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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, November 28, 2011


Representative Barney Frank, who has represented the 4th Massachusetts Congressional District for thirty-two years, today announced that he will not run for re-election in 2012. This is a great loss to the party, the country, and the people. He will be greatly missed. Just as Orrin Hatch is a poster child for the cause of term limits, so Frank is the strongest possible argument against. I still recall with great delight watching on C-Span as Barney took the gavel to preside over the House. The wit and force with which he stifled the foolishness of his Republican opponents was sheer pleasure to watch.

Everyone has a favorite Barney Frank one-liner. Mine was his caustic remark about other members of Congress, at a time when he was the only out-gay Congressman. "There are many gay members of the House," he is reputed to have said, "and I have danced with all of them."

Sunday, November 27, 2011


In the old days, it used to be said in Oxford and Cambridge that those young men who take Firsts become Dons, and those who take Seconds run the government. Academic distinction has not, by and large, been a plus in American politics. Barack Obama is the most academically successful president in quite some time, having graduated Magna cum laude from Harvard Law school [I believe the Harvard Law School almost never awards the degree Summa cum laude.] Bill Clinton did quite well at Yale Law School, though not that well. The assorted Bushes were hardly stand-out scholars, nor was Gerald Ford or Ronald Reagan. Jimmy Carter had a very strong record at the Naval Academy, I believe, but Johnson, Nixon, Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy were not by any stretch of the imagination scholars. The only president of whom I am aware who earned a doctorate was Woodrow Wilson, who was awarded that degree in History and Political Science by the Johns Hopkins University.

And now comes Newton Leroy Gingrich, who, as recent readers of this blog know, earned a doctorate in Modern European History with a dissertation on Belgian Educational Policy in the Congo. With Gingrich's current standing in the polls and today's endorsement by the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire, I think we must contemplate the possibility that once again, one of our own, a certified fellow intellectual, will inhabit the White House.

Let's see. The last President with a Ph. D. scheduled a special showing of Birth of a Nation in the White House, a building, as we all know, that was built by slaves. Perhaps President Newt Gingrich will arrange for a special screening of Mel Gibson's magnum opus, The Passion of the Christ. It is so exciting when real intellectuals pop up in politics.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

99 AND 44/100% PURE

The senior citizens among my faithful readers will recognize the phrase. It was the advertizing slogan of Proctor and Gamble's most successful product line, Ivory Soap. No one had the slightest idea what it meant [or what the other 0.56% was!], but it stuck in people's minds and became a catchphrase instantaneously recognizable.

This old slogan ascended from the depths of my capacious mind as I was reflecting on the Occupy Wall Street Movement, which has just passed its tenth week of life. "We are the 99%" is a political slogan of sheer brilliance. It instantly and unforgettably unites virtually the entire nation against a tiny coterie of what Theodore Roosevelt once memorably called "malefactors of great wealth." Pettifoggers and nitpickers have quibbled with the numerical accuracy of the slogan, suggesting that the top one percent includes people who ought not to be demonized [such as Steve Jobs and LeBron James, or indeed Warren Buffett and Bill Gates], but that just shows that they do not understand the mobilizing power of the well-chosen epithet. "The ninety-nine percent" is what in Hollywood they call "high concept." [a High Concept is a phrase less than a sentence long that captures the idea being pitched by a movie writer to a producer -- "Godzilla meets the Hulk" or "The Wizard of Oz with Jim Carrey playing Dorothy." That sort of thing.]

The OWS Movement has already won. In ten weeks, it is completely changed the focus of the public conversation in America, from debt reduction and Congressional deadlock to income inequality. That is a simply extraordinary victory, achieved completely without the big money backing that launched and sustained the Tea Party Movement.

The response of cities around the nation has been entirely predictable, and for the most part advantageous to the movement -- first puzzlement, then irritation, then legal action, then pepper spray and mass arrests. There is something wonderfully predictable in the responses of the Establishment to a raucous yell, a middle finger, or a gathering that proclaims itself to be against something. From the point of view of a protest movement, the one totally unacceptable response is to be ignored. There is really never any good reason why protestors should not be ignored. The original OWS group took over a park that New Yorkers had never heard of. Had the media taken no notice of them, no one would ever have known they were there. Mayors and Police Chiefs and Governors always say that a protest is a threat to "public order," but the truth is that even a large protest is a good deal less disruptive of anything at all than a medium sized snowstorm, not to speak of a hurricane.

Happily for the forces of progress, the entrenched and comfortable can almost always be counted on to lose their cool after only a few days during which someone, anyone, is calling their bona fides into question. For reasons that go very deep into the psychopathology of power, a violation of social norms of polite behavior is more threatening to the powerful than a calm, reasoned, devastating argument. An unanswerable critique grounded in Marx's theory of exploitation creates not a ripple in the calm waters of institutional domination. But dropping one's pants or painting one's face or even, as during the '68 Columbia protests, calling the President of the University by his first name, drives the powerful wild.

I say "almost always" because on occasion, although happily not often, the powers that be exhibit a modicum of intelligence. I am reminded of Vassar College, which I visited in 1970 to give a talk. Some students, inspired by events on other campuses, had "seized" the Administration Building [which is to say, they had sat down in it and declared the building liberated.] Now, anyone who has spent a career in Academe knows that very little of any importance goes on in a College Administration Building. If it burned to the ground with everyone in it, several years might pass before it was thought necessary to find a replacement. The President of Vassar, learning from the mistakes of Grayson Kirk at Columbia and other fellow administrators, chose to take no notice of the students [who, by the way, slipped out of the building on occasion to attend classes and take exams.] Frustrated, the students issued their final non-negotiable demand -- they insisted that the faculty Senate acknowledge the fact that they were conducting a sit-in.

Now that the OWS Movement has decisively changed the direction of public commentary, where will it go next? Not surprisingly, all the usual suspects have been busy telling the Movement what they ought to do in order to be "relevant." Happily, the very large number of people engaged in one of the many actions folded under the umbrella of the movement seem to be ignoring the advice, and -- what is much more important -- the people giving it. What will the movement become? We shall have to wait and see [or, if we are part of the movement, we shall have to decide.]

The focus of the movement is not a discrete national action or policy, such as a war, but instead is the deepest structural fact about American society, namely far-reaching, institutionally embedded inequality of wealth and income. There are no easy "solutions" to this structural fact, akin to "bring the troops home." To change the shape of the American income pyramid would require a political and economic revolution so far-reaching, so deep, so transformational, that it would be puerile at this point to ask for a seven-point plan.

If you are an active part of the OWS Movement, I say thank you, and well done. If you are a supporter but not an active participant, like myself, then try to find some way to make the support material. We shall simply have to see what develops.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


Some of my older readers may recall that in 1987, Allan Bloom, a dyspeptic epigone of the late unlamented Leo Straus, published an angry attack on modernity called the Closing of the American Mind. The book was two parts nostalgia for the classics [Plato, Machiavelli, and such] and three parts cry of horror at the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, Women's Lib, and all things countercultural. It also contained a thinly-disguised sigh of love to Mick Jagger, but of that, the less said the better. When the book appeared, ACADEME, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, asked me to write a review, which I did. Since the Preface to Bloom's book had been written by Saul Bellow, Bloom's colleague on the University of Chicago Committee on Social Thought, I chose somewhat maliciously to construe the text as a brilliant intellectual novel by Bellow, who had created a wonderfully funny, cranky, bilious U of Chicago professor whose name, "Bloom," was an obvious homage to Joyce. Despite appearing in a rather obscure publication [which I had actually not heard of until they asked me to review the book], the review had something of a success. One sweet but not too bright professor from somewhere in Pennsylvania actually called me to ask whether Bloom was real. She had called the University of Chicago, she said, and had been referred to a Research Assistant when she asked for Professor Bloom. This earnest young man assured her angrily that Bloom was indeed real ["I talked to him this morning."] and said he had been fielding calls all day long from people who thought his mentor was just a character in a novel.

At about the same time, E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a respected University of Virginia English professor, published Cultural Literacy, a cri de coeur occasioned by dismay at the lamentable ignorance of today's young people [i.e., people who were young in 1987, which is to say, today's forty-somethings.] Hirsch, ever the earnest academic, actually concluded his book with a long list of names, places, and things that the culturally literate person should know.

Hirsch made much of the fact that young Black men and women in the ghetto had a very dim idea of world geography. He made it sound as though these benighted individuals were so utterly at sea, topographically speaking, that one could almost imagine firehouses, police stations, and corner convenience stores in Harlem filled with children unable to find their way home. I reflected at the time that Hirsch's notion of culture, much like that of Bloom, did not rise much above the level of name-dropping. I was willing to bet that the sheer number of "cultural items" that a ghetto youth could identify, or attach some association to, was on the same order as that for a suburban boy or girl. But the lists, if compiled, would turn out to be very different indeed.

These thoughts are provoked in me by the current contest for the Republican Presidential nomination, which has showcased a know-nothing celebration of belligerent ignorance that apparently flourishes in right-wing Evangelical Christian circles. Hostility to reason is of course not new to the Christian tradition. ["I believe because it is absurd, credo quia absurdem est " as Tertullian is universally credited with having said, although apparently he neglected to do so.] Still and all, the sheer refusal of the Republican base to admit what is, in Jane Austen's lovely phrase, universally acknowledged, has now infected even its standard bearers and political heroes. Sarah Palin flatly rejects the theory of evolution, but when she was pregnant with Trig [let us not even go there!], she underwent the procedure known as amniocentesis, despite the fact that evolution is the theory on which the procedure is grounded. Rick Perry, when asked about evolution, responded off-handedly, "It is a theory that is out there," but bedeviled by painful back trouble, he underwent a rather controversial experimental stem cell procedure, blithely unaware, I guess, that stem cell research, whether on adult stem cells or embryonic stem cells, presupposes the truth of the theory of evolution. The same is of course true of the annual flu shots that people in my age category get each year. Two years ago, on the occasion of Charles Darwin's two hundredth birthday, a poll revealed that only 39% of adult Americans believe the theory of evolution, so I think we can confidently conclude that there are scores of millions of Americans whose doubts about evolution do not stop them from getting flu shots.

Much the same can be said about Young Earthers -- those who, again including Sarah Palin, think the earth is roughly ten thousand years old or less, and claim that humans walked next to dinosaurs. How many of them, when diagnosed with cancer, piously decline radiation therapy on the grounds that the theory on which it is based conflicts with their beliefs about the age of the earth?

The point of all this is that the Republican Party's rejection of knowledge and reason is a political statement, an expression of ressentiment, not really a cognitively substantive declaration that has any implications for daily life. We live in a world in which it is cost-free to use the latest technology while denying the theory on which it is based.

The Bible implies that the sun goes around the earth [otherwise, God, instead of stopping the sun in the sky to give Joshua time to slaughter the inhabitants of Gibeon, would have had to stop the rotation of the earth -- See the Book of Joshua 10:12-14], but I do not hear any devout Evangelicals denying that the earth orbits the sun. These determined know-nothings are not the real danger to our safety and sanity. The real danger is posed by the Paul Wolfewitz's and John Bolton's, who know exactly where Afghanistan is and can name the President of Uzbekistan straight off, and are now plotting openly to take the United States into war with Iran.

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I may be the only person on the face of the earth who has read, cover to cover, Immanuel Kant's Inaugural Dissertation, Karl Marx's doctoral dissertation, and Newt Gingrich's doctoral dissertation. I do not think this is sufficient to qualify me as a scholar, but with luck it might get me invited to a dinner party.

[Incidentally, I find it somewhat disorienting to have to refer to the former Speaker of the House of Representatives, third in line to the Presidency, as "Newt." Do you suppose he has a sister nicknamed "Eft?"]

Since I am known as a student of the thought of both Kant and Marx, it will not come as a surprise that I have read the first two documents, but Gingrich's doctoral dissertation? What is that about? Well, I have had some unkind things to say about Newt on this blog -- about his pompous, self-inflating bloviating, his appallingly inappropriate self-satisfaction, the sheer vacuity of his utterances. All by himself, he has given self-esteem a bad name. But then I thought to myself: "Gingrich presents himself to the world as an academic. He has a Ph. D., or so I have heard. He even had a college teaching job. I owe it to him as, in a manner of speaking, a colleague to take a look at his dissertation and see what it has to say."

In the old days, a daunting task, but not in the age of digitization. Wikipedia informed me that Gingrich did his graduate work in the Tulane history department; the Tulane website took me to the university's library catalogue; the Duke University Reference Librarian talked me through the download process over the phone [never easy for old guys like me], and there it was: "Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960 A Dissertation Submitted on the Sixth Day of May, 1971 to the Department of History of the Graduate School of Tulane University in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy by Newton Leroy Gingrich." Two hundred eighty-three pages of text, typed and double-spaced in standard dissertation format, five pages of tables, five pages of "selected bibliography" and a one-page biographical sketch of the author indicating that he was awarded a B.A. by Emory University.

Since it would appear that we are going to have Newt to kick around for a while, I decided to read the entire blasted thing, which I did yesterday, from Introduction to Bibliography. It may be some while before anyone else undertakes this task, so I think I owe it to my faithful blog-readers and to the wider cyberspace audience to give a reasonably detailed description of the document. I do not imagine it will sway many votes, one way or another, but it may be, in the immortal words of W. S. Gilbert in The Mikado, a "source of innocent merriment."

Why on earth Belgian educational policy in the Congo? Newt was studying Modern European History, to be sure, but the topic seems rather obscure. The dissertation lacks the typical page of acknowledgements that might offer a clue, but a bit more surfing of the web reveals that the dissertation director, Professor Pierre Henri Laurent, whose name appears on the signature page, was the son of "an eminent Belgian historian, who died during the Resistance; his mother was a distinguished teacher and linguist. Pierre and his older sister were brought as children to the United States by their mother when the Second World War broke out." Mystery solved.

I will have more to say about the dissertation [I must wring some benefit from the hours spent reading it, after all], but you will want to know right away whether this bit of juvenilia, as it were, shows signs of the mature Newt in full bellow, bombastic, pleased to the point of ecstasy by the sound of his own voice, a Larry Summers without the becoming modesty, if I may put it that way.

Not a bit of it! The dissertation is written in a pedantic, serviceable prose, giving no evidence of the Newt that was to emerge as a fully formed Toad. Although the dissertation is written entirely in English, the footnotes give evidence that Gingrich had a quite adequate command of written French. [The only word in the entire dissertation not in English or French is misspelled -- Weltanschauung with only one "u" -- page 205, line 2] Gingrich relies heavily on secondary sources, with especial attention to the work of Ruth Slade and Roger Anstey. However, he has clearly made extensive use of Belgian public documents, including reports of Parliamentary debates. There is no evidence in the text that he traveled either to Belgium or to the Congo, and he seems not to have interviewed any of the principal actors, Belgian or Congolese, even though the dissertation was written only a handful of years after the departure of the Belgians from the Congo.

The structure of the dissertation is straightforward: an Introduction, three chapters on the political and historical background of Belgium's colonization of the Congo, nine chapters on various aspects of the educational institutions introduced by the Belgians into the Congo -- religious education, secular education for the Congolese, secular education for Belgians living in the Congo, education for women, agricultural education, technical education, higher education for the Congolese, etc. -- and a Conclusion.

The political or ideological orientation of the dissertation, if I may put it this way, is roughly that of a Cold War member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Colonization is seen almost entirely from the perspective of the colonial power, not from that of the indigenous population. The rule of King Leopold II, who literally owned the colony as his private property until, at his death, he willed it to Belgium, is widely understood to have been the most horrifyingly brutal colonial regime in Africa. Gingrich acknowledges this fact once in the dissertation. Speaking of the financial pressures placed by the Congo on King Leopold's coffers, Gingrich reports that a "state official told a missionary in 1899 that each time a corporal 'goes out to get rubber he is given cartridges. He must return all those that are not used; and for every one used he must bring back a right hand.'" [p. 15]

But with this sole exception, Gingrich's picture of the Belgian colonial administration is reasonably favorable. As I read his account of the struggles by dedicated Belgian colonial administrators to provide some measure of formal education to the Congolese, in the face of a generally uninterested and neglectful government in Brussels, I was reminded of nothing so much as the writings of John Stuart Mill on India, and the responsibility of cultivated, enlightened Englishmen to bear the heavy burden of stewardship until the non-European peoples are ready for self-rule.

As I have observed, the dissertation is written entirely in English, with quotations from French writers or documentary courses translated in the text, but there is one exception, "évolué," which appears dozens of times in the dissertation. évolué is the past participle of the French verb évoluer, "to evolve." It is the term that was used by the Belgians to refer to those Congolese who learned French, adopted Western dress and styles of social behavior, and became Europeanized. There are several occasions in the dissertation where Gingrich refers to events or statements as "ironic," but he seems not to have been aware of any tingle of irony in his own use of évolué.

Although he makes no effort at all to consult the colonized and give voice to their view of the Belgian rule, Gingrich does at one point, rather surprisingly, quote Father Placide Tempels quite favorably and at some length. [pages 100-101.] Tempels was a missionary priest who wrote an important book called Bantu Philosophy. It is the first acknowledgement by a European author that the indigenous peoples of Africa have complex, philosophically sophisticated conceptions of the world and their place in it. I confess that I was surprised and impressed to see Tempels put in an appearance in Gingrich's dissertation. I was a good deal less pleased by Gingrich's reliance on the always questionable Colin Turnbull.

Gingrich's summary evaluation of the Belgian colonial performance is quite positive, on the whole, and I cannot help but wonder whether this reflects the point of view of his Belgian dissertation director. To give you some sense of Gingrich's perspective, here is a paragraph from the short Concluding chapter:

"The Belgian colonial record left no one guilty and no one innocent. The Belgian leaders had virtually absolute power. By 20th century standards they used it benevolently although without foresight. The Belgian public had abandoned a responsibility which it did not desire in the first place and which had to compete for attention with pressing and far more obvious domestic problems. The only people who suffered were the Congolese and they had suffered far more under Leopold II (and their neighbors still suffer far more under Portuguese and South African rule). That guilt which the Belgians bear is for neglect, oversight, and relatively mild exploitation. If the Congo was not the model colony Belgian publicists pretended, neither was it the disaster news reports from 1960 to 1965 suggested. To have developed a semi-modernized, semi-educated but politically innocent colony was one of the Twentieth Century's lesser sins." [p. 283]

In the academic year in which he submitted his dissertation, Gingrich took a teaching job as an Assistant Professor in the History Department at West Georgia College. I have been unable to find any scholarly publications coming from his dissertation, but my ability to search the databases on the web is rather rudimentary, and someone more skilled may be able to enlighten me. While teaching at West Georgia, Gingrich ran unsuccessfully for the U. S. House of Representatives in the 6th district, first in 1974 and again in 1976. Finally, having been denied tenure at West Georgia, he won the seat in 1978.

The rest, as they say, is farce.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I have long thought that one of Freud's signal achievements was giving us a vocabulary and conceptual framework with which to think about behavior that strikes us, on first look, as simply crazy, incoherent, lacking form or structure, and hence incomprehensible. I find myself admiring this achievement as I struggle to understand what is going on in the Republican Party. If I bracket my deep revulsion at the substance of Republican policies, and attempt simply to understand, as a pathologist of politics, what is happening, I find myself stymied. My Marxist conceptualization of class struggle does not give me the slightest assistance in making sense of the momentary popularity of Michele Bachmann, although Richard Hofstadter's famous analysis of The Paranoid Style in American Politics is some help. I struggle to fit the Herman Cain boomlet into what I have learned about the complexities of racial politics from my colleagues in the Afro-American Studies Department at UMass, but his sheer breathtaking mind-numbing ignorance leaves me gasping. Only Rachel Maddow's inspired hypothesis that Cain is a performance art project offers any conceptual hook on which to hang my astonishment.

And now we have the Phoenix-like reemergence of Newt Gingrich. This jumped-up West Georgia College Assistant Professor of European History, who was denied tenure and got himself elected to the House of Representatives from the Sixth District in Georgia, the besotted husband of a young, pretty, blond wife who has spent the last ten years flim-flamming his way to a half-million dollar revolving Tiffany's account, now presents himself to a desperate Republican electorate as the last fleeting alternative to the unspeakable Mitt Romney.

How is one to understand this phenomenon? Is it conceivable, even in a world grown accustomed to superstars who are famous for being famous, that the Republican Nominating Convention in Tampa Florida next August will choose Newt as their standard-bearer? I am, I freely confess, a great-great grandchild of the Enlightenment, a rationalist to the bone, who believes that human behavior, however despicable, is comprehensible. I assure myself therefore that the Republicans could not be so self-defeatingly insane. And yet, and yet.

We are six weeks from the Iowa Caucuses, but there is still Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Kwanza, Christmas, and New Year's Eve to get through, not to mention bowl games and the death of the NBA season, so the attention of all but the most fanatic politics junkies will be diverted from the fate of the Newt. Will I return from Paris on Christmas Eve to find that Newt bestrides the known world like a Colossus? Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, there is an entire pharmaceutical armamentarium of anti-psychotic medications to temper our madness.


Idly surfing the web, I came upon a remark made by Paul Krugman on a Sunday talk show. Speaking of Newt Gingrich, Kurgman said, "He is a stupid man's idea of what a smart person sounds like." That is the most perfect description I have ever heard of a high profile politician. Credit where credit is due.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


It seems appropriate that I should bring this mini-tutorial to a close with a discussion of Ricardo's brief but extraordinary chapter on Machinery. His argument there, it seems to me, shows him at his very best, while also exhibiting the theoretical and ideological limitations of the Classical school to which Marx directed his most penetrating criticism. Ricardo's purpose in including the chapter is to correct a mistake of which, he says, he had previously been guilty. This in itself sets him off from the common run of theoreticians in a variety of disciplines these days, who think it a death blow ever to acknowledge that they have been mistaken.

The question at issue, Ricardo says in the first sentence of the chapter, is "the influence of machinery on the interests of the different classes of society." Take a moment to examine the phrasing of that question. I venture to suggest that there is not a single established economist in America today, including such liberal icons as Robert Reich and Paul Krugman, who could ever bring himself or herself to write a sentence in which appears the phrase "the interests of the different classes of society." Even to utter such a combination of words would be to elicit hysterical charges of "class warfare," and yet Ricardo writes the sentence with no suggestion that he intends to be provocative or to deviate from accepted norms of polite intellectual behavior. In this, as in many other ways, the mathematically sophisticated discourse of our modern professional economists exhibits a marked falling away from the understandings that the first Political Economists had achieved by the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is instructive in this regard to read Marx's discussion of those early figures in the three volume Theories of Surplus Value with which Capital concludes. Despite his strong disagreements with the best of them -- Quesney, Destutt de Tracy, Smith, Ricardo and the rest -- Marx is extremely respectful of them, and goes out of his way to acknowledge where they have been correct. This stands in striking contrast to his dismissive and mocking treatment of those whom he calls "vulgar economists," like Nassau Senior, for whom he has nothing but contempt.

One of the great advantages of the early Political Economists is that they are writing at the dawn of modern capitalism, and features of mature capitalism that today we take for granted are for them innovations that stand in stark contrast to what has gone before. The very novelty of markets, capitalist enterprises, wage labor, and the rapid introduction of machinery into spheres of production previously dominated by hand labor [or, in the original sense of the term, "manufacture"] prompts them to ask questions that might not occur with such urgency to those theorists who come along when these and other features of a mature capitalism have long since become the norm.

The early nineteenth century saw the rapid introduction of machinery in England, particularly in the textile industry. Power carders, spinners, and looms replaced the hand-operated devices that had for generations been used to turn linen, wool, and cotton into cloth. The introduction of the machinery had two consequences, both of which were devastating to a group of workers who had until then been among the most skilled and best paid in England. First of all, the machinery displaced thousands of weavers, who were thrown out of work and were suddenly destitute, for the purpose of introducing the machines, of course, was that one machine could do the work of many weavers. Second, the machinery replaced the skilled weavers with semi-skilled machine operators or tenders, many of whom were children as young as eight or nine. Weaving had been a skilled craft required a long apprenticeship and the possession of a valuable tools -- the looms and accompanying instruments of the weaving trade. Much of that skill was now internalized, as it were, in the power looms owned by the capitalists and located in factories, no longer in the crofts and cottages of the weavers. Instead of a years-long apprenticeship in the weaving craft, only a few weeks were required to train an unskilled boy or girl to tend a machine.

The workers threatened with redundancy by the new machines reacted swiftly and violently. "Luddites," they were called, after Ned Ludd, a weaver who was said [probably apocryphally] to have destroyed a weaving machine in the late seventeen hundreds. They threw wrenches into the machines, broke them up, and tried futilely to halt the mechanization of the cloth industry. The movement flourished between 1811 and 1816 before being put down by the police, which is to say in the years just preceding the writing and publication of the Principles.

Summarizing the view he previously held on this question, Ricardo writes: "As, then, it appeared to me that there would be the same demand for labour as before, and that wages would be no lower, I thought that the labouring class would, equally with the other classes, participate in the advantage, from the general cheapness of commodities arising from the use of machinery." But now, he says, he has concluded that he was wrong. "I am convinced, that the substitution of machinery for human labour, is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers. My mistake arose from the supposition, that whenever the net income of a society increased, its gross income would also increase; I now, however, see reason to be satisfied that the one fund, from which landlords and capitalists derive their revenue, may increase, while the other, that upon which the labouring class mainly depend, may diminish, and therefore it follows, if I am right, that the same cause which may increase the net revenue of the country, may at the same time render the population redundant, and deteriorate the condition of the labourer."

Ricardo defends this new position by working out an elaborate numerical example, which I shall not try to summarize. He draws from his example four conclusions. The first is that "the discovery, and useful application of machinery, always leads to an increase in the net produce of the country, although it may not, and will not, after an inconsiderable interval, increase the value of that net produce [as measured in units of embodied labor -- ed.]" This is actually a very interesting inference, because it is directly contrary to the claim by Marx that an increase in the ratio of Constant Capital ]machinery and such] to Variable Capital [labor] has a tendency to drive the profit rate down [the famous thesis of the Falling Rate of Profit.] For a very long time, a belief in The Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall was a touchstone of Marxist orthodoxy, separating the true believers from the Apologists for Capitalism [or the Petit Bourgeois Running Dogs of Imperialism, as I was once labeled by a Soviet journal, Literaturnaya Gazyetta.] However, in 1961, a Japanese economist, Nobuo Okishio, proved that under plausible theoretical conditions, a profitable labor-saving innovation by one capitalist would, when it had been adopted by all the other capitalists in that line of production, inevitably lead to a rise in the profit rate. [See my Autobiography for a nice story about Sam Bowles and Okishio's theorem.]

It is the Ricardo's third conclusion that is especially noteworthy. Writing, keep in mind, at the very time of the height of the Luddite uprising, he says: "the opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests, is not founded on prejudice and error, but is conformable to the correct principles of political economy."

There is a good deal more in the eleven pages of the little chapter on Machinery, but I think this is enough to display the quality and integrity of Ricardo's mind. The theoretical precision of his analysis in the Principles marks a dramatic improvement over that of Smith, as Smith's analysis marked an advance over that of his predecessors.

Before taking leave of Ricardo, let me spend a moment suggesting some further reading for those seriously interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the classical school of Smith, Ricardo, and Marx. The first thing to do, of course, is to read the entire Principles [and, if you have the energy for it, Smith's Wealth of Nations as well.] Naturally, I urge you to read Das Kapital. I prefer the older translation by Aveling and Moore, carried out under the watchful eye of Engels, to the newer Fowkes translation, which is actually more accurate, but loses the extraordinary literary brilliance of the original.

Once you have those under your belt, it is time to move on to the modern mathematical treatment of the thought of Ricardo and Marx. I am, I realize, a voice crying in the wilderness here, but I genuinely believe that the world-wide theoretical engagement by mathematical economists with Marx in the 1960's, 70's, and 80's was exciting and very important. I still believe that it had the potential to create a viable competitor to the standard neo-classical orthodoxy taught in the "best" universities in the United states and abroad.

Some of the key names in this movement are, first and foremost, Piero Sraffa, then Michio Morishima, Luigi Pasinetti, Andras Brody, Gilbert Abraham-Frois and Edmond Berrebi, and -- for a different but brilliant approach -- John Roemer. You will need a command of Linear Algebra to master all but the Sraffa, but then, Linear Algebra is basically second year undergraduate math, so it ought not to be too demanding.

I hope this mini-tutorial has had the effect of encouraging you to read Ricardo in the original. He is one of the great thinkers of the discipline of Economics, a worthy successor to Smith and predecessor of Marx.

Friday, November 18, 2011


There are, in all, thirty-two chapters in Ricardo's Principles, and on this eighth day of my mini-tutorial, I have only managed to discuss the first two. I think we can all agree that another two hundred ten Parts of the Tutorial would be a trifle excessive, so I am going to do a little picking and choosing. In what remains of this tutorial, I shall discuss just two additional chapters, in each of which we find material of the very greatest interest and importance: Chapter V, "Wages," and Chapter XX XI, "Machinery."

Wages first. Ricardo opens the chapter by applying to the special topic of labor the general theory of price that he has developed in Chapter I. "Labour, like all other things which are purchased and sold, and which may be increased or diminished in quantity, has its natural and its market price. The natural price of labour is that price which is necessary to enable the labourers, one with another, to subsist and to perpetuate their race, without either increase or diminution." [I shall pass over without comment the rather striking use of the word "their."] The market price, Ricardo observes, "is the price which is really paid for it, from the natural operation of the proportion of the supply to the demand; labour is dear when it is scarce, and cheap when it is plentiful. However much the market price of labour may deviate from its natural price, it has, like commodities, a tendency to conform to it."

The "tendency" is explained by Ricardo in the next paragraph, where, echoing Malthus, he asserts that when times are good and wages are above bare subsistence, workers tend to raise up large families, and soon enough [when the children are perhaps ten or twelve, though Ricardo does not say] this increases the supply of labor relative to the demand, and wages then fall to what is required merely to keep the workers alive and allow them to replace themselves with their children when they grow old and die. Thus far, this is straight classical Political Economy of the dismal sort so brilliantly satirized a generation later in the novels of Charles Dickens. But now Ricardo adds a phrase that explodes the simple brutality of Malthus and opens up an entirely new sphere of inquiry. In the very next paragraph, he writes:

"When the market price of labour is below its natural price, the condition of the labourers is most wretched: then poverty deprives them of those comforts which custom renders absolute necessaries." Look at the last five words of the sentence: "which custom renders absolute necessaries." When I first read those words, alarm bells went off in my head. Could he have really meant this, I asked myself, or was it simply a slip of the pen, an unintentionally provocative turn of phrase? Ten paragraphs later, it became clear to me that Ricardo knew exactly what he was saying and intended the reader to construe his words literally. Here is that paragraph -- truly one of the most extraordinary passages in the Principles:

"It is not to be understood that the natural price of labour, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. It varies at different times in the same country, and very materially differs in different countries. It essentially depends on the habits and customs of the people. An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where "man's life is cheap", and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries at an earlier period of our history."

It is not the employer who "considers" some level of wages "under their natural rate" but the workers, who have become accustomed to, and hence expect, a certain level of subsistence. hat level is determined not by physiology but by custom, which is to say by the beliefs and expectations of the workers. Contrary to the unexamined mindset of both classical Political Economy and neo-classical Economics, labor is not merely a factor input into production like iron, wool, leather, or wood. To his eternal credit, Ricardo sees this and states it unequivocally, even though the implications of this acknowledgement undermine the entire classical [and neo-classical] intellectual enterprise.

We have here nothing less than the eruption into the calm world of the classical Political Economists of Class Struggle. We are all familiar with the story, even though not all of us have learned the significance of that story from Marx. Workers are paid a wage barely sufficient to allow them to live, at whatever level of subsistence has become customary in their time, and to raise a family of children to replace them. When times are hard and employers seek to drive the wage down, the workers respond with all the force they can muster, because they are being asked to work for wages "on which they cannot live." When business picks up and the demand for labor momentarily exceeds the supply, driving wages up, workers are able to incorporate into their daily lives some small measure of what they consider "luxuries" -- some meat once a week with their potatoes and vegetables, some tea, or even coffee. Now a struggle develops between the workers and the bosses over what counts as "subsistence," with the workers insisting that meat once a week is a necessary part of their lives, and hence counts as a component of a subsistence real wage, and bosses fighting against what they call this immoral and irreligious lusting after "luxuries."

This is an on-going struggle, fought on the shop floor and in the streets, with walk-outs, lock-outs, scab labor, and union organizing. At every step of the way, a ten hour workday, a five day workweek, meat in the diet, indoor toilets, medical care, vacations, pensions -- every one is at one point in time derided by the bosses as unnecessary luxury and demanded by the workers as a part of their necessary subsistence. The ebb and flow of this struggle is determined by the relative power of the two adversaries and by the degree of organization and solidarity that the workers can achieve and sustain. Recall the old bumper sticker: "Support Organized Labor, Who Brought You The Weekend."

Speaking in the broadest and theoretically most abstract fashion, what we have here is a political struggle over the definition of social reality. Admiring as I obviously am of Ricardo's clarity of thought [admiration shared by Marx, by the way], I do not wish to give you the impression that he was a closet socialist or a radical reformer. Perhaps I can balance the scales a bit by quoting a passage from the final paragraph of the chapter. Speaking of the Poor Laws, which Ricardo opposed, he wrote:

"If by law every human being wanting support could be sure to obtain it, and obtain it in such a degree as to make life tolerably comfortable, theory would lead us to expect that all other taxes together would be light compared with the single one of poor rates. The principle of gravitation is not more certain than the tendency of such laws to change wealth and power into misery and weakness; to call away the exertions of labour from every object, except that of providing mere subsistence; to confound all intellectual distinction; to busy the mind continually in supplying the body's wants; until at last all classes should be infected with the plague of universal poverty. Happily these laws have been in operation during a period of progressive prosperity, when the funds for the maintenance of labour have regularly increased, and when an increase of population would be naturally called for. But if our progress should become more slow; if we should attain the stationary state, from which I trust we are yet far distant, then will the pernicious nature of these laws become more manifest and alarming; and then, too, will their removal be obstructed by many additional difficulties."

Sigh. For those in search of heroes, I recommend a return to my tutorial on The Thought of Karl Marx.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Ricardo's theory of rent -- widely viewed as the intellectual coup of the Principles -- is disarmingly simple. It goes like this: Start with the premise that there are, in England, a number of different grades or qualities of land being offered to entrepreneurs for rent. The land is graded on its fertility, the degree of its ability to produce corn [i.e., wheat, barley, oats, etc] with varying applications of labor and capital. For the sake of simplicity, we assume also that the corn grown on one parcel of land is indistinguishable from the corn grown on any other parcel, regardless of how much or little labor and capital it takes to grow it. [We have to assume this; otherwise the various corns will command varying prices in the market because of those differences -- an example of comparing apples to oranges, as it were. We also assume, just to allude in a preliminary way to the question raised several days ago by Andrew Blais, that none of this corn is priced in part on the basis of some snob factor, such as a Whole Foodian assertion that it has been raised by happy workers on land that positively enjoyed being cultivated -- a sort of Schmoo claim, for those of you who are old enough to remember L'il Abner, the cartoon strip drawing by Al Capp.]

We also assume that land owners are interested in being paid rent for the use of their land, and will accept the largest payment they can get, even if it should turn out that all they can get is some vanishingly small payment. [This is the kind of continuity assumption mathematically inclined economists always make in order to be able to use their nifty mathematics. Even though Ricardo does not use nifty mathematics overtly, he makes the same sort of assumption.]

Now, the quantity of corn grown is a response to the market demand for corn [not the price, just the quantity]. Smart entrepreneurs will not grow more corn than they can reasonably expect to be able to sell. [Not so smart entrepreneurs go broke, and do not interest us.] So long as that quantity can be more than met by growing corn solely on land of the best quality, the market for land for rent will be a buyer's market. More land being offered than is wanted by the buyers, the landlords will compete to see who succeeds in getting at least something for his or her land [some of the renters are titled ladies, of course.] The price for renting land will fall precipitously, until canny entrepreneurs are paying virtually nothing in rent, for if one of them is charged as little as a shilling an acre a year, he will go to one of the lazy, self-indulgent landed gentry who has failed to find any takers for his land and offer sixpence. This puffed up aristocrat, totally innocent of anything remotely resembling the Protestant Ethic, will snatch up the sixpence, because even sixpence is better than nothing. Under these conditions, the natural price of corn will be determined by the total quantity of labor directly and indirectly required for its production, which is to say the farm labor expended in growing it together with the bits of embodied labor passed along from the farm machinery, seed corn, and other capital inputs.

Now, as Thomas Malthus has explained to us [see above], the working class population [who are the principal consumers of corn, there being so many them and they having no money for anything better] will expand steadily until it starts to press against the available supply of corn. At this point, the relationship between the entrepreneurs and the landowners will shift dramatically. Now, there will be an actual shortage of the very best acreage, and competition for that land will commence. This will have two consequences. The first consequence is that for the first time, the entrepreneurs will be forced to pay a measurable rental on the best land. The second consequence is that some of the entrepreneurs will approach owners of the next best land, and offer them vanishingly small rentals -- tuppence an acre. Those owners, who have thus far been shut out of the rental market by a total lack of demand for their land, will snatch up this nominal fee.

The entrepreneurs face a calculation, which all of them are quite capable of making. It is cheaper to grow corn on the best land, but that corn will sell in the market for the very same price as corn grown on the less good land. What, they must calculate, is the highest rental they can afford to pay before it becomes more costly to grow corn on the best land than to grow corn on the second best land, which requires larger capital inputs but is available virtually rent free?

As population presses on available corn supplies, the second best land will all fall under cultivation, and some entrepreneurs will start seeking out the owners of the third best land. The second best land will start to command a non-trivial rental, while the owners of the third best land, newly entered in the lists, will have to be satisfied with that insulting tuppence per acre. Inasmuch as there is no limit save starvation to the expansion of the ranks of the poor [Ricardo accepts Malthus' argument on this], less and less economically desirable plots of land will be called into cultivation, and an entire hierarchy of rental rates will come into existence, attached to lands of differing degrees of fertility. As before, the very worst land, of which there is always some extra available [or so Ricardo assumes -- his argument requires it] commands in effect no rental at all.

Now comes the kicker. All the corn grown in England is thrown onto a single ferociously competitive market, where each bushel of it commands the same price. This means that it is the conditions of cultivation on the least fertile land that determine the price of corn in the entire market. Contrary to intuition and Adam Smith, rent plays no role at all in the determination of the natural price for agricultural goods. Ta da.

But the entrepreneur is paying rent on the land he employs [assuming he is not using land of the lowest quality.] If rent is not an element in the cost of corn, what is it? Simple: Is a deduction from profits, just as Adam Smith thought. It is a transfer payment exacted by the landlords who, for historical, political, and legal reasons, have a monopoly of an essential input into production. Because they control an input for which there is no substitute, they can exploit that control to siphon off a portion of the profits earned by the entrepreneurs. As population increases, so will rentals, with the result that a larger and larger share of profits will be diverted from productive reinvestment to wasteful luxurious living in the Stately Homes of England. Eventually, the landowners will suck up so much of those profits that economic expansion will be threatened, for growth results from the productive re-investment of profits.

To repeat, because the landowners control an essential component of the means of production, they can exploit the entrepreneurs. A corollary of this conclusion, not drawn by Ricardo, alas, is that if there is any major social and economic class that has no control over any of the means of production, it will be vulnerable to being exploited by the social class that does control the means of production. Enter Karl Marx.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


The search for an invariant standard of value is not really a part of our story, but there is an interesting side to Ricardo's quest that is worth talking about for a bit. What follows is something of a specialist nature, and will perhaps capture the imagination only of the graduate economics students among you, but since I think it is rather fun, I shall indulge myself for the next several paragraphs.

Ricardo had the lovely idea of trying to imagine a sector of the economy in which there is only one commodity. He fixed on the grain, or as the English would say the corn, sector. In that sector, corn is the output. Furthermore, it is, in a manner of speaking, the only input, because the workers eat corn [i.e. wheat] as the staple of their diet and use seed corn as their only capital input [we conveniently ignore the use of shovels, hoes, harrows, and so forth. Just stay with me on this one.]

Now since this is a one-commodity sector, the profit rate is determined without the intermediation of a price system. It is simply the ratio between the corn output and the corn input in the form of real wages and capital. Since competition establishes an economy wide rate of profit, this profit rate in the corn sector, which is just the physical ratio of corn output to corn input, must be the profit rate for the entire economy. And since nothing can affect the price of corn save the conditions for producing corn [level of technology and the like], using corn as money will give us an invariant standard of value against which we can track and measure changes in the prices of all other commodities in the market.

Why on earth is this interesting? Well, one hundred and forty-three years after the publication of the first edition of the Principles, Piero Sraffa [the editor of the complete works of Ricardo] published a brilliant little book called Production of Commodities By Means of Commodities in which he developed a fascinating formal analysis of a Ricardian economic system, using precisely this notion of a single-commodity economy. Sraffa first identified those commodities in an economy which serve, directly or indirectly, as inputs into the production of all other commodities. He called them Basic Commodities. [All the others he called Luxury Commodities.] The wage goods consumed by the workers obviously qualify as Basic Commodities, because every line of production uses labor, and the laborers consume the wage goods. Iron is certainly a Basic Commodity, because every sector in the economy either uses iron, or uses something that is made with iron, or uses something that is made with something that is made with iron and so forth. [For those cognoscendi among you, let me just say that when you take the square matrix of unit input coefficients, substituting the real wage for the money wage, and partially decompose it so that there is a null submatrix in the upper right hand quadrant, the rows of the non-null submatrix in the upper left hand quadrant represent the Basic Commodities. Clear? Humph.]

Sraffa then considered an economy on a maximum growth path, in which all profits are ploughed back into expanded production and none is wasted on luxury production [a sort of Adam Smith dream economy with no landed aristocratic parasites]. He formed the idea of a notional Standard Commodity consisting of bits of each basic Commodity in just the proportions required for balanced growth, and proved that for any economy capable of generating an annual physical surplus, there must be such a Standard Commodity. And then he invoked Ricardo's odd notion of a single commodity economy, arguing that a complex economy on a balanced maximum growth path [what is sometimes called a von Neumann balanced growth path in honor of a nice theorem proved by the genius John von Neumann] is essentially a single commodity economy in which a quantity of the Standard Commodity is consumed as input in each cycle of production, and a larger quantity of the same Standard Commodity is produced as output, the profit rate being simply the ratio between the two as in Ricardo's corn sector.

Isn't that just gorgeous? Well, I think so. Thank you for staying with me. Now back to our regular programming.

You will recall that at the very beginning of Chapter One, Ricardo announces his intention not to concern himself with " rare statues and pictures, scarce books and coins, [and] wines of a peculiar quality, which can be made only from grapes grown on a particular soil, of which there is a very limited quantity." His interest is in reproducible commodities. But there is one scarce item available in the market that cannot so easily be brushed aside, namely land. There is, at least in the England of the early nineteenth century, a fixed and finite amount of arable land, on the cultivation of which the entire economy [and the population] depends. The price commanded by the input into production is called rent, and unlike the price of wool or farm tools or indeed even labor itself, a rise in rent does not evoke an increase in its production. Rent, as Adam Smith made bitterly clear, is a kind of ransom that the landed gentry exact from the rest of England. The majesty of the law stands behind their refusal to allow entrepreneurs access to the land save at the payment of a rent, even though the entire nation depends upon that access for its survival.

Now, any capitalist engaged in the production of corn and other agricultural goods will tell you that rent is one of his costs of doing business. When he is sitting in his study late at night, tallying up his outlays and comparing it with his receipts to determine whether he is turning a profit, he will list the rent he pays to the landlord in the same column of expenses in which he has entered the money he lays out for ploughs and seed corn and fertilizer and the wages he has paid to his farm workers. They are all costs of production, and so surely they all play a role in determining the price of the corn he sells in the marketplace. This is what came to be called the "adding up" theory of price, which Ricardo rightly recognized as no theory at all, despite its superficial plausibility.

Now the land on which the rent is charged was not originally brought into existence by labor [save for the Labor of the Almighty in the act of Creation, of course], so it cannot be conceptualized in some manner as embodied labor, being passed along imperceptibly to the crops grown on it. This quite obviously poses a very serious problem for Ricardo's revolutionary version of the Labor Theory of Value. The only way in which he can salvage that theory is by demonstrating that, counter to common sense and the universal conviction of previous Political Economists, rent plays no role in the determination of natural price. And that is precisely what Ricardo proceeds to do, in Chapter II of the Principles.

Since I am writing a mini-tutorial for a blog, and not a scholarly paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, I am at this point going to allow myself an autobiographical indulgence. Clipped to the first page of Chapter II in my copy of the Principles is a yellowing piece of paper, on which I have recorded my thoughts a propos the theory of rent set forth by Ricardo in the chapter. There are three notes, written at different times, two in black and one in red. All three date, I believe, from the late Seventies. I am going to reproduce them here, as an evidence of the workings of my mind. I apologize if this somewhat partakes of the mindset of Mr. Toad in the Wind in the Willows.

The first note reads: "Ricardo, Principles, Chapter II. The theory of rent is a key to the argument of the entire book. But it is somewhat puzzling. It makes sense only if, either there is free, unclaimed land lying about, or else the owner of the marginal land is assumed to have invested capital in it, in the form of buildings, etc., so that he has some incentive to make it available to a tenant farmer at a price which (in Ricardo's view) contains no factor of true rent. If neither of these assumptions is true, it would seem that even the marginal land would command a price -- is that price "rent," or a monopoly price? What is its logical status? After all, if I own a piece of marginal land and there is only sub-marginal land left unclaimed, there may be no tenant farmer willing to pay me for the use of the land; but why ought I to permit him to use the land rent-free?" This is followed at a later time by a notation that reads "See the quote from Adam Smith, pp. 329-30 below, which Ricardo endorses. They see the point." Finally, at yet a later time, I wrote in red, "Whoops. I am, apparently, a 'superficial reader.' See Schumpeter's remark. quoted by Dodd, p. 69, in Theories of Value."

This series of comments is a rather nice representation of my on-going effort to understand and internalize Ricardo's sophisticated argument.