Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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
LECTURE ONE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d__In2PQS60
LECTURE TWO: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Al7O2puvdDA

ALSO AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ONE THROUGH TEN ON IDEOLOGICAL CRITIQUE



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Thursday, July 16, 2015

ONE MORE REPLY TO WALLACE STEVENS


Wallace Stevens' reply provides a convenient opportunity to clarify the sharp difference between my vision of our society and that of Rawls, which I think Stevens captures successfully.  Here is what he says:

"So let’s grant that Rawls failed on his own terms. But let’s also agree that what we call “the economy”—the productive infrastructure, the people who work in various ways and the markets that link them in a kind of decentralized communication mechanism—should be seen in purely instrumental terms, as a device that produces stuff. Let’s further recognize that this device is a rules-based, social construct that exists only through the consent, participation and cooperation of the people that make up that society. We say good-bye to the swashbuckling capitalists braving the stormy seas of commerce, the immigrant kids who study hard, work hard and “make it” through sheer merit, and the hush-toned sanctity of PROPERTY. And what do we conclude about distribution? Equality, of the most radical kind, no? Equality, subject only to the constraint that if, and only if, (i) incentives are needed to get someone to do something; AND (ii) the performance of that something makes the least well of better off, then that someone will earn more than the least well off—but only to the extent necessary to satisfy (i).

There is grandeur in this view of life!"

Whether there is grandeur in that view of life might be disputed, but we can all agree that it offers a dramatic alternative to the dominant view in America's public discourse.  My problem with it can be found in the third sentence:  " this device [the economy] is a rules-based, social construct that exists only through the consent, participation and cooperation of the people that make up that society."  It is the words "consent" and "cooperation" at which I cavil.  The fundamental fact about capitalism is that the private ownership of the means of production gives those owners the power to compel the participation of the vast majority of people on terms dictated by the owners, not arrived at by either genuine consent or unforced cooperation.  Rawls completely fails to capture that fact about capitalist society, and for that reason, I described his philosophical theory as an ideological rationalization.

Those who control capital in this society, together with their enablers in the Economics profession, are always eager to misrepresent what goes on as cooperation based on consent, because to acknowledge the truth [as the classical economists, Smith and Ricardo, did] would threaten their hegemony.

But I am content if we can agree that Rawls' argument does not in fact work.  That, after all, is the point of philosophy.

 

 

2 comments:

David Palmeter said...

This isn’t Rawls as I understand him. As I read him, he explicitly states that there is no right to ownership of the means of production, only a right to personal property. The means of production may be privately owned only to the extent that this can be shown to be to the benefit of the least advantaged. He also states that capitalism, including welfare capitalism, won’t meet his criteria. Only democratic socialism or a property-owning democracy will do so.

Wallace Stevens said...

I am not applying the notion of ‘consent’ at the level of the labour market, where, as you quite rightly point out, the vast majority of people, with little to no capital, are forced to sell their labour as a rather harsh matter of survival. Rather, I am applying it at the level of the laws of contracting, property rights, and taxation, and market regulation, that, together, constitute the PRE-CONDITIONS for the market for labour in a capitalist economy. I think it is appropriate to speak of consent at this level, not only as a simple matter of fact, but also because of the rhetorical traction it offers the Left, for two reasons:

First, consent implies that THINGS COULD BE DIFFERENT. (It would make no sense to speak of consent if this were not the case.) The pre-conditions I described are not, as the Right would have us believe, the natural and “right” order of things that become “upset” when foolish polities “interfere” with them. They are a social construct that reflect choices and decisions made over many years, and they could be, have been, and are, meaningfully different in different times and places. This notion has been lost and replaced by a resigned, “resistance is futile” attitude that must be countered for any Left-wing politics to succeed.

Second, in the developed economies at least, these choices are made democratically—i.e., with the consent of the population based on the notion of the equality, for political purposes,of all citizens. This point sometimes gets guffaws on the Left, but, as you have pointed out on several occasions, it actually does make a difference who you vote for—even if the differences are not as great as we would like. But suppose that we ignore all this and dismiss elections as a rigged-in-advance, mug’s game. There is still the more important point that, in our society, the choices are SUPPOSED to be made democratically. No one, and certainly no one on the Right, would dispute this. In campaigns to resist voter suppression, for example, no one needs to invoke some ineffable, easily-dismissed utopian ideal. One need only invoke the rights that everyone agrees every adult is SUPPOSED to have.

Together, “THINGS COULD BE DIFFERENT” and “THINGS ARE SUPPOSED TO BE DECIDED DEMOCRATICALLY” offer the Left two very strong legs to stand on. The second is, in an advanced, modern society, one of those self-evident truths that needs no justification. The first is contentious, but must be insisted upon, I believe, if any progressive politics is to be possible.

So, ‘consent’ matters, I think, at the level where I am applying it. And I believe that the Left dismisses the notion of consent at its peril.