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Thursday, July 10, 2014


While I have been wrestling FranceTelecom to the mat and idly following the World Cup, a good many more important events have crossed the threshold of my consciousness.  Some, like the bloody struggles in the Middle East, the “honor” killings of women who married without the approval of their male relatives, the murder of three Israeli boys, and the revenge burning to death of a Palestinian boy, have been simply awful.  Others, like the US Supreme Court ruling in the Hobby Lobby case, have been deeply troubling.  And still others, like the Republican primary runoff in Mississippi, can best be described as curious.  The purpose of this blog post is to attempt to place them all in a conceptual framework that may help me, and my readers, to make sense out of what has been happening.

Broadly speaking, there are two very different traditions of democratic theory in the modern world.  The first, whose roots can be found in the writings of a variety of French, English, and American authors, takes as given the existence of conflicting private interests -- primarily, but not exclusively, economic in nature –and conceives the function of representative democracy to be the accommodation and adjustment of those conflicts through a series of compromises arrived at by elected representatives charged with advancing the interests of their constituents.  The device of periodic elections is deliberately designed to make the private interest of the representatives in being re-elected depend on their success in serving the public interest by successfully accommodating the conflicts between the interests of their constituents and the interests of the constituents of other representatives.

The second tradition has its roots in the great treatise of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Of the Social Contract.  Rousseau conceives of private interests as the enemy of true democracy.  In order for a democratic state to achieve legitimacy, Rousseau argues, individuals must set aside their private interests and each one take as his goal [or hers, although Rousseau assumes that all the citizens are men] the general good.  Only insofar as all individuals make this fundamental adjustment do they become citizens, and only then do the decisions they collectively agree upon become genuine laws binding on the citizenry.

According to the first conception of democracy, the public discourse is a series of negotiations, a never-ending effort to arrive at satisfactory compromises of conflicting private interests.  According to the second conception, the public discourse is a debate about the correct answer to a single question:  What is the general good?

Those, according to the first conception, who bargain from a position of weakness or with insufficient skill will emerge from the public sphere with unsatisfying bargains.  Those who are voted down, according to the second conception, have failed to persuade their fellow citizens of their vision of the general good – indeed, Rousseau actually claims [though his supporting argument is fallacious] that those who lose the vote are by that fact shown to have been incorrect in their conception of the general good.

Negotiations over conflicting interests are, by their nature, capable of adjustment, of accommodation, of re-negotiation when the relative strengths of the negotiating parties have altered.  Half a loaf is better than none, as the old saying has it.  Debates about the general good are inherently irresoluble save by one party conceding that it was wrong – not that it overreached, seeking more than could be expected, but that it was wrong. 

It is religion in the first instance and ethnic identification secondarily that most often give rise to irresoluble disagreements about the nature of the general good.  The great promise of the Enlightenment and its capitalist underpinnings was that society would slowly become secularized, that religious disagreements would fade and ethnic/national differences would evaporate, leaving a society robbed perhaps of immortal longings [or, more precisely, of longings for immortality] but free also of the ineradicable divisions that had engendered so many bitter and interminable conflicts.

American novelists have had a good deal of fun lampooning the characteristic banal figure of the businessman – a smile of welcome on his face for all comers, a hearty hollow laugh, a two-handed handshake for those he barely knows.  My personal favorite of this familiar type was my first father-in-law, Jim Griffin, a self-made Irish Catholic corporate executive who worked his way up the ladder to become Vice-President for Public Relations of Sears, Roebuck and Co.  Despite being a loyal son of the Catholic Church, a Knight of Malta for his fund-raising and at one time President of the Catholic Boy Scouts of America, Griffin was as malleable as a chameleon.  I will never forget him in Cambridge, MA at my wedding to his daughter, smiling and chatting amiably with David Riesman and Barrington Moore, Jr. as though leftie Harvard social circles were his natural habitat.  There was of course a deep logic to this inauthenticity.  Your competitor one day may be your customer the next, and you never want to alienate a potential customer over something as irrelevant to business as religion or ethnic pride.

Many of the violent conflicts now savaging the Middle East are disputes about what can, in a broad sense, be described as the general good, rather than unmediated conflicts of private interest.  No doubt there are conflicts of economic interest at stake in the war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, and those are certainly amenable of negotiation, but competing religious convictions are by their nature non-negotiable.  Even when a period of religious toleration has emerged from a long-standing religious conflict, those on both sides continue to be deeply convinced that their opponents are damned in the eyes of God, and when the opportunity presents itself, they rush back into battle.

Contrast that with what appears to have happened in Mississippi in the run-off of the Republican primary to select a candidate for the U. S. Senate.  Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel edged longtime Republican incumbent Thad Cochran in the initial primary, neither getting the 50% + 1 needed to secure the nomination.  In the run-off, the previously rather lethargic Cochran made open appeals to the 40% Black Mississippi vote, which has for a long time been virtually 100% Democratic.  Enough Black voters, recognizing that Cochran was indeed more likely to serve their interests than McDaniel, voted for Cochran in the Republican primary run-off to give Cochran a narrow victory.  [The Democratic candidate has no chance whatsoever of actually winning the seat.]  This is classic interest-group politics.  There is even some reason to hope that the large Black minority may maneuver itself into the position of king-maker, gaining thereby the power to secure some measure of responsiveness to its interests.

Ideological politics is exhilarating, with its commitment to inflexible principles and the consequent in-fighting among former comrades who have strayed a hairsbreadth from the world historical truth, and Lord knows I am by conviction and lifelong practice more an ideological warrior than a Rotary Club glad hander, but the events unfolding in the Middle East remind me of just what is lost when accommodation gives way to calls for a rush to the barricades and one reaches for improvised explosive devices.

In my youth, I genuinely believed that the promise of the Enlightenment was being fulfilled, and that religion and ethnic divisions were fading from the world.  Half a century farther on, I feel as though I had stumbled into seventeenth century Europe.

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