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Friday, July 10, 2020


Let me thank both Tom Hickey and Jerry Fresia for the very useful responses to my open-ended question about the way forward. I shall try to respond to both of them, perhaps later today. Right now, however, I should like to spend a few moments talking about the contrast between my actual life and the large-scale philosophical and political questions about which I so often bloviate on this blog.

What have I actually been doing in the nearly 4 months since the virus compelled the retirement community in which I live to go on virtual lockdown? My wife and I live in a comfortable third floor apartment with our little cat. Our meals are delivered to our door by the dining services here at Carolina Meadows, along with a variety of things that I can order from them online. I also get deliveries to my door from and via Instacart from the local supermarket. I leave my apartment on a typical day twice: first, in the early morning, to take my one hour walk, carrying my mask with me so that I can put it on when I pass another early walker; and then later on in the early afternoon when I go masked downstairs to the lobby to pick up my mail. By my count, I have left Carolina Meadows ten times in the past four months: Four times to take Susie to a doctor when she broke her wrist in a fall during a brief walk outside; once when I went to the dentist; three times when I called in takeout orders at local restaurants, paid over the phone by credit card, and had them put the order in the trunk of my car when I got to the restaurant; once when I went to get some gas at a local gas station, sanitizing my credit card after inserting it into the slot and holding the pump handle with a sanitizing wipe; and once – a daring outing, this – when Susie and I drove to the parking lot of a local restaurant wearing masks, stood 6 feet away from her son and daughter-in-law, also masked, and chatted for half an hour. And that is it.

To be sure, during these four months I have taught five meetings of my UNC Marx course by zoom, made several guest appearances, also by zoom, in a course on the Critique of Pure Reason taught in Laramie, Wyoming, and sought daily, in the immortal words of Emily Dickinson, “to tell my name the livelong day to an admiring bog.”

Inasmuch as my overriding concern is to make absolutely certain that neither Susie nor I contract the virus, I suspect that this will be my life for at least another nine months. That is not an inconsiderable portion of all the days I have left on this earth so I must make of them what I can. The contrast between the constrained circumference of my actual life and the limitless scope of my speculations is, of course, a commonplace for people who make their living as philosophers, but this virus has brought it home to me with especial force.

Thursday, July 9, 2020


Let me offer a preliminary response to the question I posed several days ago, namely what should we do going forward if the Democrats do indeed sweep the table and take control both of the White House and of both branches of the legislature? There are quite obviously an enormous number of particular things that need to be done right away to reverse some of the damage that Trump has inflicted on the country but I am more interested in larger long-term changes that this moment may for the first time make possible.

The pandemic and the economic crash that it has triggered have together, I believe, created the possibility for major progressive initiatives. Not the certainty, Lord knows, but the genuine possibility. Let me briefly suggest three interconnected large-scale programmatic changes that I believe are now for the first time genuinely possible.

First of all, the pandemic and consequent massive unemployment have, I believe, finally made it manifest even to those who wish not to notice that America’s accidental connection of employment with healthcare has to go. I think I am correct that we are the only major industrial nation in the world that ties health insurance to employment. Fully half of the country gets its health insurance through a job. This is manageable, although hardly ideal, so long as unemployment is low, but to have scores of millions of working people lose their health insurance in the middle of a pandemic is so insane as to be unsupportable. Oh yes, there will be fights about what to do about this, and most politicians, among whom I am sure Biden is numbered, will argue that we should make some temporary accommodation in Obamacare to handle the problem. But if we continue to elect more and more genuinely progressive members of the House and even of the Senate, I think the way might be open to the establishment of universal single-payer health insurance.

Secondly, the present disaster has made it possible for the first time in my memory to raise in polite conversation, and not in whispered conspiratorial tones, the idea of a guaranteed universal minimum income. Not a minimum wage but a minimum income for everyone in the country.

Finally, as I somewhat puckishly observed back when the first trillion dollar emergency stimulus package was passed by Congress, MMT has finally come into its own. The next time a corporate Democrat says that some proposal is not viable unless it is paid for immediately by taxes, I think we can simply laugh him or her out of the room.

None of this is socialism, needless to say. But it is light years beyond what seemed possible only six months ago. To accomplish this will take organization, pressure from below, and the election of large numbers of progressive members of the House. But if these proposals do not give Chuck Schumer a heart attack, as they well may, and if Biden can forget who brought him to the dance long enough to sign what Congress puts on his desk, in the next several years might actually be enough to warm an old philosopher’s heart.


Charles Pigden’s lovely story about Peter Fraser and Trevelyan reminded me of a touching anecdote that I surfaced while writing a book about my grandfather, Barney Wolff and his long-time friend and comrade Abe Shiplacoff. Barney and Abe together started the branch of the Socialist party in Brooklyn New York in the early years of the point of the last century. That was a time when almost no one went to college and many people, like my grandfather, did not even complete elementary school. But the workers in the socialist movement held study sessions and inform themselves about the world and about Marx’s critique of capitalism. Nevertheless, many of them felt shamed and inadequate by their lack of formal education. Here’s the story as I wrote it:

“Abe Shiplacoff was two years older than Barney.  He was important enough to warrant a lengthy obituary in the New York TIMES when he died in 1934, from which we learn that he was born in Chernigov, Russia on December 13, 1877.  “Mr. Shiplacoff came to this country with his parents in 1891 [i.e., eleven years after Barney arrived].  For seven years he toiled over a sewing machine in a sweatshop, working twelve hours a day and studying at night..” [NY TIMES, February 8, 1934]

Shiplacoff was an indefatigable champion of Socialism and the leading figure in the Brownsville branch of the Party.  Elected to the New York State Assembly for the first time in the 1915 election to which the story is devoted, he won reelection the next year, and the year after.  In 1918, Shiplacoff ran for Congress from the 10th Congressional District, but lost.  This loss, and the impact of the Red Scare triggered by the World War and the Russian Revolution, led to perhaps the bitterest disappointment of Barney’s political career, as we shall see a bit later.

If you read the Call for these years, you meet Shiplacoff in almost every issue.  Naturally, his doings in the Assembly were fully reported by the Call, but he was also constantly on the stump, making speeches, raising money, and supporting the Party.  When the Brooklyn Labor Lyceum burned to the ground, he led the successful effort to raise money for a new building in Brownsville.  As his obituary indicates, Shiplacoff was active as well in a number of New York unions, serving as an officer of the United Hebrew Trades and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. 

In September 1918, Abe Shiplacoff and the communist newspaper reporter and author John Reed were indicted under the Espionage Act, Shiplacoff for having spoken out against the war effort.  The indictment was later quashed, and subsequently, Shiplacoff ran for Brooklyn Borough president [in 1919.]

Shiplacoff was a little man with a pinched face and a rather unimposing presence, very much in contrast with Barney, who was a big, barrel-chested man with a booming voice.  But more than any other single person, he can be credited with creating the socialist movement in the Brownsville area of Brooklyn, and leading it to its greatest electoral triumphs in 1917.

Looking for background material on Shiplacoff, I stumbled on the following story in a review by John Patrick Diggins of Bertram Wolfe’s autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries.  Wolfe is a well-known expert on Soviet Russia and twentieth century communist movements.  I include it here because it seems to me to capture perfectly both the strengths and the weaknesses of the generation of socialist leaders to which Abe Shiplacoff and Barney belonged.

The young Bertram Wolfe apparently debated against Shiplacoff, at the Labor Lyceum, over the split in the party produced by the Third International [of which more later.] The issue was whether dictatorial tactics should replace the democratic procedures of the American Socialist Party. After the debate, Diggins says, “the two adversaries resumed their discussion in a local cafe.”  There then appears this passage quoted from Wolfe’s book:

“There was an embarrassed silence until Shiplacoff burst into tears.  ‘I have worked so hard all my life,’ he said, ‘for our party and for the labor movement, that I have never had the time to read all those books by Marx and Engels that you have read.’  Then he wept on in silence.  Suddenly, I felt sympathy for him, and more than a little shame, for I had not read ‘all those books’ either.  Moreover, for the first time I understood how much men like Shiplacoff had given to building the party that my colleagues and I, mostly youngsters, were now tearing apart.  I did not know what to say: we both left our cake and coffee unfinished, but I never forgot the episode.  I began to feel more charitable toward the old-timers whose work we were helping to destroy.  Though I continued to use quotations, I could no longer summon up the scorn with which I had read them to that Brownsville Labor Lyceum meeting.”

I can only comment that I have read ‘all those books,’ and in them you will not find an adequate justification for replacing democratic procedures with dictatorial tactics.  Shiplacoff, Barney, and the other ‘old-timers’ understood Marx and Engels quite as well as necessary to devote their lives to building a working-class movement.  Would that Bertram Wolfe had done as much!”


A reader sends this link to a marvelous YouTube kletzmer selection.  The famous section on the fetishism of commodities has never been put to better use!

Wednesday, July 8, 2020


Yesterday I wrote a short blog post with the title “a little arithmetic.” That post had a very limited and quite specific purpose which, perhaps with excessive optimism, I thought would be obvious to my readers. The post attracted no fewer than 29 comments, dominated by several very long comments from a new contributor to this blog, Tom Hickey. The discussion in those comments was interesting, although it covered ground that has been extensively tilled on this blog. But what I was most struck by was the odd fact that not a single one of the comments had anything at all to do with what I had posted.

At the risk of appearing simpleminded, let me explain in elementary terms what I was trying to accomplish by means of that imaginary arithmetic example. There is endless discussion in the blogosphere and on cable news about “turnout,” and everybody understands that turnout is important. But no one ever runs through numerical examples designed to explain precisely why a political campaign plan that focuses on “turning out the base” can be a rational way of trying to win an election. I thought that if I constructed a numerical example, it would put some flesh on those bones. I did not feel it necessary to repeat yet again that in the American political system presidents are elected by the electoral college and not by the popular vote. Nor did I think it necessary to remind the readers of this blog that in presidential election years over the past 70 years or so turnout has been in the neighborhood of 60%.

I think my numerical example clarified something that is often not adequately understood by commentators on cable news, namely that in certain circumstances it can be quite rational to focus all one’s efforts on significantly increasing the turnout of one’s loyal supporters rather than on attempting to win over those not already in the base.

In my example, a political campaign down 10 points in the polls in a particular state could nonetheless win that state and hence that state’s electoral votes by increasing the base turnout from 60 to 75%, a difficult but not impossible goal under certain circumstances. My example also showed that the candidate leading in the polls in that state by 10 percentage points could protect his or her lead by a relatively small increase in turnout.

And that was it. Now a blog is not a classroom, a fact that S. Wallerstein likes to remind me of. But I really would like to think that it has the form of a genuine conversation and not just an unstructured free-for-all.

Well, so much for that. Later today or perhaps tomorrow I will take a stab at answering my own question about what we ought to do in the event that the Democrats actually sweep the table in the November elections.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020


Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner, as the old saying has it. Mary Trump’s tell-all book about the Trump family is now in the hands of reporters one week before its scheduled publication and I suspect that very soon we will learn that Trump as a little boy was dyslexic, that his father mocked him and treated him brutally because of the disability, and that it is from this original fact that much of his appalling personality derives. Well, I am not going to let him off the hook. Many people are born dyslexic, some are treated badly by their parents and teachers as a consequence, but very few grow up to be the appalling human being that Donald Trump is. The fact that his niece, Mary, is a clinical psychologist will add weight to her revelations. Poor little Donald. These days he just doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break.


While you are working out your contributions to the discussion I proposed we have, I thought I would lay before you a little arithmetic example that I worked out yesterday while taking my morning walk. Since I am a philosopher by profession I am, of course, under no obligation to pay any particular attention to the real world so these numbers are all quite hypothetical. They have been chosen principally to make the arithmetic easy.

Let us suppose there is a state in which there are 1 million eligible voters. Suppose as well that a series of polls have shown that 55% of the eligible voters support Biden and 45% support Trump. I am ignoring support for third-party candidates and I am ignoring as well those who respond “don’t know” when asked by pollsters whom they support. This last assumption actually has some grounding in reality. If you go to the website DailyKos you will find at the top of the main page a number of little graphics showing the evolution of various opinion polls over the course of the Trump presidency [it has now disappeared.] I mostly care about how large the negative over positive gap is but if you look at the bottom of the graphic you will find that for the last 3 ½ years almost no one has answered “don’t know.”

Thus in our imaginary state, by hypothesis, 550,000 voters support Biden and 450,000 support Trump. Over the last eight or 10 presidential election cycles roughly 60% of the eligible voters have actually gone to the polls. If that were to happen this year, it would mean that Biden would get 330,000 votes and Trump would get 270,000, a quite comfortable margin for Biden. Assuming that there are rational political operatives still associated with the Trump campaign, how can they possibly hope to win in such a state?

Well, suppose that Trump succeeds by his ugly, divisive, racist campaign in driving up the turnout of his supporters to 75%. Suppose as well that white bread vanilla Biden merely draws the historically usual 60%. In that case, Biden still gets 330,000 votes but Trump gets 337,500 votes and wins a narrow victory. He does this without persuading a single Biden voter to switch to his side.

Now the Biden campaign operatives may be working for a bland unexciting candidate but they are not fools and they understand this possibility quite well. So they work as hard as they can to get extra Biden supporters to the polls. It is a hard slog because there is not much one can say about Biden to excite a Biden supporter, but they work at it and manage to bring Biden’s turnout up from 60% to 65%. In that case, while Trump has driven his support at the polls up to 337,000, Biden’s vote is now 357,500, and Biden wins by 20,000.

When political experts on cable news say that turnout is everything, this is what they mean. In light of these numbers, why am I confident that Biden will win? Well, elections are decided by emotion, not by rational calculation, and there are two sorts of emotions that get people to the polls – the positive and the negative. Voters are pulled to the polls by hope, by desire, by love, by enthusiasm, even by exaltation. And they are driven to the polls by anger, by disgust, by hatred, by fear, by despair, and by loathing. There is a considerable amount of anecdotal and statistical evidence to suggest that Biden voters are being driven to the polls by all of these negative emotions, not by hope, by desire, by love, or by enthusiasm for Biden and certainly not by exaltation. I prefer love to hate, hope to despair, and enthusiasm to disgust, but in politics as in much of life you take what you can get.