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Sunday, January 9, 2011


Why do I snark at the right but not at the left? The answer is simple, but important. There is a fundamental difference between the connections and commitments of the people who are appointed to senior positions in an Administration as economic advisers or policy makers, and the follies and stupidities of the current brood of rightwingers. This is elementary, but it is useful to keep it in mind.

We live in a capitalist state. The fundamental purpose and object of the state in a capitalist economy is to serve the interests of capital. The state is, indeed, the executive committee of the capitalist class. This is true under Democratic Administrations, and under Republican Administrations. It is true when the policies of the Administration are progressive, and when the policies of the Administration are reactionary. I was born in the year that Franklin Delano Roosevelt first took the oath of office, and what I have just said has been true of every Administration from his to Obama's [as well as of previous Administrations, but I wasn't alive then.] You may dislike that fact. I do. You may want to see America fundamentally transformed so that it is no longer true. I do, and have written about that for fifty years. But viewed with a certain detachment and from a certain distance, it makes very little difference to the fundamental capitalist orientation of the government whether the President's economic advisers come from the manufacturing sector, from the financial sector, or from the tenured ranks of America's elite universities. I feel no impulse to call attention to the Goldman Sachs affiliations of a new Administration appointment because to do so is, by implication, to suggest that Administration policy would be importantly different were the President to tap a different source of advisers.

I snark at Republican wingnuts for two reasons. First, it is fun, and these days there is little enough to laugh about. Second, for reasons I have already stated on this blog, I think it makes a difference, within the confines of the capitalist orientation of the state, whether Democrats or Republicans have the upper hand in Congress. A Democratic sweep unseen since the days of FDR would not change the fact that the state serves the interests of capital, not even in Dennis Kucinich were to become Speaker of the House. But it would make possible certain ameliorations that would ease the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable among us.

There are some who imagine that Democratic electoral victories are actually a setback to the cause of revolutionary change because only if things get much worse will they get much better. I do not share that view. I lived through the aftermath of the transformation of Weimer Germany into Nazi Germany, so I am not sanguine about the revolutionizing potential of misery.


Chris said...

Thank you.
So the follow up question is, especially since the political spectrum is farther and farther to the right since FDR, at what point do your moral principles, or opprobrium, cause you to abandon even the ship of a causal nod to the democrats. Where you do finally forego tacit support for them.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

When I no longer think that they can make a measurable improvement in the lives of significant numbers of people, as compared with the Republicans. As I have said before, because my own life is so protected and comfortable, I think I have an obligation to concern myself directly and not just theoretically with the needs of those less fortunate. I am not about to give away all I have [as Jesus proposes] so that I can seize the moral high ground of poverty. I am inclined to share George Bernard Shaw's view that there is nothing enobling about poverty. But nor am I about to say, "I've got mine. Screw you."

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Chris --

While Bob seems to me to have a perfectly adequate response above, I would like to take a moment to highlight what seems to me a very bizarre feature of your position. You seem to have subscribe to some maxim of the form "One must never vote for a party that is more than n degrees to the left of the Democratic Party of FDR" (for some fixed n which you have picked; I don't know how you define it but I'll assume you do). This just seems indefensible. As Bob says in the post, and as you clearly agree, what party you vote for in a capitalist society is a matter of indifference if your only goal is a revolutionary transformation (a goal which, it seems, Bob, you, and I share). So from single-minded revolutionary's perspective, voting for Democrats cannot be prohibited, since it just makes no difference to the goal. So the source of this prohibition must be in some other goals that you have. Which ones? I can tell you what other goals I have that go into determining who I vote for: for example, improving the quality of life of the majority of the population is a worthwhile goal, and it seems to be one that would militate in favor of voting for Democrats, at least in most elections in the US. So where does this prohibition come from? I would like to see your reasoning here.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

Oops, that should have been "more than n degrees to the RIGHT of the Democratic Party of FDR", but you get the point.

Chris said...

I don't think the response is all that adequate, when half the response was centered around his having more "fun" chiding Republicans. This is a classic problem of principled leftist, who still nod, bow, and support Democrats, without ever offering equally in depth criticisms of that party as well. Which obviously genuine Democrats should and need to hear. Unfortunately they only hear it from the loony bin of the right, so they too become complacent with the Democrats as the beacon of the left.

Your dichotomy is a bit off. I was trying to get the professor to discuss why he is constantly harping about Republicans on a blog (of an Anarchist/Marxist no less) and never Democrats. I was not, and am not, asking who he votes for (and it's pretty obvious who he votes for...). Voting can be part of a strategy, without one showing any kind of outward support for the candidate. For instance, I did vote for Obama, because Florida was a crucial swing state in November 2008, and he seemed to me the tiniest iota better than McCain. My strategy would be different if I lived in Texas or Mass. However, I never once cheered the guy on. As Chomsky said "Vote Obama, without illusion." And, like a principled leftist, has carried out criticizing Obama, Democrats, Republicans, and the right, will equal vigor. When the left continues to only focus criticism on the Republicans, we keep up that illusion for many, that the Democrats actually represent us (the lefties). And we don't reveal to them just much they in fact don't. And how much, and nuance, genuine leftism has to offer over the old-guard left represented by Democrats.

Of course there's also another side to the voting coin. The one my Dad apparently made his whole life, and one which others I wish had the balls to do as well. He either didn't vote, or voted Nader. I always asked why he "threw his vote away." His response, "I'm not complacent with two sides of evil, and this is the only message I can send to show that."

As far as your goals and this myth that Democrats improve the quality of life. I sincerely, and starkly disagree, that it's as great as you seem to think. If you don't believe me talk to a Pakistani, Yemeni, Afghani, Honduran, Japanese (of Okinawa), resident of Guam, etc. Democrat policy, of the past two years impacts more than us. And I can assure you the "other" is still living in hell.

Marinus said...

"This is a classic problem of principled leftist, who still nod, bow, and support Democrats, without ever offering equally in depth criticisms of that party as well."

But Chris, this simply isn't true of Prof Wolff's blog. He's just called the Obama administration (and the Clinton, and the Carter, and ...) the 'executive committee of the capitalist class'. That's not something you'll see in their mission statement! They're not supposed to be, by their lights, shills for their corporate masters.

This might not go far enough for your tastes, but it's a substantial point of criticism. And it's entirely unclear why Prof Wolff should go further to satisfy your tastes. There's a matter of it being his blog and not yours, and another one of picking your battles -- unless you entirely distance yourself from your nation's political life, which isn't easy to do and of dubious merit, there's nothing to be gained by belittling the lesser evils. If you do too well at that, you're likely to end up with the greater evil. (The bit about not distancing yourself from the politics is there because that established that there will be a greater and a lesser evil by your lights.)

By all rights, when the democrats are securely in power and people are becoming too misty-eyed about it, as some people now get in retrospect about the Clinton administration, then we can pour some cold water on the issue. But I genuinely struggle what you are could achieve doing that now, except satisfying personal pique and pinning a badge of ideological purity to your chest.

Chris said...

Marinus let's step back for a second.

The professor can blog about whatever he wants. I'm not dictating to him, merely posting in the commentary section my questions. Sincere questions. He can answer them, and in this regard he did.

He did just say that, but, let's be fair, it was in response to my question as to why he critiques Republicans exponentially more than Democrats. It was not a run-of-the-mill post.

I think there is quite a lot to be gained be criticizing the lesser-of-two evils, albeit if you don't. It helps raise awareness that one, and others, need not be complacent with evil at all, and can, and should, seek to rectify it. You disagree? Why? I mean, do you sincerely think someone like Noam Chomsky is a beacon of evil, whose both promulgating and exacerbating evil? My jaw is hitting the floor.

As far as what I can do now, I'm just asking the professor a corollary question. It's not going to have any impact beyond personal thought, communication, and reflection. However, the point of constant criticism of those you don't support, but claim to represent you, is to keep a zeitgeist of difference alive, and prevent complacency.

Finally, this position of a little cold water from time to time is what bothers me. If the spectrum of American politics is consistently moving to the right, and it is, and the Democrats are therefore moving with it, when is enough enough? When do principles, morals, integrity, etc, create the hurdle that says "this has gone too far." That's a fair, and reasonable question to ask. The professor answered it, and I don't see why anyone should get upset by my asking it.

p.s. I suppose the reason I'm often shocked at the Professors post is because his books that I've read were starkly different than the commentary I found on his blog. But, as he said recently, others often assume him to be someone else from his books. I know I recently just finished a political theory course where my professor was saying Wolfe was a radical individualistic anarchist....

Marinus said...

Chris, I would appreciate it if you don't put words in my mouth and then lambast me for it:
"I think there is quite a lot to be gained be criticizing the lesser-of-two evils, albeit if you don't. It helps raise awareness that one, and others, need not be complacent with evil at all, and can, and should, seek to rectify it. You disagree? Why? I mean, do you sincerely think someone like Noam Chomsky is a beacon of evil, whose both promulgating and exacerbating evil? My jaw is hitting the floor."

Marinus said...

And Wolff is a radical individualist anarchist. Nothing on this blog contradicts that.

Chris said...

That was a response to this:
"unless you entirely distance yourself from your nation's political life, which isn't easy to do and of dubious merit, there's nothing to be gained by belittling the lesser evils. If you do too well at that, you're likely to end up with the greater evil. "

I was not putting words in your mouth, I was following the consequences of that statement. The consequences would be someone like a Chomsky is not acting morally, or for the betterment society.

My jaw dropping wasn't lambasting, it was shock. I'm no desire, or intentions to insult anyone here...

Chris said...

Eh, there's a bit of on this blog to contradict the radical individualistic anarchist approach. I mean, if one looks to people like Stirner, Warren, Thoreau and Goldman, as the traditional individualistic anarchist, than the schools of thought between Wolff and them are starkly different. But I suppose that's a tad too academic a discussion, and quite a bit off topic too :/

Marinus said...

Well, Wolff certainly isn't Stirner, but there's few other ways to gloss his line (that, if we take autonomy of individuals seriously, no state power could have the rightful authority to coerce an individual) rather than individualist anarchism.

You're being disingenuous. Chomsky's main target is by no means the Democrats -- it's far more wide-ranging than that. Chomsky's target is the underlying structure of power in the US. It's true Chomsky isn't a particular fan of the Democrats (neither, if we're using that standard, is Prof Wolff). But, if you were to ask a Republican, they would not say that they and Chomsky are united in their criticism of the Democratic Party, because everything that Chomsky says counts doubly for them.

Chris, I sincerely struggle to see what you hope to achieve by slinging accusations around at exactly the people who are the most sympathetic to your position.

English Jerk said...

Let's accept, for the sake of argument, that overtly supporting the lesser of two evils is, in general, morally right or at least prudent (though I think there are good reasons to question that premise). Wouldn't the next step be to (1) establish what counts as evil and then (2) explicitly assess whether the democrats or the republicans are more evil with respect to those criteria? For example, over the 20th century, democrats were much more likely than republicans to be interventionists in foreign policy (remember Vietnam?), which has meant the deliberate extermination of foreign populations on a massive scale (which I gather is part of what Chris as alluding to). So if we decide that, say, the lesser of two evils will do the least harm to the largest number of people, the facts about foreign interventions would make us strongly favor isolationists--who are now a vanishing breed, but if they exist at all they're republicans. Similarly, there are plenty of individual situations were democrats are consistently much worse than republicans (Israel, for example). In short, if you're going to be doing moral calculus, I want to see the math.

In any case, Wolff can certainly write about whatever takes his fancy (and if he doesn't like being criticized, he can easily turn off the comments function or remove the comments of individual pests like me). But I, like Chris, am continuously astonished at where withering scorn is not consistently directed around here. Chomsky is, as Chris notes, a good model of doing otherwise. He takes ten minutes to vote for the Democrat, and then spends the next four years travelling all over the world explaining just how evil the democrat's policies are.

Also in the realm of commentary, these guys have, in my mind, the right idea:

They criticize the UK media, focusing almost entirely on the supposedly "liberal" media (the Guardian, the Independent, etc.) rather than the crazy nonsense in the reactionary tabloids. Their work is worth a look.

Chris said...

I'm not "slinging around accusations." Again, I'm not here to lambaste and chide. I asked Wolff a question, and a corollary. He addressed both.

I already said why I did this: to learn and reflect. The conversations on this blog are not going to impact anything beyond that, and I appreciate being able to contact a professor I have some reverence for, and political similarity, in matters such as these.

I think you're reading more into my post than I intended, or is really there on second-glance.

On a slightly off topic bit, as someone who reads perhaps too much Chomsky, I've heard him say numerous times he doesn't even bother to appraise Republicans and organizations like Fox News because it's too easy and unproductive for his audience. Instead he focuses on what's seen as the left, liberalism, and the Democrats - when he's not being broader in analysis as you point out - because they represent the marking point of how far the left can go. Zinn could call them the old guards. Hence, my question to Wolff, I was curious of what his marking point was before he entirely broke up from them.

None of this scrutinizing, or questioning, is meant as a form of aggression or hostility. Merely, like most relations to a professor, academic and fruitful discussion.

Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I appreciate the articulate and well-considered reply.

I'm still in my youth - 24 - so maybe as I age too I'll change; of course at the moment I hope not ;)

The problem I'm finding in your post is this dichotomy of choice between: "But if I am faced with the choice between a Republican congress that repeals the (albeit deeply compromised) healthcare reform bill, and a Democratic congress which will not, then I don't see why I should satisfy my immediate need to critique the democrats if, at this specific and practical moment, the persistence of the healthcare bill will help so many people."

That's merely one issue, among a plethora of others, that our country is facing. It's the one making the front page of the news, but so rarely is the front page of the main-stream press really where the answers to helping the downtrodden can be found. As you point out, the healthcare bill is seriously wanting, and the front-page of the mainstream press never once articulated the single-payer position of healthcare. So, I'm really confused you lefties dwelling on what's mainstream at all (not to mention the whole thing is a show-boat event, Obama will veto any serious health-care change anyway, and it won't even get to that due to the senate democratic seating).

Critizing a position that's already so asinine, and already not supported by the readers of the blog, borders on just patting oneself in the back.

With what I've just said in mind, it again reflects why I asked the professor the question. Yes, the Republicans are making clowns of themselves in Congress. Anyone that reads just ONE page of the news knows that (amongst Wolffs audience). But, again, if the mainstream front page isn't worth as much as I suspect, than I felt comfortable enough asking Wolf why he reprints it for us, over another issue such as Obama's cabinet picks.

Finally, the trend I'm noticing in the commentary-post here is that with the Democrats there is some kind of Utilitarian net gain in the mitigation of suffering, and life improvement, over the Republicans. This MAY be true for the citizens of the US, but I tend to consider myself a citizen of the world; and in that sense I don't think the case can be made that with Obama as president there is a net increase. And, as I said earlier, I point you to his foreign policy (his quadroopling of predator drones in the middle-east alone should give pause to this Utilitarian criteria); you know, that issue that doesn't make page 1, but consistently impacts the lives of tens of thousands ;)

English Jerk said...

If the aim is to support the lesser of two evils, then it seems like one ought to (1) spell out exactly what counts as "evil" and (2) give an explicit account showing that a person or party is in fact the lesser of the evils according to those criteria. It seems to me that if you look at the total effects on the population of the world (not just one narrow issue affecting only people in the US), it's far from obvious that democrats are always (or even frequently) less evil than republicans. For example, isolationists have almost always been republicans, and anyone opposed to our extermination programs overseas should back isolationists, not interventionists. Moreover, there are many specific issues that democrats are uncontroversially much worse on (Israel, for example). In short, if you're going to do moral calculus, I want to see the math.

Kevin said...

Oops, reposting my comment to you. Evidently, the "trash can" icon is meant in a very literal sense. Go figure.

Previous comment:

Chris, what I think Anonymous ABD and Marinus are expressing is a sort of exasperation with many of us on the Left for appearing (sometimes) to be more invested in venerating the ideological superiority of the Left (and our identification with it) at the expense of bettering the short or medium-term lives of many people (and so compromising our theoretical commitments, or at least their practical priority).

Of course we all want revolutionary change, a fundamental, underlying shift in the capitalist structure and its attendant social categories and whatnot. Funny enough, though, we can repeat Keynes' famous line here: "in the long run, we will all be dead." Constant attention to the long-run emancipatory commitments of the Left sometimes runs the risk of looking a lot like we are holding onto a Weberian "ethics of conviction," using our theoretical tools and commitments as the yardstick with which to judge what is Left enough, what is pure enough for us to sacrifice our time and dedication. With all else (which is most everything else) being too minimal or reactionary for us to even give the time of day. But this general attitude just strikes me as somehow otherworldly, and a bit anachronistic.

I used to be very fond of the Marxist dictum of conducting "a ruthless criticism of everything existing," but as I grow older, that seems more and more of an inadequate commitment unless it is supplemented with a serious, practical attempt on my part to directly improve the lives of my community and companions. Of course those improvements are not paradigm shifting. My efforts are not reaching down far enough (or Left enough) to fundamentally reshape contemporary capitalist conditions.

But if I am faced with the choice between a Republican congress that repeals the (albeit deeply compromised) healthcare reform bill, and a Democratic congress which will not, then I don't see why I should satisfy my immediate need to critique the democrats if, at this specific and practical moment, the persistence of the healthcare bill will help so many people.

This doesn't mean I (or Wolff, if applicable) don't have issues with the healthcare bill. But, good gravy, I would love for many American inhabitants to have an easier time affording medical expenditures.

I know you probably don't even disagree with much of this; I know you're simply calling for a more consistent and steady critique of the existing so-called Left, that is, the Democrats. Which of course is crucial. But I think Wolff is saying (and what I have been trying to describe personally) is that there is something a bit impoverished--dare I even say, low-hanging fruit?--about critiquing the Democrats without seriously evaluating, judging, and discussing what small accomplishments are possible if they control our legislative chambers.

Chris said...

I appreciate the articulate and well-considered reply. You seem to understand what I'm saying quite well. I also read your first post, wrote a reply, and had my internet glitch and lose it. I too shall try again.

EnglishJerk is touching on exactly what I wrote in my lost reply.

Which will become clear as I re-type it.

You have created a very false dichotomy of a complex system, and struggle. You state:
"But if I am faced with the choice between a Republican congress that repeals the (albeit deeply compromised) healthcare reform bill, and a Democratic congress which will not, then I don't see why I should satisfy my immediate need to critique the democrats if, at this specific and practical moment, the persistence of the healthcare bill will help so many people."

However, this is not the entire range of issues going on at the moment, nor the core of how we must consider said issues (on a quick note that's not even an issue, the senate won't let it happen, and if they do Obama will veto it. end of story).

What you and Wolff are referring to is merely the pop issue of the moment, occupying the front pages. Marx was write in the German Ideology that the mainstream news and ideology is just a mirror of what those in power want disseminated. However, what's really going on in the world should rarely be deduced from the front page alone, which is why I'm so chagrined that Wolff keeps reproducing the front page for us, to a group of readers that already agree the Republicans are loony. It reminds me of Jon Stewart just airing clips that mock fox news, to an audience that doesn't watch fox news to begin with. This just constitutes patting oneself on the back. Hence, I asked Wolff why he doesn't discuss other issues, such as Obama's cabinet picks, which require a bit more reflection, analysis, and criticism.

Let's keep in mind on the healthcare issue the mainstream media never once reported on the superiority of a single-payer system, and Obama never considered it. If something so serious as that couldn't reach the main-stream, why dwell on front page news so often. It's clearly not reporting what's truly of goodness to the downtrodden.

So, the common theme I keep finding amongst the commentary, and blog post, is that Democrats are some kind of Utilitarian net increase - in suffering alleviation - for the people of the United States. Maybe. But I don't consider myself a citizen of the US, over my citizenship to the world; ie as Paine said "The world is my country, goodness my religion." Nationalism doesn't attract me. Hence, when I read page 2,3,4,5,etc of the news, and I see the wanton misery Obama's foreign policy is causing around the world - to take ONE example his quadrupling of drone strikes in the middle-east - I find ZERO comfort in this Utilitarian calculus, since as EnglishJerk rightfully rebuts: show me the math, it's not at all clear it's correct. It's only correct, maybe, if one is a nationalistic-eyed news reader.

Chris said...

I've typed a reply three times. Each time it post, I reload my browser and it's gone. I shall do it ONE last time, before I give up in exhaustion! And I shall do it in small parts.

Kevin, I appreciate your articulate and cordial response. I'm glad you see I'm not here to lambaste, and insult.

EJerk touched on some issues I raised in my post before they dissipated. That will become clear as I re-write this.

Chris said...

Your post presents a very false dichotomy of present problems, and the range of solutions: "But if I am faced with the choice between a Republican congress that repeals the (albeit deeply compromised) healthcare reform bill, and a Democratic congress which will not, then I don't see why I should satisfy my immediate need to critique the democrats if, at this specific and practical moment, the persistence of the healthcare bill will help so many people."

That issue, which I might add isn't an issue because the Senate and/or Obama's veto won't let it happen, is merely the "pop" issue of the moment. Occupying the front page of the paper, where most uneventful stuff resides. Let's keep in mind the front page of the mainstream news, and Obama, never articulated or explained the single-payer health-care possibility. yet us lefties know it's the superior model. So, why do the lefties here keep focusing on what's mainstream if it's so often not where the real juice of social and citizen betterment reside? I felt obliged to ask Wolff the question regarding his posting habit, because it seems he is merely doing what Jon Stewart basically does every night. Mocking fox news, to an audience that already doesn't watch, or care for fox news. He's mocking Republicans to an audience that already doesn't take them seriously. It inevitably amounts to patting oneself on the back over and over again, without looking at deeper issues that cause more reflection. Something I know he's more than capable of doing, having read some of his philosophy.

Chris said...

Now, the common trend I keep finding on this blog, and commentary, is that there is some utilitarian net gain to be had here - in the alleviation of suffering - by voting Democrats. When it comes to the US population this may be true. May not. I don't much care, because I'm not a nationalistic minded individual. I follow the Paine motto: The world is my country, goodness is my religion. If we look at the foreign policy of Obama - taking one instance his quadrupling of predator drone strikes in the middle-east - than we can safely conclude that the man is NOT doing his utilitarian duty. If this is the case, than continuing to support this man, and his party, over those of the right, because of Utilitarian calculation, seems to be a serious error in judgment. As Ejerk said, show us the math. Unless one is solely focused on US citizens (page 1 of the news), and not citizens of the world (page 2,3,4,5,6 etc), than some re-consideration, and re-evalation, may, nay SHOULD, take place.

Marinus said...

English Jerk: The current Republican mainstream is neither isolationist nor soft in their support of Israel, are they? Of course, this doesn't straightforwardly make support for the Democrats better: the current course of the Republican party has, unfortunately, started something like a moral race to the bottom, which the Democrats are playing along with. The worse the Republicans are, the better the Democrats might be relatively, but, in all likelihood, the worse they get absolutely.

I'm not saying we should all be supporters of the Democrats, perish the thought! But I do think excessive sniping at them isn't likely to be productive, and I think encouraging others on the left to snipe more at them can at best do ill. The phrase that comes to mind is the perfect being the enemy of the good.

john c. halasz said...

Actually, I should think that what constitutes a genuinely left POV, of whatever precisely stripe, is an awareness of the systematic/structural dimension of any prospect for progressive social change: that the prevailing order of power and production "necessarily" requires the reproduction of injustices and sufferings, rather than allowing for any expansion of the scope of the former or transformation of the conditions of the latter. The meliorist liberal, by contrast, treats the prevailing order as "in principle" sound and its failings and defaults as accidents, as readily remedied within that extant order, which is one of continuous, linear progress, (i.e. does not admit of socio-political regression). As such, leftist criticism focuses not just on the endemic political lying that sustains the status quo, but on the structural "necessity" that generates such lies, while highlighting the real possibilities of alternatives that are excluded and suppressed by the prevailing "consensus", in order to legitimate its very dysfunctions. Such a stance refuses to be held hostage by the "narcissicism of small differences" among elite factions but rather remains steadfast in its commitment to the broader "truth" in its analyses, criticisms and activities, which is not a matter of self-idealization, nor of mere expression of normative preferences or demands, but rather it's a matter of maintaining the openness of the political world to genuine alternatives in the midst of its structural transformations, crises and break-downs, (which will occur as a matter of course, anyway).

john c. halasz said...

So just why shouldn't the dembots be subjected to as robust a criticism as the rethugs? The fact that the right is bat-sh*it crazy and malicious in its ostensible proposals doesn't "justify" the accomodations of "centrists" to their own corporate power base, nor a refusal to call the matter out. (In fact, it is one corporatist party promising government of the corporations, by the corporations and for the corporations, via the "center aisle" of its two wings, which much of the population, right, center and left, is fully aware of. The economic crisis is also a crisis of legitimacy, and alienation from the ruling elites is widespread across the land/spectrum). The dembots are just as complicit in oppressive measures as the rethugs, (as with, e.g., the rise of the U.S. carcerial regime, which happened under both parties with their enthusiastic participation, Joe Biden, in particular, being one of its leading legislative architects). Pointing to the blue meanies on the right is just a transparent ploy, just as accusing Obama of being a socialist is a double lie, not only forcing him to "justify" pro-corporate measure, which are his clear preference anyway, and saddling the "left" with responsibility for them, but, indeed, foreclosing any discussion of genuine alternatives to the actual, if disorganized, left. I see no reason why one should not call out such political lying, on the thin pretense that the alleviation of suffering is somehow at stake, (which amounts to capitulating to a crude utilitarianism, as well).

john c. halasz said...

The plain fact of the matter is that fundamental structural social change, whether the result of deliberate social action or of sheer drift, always involves losses as well as gains and a distribution of pain, together with a potential for violence. "Progress" is never costless, nor is it linear and inevitable, "a foregone conclusion", and there is no way to evade irremissble responsibility for that, on way or another. But likewise, there is always a need to maintain an index that distinguishes between genuine progress and the sort of "reforms" that seek to maintain the status quo ante by blocking off any genuine realization of popular "interests". Bailing out banks and taking measures to prop up financial "asset" prices contrasts with and contradicts attending to the needs of debt-addled households and workers, because a "private investment led" recovery, i.e. a prolonged stagnation to maintain the rents of incumbent corporate interests, is the only conceivable kind. (Similarly, a health care "reform" that addresses the concerns of incumbent rent-seeking interests, when its economic burdens on manufacturing and exports require much more fundamental containment measures, which an obsessive concern with public debt only obfuscates, is scarcely likely to succeed). There is no need to passively succumb to the official bread-and-circuses media spectacle, that polices such boundaries, rather than maintaining an active, critical stance of calling-out such endemic political lying, regardless of the apparent popular basis for such discursive interventions. And there is nothing wrong with pointing out the swindle of established electoral politics, which is how dominant political and economic elites lay claim to the "legitimation" of their power, in the minimal "consent" of the governed. Fundamental, salutary social change will never come from such electoral processes alone.

john c. halasz said...

Oop! Post apparently lost. Will attempt a reconstruction.

All fundamental, structural social change, whether deliberately sought or due to drift, entails losses as well as gains and involves a distribution of pain as well as a potential for violence, (since that is ingredient in any social order). "Progress" is never simply linear and inevitable, "a foregone conclusion", and there is no way to evade irremissble responsibility for such, one way or another. But, by the same token, there is a basic need to form an index that distinguishes between genuine progress in the popular "interest" and "reforms" that seek to maintain the status quo ante by protecting its dysfunctions and foreclosing such real possibilities. There is an unbridgeable difference between bailing out banks and maintaining financial "asset" prices and attending to the needs of debt-addled households and workers, because a "private investment led" recovery is the only imaginable possibility, that is, a prolonged stagnation to safeguard the rents of incumbent corporate interests. (Similarly, a health care "reform" that is already compromised with incumbent rent-seeking interests, and subject to the hysteria that only public debt matters, when the fundamental economic problem of containing its costs as a burden on manufacturing and exports must be willy-nilly resolved, is scarcely likely to succeed). There is really no justifiable basis for succumbing passively to the political spectacle of the bread-and-circuses established media, which serve only to police the bounds of the permissible and possible within the prevailing "consensus", on account of a few attenuating crumbs to maintain an illusion of "progress", rather than maintaining an active-critical stance that calls out such endemic political lying, even if such a discursive intervention lacks any apparent popular base. Nor is there any reason for failing to point out the basic swindle of electoral politics, by which dominant political-economic elites secure their "legitimacy" via the "consent" of the governed, (i.e. by manipulating its parameters). Fundamental salutary progressive social change will never be effected by electoral means alone.

Marinus said...

I don't think anybody here as succumbed to utilitarianism just yet. But there are times when the welfare of your fellow human beings is a good reason to action: there's a lot of ground to cover between denying that every moral question is the aggregation of happiness and thinking that well-being is always defeasible as a reason.

I think we might have strayed off of the type of case we started -- where Prof Wolff, someone who has attacked the political and economic status quo in print for decades, in his own little corner of the internet occasionally blowing off some steam remarking on the idiocy of the right -- onto the larger question of whether we should always give the least-evil a free pass. Nobody here is giving the Democrats a free pass. Prof Wolff, and all of us who are commenting, have been liberal in our criticism of the Democrats. What I am arguing against is the idea Chris seems to be presenting that we must always demand that every piece of political commentary must take the biggest picture view (where there is little or no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans), which amounts (given Chris's politics, and not only his) to always, everywhere, calling for revolution, and nothing less. *That* position is at best immoderate and at worst counterproductive, for a number of reasons: you should pick your battles, you should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, you should have a good grasp of what is in your power and not demand things that are out of it, you should be aware what the costs of refusing to compromise are, and similar matters of prudence. What is more, that stance *profoundly* misrepresents the type of conversation happening on this blog. Prof Wolff, and us commenters, are deeply ambivalent in our support of the Democrats, and have often raised issues which disturb us. Nobody here are Dembots. Nobody here (at least who have spoken up) is blind to the deeper structural issues at play, the type john c. halasz has so neatly described. Given that, what possible reason do we have to complain when our host voices his pet peeves, peeves which irritate us all as well? When he isn't shy about pointing out the flaws of the other said either? Not only does this look to me like being a bad guest, it also looks to me like taking matters wildly out of proportion.

Marinus said...

Like john c. halasz has so nicely put it, there is a serious insufficiency in meliorist leftism. Facing up to that issue is difficult, perhaps as difficult as any moral problem in the world. I like Bernard Williams's line when talking about the moral race to the bottom I mentioned above, and how to stop it. "Enough people, enough of the time, it seems, have to be prepared to stick at doing various things, whatever the consequences may be." But not everybody, all of the time. This is because the costs of doing this will, most likely, be heinous.

Is this one of the occasions where we need someone to stick up, even at the cost of significant suffering? When a retired academic is willing to give support to the Democrats conditional on them putting in place something like health care legislation? No, of course not. This is not nearly serious enough a case. If only because nothing would be accomplished if Prof Wolff didn't give his support.

Chris said...

Marinus, strictly broad revolutionary criticism isn't what I was advocating. Please, re-read my questions to Wolff, as questions ONLY. You keep interpreting exterminating demands from them that simply aren't there.

Chris said...

This morning William Greider offers us a perfect example of walking the tight rope in criticism and reflection ;)

Marinus said...

I can't presume to tell you what's inside your mind, but I said what you said in reference to things this:

"I felt obliged to ask Wolff the question regarding his posting habit, because it seems he is merely doing what Jon Stewart basically does every night. Mocking fox news, to an audience that already doesn't watch, or care for fox news. He's mocking Republicans to an audience that already doesn't take them seriously. It inevitably amounts to patting oneself on the back over and over again, without looking at deeper issues that cause more reflection. Something I know he's more than capable of doing, having read some of his philosophy."

That passage does read like you are not only curious why Prof Wolff does as he does, but that you believe he should do otherwise.

For what it's worth, I think the example of Paul Krugman is a good one when deciding how we want our political comment. Setting aside Kurgman's politics, which is far more supportive of the economic status quo than most people commenting on here, what he does very well is that he is a strident but constructive critic of what he sees as the shortcomings of those broadly on his side, while simultaneously being clear why it's better to be on his side than any other. No matter how Krugman criticises Obama, and he does, no Republican will mistake him for an ally. There's a reason he's perhaps the most influential intellectual in the world now (though I find that the quality of his column rises and falls). But, there is a difference in voice between having a column in the paper of record of the English-speaking world, and in a personal blog (and a difference again with something like the Greider piece Chris links to, because nobody can be expected to write a 3000 word overview piece every week, or more).

Chris said...

Krugman is an interesting case, and one I'm suspicious of. When Obama was first elected into office, he was consistently criticizing the man every week for not living up to his campaign rhetoric. You could find no larger left-of-center Obama critic than Krugman. Then, one month he stopped his all out war on Obama - I remember there were several press announcements and lime-lighting of the spat between the two. Well I was very curious why he stopped. Toward the beginning of 2009 the white house released their visitor logs. Interestingly enough, the month Krugman stopped his assault was the month he visited the white house. Now no ones ever drawn this connection in the main-stream, it's one I figured out on my own. I obviously have no idea what went on in the visitation, or even if it's the reason Krugman changed his Obama criticism, to more party/policy oriented criticism, but it's certainly worth noting...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

All right, that is quite enough. We have now descended into conspiracy theory, and there is no room for that on this blog. This whole discussion has the unpleasant odor of the Inquisition -- who is more purely left than whom? Who has condemned this or that enemy loudly enough to satisfy the keepers of the sacred flame. I hate that sort of thing! If you don't like my snarking at rightwing idiots from time to time, that's fine. But let's just cool it.

Let me say that I completely reject the notion that the loonies on the right are the intellectual or moral equivalant of the people I disagree with on the left.

One final matter of record. I have been publicly condemning America's imperial amibitions and adventures for a bit more than fifty years [I think I may even have started when Noam was still doing just Linguistics]. I spoke up in the Letters column of the NY TIMES when American foreign policy experts attacked Khruschev for coming to the UN and calling for general and complete disarmament in four years [and got attacked by Spiro Agnew and George Sokolsky (as well as Literturnaya Gazetta) for my troubles,] and I have continued to do so, most recently in this blog not too long ago.

I have earned the right to lay into the Palins and Becks of this world when I feel like it.

Marinus said...

I didn't think it was at all hidden that Krugman visisted the White House -- I certainly heard of it at the time, almost certainly in the NY Times, and Krugman himself might have mentioned it, though I can't remember exactly and might be mistaken. I think Krugman's small break in criticism could at best be described as an uneasy truce. In any case, for many months now Kurgman has not been pulling punches in his criticism of the White House's economic policy. In any case, as I said, I think the quality of the column rises and falls. Sometimes I think Kurgman gets a little too drawn into heat-of-the-moment exchanges, which is to be expected from someone so close to the action, and of something updated that often -- the horse-race aspects of politics might sometimes get the better of him -- but occasionally he more than justifies the attention he receives. When David Brooks was on leave, and Krugman was doing double duty covering Brooks's column inches, he was in the form of his life with some of the finest political criticism you're likely to see, all in service of some fundamental social issues which is (or should be) common ground for everybody left of centre. I wonder what Brooks made of that!

Marinus said...

Sorry, I just saw your most recent comment, Prof Wolff. Feel free to remove my last comment (and this one) if you think it warranted.

Anonymous Philosophy ABD said...

It's true that Bob was fighting the good fight before Noam was.

Chris said...

Very interesting bit of history.

Robert Allen said...

Professor Wolf,

I enjoy your writing and agree with your assessment of Capitalism. However, just for the record, Jesus did not say to give away everything to the poor to in order to seize "the moral high ground," which sounds just a little bit sanctimonious. Rather, the idea is to divest oneself of those belongings that might hinder one from becoming a true disciple as well as provide amelioration of the sort you rightly maintain is obligatory.