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Saturday, March 6, 2010


Things are slow at the moment for a serious blogger. I have said as much as I wish about the Tea Party crazies. The health care reform package is on track to pass in the next three weeks. Palin pales. So, this is a good time to stop, step back, and ask where we are, in the largest possible sense. Some of my readers may not share my diagnosis, but at the very least, it will be useful for me to articulate my vision of the political and economic world in which we live, as a way of getting some perspective on the passing scene. As you will see presently, my conclusions may come as a surprise, after my analysis.

In my view, America is fundamentally on the wrong track both economically and with regard to its foreign and domestic policy. Although the roots of these errors, if one can call them that, go back centuries, I shall concentrate on the stretch of time that I have experienced personally, which is to say the sixty-five years since the end of World War II.

Emerging from the period of the New Deal, America could have taken the path adopted by many European countries, and developed a social democratic version of capitalism that kept the gap between rich and poor relatively small and underwrote a large public sector. There were early efforts to achieve something like this, and some of them were moderately successful, but at least since 1980, this country has chosen a particularly virulent form of capitalism that has progressively beggared the public sector, consigned millions of Americans to poverty, and destroyed for tens of millions more the promise of a comfortable middle-class existence. This choice, let me emphasize, was bi-partisan, as much traceable to the Democrats as to the Republicans.

During the past fifty years or so, there have been major advances in social policy and justice in America, sparked by the Civil Rights movement, the Women's Liberation movement, and the Gay Liberation movement. These have transformed for the better the lives of enormous numbers of people, and they constitute, in my view, the saving grace of this two thirds of a century period. I rejoice in these victories, all of which I fought for in different ways. I am convinced that they are irreversible and unstoppable. But they have been achieved in the context of a capitalism that is ever harsher and more inequitable.

During this same period of time, the United States has pursued an imperial foreign policy with the aim, covert or overt, of world domination. There are, as I see it, two root causes for the choice America made to thrust itself onto the world scene as a hegemon. The first was the enormous temptation of nuclear weapons, which set America first above all other nations in military power and then above all but the Soviet Union. The second was the desire to make the world safe and amenable to capitalist exploitation, and to protect capitalism from the supposed threat of communism, as represented by our nuclear foe, the Soviet Union.

It is useful to recall that at the end of the Second World War, there were vibrant Communist parties, or at least sentiments, in France, Germany, and Italy. America, in partnership with the Vatican, successfully engendered Christian Democratic Parties in those countries as bulwarks against communism. The Franch medical delivery system that some of us now view with such envy was in fact an achievement of the post-war French Communist Party.

At every opportunity in the past sixty-five years, America has taken the wrong turn. Instead of embracing Castro and pouring money into Cuba to make his popular revolution a success, we mounted a feckless invasion, and imposed an embargo explicitly designed to impoverish the Cuban people. Instead of embracing Noriega, we conspired to defeat him. Instead of supporting Mossadegh, we engineered his overthrow and foisted a puppet Shah on the Iranian people. Instead of applauding the defeat of French colonialism in South East Asia, we stepped into their shoes and fought a bloody war on the wrong side of that struggle. Rather than force Israel to make peace with the Palestinians when we were in a position to do so, we have sold our Middle Eastern foreign policy into bondage to the most reactionary forces in Israel. And so forth and so on.

These economic and foreign and military policies have been thoroughly bi-partisan for the entire period I am discussing,. Every single president, Democratic or Republican, since FDR has endorsed and advanced these policies, as has every Congress, regardless of the balance of Democratic and Republican votes. There has been no serious opposition to these policies at any time by any major figure in American politics. The difference between Democrats and Republicans has been merely one of tone and emphasis. This general proposition is as true of Barack Obama as it was of George W. Bush.

How should someone with my views act in the world?

There are, as I see it, two possibilities. [I am reminded of Jacobovsky in the great play, Me and the Colonel, which I know principally in the comic film version starring Danny Kaye with Curt Jurgens as the colonel. Kaye is always saying, "Well there are two possibilities,' and Jurgens replies, "No, there is only one possibility." But I digress.]

First, I can step back from involvement in American politics, on the ground that every realistic alternative simply continues policies that I consider profoundly misguided and immoral, and say, in effect, "A plague o' both your houses." [Little Shakespeare allusion there -- Romeo and Juliet]. Viewed from a sufficient distance, a hyena and a gazelle don't look all that different. I can wash my hands of the electoral process and call down the wrath of heaven on all parties. Heaven knows, they deserve it.

Or, I can control my revulsion and throw myself into the political struggle, striving always for whichever candidate or party offers a hope of even a slight amelioration of the wrong-headed policies this country has been pursuing for as long as I have been alive, and will certainly continue to pursue long after I am dead.

God knows, I freely admit that I am tempted by the first alternative. But do I have a right to embrace it? Stop and think. I was awarded tenure at Columbia University in 1964. From that moment, until I retired from the University of Massachusetts forty-four years later, I had an assured income, first-rate health insurance, and the certainty of a comfortable pension. Not for one day during that long period did I have to ask, Where will I get money for food? How will I pay the rent? Can I afford to take my child to the doctor? Not once in all that time was I threatened with death or injury from an invading army or a suicide bomber, nor was I even menaced by a hostile policeman. If the truth be told, every time I published a book condemning the powers that be, I was rewarded with a promotion or raise by those whom I was excoriating.

During this same time, hundreds of millions of people in America and around the world have suffered all of these evils, sometimes directly at the hands of American forces, often not.

Now, suppose that by involving myself in the political struggle, distasteful and compromising as that may be, I can help to provide health insurance for those who lack it, or ease the pain of unemoployment for those who are afflcited by it, or diminish the baleful impact of American military might on those abroad who suffer its depredations. What right do I have not to make that effort? I do not consider myself in the slightest responsible for America's economic, military, and diplomatic wrongdoings. I have been speaking out against all of them since I was a teen-ager. But if I can help to ease their impact on others, it seems to me that I am obligated to do so.

This is, I realize, more a counsel of despair than a promise of hope. But as I sit here in comfortable retirement, I simply cannot allow myself the luxury of generalized revulsion.

I welcome your thoughts and responses.


Unknown said...

So--any suggestions beyond talk, money, votes, and unlimited patience? I find myself preaching to the choir, tossing money down the same black holes, and voting for, mostly, the same losers. My solution,at least re money, is to donate to humanitarian and educational causes rather than politicians, with the rather non-left belief that money in the long run can solve a lot of problems.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

The success of internet fund-raising has pretty much equalized the left and the right as far as money is concerned. There is no question that money donated to humanitarian causes is a good thing. What is most important is to do something, rather than nothing. But those of us, like myself, who keep venturing into the political realm have to be prepared for disappointments and have a thick skin, I am afraid.

NotHobbes said...

Imagine a young student reading your books, reading this very blog, and at some time in the near future that individual enters the political sphere in their country of residence; they do this having been influenced by you. They act wholly according to their principles, display moral consistency which most, ney all, hitherto politicians are prone to abandon whenever their needs justify.

ajrosa said...

After reading this, I was reminded of Drake's favorite line from "A Dream of John Ball," by William Morris. It goes something like:

I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name...

I think I have to agree with NotHobbes, it's important to remain a "disturber of the peace," to continue the good fight in whatever way(s) you are most effective. There are no guarantees of realizing a more principled world in our lifetime. Just the hope that your words, your actions, your deeds are a small part of that historical force that pushes us closer to that reality.

Otherwise, I think the alternative is to be like the 2 Roman soldiers in Mel Brooke's History of the World. Soldier 1: So do you care if it falls? Soldier 2: What falls? Soldier 1. Rome!! Soldier 2. Fuck Rome.

Unknown said...

Please forgive a dismal economist's obsession with "efficiency." To me it's not a question of whether to engage in politics, but how; that is, what candidate, what platform, what blog, what issue....what is the winning strategy!

The contest must be entered, as a matter of life itself....and for its own sake.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you all for your comments [and Andrew, good to hear from you!]. More than anything else, I am a teacher. To know that what I say might possibly help someone out there to be strong, to hold to his or her convictions, to fight the good fight, is more valuable to me than I can possibly say. I think the principal value to me of this blog is the discovery that there are a few people scattered around the world [some in the most unlikely places] for whom my voice is a consolation and even, perhaps, an inspiration. Really, a teacher cannot ask for more than that.

ajrosa said...

Indeed you have and continue to do, Bob. Andrew