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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."




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Monday, April 30, 2018

CLOTHING CHOICES

On Wednesday, I shall be lecturing about The Apology in my six week introduction to the Dialogues of Plato.  In Volume Three of my Autobiography, and again six years ago on this blog, I recounted my faux-heroic moment in a Middlesex County courtroom, where I was defending myself pro se against the misdemeanor charge of Disorderly Conduct during an anti-apartheid protest.  Old-timers on this blog will recall that I unsuccesfully sought to channel Socrates when called on to propose a punishment for myself after the jury handed down a verdict of Guilty.

While planning for the trial, the defendants met periodically in my rented Watertown condo.  On a lark, I had T-shirts made up for all of us with the legend, in bright red letters, "FREE THE FOGG 19."  I still have the shirt thirty-two years later, and on Wednesday, in an act of sartorial piety, I shall wear it to class.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

AND AGAIN, SIGH

The Popish Plot was a late seventeenth century hoax cooked up by Titus Oates and spread by credulous English Protestants, according to which Catholics were plotting to kill the Protestant king so that his Catholic brother would ascend to the throne.  I was attempting, quickly and with some feeble effort at wit, to conjure that memory in my snarky account of Representative Mark Walker's  expressed desire that Speaker Ryan find a man of the cloth who has a wife and children, presumably to bring comfort to good Protestant Representatives afflicted with a Catholic House pastor.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

POINT OF PERSONAL PRIVILEGE

Some of you may have noticed that the House of Representatives chaplain, Father Connolly, was just summarily fired by Paul Ryan, without explanation.  This has caused something of a stir among Catholic members of the House, of whom there are a number on both sides of the aisle, as they say.  Two speculative explanations have been offered.  One is that on the day the House voted to pass the tax bill, the good Father offered an opening prayer in which, among other things, he expressed the hope that God would guide the members to "guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans," clearly a radical call for revolution worthy of the far left fringes of the Latin American Church.

However, a new explanation has surfaced, and it is at this point that I claim a point of personal privilege, for it was my very own Representative Mark Walker, of the North Carolina 6th CD, who gave voice to it.  He expressed the hope that the next chaplain would be a man with a wife and children who could draw on that experience to guide the members of his flock.

And then the scales fell from my eyes.  It finally made sense.  This was a good old authentically American revolt of the Protestants against the upstart Catholics who had long since seized control of the big city Democratic Party machines and were now bringing their popish heresies to the floor of the People's House.

As an atheist of culturally Jewish heritage, I do not have a dog in this fight [if I may use a Southern colloquialism], so I am free to sit back and enjoy the spectacle.  What makes it all the more delicious is that Paul Ryan is a Catholic disciple of Ayn Rand, who hated all religion.  

You can't make this stuff up.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

OLD MAN IN HIS UNDERSHIRT YELLS AT THE TV


I don’t get it.  Politicians seem incapable of doing things that strike me as so obvious as to be no-brainers.  Let me give you a case in point.  I have now watched Michael Avenatti on television a good many times.  Avenatti, for those of you abroad or not paying attention, is the lawyer for Stephanie Clifford, the porn star who appears in porn films as Stormy Daniels.  Avenatti has become the darling of cable news interviewers for one very simple reason:  he answers the questions he is asked simply and directly.  “Have other women come forward to you with stories about Trump and non-disclosure agreements [NDAs]?”  Answer, “Yes.”  “Can you identify the man whom Ms. Clifford says threatened her?””  Answer, “Not yet.”  “Was Ms. Clifford verbally bullied into signing the NDA?”  Answer, “Yes.”  “Will you tell us how?”  “No.”

The effect, at least on me, is galvanic.  You simply never hear a public figure give straight answers to straight questions, even when they are willing to do so.  They seem incapable of it, as though they have been programmed by handlers and focus groups to spew tested word salads. 

Let me tell you what has provoked this rant.  Yesterday or the day before I was watching Tom Perez being interviewed by Chuck Todd on MSNBC.  Perez was Obama’s Secretary of Labor for four years and is now Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a Clinton choice.  The DNC has launched a civil suit against the Republican National Committee for twenty million dollars in damages to compensate for the Republicans’ role in the hacking of the DNC e-mails.  I did not know, or had forgotten, that in the aftermath of Watergate, the DNC actually won a $700,000 civil judgment against the RNC for the break-in at the Watergate Apartment Complex that started the whole affair.

Todd observed that County Democratic branches were upset about the suit, fearing that it would drain away money that ought to be used in the 2018 mid-term elections to support local Democratic candidates.  Then he asked Perez, “How much will the suit cost the DNC?”  Perez replied with a word salad of talking points that did not answer the question and left me completely unwilling to believe anything Perez said.

Here is what should have happened [figures invented for the purpose of making a point]:

Question:  “How much will the suit cost?”

Answer:  “4.2 million dollars.  Maybe more or less depending on how things go.  But not one penny will come from the DNC.  We have set up a separate DNC Legal Defense Fund [ed. cf the NAACP Legal Defense Fund] and no expenses of the suit will be paid for by DNC funds that must be used to support local candidates this Fall.”

Just that.  Period.  Now, to be sure, the answer is somewhat duplicitous, since presumably anyone who would donate to the DNCLDF would also be willing to give to the DNC.  But the psychological effect on the listener would be electric.

These people are not stupid.  They may be pigs, but they are not stupid.  Why can’t they see this?

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

HOW CAN ONE BLOG ABOUT THESE THINGS?

In just one day, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, who is moonlighting as the Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tells a gathering of more than a thousand lobbyists that as a Congressman, he had a rule that if a lobbyist contacted his office, he, Mulvaney, would not agree to see him unless he donated money, and he then encourages the lobbyists to spread out across Washington and bribe Republican members of Congress.  Meanwhile, the White House physician, who, after examining the President, announced that if he gave up cheeseburgers he could live to be two hundred, is revealed as a "candy man" who would walk up and down the aisles of the President's plane on long overseas flights handing out prescription uppers and downers freely to the press and Presidential aides.

Now look, I am not Jonathan Swift, and never claimed to be, but even the immortal satirist would have a difficult time ridiculing people like this.  Who needs satire when a transcript will do quite as well?

Sunday, April 22, 2018

SINCE YOU ASKED

I remarked a while back that I had received a praising letter about IN DEFENSE OF ANARCHISM from Murray Rothbard, and one of those signing him/herself "anonymous" asked about it, so I went searching through my piles of papers.  It turns out the letter was from Jerome Tuccille, also a stalwart of the Libertarian movement, not Murray Rothbard.  Tuccille, Wikipedia tells me, passed away just a year ago.  I could not find his original letter, but here is his gracious and friendly reply to my response to it.


Dec. 13, 1970

Dear Mr. Wolff,

            Your letter of Dec. 8 is in hand.  If you find yourself startled to receive kind words from the Right, you can imagine my own response to the fact that my book has been viciously attacked in the conservative press (National Review, New Guard, Triumph) and generally well received by the Left.  Actually, I had somewhat anticipated this; the ms. was bought by a New Left editor after it had been given a cool reception at some of the more conservative publishing houses.  It’s fairly indicative of the re-adjustment in political thinking that has been going on over the past two years or so.

            By now you must have seen the Widmer review of both our books, along with Guerin’s ANARCHISM in the Nov. 16th Nation.  Their new literary editor, Emile Capouya, is very sympathetic to libertarian ideas and this was apparently his inaugural feature.  The Guerin book, is, in my estimation, the best short comprehensive history of the subject available.

            I’ve done a brief review of your book for the Libertarian Forum, a bi-weekly newsletter, and I’ll send you a copy when it comes out in a few weeks.

            I’ll also keep you posted on the progress of my course at the New School.  The students who sign up will probably be a mixture of Randian capitalist types and Left Wing communalists; I’m sure to be attacked by the former for “selling out to the commies” and by the Leftists for advocating “greed” and “exploitation.”  This exchange usually takes place at every Left-Right conference I’ve been to.  If Nixon knew the truth about the so-called radical movement, he’d be sleeping much more soundly.  Fortunately, he doesn’t.

                                    Best Regards,


                                    Jerome Tuccille
                                    4 Windsor Terrace
                                    White Plains, N.Y. 10601

Despite the tensions caued by the war and the Nixon presidency and the Civil Rights Movement, those were more civil times.

WORTH READING

This is exactly right.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

TIGGER SNIFFS THE SPRING BREEZES AND REGAINS HIS SUNNY DISPOSITION


The secret to the NRA’s success, we are repeatedly told, is the fact that gun rights advocates are single issue voters, ready to set aside even economic self-interest in pursuit of their obsessive desire to own assault rifles.  Fair enough.  In a winner-take-all electoral system, single issue voting is one of the few ways to express cardinal rather than simply ordinal preference.  I have a dream, and here it is.  The only thing that can successfully counter a single-issue voting bloc is another single-issue voting bloc, especially a voting bloc that has not in the past voted at all but is now motivated to get out to the polls.  The high school students’ gun control movement has the potential to be just such a counter-weight to the gun rights activists.  Using social media, the students can communicate with an extremely broad segment of the 18-21 age population, historically the least likely to vote.  If they really do mobilize, the idea of voting, and voting only for pro-regulation candidates, could easily go viral, tilting even solidly red districts blue.  We shall see.

I do not speak, read, or write Korean, I have never been to the Korean Peninsula or even to Asia, and in the immortal words of Will Rogers, all I know is what I read in the papers, so take what follows with enough salt to satisfy a chef in a Chinese restaurant.  I got my start in political activism sixty years ago with the campaign for nuclear disarmament.  I wrote, spoke, marched, and protested in favor of getting rid of nuclear weapons, not merely limiting their possession to America, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain.  Well, we failed big time, and the world is now awash in small, medium, and large fission, fusion, and dirty bombs capable of being delivered by everything from an intercontinental ballistic missile to a suitcase.  By my count, there are at least nine countries that have workable nuclear weapons, the most recent of them being North Korea.  Only one nation has actually used nuclear weapons in war, namely America, which, I think we can agree, somewhat limits its moral authority in this matter, though not of course, its presumption of moral superiority.

At the moment, one of the most urgent dangers of catastrophic [even if not nuclear] war is America’s bipartisan insistence that North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons is “unacceptable” whereas Pakistan’s, India’s, Israel’s, Russia’s, France’s, Great Britain’s, and China’s is not.  [I leave to one side the possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons.]  If America launches a pre-emptive attack on North Korea’s nuclear weapons sites, a million or more men, women, and children could die in the resultant war.

There now seems to be a genuine possibility that Trump will agree to North Korea’s continued possession of nuclear weapons in return for their agreement to discontinue further development of more sophisticated delivery systems and the regularization of relations with South Korea.  This would be a triumph for North Korea, giving it everything it has sought for more than sixty years.  Trump would trumpet the agreement as proof of his spectacular deal-making, and in all likelihood John Bolton would resign in outrage.  One can but hope.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen is going to be indicted.  It couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.



Friday, April 20, 2018

BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN


On Wednesday I met my OLLI [Osher Lifelong Learning Institute] class on Plato.  About fifteen old folks turned out, including enough retired physicians to staff a small hospital and an Anthropologist.  OLLI is a hoot.  Preparing for the class I re-read the Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito and will in due time re-read the Gorgias, the four Dialogues I am covering.  As I think I remarked here earlier, all of us “professional philosophers” [or Sophists, to use the Athenian term] are so familiar with Plato, and have been for so long, that it is easy for us to forget how extraordinary he was and is.  I mean, he invented our field [the Pre-Socratics to the contrary notwithstanding.]  The distinction between Appearance and Reality, which lies at the foundation of all philosophical thinking, was virtually given to us by Plato, along with the technique of definition by division.  On top of which, he was far and away the greatest artist of the entire Pantheon of great philosophers.  And he lived TWO THOUSAND FOUR HUNDRED YEARS AGO!

If I accomplish nothing else, I need to help the members of the class to see and appreciate how truly remarkable he was.  It is a challenge.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

SIGH

Well, I bitched about the screw-up concerning my Columbia course next semester, and the response is extended discourses about bureaucracy and solidarity with the working class.  It recalls the old light bulb joke, "How many socialists does it take to change a light bulb?  Answer, a dozen.  Eleven to debate the hidden injuries of class, and one to go out and find an electrician."

Just to be clear, I am only being paid $8000 to teach the course [$2000 less than UNC Chapel Hill, a state university, pays], so in this situation I count as one of the exploited.  And the people I am complaining about are the College Committee on Instruction, which consists of six tenured professors, one untenured professor, and the dean of the College, not underpaid secretaries.

I mean, if we are not going to be able to complain about bureaucratic screw-ups under socialism, I am going to reconsider my commitments.

Monday, April 16, 2018

A MINATORY TALE

I have mentioned that next Fall, I shall be flying up to New York every Tuesday to co-teach a course with Todd Gitlin in the Sociology Department of Columbia University.  The course is an undergraduate seminar entitled "The Mystifications of Social Reality."  Today begins enrollment for the Fall ["rising seniors" today, in the jargon of the modern Academy.]  Out of obsessive curiosity, I went on line to check the course and see how many seniors had signed up.  To my distress, I could not find the course in the list of offerings, so I called the Department secretary.  She knew from nothing, so I called the office of the Chair, Shamus Kahn and left a message.  Todd emailed me to say that he had heard from Kahn who knew nothing about it.  Todd and I talked, and agreed that he would get onto the department [where he is a professor] and have someone correct the list of offerings and send a message to students about a "new course."

Now, one could speculate that  this is an act of political suppression, but that is clearly untrue.  This is by no means the edgiest course being offered in Sociology next semester.  No, alas, it is just good old fashioned incompetence, of a sort with which I am too, too familiar in the Academy.

Fortunately, Todd says, students keep signing up all Spring.  But it is a good thing I am so obsessive, or we would have had no students at all.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

BACK TO SERIOUS BLOGGING


It is clearly pointless to wait patiently until the political world settles down before turning to the composition of an essay I have been contemplating.  Every day, indeed every hour, brings a revelation more provocative and worthy of commentary than its predecessor.  So, I have turned off MSNBC and repaired to my computer keyboard, where I shall now spend a quiet hour hunting and pecking.

Let us suppose, arguendo, that we yearn for fundamental changes in America, for an end to its extreme inequality of wealth and income, to its imperial foreign policy, to its brutal treatment of women, African-Americans, gay and lesbian persons, and the poor.  Suppose that we are not content simply to restore some of the elements of the social safety net that have been frayed or destroyed, welcome though that would be.  Suppose, dare I say it, that we hold, in a secret place in our hearts, the dream of collective ownership of the means of production.  How might such a transformation of America come about?

There are, as I see it, three possible avenues to such a future:  violent extra-legal revolution, an electoral transformation, or the natural inner maturing, within the current economic order, of new social relationships of production that result in an immanent transformation of capitalism into socialism.

Successful society-transforming violent revolution is, in this country at this time, an old leftie’s wet dream.  Seriously, revolution?  When there are three hundred million guns in private hands, most of them owned and coddled by the opponents of significant change?  I doubt it.

As for the inner natural maturing of new social relations of production, that is in fact happening, as Marx predicted, but I am skeptical that it will lead to the overthrow of capitalism, for reasons I have detailed in my paper The Future of Socialism, available at box.net via the link at the top of this blog page.

Which leaves an electoral transformation.  Let us recall that we have a presidential, not a parliamentary, form of government.  For well-known reasons, which my fingers are not nimble enough to spell out in detail unless someone really wants an explanation, this means that ideologically homogeneous minority parties rarely are able to achieve much legislatively, save in rather special circumstances, such as those that obtained in New York State, for example.  Power comes from gaining leverage within one of the two major parties, which in turn means that a movement must elect Representatives or Senators [or, in rare cases, a President] who share and are responsive to the concerns and demands of the movement.

Now, it does not follow from this that only electoral politics has any chance of changing the country.  Not at all.  A movement outside the two parties – a Civil Rights Movement, a Women’s Liberation Movement, a Gay Liberation Movement, an Occupy Wall Street Movement, a Poor People’s Movement, can change the political landscape and apply irresistible pressure on ambitious candidates leading them to alter their positions and even their votes in Congress in an effort to win re-election.  The key here is, as everyone understands, the astonishingly low turnouts even in Presidential elections.  One-vote-one-person winner-take-all elections give no structural expression to intensity of preference, but intensity of preference shapes turnout, which in turn determines elections.

Nor is it at all necessary or even desirable for everyone to do the same thing.  A centrist Democrat working to re-elect Joe Manchin or Heidi Heidkamp and an Occupy Wall Street activist putting her body on the line in front of the home office of a multi-national corporation are both, in their very different ways, contributing to the painfully slow process of turning the enormous, bulky ship of state in a new direction.  No bill redistributing income can pass the Senate unless the Democrats have at least fifty-one votes in the upper chamber, and no bill redistributing income will ever be sent over from the House to the Senate for debate unless millions, or rather tens of millions, of Americans march in the streets demanding such legislation and vowing not to vote for candidates for the House who do not sponsor and vote for such legislation.  Simply to say this is to recognize the height of the mountain we have to climb.

One final observation before my two forefingers give out.  Contrary to the nonsense written by Op Ed columnists and repeated by Cable News commentators, people on the far left are not at all less prone to compromise than people positioned roughly where the political landscape changes from blue to red.  If we imagine the political spectrum laid out in the familiar left/right fashion we inherited from the French Revolution, legislators on the far left are quite as prepared to compromise with legislators on the left or even the center left as legislators a tad to the left of the middle are to compromise with legislators somewhat to their right.  But because these latter are  compromising with legislators of the other party, they are held up as saints of political virtue, even though the actual range of their compromise may be narrow than that of their far left colleagues.

Friday, April 13, 2018

BIBLE VERSE FOR THE DAY


Michael Llenos brings up the matter of Ham and slavery.  Not Ham as in Ham and Eggs but Ham as in Noah’s three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham.  The curse laid upon Ham by Noah was a standard justification for slavery in the Old South.  Here is the relevant passage from Genesis, Chapter 9:

19These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread. 20And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: 21And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. 22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. 23And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness. 24And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.”

Africans were traditionally said to be descended from Ham, and hence destined by God for servitude.

In the Fall of 1993, shortly after I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department, I offered an undergraduate course on The Political Economy of Race and Class.  I was the only White member of the department [not the first, but my predecessor was long retired by the time I showed up] and the students did not know what to make of me.  One young Black man from Springfield, who went on to have a distinguished career as a student, sat in on the first lecture to check me out for his four siblings and cousins, all of  whom were students at UMass.  I passed muster, and the rest of the gang enrolled.

Some while into the semester I got to Franz Fanon’s Black Faces, White Masks, and for some reason [I forget now why], I mentioned the story about Ham, who was, I said, “of course not Black.”  One of the cousins raised her hand and said, “But he was Black.”  ‘Now look,” I said, “if his brothers were all White, how could he be Black?”  “I don’t care,” she said, “he was.”  “What makes you so sure?” I asked.  “My grandma told me.”

I was the new boy in the department, and White besides, but I was not stupid, and I knew that you did not call out a person’s grandmother, so I just dropped the matter and moved on.


Wednesday, April 11, 2018

YOUR DAILY BIBLE READING


As you all know, I am a faithful reader of the Bible, for all that I am an atheist, and it irks me when those who claim to be Christians get it all wrong.  This morning, the bloviators on Morning Joe were opining that it would be hard for Trump to find someone to take Deputy Attorney General’s position and then to fire Bob Mueller.  “Yes,” said Joe Scarborough in his usual know-it-all manner, “he would bear the Mark of Cain,” meaning that he would be in everyone’s crosshairs and would never find another job in Washington.

Well, that may be, but it would not be The Mark of Cain.  Quite the contrary.  Here is the relevant passage, from Genesis, Chapter 4:

And the LORD said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?
10And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.
11And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand;
12When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth.
13And Cain said unto the LORD, My punishment is greater than I can bear.
14Behold, thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth; and it shall come to pass, that every one that findeth me shall slay me.
15And the LORD said unto him, Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the LORD set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him.

In short, the Mark of Cain is a safe passage ticket from God, a warning to others to lay off.  I do not understand why the pious and faithful cannot get this right.  I mean, it is not buried somewhere in Leviticus or Second Samuel.  It is right up front, four chapters into the first Book of the Bible.  Even if you do not stick with the Good Book long enough to get to the Flood, you ought to see it.

Young people these days have no respect.


Tuesday, April 10, 2018

STAY TUNED


I have been turning over in my mind a post drawing on a book I published just fifty years ago, concerning the reasons why even radicals should support Blue Dog Democrats in the November election, but the events of the past twenty-four hours have consumed my attention.  I am now clued in on the complex process required when the FBI seeks a search warrant for a lawyer’s office [something I had somehow neglected to inform myself of in the preceding eighty-four years].   I keep checking the TV to find out whether Trump has done anything precipitous and dangerous.  Obviously I am merely a bystander in this affair, but my sense is that we are rapidly approaching some sort of crisis.  At this point, our best defense appears to be the patriotism and commitment to the rule of law of people I have been inveighing against my entire adult life.  The irony is not lost on me.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

THE ARC OF LIFE


Working through my accumulated papers, sorting, filing, reading essays I wrote so long ago I had forgotten them, I have been struck by the contrast between the natural arc of the life cycle, from youth through maturity to old age, and the timeless present of the Internet, in which there is neither memory nor wisdom, but merely novelty.  As I re-read essays forty years old, I am reminded of where I sat as I wrote them, how old my sons were then, whether I was in Northampton or Belmont, or Pelham.  The essays are for me not fevered responses to the news of the moment but strata in the riverbed of my mind, laid down and then preserved by the passage of time.

I am accustomed to ask, when I read a great philosophical text, Is this an early or a middle Platonic Dialogue;  are these the words of the young or the mature Marx;  was this written by Kant before or after he encountered Hume’s critique of causal inference?  When I pick up my viola to play my part of a Haydn quartet, my first thought is always, is this one of the opus 33’s or is this a late quartet?  I love them all, but there is a difference, especially of course in how demanding the viola part will be.  But none of this, it seems, pertains to the Internet, which paradoxically preserves everything forever in the cloud but cares only for the most recent post.

My experience these past few days calls to mind a lovely passage from the writings of Michael Oakeshott, in my view the finest English conservative thinker since Burke.  In the title essay of Oakeshott’s collection Rationalism in Politics, he says of the Rationalist, “With an almost poetic fancy, he strives to live each day as if it were his first, and he believes that to form a habit is to fail.”

These thoughts are prompted by the fact that I am eighty-four, not forty-eight or twenty-four, and quite irrespective of the world’s judgment, I feel a need to shape, preserve, and reflect upon the unfolding of my mind these past sixty-five years and more.

When I was in my early sixties, I spent a good deal of time transcribing, organizing, and thus preserving the letters written in the first decades of the twentieth century by my grandfather and grandmother.  There I found the evidences of my grandparents’ devotion to the cause of socialism and to one another, a devotion captured exquisitely in a line from one of my grandmother’s letters:  “I would have loved you even if you were no socialist,” she wrote to my grandfather.

Perhaps in half a century, when my two grandchildren are as old as I was then, they will find in my carefully assembled and organized papers some words to inspire them as I have been by the words of my grandparents.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

ALL POLITICS ARE LOCAL

I now live in the 6th Congressional District of North Carolina, currently served by the reliably execrable Republican Mark Walker.  The 6th CD is a plus-7 R district, rather less heavily Republican than the district just win barely by Conor Lamb.  At a Candidates' Forum hosted by the Carolina Meadows Democratic Club the other night, I saw Ryan Watts, a pleasant enough twenty-seven year old UNC graduate who is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Walker.

I have decided to throw my efforts behind Watts.  If we could snatch the NC 6th away from the Republicans it would be a great victory.

You do what you can.

MORE FROM THE PILE


In the Fall of 1951, as a first semester sophomore, I took Henry Aiken’s course on Hume’s Treatise at Harvard.  The next year, as a first semester senior, I took Clarence Irving Lewis’ course on Epistemology.  For my final paper in Lewis’ course, I wrote a slashing attack on Hume, very sharp and, or so I thought, clever.  Lewis, then in his final year of a long and enormously distinguished career, wrote a comment on the paper that has stayed with me over the intervening sixty-six years as the defining statement of how one ought to approach the study of the field I had chosen for myself.  For a long time, I simply kept the term paper on the last page of which the comment was written, but as the pages darkened and began to crumble, I carefully cut off the comment and placed it gently in an envelope.  As I continue the sorting of my papers, I came across the envelope this morning.  Here is Lewis’ gentle rebuke, preserved from two thirds of a century ago. In my defense, all I can say is that I was at the time eighteen.

“The points made are individually acute.  In this paper, it would be out of place to ask that they should “add up” to something in conclusion.  However, I should hope that the general character of the paper – which is in no way a shortcoming in this case – is not a symptom of that type of mind, in philosophy, which can find the objection to everything but advance the solution of nothing.”

Today, when I am fifteen years older than he was then, I can only hope that my life has to some degree been a fulfilment of Lewis’ hope for me.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

FRAGMENTS FROM THE PILE


I am now awash in offprints, folders, clipped together sets of pages, and all the other detritus of a life of the mind.  Among this mass of paper, I have just stumbled on three hand-written fragments, ranging in length from two to eight pages in length, in which, purely for my own edification, I sought to think through questions raised by my work on Marx. 

While I await from Amazon the next box of file folders, I think I am going to undertake to transcribe them into my computer.  As I do, I shall post them on this blog.  They may provoke some interesting responses.  Here is the first, a two-page fragment.  It is a first and only draft, originally hand-written, some indication of the way my mind works.  It is undated, but I would guess is about thirty-five years old.

Some Random Thoughts
On Democratic Decision-making in a Socialist State

It is worth considering whether democratic decision-making is feasible in a capitalist state only because the matters of major social importance – viz, capital allocation, organization of production, etc. – are not objects of political decision at all.  The pattern of investment never becomes an object of anyone’s decision in a decentralized, private property economy, and even such large-scale decisions as are made – such as G.M.’s decision to retool, say – are not political decisions.  A major industrial union may be engaged in contract negotiations with a major industry during a political campaign, but there is no way that the outcome of those negotiations can become an object of political decision in the campaign, despite the fact that their outcome will probably have a wider-reaching and more profound on the lives of the voters than will the outcome of the issues being debated in the campaign.

In effect, the long run economic decision-making which sets the stage for public political choices takes place behind the backs of the public – not secretly, heaven knows, but exempted from inclusion in the political sphere.  This fact is, of course, structural, not accidental.  Since the corporation is privately owned, and the union is private association, the decisions of the first and contracts between the two cannot directly become the object of political decision.

I say “cannot.” But one thinks of the wealth of government laws and regulations shaping investment decisions, the bargaining process, even – as with wage and price controls – the outcome of the bargaining process.  Quite so.  But these exceptions demonstrate the truth of my claim, in two ways:  first, it is clear, I think, that although the capitalist state can seek to shape investment decisions (by its tax laws, principally_, it cannot make investment decisions – the result is a series [ed.  I wrote serious!] of distortions and inefficiencies which frustrate the aims of the state;  second, the pluralist character of the private sector defeats the state’s efforts to achieve coherent economy-wide planning.

In effect, I am suggesting that democratic decision-making (as distinguished from the operation and preservation of political liberties) flourishes only because what is decided is not structurally fundamental.  Consider:  it is feasible to make the size or existence of social welfare programs a matter of political decision, for [i.e., because  ed.] the dislocations caused by their expansion or constriction, institution and termination, are structurally insignificant, for all the personal dislocation thereby produced.  But it would be utterly impossible to make the social relationships of production objects of periodic democratic choice.  No industrial society could oscillate between collective and private ownership of the means of production.

How, then, could social decision-making in a socialist society embody what we ordinarily think of as democratic principles and procedures?  First of all, it is clear that freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, private and diversified ownership of at least some means of communication (publishing houses, newspapers, magazines, radio stations [ed.  This was written thirty years ago] would be perfectly possible.  Only the fears and self-interest of government bureaucrats stand in the way of those freedoms.  How can those freedoms be preserved?  A major and difficult question, but not in principle impossible to answer.

Secondly, the content, the direction, the broad purposes of the economic plan _can_ be the object of democratic political decision, with one party, say, favoring a lower rate of growth with a higher leisure and consumption trade-off, another party favoring the postponement of present consumption, etc. (this assumes a mature industrialized economy).  In large, heterogeneous societies there will certainly be regional interests, and even in a socialist society there will be quasi-class conflicts over the structure of job compensation, etc.  But what will not be an object of political decision, in a socialist any more than in a capitalist democracy, is the basic structure itself.  Private versus collective ownership of the means of production will not be a political issue.

This, Marx is correct in his claim that the transition from capitalism to socialism must be revolutionary, for all that the transition may be bloodless.  The transition is revolutionary just in the sense that it is a transformation of the underlying socio-economic structure within which the political process takes place.  We may choose to buy off the private owners of capital, but they money they receive will no longer be capital.  It will be spendable or savable, but not investable.  Thus, it will not be, as it were, a claim in perpetuity on the resources and output of the society.  It is not difficult to see that such wealth, however great initially, will have a rapidly diminishing impact on the new society.

Might a socialist society, by a counter-revolution, transform itself back into a capitalist society?  In theory that is possible.  But consider why it is so unlikely in practice.  In a socialist society, the means of production are collectively owned and labour-power is not a produced commodity.  [See Schweickart on this.  Ed.  David Schweickart, an extremely interesting socialist author.]  It is logically possible for a mass movement to seek to re-institute private ownership of the means of production, and thereby to re-impose on themselves wage-labour.  But why would they?  And whom would they choose as the new private owners?  There would, in a socialist society, be no way for private individuals to accumulate self-expanding capital, and thus to repeat, as it were, the history of the 16-19th centuries.

But though a counter-transformation to capitalism seems in practice impossible, there is clearly the possibility for revolutionary transformations, bringing into existence social forms beyond socialism.  What they would be, one need not attempt to guess.

A NIGHT AT THE MOVIES


I may have mentioned that one of the perks of Carolina Meadows is Saturday night screenings of old and not so old movies, complete with free popcorn.  A week and a half ago, Susie and I took in Stranger Than Fiction, a 2001 fantasy/comedy featuring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson, a pretty classy cast.  It is a charming little film that raises some really profound philosophical questions [quite possibly unintentionally, although that may be underestimating the author of the screenplay, Zach Helm.]  While I await the opening of the stock market to see how big the drop will be, I thought I would talk for a bit about it.  It would make a great topic in a Philosophy seminar.

Will Farrell plays a lonely, anal obsessive IRS auditor who one day starts hearing a voice in his head – not voices, but a single voice, that of a woman.  She is not talking to him but rather about him, in the manner of the narrator of a novel.  Eventually Farrell finds his way to Dustin Hoffman, a professor of literature, who after asking a series of questions [to determine whether Farrell is a character in a comedy or a tragedy, for example], determines that he is a character in a novel being written by a quite successful but writer’s block stuck novelist, Emma Thompson, who has not published anything in ten years.  [Thompson’s publisher has sent along a professional writer’s block baby sitter, Queen Latifeh, who assures Thompson that every one of her clients has met the publisher’s deadline.]  Thompson, who writes rather dark novels, is stuck trying to figure out how to kill off her main character, Farrell, in an artistically interesting manner.  Farrell seeks out Thompson, and gets a copy of the unfinished novel, which he takes to Hoffman.  Hoffman declares it a masterpiece that can only be successfully completed with the death of the main character.  He advises Farrell to submit quietly to his own death for the sake of art, pointing out that we all die anyway sooner or later.

There it is.  The movie ends with an entirely gratuitous and completely incompatible happy ending that unites an alive Farrell with Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose sole function is to provide an irrelevant feel good love interest. 

Where to start?  I could build an entire Introduction to Philosophy out of this movie, with sections on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, the Philosophy of Language, Social Philosophy, and of course Aesthetics.

Let me begin with the Philosophy of Religion.  As I have several times written [including in my essay “Narrative Time,”] the core of Christian theology is the claim that the universe is, as it were, a story told by God, with a beginning [The Creation], chapters [Eden, the Fall, the Old Testament, the Incarnation and Resurrection, the New Testament], and a conclusion [the Second Coming and the Last Trump.]  True believers believe that they are characters in this story, and that on occasion, if they are blessed, the Author and Narrator speaks to them, either directly, through a personal revelation, or indirectly through His chosen church.  Our divine calling is to play well the role that God has written for us, even if that role calls for our death.  So the movie could be viewed as a meditation on the Christian concept of a Calling.

Or Aesthetics:  many novelists say that characters come to them and demand that their stories be told.  What can we say of characters who say that a novelist comes to them and demands that they submit to the narrative strictures of the plot?  Could characters form a united front against the author and demand a different ending for the novel?  What if Natasha does not, after all, want to marry Pierre?  Or if Elizabeth Bennett, against all authorial pressure, falls in love with Mr. Collins?  What if Mitya, Ivan, and Alyosha decide to go into business with old man Karamazov?

Metaphysics:  What is the ontological status of a character in a novel?  Or of an entire fictional world?  Can Phileas Fogg meet Sherlock Holmes?  How?  Why not?  What is the relative time location of the worlds of Gandalf, Ethan Frome, and Obi Wan Kenobe?  Should a degree from Hogwarts carry any weight in a Harvard application?

Well, the market is open, so I shall stop.  Not bad for an evening with popcorn.

Monday, April 2, 2018

HOW I SPEND MY DAY


I am now spending hours going through mountains of file folders, papers, and offprints in an effort to subdue my life to some sort of order.  I am simply astonished to discover episodes in my professional life that I had completely forgotten.  For example, it appears that in 2004, I undertook, using my USSAS mailing list, to raise money for an NAACP voter registration campaign.  Really?  Who knew?

Along the way, I came across one delicious item that I need to share with you, if only to illustrate just how wonderful my colleagues were in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.  Here are the title and sub-title of a paper delivered at a 1990 panel discussion in Atlanta, Georgia.  The author is my colleague Michael Thelwell.

“Cap’n Dey Done Stole De Canon, Best We Bring Up Our Howitzer”

Or, not necessarily more precisely, but in the fashion of the day:

“The problematique of de-situating the re-marginalization of Afro-centric tropistic significations, intertextually, against the ambience of a phallo- and Euro-centric, post-Derridian canonical discourse, mediated by a post-Freudian, pre-coital detumescence and seminal exhaustion, other-ality, and the influential anxieties of race and gender.”

A MIRACULOUS AFFIRMATION [AND QUITE GENTLE CHSTISEMENT]


I had a comment on a recent post that was so wonderful I had to pause and acknowledge it.  Here is the comment in full, originally appended to my post entitled “Whew”:

Anonymous said...
I am a non-white woman from India and I have been reading your blog for more than two years. As a mother pursuing PhD in her early 40s, I could perhaps be the least noteworthy of all your readers. I decided to post a comment because in your previous post you mentioned that your blogs have very low female/non-white readership. Let me point out, I have finished watching your Youtube lecture series on Kant, ideological critique and Marx. Currently, I am on the third part of the Freud series. I can’t thank you enough for taking the effort and putting those videos out in the public domain. As a person, without any training or knowledge of philosophy and with very limited resources at hand, your lecture series, blogs and even the discussions on comments section have helped me immensely. In fact, I have recommended your lecture series to some of my friends and fellow students. So, I hope you will soon see a spurt in your non-white readership. 

Also, I can’t help but mention one point. Maybe it is cultural. I know capitalism is not the most rational form of production. But sometimes, in a caste-ridden society like India, where some people (due to their birth status) are condemned to do certain jobs like picking up garbage and cleaning sewage (with no escape at all for generations), money can help transcend barriers. In that case, a man making millions from trash (as you mentioned in your Marx series) is something to be celebrated. For millions of people out there, it gives hope and a modicum of dignity – the dignity of labour, which is hard to come by. Just a thought.”

I am thrilled beyond description by this, and I thank the anonymous writer most warmly.  No writer could ever hope for a better audience!  Google counts do not really matter, not when Rosanne Barr gets twenty million viewers for her latest TV show.  What matters is that miraculously, I have somehow reached out across half the world and found a reader.

I am of course completely aware of the existence of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of men, women, and children around the world whose only way of surviving is by picking over or collecting or sweeping up the garbage left by the more fortunate.  For those of you who have not watched the video, I was trying to illustrate the fact that capitalists are motivated solely by a search for the largest available rate of return on invested capital, regardless of the social status of the investment.  I mentioned Louis Wolfson, an American who made a fortune after WW II in the garbage collection industry.  My failure to point out the existence of people who have no other choice was sheer thoughtlessness and insensitivity, for which the writer of the comment, in the gentlest possible fashion, quite properly chastised me.

I trust that my hardy band of the usual suspects will not be affronted that I have devoted such attention to this comment, coming from an unexpected source.  I love you all!

Anonymous, if I may address you thus, dare I ask the subject of your dissertation?  I am delighted to be able to acknowledge your presence in the circle of readers of this blog.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

WHEW!

Well, the Avery 5160 labels arrived today from Amazon, together with a box of file folders, so, very excited, I undertook to print out the first thirty labels.  They came out beautifully, but they were misaligned.  The text of each label slopped over to the next label.  When I test printed a sheet on regular paper, they came out exactly right.  How could this happen?  I was using Avery labels and an Avery template.  

Many wasted sheets later, I realized the problem.  The labels are of course ever so slightly raised above the sheet to which they are attached.  My stupid printer "thinks" the sheet of labels begins at the raised labels, because its roller cannot sense the underlying sheet.  After deep thought and careful calculation, I concluded that if I cut off 2.5 centimeters from the top of the label sheet, it would print correctly, except that I would lose the last row of three.  

I was right!  I am deeply and absurdly proud of having solved this problem.  It is, I am embarrassed to say, far and away the most complex real world problem that has been presented to me in sixty years of high level philosophical enterprise.  Would anyone like to know how to reload a stapler?

A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS [OR MAYBE JUST A MURDER OF CROWS]


The responses to my little pot pourri yesterday were delightful.  Professor Pigden, thank you for the bio.  I had already googled and read the official department write-up, but the family and personal data were fascinating.  Your family includes a wrestler and a croupier!  

Jerry, Google gives me all manner of statistics about where my readers are, but they are not much help.  For example, it claims, not surprisingly, that most of my readers are in America, but after that it lists the Netherlands as second, which seems wildly implausible.  Chile is down the list [thank you, S. Wallerstein], but Russia is nestled in between the UK and Germany.  All very odd.  At one point, Croatia was popping up. 

My sense is that we could put together a rich, exciting, and varied college faculty from the regular readership.  I seem to be very low in female readership, alas, and I suspect, with no evidence, that non-White readership is also low, also upsetting.  But all I can do is put myself out there and hope readers show up.

I usually draw between 1000 and 1500 page views a day, but that tells me very little, because some people [not all that many] check in several times a day, and some, I suspect, drop in periodically.  When Brian Leiter links to my blog, page views quadruple for a day and a half.  To the youngsters among you, all of this seems quite natural, but to an octogenarian like myself, it is passing strange.

Equally odd is the response to my posted video lectures.  The page views for the Kant series are eight to ten times as large as those for the Ideological Critique, Freud, or Marx lectures.  Perhaps George Lucas would like to make a movie called The Return of the Noumena, or The Antinomy Strikes Back.

Meanwhile, the advent of Easter [that phrase is, I fear, a liturgical mishmash] has, as usual, depressed me.  Several recent stories in the press have emphasized the enormous mountain that gerrymandering has created for Democrats to climb, and I have started to worry that even a blue wave will simply crash against it and recede without having remade the political landscape, leaving me with nothing save the Mueller probe to pin my hopes on.

But the sun is shining, there was a full moon this morning during my walk, and my natural Tigger is reasserting itself.