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Tuesday, April 5, 2011


Obama has formally announced his intention to run for re-election [no surprise there], and I have signed up to do what I can here in North Carolina. I have no doubt that I will now get a good deal of grief in the comments to this blog. So be it. I believe this is a moment of existential peril in America for what remains of democracy and simple decency. Feel free to tell me that Obama has gone over to the dark side [or, indeed, that he has never left it], but what I see is Republican efforts in Maine to roll back child labor laws that have stood for one hundred seventy years, efforts across America to destroy the last vestiges of a labor movement, assaults on the bodies of women, attacks on the voting rights of college students, a renewed attack on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, which have softened the mortal blows of capitalism for hundreds of millions of Americans over the decades. I will die without seeing the fulfillment of my grandfather's dream of a socialist America. Selah, as the Good Book says. I invite all who will to join me. I shall not engage in arguments with those who decline.


Chris said...

Uhm, can we join you in your grandfather's goal, without acquiescing on Obama...

Robert Paul Wolff said...

By all means, and since you are young, perhaps you will live long enough to see the dream come true, even though I will not.

john c. halasz said...

Stockholm syndrome.

Chris said...

That's how I've always seen it John. Of course I have no problems admitting nothing short of a revolution would make me 'content.'

Robert Paul Wolff said...

You know, that is just gratuitously unpleasant, and as far as I am concerned, has no place on this blog. Find another outlet for your bile. And by all means explain to the children in Maine why their being paid sub-minimum wages for their work is an appropriate consequence of your dissatisfaction with the state of the world.

Michael said...

I think these two essays (blog posts?)might be of interest to you and your readers (who've probably read them already...):
Glenn Greenwald
and a response by John Quiggin

Murfmensch said...

There is no conflict here. Obama did very little to support the labor uprising in Wisconsin. I wish Obama well in the next election and I wish labor well.

I wish the environmental movement well and I hope cap-and-dividend gets enough sponsors to pass.

Labor, environmenalists, cap-and-dividend are close to me. Obama will govern better than Trump or Pawlenty.

These are all separate things.

Chris said...

Damn my post didn't go through.

Professor let me short and sweet as I'm quite dissapointed that I was tacitly asked to bugger off.

Is there stockholm syndrome in the US? Absolutely. How else can one account for two party rule for 211 years? There's too many rich individuals in our country, with unique ideas, for me to believe that two parties represent such a diverse strata of society.

I am entirely unhappy with the political structure of our country, and like your anarchism book suggest, follow my own sense of moral duty. When one finds moral salvation in ones own rational sense of justice and duty, one no longer can soundly identify with party patriotism. Hence, I find those that do as victims of a strange syndrome.

In regards to Maine. I agree with you. This is straight out of the working day of das kapital. It's a heinous crime of injustice and humanity, therefore any and all means to stop it are legitimate. One of those means is voting Democrat. Therefore voting Democrat is legitimate. I can support that effort, while still retaining my individual stance that nothing short of a revolution will make me both complacent and content with the American system of politics.

I'm not sure what the problem is?

Chris said...

john c. halasz said...

Ultimate Philosopher said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Christopher Dohna said...

Professor Wolf,

I think you're doing the right thing. I've struggled with the conflict between voting and being an activist for the philosophical ideal on the one hand, and the limits set by the framing of our current political discourse and doing what we can on the other. I think it's a fact about our intellectual discipline that it deals with ideals-- and that's okay. Believing ardently in those ideals and acting in ways that are genuinely the least bad option can coexist within one person. Indeed, though philosophers we may be, we are also always real people too, political actors living in a contingent but no less actual situation in which some seek to utterly destroy the last vestiges of a decent society. Doing what we can to stop that, despite the fact it may preclude and delay a complete justice, is nevertheless an act of justice.

wrigleyfield said...

I've been a huge fan of some of your blog's posts, and am taken aback by being flatly told you don't care to engage my position in this debate. I certainly consider us to be on the same side, although I've drawn Greenwald's conclusion, not yours.

Even if you don't care to engage this, perhaps some of your readers will -- some historical perspective:

mike flugennock said...

No single-payer health care? Check.
Bankers enriched? Check.
Labor rights crushed? Check.
Patriot Act extended? Check.
Guantanamo still open? Check.
Up to our ass in war? Check.

Are You In?

Looks as if you are -- illegal surveillance, Predator drones and all.

kostco said...

I had a friend (not a terribly politically minded friend, on that note) say to me today, "You know, our generation is going to be characterized by [terrible] politicians." (original word censured for fear of comment being deleted) I would have to agree, and did not vote on for any position in my last local elections - only measures and bills. While I do see the merits of voting for Obama, I refuse to become complacent in any political system which continues to exploit all who are not in position which possess great power or capital.

Neil Sinhababu said...

The only practical way to move the Democratic Party leftward is to help left-wing Democrats defeat right-wing Democrats in primaries. Conservative Republicans have been very successful in doing the mirror image of this, and that's why the Tea Party has so much control over the GOP.

As a sitting president, Obama isn't a very plausible target for this kind of challenge. But lots of Democratic Senators and Congresspeople are. I'd urge people unhappy with Dr. Wolff's decision to work on identifying these officeholders and replacing them with better Democrats.

Losing general elections won't move the Democratic Party left. It just allows Republicans to destroy the power of left-wing groups and strengthen corporate power. The resulting political landscape is even worse for social democrats like myself than what we have at present. I commend Dr. Wolff for understanding this.

Brian Leiter said...

I linked to your Obama piece last night, which I thought made some good points, but that also explains the influx of comments, including the one from the deranged Ayn Rand fanatic--sorry about that!

Nic M. said...

'Ultimate Philosopher' is a well-known Randroid who frequents several major philosophy forums online. He can be extremely tedious and is best completely ignored.

study torah! said...

Professor Wolff:

Kudos to you.

A lot of people who fulminate against those who support Obama have never had any skin in the game. Those who would not be making it but for the programs the Republicans want to destroy and those of us who have stood with them as union organizers, community organizers and the like are disappointed in this administration but we also know people whose lives depend upon defeating the Republican option, whoever that is.

This is not a purely academic question, as so many people seem to think. There is a profound and aggressive attack on the New Deal and the Fair Deal, on labor laws from the early 20th Century, on programs and rights that literally save people's lives.

Those of us who feel viscerally the suffering that will result from a Republican victory know that we must fight to get Obama elected.

This does not mean we stand for Obama, and only Obama. This means we stand for what remains of a just society. We are fighting for something, not merely siding with the lesser of two evils. We are not merely sheep mindlessly flocking to some figure in whom we put our dumb support.

No. We are people who believe - feel - a deep allegiance, a love even, for the programs like Medicare, which keep people whom we love alive. We are fighting for that. And, if that means defending a standard bearer whose flaws are enormous, then so be it.

Thank you for your post, Prof. Wolff.

t said...

The argument in the post is that Obama is a lesser-evil bulwark against right-wing reaction (e.g. against what's happening in Wisconsin, Maine, etc.). Now, I accept that what's happening in Wisconsin, Maine, etc. is egregious. But I don't accept the claim that the fate of the struggles against these assaults on working people turns on whether or not Democrats are elected. Whether the broadside attack on working people will be defeated is a question of whether social movements, and the labor movement in particular, acts independently of the Democrats to create the conditions of a resurgence of progressive reforms. The most progressive aspects of the New Deal were passed on the heels of a wave of militant labor action in the 1930s (and in 1934 in particular, when there were general strikes in three major U.S. cities). The Civil Rights Act was passed after a massive wave of extra-electoral struggle. That's what we need more of right now. Obama and the Democrats have done little progressive in the last 3 years, and there's no reason to think they're going to start without a push from an organized, energetic Left. I've made this argument in various forms on this blog, and I invite objections, comments, etc.

W said...

Sadly America has been brainwashed for far too long to make a real left wing party possible. & I don't choose the term brainwashed lightly. Your media & politicians constantly talk of communism & socialism as the same thing, I haven't heard that in European or even Australian media, it's expected as the ranting of far right politicians & talk radio mosts. You have a one party system there, though not as bad as the Bush-Kerry election campaign where you really couldn't tell them apart. Obama's aspirations for the U.S., that he was voted in on, have been crushed by Americans when he didn't deliver his promises in half a term! Now he's faced with having ost of what he's worked on destroyed & not being able to get much passed for the rest of his term. & even if you think he's sold out to the right, surely the Republicans have sold out to the top 5% of the nation with not care for working or middle class Americans. They want to run the country on behalf of it's rich, no it's people. Even a pessimist for vote for the lesser of two evils.

Ultimate Philosopher said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
study torah! said...


What you say is an expression a common on the left: the only thing that matters are social movements, and so that is all we should focus our energy on.

The empirical part of this claim is almost always backed up by appeal to the New Deal in the 30's and the Civil Rights movement.

But, all this shows is that you need a social movement AND a Democratic president of a certain sort in order to get things done. It doesn't show that who is president and who controls Congress doesn't matter.

In fact, if you read your history, you will discover that there were large social movements pushing for reform while Hoover was President and while the GOP controlled Congress. FDR's massive victory in 1932, which was not due entirely or even largely to leftist social movements.

The election of FDR was necessary for many of the most important programs of the New Deal. Had he lost, it is unlikely there would have been Social Security.

My point, in short, is that social movements are important, but so are elected political actors who are not resolutely hostile to the aims of those movements.

If you can accept that, then you should be able to accept Prof Wolff's commitment to getting Obama elected.

Anonymous said...

I find arguments most convincing when they are supported with evidence, rather than with broadly brushed platitudes and generic themes worded benevolently.

In case nobody in this thread has been paying attention, I'd dare to offer a reminder: the Democrats have not assisted the poor, the underemployed and the unemployed ever in my adult voting lifetime (since 1980) and I still can't find evidence of them doing so during the 20th Century.

FDR's "New Deal" often is cited as definitive proof of "progressivism" being successful, but that was a gambit to enrich FDR's pals rather than a gambit to give the under- and un-employed long-term durable livelihoods. Merely giving "jobs" doesn't give meaning or substance to the lives of those who "earn" or "receive" the "jobs." It just gives them a renewed sense of fealty to Uncle Sam... which is a whole lot different than existential fulfillment or a sense of belonging to a society that cares about all its members.

Please don't also try the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which did nothing but drive racism further under the Deep South's fascia of inherited British Peerage "manners" etc. Nothing more shocking in America than the Plantation Owning Caste's pretense of friendliness to one's face, stiletto plunged into one's back. This was not improved by the 65 CRA.

What people like Professor Wolff and his readers want to ignore is the ugliest of unsightly truths:

the Democrats are corrupt, irreparably so.

Welcome to the first stage of Kubler-Ross coping with loss:


t said...

MSR: I'm not sure I agree that a Democrat congress and Presidency is always a necessary condition, but let's grant you that it is. It is clearly not sufficient, as you yourself concede.

Let's make this really concrete:

The insufficiency of electing Democrats is on full display. They've had a young, popular president, a super-majority in the Senate, and crushing majorities and the House and they did virtually nothing for working people in this country. They couldn't even be bothered to bring EFCA to the floor for a vote. We could go on here.

My beef is basically that most defenders of the "democrats are a necessary condition" claim are not honest about the extent of the insufficiency of electing Democrats. The Dems are, as the past 3 years have made very clear, *woefully* insufficient as means for achieving even the most modest progressive reforms.

So what I'm advocating is an emphasis not on electoral politics, but on building the social movements that are, in fact, actually the most causally efficacious factor in achieving ambitious social reform. If you want to vote Democrat, that's fine with me. I'd never recommend that anyone vote GOP. But we have to be clear here: merely voting for Obama is thin gruel. We need to build independent left organizations outside the ephemeral swells of election seasons that can exert pressure on the Democrats from the Left. Otherwise the Dems will do what they always do: take the Left's votes but give them nothing in return (since the Left has no choice, it seems, but to go in for the Dems).

If those on the Left want to recommend a vote for the Dems, so be it. I just think we have to be clear about what the Dems actually stand for, what their severe limitations consist in, and so forth. I worry that too many such recommendations are wishful thinking or projection, rather than sober political analysis.

Garry Smithwick said...

Your original statement does not indicate why you support Obama. It is simply an attack on Republicans. Could you list reasons why you support Obama, instead of reasons why you don't support the other guys?