeling so common in the first part of the nineteenth century of a world that was, as the French say, bouleversé. Marx was quite right in describing capitalism as the most revolutionary force ever set loose in the world. Settled expectations, understandings, and practices were discarded and replaced with a brutality and rapidity that was unnerving. Nothing, not even the dramatic events of the French Revolution, altered the social landscape so thoroughly as did the expansion of capitalist modes of production and distribution. This is not at all to suggest that the previous centuries had been placid or static. Quite to the contrary. But capitalism reached into the market, the home, the church, altering collective understandings so rapidly that the expectations laid down in a person's childhood were drastically altered by the time that person reached adulthood.

Everyone -- economists, poets, novelists, politicians, workers, farmers -- was keenly aware of the changes taking place, and anyone who had any pretensions as a commentator on the passing scene had an attitude toward what was happening. Speaking broadly, there were four different responses to the upheavals, out of which emerged our modern ideological strains of thought.

The first response was to welcome the changes as a new world, in which old religious and aristocratic superstitions and irrationalities were being swept away by the clean, fresh air of reason, calculation, and individual liberty. The market was seen by these folks as a sphere of rational self-interest free of hereditary or customary constraints, all of which were viewed as forms of irrationality. The new capitalist order was thus the fulfillment of the promise of the Enlightenment, with its rejection of all traditions as forms of superstition. The Liberals, as the proponents of this reaction to capitalism came to be called, were well aware of the evils attendant upon the expansion of capitalism -- the urban slums, the social disruptions, the periodic crises of over-production and under-consumption -- but these were considered temporary by-products of a trend that was unstoppably positive. They were lingering irrationalities that would either be eliminated by the workings of market forces or could succumb to rational planning and adjustment.
Regardless of the personal attachment of this or that Liberal theorist to religious belief, the Liberal orientation itself to the world was clearly understood to be thoroughgoingly secular. Reason and self interest, not mystery and tradition and revelation, were the appropriate guides for individuals and for states. The Liberal response to capitalism found expression both in the theories of economists -- Smith, Ricardo, Mill, Jevons, Menger, Walras, and the rest -- and in the writings of philosophers and social commentators -- the Mills, father and son, and others. Although the term "liberal," like virtually every other term in this discourse, has been fatally confused and compromised, I propose at least in this initial setting of the scene to use it in this, its original acceptation.

There are several foundational assumptions that underlie the Liberal orientation or ideology and provide it with the premises of its arguments. First is the assumption that the natural state or condition of human beings is rational self-interest. Men and women are assumed to be capable of identifying their desires, their interests, and their purposes, and of making rational calculations of the ways in which best to satisfy those desires or interests, to pursue those purposes. Unless our minds are clouded by superstition, which is to say religion, or constrained by irrational traditions, or enfeebled by ignorance, we can be relied upon to choose wisely in deploying our resources to satisfy our desires and pursue our purposes.

The second underlying assumption is that laisser-faire capitalism is the rational way to organize an economy and society. Previous forms of economic organization -- feudalism, slavery, guild production -- are simply failures to achieve rationality. Hence, the end of historical development [although they did not put it this way] was assumed to be the complete displacement of all other forms of socio-economic organization by capitalism. A social problem could only be understood by the Liberal mentality as a consequence of incomplete or inadequate instantiation of laisser-faire capitalism, and the solution to any problem was therefore the further extension of capitalism into spheres of activity not yet rationalized.

Not everyone was as optimistic about the new socio-economic order coming into being. Many serious commentators took a look at the wreckage of traditional society and saw only disaster. The long-established hierarchies of society were under attack. "New men" were becoming rich and powerful in a generation, without any of the traditional respect for those of good birth and proper upbringing. The transformation of the urban landscape was merely the physical reflection of a much deeper assault on the authority of the landed gentry. In France, a violent revolution had destroyed the most glorious monarchy in all Europe. In England, the transformations were less terminal, but no less irrevocable for all that. The Liberals might survey the social scene and see the bustle and ordered disarray of a construction site. But others saw only the chaos of an earthquake.

The commentators who took a less optimistic view of the radical changes around them sought desperately to conserve as much as they could of the old, familiar way of life. Some, especially in the earliest days, actually thought it was not too late to call the entire business to a halt and return to earlier and better forms of society and economy, but that hope soon faded, and so these proponents of conservation, or Conservatives, were prepared instead to settle for a slowing of the pace and a rejection of the more elaborate schemes for social transformation being put forward by the Liberals.

Along with their horror at the wreckage of society as they knew it, the Conservatives advanced a fundamentally different conception of the role of reason in human action. They had great respect for institutions that had survived over centuries, however little they conformed to a Rationalist's theoretical plan. The British Parliament, the Roman Catholic [or Anglican Catholic] Church, the relations of lord to servant, the traditions of marriage, property, the Army -- these had stood the test of time, and embodied in them was the immemorial wisdom of generations of men and women who, through their enactments and reenactments of familiar patterns of behavior, tested ways of being and doing and arrived at arrangements that worked.

Far and away the best statement I know of this Conservative perspective is to be found in the writings of the British 20th century philosopher Michael Oakeshott. If you have never looked at his collection of essays, Rationalism in Politics, I strongly recommend it to you. Read the title essay and an essay called "Rational Conduct." I do not want to try to summarize Oakeshott's argument here -- it would take me too long. The core of it is this: Oakeshott attacks Liberalism at its foundation. The Liberal's conception of rational action, he says, is not misguided, or politically unworkable, or prone to lead to bad consequences. Its fault is much deeper than that. Liberalism tells us to act in a way that is literally impossible, because it fundamentally misconstrues the nature of reason, of deliberation, of choice, and of action. From the many delicious passages in those two essays, let me quote just one, to convey something of Oakeshott's style:

"The mind of the Rationalist ... impresses us as, at best, a finely-tempered, neutral instrument, as a well-trained rather than as an educated mind. Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man. And this gives to his intellectual and practical activities an almost preternatural deliberateness and self-consciousness, depriving them of any element of passivity, removing from them all sense of rhythm and continuity... His mind has no atmosphere, no changes of season and temperature....With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail." [Rationalism in Politics, pp. 2-3, published in 1962.]

A third response to the upheavals and transformations wrought by capitalism was to embrace the assault on superstition and tradition, but to reject the claims of the unfettered free market. A number of French and English critics of early capitalism tried, both in their writings and in experimental small communities, to devise more humane, less destructive, more rational ways of arranging social and economic affairs. Proudhon, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen conjured plans of rational communities in which neither the depredations of industrial labor nor the irrationalities of market failures would inflict unnecessary misery on ordinary working men and women. These thinkers shared with the Liberals a rejection of superstition and a celebration of reason, but they recognized the inadequacies of an uncontrolled laisser-faire capitalism, and sought to replace it with central planning. Marx and Engels called them Utopian Socialists, and ridiculed their schemes as unconnected with a grasp of the real nature of capitalism.

And then there was Marx, whose response to the phenomenon of capitalism was complex and nuanced. Although Marx was, au fond, committed to the rationalist of the human experience, he came to believe that capitalism was deeply mystified, with the result that the surface appearance of rationality in the market concealed very deep irrationalities, both institutional and individual. He argued with great power and insight that capitalism itself is internally irrational, and hence cannot be the economic foundation for a truly human society. Against the superficial individualism of Liberalism, the mysticism of Conservatism, and the feckless unfounded optimism of Utopian Socialism Marx set his call for the supercession of capitalism by a fundamentally different economic and social order, Socialism. But this project, he was convinced, could only be accomplished when capitalism had developed sufficiently to make such a supercession technically possible and when the working class had organized itself sufficiently to seize control of the means of production.

I have written a great deal about what I think was right and wrong in Marx's analysis and prescription. Those who are interested can read two books: UNDERSTANDING MARX and MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, and a paper, "The Future of Socialism," which can be found on line by Googling. I call myself a Marxist because I remain persuaded, despite the inadequacies of some of Marx's arguments and the failure of some of his forecasts, that his understanding of economy and society is deeper than that of anyone else I know, and because I share his commitment to collective action by the disadvantaged classes of society.

Well, that ought to be enough to get something going. If not, I will go back to commenting on the passing scene.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


I will get started on my proposed conversation about the underpinnings of modern ideological positions shortly, but first I need to say at least something about the decision handed down yesterday in the legal challenge to California's Proposition 8 banning of same-sex marriage. last night, I read U. S. District Judge Vaughn Walker's entire 136 page decision online [God, how I hate to read things like that on a computer screen! But I just could not see printing out the entire thing.] Now, I am a complete novice and lay person in this area. I have not even had the benefit of the wisdom of my son, Tobias, who is probably the most knowledgeable person on the issue in America, because he was too busy yesterday doing press and television following the release of the decision. So what follows is my untutored reaction.

By way of background, for those of you who have not been following this issue [or are from other, possibly more enliightened parts of the world, such as South Africa], this was a challenge in Federal District Court to a ballot initiative, or Proposition, in California that successfully overturned a California Supreme Court ruling making same-sex marriage legal in that state. The legal challenge to Proposition 8 was brought by two same-sex couples, whose case was argued by the rather extraordinary legal team of David Boies and Ted Olsen -- the lawyers on opposite sides of the hideous Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case that took the presidency from Al Gore in 2000 and handed it to George W. Bush.

Experienced and knowledgeable LGBT activists [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered] were horrified by the decision of Boies and Olsen to file the suit in Federal Court, because they feared that when it inevitably made its way to the High Court, the present collection of right-wing judges would be given the opportunity to hand dopwn a sweeping anti-gay opinion that would enshrine prejudice against same-sex couples in America's legal system. Boies and Olsen, who are being paid handsomely for their efforts, have been rather cavalierly dismissive of the advice of lawyers experienced in the field, apparently believing that they can, in arguments before the Supreme Court, hold the four moderate to liberal justices [Ginsberg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan] and persuade Kennedy to make five.

Walker, who is, by the way, gay, required the litigants in the Prop 8 case to hold a full trial, rather than allowing them simply to submit briefs and supporting materials. The State of California, which was technically the defendant in the case, refused to mount a defense of Prop 8, so it was left to lawyers representing the proponents who had pushed the Prop 8 effort. Boies and Olsen put on a stream of high profile witnesses, who presented masses of evidence rebutting the standard claims that same-sex marriages were bad for children, would weaken the institution of marriage, etc etc. The Prop 8 proponents listed a large nunmber of witnesses in pre-trial papers, all but two of whom backed out before the trial. The two who did testify were extremely weak,and under devastating cross-examination by Boies and olsen [who really are good trial lawyers, let's face it] those two witnesses simply folded.

Walker's decision is extraordinary in several regards. First, he considers the testimony of the witnesses, and in crushing detail concludes that the testimony of the Prop 8 witnesses has no credibility and should be given no weight in the legal proceeding, whereas the testimony of the witnesses attacking Prop 8 is judged by him to be credible. He examines the credentials of these witnesses, and concludes that one Prop 8 witness [someone named Blankenhorn] has no credibility and the other has very limited credibility.

When he turns to the legal dimensions of the case, he concludes that the state has no rational basis for denying marriage to same sex couples ["rational basis" being the lowest bar a law is required to clear], and hence it is not even necessary to submit the law to heightened scrutiny [the highest bar].

When he is finished with his opinion, Walker orders that California immediatelty resume issuing marriage licenses to same sex couples.

So what does it all mean? Well, this decision will immediately be appealed to the Ninth Circuit, generally considered the most liberal Federal Appellate jurisdiction, and regardless of their decision, then to the U. S. Supreme Court. Walker's decision to hold a full trial is important, because it has established a record of fact that is overwhelmingly tilted against Prop 8. Theoretically, appeals courts are supposed to defer to the findings of fact of a court of first instance [because that court, either the judge or a jury, if there is a jury trial, is charged with making determinations of fact on the basis of evidence and testimony entered into the record.] In theory, the appellate court is only supposed to consider whether the lower court has made errors of law. So the heavy evidentiary balance in favor of the opponents of Prop 8 gives them a leg up at the appellate level.

But of course, the US Supreme Court can do anything it damn well pleases, as Bush v. Gore demonstrates, so we return to the question, What will Kennedy do? And about that, I am completely clueless.

Still and all, in these terrible times, it is necessary to take what little pleasure one can from these victories along the way. The Boies Olsen strategy still looks like a bad one, an extremely dangerous one, and it will be several years, presumably, until this works its way to the Supreme Court and is heard by them.

What can one hope for? Barring the untimely death of one of the right wing justices, which of course it would be inappropriate even to contemplate, what we must all hope and pray for is that Boies and Olsen are correct in their self-congratulatory self-image.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010


Tomorrow, I am going to try to say a few things to set the stage for the conversation I suggested we have, about the theoretical presuppositions of competing ideologies. I am not really concerned about the labels we place on the different positions. Rather, I want to get beneath the labels to what underlies the positions. Perhaps the best way to proceed is for me to lay that out in a post, and then allow a couple of days for comments and guest blog posts and such before we move on. In the meantime, I will continue to comment on the passing scene. [I mean, can one really pass over in silence the touching romantic comedy of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston?] Let's try it and see how it goes.


I would like to start a conversation, through the medium of this blog, about the fundamental presuppositions of competing ideological perspectives -- Conservative, Liberal, Radical Marxist. I do not have in mind an argument about political candidates or party platforms, but an exploration of the assumptions about rationality, habit, sentiment, human society, economic organizations and the like, and a debate about the plausibility, the defensibility, of those assumptions. I am moved to suggest this conversation because the public discourse in this country has become hopelessly debased and deeply confused. I have no illusions at all that such a conversation, even if it should attract a sizeable circle of participants, will in any future available to me result in a change in our politics. But I feel the need at least in this space to strive for a higher level of clarity than I find anywhere on the left or the right today.

Let me know whether this proposed conversation holds any interest for you, and especially whether you might be willing to contribute guest posts, short or long, at some point, so that I am not simply talking to an imaginary circle of interlocuters.