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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

Thursday, February 27, 2014


I cut short my response to Scott's comment about "market abolitionism" because I did not want it to become a full-scale revisiting of thing I have written and published, but there is a good deal more to say about markets and socialism, and in this post I shall say a little bit of it.

As I explained in "The Future of Socialism," the elements of economic planning grow "within the womb of capitalism" because as firms expand and diversify, the market ceases to give unambiguous signals by which capitalist managers may guide their decisions concerning capital allocation, their estimations of profitability, and their choices of such central factors as the proper rate of savings.  It is also true, of course, that such signals as the market does give do not serve to guide the decisions of capitalist firms toward the fulfillment of pressing human needs, but that is no concern of the managers, and it therefore has no effect on their corporate policy.  If money can be made building McMansions while hard-working men and women are unable to find affordable housing, nothing in the logic of capitalism will incline builders toward the production of well-designed low-cost housing.  But of course managers are not averse to satisfying human needs along the way, as it were.  Well-designed mass produced clothing is profitable, at least as long as cheap labor is available in Asia or Africa, so even the poor in America can be stylishly dressed.

Capitalists learned how to manage the periodic crises of overproduction and underconsumption, thanks in part to Lord Keynes, but the explosion of the world-wide financial sector has created new kinds of crises that capitalism has not yet subdued.  It would be a mistake, I think, to expect that failure to lead us toward the replacement of capitalist by socialist relations of production and distribution.  Rather, we can anticipate that capitalism will develop more effective institutions for managing the financial components of capitalism, which is simply another way of saying that the new will continue to grow in the womb of the old.

How, then, if at all, can a transition to a humane socialist economic order come about?  Only through mass mobilization, bottom-up organization, and the use of the collected political power of the great majority to take control of the thoroughly socialized means of production.  This effort, if it is to succeed, must be grounded in the simple ideas set forth in my Credo -- that the vast wealth of modern society is the product of the collective efforts of the all men and women, built on the efforts of past generations, and -- in the evocative words of Edmund Burke -- passed on to generations yet unborn.

After this great transformation, Scott, if ever it should come about, there will still be a role for markets and room for individual entrepreneurs.  Not to worry.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014


What is capitalism?  It is not free markets.  Indeed, capitalism as it has developed first in England and Western Europe and then worldwide depends on a variety of state-imposed restraints on absolutely free market interactions, not the least of which of course is the legal enforcement of contracts.  Superficial apologists for capitalism tend to overlook this fact, until someone violates a patent or copyright or tries to weasel out of a bargain to deliver some grain [or until workers unite to form a union.]  As always, when I want to understand capitalism, I look to Karl Marx, who was one of the great theoretical economists of all time, as well as the first, and arguably the best, economic historian.

As Marx had the wit to recognize, capitalism, at its core, is defined and constituted by three interconnected structural characteristics:  First, private ownership of the means of production; Second, wage labor; and third, the production of commodities for the purpose of making a profit rather than the production of goods and services for the purpose of satisfying human needs and desires.  [As I write this, I realize that fully to explain what I have in mind would take several books.  But, as it happens, I have written those books.  They are called Understanding Marx and Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  So I am going to have to skim the surface here and invite you to read the books if you want a fuller exposition and explanation.  You can also read From Each According To His Ability, Volume Two of my collected published and unpublished papers, available as an e-book on  Well, so much for what Tom and Ray Magliozzi would call the Shameless Commerce Division of The Philosopher's Stone.]

The key to the development of capitalism, and the secret of its extraordinary profitability, is the historical process by which yeoman farmers and independent craftspeople were separated from and deprived of access to the means of production -- land, mines, forests, lakes and oceans, and also the technology of production -- and were compelled in order to live to become, in the evocative usage of the early capitalist period, servants of those with control over those means of production, to become, as we would say today, wage laborers.  It is this historically determined expropriation of the laboring many that makes it possible for the owners of the means of production to exploit them, which is to say, to make a profit.

"Free" markets play a central role in this process of expropriation and exploitation.  The lifting of all restraints on who can take a job creates the possibility of a permanent surplus of workers looking for jobs -- a reserve army of the unemployed, as Marx called them in a brilliant phrase.  The lifting of restraints on who may produce goods and on where and to whom and for what price they may be sold clears the way for cutthroat competition among capitalists [as those who own and control the means of production are called].  The result is a constant reinvestment of the profits in the expansion of the scope of production, resulting in an explosion of output and ever greater profits.

In the early stages of capitalism, there was a great deal of thoughtful planning, if one can call it that, by individual entrepreneurs [or undertakers, to translate the French term literally and with delicious irony].  But the desperation of the competition placed great obstacles in the way of any sort of wider planning within an industry or between industries.  There was of course widespread collusion or collaboration in restraint of trade, but extensive rational planning was impossible -- not because it violated the ideology of free trade, but because the organizational, informational, and structural arrangements needed for such planning had not yet developed.

It is at this point that Marx's true brilliance shows forth.  Marx understood that socialism -- which is to say, collective ownership of the means of production and production for the satisfaction of human needs rather than for profit -- could not be mandated by the state, or indeed by any other institutional force, in the absence of those required arrangements.  As he put it in his Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, a new economic order must "grow in the womb of the old."  He had in mind the slow, centuries-long development of the pre-conditions for capitalism within the feudal economic order of late medieval Europe, but his insight has wider application.  Until the conditions for the transition to socialism have developed within capitalism, any attempt to impose socialism politically or by force is doomed to failure, as the fates of Russia and China demonstrate.

What are those pre-conditions, and are they in fact now developing within capitalism?  That is the subject of my essay, "The Future of Socialism," archived on, and I urge anyone who really wants an answer to those questions to read that essay.  The brief answer is that the conditions are indeed developing within capitalism, prompted not by the brainwashing of corporate executives by left-wing professors at effete Eastern universities but by the internal imperatives of the management of capitalist enterprises.

NONE OF THIS HAS ANYTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH THE ELIMINATION OF MARKETS.  If you need a metaphor to grasp this truth, think of a socialist economy as a vast rainforest with huge trees soaring above the landscape [the state owned major concentrations of the means of production] and a rich flora of flowers, shrubs, bushes, and weeds below the canopy [the sector of small privately owned and run businesses that form, flourish, or fail just as they do now].

Once it becomes structurally possible to engage in rational planning about the allocation of the major capital accumulations of the society -- a point that we are fast approaching -- and also becomes necessary for some sort of planned allocation to take place, guided by decisions that are structurally political even if they are now taken by private persons for private gain -- a situation that is already upon us [this is the central point of my essay, referenced above] -- then and only then can we talk about socialism as more than a dream.  The argument against the institution of socialism is not the virtues and joys of free markets, but the impossibility of socialism before "the new order has grown in the womb of the old."

But, the "masters of the universe" protest, sitting astride the great accumulations of capital that generate an endless stream of profits, have the rich of this world not earned their wealth by their entrepreneurial skill and daring?  This blog post is too short to deal with that bit of self-congratulatory nonsense as it deserves.  Robert Nozick, in what may well be the stupidest argument ever advanced by a brilliant and thoroughly likeable chap, spends three pages in his engaging folie de jeunesse, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, conjuring a Wilt Chamberlain fantasy that supposedly justifies the inequality in the distribution of income in a capitalist economy [see pages 161-163].

So, in answer to Scott [that is where this all started, you will recall], No, I am not advocating market abolitionism.  I am yearning for socialism, which has nothing to do with the abolition of markets and everything to do with collective control of the means of production.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


Today I begin a several part essay that may take me a while, so settle down.  These remarks are prompted by a comment [see below] offered by Scott to the original posting of my Credo on November 28, 2010.  [Close readers will note that my Credo thus precedes the famous speech by now-Senator Elizabeth Warren in which she said essentially the same thing, without however the tagline from Marx.]  I shall be alluding to, and at certain points even quoting directly from, my essay "The Future of Socialism," which you can find by clicking on the link at the top of this blog and then searching the archive of my occasional writings.  First the Credo:


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If all of this must be rendered in a single expression, let it be: From each of us according to his or her ability; to each of us according to his or her need.


Four days after this originally appear, Scott said:  "But you're not advocating market abolitionism are you? That's just throwing out the baby with the bathwater."  When I asked what market abolitionism is [thus revealing my ignorance], he replied:  "I already mentioned it before on this blog but I'll explain it again. Market abolitionism is the idea that all market functions should be replaced by planning. The most famous proponent of this view is Michael Albert and you can read him here:

I think that a marketless world based entirely on planning would turn society into a Brazil-type dungeon of bureaucracy and oppression. This is why I keep asking people on the left what exactly their views are of the marketplace. Seeing as how I generally hear nothing but hostility towards them can I really unreasonably assume that the logical conclusion of their views would be supplanting all market functions with planning?"

This provocative comment by Scott [I hope he or she is still reading my blog -- I hate the anonymity of this entire medium] triggered a series of reflections during my walk this morning, and led to my decision to expand the response I had originally planned into a full-scale disquisition. 

 One of the most effective ideological dodges of apologists for capitalism has been their successful substitution of the phrase "free market economy" for "capitalist economy" in our public discourse, as though "capitalism" and "free markets" were synonymous.  So before we can get anywhere in this discussion, we must sort out that confusion. 

A market is a public space in which people meet to exchange goods for goods, goods for money, and money for goods.  [I leave virtual markets and such matters aside for the moment.]  There have certainly been markets for all of recorded history ["Let's go down to the Agora and see whether Socrates is there"] and in all likelihood for a long time before the invention of writing.  One finds markets in slave economies [including slave markets, needless to say] and in feudal economies, as well as in economies that can be described as capitalist.  In many instances, perhaps all in fact, there are traditional, cultural, religious, or legal constraints on the functioning of markets.  To give just one example that is historically significant to this discussion, in the European middle ages, much town or city based craft production was organized into and regulated by guilds --formal organizations of men working in the same craft, such as silver smiths, gold smiths, furniture makers, and so forth.  The guilds maintained elaborate systems of restrictions, enforced by law, on who could ply those trades, under what conditions and for what wages workers could work for them, what objects they could make, where they could sell them, and what prices they were required to charge.  In some cases, these guilds grew quite large and entered into association with other guilds, the Hanseatic League being the most important and well-known.

The phrase "free trade" refers in the first instance to the historically important effort to remove some of those restrictions, so that anyone who wished could enter a sphere of production, using whatever techniques he chose, hiring whomever he chose, selling where he wished and at whatever price he wished.  [ I use the masculine pronouns to convey the fact that at the time we are talking about, the guilds were restricted to men, and most of the early non-guild undertakings, though by no means all, were begun by men.]

But while the removal of legal, customary, and other restrictions on market exchange was an important pre-condition for the development of what we now call capitalism, it was by no means identical with capitalism, and the kind of relatively unfettered market exchange that I am talking about can be found in many economies that were not capitalist in their organization.

So if capitalism is not free trade simpliciter, what is it?  We shall find out tomorrow.

Monday, February 24, 2014


One of the irritating and quirky things about this blog form is that every so often someone posts a comment on something I wrote some while ago, and that comment gets lost in the shuffle because it is not easily available to those reading the blog today.  Michael just posted a kind comment on something written long ago, and when I went to look at it in its entirety, I discovered other comments to that post that I had somehow missed.  So tomorrow, I am going to re-post the original post -- my Credo -- and then I am going to undertake to respond in a lengthy and systematic fashion to some of those long ignored comments.  My apologies to those whom I have ignored.  I think I do not entirely have my hands on the blog form yet.


The latest New York Review of Books has a review of a pair of biographies, of Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck [I am going to make a big leap of faith here and simply assume that everyone knows who they are or were.]  In 1988, Gardner asked writer Peter Evans to "work with her as ghostwriter on her autobiography."  Evans quotes her as saying "I'm broke, honey.  Either write the book or sell the jewels ...And I'm kinda sentimental about the jewels."  Which strikes me as authentic Ava Gardner.  As for the accuracy of what she was telling him, Evans quotes her again:  "It's my f***ing life.  I'll remember it the way I want to remember it."

When I first read that, I was appalled.  Speaking as an autobiographer who labored mightily for accuracy in my own 800 page "memoir," checking Google constantly and making late emendations when Charles Parsons, whose memory is much better than mine, wrote with corrections, I felt a moral imperative to hew as closely to the unvarnished truth as I was able.  It was a point of honor with me not to sugar coat the facts or embellish my life to gain the reader's admiration.

But then I thought:  You know, she has a point.  I mean, it is my life.  It is not a life of Aristotle, or Immanuel Kant, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or Sting.  It is my life.  I have lived it.  I have suffered its sorrows and savored its joys.  Why shouldn't I remember my own life the way I want to remember it?  Let some beady-eyed sharp-nosed hack write an accurate account of my life!

Now, let me tell you about the time I climbed Mt. Everest ...

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Now that I am on a diet, I face the challenge each evening when I make dinner of somehow fooling my stomach into believing that it is eating food.  Last night, I scored a signal success.  I sliced a large Vidalia onion very thin, added to it a large red bell pepper julienned, and with nothing more than a bit of spray olive oil to keep the pan from sticking, sautéed it forever until the onion and the pepper all but melted, giving up their natural [non-fattening] sugars.  It was delicious!  As I lingered over the dish, my mind turned to fire [we have a gas stove].  I began to wonder about the extraordinary range of practical information that is presupposed by the simple act of cooking dinner.  [I have the feeling I am channeling Claude Levi-Strauss, but that is neither here nor there.]

Think about how many different and not at all intuitively obvious bits of knowledge someone must have to get the idea of making a fire and cooking food.  Let us start with fire.  Early humans [and pre-hominids as well, as they are called] "had fire," as the saying goes.  Where did they get it from?  Almost certainly, Jane Neanderthal, as we may refer to her, first saw fire when lightning strikes sparked conflagrations in dry forests or grasslands.  She and her fellow Neanderthal probably noticed four things about this strange phenomenon:  it was hot, it was bright and shiny and flickering, it scared away animals, even large and dangerous animals, and it hurt if you touched it.  How long [and how many times] did it take before someone had the idea of picking up a burning stick and waving it to scare animals?  How much longer before someone discovered that you could bring a burning stick back to your cave or camp and use it to light other sticks, creating a stable fire?  [This simple fact, which is obvious to all of us, actually involves a number of conceptual leaps].  How much longer did it take to discover that in getting a fire going from a glowing ember or a slowly burning bit of wood, you must gather twigs and bark and little bits of wood first before throwing on the logs?  How much longer again to discover that a glowing ember can be carried from campsite to campsite and used to re-created a fire?  And, the very biggest leap thus far, by what act of inventive genius did someone discover that one could create new fire by striking flints against one another?  [Not just any two stones, but flint stones.]  We are not yet anywhere near the idea of cooked food, and already we have an enormous fund of collective knowledge, much of it presumably discovered and rediscovered countless times in countless places over a period of a million years.

It is possible to imagine how the idea of cooking meat was discovered.  [As I talk about the discovery of facts that all of us so much take for granted that we find it hard to conceive of them as having ever been discovered, I am reminded of a lovely moment in the John Travolta film, Michael.  Travolta plays a rather overweight angel come to Earth, where he does this, that, and the other with Andie MacDowell, William Hurt, and Bob Hoskins.  Travolta (the angel Michael) remarks in passing that he invented standing in line.  Up 'til then, everyone just bunched up and crowded around.  The charm of the line lies in our sudden realization that standing in line, like every other social act, must have been invented at some time or other.]  But back to cooking.  An animal laid low by the fire and partially burned would be a tasty bit of food for a hungry band of early humans wandering the savannah, and it might occur to them to take freshly killed prey and put it on the fire.  But how did anyone think up the idea of taking a gourd used to carry water, putting it on the fire, boiling water in it, and then cooking plants and nuts and bits of grain in it to make soup?

Looking backwards, we understand the great advantageous of cooked food.  Cooking breaks plant materials and flesh down, making them digestible.  The advent of cooking enormously expands the range of possible foods, never mind the improved taste.

All of this, and a great deal more, flashed through my mind as I lingered over the onion and pepper dish I had created.  It struck me as a very powerful example of the deep truth set forth in  the first paragraph of the Credo that I wrote and posted on this blog a long time ago:

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


Friday, February 21, 2014


Well, the Bennett College gig came to a close, I edited four volumes of my published and unpublished papers, and I brought my quarter-century South African scholarship effort to an end, so I thought I was going to be able to sit back quietly, sip drinks with little umbrellas in them, and complain about the young.  But yesterday I had a visit from my old friend Judith Baker, and it seems that I have volunteered to try to raise money for her African Storybook Project [ASP].  I have talked about Judith several times on this blog.  You can go back to November 18, 2013 to see what I said there, or you can check out this on YouTube to get a quick idea of the ASP.  Once I create a new website with a PayPal button, I am going to ask you to chip in to support this initiative.

The ASP is a sort of precursor to my scholarship effort, although on a vastly larger scale, because it seeks across all of sub-Saharan Africa to help young children to become literate first in their own languages and then in a world language like English.  The idea is to create a vast digital library of children's stories collected from the local communities, to illustrate them, and then "version" or translate them into both English and a wide variety of other local languages.  Version" because cultural variations from community to community may result in a story from one area having elements that are inappropriate or mystifying to the parents, teachers, and children in another area.

What do I mean by story elements inappropriate or mystifying to parents, teachers, or children elsewhere?  Well, Judith recounted an African story she had been told about two sisters walking in the woods who meet a scary old woman suffering from leprosy.  The old woman asks the first sister to help her into her hut, but the little girl recoils at the thought of touching the woman, and refuses.  The old woman asks the second sister, who agrees and helps her.  Good things then happen to the helpful sister.  And the moral of this story, as told to Judith?  "Obey instructions or you will end up in the elephant's mouth."  I think we can all agree that this moral might not strike readers everywhere as natural or appropriate!

Here is one children's story that Judith downloaded from a flash drive onto my computer.  Remember that these stories will be brightly illustrated, and are for very little children:

"Goat, Dog and Cow were great friends.  One day they went on a journey in a taxi.  When they reached their destination, the driver asked them to pay their fares.     Cow paid her fare.  Dog paid a bit extra, because he did not have the correct money.      The driver was about to give Dog his change when Goat ran away without paying anything.  The driver was very annoyed.  He drove away without giving Dog his change.  That is why, even today, Dog runs towards a car to peep inside and find the driver who owes him his change.  Goat runs away from the sound of a car, fearing to be arrested for dishonesty.  And Cow is not bothered when a car is coming. Cow takes her time crossing the road because she knows she paid her fare in full."
You can see why I decided to sign on.  This is going to be fun!

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Ever since Karl Marx introduced it in his early essay, "On The Jewish Question," ideological critique has been the rhetorical weapon of choice of the left. Marx himself went on, in his mature writings, to expose the covert interests at the heart of classical economic theory, managing, in Capital, to discover ideological bias even in the mathematics of Smith, Ricardo, Nassau Senior, and their fellow rationalizers of capitalism. When I was young, I was awed by the depth with which left critics could penetrate the surface of social and economic relations to expose the exploitation, inequality, privilege, and self-justification that lay beneath. By comparison, even the most superficially quick-witted and mathematically adept apologists for capitalism were shallow, one dimensional, and utterly lacking in self-awareness.

Now, to my dismay, I find that those with whom I am allied on the left all too often exhibit precisely these defects of intellect, insight, self-understanding, and language.  In high school Biology, we studied the autonomic nervous system by means of a particularly brutal bit of by-play with frogs. It seems that if you stick a sharp pointed object into a frog's eye and grind it around until the frog's brain is utterly destroyed, certain of its reflex responses continue to function. This is called "pithing" a frog. After the frog has been pithed, you can produce a contraction of the frog's leg by dropping a bit of acid on it. The response shows that the contraction of the leg is governed by the autonomic nervous system, centered, as I recall, in the spinal column somewhere, rather than in the brain. When I listen to speakers putatively on the left these days, I sometimes think they have been pithed, and that their speech is actually a function of their autonomic nervous system.

I hope no one will be so foolish as to suppose that these remarks constitute a brief for right-wing discourse. Anyone who listens for even a short while to the mindless repetition of incantations to free markets, democracy, and the dangers of political extremism - by which is meant anything even slightly to the left of Bill Clinton - will know that ideological rationalizations of the established order are alive, well, and awaiting a devastating ideological critique. But that critique cannot possibly be mounted by those who have lost all sensitivity to the ritual and unreflective character of their own discourse.  One of the lessons Marx teaches us in Capital is that when we wish to anatomize some practice or social formation with which we are confronted, it is invaluable to remind ourselves of its history. In an effort to understand, and thereby perhaps to counteract, the triviality and shallowness of so much contemporary left discourse, I shall try in a very few words to recapitulate the sequence of steps by which, like the powerful wizard Saruman in The Lord of the Rings, Marx has been reduced from a world-shattering necromancer to a sideshow conjuror doing cheap dialectical tricks to scare intellectual children.

 The central fact of social life is the appropriation, by a ruling class, of a surplus of goods they have not produced, both for their own enjoyment and in order to reinforce their ability to continue the appropriation. This appropriation takes many institutional forms - kingship, slavery, conquest, taxation, serfdom - but always it is backed by force, and always it consists in the taking by one group of men and women of the food, clothing, shelter, and other goods that the labor of another group of men and women has produced. In a capitalist economy, appropriation takes the specific form of the exploitation of legally free wage labor by capital.  The unequal allocation of the social product is immediately obvious to anyone with eyes to see: some people live in hovels, others in castles, or condominiums. Some people eat rice and beans, others eat meat and fish. Some die unattended of diseases that medicine can cure, others are ushered out of this life as comfortably as armies of doctors and nurses can manage.

Contrary to the mythology of celebratory historiography, those whose labor is being appropriated almost always know perfectly well what is happening to them, even in that most mystified of all social formations, capitalism. But the rationalizations by which rulers justify their appropriations do, nevertheless, play some role in sustaining the structure of inequality. The task of ideological critique is to expose the self-interest that lurks below the surface of those rationalizations, and in that way to cripple the rationalizers. So it is that Marx devoted endless pages to attacks on the major and minor theorists of classical political economy, even though he believed that the assault on the central keep of the capitalist fortress would be led by organized workers, not their allies from the left intelligentsia. In the early part of this century, it was still possible to hope that the working class of the industrialized world would replace capitalist irrationality and injustice with the rationality and justice of socialism, but three world-historical events - the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Great Depression - put paid to that happy optimism. The willingness of the several national components of the international working class to take up arms against one another, the appearance of a pre-capitalist dictatorship masquerading as socialism, and the success of capitalism in surviving the great crash that Marx had predicted, together sank the hopes that had buoyed the early revolutionary movement.

In response to these reverses and disappointments, radical intellectuals elaborated ever more subtle theories of hegemony, ideology, mass communication, and the mysteries of  discourse, all in a desperate attempt to explain why their generous offers of leadership elicited so few followers.  Eventually, the discourse of radicals lost all relation to the material base of social theory, to the fundamental facts of exploitation, appropriation, and inequality, so that we were left with an empty rhetoric of rebellion and revolution into which literary and aesthetic concerns could be poured. In the wonderful phrase of Alexander Pope, referring in the Dunciad to his rivals among the Augustan poets, the discourses of our contemporary radicals have become "shit to airy fineness spun."

With no conception of the material basis of exploitation and inequality, with no way of making that fundamental distinction between appearance and reality on which all true ideological critique rests, the invocation of such phrases as "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is little more than a shibboleth, a test of politically correct pronunciation, passage of which admits one to a clique of uncritically one-dimensional flatlanders. The subject of these remarks is power and discourse - not how to control the power of discourse, or undermine the power of discourse, or apologize for the power of discourse, but how to recover the power of radical discourse, to make such discourse once again a weapon in the struggle against inequality and exploitation.

The prerequisite to that recovery, I suggest, is a refusal to invoke the macros of speech without thought. "Racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is to the 1990's what "running dogs of imperialism" and "capitalist lackeys" were to the 1930's. Now, there really were, in the 30's, nasty, unprincipled underlings who did the dirty work of the imperial capitalist nations, just as there are today. When first coined, the metaphors "running dogs" and "lackeys" captured rather vividly both the function and the moral degradation of those despicable people [assuming, for the moment, that one accepts the rather unjustifiably negative view of the dog.] But after endless, and eventually mindless, repetition, they lost their capacity to enlighten, and instead became obstacles to thought.

In like manner, racism  is an integral component of American society, sexism is a structural feature of almost all societies, disdain for the poor [which, I assume, is what is 'meant by "classism"] has been endemic among the wealthy and privileged of European and American society for centuries, and homophobia is manifestly a widespread pathology. But "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia," like so many other unreflective utterances of the putatively progressive, is an impediment to thought, not a tool of ideological critique. It is as devoid of critical content as that right-wing oxymoron, "the free market."

Perhaps this is merely the crotchety complaint of a sixty-year old radical who finds that, as usual, the young are listening to a different music and singing a different song. But I am convinced that we have never had a greater need for the destructive unmasking of entrenched and rationalized interests, for ideological critique as Marx first conceived and practiced it. Perhaps the next generation of PC's will come with a resident program that responds to stereotyped, one-dimensional language with the error message, "Warning: words without meaning; please pause and reflect."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


Brian Leiter's blog tells me that Israel Scheffler passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-one.  Many, many others knew him far better than I, and will, I am sure, have a good deal to say about this wise and very sweet man.  I should like to add one personal story now just sixty-one years old.  In the late Fall of 1952 I found myself in a rather difficult bind.  I was a senior at  Harvard, supposedly writing an honors thesis for graduation.  Since I was going through Harvard in three years, I needed the two semesters of "tutorial for credit" to complete the thirty-two courses required for the degree, and this credit was awarded only if one actually wrote a thesis.  But I had flamed out in my effort to write a logic thesis with Hao Wang, and was casting about desperately for a manageable topic.  Morton White suggested I write a thesis on Gilbert Ryle's new book, Concept of Mind, which I had just read in a course on Analytic Philosophy with White.  I got to it earnestly, and quickly produced fifty pages or so.  But having let Wang down, I did not feel that I could go back to him with this trivial topic totally outside his areas of interest, so I was on my own.

Is Scheffler was then teaching, if memory serves, in the Harvard School of Education, but he had close ties to the Philosophy Department.  Quite spontaneously, he offered to step in and serve as my de facto thesis advisor.  He read what I had written, made some helpful suggestions, and in general saw me through a difficult period.  It was an extremely generous thing for him to do -- a true supererogatory act, to use a term that has gone out of circulation -- and I have always been very grateful.  I was then too young to appreciate how unusual such an offer was at Harvard in those days [I was barely nineteen], but I did have enough wit to recognize that Is Scheffler was a kind, thoughtful, and thoroughly decent man.  He will be missed.


Today, as promised, I initiate what will be an occasional series of repeat posts, reprising essays I have previously posted of which I am inordinately fond.  My motivation is entirely narcissistic, and is not prompted by even a single request from my readers.  I conceive of myself as a writer, not as a blogger [though recent evidence might count against me in that regard], and once I have shaped my thoughts into a formal essay or book, I think of the product not as episodic and evanescent, but rather as a permanent contribution to The Great Conversation.  One of the paradoxes of The Cloud is that it both preserves every thought one has ever blogged or tweeted or texted and also, by that very fact, reduces everything one has written to the status of ephemera.  Think of this series of repeat posts as my futile effort to sweep back the tide.

Today, I re-post the first half of an essay I wrote, in despair, after a difficult meeting of a graduate seminar.  The second half will appear tomorrow.  It has never been formally published.

Macros and PC's:
                                 A Last-Ditch Attempt to Salvage Ideological Critique

[Editorial note:  this was written twenty years ago.  Now, of course, I use WORD]

I am one of those dinosaurs who still use Wordstar as a word processing program. In the Wordstar program there is a utility that permits a user to define a macro - that is to say, a series of characters associated with a single one or two stroke command. When I have finished writing a letter, for example, I simply press "Escape-C." On the screen appears "tab, tab, tab, Sincerely yours, comma, return, return, return, tab, tab, tab, Robert Paul Wolff." Another macro command prints out "tab, tab, tab, Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy," and yet a third produces "tab, tab, tab, University of Massachusetts, Amherst."  This Macro utility is a great convenience to me. It permits me to produce a standardized bit of text without mistakes and without much thought. I have ten or twelve such macros stored somewhere in the Wordstar program.
I often think that George Orwell would have been quite delighted by the phenomenon of the macro, had he lived long enough to see it. In his great essay, "Politics and the English Language," written in 1946, Orwell, you will recall, talks about the corruption of political thought and language that is manifested in the mindless repetition of standardized phrases. He gives lots of examples, such as "a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind," and "bloodstained tyranny," and "achieve a radical transformation," and "leaves much to be desired." Had he written the essay only a few years later, he could have added "the free world," and "communist dictatorship," and perhaps "tax and spend liberal." He would have enjoyed the idea of politicians - or their speech writers - programming these and other phrases into their computers as macros, so that they could be produced by a single keystroke or two with no thought whatsoever. We Kant scholars have some rather specialist cant phrases for which macros might be appropriate - my favorite is "conditions of the possibility of experience in general."

These reflections were prompted, several semesters ago, by an incident in a seminar I was teaching on ideological critique. The participants were a group of extremely intelligent and widely read graduate students - all impeccably radical. Despite my heroic efforts to focus their attention on particular, concrete examples, such as the controversy that has developed among ethnographers of the northern Kalahari desert, the students persisted in speaking and writing in the most suffocatingly abstract and stereotypical fashion. Things finally blew up when one member of the class, making a class presentation, referred in passing to "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia." The phrase rolled off his tongue as though the individual words were simply syllables of one great polysyllable - stuck together by some sort of syntactical glue. Everyone in the class was quite comfortable with the phrase. It seemed to me that they found it reassuring, rather in the way little children snuggle down in bed when they hear "Once upon a time." All except a rather abrasive German student who interrupted to protest that she, for one, had nothing against classism.  Indeed, she said, she regularly judged people according to their economic class, and thought it quite the right way to go about things.  The class came to a dead halt, and no one knew what to say. None of the students had ever heard anyone question the appropriateness of the phrase "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia," used as a term of opprobrium. It was as though, in the middle of a class preparing little Catholic boys and girls for First Communion, a smart-mouthed trouble maker had piped up and said, "I can take the Father and the Son, but you can keep the Holy Ghost."

I pounced on the intervention - as the French have taught us to call it when a student says something in class - and did everything I could to make it the occasion for a searching examination of unacknowledged ideological presuppositions. That was, after all, the subject matter of the course. But it was a total flop. I simply couldn't get the students to see how mind-numbingly banal, how drained of all genuine thought, that phrase had become. I could not even get them to attune their ears to the ugliness of it as language.  Freud says somewhere, talking about the dynamics of psychoanalytic therapy, that if there is a single topic that it is not permitted to examine in an analysis, sooner or later the entire analysis comes to be about that topic. I have always found this a profound insight into what happens in the classroom as well.  A classroom in which it is socially or pedagogically unacceptable to question the appropriateness of the phrase "racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia" is a classroom in which neither real teaching nor real learning can take place. It is like a classroom at a Catholic university in which teachers are free to explore every conceivable subject - except the legitimacy of abortion. It is like the huge introduction to neo-classical economics at Harvard, presided over by former Chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisors Martin Feldstein, who announced, when he returned from his duties in Washington, that the purpose of the course was to teach that the market works - not how it works, mind you, but that it works. 

There are a number of ways in which an orthodoxy can be imposed on a classroom.  The most obvious, and hence the least dangerous, is by administrative fiat. Considerably more dangerous, because harder to spot and to confront, is the quiet, tacit social pressure that enshrines certain ways of thinking as correct, stigmatizing deviations as morally reprehensible and unworthy of serious consideration. I have come to think of this as macro-thinking. By one of the ironies of modern discourse, this pre-programming of thought masquerades as ideological critique, when in fact it is the precise opposite. 

Ideological critique is the demonstration that a putatively value-neutral and objective description of the world actually conceals a thoroughly interested distortion of reality in the service of some powerful social or economic group. As Karl Mannheim shows us in Ideology and Utopia, the critique of a text as ideological is a hostile and aggressive attempt not merely to refute the thesis advanced by the text but also to discredit the author of the text as dishonest, disingenuous, covertly exploitative and manipulative. In the polite world of intellectual combat, where ink rather than blood is spilled, the accusation of ideology is the verbal equivalent of a shotgun blast. Deployed by the weak against the strong, it can be an equalizer, righting somewhat the force imbalance that characterizes unjust societies. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


I had planned to start today a selective re-posting of a number of essays that have appeared here over the past five years, inasmuch as it has been brought to my attention that there are actually visitors to this blog who have not read every word I have ever written [bizarre, I know, but apparently true.]  But that can wait for a bit.  Today I shall respond to the first two extended comments on yesterday's blog post.

To Michael:  You are quite right to emphasize the explosive growth of the financial sector and its fundamental strangeness.  In a world awash in uninvested capital looking for a home, it is very difficult to remember that human well-being depends on the real economy -- that is, on the production or provision of goods and services -- rather than on the tabulation of monetary value.  We are, as a world society, more than capable of producing enough goods and real services [education, health care, entertainment, and so forth] to provide a decent existence for all seven billion people.  What is more, we could do that without vastly enriching a small number of investors and financial manipulators.  To be sure, we very much need efficient and strongly motivated managers of productive enterprises, but that is entirely another matter.

The fundamental irrationality of our present economic system -- capitalism -- is evidenced by the fact that alongside those who cannot find a job are others working too hard and for too many hours.  It is obviously theoretically possible to shorten the hours and lighten the work load on those employed and then to enlist the unemployed to take their places on the production lines or in the offices.  The obstacle to such an arrangement is not that it would be inefficient but that it would be unprofitable.

A propos, the story is told of the great conservative economist Milton Friedman that he was visiting a South American country and was taken to a showcase government construction project.  When he asked why the men were using shovels rather than earthmoving equipment, it was explained that this was a job-creating project.  "Then why not have them use spoons then?"  Friedman asked.  This was a witty reply, intended to reveal the irrationality of using anything less than the most efficiently labor-saving technology.  But in fact there is a perfectly good answer.  Let us suppose that the purpose of an economy is to provide for human well-being rather than to make profits [an unacceptably radical assumption, I know, but bear with me.]  Let us suppose also [this is a very important assumption, and not at all to be taken for granted] that active, effortful, productive participation in the collective economic activities of the society is a positive human good, not a painful human necessity imposed by the harsh realities of life.  [I am here borrowing from Marx's discussion of alienated labor, as true aficionados will instantly recognize.]  In that case, working some people too hard and giving a part of their output to those who are unemployed in the form of welfare benefits is inferior as a set of social arrangements to sharing the work around so that everyone participates and everyone is adequately supported.  [I urge those of you who wish to pursue this line of analysis to take a look at the first chapter of David Schweickart's fine early book, Capitalism or Worker Control.]

Thus far, I have simply been indulging in what Marx bitingly and with good reason called Utopian Socialism -- which is to say, speculation about better ways of arranging things not grounded in an adequate analysis of the present situation and without any notion of what forces now at work in society could realistically lead to something resembling that imagined alternative future.  Two developments are required to translate these fantasies into a plan of action.  The first, which I have explored in my essay "The Future of Socialism," is transformations within the structure and organization of capitalist enterprises that make coherent, efficient large-scale economic planning materially possible, indeed actual.  As I argued in that essay, these transformations are well underway in the largest capitalist enterprises, driven not by ideology but by capitalist necessity.  The second [which Marx wrongly though would be produced by the first -- see the Manifesto] is the mobilization of the great majority of workers of all sorts behind a demand for a subordination of capitalist enterprises to the general will [if Rousseau will forgive me.]  It is because I understand the necessity of this second development that I keep sniffing the wind and taking heart from every sign, however evanescent, that that great beast, The People, is arousing itself and is slouching toward Jerusalem.

To GT Christie:  "the ordinary worker (including the university educated worker) is becoming superfluous."  That is a profound and deeply troubling truth.  The outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs is almost complete, but the outsourcing or obsolescence of "white collar" jobs is also under way.  All of us are familiar with the rather unsettling experience of speaking to a man or woman in India when we call the customer service of a credit card company or an insurance provider.  But equally odd is the discovery that an x-ray or MRI administered in an American hospital may be read by a perfectly competent but much cheaper medical technician ten thousand miles away.  There are relatively few jobs that require the actual physical presence of an employee in immediate proximity to the customer.  What is more -- and it is this, I think, that GT was getting at -- more and more decent jobs with adequate salaries are being replaced by automated systems.  Only those of us who are really old can recall when operators, rather than switching machines, directed our calls.  If Jeff Bezo's latest dream pans out, the endless variety of things we all order from will be delivered by drones rather than by UPS drivers in brown shorts.

Well, enough for today.  I must go to the store.  I am all out of raw carrots.

Monday, February 17, 2014


It has often been observed that when the body is afflicted, one's sphere of awareness constricts.  Confined to bed by an illness, sensitivity to the slightest changes in your body expands and events beyond your home, or your  room, or even beyond the bed itself dwindle in importance.  Indeed, Eric Goldstein [later Eric Cassel], the boy my sister's age who lived across the back driveway from us in the housing development in which I grew up, reported in a professional publication, written when he had become Dr. Eric Cassel, that patients after general anaesthesia regress for a while in their cognitive capabilities to the level of young children, as originally measured by the Swiss psychologist jean Piaget.  [Piaget's tests of cognitive development involved asking children of different ages to perform such tasks as comparing the amount of water in a tall thin glass with the amount in a short fat glass.  Cassel's conclusion, which seems eminently reasonable, was that you should not ask patients still in the Recovery Room to make adult decisions about such things as inheritances or further medical care.]

Since returning from Paris, I have been on an extremely strict diet in a desperate effort to lose fifteen pounds or more over a stretch of eight weeks.  Today is the end of the first two weeks, and I must in all candor confess that anything less than a nuclear war cannot at this moment command my full adult attention.  My day is filled with deliberations about the dangers of a dill pickle.  Yesterday while munching a raw carrot, I asked my wife in all seriousness whether she had ever seen a fat rabbit.

In an effort to combat this decline into solipsism, I should like today to broach a very large subject on which I have been brooding for a long time.  I do not have clearly formed views about it, nor am I sufficiently knowledgeable about it to have any confidence in my intuitions.  But I have no doubt at all of its importance, and perhaps I can stimulate some discussion on this blog that we would all find helpful.  You will forgive me if I pause from time to time as I write to nibble a lettuce leaf or indulge in a grape.  [I am reminded of the lovely moment in Act One, Scene One of Cyrano de Bergerac in which the impecunious but fiercely proud Cyrano makes a meal of a few grapes, a sip of water, and half a macaroon.  This is, by the bye, another example of the observation in my last post about the role the web plays as an extension of memory.  I am of course quite unable to quote the play by heart, but I had enough of a recollection of the bit of dialogue to find it in an on-line version of Cyrano in a few moments.]

The question, to put it as simply as I can, is this:  How are we to understand the dramatic increase in economic inequality in America and what, if anything, can we do about it?  The broad outlines of the facts are quite well known, and have become, I am happy to say, the subject of constant comment in the public conversation.  America is now almost the most economically unequal of the fully developed industrial nations and it exhibits as well virtually the lowest level of socio-economic mobility.  [For a very useful summary of the data in a NY TIMES column co-authored by my old friend and former UMass colleague Samuel Bowles, go to this link: 

The proximate causes are well known:  the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs, the successful assault on union rights, the failure of regulatory oversight, the explosive growth of the financial sector, the repeated cuts in tax rates for upper incomes.  Can we put these factors in some larger or more general frame of reference?

As is so often true, I find it helpful to go back to Marx.  Although he could not have foreseen in any detail what capitalism has become, his insights were nonetheless penetrating because he was looking at its birth and early youth.  Four thoughts come to mind when I once again view capitalism through his eyes.

First, the driving force of capitalism is the ceaseless quest for profit, for the augmentation of capital.  "Accumulate, accumulate!  That is Moses and the prophets," he says in a famous passage.  Capitalism is not driven by greed nor is it driven by the desire of the executors of capitalist enterprises for self-indulgent gratification.  Lord knows, there is more than enough of that, but as Max Weber taught us, capital accumulation can even be accompanied by, indeed is facilitated by, the paradoxical self-denial of those guided by a secular Puritanism.

Second, the augmentation of profits compels capitalists to seek ever cheaper labor, for labor is a major cost of production and, unlike the prices of other factor inputs, wages are variable and can with effort be driven down.  The familiar justifications for low wages and the shredding of the social safety net are ex post ideological rationalizations, not genuine reasons for the relentless efforts of capitalism to cheapen labor.  This effort to drive down wages can for a time be weakened or even halted by labor shortages, by the collective opposition of organized labor, or by the actions of a government for the moment influenced by the voting power of the workers.  But the maintenance of high wages is, for capitalism, an unacceptable and unstable compromise, not an equilibrium that can be sustained indefinitely.

Third, the cheapening of labor exposes a contradiction in capitalism [as we used to say in the old days], for in any rapidly expanding capitalist system, the principal source of market demand is the wages of laborers.  Indeed, in some of the simpler and more elegant formal models of a capitalist economy, both of the Marxian and the neo-classical sort, final demand by capitalists and their beneficiaries for luxury goods is non-existent.  In any event, even the most blatantly self-indulgent "masters of the universe" with their yachts and private planes and elevator-serviced mansions and multi-million dollar weddings account for only a tiny fraction of the Gross Domestic Product.  Hence, by driving down wages, Capital is depriving itself of buyers for its goods, and hence of profits.

Fourth, in its contradictory quest for cheap labor and effective consumer demand, Capital has historically pursued two policies which for generations served it quite well:  The enlistment of a work force even poorer and more desperate than its domestic labor supply and the opening up, by the force of the state if necessary, of new markets.  Hence outsourcing and colonialism, including their modern variant, neo-liberal economic policies.

There is a limit to the unending movement of capitalist enterprises to nations with even cheaper labor:  Eventually, one would think, Capital will run out of pre-capitalist enclaves in which pools of cheap and desperate labor can still be found.  I am reminded of this extraordinarily prescient passage by David Ricardo, written almost two hundred years ago, in the extraordinary chapter "On Wages" in his 1817 magnum opus, The Principles of Political Economy.  "An English labourer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where 'man's life is cheap', and his wants easily satisfied."  [Ricardo, Chapter v.]   Quite clearly, we are nowhere near the limit of the benefits to Capital of the search for cheaper labor, although it is perhaps possible to see that terminus now as a possible future in which, at long last, a world-wide shortage of labor will begin to drive wages back up.

But at the same time, there is another development under way that threatens to make even that distant hope a mirage.  As Paul Krugman has recently noted [but this time Google lets me down -- I cannot find it], advances in robotics are reducing the amount of human labor required for production -- this is called an increase in "labor productivity" -- so that in America today [America understood as including the scores of millions of workers overseas who work for American enterprises] there are increasing numbers of human beings who are simply superfluous.  They persist in hanging around, they eat food and sleep somewhere or other and wear clothes and use medical resources at some level or other, but they really are not needed by Capitalism, not even is a Reserve Army of the Unemployed.  The rational and humane response to this fact would of course be to cut the length of the workday, share the jobs around, and pay everyone a more than living wage.  The economy is materially productive enough to accomplish this easily.  But it would not be profitable.  Hence no serious person even considers it.

Well, there are as many thoughts as I can put down on an empty stomach.  I invite thoughtful comments of any length.

Sunday, February 16, 2014


Thank you all.  It is indeed H. L. Hunt.

Here is an interesting question that I am sure many have written about:  I know a number of things that I cannot at the moment recall, but with enough effort I can retrieve many of them from my memory.  For example, sometimes I cannot recall Donald Sutherland's name even though I can tell you the movies he was in and what he looks like.  There are also countless things I do not know and perhaps have never known that I can retrieve from Google in much less time than it takes me to recall one of the things I do know, such as, say, the capital of South Dakota.  Why should I not consider that vast store of information part of what I know? 


Jerry, the various items I removed are all unattached to the main body of the viola, save by friction and such.  The strings are wound around the pegs [top of the photo] and attach to that darker wedge shaped piece at the bottom either by being inserted through slots in the wedge shaped piece [the strings have metal knobs on the end that catch and hold the string in place] or by a little loop, in the case of the A string, farthest to the right in the picture, which loops over the manual adjustment knob.  [To tune the viola, you either rotate the pegs to loosen or tighten the string, making it lower or higher in tone, or you rotate the knob for the A string, same principle.]  The wedge shaped piece itself is attached by a loop [which you cannot see] to the bottom of the viola, where there is a knob.  It is held in place by tension.  The bridge -- the thin light colored piece of wood that the strings go over -- is held down onto the viola by pressure from the tightened strings.  The man who made my viola -- Marten Cornellissen -- very kindly puts little marks on the surface of his violins and violas to mark exactly where the feet of the bridge are to sit.  The chin rest -- black think, lower left -- is held onto the viola by a clamp that you cannot see in the picture, but which fits to the underneath side of the viola.  Two adjustable rods tighten to hold it in place.  I just inserted a very thin metal rod in holes in the sides of the columns and turned them to loosen the chin rest until it came off easily.  This fact about the construction of the chin rest allows a violist to adjust the precise place where it is set on the viola -- same thing for a violin.  Note, by the way, that baroque violin and viola players do not use chin rests.  They also use baroque bows and gut strings, and the combination of these two differences results in a softer sound, quite different from the brilliant sound of a modern violin or viola with metal wound strings and a modern high tension bow.

When all of those various pieces had been removed, what remained was just my viola itself, which I then polished with a soft cloth and a very little bit of Mr. Hill's varnish cleaner.  The challenge came in reassembling it all, which took me a good deal of time and much angst.

By the way, since we are deep in the weeds here, all violins are the same size but not all violas are.  They vary in the length of the body [the lovely amber colored main part], from as small as 15 3/4 inches to as much as 17 inches or even -- lord help us -- 17 1/2 inches.  I play a 16 inch viola, which is considered small.  I stand in awe of those who can play 16 1/2 or 17 inch violas.  If you want to sound really knowledgeable, ask a violist after a concert whether he or she plays a sixteen and a half or a seventeen.