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Wednesday, April 18, 2012


We human beings live in this world by thoughtfully, purposefully, intelligently transforming nature so that it will satisfy our needs and our desires. We call this activity of transforming nature "production," and it is always, everywhere, inescapably a collective human activity. Every moment that we are alive we are relying on what those before us have discovered or invented or devised. There is no technique, however primitive, that is the invention of one person alone. Like it or not, we are all in this life together. Even those giants of industry who think of themselves as self-made men are completely dependent for their empire building upon the collective knowledge and practice of the entire human species.

All of us eat grain we have not grown, fruit we have not planted, meat we have not killed or dressed. We wear clothes made of wool we have not combed and carded, spun or woven. We live in houses we have not built, take medicines we neither discovered nor produced, read books we have not written, sing songs we did not compose. Each of us is completely dependent on the inherited knowledge, skill, labor, and memory of all who have gone before us, and all who share the earth with us now.

We have a choice. We can acknowledge our interdependence, embracing it as the true human condition; or we can deny it, deluding ourselves into thinking that we are related to one another only as parties to a bargain entered into in a marketplace. We can recognize that we need one another, and owe to one another duties of generosity and loyalty. Or we can pretend to need no one save through the intermediation of the cash nexus.

I choose to embrace our interdependence. I choose to acknowledge that the food I eat, the clothes on my back, and the house in which I live are all collective human products, and that when any one of us has no food or clothing or shelter, I am diminished by that lack.

There are two images alive in America, competing for our allegiance. The first is the image of the lone horseman who rides across an empty plain, pausing only fleetingly when he comes to a settlement, a man apparently having no need of others, self-sufficient [so long as someone makes the shells he needs for his rifle or the cloth he needs for his blanket], refusing to acknowledge that he owes anything at all to the human race of which he is, nonetheless, a part.

The other is the image of the community that comes together for a barn-raising, working as a group on a task that no one man can do by himself, eating a communal meal when the day is done, returning to their homes knowing that the next time one of their number needs help, they will all turn out to provide it.

These images are simple, iconic, even primitive, but the choice they present us with remains today, when no one rides the plains any more, and only the Amish have barn-raisings. Today, as I write, there are tens of millions of Americans who cannot put a decent meal on the table in the evening for their families, scores of millions threatened with the loss of their homes. And yet, there are hundreds of thousands lavishing unneeded wealth on themselves, heedless of the suffering of their fellow Americans, on whose productivity, inventiveness, and labor they depend for the food they eat, the clothing they wear, the homes they live in, and also for the luxuries they clutch to their breasts.

The foundation of my politics is the recognition of our collective interdependence. In the complex world that we have inherited from our forebears, it is often difficult to see just how to translate that fundamental interdependence into laws or public policies, but we must always begin from the acknowledgement that we are a community of men and women who must care for one another, work with one another, and treat the needs of each as the concern of all.


Superfluous Man said...

That was beautifully written Professor. I applaud this kind of writing and my hope is that the sentiments and the wisdom contained within those words become part of the collective spirit of most of the people of this country and of this world.

My other hope is that you won't mind if I "swipe" some of your words and implant them as seeds of thought in various places such as newspaper comments sections and similar places throughout the internet.

Debbylee said...

The recognition of our collective for Spending time on college visits with my son this week and the Jesuit colleges we visited have the.creed.." every man and every woman.for all". They promote service to.others in all they do, a refreshing concept in this competitive world.

Debbylee said...

The recognition of our collective for Spending time on college visits with my son this week and the Jesuit colleges we visited have the.creed.." every man and every woman.for all". They promote service to.others in all they do, a refreshing concept in this competitive world.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

By all means reproduce any or all of what I have written. That is why I posted it. Needless to say, as Debbie Lee points out, it is not original with me!

Don Schneier said...

Because interdependence is a synthesis of independence and dependence, the American political spectrum is often represented as emphasizing the former on the 'Right', and the latter on the 'Left', with, therefore, the political 'Center' as striking the Aristotelian mean of interdependence. However, on the Progressive interpretation, the spectrum ranges, rather, from less comprehensive interdependence to more comprehensive interdependence. In other words, today's political Right must be understood as a regressive threat to, not as a vital dialectical component of, a healthy society.

Superfluous Man said...

Thanks for the response.

I've been thinking about how I wanted to use the word "swipe" when in an ideal world I would have just gone straight for words or phrases like "borrow" or "share" or "disseminate" or "use your words to pay forward" or some other phrase. I could go on and on with examples but I think those are enough to make the point. I mention this because I think it is shows by example of how the society we live in transforms our minds and the resulting thoughts and words we use betray how we think about the world around us, all of us having been conditioned over a lifetime of living and learning, at least here in the United States, various ways of thinking about the world. Perhaps I could call it an Ayn Randian style of self centered behavior that colors our thoughts and words and phrasing, at least as shown by my wanting to use the word "swipe". And that was a point I was trying to make earlier but your excellent essay gave me a chance to point out this "flaw" in how I and so many others think about the world and how that translates into words and behavior that betrays our subconscious conditioning. Hopefully this comment properly portrays the point I was trying to make earlier about responding to various types of media such as reviews, plays, methods of analytical thought, and on and on.

That is to say, even when their is no flaw in the work someone else has freely given to the world, our response often portrays our subconscious and often one is able to tell more about the reviewer and the world he or she lives in than the reviewed work. And perhaps that criticism, however flawed it might be, offers everyone an advantage in that if might offer a window in understanding more than just the work at hand, but about how we might work to shape and change the way the work influences others in their response. And in that respect, perhap criticism offers a perspective into the minds of the audience and thereby is something that we should gladly accept since it allows us to understand the world in which the performer (whether he or she is an artist, writer, musician, etc.) attempts to make his or her influence felt.

Perhaps not the best example here as the work you posted is perfect as far as I can determine. However the point being that having many points of view about something can tell us more than we otherwise would know about the world in which we live and how it might offer the performer a way to seek to change his or her work for the better, at least from the perspective of groups he or she might want to influence.

I apologize for going on too long here, but it is something I have been thinking about lately.

Frank said...

Wonderful post, Professor Wolff!

You actually helped me lift my chin up with this hopeful post. Following the daily news seems to steadily make me weary of and embarrassed by the actions of many of our fellow humans.

I've re-shared your post on Google+, where I've found many worldwide fans of this line of thinking.

Thanks Again!

Mitch said...

I'm wondering why you dropped the final line from your previous posting of your credo, specifically: "If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I dropped it because I would like this Credo to get some currency, and the last line will distract people from the message. To paraphrase Pooh Bah in the Mikado, "Another compromise, and by the feel of it, a light one." :)

Superfluous Man said...

Let me add that after posting a portion of that on a newspaper comment section, I almost felt compelled to add:

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.""


Of course, as many and most literary folks probably know, it is the ending of the famous book For Whom the Bell Tolls and also the words of John Donne. I forget from which century Donne comes from but before Marx if I am correct. The whole of John Donne's quote is also a similar idea as the essay you posted.

I have also been reading Orwell recently and Homage to Catalonia is a work that I read five years or so ago, and his work also comes to mind after reading your stirring essay. All very relevant in these often difficult and troubling times.

NotHobbes said...

Truly wonderful, inspiring post Professor. Now printed and available to view freely in University of Edinburgh Library Cafe

High Arka said...

Mr. Wolff, does your great connection to other humans make you feel any qualms about supporting someone who launches robot bombs that slaughter so many children?

You have a great cheering section of clowns who are impressed by your degree into pursuing your affections, but in a very substantial way, you are a terror of the human race. You are a bloated white wealthy citizen of empire who supports its foulest doings. Your actions stand wholly against your words.

Dead children. In piles. Millions of them. Dripping blood on your pretty keyboard. Do you care enough to stop calling on us to support the mastermind who killed them?

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

This has to be satire.

All that pretentious writing, aiming to impress the kinds of people who think a word with 3+ syllables = genius territory... and it barely says anything at all. There are words, and there are punctuation marks, and capitalized letters. There is an element of occasional syntax. Sentences create paragraphs. Several paragraphs, and it's an essay.

While saying almost nothing.

And then here come the fans, telling you how brilliant you are.

Yellow Kid Weil would be impressed.

formerly a wage slave said...

Dear Karl Franz Ochstradt,
Prose style is a very individual thing. Two sane individuals can have different taste.

However, I sincerely believe you are wrong about one thing.

RPW's "Credo" says something--more than "almost nothing". And, what it says is controversial.

I don't want to put words in RPW's mouth, or speak for him, but I did notice one thing that I like, and I don't hear much in the USA-- his emphasis upon the way that all of us depend upon other individuals. RPW calls it "collective interdependence."

And that idea has consequences, consequences that are the opposite of individualism. "I do it alone, by myself". OR, "I do it MY way, and I don't need help from anyone else."--that sort of thing.

Or, maybe: "I deserve this billion dollars because I earned it all by myself."
Or, "Why should I care about education? I don't have kids!"

OR, "When my kid turned eighteen, I kicked him out of the house, and told him he had to support himself and he wasn't getting anything from me now that he was an adult."

Maybe RPW's "Credo" could be written in a different style, but the content's the thing.
And the content is not trivial.

A sociologist once told me that the problem of prostitution is primarily a social problem. It's not really a matter of an individual woman's choice. And, after thinking about it, I am inclined to agree with her.--But that is precisely the sort of thing that American individualism does not allow people to think. And, it is precisely the sort of thing that is allowed by RPW's "Credo".

You don't have to agree with RPW (or me) on political issues to see that what he is saying is not "almost nothing". From your comment I can't tell what views you hold. Maybe you are so far to the left that RPW seems trivial. If so, I can assure you that many people in the USA would disagree with RPW.


Robert Paul Wolff said...

Well, Mr. Ochstradt, I took a look at your blog, and it seems you dislike everything, so I am much reassured [another three syllable word -- oops, "syllable" is also a three syllable word.]

Karl Franz Ochstradt said...

Well, "professor" Vulpinevox,

from your photo you look old enough to know who Don Rickles was, but not smart enough to get what he was up to.

I admire a fool who loves to read his own words and hear his own voice and that voice and those words are ignorant and full of puffery.

You have surely sold plenty of Carbolic Smoke Balls in your time, and no doubt the courts of academia would excuse your work as puffery, harmless and designed to sell an idea or image.

Even in hobbled, crippled, limping snark attempts you seem eager to show your intellect's limitations, your imagination's fetters, your mind's narrow bounds.

Where do you teach again? I'll be sure to send all sorts of people to "study" your material for a generous fee, and I won't even ask for a %.