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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, November 10, 2018

BUT WHEN YOU'RE WRONG, YOU'RE WRONG


I got two things wrong [among many] and honesty requires that I acknowledge as much.  First of all, I predicted that Mueller would indict someone yesterday, and he didn’t.  I remain hopeful.  Second, I called the election a blue ripple, but subsequent analysis by wiser heads reveals that it was indeed a blue wave.  The turnout was astonishing, and the scope of the Democratic victory quite reassuring.  If we can survive until 2020, we have a good chance of crushing the Trump party.

My brief post about the forthcoming panel discussion at Columbia triggered some fascinating stories about campus organizing efforts, including a comment from one of the innumerable anonymati/ae about my own campus, UMass.  I am sufficiently old school to believe that union organizing remains a valuable progressive strategy.  When I was young, the AFL-CIO was the behemoth on the landscape.  I would not then have been able to foresee that public employees, faculty, graduate students, and med techs would be the future of the labor movement.

Live and learn.

Now, about Broward County.

Friday, November 9, 2018

COMING UP


Let me begin with a story.  I kind of think it dates from some time in the middle seventies.  I was invited to take part in a panel discussion in Lexington, KY at the university there on the topic of The Political Responsibility of Intellectuals, or something of that sort.  The affair was sponsored by the National Endowment of the Humanities [I think] and was explicitly aimed not at an academic audience but at the general public.  My fellow panelists were a pair of rather distinguished scholars:  Sam Weber, an extremely raffiné UMass Comp Lit professor, and Berkeley’s Martin Jay, the author of a first rate book on the Frankfurt School.  I took the assignment seriously, and talked about the political responsibility of intellectuals.  Weber gave an incomprehensible talk on Heidegger’s essay on technology and Jay gave a comprehensible but utterly irrelevant talk on images of vision and mirrors in nineteenth century French writings [pretty obviously cobbled together from what he was then working on.]  As the discussion developed, Weber and Jay made numerous references to Marx and other left intellectuals, presenting themselves as dyed in the wool lefties.  Somewhat miffed at having been so thoroughly upstaged, I asked them both at one point where they, as left intellectuals, stood on the subject of faculty unionization.  They stuttered and hesitated, hemmed and hawed, and managed to avoid taking a position.  If their feet had been any more made of clay, I could have conducted a pottery workshop.

As you all know, I have been flying up to New York from North Carolina every Tuesday to co-teach a course at Columbia on Mystifications of Social Reality.  You may not have noticed that at the present time, the Columbia graduate student TAs have organized and have been trying unsuccessfully to get the university to enter into negotiations with them to bargain for a contract.  The students are associated with the UAW and have actually won their appeal to the NLRB [I hope I have this right] but the Columbia administration has dug in its heels and is refusing to bargain.  The grad students, who teach most of the sections in Columbia’s famous General Education program [which Columbia routinely touts when it is raising money from its alums], have called a strike for the week before final exams.  It turns out that one of the students in my course is a leader of the student union, and he has asked both me and my co-teacher Todd Gitlin to take part in a panel discussion on the subject two and a half weeks from now.  Needless to say, I jumped at the chance.

I have some personal experience with the subject, because in 1977, the faculty at UMass unionized, and in 1990 the grad students did so as well.  Faculty, especially at elite universities, tend to express worries that grad student unionization would destroy the delicate and exquisitely fragile mentoring relationship between them and their doctoral students, a relationship that they like to describe as the most rewarding part of the university teaching experience.  Now, for my first 19 years at UMass I mentored grad students who were not unionized, and for the next eighteen years I mentored grad students who were.  I can report that there was not the slightest difference for me between the two experiences.  But there was quite a lot of difference for the grad students, who successfully bargained for guaranteed tuition, academic fee, and health care fee waivers, family leave time, and even --  although UMass was dirt poor  -- pay raises.

I will let you know how the panel discussion turns out.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

PUSHING MY LUCK

Having made several predictions that turned out to be correct, I will try once more.  It is now almost seven a.m.  Today after the start of the business day, or tomorrow at the latest, Mueller will get his grand jury to hand up some more indictments, and these will strike at Trump's inner circle.  Once the indictments have been handed up and delivered to a court, they exist, and even if Trump's new AG lackey tries to shut Mueller down, the indictments will stand.

We shall see.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

WHEN YOU'RE RIGHT, YOU'RE RIGHT

One week ago, I made the following prediction, based on the assumption that the Democrats would take the House but not the Senate:

"The day after the results are in, Trump will without the slightest evidence of unease or hesitation pivot to being a non-partisan supporter of DACA guarantees, comprehensive immigration reform, infrastructure spending, guarantees for those with pre-existing conditions, and whatever else Democrats want that does not negatively affect his own financial interests.  Overtly, covertly, or implicitly, but in all events unmistakably, he will communicate it to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that he will work cooperatively with them for the next two years so long as they squelch the Democratic lust for investigations of him or his family and allow him to summarily shut down the Mueller probe. 

This will pose a terrible dilemma for the Democrats, and I fear there is a grave danger that they will succumb, in which case they will pave the way for Trump’s re-election and the death of what remains of constitutional democracy in America."

It turns out I was exactly correct.

How should the Democrats respond to Trump's press conference today?

1.  They should make a great show of cooperating with Trump while passing a series of bills, which they send to the Senate, calling for:

   a.  Guarantees of protection for those with pre-existing conditions
   b. Infrastructure
   c. Protection for DACA recipients
   d. Comprehensive immigration reform
   e. Reuniting of children separated from their parents
   f. Protection of the Mueller investigation.

Let the Senate refuse to pass these and send them to the President.  They will become the platform of the 2020 campaign.

2.  Meanwhile,  the leadership should allow the several committees to initiate whatever oversight investigations they wish.

3.  They should leave impeachment strictly alone until Mueller issues his report.  If, in effect, he labels Trump an unindicted co-conspirator in impeachable acts, they should allow that report to simmer and bubble until they see whether Republicans decide they want to get rid of Trump.  Only when they have 2/3 of the Senate should they initiate impeachment proceedings.

Why do I say this?  Because a failed trial in the Senate would be far worse than no trial at all.  Recall what Ralph Waldo Emerson said.  "When you strike at a king, you must kill him."

Recall as well that if Trump is removed from office, we get Pence.  Far better to have a weakened, disgraced, and damaged Trump running for re-election.

SECOND THOUGHTS


I have taken my morning walk and had breakfast and I am beginning to regain my cheerful demeanor.  Matt’s cautionary comment was helpful.  It put me in mind of one of my favorite movie scenes from the great 1973 movie The Sting.  I am sure I must have alluded to it before.  Robert Redford goes looking for a legendary con man, Paul Newman, to learn how to take down Robert Shaw, who has had Redford’s buddy killed.  Redford finds Newman in a whore house over a carousel, and after Newman sobers up, he agrees to help Redford.  But he warns Redford [God bless the Internet, on which one can find anything, even a forty-five year old movie script]:  “I don't want a hothead looking to get even, coming back saying......"It ain't enough."  'Cause it's all we're gonna get.”

That is one of the great truths of life, especially of politics.  We took the House and a passel of governorships.  We ousted Scott Walker in Wisconsin and here in North Carolina we won enough state Senate seats to break the supermajority blocking the Democratic governor from vetoing the godawful bills passed by the Legislature.

I’m not going to be a hothead looking to get even, saying it ain’t enough, ‘cause it’s all we’re gonna get.


THE BLUE RIPPLE


It was not a rewarding night.  The Democrats did the bare minimum necessary to stave off disastrous defeat, but not much more.  All three rising stars – Gillum, O’Rourke, Abrams – fell short, although the book is not yet closed on Abrams.  The Republicans lost control of the House, but actually expanded their razor thin margin in the Senate.  The candidate I worked for in the NC 6th CD lost, narrowing Mark Walker’s margin slightly.  There is no doubt in my mind that Trump’s frenetic campaigning helped the Republicans overall.  I got five hours of sleep, which is three less than I need.

The next move belongs to Mueller.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

AND NOW WE WAIT

The cat woke me at 4, I went for my walk at 5, I have done my last stint of poll greeting, and now there is nothing to do but wait the five+ hours until the first results come in.  Once the outcome is clear, I will of course say that I saw it all coming, and offer some confident views about what it all means.  That, as I understand it, is the fundamental task of the blogger.

Lord, I wish I could nap in the afternoon.

Monday, November 5, 2018

WHY DO I TELL STORIES?


Thirty-six hours from now, the shape of the 2018 election will be clear:  a Blue Wave, a nail-biter, or a disaster.  I will spend several hours tomorrow as a poll greeter, handing out sample blue ballots to voters as they enter the polls to vote, but aside from that, there is nothing for me to do but wait.  This seems like a good time, therefore, to talk about something rather personal that has nothing at all to do with politics, viz, why when I lecture I tell so many stories and make so many references to novels, television shows, and other seemingly unserious matters.  Some students like this about me, some don’t, but they all notice it and comment about it either in class or on end of semester student evaluations.  Why do I do it?

There is a simple answer, of course:  because I like to.  I am a natural story teller, a sort of wannabe philosophical Garrison Keillor.  But there is also a very much deeper and more important reason [wouldn’t you know?], one that goes to the heart of everything I have done for my entire life.  This strikes me as a good time to explain.

As I have often remarked, I have a visceral negative reaction to writers who seem to me to strive to make simple ideas as obscure and complicated as possible.  Hegel strikes me that way.  So does Judith Butler, to mention a more recent example.  I have spent my career struggling to grapple with complicated ideas and make them as simple as I can without losing any of their power or complexity.  That is what I did in my very first book on the Transcendental Analytic of the Critique of Pure Reason, and it is what I strove to do with the famously difficult first chapter of Capital in my little book of lectures, Moneybags Must Be So Lucky.  The urge I feel to do this is aesthetic as well as intellectual.  I am always trying to take a difficult idea and puzzle over it until it is perfectly transparent to me, at which point I experience it as beautiful.  Then, in my teaching or writing, I hold it up to students or readers and show them how beautiful it is.  That is what I was doing when, for my students at UMass, I went through John von Neumann’s elegant proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Game Theory, even offering a proof of L. E. J. Brouwer’s Fixed Point Theorem, on which von Neumann’s proof rests.

Now, I experience arguments as stories, each having a natural beginning, development section, and end.  And since what interests me is the logical structure of the story, it does not matter to me whether the story is high art of the sort that Literary Critics concern themselves with, or a soap opera, which would be beneath their notice.  It is the structure that interests me.  So it is that only half facetiously, I sometimes compare Tolstoy’s great novel, War and Peace, to the soap opera The Young and the Restless, which Susie and I watched faithfully for the first twenty years of our marriage.  That is also why, when I am explaining to a doctoral student how to write a doctoral dissertation, I compare it to Jack and the Beanstalk.

The besetting intellectual sin of students of high social theory, and of their professors as well, is to wrap themselves in the jargon of the trade and deploy it as though it were fashionable clothing or body piercing, marking them as serious thinkers.  I hate that, I am phobic about it, and my response is to tell stories about simple events and personal experiences.  Though they often do not realize it, these simple stories have the same logical structure as the high-toned jargon-laden theories they are mouthing.  By telling my stories, I am trying to get them to see the structure of the arguments stripped of its jargon.

That is why I tell stories.  Also, of course, I like to.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

VAMPING 'TIL READY


As though waiting for the election were not hard enough, the time changed this morning at 2 a.m., adding sixty more minutes to the wait.  In addition, we forgot to tell out cat about the time change, so she hopped up on the bed and woke us at three instead of four.  I have now fed the cat, checked my email, taken my walk, worked on the jigsaw puzzle, had breakfast, and it is still not yet ten.  This must be what Purgatory is like.  [In Hell, the Devil plays Mozart, if George Bernard Shaw is to be believed, so I could stand that.]

Herewith an idle speculation.  Let us suppose there really is a Blue Wave, washing the Democrats into control of the House but not quite the Senate.  What will happen in the next two years, assuming Trump survives and runs for re-election?  I think we may be on the threshold of another major party realignment, as big and consequential in its way as the realignment that occurred more than half a century ago when the Dixiecrats left the Democratic Party and reinvented themselves as Republicans.  Over time, this transformed the Republican Party into a Southern and Southwestern party, while the Democratic Party welcomed Black and Latino voters and became a bicoastal party with outcroppings in the plains states.

Trump has completely taken ownership of the Republican Party, and no politician can choose to remain in the party without embracing his brand of racism and xenophobia.  Many are uncomfortable with that, but as things stand, there is no place else for them to go.

The natural evolution of this situation would be for the Democratic Party to move to the right, declare itself a Big Tent, and welcome into the fold former Republicans, seeking to create an unstoppable Party of National Unity that would leave the Trump base out in the cold.  This move would involve giving the energized progressive base of the Democratic Party just enough crumbs to keep them from defecting, while leaving control of the party in the hands of the descendants of the Democratic Leadership Council, Bill Clinton’s creation.  One can already see the moves in this direction, in the fight for control of the DNC, lost by the progressives, in the revival of Joe Biden’s presidential dreams, and in the writings of a goodly number of opinion shapers.

I do not think I need to say how this makes me feel, but it is, I believe, the natural structural logic of the American political system.

The war won’t be over on Wednesday.  It will just be starting.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

KANT'S THREE QUESTIONS


We are now a bit more than eighty-two hours before the first returns are reported, so it is time to draw some conclusions about the election.  Conclusions?  Am I not getting ahead of myself?  I think not.  It is certainly too early to say who won, but it is not too early to say what we have learned.

First, it is no longer possible even for the most determined both-sides commentator to hide from the truth about Trump.  He is a flat-out unapologetic racist and a wannabe fascist dictator.  Most of us knew that, of course, but it is always useful in the public arena to have manifest truths confirmed and acknowledged.

Second, there are roughly 230 million or so Americans eighteen or over, and at least sixty or seventy million of them are flat out racist lovers of fascism.  I say this because at this point, it is not possible to support Trump strongly and not be a racist who yearns for fascism.  The Republicans may lose the House.  Nate Silver even says they have a slender chance of losing the Senate.  They may lose as many as ten governorships.  When the election is behind us, Trump may be indicted, impeached, forced from office, or defeated in 2020.  But when he is finally gone, there will still be sixty or seventy million racist lovers of fascism in America.  That is the America we live in.

Third, there is a sizeable cadre of supporters of progressive policies, some of whom are even comfortable calling themselves socialists, whatever that means to them.  How many?  It is difficult to say.  As a percentage of the population, fewer than there were when my grandfather was young, to be sure, but they exist, and their numbers may actually be growing.

Fourth, the Democratic Party is threatened with a significant progressive transformation, one that the leaders of the party will resist as strongly as they can get away with.  It is at this point quite unclear how that struggle will come out, although I am pretty sure that our cause has been helped by Trump.  Does this mean socialism has a chance?  I am afraid not.  Socialism is bad for business.  Enough said.

Kant posed three questions:  What can I know?  What ought I to do?  What may I hope for? 

I can know that I live in a country founded on racism, nurtured on inequality, and committed to as much in the way of world domination as it can manage.

I ought to do what I can to make this country a little less unequal, a little less racist, a little less imperialistic.

I may hope that before I die, I see Donald Trump humiliated, impoverished, and ignored.

Now, I shall sit by the television set and await the results.



Friday, November 2, 2018

DOIN' WHAT COMES NATURALLY

In 101 hours, the very first election results will come in.  To pass the time, I am preparing my next Columbia lecture.  As in my first lecture on Marx, I shall begin by invoking the world of Jane Austen.  From there, I shall move on to the work of the historian of 18th century England Lewis Namier, then review the ethnological system of recording kinship structures of "primitive" peoples, quote a pregnant and surprising observation of Edwin Wilmsen, segue into a discussion of the property rights of indigenous peoples, and wind up this first part of the lecture with a discussion of the incompatibility of Political Economy and the Ethnographic conceptualization of of prehistoric human groups, all in the service of explicating Wilmsen's ideological critique of the field of Anthropology.  A  seamless chain of argument.

I love doing this sort of thing much more than I like troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A NEW BLOG WORTH READING

Phil Green, retired Smith College Poli Sci professor, NATION editorial board member, and life-long leftie, has a new blog, called Taking Sides.  Phil is a good deal more over the top than I am.  As they say, he gives good outrage.  [Of course, I may be biased.  When we were toddlers together in Sunnyside, Queens, it is said that on occasion we shared a baby buggy.]

Take a look at it.

AND SO I WAIT


I am now essentially dysfunctional.  I stew, I fret, I sign up for poll work, I play endless games of Spider Solitaire [two suits] and FreeCell, and I wait.  Many times each day I check Nate Silver's statistical forecast.  Nate says there is a 6 in 7 chance that the Democrats take the House and a 1 in 7 chance that they take the Senate.  But then, he said Clinton had a 95% chance of winning the Presidency.  So I wait.

My brightest moment in the recent past occurred on Tuesday, when I successfully purchased and used a MetroCard at LaGuardia, enabling me to take the M60 bus from Terminal C to 116th and Bway direct, and then take the same bus from 116th and BWay back, all for a total of $2.75 each way, instead of the $45 taxi fare each way that I have been forking over.  The bus takes maybe eight to fifteen minutes longer, but is actually rather more pleasant.  A triumph!

It was Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, who said memorably, as he launched the Second Gulf War, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.”  I take roughly the same view of electoral politics.  Is this the Democratic Party I want?  No.  Do I even want the Democratic Party?  No.  But this is the army I have, and victory is better than defeat.

There was one brief moment in my life when, seduced by despair, I contemplated voting Republican.  It was in 1968, and I thought that things could only get better if they first got worse.  In the voting booth on Amsterdam Avenue, north of Columbia University, I reached my hand out to pull the lever for Nixon rather than Humphrey.   But deep in my reptile brain was a protective circuit that closed, making my arm go rigid, and after I recovered, I found that I had voted the straight Democratic ticket.

And so I wait.