Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

Total Pageviews

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Well, Time Warner Cable went down for a day, denying me both telephone and internet access, but I am back. My time on safari had an odd effect on me. It distanced me emotionally from the immediacy of the political twenty-four hour news cycle, with the result that I feel the need to gain some perspective. Over the next week or so [I am away Wednesday and Thursday], I am going to try to start thinking about how those of us on the left might begin in wholly new ways to change the direction of American politics.

As I see it, there are two fundamental problems that we must address: The huge and accelerating gap between the wealth and income of the favored one percent or so and the deteriorating situation of the lower sixty or seventy percent; and the imperial foreign policy of the United States. There are many, many other issues that are very important [including one personally dear to my heart, namely the rights of gay and lesbian Americans], but the wealth/income gap and the imperial foreign policy loom over everything else.

Several commentators have called my hopes for a revival of unionism sentimantal or romantic, and to some extent I think they are right. There are many structural reasons why labor unionism is not going to be the engine of progressive social change that it once was, and I will talk about them later, but clearly the day is passed when large organizations of working men and women could shape American politics.

The coalition of social groups that gave Obama his electoral victory is not now prepared to join forces to attack either the wealth/income gap or the imperial foreign policy, but I do not think either of those projects is incompatible with the world view of those social groups.

There is one thing we on the left have going for us, and it is very important. The structure of social networking now being created on the internet makes it feasible to imagine that scores of millions of Americans could be united into a powerful political force without the expenditure of large amounts of money, and without the necessity of taking control of local governmental and political structures.

That said, real change can, I believe, only come through the exercising of electoral power. Neither violent revolutionary action nor spontaneous street theater is going to accomplish much, though at times the latter may have some news value.

Odd as it may seem, the means for radical social change are already in existence. The public opinion polls I have seen indicate that people with roughly a progressive orientation are actually in the majority. Now, it has always been extraordinarily difficult to mobilize people who share a point of view but lack passion about it. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Internet can serve as a medium for overcoming that problem.

I have in mind a bottom up horizontal structure of organization, not a top down vertical structure.

Ok, enough for the moment. I welcome suggestions, reactions, and discussion. It seems fanciful to suppose that a movement of such importance could start with the blog of an aging philosopher, but there are probably a thousand other blogs already talkingn in the same fashion.

At the very least, it is better than despair.


Murfmensch said...

Please consider lending your support to efforts to enact political reform that enables "third parties" to organize and compete fairly.

This does not require supporting any third party candidates, though that is one tactic among others.

I have found that fellow lefties view reforms like Instant Run-off Voting or Proportional Representation as insufficiently this or that. Left parties in Europe have influence with percentages of support that are called "irrelevant" here.

Current third parties would be able to organize and present alternatives to the public in ways no one can now.

We would be better off if the Republicans were forced to distinguish themselves from libertarians and the extreme right, instead of being able to pretend they are both and neither.

Most on the left agree with third-party rights but they are placed at such a low priority that pressure is never applied.

GTChristie said...

Recently I followed an internet trail inspired by R. P. Wolff, who had praised Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen. The wiki on Sen contains the following:

Sen's papers in the late 1960s and early 1970s helped develop the theory of social choice, which first came to prominence in the work by the American economist Kenneth Arrow, who, while working at the RAND Corporation, famously proved that all voting rules, be they majority rule or two thirds-majority or status quo, must inevitably conflict with some basic democratic norm. Sen's contribution to the literature was to show under what conditions Arrow's impossibility theorem would indeed come to pass as well as to extend and enrich the theory of social choice ...

So I looked up Mr. Arrow. Here is part of a discussion on his "Impossibility Theorem" as it analyzes the outcomes of voting in a democracy:

The framework for Arrow's theorem assumes that we need to extract a preference order on a given set of options (outcomes). Each individual in the society (or equivalently, each decision criterion) gives a particular order of preferences on the set of outcomes. We are searching for a preferential voting system, called a social welfare function (preference aggregation rule), which transforms the set of preferences (profile of preferences) into a single global societal preference order...

[here a discussion of optimal decision parameters] ...

Arrow's theorem says that if the decision-making body has at least two members and at least three options to decide among, then it is impossible to design a social welfare function that satisfies all these conditions at once...

[It becomes possible]... to prove that any social choice [ie, voting] system respecting unrestricted domain, unanimity, and independence of irrelevant alternatives is a dictatorship.

Arrow's theorem is a mathematical result, but it is often expressed in a non-mathematical way with a statement such as "No voting method is fair", "Every ranked voting method is flawed", or "The only voting method that isn't flawed is a dictatorship". These statements are simplifications of Arrow's result which are not universally considered to be true. What Arrow's theorem does state is that a voting mechanism, which is defined for all possible preference orders, cannot comply with all of the conditions given above simultaneously...

Amartya Sen ... demonstrated another interesting impossibility result, known as the "impossibility of the Paretian Liberal". (See liberal paradox for details). Sen went on to argue that this demonstrates the futility of demanding Pareto optimality in relation to voting mechanisms.
[had to split up this comment for length -- contd]

Which leads to the liberal paradox:

GTChristie said...

Which leads to the liberal paradox:

a logical paradox advanced by Amartya Sen, building on the work of Kenneth Arrow and his impossibility theorem, which showed that within a system of menu-independent social choice, it is impossible to have both a commitment to "Minimal Liberty", which was defined as the ability to order tuples of choices, and Pareto optimality....

The most contentious aspect is, on one hand, to contradict the libertarian notion that the market mechanism is sufficient to produce a Pareto-optimal society; and on the other hand, argue that degrees of choice and freedom, rather than welfare economics, should be the defining trait of that market mechanism....

The example shows that liberalism and Pareto-efficiency cannot always be attained at the same time. Hence, if liberalism exists in just a rather constrained way, then Pareto-inefficiency could arise....

What can society do, if the paradox applies and no corresponding social decision function can handle the trade off between Pareto-optimality and liberalism? One sees that mutual acceptance and self-constraints or even contracts to trade away actions or rights are needed.

Part of the paradox, it appears, is that democracy does not assure that our voting will result in optimal decisions. Meanwhile we also cannot guarantee both freedom of the market and optimal operation of the market -- which contradicts "classic liberal" economics (of the American Tea Party, for instance).

In other words, the "free market" is not inherently stable and in a free society it may be impossible to control outcomes for the benefit of all.

The obverse of that observation would be: as society increasingly places itself under the rule of scientific management -- technocracy, in other words -- optimizing for manageability logically must entail a reduction in individual human freedom.

Bottom line? Some may disagree (and I'm no economist), but it appears (1) classical liberal economics isn't true (ie, today's conservatism) and (2) the economy is not manageable on democratic terms (socialist democracy isn't true).

Or to use some old-fashioned terms, doesn't this mean there is no possible practical (democratic) "dictatorship of the proletariat"?

GTChristie said...

Murfmensch: That is an excellent observation (and request). I am on the conservative side of the spectrum (particularly on the "reach of government" issue) and equaninimous when it comes to social issues (abortion, assorted human rights) and nobody actually represents me correctly from either side of the spectrum.

From what I have seen, in Australia they vote for their representatives by ranking their preferences. They vote for all the candidates, first choice, second choice, etc. And the apportionment in legislature is therefore multi-dimensional, as it is not winner-take-all.

Moreover the barriers to entry in the US for third parties is twofold. First, many state laws literally write in "Republican" and "Democrat" parties and leave it vague what qualifications might be required of a third party (this works to some advantage, however, as there is no deadline to file candidacy papers in Indiana, for instance, because the law specifically states the deadlines for Republicans and Democrats (LOL).

Second, there's the problem of money. Huge amounts of money are required to outshout the status quo. And the real fat cats in the smoky back rooms are the guys who support both sides so whoever wins is beholden to them, regardless.

What we have today is a corrupt system and the real revolution would be against corruption, not against "democracy," "capitalism," or any particular liberal or conservative agenda.

Clean out the temple!