Thursday, November 6, 2014


Chris poses the following objection to my recent post "The Morning After."  [This is only part of his comment.  I encourage everyone to read the rest of it]:

"Are you sure Wolff? I was always under the impression that the possible candidates that can and will run are PRE DECIDED by those with the power and capital to do so. It's only after a sorting committee of those in power say "we could live with X, Y, or Z" that then X, Y, and Z become viable candidates, of which the “American people” is now either in a position to vote for or not at all. So I have a hard time blaming ANYONE who doesn't vote, or votes in an alternative way, for being responsible for the elected officials for instance. I rarely vote, because X Y and Z have never represented so much as 10% of my views on issues."

Chris' entire comment raises a number of very interesting questions, which I shall address in this response.  Let me start with his "impression that the possible candidates that can and will run are PRE DECIDED by those with the power and capital to do so."  This used to be quite literally true, before the introduction of a national system of primaries, but it is not true now.  Mind you, powerful, wealthy people do of course meet privately and discuss whom they can live with as candidates, and they then of course do everything in their power to make sure that only one of those candidates is chosen as the nominee of this or that major party.  Indeed, these days those meetings tend to be reported in the press and on television.  But it is simply not true that these powerful people, and others like them, can block an unacceptable candidate who has broad enough support in the electorate.  Try telling Herman Cain that!

Let me sketch a fantasy, an imaginary sequence of events, what law professors call a hypothetical.  Suppose Professor Arthur Kliman were to decide to put forward his name for the Democratic Party's nomination for President.  I hope Professor Kliman will forgive me for using his name in this light-hearted example.  Readers of this blog will recall an extended and very interesting series of exchanges between Professor Kliman, Professor Alan Freeman, and myself some while ago.  I choose Professor Kliman because I am reasonably confident that if Chris were presented with the opportunity to vote for Kliman he would consider it worth his while to go to the polls.  Would Professor Kliman be the first professed Marxist to stand for the highest office in the land?  No, that honor forever belongs to Eugene V. Debs, who ran for the presidency on the Socialist ticket five times between 1900 and 1920.  However, I think we can be certain that Professor Kliman would be the first presidential candidate to profess allegiance to the Temporal Single-System Interpretation of Das Kapital. 

We all know what would happen.  But what, given the nature of the American political system, could happen?  With no money to mount a national campaign, Professor Kliman would be forced to rely on social media.  Slowly at first, he would send out e-mails and tweets and post FaceBook announcements of his candidacy.  If enough people were of Chris's mindset, this would create a frisson of excitement.  The announcements would go viral, and very quickly millions of Americans would become aware that at long last an authentic Marxist, and a TSSI proponent at that, was offering himself as a candidate.  The excitement would mount.

Eventually, the media, always looking for oddball stories to amuse their bored viewers, would catch wind of Professor Kliman's  quixotic candidacy and use it as amusing filler or color commentary [to borrow a phrase from sports reporting].  To their astonishment, they would be flooded by requests for more information about the Kliman candidacy.  The name "Kliman" would start to show up on opinion polls, pulling support so inexplicable as to cause the statisticians to recheck their calculations.  Nate Silver would check into rehab, and Sam Wang would close down the Princeton Consortium.

As it became clear that Professor Kliman was the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination, powerful, wealthy, connected people would hold a series of hastily convened meetings to decide how to squelch this thing before it got out of hand.  A concerted attack on Professor Kliman's character would be launched.  It would be reliably reported that he was not a Professor of Economics at all but an Republican operative sent out to wreak havoc on the Democratic Party.  Scandalous tidbits would be fed to the press:  Kliman actually owned stock in capitalist corporations, he had been seen saluting the American flag at a baseball game, he was opposed to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories [this to suppress his support in the Jewish community, always suspected of Marxist tendencies.]  A faux-scholarly study would be quickly thrown together demonstrating irrefutably that Kliman was not an orthodox Marxist at all but exhibited unmistakable sympathy for Rosa Luxembourg.

 But none of this could stop dedicated Klimanites from expressing their will.  At the Iowa caucuses, a flood of Marxist farmers would dominate the meetings, and Arthur Kliman would emerge the clear winner.  If there were enough Chris's in America, Arthur Kliman would be the next Democratic Party nominee for the office of President and then the next President.

All right.  I have taken Professor Kliman's name in vain for too long.  Let me return to the real world and offer a quite serious hypothesis.  Hillary Clinton is the all but certain 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee.  Those wealthy and powerful people of whom Chris speaks are, we may be sure, quite happy with that prospect.  Clinton is as committed a supporter of Wall Street as Wall Street could possibly ask from either party.  They will do nothing to block her nomination and, should it seem likely that she will be elected, they will happily contribute money to her already well-funded campaign in hopes of buying even more influence once she wins.

Suppose Elizabeth Warren were to make a run for the nomination, as she pretty clearly will not.  Warren is not Chris's cup of tea, I am sure, but that does not matter.  What matters is that she would very definitely not be Wall Street's cup of tea.  The rich and powerful would fight tooth and claw to stop her from getting the nomination.  Could they block her?  Not if enough Democrats decided they wanted her.  Even as between Clinton and Warren, both candidates well within the traditions and rather narrow ideological limits of American politics, the "power brokers" would be unable to enforce their will against the strong commitment of enough progressive Democrats.

o as a simple matter of fact, I suggest, Chris is wrong when he says that a handful of powerful people decide whom the American people can consider as presidential candidates.  If enough Republicans had wanted him, Herman Cain would have been the 2012 presidential nominee, and if enough Americans had wanted him and had troubled to go to the polls, he and not Barack Obama would be president now.

If it is in the clear self-interest of a majority of Americans to elect Marxists to public office, as I believe, why are there no self-proclaimed socialists in Congress save for Bernie Sanders?  The only way to address this question sensibly is to stop talking as though Americans [or any other people] are self-conscious rational agents who are capable of drawing elementary inferences from manifest facts, and instead talk [as I shall be next semester] about mystification and false consciousness and the material bases of ideology.

But if that is the way to think about this matter, then we really must stop indulging in conspiracy theories about people in back rooms carefully manipulating the masses.  We need to ask why Nobel prize winning economists, who are manifestly intelligent by any normal psychometric measure, persist in really believing that the bloated pay of CEO's is simply a return to them of their marginal product.

And so I return to the subject that seems to agitate Chris more than any other -- viz, how I can call myself a Marxist and yet insist that when it comes down to voting, one ought to vote for the less bad of the alternatives rather than stay home.  Since I have talked about this several times on this blog, and inasmuch as this is the aftermath of the election, not the run-up to it, I shall leave that one alone.


  1. That was antiklimactic. On the other hand, I've spent the last several years watching the political process here in my small city of about 18,000, where the average income is about $18,000. The local city council is essentially a steering committee for the local one percent. So, for example, the local burghers have their prize fighters on the council who oppose things like split tax rates, ordinances restricting the use of plastic bags and restrictions on development for big boxes. Here is an interesting fact, which probably won't be a fact for very long. Saying it tends to undo it. As it turns out, the burghers, the prize fighters and many of their friends are quite open about how they work to control access to votes. They display much of the process on the web pages of social media such as Facebook. It pretty much comes down to a vilification or valorization using techniques that hark from something like junior high. It is a fascinating and a horrifying thing to watch the relatively uncensored lords of the flies. If you're at all inclined to watch your local politics up to the point where you participate in some way, then comparing the local news media, what is said in social media and in personal conversation is, well, like being back in graduate school....

  2. Thank you for the response.

    To be frank I feel like this post dodged the core concerns of my question.

    The first concern I have was with responsibility. You are holding people accountable for things I'm not sure it's reasonable to hold them accountable for. Yes it's very true that under borderline miraculous conditions things could be different, but we don't hold people responsible for not producing borderline miracles. You’re holding people responsible for not being supererogatory.

    The second concern was the emphasis to get people to create the conditions for a near miraculous victory (e.g., spread the news via facebook, local news, etc.), and your imploring of lefties to vote Democrat. Being a member of the social medium, you're actually going against your own command. E.g., why didn't you say vote Jill Stein to help create the miracle snowball you advocate for, instead of vote Obama? If the American people are to be supererogatory, shouldn’t you as well?

    I have separate contentions with the way you display the facts as to how elections work, for instance I don't actually think the democratic party is 1) the right outlet to channel our alternative candidates, 2) that the party would conform if their exceptionally progressive candidate could get them votes. 2) is obviously false because big donors would call the individual party members and the heads of the democratic election committees and threaten to pull all funding. Congressmen and party hacks would of course respond to this threat. And 1) is false because...well that seems too obvious to need an explanation. (There’s also the whole fact that real alternative candidates simply cannot get the air time, screen time, and need to push ten ton boulders uphill just to get on every ballot, that makes this depiction of the possible quite possibly false…).

    In short you argue that the American people should be held responsible for electing crooks and not lefties. But you advocate the electing of crooks and not lefties. There’s a problem here.

    And Yes, I would love it if a Eugene Debs came along, sans the racism.