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Tuesday, May 31, 2016


In his greatest work, The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud introduces an extremely useful concept, “overdetermination,” that previously had found employment only in mathematics.  Using his signature therapeutic technique of free association, Freud would lead his patients to engage in spontaneous unedited verbal association to elements in the dreams they reported to him, revealing thereby repressed contents of the mind.  By this means, Freud was able to get at the unacknowledged memories, wishes, fears, and libidinal urges whose presence in the patient’s unconscious were the causes of his or her neuroses.

Because it was impossible to anticipate what associations would be triggered by a dream element [“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” he once remarked sardonically], Freud would persist until either each dream element had yielded up its associations or else the flow of associations simply had run dry.

As he conducted his clinical work, Freud made an odd and fascinating discovery.   On occasion, he found, an element in a dream would trigger a series of associations that completely explained the presence of the element in the dream, but would then continue to yield new associations that resulted in a second completely adequate explanation of the dream element.  This dream element, Freud said, was not simply determined by the materials revealed through the associations; it was overdetermined.    Its presence in the dream had two independent explanations, each one all by itself sufficient to explain that presence.

The mathematical analogue is a system of linear equations in which there are more equations than unknowns [for example a system of five equations with three unknowns.]  As those familiar with a little math know, such a system has a consistent solution only if the equations are not linearly independent.  [Louis Althusser, by the way, in his discussion of Marx’s supposed economic determinism, screws this up by using “overdetermined” to mean “multiply determined” or “determined by several cooperating causes,” a fact that I tried without success to point out to my UMass friends and colleagues Richard Wolff and Stephen Resnick.]

All of which, it may perhaps surprise you to learn, brings me to my decision to resign my full professorship in the Columbia University Philosophy Department in 1971 and transfer to the University of Massachusetts, where I spent the remaining thirty-seven years of my fifty year teaching career.  As I settle comfortably into my eighties, I find, reflecting on the arc of my life, that my decision to leave Columbia was genuinely overdetermined. 

At the time, I thought I understood quite clearly why my first wife, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, and I decided to move to Western Massachusetts.  Our first choice as a place to work and live had always been Boston, but that did not work out.  Neither of us was thrilled with New York, but we both had good jobs, and we were both undergoing psychoanalysis, so we settled for Manhattan in the middle sixties.  In ‘66 we bought a summer home in the Berkshires, and then in ’68 our first son, Patrick, was born.  Upon arriving in New York in ’64, we had moved into a Columbia-owned apartment half a block from the campus that can best be described as upscale-slum.  Only in New York would a senior member of an Ivy League university department feel grateful for such digs.  We knew that we did not want to raise Patrick in a Manhattan apartment, arranging play dates, hesitating to buy him a bike, and worrying about schooling.  Then in the summer of ’69, when Cynthia was again pregnant and we were taking daily drives from our Berkshire house to nearby Northampton so that Cynthia could get a Big Mac [the only thing she could keep down with morning sickness], we happened upon a magical little street called Barrett Place where we were clearly meant to live.  Later that summer a beautiful three story brick Federal style house on Barrett Place came on the market.  Without a moment’s hesitation, we bought it the day we saw it, sold our summer home two days later and – if you can believe it – only then commenced looking for jobs in Western Massachusetts!  Two years later, we both transferred to UMass.

I was of course well aware that a move from Columba to UMass would be viewed by the academic world as déclassé.  Indeed, I even joked that whereas people had been saying “Boy, Bob Wolff must be pretty good, he is at Columbia,” now perhaps they would say “Boy, UMass must be pretty good, Bob Wolff is there.”  I also knew that at UMass I would be deprived of entrée to the Upper West Side circle of Public Intellectuals, which I was being offered in the late ‘60s.  But that was not a world I very much lusted for.  Indeed, my principal concern was that although in ’71 the teaching load at UMass, like that at Columbia, was two courses a semester, a big underfunded state university might find itself forced to go to three courses a semester.  I was willing to accept that [though it never happened in the subsequent four decades.]

So we moved into our beautiful house on Barrett Place with Patrick and now Tobias.  In time, the boys got bicycles, which they rode freely all over town.  They went to the local schools, I spent three years as Cubmaster of the Northampton Cub Scouts, I even ran for town school committee [and lost by twelve votes].  Never once did I regret leaving Columbia.

And that is a complete explanation of my decision.  But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, I now realize that it is not the only complete explanation, for my decision, as Freud would have said, was overdetermined.  The best way I can explain this is by reference to a wonderful 1991 movie, Tous les Matins du Monde, which features both Gerard Depardieu and his son.  The movie centers on the life of the great 17th century viola da gamba player Monsieur de Sainte-Colombe, played by the French actor Jean-Pierre Marielle [who had a small part in The Da Vinci Code.].  After Sainte-Colombe’s beautiful young wife dies, leaving him with two young little daughters, he withdraws from the world to his country estate and devotes himself entirely to perfecting his musicianship.  He has a little hut built on the grounds of the estate where, for long hours each day, he practices, experimenting with a seventh string on his instrument and inventing new phrases and techniques of playing.  He refuses an invitation to play for Louis XIV at Versailles and plays in public only for the local gentry.  When a young man comes to him asking for lessons [this is Depardieu’s son], he sends him away, saying that although the young man may have a successful career at court, he is no musician.  Sainte-Colombe does not even deign to publish the compositions he has written, considering them merely exercises.

Looking back on my life, I realize that in leaving Columbia and the center of academic life, I was in a very small way doing what Sainte-Colombe did – withdrawing from the public world with its seductions, rewards, and demands, so that I could pursue the ideas in my head wherever they might lead me, regardless of their reception by the larger world.  Now, this is of course embarrassingly self-aggrandizing, but all of us, I think, look to literature for an understanding of our own unimportant lives.  Who among us has not felt some kinship with Elizabeth Bennett or Julien Sorel or Juliet or Ivan Karamazov -- or Alexander Portnoy?  As the years passed in Western Massachusetts, I died away to the academic profession, ceasing to attend annual meetings, no longer “keeping up” with the journal literature, receiving fewer and fewer speaking invitations, until finally I became quite convinced that other philosophers thought I had died [a suspicion reinforced by Wikipedia, whose page on me, when it first appeared, began with the words “Robert Paul Wolff was …”]

I was quite content with this state of affairs, and even moved from a Philosophy Department to a Department of Afro-American Studies for the final sixteen years of my teaching career.

As I look back, I can see quite clearly that leaving Columbia in 1971 was one of the best decisions of my life.  And quite clearly, it was overdetermined.

Sunday, May 29, 2016


In 1979, my Harvard classmate Ted Kennedy [Class of ’54, I never met him] announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for President.  He was interviewed by the fine old TV reporter Roger Mudd.  Mudd asked Teddy the one obvious softball question that everyone aspiring to the Presidency can expect to be asked:  “Why do you want to be President?”  Teddy’s utter inability to give a coherent answer killed any chance he might have had of following in the footsteps of his martyred older brothers Jack and Bobby.

This afternoon, as Susie and I were sitting in the café, I was musing on the epic awfulness of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, I remarked that no one watching her could answer that simple question:  Why does she want to be President?  When asked, she gives a perfectly crafted laundry list of practical policies she would attempt to implement, but never is she able to give a simple one sentence answer to the question that rings true, and that, I think, could be fatal for her chances.

There is in fact an answer she could give, if she could bring herself to give it.  It would be clear, straightforward, and immediately recognizable as true, but she would have to discipline herself not to tack onto it a fifteen sentence list of focus group tested addenda designed to assemble a winning coalition.  It would be a narrow answer, a direct answer, an answer that did not speak to every constituency she needs for a win, but it would have the extraordinary virtue of being true, and giving it would establish her as an authentic human being.

What would that answer be?  Here it is:

“I want to be President so that I can spend the next four years doing everything I can to make sure that now, at long last, after more than a century of struggle, women in this country will finally get all of the rights they deserve and have so long been denied.”

That is, I really think, the one thing Hillary Clinton the human being actually believes.   But there is not the slightest chance that she will ever say it just that directly and simply.

It is a pity.  It would be a winner.


In the classic Billy Wilder romantic comedy, Sabrina Fairchild, the chauffeur’s daughter, tells business hotshot Linus Larrabee that the first  time one sees Paris, it must  be raining, because Paris is at its most beautiful in the rain.  Well, maybe that is true if you are Audrey Hepburn and you are talking to Humphrey Bogart, but this morning, twenty minutes into my walk, it started to rain.  I turned right around and walked home for twenty minutes getting wet.  I could have used that umbrella Sabrina tells Linus he must not carry in Paris!

Saturday, May 28, 2016


It is a rainy Saturday afternoon in Paris, Serena Williams’ third round match at the French Open has been suspended, the two cuisses de canard with five spices and mandolined sweet onions are slowly cooking in the oven, and it seems a good time to reflect a bit on the state of the endless presidential race.
Let me begin with the latest State Department report about Hillary Clinton’s e-mails.  I confess that I find this affair simply incomprehensible.  When Clinton assumed the position of Secretary of State, she knew she was going to make another run for the Presidency [I know she says she had not yet decided, but seriously!]  She knew that if she secured the nomination, she would be the object of endless attacks.  She stupidly refused simply to maintain two Blackberrys [Blackberries?] in order to keep her official e-mails separate from her private e-mails, and sure enough she got in trouble for that idiotic decision. At that point, she must have known that this would become a thing when she ran for the presidency.  Why in the name of God did she not, right then, release everything, apologize, and put it behind her?  I mean, this was not her first supposed scandal.  It was her tenth or twentieth.  She is an intelligent person.  Does she literally learn nothing from experience?

Will this sink her chances in the election?  No.  Will she win, nevertheless?  Christ, I hope so.  All the objective evidence suggests that she will either win respectably or overwhelmingly.  But how sheerly blindly mind-numbingly stupid is she?
On to Bernie.  I think he is doing the right thing by fighting hopelessly to the bitter end in the primary battle.  Why?  For two reasons.  First, I think it is politically useful to give all of his enthusiastic supporters the opportunity to go to the polls and vote for him.  The American political system is a winner-take all system that creates vast numbers of what Professor Lani Guinier, in several well-known law articles about that system calls “wasted votes.”  Wasted votes are votes beyond the 51% needed to win that, when cast, do not change the outcome.  The electoral college system compounds the phenomenon of wasted votes – winning New York or California with 60% gets a Democrat no more electoral votes than winning with 50.1%   If Bernie is really building a movement, he needs to fire up his large mass of supporters so that he can keep them engaged even after he concedes and calls on them to vote for Clinton [as I am confident he will.]  Giving every supporter in every state the chance to vote for him will serve that end.

Secondly, there is a real struggle for the control of the Democratic Party going on, and it is fundamentally generational in nature.   Victories in primaries that are meaningless with respect to who will win the nomination can nevertheless play a very important role in consolidating the insurgency seeking to take the party to the left.  None of this, of course, will have the slightest effect on how Clinton governs, if she wins the election.  After moving left to inspire Bernie’s supporters during the campaign, she will snap back to the center-right as soon as she is inaugurated.  That is all right.  Such are the realities of American politics, and I do not hold that against Clinton at all.  She is who she is.  But her election will not be the end of this insurgency, or so I hope and pray.  Bernie’s run for the nomination is one more stage in that insurgency, just as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter have been.
And so we come to Trump, whose behavior is so counter-productive as to confound [I mean, what can he hope to gain by attacking a popular Latina governor who is the Chairperson of the Republican Governor’s Association?]  I have been brooding about this behavior, and I am beginning to understand it.  Here is the conclusion I have come to:  Trump actually has no identifiable political or ideological views whatsoever.  What he has is a set or complex of sociopathic obsessive needs – to bully those around him, to brag about and promote himself, to dominate men and humiliate women sexually, to deny that his hands are small [I am not kidding].  He is incapable of moderating these needs for more than an instant, even when it is in his self-interest to do so.  It is utterly pointless to probe his statements for any underlying beliefs about the world at all.  The only beliefs he holds with any firmness are beliefs about himself, at a psychodynamic level that is infantile.

Well, the duck is almost done, and I must sauté the courgettes

Friday, May 27, 2016


With the aid of the wheelchair, Susie and I paid a visit to the Jardin du Luxumbourg.  There is a lovely artificial lake in the middle of the jardin where, on weekends, children sail boats that can be rented at a stall next to the lake.  On Sundays, grown men arrive with serious little boats, some powered by sail and some by engines.  They seem to know one another.  The last time we were in Paris I saw something so remarkable that I captured it on my IPhone.  I think I posted the photo, but here it is again for those who missed it.

Believe it or not, this is a toy submarine, cruising beneath the surface of the lake, presumably to prey upon the toy boats of the other men.

Charles Addams, where are you when we need you?

Thursday, May 26, 2016


I think I have written here on my bout with something called polymyalgia rheumatic, or PMR.  I was in very bad pain for two months until my new doctor diagnosed it and prescribed Prednisone.  In two days I was pain free and launched on a more than year long slow reduction in the dosage, from an original 20 mg a day down, month by month, to 17.5, 15, 12.5 10, 9, 8, 7, etc etc until finally I will take 1 mg a day for a month and then quit.  When I left for Paris ten days ago I was taking 12.5 mg a day but was scheduled to go down to 10 mg last Monday.  Fearful that I might suffer a recurrence of the pain [that sometimes happens], I brought not only exactly enough Prednisone for the four week stay in Paris, but also an entire bottle of 5 mg tablets -- a three month supply -- just in case.

Well, Susie's MS has been getting suddenly much worse, so much so that she has been almost unable to walk.  This morning, I went to rue Danton and rented a wheelchair.  Susie has also been suffering an intensification of a painful condition referred to by MS patients as "tingling and burning."  I put in an overseas call to her doctor in Durham, NC, and while I was waiting to make a connection with him, Susie mentioned that when she had her very first MS attack, before we were married 29 years ago, her doctor had prescribed Prednisone.

So I asked her doctor, after we made contact, and when I mentioned that  I had a bottle full of the medication, he prescribed 20 mg a day to see whether it would help, .  In a day or two we shall see whether it does.

I mean, do I know how to pack for a trip or what?


Jeffrey Sachs has a must-read op ed in today's Washington Post.  I pay to get access to the Post but if you do not, here it is [I imagine this is illegal, but what the hell]:

Jeffrey D. Sachs is director of the Earth Institute and a professor at Columbia University.

Mainstream U.S. economists have criticized Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’s proposals as unworkable, but these economists betray the status quo bias of their economic models and professional experience. It’s been decades since the United States had a progressive economic strategy, and mainstream economists have forgotten what one can deliver. In fact, Sanders’s recipes are supported by overwhelming evidence — notably from countries that already follow the policies he advocates. On health care, growth and income inequality, Sanders wins the policy debate hands down.

On health care, Sanders’s proposal for a single-payer system has been roundly attacked astoo expensive. His campaign (for which I briefly served as a foreign policy adviser) is told that his plan will raise taxes and burst the budget. But this attack misses the whole point of his health proposals. While health spending by the government would go up in the Sanders health plan, private insurance payments would disappear, generating huge net savings for the American people.

Countries such as Canada, Germany, Sweden and Britain all follow something like a single-payer approach and pay much less for health care than the United States does. While the United States spent 16.4 percent of gross domestic product on health care in 2013, Canada paid only 10.2 percent; Germany, 11 percent; Sweden, 11 percent; and Britain, 8.5 percent. U.S. overspending is about 5 percent of GDP, or nearly $1 trillion as of 2016, mainly because of the excessive market power of private health insurers and big drug companies. An authoritative study by the U.S. Institute of Medicine confirms this extent of excess costs, finding losses of about 5 percent of GDP in 2009. Critics of Sanders’s health plan have failed to recognize or acknowledge the huge savings and cost reductions that would accompany a single-payer system.

On economic growth, Sanders also easily wins the debate. While President Obama opted for a short-term stimulus that peaked after two years and disappeared by the end of his first term, and Hillary Clinton has proposed a modest infrastructure program over five years, Sanders calls for a much bolder public investment program directed at the skills of young people (through free college tuition) and at modernizing and upgrading America’s infrastructure, with a focus on renewable energy, high-speed rail, safe drinking water and urban public transport. Sanders’s growth strategy would get back to fundamentals: a long-overdue increase in productive investments to underpin good jobs and rising worker productivity.

Sanders’s mainstream critics are mostly Keynesians. Their focus is on total spending, whether it’s consumption or investment. Sanders, instead, focuses on investment because long-term growth depends on more rapid capital accumulation (including in skills and technology). America’s slow growth is no mystery. The U.S. net investment rate has declined to about 5 percent of GDP, down from about 10 percent of GDP during the 1960s and 1970s. Sanders’s plan would restore a high-investment economy and, with it, a higher growth rate.

On income distribution, Sanders accurately argues that U.S. income inequality is uniquely high among the rich countries. Only the United States has deep poverty alongside soaring wealth. Only the United States tolerates a hedge-fund industry in which poorly performing money managers (not to mention quite a few crooks) take home billions of dollars in pay, backed by unconscionable tax breaks pushed by Democratic and Republican senators who live off of the largesse of Wall Street.

Consider the most basic measure of income inequality, the Gini coefficient. This measures the inequality of income among households, with zero signifying complete equality and 1 complete inequality. For high-income countries, a Gini coefficient below 0.3 reflects a low degree of income inequality; between 0.3 and 0.4, a moderate degree; and at 0.4 or above, a high degree. According to the most recent data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. Gini coefficient stood at 0.40, with Canada at 0.32; Germany, 0.29; Sweden, 0.27; and Britain, 0.35.

What accounts for this striking difference? Most important, U.S. inequality has soared in the past 35 years, since the start of the Reagan era. The U.S. Gini coefficient stood at 0.31 in 1980. All countries have faced market pressures pushing toward more inequality — especially increased trade with low-wage countries such as China and automation that has claimed the jobs and wages of workers with only high school educations. Yet only in the United States have these pressures turned into massive inequality of income.

The reasons are clear. The United States unleashed the power of CEOs to enrich themselves with mega-salaries, weakened trade unions and gave massive tax breaks to the super-rich. Sanders’s policies would go after all of these unconscionable moves, bringing the United States back into line with the rest of the high-income world. He would, in short, end the age of impunity in which the rich and the powerful get their way, while the rest suffer. Sanders’s policies include higher taxes on the rich, strengthening unions, raising the minimum wage, supporting families, providing free tuition at public universities and cracking down on financial crimes.

There is nothing magical or utopian about Sanders’s recommendations. He is advocating policies of decency long ago adopted by other prosperous high-income countries. Our own neighbor, Canada, is a case in point. Canada has lower-cost health care, a life expectancy two years higher than in the United States, much lower college tuition, far lower poverty rates and, not surprisingly, more happiness (ranking sixth in the world in life satisfaction, behind Scandinavia and well ahead of the United States, which is 12th).

Mainstream economists long ago lost the melody line. Their models are oriented to the status quo and underemphasize the benefits of public investment. They take America’s bloated health-care costs as a given, not as the result of the influence of the U.S. private health lobby. They treat low growth as natural (“secular stagnation”) rather than as the result of chronic underinvestment. They have come to accept cruelly rising income inequality and rampant impunity for financial crimes. Sanders knows better, based on worldwide experience, an abiding sense of decency and a strong and accurate vision for a brighter economic future.


Tuesday, May 24, 2016


I have six or seven routes for my morning walk, which I rotate to keep the experience fresh.  This morning, at six-thirty, I set out on my basic, standard walk, the first one I ever took.  I turn right coming out of my building, walk the half block to the Left Bank, turn left and walk past Nôtre Dame, and then continue on past Place St. Michel, the refurbished La Monnaie [the old Mint – now home to a famous three start restaurant, among other things], on past the Academie Française, the Louvre [across the river], the Musêe d’Orsay [once a railway station] and the statue of Thomas Jefferson, and finally past the little row of Batobuses on the river, with Yves Montand and Jean Gabin bringing up the rear, and then back again the same way to home.  The large square in front of Nôtre Dame is currently sporting a white rectangular tent-like structure, just put up, and today Susie and I walked over to find out what it was for.  [We started at the famous English language bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., where I used to hang out sixty-one years ago during my graduate school wanderjahr, but the place is now so totally given over to tourism that it no longer feels like a bookstore, so we left.]  It turns out that the structure in front of the cathedral is devoted to a “festival of bread.”  Only in France, I guess.  We went in, bought a mini-brioche [2 Euros], and ate it at a café while sipping coffee and watching countless tours walk by led by a man or woman holding up an umbrella [as a form of identification] and speaking into a microphone to the members of the tour all fitted out with earplugs.

This morning I shopped for two dinners, and decided to go with skate for this evening.  Skate is a really scary looking fish that actually tastes rather delicate and lovely if broiled with butter on it.  The trick is getting the fishmonger to take the skin off [sans peau] because taking the skin off oneself is a little like trying to skin a medium tank.  I bought a piece of a skate wing weighing 485 grams [before the removal of the skin], which should give each of us a bit less than half a pound.  The skate has radiating cartilage, and one pulls the tender flesh from between the spokes with one’s fork.  Steamed white asparagus and little potatoes will complete a simple meal.

Our fellow copropriété member and good friend, an ebullient, cheerful America woman who has lived here for thirty years or more, told us we must go over to the Jardin des Plantes and see the Wallabies in the Wallaby Enclosure, so maybe tomorrow we will give it a try.  I actually once went to Australia for the weekend to watch my then teen-age son play in the World Junior Chess Championship, but I did not see any Wallabies.  [Patrick did not win that tournament, but somewhat later, when he had become a Grandmaster, he did win the U.S. Open Championship twice, among many other things.  To this day, I brag that I taught him how to play, when he was six.]

You will notice that I am studiously avoiding any mention of Clinton and Trump.  I will however point out that Bernie does TEN POINTS better than Clinton in matchups against Trump.  Just sayin’.

Monday, May 23, 2016


The coquelet was delicious.  Tomorrow, I shall try some fish --perhaps coquilles St Jacques, if they are available at the market, or maybe skate [raie], which is delicious, even if rather scary looking.


I imagine many of you are in despair at the recent polls showing Clinton and Trump in a dead heat, or even with Trump a few points ahead.  Sam Wang at the Princeton Consortium offers this reassurance.  It will be August before the polls are meaningful.

To pass the time, I spent this rainy Paris morning stuffing a coquelet with pearl onions, mushrooms, prunes, and chopped nuts, with several pieces of butter [yes, real sweet butter] interlarding the mixture.  This afternoon, when we return from a showing of the latest Woody Allen movie, I shall put the bird in a slow oven and nip out for another bottle of Beaume de Venise rouge.

A typical slow day in the City of Lights.

Saturday, May 21, 2016


As I have often remarked, one of my favorite activities here in Paris is shopping at the open air market in Place Maubert on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.  I am particularly partial to a little stall at the extreme west end of the market where a cheerful man sells quail, duck, rabbit, and such like things.  When I cook rabbit, I will ask for a “demi-lapin, sans tête.”  The patron picks up a whole skinned rabbit, neatly splits it up the middle, and then cuts off the half-head and chops the remainder into four or five pieces before wrapping it up for me.  [I suspect real French cooks have something they do with the head, but I am just as happy to have it gone.  The quail come with heads also, which he twists off with a quick gesture.]

For some time now this booth has been a part of the market only on Thursdays and Saturdays, so when we arrived on Tuesday morning, I did not expect to see him.  Instead I bought a lovely dorade royale [filet sans peau, which is to say filleted without the skin].  But when I went to the market on Thursday, the game man was not there!  I was devastated.  I mean, it is nice that the TV works – one never knows.  But this was serious.

Happily, he was there today.  I asked, and he explained that on Thursdays now he stays home and rests.  He is, to be sure, looking somewhat older than when I first found him twelve years ago, but I think he has a responsibility to his customers and to France!  So I bought a nice coquelet [basically a small chicken midway in size between a Cornish Hen and a roasting chicken].  I will stuff it with a mixture of pearl onions, sliced mushrooms, chopped up nuts and cut up prunes, and then roast it slowly in my oven until it is golden brown and the stuffing is all cooked and merged.  I will accompany that with some courgettes mandolined [i.e., zucchini sliced thin] and sautéed, and slices of what we call in America an heirloom tomato.  It should do nicely.

Friday, May 20, 2016


I accidentally deleted the most recent comment without even reading it.  My apologies.  Could you repost it?


The good news is that the two little batobuses, Jean Gabin and Yves Montand, are still there along the Seine at the back of the lineup of batobuses.

The bad news is that even here in Paris, Trump's face is on the TV.

I am struggling not to obsess and worry about Clinton's manifest awfulness as a candidate and as a prospective President.

Paupiettes Provencales, leeks, and French beans this evening for dinner, washed down with a Beaune de Venise for me and a Sancerre blanc for Susie.

Thursday, May 19, 2016


The discussion provoked by my post about socialism growing in the womb of capitalism has been fascinating, but completely irrelevant to what I was trying to say.  Let me explain.  I was not arguing that socialism would be a good thing rather than a bad thing.  I was not arguing that socialism was likely to replace capitalism any time soon [in fact, the conclusion of my paper is that it is not.]  I was actually trying to think in the way Marx thought.  I was asking:  what developments now taking place in the advanced sectors of capitalism are preparing the sorts of new social relationships of production that would be manifested in a socialist economy.  In short, I was asking: Is socialism growing in the womb of capitalism?  It was their failure to ask this sort of question that led Marx to call his predecessors “Utopian socialists.”

If in fact, as I argued in that paper, advanced capitalism inevitably and unavoidably transforms purely economic decisions of profitability and efficiency, driven by the prices presented to the firm by the market, into quasi-political choices among alternative policies, driven by questions of desirability [according to some measure], then the structural pre-conditions for socialism may well be developing within the womb of capitalism, just as Marx’s analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism led him to expect.

Would I look forward with pleasure to the prospect of socialism?  Indeed.  Do I think there would be many difficult questions to be answered, among which is how to promote technological innovation?  To be sure.  But if I am right that socialism is, in a sense, growing in the womb of capitalism as we speak, then the relevant question is not whether these new relations of production are a good or bad thing, as though we had the option of turning back the clock to the earlier stages of capitalist development.  The relevant question is whether we can establish collective democratic control over these new relations of production in a way that has proved impossible with regard to capitalist relations of production.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016


We have arrived in Paris, exhausted and jet lagged but safe and happy.  The Parisians appear to be wrapped up in their own concerns [a local police strike, for example] and it is lovely not to see or hear the name “Trump” everywhere.  I am unable to report on the whereabouts of Jean Gabin and Yves Montand, the two little batobuses, because my walk this morning did not take me past their usual nighttime resting place.  Stay tuned.

After reading the most recent comments, it has occurred to me that I ought to write a blog post about Marx’s conception of the way in which socialism would come to replace capitalism – what is usually referred to as the “transition problem.”  I have in fact written an entire essay about this subject and archived it on, but Box informs me that only 680 visits have been paid to that essay, from which I infer that there are a good many readers of this blog who have not read it.  My apologies to those who have for repeating myself.

Just to be clear, by “socialism” I mean “collective ownership of the major means of production, democratically managed.”  I am not talking about state-run lottery stores or state run small businesses.  I am talking about major accumulations of capital, collectively owned by the population of a nation as a whole and managed democratically by a managerial staff selected by, and responsible to, the elected representatives of the citizenry.  Thus I am not talking about an advanced stage of welfare state capitalism, nor am I talking about a flourishing of cooperatives and collectives running farms or urban transit systems or clothing outlets.  I am all for cooperatives and collectives.  I am just not talking about them here.  What sorts of major accumulations of capital am I talking about?  Well, General Motors, or Google, or Microsoft, or Walmart, or U. S. Steel, for example.

The standard objection to socialism, set forth almost a century ago by Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, among others, is that at its very best, socialism would necessarily be inferior in efficiency and rationality to market-drive capitalism.  Socialist planners and managers [Hayek and von Mises were looking at the early stages of the Soviet Union], it was said, would like any economic decision makers have to make a series of choices about what to produce, how, and in what quantities, and what prices [for purposes of calculation, if nothing else] to assign to both the inputs into production and the outputs of production.  In a capitalist economy, the managers of capital rely on markets to guide these choices by an endless series of rapidly fluctuating signals in the form of prices and effective demands for goods.  Socialist planners would have to substitute their own best estimates for these market signals.  Generally speaking, their efforts would be inferior to those of the market both because they would have much less information than that provided to the market in the form of offers to buy and offers to sell by countless millions of economic agents, and because their means of processing the information they were able to assemble would be primitive relative to the processing automatically carried out by the market.  Since the market’s information processing, Hayek and others argued, is perfect, the very best socialist planners could do would be to mimic the market, and in reality, they would always fall somewhat, if not a great deal, short of that perfection.  The evidence of this inadequacy would be in bottlenecks in production [because of a shortage of the required inputs] or gluts [because of excesses in the production of goods for which there was not adequate demand.]  Both these forms of economic inefficiency were widespread, they believed, in the Soviet economy.

The first thing to say about this argument is that, despite it somewhat overenthusiastic estimate of the efficiency of the market, it was quite correct when it was advanced.  But correct though the argument was, it rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of what Marx thought [no not, perhaps, on a misunderstanding of what Stalin thought.]  The key to understanding what Marx really thought about the transition from capitalism to socialism is a famous and pregnant passage in the Preface to a book that Marx published several years before the appearance of Volume I of Capital, a little work called A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.  Here is what Marx wrote:

“No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.”

Marx was thinking principally about the transition from feudalism to capitalism, about which he knew a good deal, but what he said clearly applies to the transition to socialism as well.  One of Marx’s greatest theoretical contributions to Political Economy was his deep and detailed understanding of the restless and unending way in which capitalism develops new social relations of production in response to the pressures of competition.  We see a good deal of this understanding in Capital Volume I, where Marx writes in great detail about the transition from the early putting out system of nascent capitalist production to the incorporation of hand-work [“manufacture”] into the factories, and the transition from hand-work, or manufacture, to machine production.

Now, the capitalism at which Marx was looking was a rather early version, so he was unable to see directly how the necessary material relations of a socialist economy might evolve and develop within capitalism.  Even Hayek and von Mises, writing more than half a century later, were looking at an early stage of capitalism in England and Germany, and a really primitive form of capitalism in Russia, but we have the benefit of another three quarters of a century or more of experience, and I believe that we can actually see the objective conditions for socialism developing within the advance sector of capitalism.  That is what my essay, “The Future of Socialism,” is about.

Very briefly [for I really would like anyone who is interested to go to and read what I wrote], as capitalism develops in the very largest corporations, it eventually becomes impossible for the corporate managers to guide their central managerial decisions solely by market signals.  I am not saying that it becomes tedious for them to be guided by the market, or that it is preferable for them to make decisions in some other way, or that these mangers have been seduced by tenured radicals at effete Eastern colleges who have filled their heads with socialist nonsense.  I am saying that it becomes impossible for them to base their managerial decisions on market signals in the manner that Hayek et al. wish them to.  Whether they like it or not, the corporate managers have no choice but to adopt decision making procedures that are, in their logical structure, political rather than purely market driven in nature.  In effect, they become quasi-socialists whether they like it or not.  But of course they serve not as embodiments of the will of the people but ether as embodiments of the will of the shareholders or, more likely, as autonomous agents merely advancing their own interests.

If the fundamental structural conditions for socialism are right now developing within the womb of capitalism, why is there little or no sign of the political mobilization that would be required to seize upon those developments and use them to carry out a transition to socialism?  My answer to that pressing question is contained in the section of the paper entitled “Why aren’t we having fun yet?”

What exactly are the changes internal to capitalism that are preparing the way for socialism?  My answer to that is also contained in the paper.  Consider this blog post an internet advertisement for the essay.

Sunday, May 15, 2016


As I get ready to go out the door, I am not able to come up with much that would be useful.  You could try looking at Chapter 4 of Gerald Jaynes' book BRANCHES WITHOUT ROOTS.  A better suggestion:  Send a message to Professor Jacqueline Jones, chair of the UT Austin History Department, at  Tell her I sent you.  She is not only a spectacularly knowledgeable and brilliant historian.  She is also a really, really nice person.  My guess is that in an instant she could send you to the right sources.

Thanks for the inquiry.  I honestly thought no one would read the post.  :)


In the Fall of 1963, I was living in Cambridge, MA, on leave from an Assistant Professorship at the University of Chicago and doing a visiting year at Wellesley College.  For four years, I had been deeply involved in the so-called Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, an effort to alert Americans to the dangers of nuclear war.  I lobbied for an agreement with the Soviet Union to put a halt to the nuclear arms race and even, perhaps, to reverse it.  I wrote, I lectured, I argued, I marched, and I spent every day worrying about a catastrophic miscalculation by American or Soviet forces leading to an “exchange” of nuclear weapons that would kill hundreds of millions of people and make much of the earth’s surface uninhabitable for countless millennia.  I grew more and more anxious as I studied such arcana as the number of feet of concrete required to resist a thermonuclear blast and the probable wind patterns determining radioactive fallout.  The previous year, in Chicago, I had spent the Cuban Missile Crisis glued to my radio, with plane tickets to Canada and Mexico [depending on the prevailing winds] and a Geiger Counter and food parcels in my VW bug.

Things came to a head for me personally one day that Fall as I was having a heated argument in the Harvard Faculty Club [I think with Zbigniev Breszinzki, though my memory may be wrong.]  I must have snapped, because the next thing I knew, I was running as fast as I could down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard Square, having a full-blown anxiety attack.  When I got back to my apartment on Concord Avenue, I decided that I could not go on as I had.  My response was to rise into what I would later learn to call the ideological superstructure and start thinking about political philosophy – a cop-out, to be sure, but also an act of emotional self-protection.  Out of that retreat from the battle came, among other things, In Defense of Anarchism.

I recall this personal ancient history because I find myself obsessively and unproductively fixated on the train wreck that we call the Presidential election.  The stakes are lower, to be sure.  The worst that can happen does not compare with thermonuclear war, but it is bad enough to make me lose sleep and what little composure I normally have.  This morning, as I walked, I found myself thinking not about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump but rather, unaccountably, about the precise definition of a neoclassical production function.  This is something I have thought about before, in part because it bears directly on the standard economists’ claims about marginal productivity and the justification of profits in a capitalist economic system, and in part because I do not think that even serious students of economics understand exactly what a production function really is.  This is one of those ideas – I have talked about this before – that I think is a lovely intellectual object, one that I can, with some time and effort, show to my readers in all its essential simplicity and beauty, so that they can appreciate it intellectually as I do.

So, as Susie completes her packing for our trip to Paris tomorrow [my much simpler packing is mostly done], I shall write a long blog post explaining in excruciating detail the precise nature of a neo-classical production function.  I doubt that anyone in the extended blogosphere will have much interest in this explication, but writing it will give me some momentary peace.  Think of me, if you wish, as the violist in the string quartet playing Haydn on the deck of the Titanic.

The first thing you must understand is that the classical Political Economists and the neo-classical economists simplify the reality of capitalism, for purposes of their formal analyses, in diametrically opposite ways.  The Classicals assume that there is, for each commodity, one and only one dominant technique of production, defined for purposes of their analysis by the list, or vector, of quantities of inputs required for a unit of output.  Thus, to construct a hypothetical example, a bushel of corn may require for its production one twentieth of a unit of corn [as seed], one half unit of iron [as tools, etc.] and one fifth of a unit of labor.  We would represent this as a vector of inputs – 1/20c, ½i, 1/5l – per unit of output c.  As a consequence of this simplification, the appropriate modern mathematical technique for analyzing Classical Political Economy arguments is Linear Algebra.  The neo-classicals simplify the reality of capitalism by the opposite assumption of an infinite number of techniques for the production of a unit of each commodity.  For this reason, their mathematical technique of choice is the Calculus.  Now, neither assumption is in fact true of capitalism.  Each is an ideal simplification.  For reasons that are not germane to this blog post, the alternative choices have profound ideological implications.  The Classical choice highlights the fact of class conflict, making it impossible to ignore.  The neo-classical choice makes it appear that capital and labor are engaged cooperatively in the production of commodities, obscuring the fact of class conflict.  [You can tell which side of this dispute I am on.]

The central analytical concept of the neo-classical approach is the production function, which I shall now, at seemingly interminable length, explain.

The first thing you must understand is the concept of an n-dimensional vector space.  Think of your everyday two-dimensional diagram with an x-axis running left to right and a y-axis running top to bottom, the point where the two lines cross being labeled the origin, or 0.   Let us suppose that each axis is marked off in units of the same sort and size – inches, say.  So the x-axis is marked off with little cross lines at one inch, two inches, three inches, etc., [and also, to the left of the origin, with minus one inch, minus two inches, and so forth], and the y-axis is marked off the same way.  Suppose you draw a rectangle starting at the origin and going four inches to the right and two inches up.  That is then, of course, a rectangle whose area is 8 square inches.  It has the same area as a rectangle that is one inch wide, on the x-axis, and eight inches high, on the y-axis.  We can talk this way, and make these comparisons, because the units marked off on the x and y axes are, as we say, commensurable – inches all around.  But suppose we now draw a graph that charts the performance of NBA stars, plotting height against average number of points scored per game.  There will be a relationship, of course, but since the units on the two axes are different and incommensurable, it would make no sense to multiply one by the other [foot points or inches points is not a measure with any meaning.]

Now think of a diagram that has three or four or one hundred ninety three axes, each one perpendicular to all of the others and incommensurable with all of the others.  Unless you have really good mathematical intuition [which I do not], you cannot possible imagine that, but you certainly can understand what it is.  That is an n-dimensional vector space, where n is three or four or one hundred ninety three or any other finite positive integer [there are infinite dimension vector spaces, but we are not talking about those.]

All right.  Got that?  Now, let us think about commodity production.  Neither the Classicals nor the neo-classicals ever talk about how stuff is actually made.  They leave that to engineers and design specialists and workers and other inferior orders of society.  [Marx does actually talk about how stuff is made, at great length in Capital – it is one of the many ways in which he differs from just about everyone else who writes about economic theory.]  Instead, they talk about how many units of each input, including labor, are required to produce one unit of output of a specified commodity [see my little example above.]

The neo-classicals, as I said, assume effectively an infinite number of techniques of production for each commodity [or a very large finite number of techniques with each input denominated in small units.]  Let us suppose, to pluck a number out of the air, that there are 25,984 different possible inputs available for the  production of some commodity, say corn – two inch nails, three inch nails, steel of nineteen different varieties, long fiber wool, short fiber wool, a hundred and fifty seven varieties of paint, etc etc etc.  We can now construct a 25,984 dimensional vector space, with each dimension measured off in the appropriate units for one of those possible inputs [inches, gallons, pounds, etc.].  If you think about it for a moment, you will see that each point in that vector space is identified by where it is relative to each of the 25,984 axes.  It is a point with 25,984 coordinates [just as a point in a two-dimensional graph has two coordinates, the x coordinate and the y coordinate.]

Suppose, just to take a specific example, that we are interested in corn production.  Each point in this vector space will represent one possible set of inputs into the production of a unit of corn.  Obviously, most of those possible inputs will be just plain useless for growing corn.  I mean, how on earth are you going to use a dozen wingnuts to grow corn?  Never mind.  That just means that the coordinate along the wingnut axis will be zero.  No problem.

Are we clear?  Now, pick some point, representing one particular combination of inputs into the production of corn.  To make this a little easier to understand, I am going to suppose that this point represents, let us say, one acre of arable land, one shovel, ten ears of corn [potentially for seed], and 728 hours of skilled agricultural labor, and zero for all the other 25,980 inputs.  In other words, this point has coordinates of zero for 25,980 of the 25,984 axes.  Can you sort of picture that?  It is like a point in 2-dimensional space that is at the origin along the x-axis but is some way up the y-axis.  OK?

Now comes the point that you seem never to find explained in an ordinary Economics textbook.  There are countlessly many different ways of combining this particular set of outputs to produce corn.  Here are just three.  You can invent lots of others yourself.

Technique 1:  On the first day, a single worker arrives at the acre of land with the shovel and the ten ears of corn.  He sets the shovel down next to the land, eats the ten ears of corn, and then spends four hours praying to Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture.  Each day for half a year he returns and spends four hours praying [half a year is 182 days, or 728 hours].  This technique produces zero bushels of corn.

Technique 2:  On the first day, a single worker arrives at the acre of land.  He removes the kernels of corn from the ears of corn, scatters them evenly across the acre of land, and spends the remainder of four hours walking around the borders of the acre of land, complaining loudly about the difficulty of growing corn.  Each day for six months he returns and repeats his four hours of complaints, until, on the last day, he harvests the corn that has grown.  This technique produces one bushel of corn.

Technique 3:  On the first day, ten workers show up.  One of them, the foreperson, directs the others to take turns using the shovel as they walk up and back on the acre turning the soil over and preparing it for planting.  On the second day, the workers return and the boss tells them to use the seed corn for planting.  She makes sure that the kernels are evenly scattered in the rows turned over by the shovel, and are then covered over.  Periodically the team returns to weed, using up most of the 728 hours of labor, but keeping in reserve just enough to harvest the crop on the last day.  This technique yields ten bushels of corn.

Now comes the payoff for all of this nonsense.  The production function of a commodity is a mapping of an n-dimensional input space onto a one-dimensional output space.  For each point in the input space, representing one unique vector of inputs into the production of the specified commodity, it identifies the technique [or set of techniques, if there are several] that yields the largest amount of output, and maps that input point onto the point in the one-dimensional output space corresponding to that amount of output.

In the example above, the production function for corn maps the input point [0, 0, 0, …, 1 acre, 1 shovel, 10 ears of corn, 728 hours of agricultural labor, 0, 0, 0, … ] onto the output point 10 bushels.  For every single point in the 25,984 dimension input space, the production function maps that point onto some point along the one-dimensional output axis.  I.e., it maps the input point onto the maximum amount of corn producible by any of the endlessly many different techniques using that combination of inputs.  [Just as in the example above.]

Each commodity has its own production function.  Routinely, neo-classicals assume that the production functions are continuous, which means that two points in the input space of a production function that are arbitrarily close to one another will map onto arbitrarily close points along the output axis. 

Now comes an apparently minor point that I really think most economists, even professional economists, do not really grasp ]this goes back to my early observation that economists never talk about how stuff is actually made.]  The fact that two points are very close to one another in the input space does not at all imply that the maximally productive technique for the first point singled out by the production function will look anything like the maximally productive technique singled out by the production function for the second technique.  What is more, the assumption of continuity is arbitrary and quite likely false

Let me give you a real and historically important example to illustrate this claim.  The ante-bellum Southern plantations were essentially large farms worked by slave labor, producing first indigo, rice, and tobacco, then, of course, cotton.  The slaves were forced to work long hours in the fields, guarded and threatened, if they disobeyed, by white overseers armed with whips and clubs.  After cotton took over as the premier cash crop, the plantation owners devised an especially brutal but also especially productive method for organizing the slave labor.  Instead of simply sending the slaves into the fields to cultivate the land, plant the crops, weed them, and harvest them, the owners would line the slaves up at one end of a field and move them forward in tandem, like a living machine.  This was sometimes called the gang method.  To keep the slaves in rows all moving at the same pace, the owners hired a white employee who became known as a slave driver.  His job was to stand behind the line of slaves as they moved down the rows, whipping them to keep them to drive them in a line.  This was a much more efficient mode of production.  Looked at from the point of view of a production function, a small increase in one input [labor] made possible a totally different technique of production that mapped onto an output point quite distant from the output point corresponding to the same set of inputs without the incremental amount of labor.  In other words, the production function for cotton was not continuous!

After Emancipation, by the way, when the plantation owners were forced to hire the former slaves as wage laborers, they tried to get the freedmen and freedwomen to use the gang method, but even when they offered higher wages, the now free workers refused.

Why on earth does any of this matter?  Well, as I said when I began, I find this concept of a production function rather lovely, and I lie spelling it out clearly so that you can appreciate it also.  But there is an important ideological reason as well [surely you are not surprised.]  Neo-classical economists who talk knowingly about marginal productivity are appealing to the application in Economics of a famous theorem by the great 18th century Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler.  This theorem concerns a species of continuous real functions known as homogeneous functions, and most particularly a sub-species of these known as linear homogeneous functions.  I shan’t go into that here, inasmuch as I have bored you far too long.  Suffice it to say, if the production function of a capitalist economy is not linear homogeneous, then none of the congratulatory self-justifying things the economists want to say about capitalist economies have any reason to be believed.

Well, I feel much better.  Now I can go to Paris with a light heart.  Thank you for listening.

Friday, May 13, 2016


First things first:  I have read Plato's dialogues, some of them many times, but I do not by any stretch of my imagination consider myself a serious student of his thought, so I am happy to bow to the superior wisdom of those who have objected to my offhand remarks about him.  As they say down here in North Carolina, but do not say where I was born, brought up, and lived most of my life, I do not have a dog in that hunt.

About Bernie:  I agree that he would not be nearly as effective a President as Clinton, and if it were not for her hawkishness, which will, I fear, get us into more wars, I would perhaps concede that we would do better with her in the White House and Bernie raising hell in the Senate.  But I am truly fearful of what military adventures she will launch.  As for domestic policy, neither she nor he will get anything done unless he can spearhead a movement to change the composition of the Congress.

I like the current boomlet for Warren as VP.  That might be the best of both worlds.

On another matter, I am getting a malicious pleasure from the audio recording that has just surfaced of Trump calling into a TV or radio station under a phony name pretending to be his director of public relations so that he can brag about himself.  The man is pathological, and apparently everything is recorded or filmed.  He may yet self-destruct.   I would take it as some evidence, however scant, for the existence of a benevolent God.

Thursday, May 12, 2016


It is now more than two months [a lifetime] until the Democratic Convention.  Let us suppose:

1:  Bernie keeps winning some primaries, and even wins California, coming into the convention several hundred pledged delegates behind Clinton [entirely do-able].

2.   The Republican Party coalesces around Trump, who stage manages an entertaining Convention [probable].

3.  Trump fudges some of his most hideous proposals [likely].

4.  Polls, of which there will be a great many, show Trump and Clinton virtually deadlocked [all too conceivable, alas].

5.  The same polls show Bernie beating Trump badly [highly likely].

6.  The Democratic superdelegates begin to contemplate just how big a risk they are taking of a disaster for the country by sticking with Clinton.

Then:  It is just barely conceivable that enough superdelegates might peel off to throw the nomination to Bernie.

Without some such fantasy, I do not think I can bear the next two months, let alone the next six, even though I shall leave for Paris on Monday for a four week stay.


OK.  I am going to try this one more time, and then I am going to just quit and go back to snarking at Trump and cheering for Bernie.


But in my view, he considers the issuing of moral judgments to be an expression of weakness, not of strength.  Saying “That is bad.  You should not do that.” is what men do when they are incapable of changing the world, when, as he would say [but not I], they are like women.  Instead, he anatomizes capitalism.  He exposes the exploitation that underlies its self-congratulatory moral justifications.  He thunders against it like an Old Testament Prophet.  He confidently prophesies its doom.  He mocks the apologists for capitalism while exposing the inner incoherence of their rationalizations.  He issues a call to workingmen [and women] to unite, telling them, in his famous phrase, that they have nothing to lose but their chains, they have a world to gain. 

If you wish to classify that as the making of moral judgments, so be it, but it bears no resemblance whatsoever to what shows up these days in the writings of professional philosophers who, in their vitae, list their AOS as Ethics and their AOC as political philosophy.  I think it trivializes Marx’s work and diminishes his importance to squeeze him into the categories of contemporary academic philosophy.

That is what I have been trying to say.  I thought I made it pretty obvious, but apparently I failed.

Now, about the latest polls …

Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Well, I seem to have lit a brush fire on this blog with my off-hand remarks about Alan Wood.  Let me repeat:  I have not read Wood on Marx, and I am sorry for having mouthed off as I did.  But a larger question has been raised, namely how we are to understand Marx’s judgments about capitalism, and beyond that, what relation conventional ethical theory bears to his way of talking about society.  I have some well thought out and strongly held opinions on those questions, and perhaps this is a good time to try to spell them out.  I am quite sure Alan Wood can defend himself, if he is even aware of this kerfuffle, so I shall say no more about him, at least not until and unless I actually read what he has written.

This will take a while, so settle down.  Oh, and by the way, not to worry about the poll just released showing Trump and Clinton in a dead heat in three battleground states.  The polling organization that released those figures has an awful record of accuracy, and it selected a sample somewhat whiter than the states being polled.  Be patient.  It is early days.

Speaking very broadly, two quite different approaches to ethical theory have dominated the Western philosophical tradition.  The first is to seek some objective, trans-historical standpoint from which to articulate normative principles grounded in reason alone.  Plato’s appeal to a rational intuition of the Form of the Good is usefully understood in this way, as is Kant’s search for a Fundamental Moral Principle whose validity can be established by an argument that would be accepted by all rational agents as such.  The early twentieth century school of British moral philosophers known as intuitionists – Moore, Ross, Pritchard et al. – adopted a variant of this approach.  The second approach is to seek to ground our moral judgments in some way or other on common understandings or our “moral intuitions” about specific choices.  In an earlier time, this was referred to as an appeal to the consensus gentium, or agreement of the people.  The vast preponderance of contemporary ethical writing by philosophers in the Anglo-American world is of this sort, it is my informal impression.  John Rawls interestingly embraces both of these approaches in his writings.  He began with the claim that his Two Principles were the solution to a problem in Bargaining Theory, and despite the fact that the theorem he claimed to be able to prove is in fact invalid, he clung to that claim in A Theory of Justice.  But as his work developed, he transitioned to a version of the consensus gentium which he called “Reflective Equilibrium.”

Both of these approaches, I believe, rest on a simple, not to say simplistic, understanding of the nature of human personality, and on a correspondingly simple conception of the language appropriate for expressing our moral beliefs.  And Marx, I am quite convinced, rejects both this conception of human nature and this style of language.  Let me try to explain what I mean.

If I think that the mind is essentially accessible to itself, that what I think and feel and experience is apprehensible to me through reflection or introspection, that my self is, as it were, one-dimensional [to use a term made popular half a century ago by my old friend Herbert Marcuse,] then I will likely conclude that a clear, spare uninflected language is adequate to voice my beliefs, my moral intuitions, the premises and conclusions of the arguments I consider compelling.  Believing that, I will strive for a transparent prose, and though I may employ literary tropes, they will be decorations, enhancements meant to give pleasure, rather than essential elements of a successful articulation of my thoughts.  Hence, I will write like Plato or like Kant, if I am truly gifted, or like Rawls, if I am somewhat less gifted.

But suppose I think that the mind is complex, and that its several layers or aspects or dimensions are only imperfectly accessible to one another.  Suppose that, with Freud [and many others before him, of course], I think there are shadows and recesses of the mind, repressed contents, unconscious thoughts, and a contest among these several parts of the mind for supremacy.  Suppose I believe that self-understanding is not the beginning of thought but a prize hard-won, the achievement of which requires a difficult struggle that leaves scars and evidences of the battles fought.  Suppose I believe [with Marx] that the society into which I am born, and more particularly the system of social relations of production of that society, so powerfully shape my deepest self-understandings that even after I have fought my way to some measure of self-awareness, I still remain in the grip of the ruling normative presuppositions of my era.

If all of that is how I understand my situation in the world, then two things will follow:  First, simple reflection or introspection – a consideration of rational premises or settled moral beliefs – will be utterly inadequate as the basis for an understanding of my world and my moral relationship to it.  Rather, I shall need to engage in a detailed study both of my society and its mystifications and of the echo of those mystifications in my complex many-layered self; and Second, in voicing the conclusions to which I have come in my study, I shall need to find a language whose syntactic and other linguistic resources are complex enough to capture the objective complexity of my world and my relationship to it.

This, I believe, is what Marx did in Capital and many of his other writings, and it is why I resist viewing him as a moralist in either of the two traditions – of a priori reasoning or consensus gentium – sketched above.  Indeed, my forty year-long engagement with thought of Marx has as one of its central purposes to demonstrate the truth of this claim about Marx.

Is Marx a moralist?  Not if by that you mean someone doing what Plato or Kant did.  Is Marx a moralist?  Not if by that you mean someone doing what Rawls attempted, or what any number of less distinguished contemporary ethical theorists do.  Is Marx a moralist?  Say rather that he is an Old Testament prophet.  Say rather, as Edmund Wilson did, that he is one of the great ironists of the Western tradition, seeking [as Wilson did not grasp] to find a voice in which he could anatomize in a rigorously mathematical way the structure of capitalist exploitation while also and in the very same phrases capture his complex psychodynamic relationship, and ours, to the religion, philosophy, and economic theory that seeks to conceal and rationalize that exploitation.

Well, sufficient unto the day.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


I am eighty-two years old, so I have some experience with the passage of time, but even I am having difficulty contemplating what lies ahead.  It is barely more than three months since the Iowa caucuses, now lost in the mists of memory, and yet it is still more than two months until the Conventions, and almost SIX MONTHS until the election!!!  

 How on earth are we going to survive?  Next month I shall be going to Paris for four weeks, but thanks to the Internet, there is no escaping the Primary season.  When I return to Chapel Hill on June 14th, there will be yet another month before the start of the Republican Convention.  There is a limit to how often I can seek solace in the statistical analyses of and The Princeton Election Consortium.

The very best I can realistically hope for is four dreary years of Hillary Clinton, during which all of us on the left struggle to bring pressure for some sort of useful reform and against more military adventures.  It is almost enough to make an old man take up golf [a good walk ruined, as Mark Twain described that awful game.]

I think Bernie has a supererogatory duty of benevolence to create an on-going national movement to which we can commit ourselves.  It is the least he can do to make up for having given us hope.


I have not read Wood on Marx, so I think I should stop knocking him, and stick to what I know about.  A propos, Matt writes this:

 “A deeper question, one I'd been meaning to ask, is how this stuff relates to the (pretty strong, I think) case made by people like Bowels and Gintis on the one hand, and John Roemer, on the other, that Marx's account of exploitation can't work on its own, because, from the technical presentation given, any factor in production can equally count as the "exploited" factor. I'm not an expert, but the presentation seems pretty good to me, in both Bowels and Gintis and Roemer. Roemer, at least, thinks this shows that we need a moral theory showing that the treatment of labor is substantively unjust, and that without this, Marx's view doesn't go anywhere. (At least, that's how I understand his account.) It seems like a pretty important issue to deal with, but one that takes us away from "standard" Marxism in some important ways.”

I was the one who told Bowles and Gintis about this.  I recall having lunch with Sam and Herb in 1979 or 1980 at Beardsley’s, a lovely restaurant in Northampton, MA now sadly defunct, and telling them what I had discovered.  When I proved the theorem in 1979, I was very excited.  It was the only thing I had ever actually proved, and I fully understood how important it was.  However, when I published the proof in my 1981 article, “A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx’s Labor Theory of Value,” John Roemer wrote a comment pointing out that Josep Vegara had published a proof of the same proposition in his 1979 book Economía Política y Modeles Multisectoriales.  As I remarked during my Brown talk, being the second person in the world to prove a theorem is not nothing, but it does not hold a candle to being the first.

Since that proof is at the heart of my deepest interpretation of Marx’s theories, I will just refer here to my 25,000 word summary of my work, archived on