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Monday, April 30, 2012


My post, "Why Do I Work for Obama?" and the follow-up have triggered a substantial series of interesting, lengthy responses, for which I thank all of you.  I am going to say a few more things and then move on.

Note, first, that I titled the original post "Why Do I Work for Obama?," not "Why Should You Work for Obama?"  It was not my purpose to try to persuade people to do what I do.  Indeed, the whole point of my comparison of social change to an avalanche was that there are endlessly many different ways of being political, and all of them are needed.  So long as you are working on the left, not on the right, I salute and celebrate your efforts.  You may be staffing a free food center in your neighborhood, or taking part in an Occupy protest, or handing out petitions for the recall of Governor Walker, or volunteering for an environmental organization, or donating money to a progressive candidate somewhere in America -- or even doing data entry for the Obama campaign.

Two things seem to me to be clear:  First, all of these actions are praiseworthy; and Second, it will make virtually no measurable difference if you personally stop doing  them.  This second point needs a bit of elaborating.  This is a world of seven billion people.  The United States alone has more than three hundred million.  Progressive social change [or regressive social change, for that matter] requires the actions of vast numbers of people.  One might imagine that there are certain special individuals whose actions, all by themselves, have major consequences, such as an American president, or a politically active billionaire, or a Nelson Mandela or Rosa Parks.  But that, I think, is a mistake.  These seemingly special individuals derive their power from the beliefs, support, and acquiescence of millions of others.  As Marx remarks in that wonderful footnote in Chapter One of Capital, "One man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him.  They, on the other hand, imagine that they are subjects because he is king."  This truth is depressing because it means that no matter what you do, you alone will make scarcely any difference at all.  That is why I emphasized the importance of choosing a form of political action that you enjoy.  Lord knows, you won't keep at it decade after decade because of the enormous impact you alone are having on anything at all.

Even local action, by and large, requires the efforts of enough people so that any one shirker or no-show will not make a great deal of difference.  You have to go pretty local for it to be otherwise.  My wife and I once got ourselves elected as Jackson delegates to the Massachusetts state Democratic Party convention from the tiny town of Pelham.  We accomplished this political machination by getting two friends to ride with us to the meeting.  The four of us constituted an absolute majority of those present, and Susie and I were swept into office.  That is just about the only time in my entire life that I can say my actions personally made any sort of noticeable political difference.

So, I do not want to argue with anyone at all who is identifiably rolling down the same side of the hill as I am.  If voting gives you heartburn but working with the homeless makes you feel good about yourself, so be it.  Just so long as you are doing something that helps those who need help and advances in some way progressive policies.  There is a long history on the left, as in Christianity and Islam, of sectarian squabbles between groups only minutely different from one another -- what Freud famously called, in another context, the "narcissism of small differences."  I have been opposed to that sort of in-fighting all my life.  That is why I said political action is not like brain surgery.  One slip of the knife can kill the patient.  But nothing much hinges on my adopting this variation of Marxian economics rather than that one.

I hope that everyone reading this has found, or will find, some way of being politically active that contributes something, however insignificant, to the advancement of progressive principles and goals.  The only thing that is really unacceptable, in my view, is to mount an excoriating critique of everything, and then use that as an excuse for doing -- nothing.


Amato said...

Hope we can still expect a critique of neoclassical economics in our future?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It starts tomorrow. I am proof reading it now. [God, how I hate proofreading!].

English Jerk said...

Agreed! Thanks for taking up the issue at such length.

High Arka said...

rac·ism   [rey-siz-uhm] noun

1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others.

What makes it acceptable to sacrifice Arab children to the American Empire? Is it because they're of trivial worth?

Or do you feel that way about American children, too? Would you support Obama sending drone missiles into a neighborhood where your grandchildren live, just as long as it wasn't Romney doing it?

Rockit said...

Arka, while I find your own blog to be well written if a little hostile, I am beginning to question your willingness to actually debate. Using outrageous hyperbole and accusing your opponent of even indirect racism is the kind of commentary that is specifically banned in this forum. I understand trolling is fun, but I think it has been established by many other contributors here that debate can be established and furthered through reasoned civil discourse.

I believe the Prof is pretty explicit that he disagrees with Obama's policy in Afghanistan. I also believe that he has been clear that while neither candidate is consistent with his personal views, he would prefer to contribute in someway to society, even if it is merely supporting a candidate who has a better chance instituting progressive policy, than squandering the little say we have in our republic.

The argument has been raised here that one vote means little, to which the Prof replied that he considers community service as important as participating in an election. Yet you chose to ignore this and other arguments to continue to raise the same issue that is not being discussed. I don't believe our host is targeting you because of your beliefs but because of the vitriol you type.

Yes, the lessor of two evils is a facetious argument, but what is your alternative? That we shout our dissatisfaction until our throats are raw? I believe the occupy movement and the tea party have both proved that is not a sustainable option. You most likely agree that as people of average means we cannot muster the monetary strength to rattle the government tree. So perhaps the professor is merely saying that by becoming active in politics, even those we disagree with, we can insert ourselves in the larger discussion without losing our voices.
-Shea B.

High Arka said...


1) Your perception of this one's willingness to debate is based upon what Wolff tells you about what is said. The magic of censorship is that once something is deleted, Wolff can characterize it however he likes, and that becomes the historical record. This is why Orwell made such a point of the destruction of our shared history under Big Brother--because once viewpoints have been erased, they can be rewritten.

After over a year of being attacked ad-feminem as "cowardly" for not exposing this one's livelihood to attack by a powerful academic, this one now gets to witness everything she's ever said being redefined for the viewing public by Wolff. If you believe only the history currently in favor with the powerful, you'll find your reading list thoroughly limited.

Far more efficient than direct censorship is the censorship of a compliant populace. For example, consider how Americans self-regulate. The ruling parties do not need to require that citizens only vote for one of the two parties. Instead, through noxious education, they can make it seem an unthinkable waste to ever vote for anyone outside the two approved candidates. This is far cheaper, in the long run, than using police to break the hands of those who "write-in" on the ballot box. The end result is the same, and subtle mental coercion, rather than direct physical coercion, is much cheaper.

The inmates will regulate themselves, while condescending trustees will regularly be well rewarded.

(2) Does racism no longer exist in the world? By virtue of being a wealthy, white American male, is Wolff immune from having his motivations questioned?

Here, he is saying that the best we can do is support a man who gives orders to kill thousands upon thousands of foreign children. You see nothing akin to racism in that conclusion?

Posit that this one is entirely incorrect. Arka is ridiculous, overwrought, rude, and flat-out wrong. Even if that is the case, what other issue can you imagine where a debate calls for strong language, if not one involving the killing of thousands of children?

The "one vote means little" argument is not something that this one has advocated. You may be conflating this one's views with someone else's. One vote means a great deal--anyone casting a vote of support for the killer of thousands of Arab children is lending their permanent stamp of approval to that individual. It is a disgusting, evil, racist vote, and "community work" to encourage others to cast that same vote is an even worse act.

This one has done you the courtesy of addressing your points at length. In the eventuality that this one is not caught by the guards and stuffed back in quiet solitary, would you answer some of this one's questions? You can find them at Lesser Deconstruction, but this one will post a few others below for convenience.

High Arka said...

(1) Is it acceptable to support an administration that kills thousands of Arab children in exchange for better domestic policy for Americans, whether by voting or otherwise?

(2) If (1), above, is acceptable, would it be acceptable if Obama lowered the kill numbers even further by only killing one hundred white children in New York, rather than one thousand brown children in Pakistan?

(3) If (2), above, is not acceptable, why?

(4) Would it be acceptable to support a potential administration that offered to kill zero foreigners or Americans, in exchange for slightly worse domestic policy?

(5) If (4) is not acceptable, why are domestic policy differences for Americans more meaningful than the lives of thousands of foreign children?

(6) If the mob offers you the chance to murder a shopkeeper who won't pay protection money, after which you'll be promoted to a position of authority, should you murder the shopkeeper in order to become more influential with the mob in order to later steer it in better directions?

(7) Is it right to commit that murder?

(8) If not, why is it right to support Obama's imperial mass killings because it might give you a chance to "become part of the process" and make things a little better later?