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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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. 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 rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Sunday, November 13, 2016

MY MORNING WALK

It was twenty-seven degrees in Chapel Hill when I got up this morning at 4:30.  After drinking some decaf, I put on my long johns, my thermal underwear, a turtleneck, two sweaters, sneakers and socks, a scarf, a hoodie, my reflector vest, and two pairs of woolen gloves and set out on my morning walk, looking like the Pillsbury Doughboy in Ghostbusters.  Despite being quite protected from the chill, my thoughts were so disordered that I could not manage a sustained train of thought as I walked.  Nearing the conclusion of the walk, I finally began to arrange my broodings into something resembling a coherent narrative, and I am going to try in this post to set them out.  I hope you will be patient with my meanderings.  These are difficult times.

There are two structures of domination and inequality in virtually all societies, the first social and the second economic, neither of which can be reduced to nor explained as a function of the other, although they everywhere and always interact in endlessly complex ways.  The oldest and most pervasive structure of domination is male domination of women.  This is often accompanied by racial and ethnic domination, as well of course as by xenophobic fear and loathing of the other, of foreigners, of immigrants, of those who pray or look or eat or walk or talk or even smell differently.  The other structure of domination, the economic, takes many forms.  In a capitalist economy it manifests itself as exploitation by those who own or control the means of production of the vastly larger segment of society that, owning nothing, must sell its labor for a wage.  Neither of these structures, I say, is explainable merely as a subordinate form of the other, though many of the social theorists whose work I most respect have thought that it was.

The United States, like every other society, exhibits, and has always exhibited, both structures of domination and inequality, but chattel slavery and its sequals, which is the defining feature of American society, has given American society and politics a distinctive character.  It is in this way that America truly is, as its apologists endlessly claim, exceptional

The most striking changes in American society during my adult life have been two: First, a series of so-called liberation movements by those who have been socially dominated – The Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Lib, Gay Liberation [latterly the LGBTTrans Movement], as well as the Latino/a Movement and the Native American Movement – and second, the progressive increase in the inequality in the distribution of wealth and income, an increase mirrored throughout the advanced capitalist world, as chronicled by Thomas Piketty.

I have on a number of occasions noted in my blog posts that the liberation movements seek the perfection of American capitalism, not its overthrow.  That is to say, taken as a whole, they seek to eliminate the first structure of domination from American society while leaving the second structure intact and unaltered.  The demand for full integration of African-Americans into American society, after all, is simply a demand, if I may put it in a sort of statistical shorthand, that the percentage of Black men and women going to college, serving in the military, holding positions of leadership in business and government and the academy become equal to the percentage for White men and women.  “Equal pay for equal work,” the battle cry of the Women’s Movement, is, when one thinks about it, a demand that women be exploited at just the same rate as men, no more and no less.  These movements are, let me emphasize, vitally important, and their successes have dramatically improved the lives of countless scores of millions of Americans.  Their successes are still only partial, fragile, and – as we are about to see – perpetually under assault by those who would undo them.  Let me speak personally:  I will go to the barricades to defend my son’s right to marry whom he chooses.

What of the other structure of domination, the economic?  Here the story is not nearly so happy.  After a brief time in the post-World War II era when economic inequality decreased, we are now well into a return to the historically extremely high levels of exploitation and inequality that gave The Gilded Age its name.  I assume that anyone reading this blog is well aware of this development, so I shan’t cite statistics.  Let me simply reiterate a point I have made many times:  It is the structure of capitalism, not the educational or other failings of the less well off, that is to blame for the inequality in American society and for the stagnant wages of those who in the old days were identified as The Working Class.  The American economy is quite capable today of producing more than enough to provide everyone in this nation with a secure, decent, even comfortable material existence.  What is quite definitely not the case is that American capitalism is capable of providing everyone in American with a secure, decent, comfortable existence while also providing a substantial and growing rate of profit to the owners of the means of production

 

Perhaps the data from one statistical chart will be useful here.  I take this from the Economic Policy Institute.   For the first twenty-five years after WW II, productivity and hourly compensation rose almost exactly in tandem.  For the past forty years, hourly real wages have been essentially stagnant while productivity has more than doubled.  Even under the exploitative conditions of capitalism, the well-being of the Working Class could today have been dramatically better than it in fact is.

 

What is to be done?  Well, I made a very nice career out of teaching at universities, so far be it from me to pooh-pooh a college degree, but it is simply nonsense to suppose that college for all – even free college for all – is the royal road to Working Class affluence.  It is, to be sure, the royal road to instant jobs for doctoral students.  A dramatic increase in the number of young men and women going to college would immediately create lots and lots of jobs for those enrolled in doctoral programs.  But while the number of unemployed PhDs would dwindle, the number of unemployed college graduates would balloon.  Even Bernie seems not to have grasped this elementary fact.

 

Look:  the American economy needs, and will always need, large numbers of men and women doing jobs for which a college education is not a prerequisite [I leave to one side the fact that many of the jobs now requiring a Bachelor’s Degree – such as Corporate Executive, for example – can be performed quite well by those without the B. A.]  Let me try a little thought experiment to show you what I mean.

 

As I have mentioned, on January 21st, I will go up to Washington, DC to take part in the “million women march” [despite Jerry Fresia’s doubts, which I share.]  Here is the way it is going to go.  On January 20th, I will call a local company to arrange for a cab to the airport.  An operator will take my details, and the next day a cab will come to my condo building to drive me to RDU Airport.  There, I will first show my ticket and a photo ID to a TSA agent, and then take off my shoes and my belt and go through a TSA screening under the vigilant eye of another TSA agent. At the gate, my ticket will be scanned by an airline employee, after which I will board the plane, to be greeted by one of several cabin attendants.  The plane will be flown by a pilot and a co-pilot. When I deplane at Washington National [I refuse to call it by its official name], I will stop for breakfast [it will still be wicked early], where I will be served by a waitperson who will bring me the food prepared by someone in the kitchen.  Then I will catch a cab to somewhere as close as I can get to the assembly point for the march.

 

By my count, on this brief trip, I shall rely directly on the labor services of at least twelve people, only two of whom [the pilots] are required to have Bachelor’s Degrees, and should I happen to be flying on a regional airline, probably they don’t need more than an Associate’s Degree.  I very strongly support the right of these twelve people to pursue college level studies, but doing so will not transform the jobs they now perform, nor under the standard conditions of capitalism will it somehow drive up their wages.  Each one, individually, may gain materially from completing a four year degree, but it is not possible that all of the people in America – two-thirds of the total adult population! – who do not now have college degrees can collectively rise into the ranks of the upper middle class.  That is an example of what we philosophers call The Fallacy of Composition.  It is true that America is productive enough to pay all of them, right now, “middle class” salaries for doing their essential jobs [how else am I going to get to Washington].  But not so long as the American economy is capitalist.

 

Well, what does all of this have to do with Trump and the disastrous election?  Let me try to put it as simply as I can.  About a generation and a half ago, the Republican and Democratic Parties made a pair of devil’s bargains with the electorate.  The Republican Party offered Working Class and Lower Middle Class Whites a chance at continued social domination in return for continued economic exploitation.  The voters would get to continue to dominate women, Blacks, Latinos, and Gays, and the plutocrats would get to continue their very profitable exploitation.  The Democrats cut a somewhat different bargain.  They offered social liberation to African Americans, Latinos, and Gays, in return for preserving and enhancing the economic status and security and returns to the Upper Middle Class of college educated professionals.

 

Because of the oddities of the American electoral system and the generally low level of voter participation, this turned out to be a pretty good deal for both Parties.  Were it not for the weirdness of the Electoral College system, the Democratic Party’s bargain would have turned out this time to be a good one.  Clinton is apparently on track to win the popular vote by several million.  They just weren’t quite in the right places.

 

Now those of us on the left have to decide what we do going forward.  Let’s face it.  Collective ownership of the means of production is not in the cards, at least not in my shorter and shorter lifetime.  For structural reasons, having to do principally with the loss of manufacturing jobs and the automation of those that remain, a vigorous rebirth of the union movement that led to that tracking of wages with productivity during the first quarter century after WW II is going to be very, very difficult.  I am totally committed to the effort, but I am not under any illusions about its prospects.

 

It is essential that we fight to preserve the rights and protections that the Liberation Movements have secured over the past half century.  Indeed, in these next four years, that may be the most important thing we can do.  It is a rearguard action, to be sure, but in a war, when you have lost a big battle, a rearguard action may be the best option.

 

Once the leaders of the Democratic Party have time to collect their wits and examine the returns in detail, they will almost certainly conclude that their thirty-year-old bargain still remains their best bet.  After all, they did win the popular vote decisively.

 

I suppose it all comes down to one fundamental question, the answer to which I do not know:  Is it possible to form an alliance between those who have been used by the Republican Party and those who have been used by the Democratic Party in which social liberation is joined with economic liberation to make a common front against capitalist exploitation?

 


I just do not know.

16 comments:

Jerry Fresia said...

I think you are absolutely right. Perhaps a mini-tutorial around this with a robust discussion would be fruitful.

Ed Barreras said...

Professor Wolff,

First, Ghostbusters did not feature the Pillsbury Doughboy. It was the Stay Puft Marshmallow man. A very important distinction.

Second, it would be interesting to hear your list of (roughly) five books you would recommend for someone trying to understand the current political situation in the U.S.?

s. wallerstein said...

Do the Democrats use (your word) their core voters in the same cynical way that Republicans use their core voters?

Blacks, gays and women have made real social and cultural gains under the Democrats, and I have no reason to believe that the Democratic leadership, including our dear Hillary, are not genuinely concerned about ending discrimination, stereotyping and cultural marginalization of blacks, gays and women.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have cynically and dishonestly manipulated the fears of low income white voters as if they were the party of whites who have been left behind by neoliberal globalization when really their chief interest is lowing taxes on the wealthy and ending the inheritance tax. They play on lots of issues, the right to bear arms, the sanctity of traditional marriage, religious fundamentalism, etc., to win the votes of low income whites, but I doubt that they really give a fuck about them. Trump certainly doesn't.

David E. said...

You sum up with: "Once the leaders of the Democratic Party have time to collect their wits and examine the returns in detail, they will almost certainly conclude that their thirty-year-old bargain still remains their best bet. After all, they did win the popular vote decisively."

A not very optimistic view. Democrats, then, will continue to be on the wrong side of the class struggle.

Chris said...

Wallerstein,
Wikileaks suggest yes they use them just as cynically.
Take them for granted.

Anonymous said...


Why do you - and many partisan pundits - keep bringing up the fact that Clinton won the popular vote, as though that had some sort of deep significance?

Election strategies are geared toward the Electoral College (Trump never went to Oregon; Clinton never went to Louisiana), so the outcome of an election - to the extent that that is affected by candidates' strategies - is significant only in respect to the intended goal. Who knows what would have happened if both candidates had focused instead on winning the popular vote?

This is not to take a position on the goodness or badness of the Electoral College system in determining the president. It is only to question the value of claims, prophesies, exhortations and sundry bloviating founded upon some irrelevant or insignificant fact.

Chris said...

Right, if Trump had campaigned in NY and California (which he NEVER did), it's possible he may have won the popular vote, but since he abandoned those take-it-for-granted blue states, Hillary has them to bolster her overall vote.

Ed Barreras said...

Regarding the popular vote. Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential cycles. This fact aligns with scientific surveys, which tell us that the population generally favors the Democratic party over the Republican, and has for a very long time. This is the reason why Republicans generally favor measures to suppress the vote. If election-day were a national holiday or held on a weekend, if voting were mandatory, if felons could vote, and, perhaps most importantly, if we didn't have all these unreasonable hurdles to voting in the form of voter ID laws and such -- all this would overwhelmingly favor the Democrats.

So yes, taken in this holistic context, it is reasonable to keep touting Hillary Clinton's popular vote victory -- which will be much larger than Al Gore's -- as significant. The state polls were badly off, but it looks as if the popular vote result is more or less in line with pre-election national surveys -- a small but comfortable Clinton win, despite her significant unpopularity.

Now, might Trump have eked out more votes if he had campaigned in more blue states? It seems doubtful, for the reasons given. This is highly unscientific, but look at California. The last race in which it was thought that the GOP might have a fighting chance was the 2010 midterms. The Republican candidates for Senator and Governor ended up getting trounced, and their margins of defeat were more or less in line with T***p's in the state. So it seems unlikely that T***p would have been able to make California much more red than it ended up being.

Anonymous said...

Given that US presidential elections are decided by Electoral College vote, no candidate aware of this fact would be so foolish as to aim for victory in the popular vote. So the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in the past eight cycles is at best a coincidence.

As for the "scientific surveys" you reference: are these different from all the surveys that predicted (>99%) an overwhelming Clinton win?

Perhaps blunt force trauma to the brain has lowered IQs and shortened memories?

LFC said...

You write in the post:

"On January 20th, I will call a local company to arrange for a cab to the airport. An operator will take my details, and the next day a cab will come to my condo building to drive me to RDU Airport. There, I will first show my ticket and a photo ID to a TSA agent, and then take off my shoes and my belt and go through a TSA screening under the vigilant eye of another TSA agent. At the gate, my ticket will be scanned by an airline employee, after which I will board the plane, to be greeted by one of several cabin attendants. The plane will be flown by a pilot and a co-pilot. When I deplane at Washington National [I refuse to call it by its official name], I will stop for breakfast [it will still be wicked early], where I will be served by a waitperson who will bring me the food prepared by someone in the kitchen. Then I will catch a cab to somewhere as close as I can get to the assembly point for the march."


You maintain that all these people -- the cab driver, the TSA agent, the airline employees (including the pilot and co-pilot), the cook who makes the breakfast -- are selling their labor to the owners of the means of production for a wage and are accordingly being exploited (in Marx's sense of that word).

Putting to one side the arguably trivial observation that none of these people, with the exception of the person who cooks the breakfast, is actually producing anything tangible, my question is: who exactly are the owners of the means of production here?
The people who own stock in in the cab company, assuming it's a publicly traded company? The individuals and pension funds and other investors who own stock in the airline? Is it the legal entity of the corporation itself (say, Delta Airlines or American Airlines as a legal entity incorporated in such-and-such a locality)? Is the chief executive officer of American Airlines who makes, say, 15 million dollars a year in total compensation (just to take a plausible figure as a guess out of the air) an exploited worker? He is an owner of the means of production? Neither one? Something in between?

These are not intended to be snarky questions. I just don't entirely understand how Marx's analysis of exploitation applies to this kind of economy. If you've answered this question before, say in one of your books, perhaps you could refer me to the relevant chapters (or whatever).

I just don't understand exactly how the classic Marxist model of exploitation applies to this kind of economy

LFC said...

p.s. oops sorry, disregard the last line, which I meant to delete.

Ed Barreras said...

Anonymous,

If we are going to now completely mistrust surveys going back decades, as if they were worthless, then that is an epistemic issue I don't know how to address.

But as to the specifics of your question, yes, the surveys I mentioned are different than the surveys that predicted a Clinton with with >99% certainty. First, those latter surveys weren't surveys at all. They were the estimates of aggregators. (And as far as I know only Sam Wang ventured that near-certain forecast; Nate Silver had it at basically 60-40). Second, and more to the point, the surveys I mention do not ask about specific candidates. Instead they gauge general party affiliation and/or sympathy. Therefore, they are presumably not subject to the volatilities of any specific candidates and their particular strengths and liabilities, nor to any specific circumstance. And what those surveys show is that a majority of voters consistently favor Democrats. Now again, you may choose to dismiss all this In light of last Tuesday. But in that case, how can *you* confidently assert that the popular vote victories for Democrats going back twenty years are just coincidental? Where got you that knowledge?

(I will add that we are lucky to have two very large red and blue states which, by dint of mirroring each other, can serve as useful test cases. Those are California and Texas. Seeing as how T***p underperformed Romney in both by considerable margins, we may have further reason to doubt his potential ability to have gathered up more raw votes nationwide.)

As I wrote in my previous comment, the polls at the national level were more or less in line with Clinton's popular vote victory. She lost because she perfomred much worse than expected in the Rust Belt. (Florida polls turned out to be accurate as well). And incidentally, this may be a reason for Democrats to embrace abolishing the Electoral College. Previous to this election, the standard thinking was that while Democrats had an advantage in both the EC and the popular vote, their margin in the EC was more comfortable due to of how affiliations were spread out over regions. Of course, nobody then realized how flimsy Democratic support would turn out to be in the Rust Belt (and I'm convinced this had to do with Clinton's general unpopularity [perhaps enhanced by the Comey scandal] as well as Trump's dishonest and racist messaging). So it looks as if perhaps their greater strength lies in the popular vote. Only time will tell.

Jerry Fresia said...

Back to the question of joining social and economic liberation.

Most activism in the US, it seems to me, is NOT centered on or organized around the structure of economic domination. Critiques of capitalism are not well known and generally do not frame the resistance to structures of social domination either. Activism around climate change may be changing this.

So I think the Professor's dichotomy as well as his prescription is right on. But I'm afraid we are a long way off from integrating critiques of capitalism with resistance to structures of social domination. Given that the next step may be infiltrating and taking over the Democratic party (given that we do not have a parliamentary system that permits 3rd parities easily), it may be useful to recall that the function of the political parties is to permit business coalitions to gain control of the state in order to manage "the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" - period.

AB said...

Prof Wolff, you write: "The American economy is quite capable today of producing more than enough to provide everyone in this nation with a secure, decent, even comfortable material existence. What is quite definitely not the case is that American capitalism is capable of providing everyone in American with a secure, decent, comfortable existence while also providing a substantial and growing rate of profit to the owners of the means of production. "

Isn't there a contradiction here, or at least a question being begged?

The American economy certainly produces enough goods and services that, were those goods and services distributed on a different (more equal) basis, everyone would have a secure decent and comfortable existence. But were those goods and services distributed differently, we would be living in an entirely different economy, and not different only in that it does not provide profit to capitalists. Why assume that this new economy would in fact deliver and sustain the same level of output of the old? It is for theoretical and empirical economics to investigate the particular model.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

AB, I did not mean to beg that question. I meant to raise it and very briefly suggest an answer, which is exactly as you surmise. It would take a quite different organization of, in Marx's terminology, the social relations of production to make the enormous output of the American economy available to all. I have written so much about that on my blog over the years than perhaps I took it for granted.

Aleta Quinn said...

"Washington National [I refuse to call it by its official name]" The consensus among locals is that it is, was, and always will be National Airport. Fat rich white men can sit in a building and say that it is called some other thing but that has no bearing on this matter. Flights come in to Dulles, National, or BWI.