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Monday, March 13, 2017


It is only a strong sense of obligation that drives me to turn my attention from the fascinating work of preparing our apartment to be put on the market so that I may write a bit about the troubling matter of the out-of-work coal miner referenced by David Palmeter.  But first, a thank you to Kate for her kind words, which buoyed me during a difficult time in my life [although I put my foot down at baking bread each time a buyer comes through!]

The question is: What are we to think [and feel] about individuals who vote against their manifest self-interest?  More broadly, what ought we to expect of the citizens of a modern, putatively democratic state?  As always when confronted by troubling and difficult questions, I retreat into theory.

There are three classical answers to this question, which are customarily associated with Bentham, Rousseau, and Marx.  Bentham argues [in a manner that was shockingly revolutionary in its day] that the Good is Happiness, that Happiness is Pleasure, that each individual knows best what gives him or her pleasure, that a unit of the pleasure of a peasant counts for exactly as much as a unit of the pleasure of a lord, that the goal of a polity should be to maximize the Good, which is to say to maximize Pleasure, and therefore that each individual in society, high or low, should have an equal say determining the state actions that tend to increase pleasure and reduce pain.

Mill, too well-brought up by his father, James Mill, to stomach this elevation of the pleasures of the low-born, revised the simple dicta of his godfather, Jeremy Bentham, drew a distinction between higher and lower pleasures [which is to say the pleasures of the mind as opposed to the pleasures of the body] and concluded that the common folk, lacking experience of the higher pleasures, need guidance by people like himself.  Despite this revision, however, Mill stuck with the central thesis of Bentham’s teaching, which came to be known as Utilitarianism.  A good deal of Hippie, Countercultural, New Age, and other modern heresies can be understood as nothing more than proposals to reverse the relative evaluation of the higher and lower pleasures.

A modern variant of this old and durable teaching is the distinctively American doctrine of Interest Group Democracy [see my essay “Beyond Tolerance” in Wolff, Moore, and Marcuse A Critique of Pure Tolerance for a detailed analysis.]  According to this modern variant of Utilitarianism, a large complex society like the United States is not a mass of individuals but an assemblage of overlapping and intersecting interest groups through whose intermediation the interests of individuals shape the policies of the state.  At first glance, this theory may seem a long way from Bentham’s simple assertion that the Good is Pleasure and that each individual knows best what pleases him or her, but it is the same theory at base, despite all the transformations through which it has gone over the centuries.

Yet another modern variant of Bentham’s attractively simple doctrine, which corresponds to David Palmeter’s invocation of noblesse oblige, is the view that the educated elite [i.e., those who not merely finished college – 35% of the adult population – but went to a “good” school, a much smaller fraction] have the right and the duty to make decisions in the interest of and for those too benighted to recognize their own real interest.

Rousseau offers a dramatically different analysis of democratic polities.  A state is legitimate, he asserts, only when its citizens set aside their private interests [or private wills, as he calls them] and instead take as their goal the achievement of the General Good.  When they do this, then and only then can they be said to have a General Will.  In a famous argument [which, alas, is wrong – see my In Defense of Anarchism], he claims that when the citizens all take the General Good as their goal, what they collectively legislate, directly and not through representatives, must be the General Good.  The fundamental conflict between this view and that of Bentham and his successors is that whereas Bentham thinks the people must individually aim at what gives them pleasure for the laws thus enacted to be justifiable, Rousseau thinks that the people must not aim at what gives them individually pleasure if the laws are to be justifiable.

Marx, as we might have anticipated, advances a view that is at one and the same time a fusion and a transformation of these two positions.  First of all, he argues that the good for human beings is not pleasure per se, but the pleasure of unalienated collective production, by means of which human beings transform nature to satisfy their true needs and desires, not the desires that have been foisted on them by ideological mystifications.  This, as opposed to Benthamite Utilitarianism.  Second, he denies that the conflicting interests of the several major components of a capitalist society can be amalgamated successfully through any political mechanism because Capital and Labor are fundamentally and irreconcilably opposed.  This against the modern theory of Interest Group Democracy.  Finally, he argues that only through the organization and self-conscious understanding of the Working Class can the injustices of Capitalism be overcome, either through violent revolution or through non-violent political action, and the true General Good be identified and pursued.  This against the purely formulaic theses of Rousseau.

It will come as no surprise to the readers of this blog that my heart and mind are with Marx, not with Bentham, Mill, or Rousseau.

From the perspective of this analysis, the last forty years or so have seen a disastrous retreat in American politics from the ideals and hopes of the Marxian perspective.  When I grew up, the Labor Movement to which my grandfather dedicated his life was vibrant and powerful in this country and gave every hope to an optimist like myself of eventual victory.  Now, unions are diminished, feeble, and reduced to fighting rearguard actions against a triumphant and brutally unmediated capitalism.  I have no doubt that if Paul Ryan’s Ayn Rand fantasies are enacted into law, scores of millions of Americans, if not more, will suffer life-threatening losses.  But even a natural Tigger, which I am, is hard put to believe that this will result in a dramatic movement to the left.

What am I to think of the unemployed mine worker and the millions like him?  Well, the simple answer is: It is not for me to decide what I think about them.  It is for them to decide for themselves what they think and then to ask me to join them, if they want me to.  That is the way things ought to work.   If they do ask, I will respond with all my ability.  But what shall I do when, instead of asking me for help, they turn to Trump, in effect giving me and all those like me the finger?  I genuinely do not know.  You do not make progressive revolutions from above.  You make them from below.  I cannot fight for great medical insurance for myself and my wife.  We already have it.  All I can do is vote my conscience and hope that those who do need medical insurance will come to their senses and vote out of self-interest


s. wallerstein said...

Is it so clear that one cannot make revolutions from above?

Wasn't the Cuban Revolution made, in some sense, from above? Yes, with lots of popular support, but all the hard and dangerous work was done by a very small group of dedicated guerrilleros.

Yes, things did not turn out exactly as one might have hoped, but progress was made and the Cubans still receive better medical care than the unemployed mine worker in the richest country in the world and it's free in Cuba.

So while I'm not saying that people in the United States should use the Cuban Revolution as a model or blueprint (as the Weatherpeople in the 60's innocently believed), sometimes very positive and revolutionary changes come from above.

howie b said...

Professor Wolff:

You know way more about Marx and life in America than me. Still, your posts on the Frankfurt School give pause, don't they and the historical record.
What would Marcuse and Fromm say about this?
Irrationality and autonomy are a toxic mix, and a strict Freudian would be a conservative,

howie b said...

I mean, not that I really get Plato and Aristotle and Jesus for that matter, but would you take some workers gut feeling over the greatest minds and souls of the tradition, just because of Rousseau and Marx? The gut is an ugly thing to behold in action. Your gut is suspended in between the two sides. Your gut tells you, or so it sounds, that Trump is bad news and no good can come of him.
Mine too and I'm hardly an elitist

RM said...

Don’t you think, s. w., that you might be raising too abstruse questions concerning 'aboveness.' Surely when we ordinarily talk about revolutions from above or below we do have quite clear notions respecting what is being talked about? Leaders will likely emerge or be elevated (sometimes even against their will) when groundswells of opposition to an established order arise, but are we to start thinking of Wat Tyler and John Ball as being somewhat on a par with the nobles around Richard II? And no matter what Fidel Castro became, surely it’s not quite appropriate to suggest he was on a par, in terms of aboveness, with Batista up through 1958?

Wrt your discussion of “the unemployed mine worker,” RPW, I appreciate your broadening the analysis of his predicament. But maybe, where you speak of “the conflicting interests of the several major components of a capitalist society,” you could have emphasized a bit more Marx’s point that “the division of labour implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another”? Or, to extend this: we’re embedded in a society which at almost every turn informs us that we are and ought to be selfish individuals—except when it comes to an election where we are often suddenly and inexplicably encouraged to think of what might be good for the whole. As to the questions, how are we supposed to be able to assess what even our genuine self interest is or what is genuinely good for the whole when the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, I don’t know.

If I may be forgiven for making a final plea which has been prompted by so many of the conversations and comments I’ve encountered since 8 November more than by anything just encountered here: perhaps it’s only because I have my origins in an actual working—labouring—class family, mostly a coal mining one at that, but I do find it upsetting that the complexity of the predicaments “the unemployed coal miner” has to grapple with every day and the complexity of the set of issues he is supposed to evaluate with a single vote at a single election are somehow so often minimized. Have any of us done any better? What of all the things we, the educated and enlightened, have supported over a great many years with our votes and in other ways? Who, for instance, supported Obama for a second term knowing what was then knowable about his expansion of drone warfare as an instrument of American power in the world? Etc. etc. Since I’m uncharacteristically about to start throwing around sentences about sin and casting stones, I’d better stop.

howie b said...

Imagine a state of nature, literal, in some ways similar to early twentieth century US Capitalism, divided under Trump: let's suppose the hunter gatherer warmongerers are in a resource crisis- and one leader convinces the troops that endless pillage and violence and oppression are the best answer.
This is a revolution from below.
Do we honor their instinct and wishes as the oppressed?
Of course we'd have to straighten and sort the details of my hasty thought experiment.
But are the oppressed always right? Do they have privileged moral authority or know more than what's under their noses?
Then, you, as an anti Zionist would give the Zionists in the face of monstrous antisemitism morally right and privileged to victimize the Palestinians.
A view I do not take.
There are objective moral facts it's just (I don't know them but I know those who make strong cases on their behalf) and it is just a matter of finding ways to make our current social arrangements shoot in their arc

Chris said...

The only thing Mill ever argued that I find I'm in agreement with is his distinction between higher and lower pleasures. If we accept that Dostoevsky really is better than David Baldacci, how else is one to be motivated of this truth, then experiencing that greatness first hand? I agree that there are political dangers of paternalism in the theory, but I also don't see how the theory is wrong, or at least what can make it more right?

howie b said...

Wasn't the noblesse oblige model given a whirl at least through the middle of the past century? Didn't the Protestant Establishment work?
An elite that has a certain sense of collective elan is a good thing but for some reason carrying it over the river of time to the present did n't work.
So you could say that fifty years ago a coal miner would really realize his true self interest but that panned out for some reason

s. wallerstein said...

Howie B,

The U.S. elite did work on a kind of noblesse oblige model, as you say, until the middle of the 20th century. Henry Ford did deliberately pay his workers enough so that they could buy Fords. The coal mine owners probably wanted their workers to have decent healthcare and education because they needed a healthy, skilled labor force. Maybe that's enlightened self-interest, not noblesse oblige or a mixture of both.

With the coming of neoliberalism in the 70's and 80's the elite realized that they could outsource production to Mexico or China and no longer needed a healthy, skilled labor force. They stopped worrying about selling their cars or TV's in the U.S. since the market was now international and the Ford, made in Brazil, could be sold to the growing Brazilian market or exported to Argentina, etc.

However, when I introduced the phrase "noblesse oblige" earlier in this conversation, I was thinking of the responsibility of we, educated (everyone who participates in this blog seems very well educated), middle-class (educated people generally end up in the middle class if not higher), leftists towards the unemployed miner who votes for Trump. Noblesse (our relative privileges) oblige dictates solidarity with him and understanding of his desperation.

I. M. Flaud said...

Do you mean noblesse oblige or something weaker, which would amount to some effort to emancipate the oppressed without alienating potential allies?

Schematically: person Q offends sensibility S of person P. Often person P remarks, "it's not my job to educate Q about sensibility S. My job is to call out person Q, who can go elsewhere to be enlightened."

Trawl the interwebs, and you'll see many examples. I don't want to fill in the schema for fear of being called out for offending sensibility S, in case person P cannot make the use/mention distinction (this happens frequently too).

s. wallerstein said...

I.M Flaud,

I'm not sure who is Q, who is S and who is P in this case. I'm not a philosopher, so I don't know what the use/mention distinction is.

But if Q is the working class Trump voter whom we want to convince to vote for the left in the future, what one's job (your term) depends on a lot of factors.

For example, I may have little ability to convince working class people because I lack common codes with them, and you may be quite good at it. Then you should be the person who has the job of convincing them. That is, I don't think that there's a universal duty or obligation to convince misguided others: if I can (and that's not always the case), I try to convince them.

howie b said...

Thank you S Wallerstein.

Would you say that what the elite perpetrated under neoliberalism was really planned that well, in that they rationalized to themselves how it would benefit anybody?
To follow Professor Wolff's penchant for pop culture references, as Hannibal said in The A Team from eighties TV, I love it when a plan comes together,
Or do you think that some people such as that economist Friedman, (is it Milton?) who knew exactly what they were doing?
Whether I like it or not, I'm an indirect beneficiary of the neoliberal order.
I'd guess that they thought that they could mass produce mid century American liberalism all over the world and the world would be as one, as John Lennon put it

s. wallerstein said...

Howie B,

A good introduction to neoliberalism is David Harvey's "Brief Introduction to Neoliberalism". It's been a while since I read it, but in the Google books page there is a fairly good summary of the book. Harvey is clear, writes for the general educated public, not for academic specialists and is a Marxist. Anyway, as you'll see, Harvey traces neoliberalism to the crisis of capitalism of the 1970's, etc. There seem to be some PDF versions of the text available online too.

s. wallerstein said...

Here's a longer review of Harvey's book.