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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

To contact me about organizing, email me at

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012


You will recall that not very long ago, Philip Green had a guest post on this blog.  Phil just forwarded to me the following mesage from his son, Robert:

OK, so it's official: i am as of yesterday the Executive Producer for the west coast side of the newly formed Huff Post Live. I will be hiring up Producers and APs over the next two weeks. We will be breaking new ground in streaming content before we are done.

If you check this out and are interested, send an email to Phil at and he will forward it to his son.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


I have just returned from a second meeting at Bennett College [it turns out that the easy one hour highway drive takes more out of me than I would have imagined.  I must really be getting old.]  We made a great deal of progress today in refining and shaping the Pilot Program I devised, and I can now say something about its outlines.  [I realize that this does not compare in importance with the massacre in Syria or the future of the Eurozone or the vast continuing problems facing men and women all over the world, but I can really only have opinions about those things, and I may be able actually to make a difference at Bennett, so I hope you will forgive me if I go on about this for a while.]

In the next week or two, we shall recruit ten members of the faculty to serve as Instructor/Mentors [IM's] to sixty incoming Freshwomen whom we shall select from the class of 2016.  Esther Terry has made the splendid suggestion that we call these young women Willa B. Player Scholars after the first woman to hold the Presidency of Bennett College.  Player was president during the very time that Esther was an undergraduate there in the late fifties.

The sixty students, chosen so as to represent a cross-section of the entering class in both academic preparation and geographic background, will be divided into ten groups of six students, each group to be assigned to one of the ten members of the faculty.

During the next three months, the IM's [these are the faculty members, remember] will be in touch with the members of their group by phone, email, Twitter, and whatever other social networking instrumentalities exist, introducing them to one another, discussing what they will encounter when they come to the campus, and in general forging a personal and intellectual bond with them. 

For Academic Year 2012-2013, each IM will design a yearlong six-credit course especially for his or her six students.  This course will be a part of the students' regular course load and a part as well of the IM's regular teaching load.  The subject matter of the first semester is up to the individual IM, but in the second semester, in each of the ten courses taught by the IM's, each student will choose an individual research project on any topic the student likes.  The work of the second semester will be this research project, guided by the IM's.  Students will learn how to do research, how to use the library [and not just Google!], how to develop an outline, write drafts, and eventually produce a research report of not less than fifteen pages, on which the grade for the second semester will be based.  At the end of the Spring semester, Bennett will hold an all-day conference, open to all members of the college community, at which students will make short public presentations of their research.

The IM's will be expected to know what other courses their Mentees are taking, where they are having difficulty, what problems are interfering with satisfactory completion of their academic work.  The IM's will help the students to find appropriate support and solutions for these problems, whether they are writing problems, math problems, roommate problems, problems at home, or any of the other difficulties that students encounter when they go away to college.

Over the summer after this first year, and all during the next year, the IM's will stay in touch with their students, continuing to guide them and encouraging them to complete their work in a timely and satisfactory manner.

From the very beginning of the program, the fundamental assumption will be that every student admitted to Bennett is capable, with the right help and encouragement, of doing satisfactory work and of earning a Bachelor's Degree.

The short-term goal of the program is to achieve a one-year retention rate of 80% -- which means that of the sixty students who enter the program now, at least forty-eight will return in the Fall of 2013 as Sophomores in good standing.  This would represent a dramatic improvement on the current record of success at Bennett.

If the initial results or promising, we will launch a second, expanded Pilot Program next Summer for the new incoming class.  Ten more faculty will be recruited to serve as IM's.  Eventually my hope is that the entire faculty of sixty-one regular full time professors will serve as IM's to the entire Freshwomen and Sophomore student body.

The long-term goal of this program is to raise the six-year graduation rate at Bennett to at least 60% from its present rate of 39%.  This would put Bennett above the national average, and well above the average for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
There is a great deal of work to be done, and we are only now at the beginning.

Saturday, May 26, 2012


Well, the meeting went well, and I can now tell you a bit about my new gig.  It looks as though I am going to be pretty busy for the next several years.  Some background is required.

Greensboro is the third largest city in North Carolina.  It is in the part of the state referred to as "The Piedmont," about fifty miles west of my home town of Chapel Hill on Interstate 40.  Half a century ago, Greensboro, like all of the south and much of the north, was segregated.  Blacks were denied admission to restaurants, swimming pools, colleges and universities, and all manner of other accommodations, public and private.  Jim Crow was the official and unofficial law of the land.

Greensboro is home to two historically Black colleges:  North Carolina A&T, which at that time was exclusively for men, and Bennett College, then, as now, a college for Black women.  On February 1, 1960, a small group of NC A&T men and Bennett women walked to Elm Street in the center of town and sat down at the lunch counter in Woolworth's, asking to be served.  As they anticipated, they were denied service because they were Black, but instead of leaving meekly and quietly, four of the young men remained seated at the lunch counter, returning with their Bennett College supporters every day asking to be served.  Thus was invented the "sit-in," a weapon widely used in the Civil Rights Movement and many other protest movements as well.

A world away, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was a young Instructor in Philosophy at Harvard University.  A number of us each Saturday picketed the Woolworth's in Harvard Square in sympathy with the brave young men and women who were challenging Jim Crow in North Carolina.  As I walked up and down on Brattle Street carrying my sign, I could not possibly have imagined that thirty-two years later Esther Terry, one of those young Bennett women, would invite me to join the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies, of which she had become the Chair, to help create, and then for twelve years to run a groundbreaking doctoral program in Afro-American Studies.  Nor could I have foreseen, even then in 1992, that twenty years later still, I would be living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and that Esther, now retired from UMass, would be the new Interim President of her alma mater.  Once again, she has called on me to work with her on an exciting, ground-breaking project, this time at Bennett.

Bennett is a tiny church related liberal arts college of 700 students and sixty-one full-time faculty, the oldest historically Black women's college in the world.  It is desperately poor, perpetually struggling to keep its doors open.  Its mission is to prepare young Black women for productive lives and careers of service to society as a whole.  Right now, it is not fulfilling that mission, for more than sixty percent of each entering class never manages to graduate.

In the world of higher education, the customary benchmark by which a college's success is measured is the "six year graduation rate."  When I was a lad, students rarely took a year or more off from college before finishing, but this is now so common that it is customary to collect six-year rather than four-year graduation statistics.  Needless to say, the success rates of colleges and universities vary widely.  Harvard's six year graduation rate is a stellar 93% [although given the care with which they handpick their students from tens of thousands of applicants, it is a little hard to see how they manage to lose seven percent of them!]  Princeton's is an almost perfect 97%.

The national six year graduation rate of the more than two thousand five hundred four year American colleges and universities is 55%, which means that almost half of all the young people who go to college never earn their degrees.  Bennett's record is significantly worse.  Although in a college that small, the figures fluctuate, in the most recent six-year group -- those who entered in 2005 -- only 39% had earned their degrees by 2011.  It is useful to provide some context here.  Among the eighty-three Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs], the six-year graduation rate averages 37%, a bit worse than Bennett's.  By way of contrast, the other [and vastly wealthier] HBCU for women, Spelman College, has a six year graduation rate of 70%.

Very simply, Esther has invited me to work with the Bennett faculty and administration to craft a program that will address this problem and measurably improve Bennett's retention and graduation rates.  I have designed a program, and I am now in discussions with the senior members of the administration on ways to implement it, starting with a pilot program to go in to effect right now [before I leave for a month in Paris on June 9th!]

This is going to be the hardest thing I have ever attempted in the real world.  Next to this, creating an outstanding doctoral program or a successful scholarship organization was a walk in  the park.  But I am mindful of Marx's famous Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach:  Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways;  the point is to change it.  And as I have so often observed, on this blog and elsewhere, changing even a little bit of the world takes an enormous effort, and changing a little bit more takes ten times as much effort.

As time goes on, I will report on the structure of the new program, once we have worked out its details, and down the road I will report on its success or failure.  If I can be instrumental in simply raising Bennett's six-year graduation rate from 39% to 50% or 60%, that will be a triumph, worth much more than producing yet another book or series of journal articles. 

As I am now seventy-eight, this will, I am sure, be my Last Hurrah.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


I was just watching a bit of a godawful old shlock sci fi movie called "It Came From Beneath The Sea" [never mind], and several of the characters said something that really gets to me.  A little background is called for.  In August, 1957, after completing Basic Training, I was sent to Fort Devens, outside Boston, for training in "communications."  In those days, this consisted of learning to climb a telephone pole or a tree with ankle gaffs and mastering the fundamental rules of radio communication.  We used a little radio called a PRC-10 [universally referred to, I am afraid, as a "prick ten"] which was connected by a roll of wire to the next unit down the way [a sophisticated version of two dixie cups and some string.]

Now, on these old radios. only one person could talk at a time.  To talk, you pressed down a button.  When that button was down, you could send but you could not receive.  To indicate when you were finished talking and were taking your finger off the button so that the person at the other end of the wire could talk, you said "over."  You kept going back and forth saying "over" until one of you was all done.  That person, instead of saying "over" would say "out," meaning "This conversation is ended and I am turning off my radio."

For the past fifty-five years, I have been grinding my teeth every time some idiot in a movie says "over and out," which is, as we used to say, a contradiction in terms.  It is a small thing, but since it is just about the only thing I learned during my six months in the Army [except for how to make a bed with hospital corners] it is important to me.

Probably none of you is a movie actor [although you never know who is reading your blog], but if you are and you are handed a script in which you are called on to say "over and out," do me a favor and gently correct the screen writer or director, will you?


I have just started reading two books.  The first is a new edition of David Schweickart's 2001 book, After Capitalism.  I knew Dave way back when he published his first book, Capitalism or Worker Control,  a terrific book from which I learned a great deal.  One of you suggested I read this one, and then my sister did also.  Well, when my sister says "Read a book," I pay attention.  I will let you know what I think as I work my way through it.

The second book is Working Knowledge:  The Making of the Human Sciences from Parsons to Kuhn, by Joel Isaac.  Professor Isaac is, it turns out, a reader of this blog, and was kind enough to send me a copy, which I am now starting to read.  This book is, for me, a rather odd experience, because Isaac is talking in a systematic, very knowledgeable way about a time and place [Harvard in the fifties and sixties] that I lived through.  I knew some of the people he writes about, and was there when the books he discusses were published.  Somehow, that world sounds very different when described in this scholarly way than it seemed when I was there.  I think that must be true of every period and any person situated in the middle of it.  I am just now reading the long Prologue, so I have a good way to go.

I think I mentioned that I read Turing's Cathedral by George Dyson.  I actually read it before the New York Review of Books and the NY TIMES Book Review Sunday Section reviewed it, and I must say the reviewers seem to have read a different book from the one I read, judging by what they had to say.

Meanwhile, I am "vamping 'til ready," to use an old musical phrase, waiting for the meeting this Friday.


While I mark time until Friday, I keep myself amused by surfing the web.  Here is a little story picked up from TPM that you may have missed.

The Secretary of State of Arizona, Ken Bennett, who happens also to be the co-chair of the Arizona branch of Mitt Romney's election campaign, has apparently been swamped by birther requests that he keep Obama off the Arizona ballot unless he can confirm that Obama was indeed born in Hawaii.  Ever the dutiful public servant, Bennett has sent off requests to the Hawaii Attorney-General's office, which of course has been inundated with a tsunami of such inquiries.  With a sly, ironic humor that I would never have suspected in a state government official, Hawaii has responded very politely by requesting that Bennett supply proof that he is in fact legally qualified to request such information.  As the trail of email messages shows, Bennett has not been able to do so with the degree of precision and confirmation that the birthers routinely demand when asking for proof that Obama is an American.  Meanwhile, Bennett is getting complaints from his local birthers, including threats that they will not support his bid for the governorship of Arizona unless he keeps Obama off the ballot.

If you have nothing better to do, you can always join the more than three thousand concerned citizens who have sent requests to Bennett that he obtain proof that Romney was born in the U. S. of A.  Since Romney's grandfather fled to Mexico, even before Utah was a state, in order to continue practicing his religiously mandated polygamy, and Romney's father, George, was actually born in Mexico, we all have good reason to be concerned.  A secondary demand, that Bennett obtain proof that Romney is human, has not gained much traction, I fear.

Friday, May 18, 2012


One of problems with posting something serious on one's blog is that it engenders serious, thoughtful comments that demand some acknowledgement and response, all of which seriously interferes with my reading of schlock novels and other important matters [I am just finishing up Vanished Man by Jeffrey Deaver.]  I have to go to a Greek festival shortly [to replenish my stores of baklava and spanakopita], but tomorrow I shall try to make at least brief replies to some of the interesting comments posted in the past two days.


I should explain that I am currently in a holding pattern [which, I am afraid, suggests that I am going around in circles.]  There is a meeting scheduled for next Friday at which the gig I have been hinting about will formally be launched.  Once that happens, I will tell you all about it, but for the time being, I am simply idling along, unable really to do more than think obsessively about what I am planning to do and hoping to accomplish. 
What blogs does a blogger read?

I check in every day [actually several times a day] with four blogs:  Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, Markos Moulitsas' The Daily Kos, Josh Marshall's TPM, and Ariana Huffington's the Huffington Post.  Sullivan is an English gay journalist and activist [now an American citizen, I believe] who describes himself as a conservative but is an Obama supporter.  His blog is, among other things, a very useful way to keep abreast of what the right is saying.  The Daily Kos is a blog located politically on the left wing of the Democratic Party whose focus is on the nitty-gritty of electoral politics.  Moulitsas keeps track of every House and Senate race in the nation, and a great many state and local races as well.  I learn more about what is happening politically in my corner of North Carolina from him than I can from the local newspaper.  He has all the latest details on redistricting struggles in states across the country  TPM is a progressive reporting-based rather than opinion-based blog that draws on and thus keeps me in touch with a wide range of national and international reporting, and also does some original reporting itself.  The Huffington Post, which is the biggest and glitziest of these blogs, features a good deal of opinion [my son, Tobias, has appeared on it several times] and national and international raportage, along with pop cultural news and all manner of other things.  I also check in, from time to time, with Brian Leiter's blog, which is a clearinghouse for news in the academic philosophical world.  Leiter is a fulltime distinguished professor of Law at Chicago, and I do not have the foggiest idea how he manages to put as much as he does on his blog while also pursuing a very successful academic career.  He must not sleep.

All of these blogs rely heavily on materials originated elsewhere and simply reproduced or linked to.  Sullivan is a serious, albeit dissenting, Catholic, so there is a huge amount of material on his blog about faith, spirituality, atheism, prayer, and such like matters.  He also has an obsession with beards [he has one] and a rather magpie tendency to pick up and reproduce anything at all interesting on a wide range of topics.  All four blogs have staffs of people who write, collect, link, and otherwise produce the flood of material that appears on them.  And all four of them have a readership and daily visitorship [if I may put it that way] that is many orders of magnitude greater than the readership of this little blog.  On the very rare occasions when one or another of them mentions me, my viewer counter blips up like a blood pressure spike before settling back down.

I even read the NY TIMES online, although I also subscribe to the paper copy [for my wife, and for the crossword puzzle, which does not appear online -- they are not total fools.]  Since the new day's copy is posted not long after midnight, I read it when I get up [as I always do] in the middle of the night.  I also watch Rachel Maddow online, since her show airs at 9 p.m., which is after my bedtime.


Thursday, May 17, 2012


There really is no limit to the wonderment of the web.  As I was walking home from my morning coffee, muffin, and NY TIMES crossword puzzle [more than usually challenging for a Thursday], I recalled having read somewhere that every state in the Union has a Springfield.  When I sat down at my computer, I went to Google and started typing in "does every state have a" at which point the word "Springfield" popped up, along with several sites claiming that in fact only thirty-five do.  I have no idea whether that is the correct answer.  What astonishes me is that it took only five seconds or less to get a raft of answers.  It is simply impossible to explain to young people what a revolution this is.  I think I can begin to sympathize with monks who, having spent a lifetime painstakingly copying Aristotle or Tertullian, got wind of someone named Gutenberg.

This is probably only of interest to a few of you, but the Euro is sinking fast against the dollar.  Several weeks ago it was in the low to middle 130's [i.e., one Euro costing $1.34 or $1.35.]  This morning it has fallen to $1.26, quite obviously a response to the Greek economic crisis.  I have mixed feelings about this personally.  On the one hand, the value of my apartment in Paris is declining [a year or more ago the Euro was at $1.50 and I was in the full fever of what economists call "the wealth effect."]  On the other hand, I have no intention of selling my apartment, and things like a restaurant meal or a trip to the market will, in dollar terms, be cheaper for me.  This is what might be called a worm's eye view of international finance.

If I ever become insanely rich, I plan to endow some scholarships for talented early music performers, the program to be overseen by Paul O'Dette.  For those who do not know, O'Dette is the world's greatest lutenist, a god in the Early Music world.  I have heard him perform in person several times, and it was a revelation, especially when he played the Archlute.  I think I have commented before on the fact that, against all odds, the standard of early music performance in Western Massachusetts is significantly higher than that in Paris.

Leaving to one side trolls and ad-purveyors, the comments to this blog continue to delight.  My joke about the stops on the New York City subway system not only drew an equally amusing trick puzzle from the distinguished philosopher Gerald Dworkin but also, just today, a link offered by M to a fascinating little article about the mathematical structure of subway systems around the world.  For someone like me who is by temperament and ideology a collectivist or communitarian anarchist, this evidence of the power of cooperative exchange is exhilarating.

I continue to believe that President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage is having a transformative effect on the public discourse in this country.  My son, law professor Tobias Barrington Wolff, did a one hour interview on NPR a day or two ago in which he spoke of the importance of the president's "bully pulpit" [a term coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, of course.]  Which puts me in mind of the great movie of the play Arsenic and Old Lace, but that is another matter entirely.  [If it is not already quite obvious, I suffer from an advanced case of what could be called Shandyism, after Tristram Shandy -- i.e. an irrepressible tendency to digress.]

Well, it is time for my eye exam.  This is a follow-up.  At the initial exam, as the eye doctor kept flipping the lenses back and forth and asking me, "Is it better with One or Two?" I gave such inconsistent answers that he told me to go home, rest my eyes, and come back.  I mean, can you fail an eye exam?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012


One month ago, I mentioned that I was maybe about to get a new gig, one that would give me one more chance to make a difference in the world.  Then -- silence.  Well, it now appears that this is realy going to happen.  I still cannot say more about it, at least until a week from tomorrow, at which point I think I will be able to give a complete description of this new opportunity.  Though it may not appear to be so, I have been thinking about very little else for more than a month.  It is particularly satisfying to know that even at seventy-eight, I have one more hurrah in me.  Stay tuned.


The real mathematical answer, of course, is that every answer is correct!  Any finite string of integers is compatible with an infinite number of next integers, each one according to some formula or other.  That is the thing about these questions on intelligence exams that always bugged me, sixty-five years ago when I was still taking them.  IQ tests were all the rage when I was in grade school.  Natie Gold scored 169, which was supposed to mean that he was a genius.  The cleverest thing I ever saw him do was rig a cigarette lighter on the end of a water pistol and fill the water pistol with lighter fluid, making the whole contraption a quite acceptable handheld flame thrower.  He was a chubby little kid.  I wonder what ever happened to him.  P. S. 117, back in the middle '40s.  I don't suppose anyone reading this knows.


The correct answer is 72.  Oh God, you are going to kill me.  Several New Yorkers got it right.  This is actually an old high school nerd joke.  They are the stops on the Northbound IRT subway line in Manhattan.  Congratulations to Gerald Dworkin, Andrew Blais, JCE, and M.  Maybe I should stick to commenting on the passing scene or writing lengthy tutorials.  My profound apologies to anyone who spent more than thirty seconds on it.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


Here is a mathematical series.  Calculate the next number in the series:

18  23  28  34  42  50  59  66

First correct answer gets congratulations [I don't have any coffee mugs with my face on them.]

{Fortunately, when I reveal the answer, people will not be able to come after me and beat me with sticks.]


Those of you who, faute de mieux, have been following the current presidential race in the United States, will be aware that Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital has become, both for him and for his critics, a principal subject of discussion.  Romney touts his success at Bain as evidence of his managerial abilities as well as of his experience "creating jobs."  [His prize exhibit is Staples, an office supply retailer.]  The criticism of his performance at Bain actually started quite some time ago, when he ran against Teddy Kennedy in 1994 for the United States Senate.  The Kennedy campaign produced some devastating television ads featuring men and women who had lost their jobs as a result of Bain's "restructuring" of their employer.  These criticisms resurfaced in the Republican primary campaign when both Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry ran scathing ads attacking Bain Capital and Romney [who started and headed up Bain, making himself a quarter of a billion dollars or more along the way.]  Perry characterized Bain as an example of what he called "Vulture Capitalism," complete with graphic descriptions of carrion birds eating the carcasses of dead animals.

Now that Gingrich and Perry have been driven from the field, Perry by his own manifest incompetence and Gingrich by a series of Romney attack ads funded by deep-pocketed SuperPacs, the Obama campaign has picked up the baton and is starting to run with ads reminiscent of those used to such good effect by the Kennedy campaign eighteen years ago.

As this plays out in the public square, something quite fascinating and rather amusing is happening.  Defenders of Romney, stung by the portrayal of him as a heartless job-killer, have defended him by saying that what Bain does is "just capitalism."  The Obama campaign, by contrast, seeks to draw a distinction between good capitalism, the sort of capitalism that has transformed America into a "middle-class" country of good jobs, home ownership, secure pensions, and health insurance; and bad capitalism, the sort of capitalism that sends jobs overseas, strips companies of their assets and leaves them as road kill, and throws the economy into chaos with unregulated financial dealings and obscene executive compensation.

What makes this such fun to watch is that while the critics of Romney have all decent, socially responsible, progressive folks on their side, the Romney supporters are right. 

Capitalism does not exist for the purpose of creating jobs, any more than it exists in order to create a demand for coal or linen or aluminum.  Labor, like every other input, is viewed by capitalism as a cost of production, to be minimized as much as possible.  In the infancy of capitalism, owners resorted to such primitive devices as gimmicking the clocks in factories in order to extract a few extra minutes of work from the labor force [see Marx's lovely descriptions of this in Volume One of Capital.]  Capital drove down wages by substituting women for men and children for women as machine operatives.  The workers fought back by organizing and withholding their labor, for a while with signal success.  Today, with the communications and transportation facilities of the modern age, capital simply transfers its operations to whatever part of the world offers the lowest wages with the fewest regulations, leaving to their own devices millions of workers whose lives are devastated and their futures destroyed.

Mitt Romney has not been subverting or perverting capitalism.  He has simply been practicing it as it is supposed to be practiced.  The sole and sufficient evidence of his proficiency is his wealth.  But the critics of Romney cannot acknowledge this, for to do so would be to call into question the legitimacy of capitalism itself, and that, for the past three-quarters of a century in the United States, has been quite simply unthinkable.

Dare I hope that Romney's thoroughgoing unlikability will spark a new and critical look at capitalism itself in America?  Alas, I doubt it.

Monday, May 14, 2012


I have begun to pick up large numbers of gushy, favorable, generalized praising comments on this blog that appear to be covert advertisements for this or that.  Is this customary?  It is sort of the polar opposite of trolls.  Your wisdom requested.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


As Heraclitus observed, character is destiny [Fragment 121, for those who keep track.]  Or, as my old friend Zina Tillona observed many years ago, when we were sitting around wondering what sort of dean a friend of ours would be, "Most people do most things the way they do most other things."  Her point, and perhaps that of Heraclitus as well [who knows about the pre-Socratics?], was that people have styles of behavior that do not change even when they are elevated to more exalted positions.  A woman who lined her carefully sharpened pencils on her desk with the points exactly in a row when she was in school will probably be an obsessive neatnik when she becomes CEO of a multi-national corporation.

Which brings me to the story that has just surfaced about Mitt Romney's behavior as a prep school boy.  If you do not live under a rock, you probably have heard that Mitt reacted to a classmate who dyed his long hair blond and wore it over one eye by expostulating, "He can't do that.  It isn't right."  After brooding about this offense to his All-American sensibilities for several days, Mitt rounded up a posse of boys and assaulted the poor kid.  As the others wrestled him to the ground and held him, while he cried and pleaded with them, Mitt took a pair of scissors and cut off bunches of his hair.

A youthful prank, Mitt's defenders say.  Asked about it, Mitt chuckled, amused at the description of the event, saying first that he had no recollection of it [even though five [!!] of his classmates came forward and confirmed it independently], then that he was sure no one thought the boy was homosexual, and finally that if he had said [!!] anything to offend, he was sorry.

People grow up, they gain experience, they learn a great deal about the world, but they do not really change all that much.  A young man of sixteen who is a privileged, mean-spirited bully whose idea of amusement is assaulting the weak and helpless tends to grow into a privileged, mean-spirited bully of an adult man whose idea of amusement is assulting the weak and helpless.  Mostly what he learns in life is how to conceal his character more successfully, so that it is not quite so obvious what a despicable coward he is.

Romney is learning, as many have before him, that a run for the presidency is a very bad way of concealing one's faults.

Friday, May 11, 2012


One of the odd things about being an author of a certain age is that stuff you wrote so long ago that you can scarcely recall it is fresh and new to someone just now reading it.  I often wonder what it would have been like to be J. D. Salinger or Joseph Heller, both of whom published breakout successful novels as young men -- Salinger at thirty-two, Heller at thirty-eight -- and then lived long afterward.  Salinger famously lived fifty-nine years after Catcher in the Rye was published.  Did he ever re-read the novel, just to remind himself of what he had written?

When I started blogging, I thought of what I was posting as ephemeral.  I mean, who reads old blogs?  But the Google blogging app that I use keeps all the old posts right up there, readily accessible.  Sure enough, every so often a comment pops up in the right hand column that is a reaction to an old blog post, sometimes a very old blog post.  Just yesterday, someone with the web handle "bf" made some interesting comments on a portion of my Autobiography that I posted two years ago.  I had to go back and re-read it to remind myself what I had said.

Even more disorienting, from my standpoint, are the frequent comments I get about In Defense of Anarchism, which I wrote forty-seven years ago and published forty-two years ago.  Not only has the world changed dramatically in those four decades;  so have I.  Now, I think of myself as a kindly, supportive grandfather taking one last lap around the track before hanging up my running shoes.  Then, I was a feisty young man out to challenge the world.  It is not a matter of changing my mind -- I still think the argument of that little book is completely valid.  It is more a matter of finding myself at a very different place in the life cycle.

Do you suppose that Plato, as he closed in on eighty, would be accosted from time to time by some young Greek wanting to talk to him about the Crito?  Did anyone ever quiz the aging Bishop Berkeley on the arguments in his Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge, published when he was twenty-five?  [Berkeley, by the way, was born in the same year as Bach and Handel.  There were giants in the earth in those days, as the Good Book says.]

In Philosophy, it is said, we strive to view things sub specie aeternitatis, but alas we do not live that way. 

Well, enough of this brooding.  I am just waiting marking time until the novocaine wears off from my dentist visit this morning.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


This is a wonderful day, a memorable day, for my gay son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, who has done so much to advance the cause of LGBT equality, in the courts and in the public discourse of this country.  My eyes filled with tears of joy for him today.  I am an old man and there are not too many such days left for me.  Let the politics of this wait until tomorrow.  I will dance at his wedding.


Google's Blogger app tells me that I have posted 1132 separate posts over the three years and a bit more that I have been blogging, a number I find astonishing and a bit appalling.  No one has that much to say about the world!  But as I reflect on this spate of words, it occurs to me that there are a number of subjects about which I have had nothing at all to say, despite the fact that they are, by any rational measure, considerably more important than what I have been writing about.  One reason for this silence, of course, is that these are subjects about which I cannot pretend to any special knowledge or insight at all.  Nevertheless, I think it behooves me to say something about them, if only to acknowledge their importance.  From the rather long list of these important subjects not discussed on this blog I have chosen two for today's post, one domestic, the other international.  The domestic subject is America's prisons -- the incarceration of millions of men and women.  The international subject is the hunger, starvation, and death of millions of people worldwide.

I.  Starvation

Probably all the major schools of moral theory [save Libertarianism, if you can call that a school of moral theory] would agree that the death by starvation of millions is the more important of the two, so let me begin with that.  Wikipedia states that six million children die of starvation every year. That is the equivalent of an annual Holocaust.  This is of course vastly more than the total number of persons who die each year in wars and other violent conflicts.  Wikipedia also estimates that close to a billion people -- one seventh of the world's population -- are malnourished and more or less permanently underfed.  It is simply impossible to grasp conceptually the magnitude and enormity of this suffering. 

The great economist Amartya Sen [one of the few Laureate economists actually to deserve the Nobel Prize] has written extensively about famine, focusing in the first instance on his native India.  He argues quite convincingly that in the modern world famines are never a consequence of an actual shortage of food.  They are the result of politically caused failures of distribution of available food resources.  It would seem to be quite natural to suppose that in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the widespread starvation and malnourishment is a consequence of the inability of the afflicted populations to support themselves -- an inability variously attributable to their cultural deficiencies, their lack of formal education, or their lack of the capital resources needed to integrate themselves into the world economy, but a little reflection and some historical information shows that these explanations are quite false.

Leaving to one side Hegel's ignorant and stupid statement that Africa exists eternally and unchanged outside of world history, sub-Saharan Africa before the arrival of European imperial and capitalist exploiters had a wide range of peoples existing quite successfully as agriculturalists, nomadic herders, artisans, kings, empire builders, priests, and servile or enslaved workers.  Plagues, droughts, and other natural afflictions were quite capable of inflicting misery from time to time, but nothing resembling endemic, persistent starvation existed anywhere in the sub-continent.  The entire region was for a very long time integrated into a network of trade and commerce that stretched from the northern reaches of England south and east to China.  [For a detailed discussion of this subject, see Janet Abu-Lughod's fine book, Before European Hegemony, one of the most fascinating works I have ever encountered.]  Fine wool from Lancaster founds its way into the regal robes worn by African rulers, and for a while in the late European Middle Ages, half of the gold circulating in Western Europe came from the mines of Africa.

Needless to say, Africa was not an edenic paradise.  There were wars, imperial struggles, and involuntary servitude [although not the hereditary chattel slavery that was America's distinctive contribution to the modern world], but it was a functioning region quite capable over many millennia of feeding its people.

It was the imperial colonizers, the slave traders, and capitalist investors who destroyed the region's economy and reduced large proportions of its people to misery and perpetual poverty.  The simple truth is that capitalism does not need all of the world's peoples for its profitability, and the natural working out of capitalist economic social relationships of production marginalizes and impoverishes those from whom a profit cannot be wrested.  First capitalism expropriates them, then it discards them.  The result is starvation and death on an apocalyptic scale.  [Those who are interested might usefully consult both Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and the writings of Samir Amin.]

The solutions widely proposed to the malnourishment and outright starvation of so large a proportion of the world population range from charity to the forced incorporation of those peoples into the world capitalist economy.  Simply to return Africa to its former condition would require heroic efforts, at least some of which would have to be devoted to displacing the current rulers, who have worked hand in glove with their former imperial masters to perpetuate the economic deformations that produced the starvation.  As I have already indicated, I have absolutely no special knowledge or experience to bring to bear on this question.

II.  Incarceration

The figures are startling.  At the end 2010, 2,266,800 Americans in prison and another 4,933,667 on parole or probation, with an additional 86,927 juveniles in detention.  That is 737/100,000 Americans in prison.  Compare that figure with England and Wales in 2006 -- 139/100,000, or China in 2001 -- 111/100,000.  The figures do not match up by year, of course, but they convey dramatically how many times as many Americans are incarcerated as citizens of other countries.  South Africa  used to lead the world, I believe, in percentage of its population incarcerated, but America is now the undisputed world leader when it comes to putting people behind bars.  The overall picture conveyed by these statistics is correct, I believe, but the precise numbers are open to dispute, inasmuch as different web sites give different magnitudes.

The high rates of incarceration have a variety of consequences, aside from the suffering inflicted on those incarcerated. Rapes of prisoners exceed 200,000 persons [not instances]a year, with the result that rape of men is probably more common in the United States now than rape of women. Millions of men and women are permanently removed from eligibility to vote or to hold all manner of jobs. And, not at all accidentally, the incidence of the incarceration of African-Americans is way above that for Whites.
The rampant incarceration of Americans is a relatively new phenomenon.  Apparently, as recently as forty years ago, America's incarceration rates, while high, were on the same order of magnitude as those of other nations.  The change has come about in very large measure as a consequence of the "war on drugs," especially the criminalization of the possession and sale of marijuana.  If drug possession were decriminalized, marijuana legalized, and drug dependency treated as a public health issue, as are alcoholism and smoking, the population of America's prisons could be halved.

What is going on?  I think the answer is obvious, although I do not have the evidence to prove it.  High rates of incarceration of African-Americans started just when the civil Rights Movement achieved dramatic improvements in the status and liberties of Black people.  Jail is the new Jim Crow. just as Jim Crow in its day was the new slavery.  White people in America are determined to permanently oppress and delegitimize Black people, Obama and Oprah and Kobe Bryant to the contrary notwithstanding.

III.  Conclusion

As I said when I began this post, these are topics about which I have no specialized knowledge, and I have not blogged about them for that reason.  But they are of the very first importance nevertheless, and I felt that some acknowledgement of them was called for.  Needless to say, there are other topics that fall into this category, among which, of course, is Global Warming.

Sufficient unto the day.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


I offer the following ruminations for consideration and comment.

Some of you may be familiar with my essay entitled "The Future of Socialism," which I have posted on  I had intended to deliver it at a conference in Seattle in January, hosted by the A. A. Berle Center at the Seattle University Law School, and indeed I submitted the paper with some additional concluding remarks, but I fell ill and was unable to attend.  The law school's journal is now preparing a special issue of the papers from the conference, and one of the editors of the journal, who is, of course, a law student, has sent me a long series of requests, very deferentially phrased, for footnote references to various things I say in the essay.  This has created once again for me a problem with which I have struggled throughout my career.  To put it as simply as I can, I do not like footnotes, I do not write footnotes, and I resist to the death efforts to get me to supply footnotes for what I have written.  My old friend and colleague Bob Ackermann, now sadly departed, used to complain bitterly of this peculiar quirk of mine.  He and I did most of the book publishing in the UMass Philosophy Department over many years, and each time he published a book, he would moan and groan about the time-consuming business of searching among his papers and notes for the references he needed to complete the footnotes to what he had written.  Meanwhile, I would publish entire books almost completely devoid of footnotes.  I would say blithely that I did not know how to use the footnote facility in my word processing program and so had decided to do without them.  The truth is that I am, as I have so often said, not really a scholar.  I think of myself as a philosopher and in some sense as an artist.  When I have succeeded in expressing the idea in my mind as clearly and simply as I can, I consider my work done.  Nothing is gained by loading up the bottom of the page with footnotes.

Now, as some of you may be aware, law journals view footnotes in the way that devout Protestants view good works -- as evidences of election.  A typical law journal article will have hundreds of footnotes, strewn across the bottom of the page like inkblots.  Everything is footnoted.  If an author mentions that Barack Obama is the President of the United States, the journal will demand a footnote to that claim, as though it were a potential source of controversy that needed buttressing by reliable authority.  At one point in my essay, I allude to the fact that the great Russian-American economist Wassily Leontief won the Nobel Prize in Economics.  The editors requested a footnote reference. 

The truth is, of course, that if required to produce footnoted authoritative confirmation for all the statements I make in my essay, I might well die of old age before managing to comply [not entirely a hyperbolic statement, at my age.] 

The editors are being excessively polite and accommodating about all of this, and I feel terribly guilty for making their lives difficult, but I just cannot do it.  I would rather not publish than have to go through what I consider to be an exhausting and entirely unnecessary exercise.  I don't actually know the history of footnoting.  Something analogous to it has existed at least since the Middle Ages, when the Scholastics made elaborate citations of the works of Aristotle and their other predecessors in the course of their writings.  But there was so little to refer to in those days that this practice was hardly a burden.  My natural tendency is to blame this, like so much else, on the Germans.  Perhaps somone reading this rant actually knows how the modern practice of scholarly footnoting got its start, and will tell the rest of us.

Monday, May 7, 2012


Heaven knows, Francois Hollande is no flaming radical, but he is a socialist, and he has just won the French presidency for the Socialist Party for the first time in nineteen years, so I think this calls for some decorous cheering and a kir at the local bistro.   I took a look at the election results by Paris arrondissement on the Liberation website, and made a curious discovery.

Paris has the shape roughly of a fat oval, with the Seine running east to west through its middle.  If you draw a veritcal line that bisects the city from top to bottom, you find [looking at Liberation's useful interactive gizmo] that every arrondissement to the right of the vertical line voted left, and every arrondissement to the left of the vertical line voted right.  [In France the colors are reversed, so left is red and right is blue.]

My tiny apartment is in the 5th, just to the right of the line, and sure enough the 5th went for Hollande 56% to 44%.  Now, when Susie and I walk to the movies in Place de l'Odeon, we actually pass from the 5th into the 6th, which is just the other side of the line.  I am utterly unware of moving into a different sort of neighborhood, but the 6th went for Sarkozy 57% to 43%, a 9% swing.  I think it is clear that I have a lot to learn about the intricacies of French politics.  A friend of mine who has lived for many years in France and works as an English/French simultaneous translator explained it very simply this way:  "It is old money versus new money."

The last socialist president of France was Francois Mitterand.  Mitterand had a mistress, whom he set up in an apartment on rue de Bievre, which is the next street over from ours.  Apparently this caused enormous inconveniences to the neighborhood because of the security required when he visited her.  Hollande is not married, but has four children with Segolene Royale, who ran unsuccessfully for the presidency on the socialist ticket last time around.  I trust we shall not see an influx of security forces this time.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


The Americans among you may have been following the flap surrounding the decision of Romney campaign spokesperson Richard Grenell to resign.  Briefly, Grenell is an out gay man who for some years was far rightwing neo-con John Bolton's second in command at the U.N.  Grennell was chosen by Romney to be the voice of the campaign on foreign policy matters.  This provoked an enormous outcry on the christianist homophobic right, led by talk show host and preacher Bryan Fischer.  Grenell arranged a conference call to give the campaign an opportunity to express Romney's foreign policy views to the press, but at the last minute, the campaign asked Grenell not to speak on the conference call!  They suggested he "lie low" for a while.  Grenell, by the way, who seems to have a rather wicked sense of humor, scrubbed eight hundred tweets from his Twitter account, including one that asked "Does Callista [Gingrich] snap on her hair?"  Grenell, understandably irritated at being mufled by the campaign, resigned whereupon Fischer declared his departure a "huge win" for the Right.  This in turn prompted an outpouring of comment from the left blogosphere and cable news media, the main thrust of which was, "If Romney can't even stand up to Bryan Fischer, how is he going to stand up to the North Koreans and the Chinese?"
Now, Fischer has said the following on his radio show:   "... if Mitt Romney can be pushed around, intimidated, coerced, coopted by a conservative radio talk show host in Middle America, then how is he going to stand up to the Chinese? How is he going to stand up to Putin? How is he going to stand up to North Korea if he can be pushed around by a yokel like me?"

This is the right wing talk show host talking!  I can foresee a very strange political campaign unfolding.


Thanks for the responses.  I get all that stuff about oppressors and so forth.  But I could not figure out at the most basic level what was going on.  When I first heard about the movie, I thought it was a cinematic take on the philosophical problem of "brains in a vat," so-called.  That is, how can I know whether I am really experiencing what I think I am experiencing, or whether I am just lying in a hospital bed hooked up to a machine that sends all the electrical impulses to my nervous system that I would get if I were really out in the world receiving sensory input.  Hilary Putnam wrote an influential article on the subject, as I recall.

But that doesn't seem to be the premise.  I mean, when Neo or Morpheus is lying on a bed, is he simply imagining all the dramatic fighting stuff, or is he, or someone, doing it?  And how can what he is "doing" actually affect the world? 

Maybe I am just thinking too much and not going with the flow.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Well, thanks to TV, I have in the past few days seen both The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded and I still don't get it.  I must be irredeemably old.


All of the modern efforts to manipulate, manage, shape, control, and direct an essentially private capitalist economy rest on this Keynesian theory, with its subjective psychological foundations. In the tradition of British philosophy and political economy from which he derives, Keynes takes subjective propensities as given data – impenetrable, inexplicable, beyond argument or appeal. They are, to use the term of which economists are fond, exogenous variables, which is to say they come from outside the system. They are given in exactly the same way that the laws of nature and the resources of the earth are given.

It is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how far economics has moved from its classical assumptions by the time we come to Keynes. Originally, all agents are assumed to maximize gain in an environment of perfect certainty and complete knowledge. Prices, wages, profits, rents, and the rate of economic growth are, under these conditions, functions of two factors: the objective technology of production, which determines what combinations of inputs are required for specified outputs; and the relative strength of the several classes of the society, which determines how the annual net social product will be divided up among the workers, the capitalists, and the landlords.
As the world becomes, and is recognized to have become, more complex, the simplifying knowledge assumptions of the classical model must give way to the acknowledgement of risk, uncertainty, and finally subjective expectation. At the same time, as it becomes clear that workers do not live permanently at the level of subsistence, that landlords are not mere idle consumers, and that capitalists, for a variety of reasons, are not perfect accumulators, the elegant theorems derived from the simple behavioral assumptions of classical political economy must be given up.
Faced with the intrusion of subjective non-rational elements into the process of economic choice and decision, post-Keynesian economists are forced to alter fundamentally the way in which they seek to understand a capitalist economy. Instead of a priori analysis built on elementary assumptions of profit-maximization, they offer econometric models in which dummy variables and functions stand for the several elements of the decision-making process. A variable for liquidity preference; a variable for the propensity to consume; a function separating a worker’s leisure/labour trade off, which is to say the proportion of total available labour-time that the worker prefers to devote to leisure, expressed as a function of income. And so on and on. Any of you who have taken even an elementary course in macroeconomics will be aware of the extent to which the subject, as now taught, rests on this sort of model-building.

The result is that economics has become an extremely elegant, complex, mathematically sophisticated way of guessing at the shadows on the wall of the cave. In Plato’s REPUBLIC, you will recall, Socrates relates an allegory of the human condition. We are to imagine, he says, that a group of men are chained to the floor of a dark cave, so that they can only look to their front at a blank wall. Behind them, fires are lit, and unseen attendants walk before the fires, carrying small scale models of physical objects and people. The light casts shadows of these objects on the wall, where they flicker in fantastic distortion. At first, the captives are simply mystified by the succession of shadows, but after a while, some of them, those best adapted to a troglodytic existence, begin to discern repetitions and patters in the images. They formulate theories about what shadows will appear next, and the most skillful among them acquire considerable reputations for their ability to anticipate by a few moments the next images. Some, we may even imagine, extending the story a bit beyond Plato, become tenured professors of shadow-guessing, and a few whose theories of the shadow world have risen to heights of mathematical elegance even win Nobel prizes for shadow-guessing.
One of the captives, Socrates tells us, driven by some obscure instinct that the world holds more than shadows, works himself free of his bonds and crawls painfully to the mouth of the cave. Dazzled by the bright sunlight, he slowly acclimates himself to the brilliant light, and sees for the first time the real physical objects whose twisted and distorted shadows he has all these years observed. At last he realizes that these are the reality of which the shadows are more imperfect reflections or appearances. Rushing back into the cave to bring this momentous news to his fellows, he is temporarily blinded by the darkness, and staggers about as though mad. Naturally, the remaining captives simply laugh at his insistence that their shadows are inferior appearances, behind which lies a truer reality. Puffed up by their skill at shadow-guessing, they consider merely comic the claims by their former comrade that they are enmired in unreality.

Marx had a name for the masters of shadow-guessing. He called them Vulgar economists and contrasted them with the classical economists -- Petty, Quesney, Smith, Ricardo -- whom he considered serious students of economic reality. Paul Samuelson, the greatest of the shadow-guessers, has returned the compliment by characterizing Marx, in a famous essay, as a “minor post-Ricardian,” and, worst of all, “an auto-didact.” (To be self-taught, I suppose, is from Samuelson’s standpoint even worse than to be a minor follower of the wrong economist, for if it should turn out that one can teach oneself to understand economics, that will put an end to the hegemony of the profession.)
The dummy variables and functions of econometric model-building refer to nothing at all that can be directly studied. There is no way that we can get at an individual’s “propensity to consume,” for the purpose of constructing a more adequate theory of consumer behavior. Nor can anything useful be said about the inner determination of the capitalists’ expectations for future gain, so as to lay the foundations for a scientific theory of investment and growth. Instead, economists are forced to amass countless time-series of date, on which, in a manner that would have made David Hume proud, they can perform simplistic extrapolations.
There are two central problems with this mode of theoretical operation, and together they have brought economics to its present sad condition. The first problem is that there is no stable set of psychological propensities or motives about which reliable knowledge can be accumulated. As I pointed out when discussing Mill’s introduction of the factor of habit or custom, these labels or placeholders -- habit, custom, propensity to consume, liquidity preference, leisure/labour trade-off, and the rest -- are merely summary names given to whole congeries of heterogeneous and shifting motivations. Some consumers may be guided in their decisions about savings versus consumption by a consideration of present versus future pleasures; others may be influenced by the uncertainty of unemployment; still others may be reacting to the experience of seeing savings shrink in value under high rates of inflation. And some consumers may even have been influenced by the sorts of public service advertising that first surfaced during the Eisenhower years, when Americans were exhorted to buy on credit as a way of showing their faith in the American system

Economists extrapolate from past behavior, only to find that the present deviates from the past. As they make mid-course corrections in their econometric estimates, reality continues to shift beneath them. The problem is not that modern economic reality is complex. Their formal models are more than adequate to handle a high level of complexity. The problem is that their theories are theories of appearances, surface manifestations, and hence give no genuine insight into the causes of the shifting shadows.

The second problem, more serious even than the first, is that economics is a study of human choice and decision, not of inanimate nature or animal behavior. The consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs whose preferences and propensities are modeled by the econometricians are themselves self-conscious agents increasingly aware of and influenced by the descriptions, predictions, hopes, and anxieties of economists, public figures, and social commentators.

All of you are familiar from today’s newspapers with the ways in which the interplay of economic prediction and private investment or consumption decision wreaks havoc with the efforts of the central government to manage the national economy. Businessmen postpone the expansion of productive capacity in the expectation that high interest rates will slow recovery, balloon the federal deficit, send the government into the money market for even greater borrowing, and thereby maintain the high rates. The government enacts a tax designed to draw a larger share of income into savings, but the stock market discounts the effects of the act six months before it goes into operation, condemning it to failure.
Under these circumstances, madcap schemes acquire respectability, and establishment politicians and economists react by labeling them “voodoo economics.” But in fact, this is merely the effort by licensed witch doctors to drive their upstart competition back into the bush.

What is the heart of the problem? I should like to suggest to you that Marx’s style of diagnosis still retains considerable merit. The underlying problem, as he would have argued, is that the forms of capitalist development have become fetters. In the early stages of capitalism, the pressures of a permanent excess supply of workers, together with the almost total lack of collective or legal protections, held wages at or near subsistence. Severe competition among large numbers of small businesses forced firms to strive for maximum growth if they were to survive at all. The effect was rapid, although uneven, expansion of the productive capacity of the economy.

With the rise in worker standard of living and the unrelenting amalgamation of small capitals into large, with the advance of collective bargaining and the development of a system of money and banking sophisticated enough to support the new capitalist order, growth and prosperity increasingly came to depend on the appropriate rate of savings and investment and the proper management of the expansion of effective demand for the consumer goods and capital goods being produced.
The new economics of Keynes and his followers sought to preserve an essentially private economic order, in which not only mere legal ownership, but more importantly the effective control and management of the means of production, remained lodged in countless uncoordinated private firms. What this meant -- and means still today -- is that the ultimate determination of the allocation of the collective social product rests with the irrational and impenetrable subjective preferences, propensities, and expectations of private individuals. It is scarcely surprising that even the most agile shadow-watchers are unable to either predict or to control the flow of images on the wall of our cave. What is to be done? There are three possibilities, each corresponding to a different conception of the relationship between the economic theory and the practical management of the economy. The first possibility is to press forward as we have been doing, with more elaborate and refined macroeconomic models, more complex fiscal and monetary programs, all imposed on a private economy organized on the pursuit of profit. This course we may call the persistence of the actual, and as metaphysicians have often observed, the actual occupies a privileged place in our experience and beliefs. I am absolutely convinced that this course of action is doomed to failure, but I rather imagine it will take another decade or two of the economic disaster before the American people are prepared to scuttle the conventional wisdom and adopt some better means of social decision.
The second possibility is to turn the clock back two centuries and try, by an act of faith and will, to re-instantiate a world in which the classical economic theories work. This I shall call the yearning for the impossible, and it is now, with the advent of the theory of rational expectations and so-called supply-side economics, reaching the height of its brief resurgence. The impossible has always exerted a powerful attraction on credulous souls, sometimes even eclipsing the actual by its beauty and simplicity. In earlier days, when society was less thoroughly interconnected, it was possible to embrace the impossible for quite some time before being brought up short against reality. Now, unfortunately for Mr. Reagan, the impossible succumbs to the actual in about as long as it takes to get from a presidential to a mid-term election. I think we can with confidence conclude that rational expectations, supply-side economics, and the revival of the theory of the free market have already peaked and are on the decline.
[Alas, when I wrote this, I was in the grip of an optimism that Keynes would have considered a very great effusion of animal spirits.  A quarter of a century later, things have only gotten worse, which I suppose some people would conclude means that are closer to revolution!]

We are left with the third alternative, which is to confront directly the underlying cause of the failure of modern economics, and respond by changing both our theory and our practice.

As we saw, the problem is this: an economy guided by the uncoordinated decisions of private individuals must necessarily rest upon subjective, variable, and self-referentially influenceable motivations. So long as the theories of the behavior of producers and consumers become factors influencing that behavior, no stable theory can be developed by means of which the economy can be guided.

There is, however, a solution. What are now predictions by external observers of the way in which economic agents will probably behave can be transformed into collective decisions about how economic agents choose to act. Instead of attempting to shape and guide an economy on the basis of predictions about what proportion of income consumers will save, or what level of profit will draw new capital into investment, we can as a society choose a level of savings that fits our collective goals and desires. We can decided to invest at a level and in a pattern calculated to achieve whatever regeneration or expansion or transformation of our industrial plant it is that serves our collective social ends. We need not rest our hopes for full employment on the armchair psychological maxim that consumers will save a larger fraction of each additional dollar of income, nor need we count for new capital investment on the fragile, variable, semi-informed subjective expectations of individual capitalists.
The economic theory suited to the rational management of a modern industrial economy is not the elaborate shadow guessing of modern econometrics. Rather, it is the physical-quantities linear analysis developed by Wassily Leontief as input-output analysis, together with the theory of linear programming, and the modern mathematical reinterpretation of Marx carried out by Piero Sraffa and a host of economists around the world. This theory has its roots in the Tableau économique of Quesney and the physiocrats, and builds on the analysis of Ricardo and Marx. Theories of this sort are already being employed as tools of rational economic planning in Eastern Europe, and would have a far more powerful and effective application to an economy as advanced as that of the United States.
The foundation of economic planning is a set of objective data specifying the available technologies, on the basis of which one can calculate the direct and indirect physical requirements for whatever final output is collectively chosen by the society as the goal of its economic activities. The level of output and rate of growth of an economy have natural limits, imposed by the state of technology, the size and skills of the labour force, and the stock of available tools, raw materials, and machinery. Neither ideology nor economic theory can change these constraints, although over time, rational social planning can alter them in major ways. With the modern methods of analysis to which I have referred, it is now becoming possible to undertake complex society-wide planning based on objective facts and collective choices, rather than on shadow appearances and subjective preferences and expectations. The anarchy of the marketplace can finally give way to rational social management founded on a politics of public deliberation and determination of collective economic goals.
There is, of course, an obstacle to the triumph of the rational, as we may call this third course of action. The obstacle is not primarily theoretical, nor is it technological. Rather, it is political. Those who are systematically benefitted by the present economic order will fight to maintain their advantage. Hence the struggle for socialism, which is of course what I am talking about, must be carried on in every political arena, as well as in the literature of economic theory.
Nevertheless, there is a great deal to be gained by confronting established dogma and exposing its true nature as the scholasticism of shadows. The economics of the neo-classical synthesis, as it has been called, is in retreat. The master shadow-guessers of Samuelson’s generation are giving way to epigoni who struggle helplessly to reassert their authority in the face of economic disaster. Theories of collectivel rational economic choice will not substitute for political action, but they have an indispensable role to place in the social transformation that must be undertaken. Perhaps my observations this afternoon will encourage some of you to revisit the dismal science -- or to make its acquaintance for the first time -- and to explore the new theories which are arising to challenge the old.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


The recent vigorous discussion on this blog about political action and its many modes has provoked in me some autobiographical reflections about the trajectory of my own engagement with the public world.  I offer these reminiscences and musings for such interest as they may hold, especially for my younger readers, who have not yet had the experience of spending fifty years being disappointed.
I date my awareness of politics from 1948, in which year Harry Truman, Tom Dewey, Strom Thurmond [for the Dixiecrats], and Henry A. Wallace [for the Progressive Party] contested for the presidency.  In those days, so shortly after the Second World War, and in the aftermath of the seemingly endless presidency of FDR, I listened to the folk music of Woody Guthrie, Huddie Ledbetter, and Pete Seegar, read PM [the leftie New York newspaper that eschewed all advertising], and sang the songs of the Lincoln Brigade [Los Quatros Generales comes to mind.]

This was a time when Jim Crow still ruled, when women were expected to return to the home after staffing the war factories left vacant by absent soldiers, when homosexuality could not even be mentioned, save with a snigger, when there were Jewish quotas at elite colleges, and when even the Federal Housing Authority stated openly in its literature that it would not underwrite mortgages for Black families seeking to buy in White areas.  In short, it was not an idyllic Golden Age, by any stretch of the imagination.

My first active engagement with the public world came some years later, in the late '50's, when I became deeply involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  I gave public speeches, appeared on television, debated Herman Kahn before an audience of a thousand in Boston, wrote for the New Republic and The Nation, sat on the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and even managed to get a letter published in the NY TIMES [which triggered a vicious attack from right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler and, oddly enough, a matching attack in Literaturnya Gazyetta for being a petty-bourgeois running dog of imperialism, as I recall  -  this for agreeing with Nikita Khrushchev!]  Like many of my comrades, I was terrified of the danger of an accidental nuclear war, a fear that was almost realized during the Cuban Missile crisis a few years later.

The principal turning point in my political evolution came not from reading a book, but from the shock of the abortive invasion of Castro's Cuba at the Bay of Pigs.  Having grown up with FDR, I more or less automatically supported the Democratic Party, but the Bay of Pigs made me and my friends at Harvard begin to think of ourselves in a new way -- as "radicals," whatever that meant.
At the University of Chicago, I joined others in protesting the university's overt policy of discriminating against Black renters, even its own Black students, in the name of preserving "racial balance" in Hyde Park. 

By the middle sixties I had moved to Columbia, where I took an active role supporting the '68 student uprising and building seizures.  It was during my Columbia years that I wrote In Defense of Anarchism, which offered a theoretical justification for the refusal of young men to obey orders of induction into an army fighting a war they [and I] believed to be both immoral and completely unjust.  These were discouraging times, with the deaths of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X. , and Bobby Kennedy.  A propos the theory of making things worse so that they will become better, I actually went into the voting booth in '68 intending to vote for Richard Nixon, but my arm would not obey my command, and I ended up pulling the Democratic lever after all.
I left Columbia shortly thereafter, fed up with the self-congratulatory privilege of the Ivy League, and went to the University of Massachusetts.  My writing continued to express my ever more carefully worked out commitment to the ideas of Marx, but increasingly I turned inward, devoting much of my time to raising my two sons and fighting to create a doctoral program in Social and Political Philosophy and Recent Continental Philosophy.  At the same time, I launched Social Thought and Political Economy, a left-wing interdisciplinary undergraduate major that flourished and exists to this day.

By '85, I had become involved in the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, and that effort, first as the unpaid Executive Director of Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid and then as the founder of University Scholarships for South African Students, consumed and continues to consume much of my energy.
For a time in the late sixties and early and middle seventies, it was possible to think that America was embarked domestically on a steady move to the left, despite the continuation and enlargement of an imperial foreign policy that put the country on a permanent war footing.  Paradoxically, the eighties and nineties were a good time for the Black, Women's, and Gay Liberation Movements, and changes took place that, despite the best efforts of reactionaries, will never be undone.

But as I have grown older and older and older, it has became harder and harder and harder to believe that some day the socialist transformation to which I have so long been committed will ever occur.  Indeed, with the rise of a resurgent religiosity and the loss of any connection with America's small socialist movement, the public discourse today is worse than it has been for most of my life.
It has been a difficult sixty years, to put it mildly.  For a while in the seventies it was possible to hope that I was being carried along by a progressive tide, but in retrospect it is clear that that has been reversed by a powerful reactionary undertow.

Because I am by nature optimistic, I continue to work for whatever seems to me to be the best available alternative.  I have already explained why I think I have an obligation to do so.  But the brave hopes and committed convictions of my grandfather and all the others who believed a revolutionary transformation was coming have proven unfounded.  I am now afraid that in the short time I have left, whether it be a few years or more than a decade,  I will not see a marked turn to the left in America.  What my grandchildren, Samuel and Athena, will see I cannot say.


While I was engaged in the recent discussion on this blog about political action and political commitments, I received a circular email from an old friend and comrade, Judith Baker, about her recent experiences in South Sudan.  Judith and I have been friends for twenty-five years, going back to our time together in Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid.  Judith should have graduated from Radcliffe in 1970, but she took part in the Viet Name War protests at Harvard that year, and was bounced.  She returned to finish up a year later, and then pursued a career as a teacher in the Boston schools.  For as long as I can remember, Judith has been working in Africa [initially in South Africa] to help teachers to learn to teach more effectively.  Unlike me, she goes to Africa for weeks or months at a time, not just for quick trips there and back.  If I were the pope of a secular church, she would be my first nominee for the rank of secular saint.

Here is the circular letter I received.  It is fascinating as a picture of what is happening in South Sudan, but it is also an object lesson in how to be political, which was the subject of my posts and the discussion they engendered.  Since she has given me permission to post this letter, I think it would be perfectly all right for you to circulate it in whatever way you wish.

Dear Friends,

 In the past, when I've been in Africa, I've written some sort of letter home to my friends and family.  This time I've had a very hard time summoning words for my letter. It's been almost a month since I returned from South Sudan and I have wondered why it's been so hard to say anything when people ask 'how was your trip?' 

Finally, though, I think I am beginning to understand why the words have come so slowly. In short, South Sudan made me intensely angry and intensely uncomfortable. Usually I am in Africa working with local teachers and parents who, though they may not have a lot of material resources, may not even have enough to eat or access to health care, have invited me in because they are building something, and while I am there, they are sharing their culture with me, teaching me about themselves and what they believe and care about, singing perhaps, joking, telling stories. But Sudan is a genocidal dictatorship, and the government of Sudan has been bombing and starving its own more marginalized peoples for 30 years, creating vast UN refugee camps and IDP camps [internally displaced people] out of the survivors, destroying the very cultures of those survivors, in order to replace them with favored groups. And because I don't usually write about politics in my Africa letters, I guess it's been hard to write about anything else. My original involvement with Sudan was to work with the MA Coalition for Darfur which was founded to try to stop the ongoing genocide in that part of Sudan, and this was my first actual visit to any part of Sudan. But despite all the survivors I'd met and worked with, all the video footage and news I'd seen, I guess I was not emotionally or spiritually prepared to be part of the reconstruction. I felt totally inadequate, could see very little way to contribute, and it left me with a blankness that I'm determined to overcome, but have not yet conquered. The world's collective inability to protect the Sudanese and the activist community's failure to mobilize adequate response to war and genocide must have created in me a fear of failure greater than I could face in South Sudan. Now that I'm finding the words, perhaps I'll also find some of what I will need.

People in South Sudan [almost the poorest country in the world, although when its oil is developed that will change] became independent last July and the signs of progress are everywhere - buildings going up, hotels being built for the flood of aid workers and business people, even a few tourists, schools and hospitals being sponsored by international allies, regular international flights into the capital of Juba. There is certainly a resilience among the people and palpable dedication to a new way of life. Huge trucks carry food from Uganda and Kenya and business people from Ethiopia and Kenya are opening small hotels and restaurants and shops with credit unavailable as of yet to most Sudanese, who in any case are not as experienced in business. I expected to be inspired and was hoping to be useful in some way to the educators I would be working with, who I had already worked with before and liked.

But what I found was people who have known war all or most of their lives, have had their traditions seriously disrupted, have been forced to depend upon dedicated but underfunded aid agencies and sometimes fickle donors, and have not yet found their balance in a very unbalanced and precarious globalized world in which they are far behind and know it. Traditionally a proud, almost aloof, people, wholly self-reliant and somewhat isolated, now the Dinka [I worked in a Dinka village, but they are one of many South Sudanese cultures] must catch up to the 'modern' and educated world while still at risk of murderous air attacks by the Sudanese army. The contradictions are intense, and I could not negotiate them. I was in awe of the Sudanese women who have been trying to build a network for peace, of My Sister's Keeper for sticking with them and with the Kinyuk School project and trying to widen its reach, and I don't want to write anything which diminishes that hopefulness. But I have to say that I personally am still reaching for the spiritual resources and courage to face the South Sudanese educators and say honestly that I think this or that will work. 

 This was a short trip - 2 weeks in South Sudan to visit the Kinyuk School for girls, a project of My Sister's Keeper at Bethel AME Church in Jamaica Plain. Pastor Gloria White-Hammond and Director of MSK Sarah Cleto Rial had gone to Kinyuk recently to administer a test to the students to see if they could get a sense of the educational progress the girls were making. The results were very troubling, with few students below Primary 6 able to write anything from dictation, or to read much more than a few words [in English, the language of school instruction from primary 4 on, and introduced in primary 1]. In response to the assessment results, MSK invited a team of 3 teacher educators from Central Washington University to do an 8 day training for teachers and me to observe and help figure out how to move forward.

 This is a primary school, but girls are welcome to enter quite late, so they tend to be older than elementary students in the US. The community is uniformly Dinka, Christian, and cattle herders and the school is located close enough to the Sudan border for people to fear a new outbreak of war which seems in fact to be happening. The area is flat, dry, prairie-like, green in rainy season as long as the rains come, very very hot, and plagued by air that is full of dust in dry season, insects in rainy season. The people are expert at getting the most from their land and their animals. They live in large thatched mud homes in family compounds surrounded by reed fences. There is a bore hole for water and a market, government schools and also Kinyuk, but no hospital or doctor, government offices, obvious police or court, paved roads or public buildings. There is a large Catholic church under construction, and the market has some very small drinking places with tv's. Fewer than half the children go to school as their families can't afford the fees or uniforms, and there is very little employment other than subsistence agriculture, trading, and perhaps, since the country was at war from 1975-2005 and may return to war, the army. 

 Teachers in South Sudan have had few opportunities for advanced education so one needs only to have successfully completed Primary 4 to teach at the primary level. The district supervisor, a strong and dedicated educational leader, was studying for his secondary school certificate exams when I was there. Until independence, the government of Sudan operated very few colleges or high schools in the South, with most teaching in Arabic, and this lack of services was a primary reason that people in the South rebelled against it. The new government has decreed English as the language of instruction, leaving some experienced teachers at a great disadvantage, although many are trying to complete their secondary education and improve their English skills so they can keep their jobs or perform them well. Salaries are about $100 a month, and some teachers are volunteers since budgets are too low to pay them.

 There are virtually no books or newspapers here, and even the schools have few books and very little secure space to store them. No sewers of course, no place for garbage, and no electric power other than from generators. The World Food Program used to supply food to the school, but had to move on to even needier people than students, and when it did, half the students stopped attending. A camp for South Sudanese recently expelled from Sudan and also camps for people fleeing genocidal attacks on areas of Sudan by its own government [the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions] are close by. Were it not for international agencies, UN in particular, people would starve. Transport is tough. Very few people have access to vehicles, and it cost us $200 to get a ride from Akon to the nearest town with an airstrip [only an hour away by truck over a dirt road], so if you get malaria or some other deadly disease, it is normal to just die. The hospital is an hour away but that may as well be on another planet if you don't have cash. 

Women are very highly valued here in some ways - bride price here is much higher than I've ever seen it in other African countries and can easily run to more than 100 cows - but many men have more than one wife, and women are very quiet. I was told that traditionally, when a woman cooks a chicken, she cuts it into 8 designated pieces so that her husband can easily count to make sure she hasn't taken any for herself or the children. These women can be very tough, and the girl students eager to become educated, so I know this is changing, but gender differences are deep and obvious.

 The new South Sudan constitution guarantees equal rights and education for women, and this is well known, but will take at least a generation to enter most people's consciousness. For example, the training was to be half women, and included teachers chosen from 4 schools, but only 3 of the 26 participants were women, and none took a vocal role. Yet it seems clear to me that women will be the key to the sort of society that emerges from these ashes. If this becomes a corrupt, criminal-driven economy or if justice and a sense of community prevail – the outcome seems unlikely to be good without full participation of women. The hardened hatreds and calls for revenge, justified but I think counter-productive, are more likely to come from the men who have fought and may soon fight again, than from the women who have borne the domestic burdens for so long.

 In the end, if I learned anything at all, it is that protracted war and international failure to protect people victimized by it can do much more than kill and maim - it can damage or destroy whole cultures, wipe out local knowledge and tradition leaving people so far behind as to make equity and justice nearly unimaginable. I know the Dinka people will survive and will rebuild, but the cost is stunning, and it has forced me to rethink much of my own work in Africa.

 I hope you will pay attention to what happens in Sudan and to what the US role turns out to be.  Thanks for reading this far, 

 Judith  April 2012

 Judith K. Baker
Great African Storybook Project
Literacy Activist and Consultant
Boston Public Schools, Retired
50 Melville Avenue, Dorchester, MA 02124