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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

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Friday, November 30, 2012


We have arrived, massively jet lagged but otherwise fine.  There is some interesting political news from Paris.  The center-right party of Sarkozy that lost the Presidential election to the socialist François Hollande [the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire, or UMP] is engaged in a fratricidal split in some ways similar to what is brewing in the Republican Party at home.  The conflict, according to Le Monde, is as much one of egos as of ideology. The two contestants for the leadership of the Party, Fillon and Copé, are supposed to represent the center-right [Fillon] and extreme right [Copé] wings, and there is talk of Fillon [who lost a recent vote] hiving off to form a new party, but nothing is clear at this point, save that the extreme right-wing Front National Party started forty years ago by Jean-Marie Le Pen and headed now by his daughter Marine, is surging in strength.  The  FN is usually described as fascist, and it is certainly the repository for strong anti-immigrant French sentiment, but if you read the long and detailed article on Marine Le Pen in Wikipedia, you will see that matters are rather complicated.  The FN is very much unlike our own right wing, both because it is fiercely secular, not religious, and because it opposes the globalized capitalist world economy that our own right-wingers seem mindlessly to embrace.

The other news, of course, is that Dominique Strauss-Kahn [DSK], whose sexual harassment of a hotel maid half a year ago cost him the directorship of the IMF and probably the French presidency, has now settled “amicably” the civil suit brought against him by the maid by paying her, according to reports, six million dollars of his wife’s fortune.  You may recall that I sided with her from the very outset, despite the belief of some of my French friends that he had been set up.  The tiny bit of evidence that convinced me was her claim that when he assaulted her and she resisted, he said “Don’t you know who I am?”  That struck me as not at all something an immigrant African woman working as a maid would make up, and exactly what a man like DSK would say.  I think the payment settles the question as to who was telling the truth.

Paris is cold and rainy, and despite that utterly beautiful.  Tonight I shall cook a simple meal of dorade royale fillets, haricots verts, and fingerling potatoes, with a Keyser baguette and a Beaume de Venise for me and a Sancerre blanc for Susie.  I am afraid it us totally impossible to feel sorry for myself.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Well, Obama has been re-elected, the French presidency is once again safely in socialist hands, and it is time for me to return with Susie to Paris.  We shall be there until Christmas Eve [Paris is dead between Christmas and New Year's], and then home again so that I can crank up for the next semester at Bennett College.  On my drive home from Bennett today, I listened to an NPR discussion of the secessionist movements sprouting like weeds in the Old Confederacy.  We must be very strong and mature and resist the temptation to facilitate their departure!

Sunday, November 25, 2012


As most of you are aware, the Jewish seder is both a religious ritual and a meal.  It is a celebration of the liberation of the Jews from their captivity in Egypt and their flight, led by Moses, across the Red Sea.  The modern seder is an elaborate affair, with a text, the Haggadah, that is read [in Hebrew at a serious seder, in English at the seders I have attended] in a formulaic manner, punctuated by songs, the ritual of the "afikomen" [a piece of matzoh that is hidden, and then searched for by the children at the seder, to be held hostage until the director of the seder buys it back, inasmuch as the service cannot proceed without it], and eventually, by a meal.  It is intended to be a joyous affair, with a good deal of kibbitzing and joking and singing -- it is, after all, the celebration of a liberation.

The best seder I ever attended took place on Long Island at the home of young rabbi Waxman, son of old rabbi Waxman, who was at the table but not conducting the service.  I was then a student at Harvard, and had just taken a course on the philosophy of Spinoza with the great scholar Harry Austryn Wolfson.  It turned out that old rabbi Waxman knew Wolfson, and while the rest of the people at the table twiddled their thumbs and fumed quietly, waiting for the meal that was promised, I pressed the senior Waxman with questions, both about Wolfson and about the arcana of the interpretation of the Haggadah.  [All of this, you understand, despite the fact that I was then, and am still, an atheist who has never even been bar mitzvah'd.]

A signal moment in the seder occurs when one of those in attendance asks the person conducting the service four ritual questions, each of which is preceded by the formula, "Wherefore is this night different from all other nights, for on this night we ..."  [eat reclining, eat unleavened bread, etc.]  Each question is answered by reference to a different feature of the flight from Egypt.

There is a tradition, at least in America, that the youngest boy present asks the four questions.  [No girls needed to apply, although I imagine things have now changed.]  Since the seder is typically an affair for family and close friends, it was not difficult to figure out which little boy would have the honor of asking the questions.  In upper middle class Northeast families, it was quite common for this chosen one to be a fat-faced, petted, made much of little momma's boy dressed in a new little suit and tie and fussed over by a rather plump, preening, proud mother, who felt that the selection of her son to ask the four questions constituted a signal recognition of herself, as well as of her precious son.

Needless to say, regular boys hated this smug little brat, and would not themselves have been caught dead asking the four questions.

Whenever I see David Brooks on television, all I can think of is that little boy at a seder.  This is, of course, an unkind and quite unfair thing to say.   But I cannot help it.

Saturday, November 24, 2012


Yesterday, after a somewhat frustrating passage at arms at the local mega-mall on Black Friday, Susie and I went to the movies, where we saw A Late Quartet, a beautiful new film featuring outstanding work by Christopher Walken and Seymour Phillip Hoffman.  The film explores a critical time of changes in the intertwined lives of the four members of a long-established string quartet.  The second violinist [Hoffman] is married to the violist.  Their daughter, a budding violinist, is the student, and the briefly the lover, of the obsessive, driven first violinist.  But the focus of the movie is the cellist [Walken], who as the film begins is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's.  I freely confess that in the film's final moments, I wept openly.  If Hollywood has any shred of integrity left, Walken and Hoffman will get Oscar nominations.

As I watched the film, I was reminded of a fascinating autobiographical memoir, Indivisible by Four, by the great first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, Arnold Steinhardt.  Through Steinhardt's writing, I gained some sense of the cloistral intimacy of the personal relationships of the members of a string quartet.  A well-established quartet, like the Guarneri or the Juilliard, may remain together, its members unchanged, for decades.  Night after night, for seven months a year, they sustain an intense, focused relationship, constantly attuned to one another's most subtle variations of mood and performance in their collective effort to create transcendently beautiful music.  String quartets differ enormously from one another, though to the novice they may all sound alike.  The Borromeo, for example, the very best of the new young quartets [although Wikipedia tells me that it has now been in existence for twenty years], is defined for me by the driving intensity of its cellist, Yeesun Kim.  I once had the extraordinary privilege of listening to the Borromeo perform the great Grosse Fugue quartet by Beethoven while sitting no more than twenty feet from the musicians, and the power of her playing was a transformative experience.

Those of us in the professional upper middle classes tend to spend an entire lifetime in a single profession.  Generally speaking, none of us -- Philosophy professors, cardiologists, corporation lawyers, architects, ministers -- has any direct experience of the professional lives of anyone outside of our own sub-specialty.  My own case is actually somewhat anomalous, inasmuch as I taught History, Economics, Political Science, Mathematics, and Afro-American Studies, as well as Philosophy, and yet not once in my fifty year career did I so much as set foot in an active Biology, Chemistry, or Physics laboratory, nor did I ever go on an archeological dig or spend time in a performing arts studio.  I know as a matter of general information that scientists these days work in groups in laboratories, typically under the guidance of a senior researcher whose NIH or NSF grants support cadres of graduate students and lab technicians.  But I have no hands-on sense of what it would be like actually to work with another academic on a daily basis.  The closest I ever came, I suppose, was co-authoring a little book with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse in 1965, but each of us wrote his essay alone, and we did not even exchange them for comment before cobbling them together into a book.

Susie and I have daily watched the most popular of the soaps, The Young and the Restless, for more than twenty years [I like to think of it as being rather like War and Peace -- a great deal of a good story, rather than, like The Brothers Karamazov, a good deal of a great story.]  A number of the characters in the The Young and the Restless have been featured in the soap for more than two decades, and in several cases those roles have been, during all of that time, played by the very same actors.  I am absolutely fascinated by this fact, and I endlessly wonder what it is like to play the same character for that length of time.  This cannot at all be like acting in a long-running stage play [such as Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which has now run continuously in London for fifty years!]  An actor in a long-running play says the same lines and does the same stage business night after night, and that is clearly its own experience sui generis.  But an actor in a soap never utters the same lines twice.  Every day is a new plot twist, a new set of lines, a new bit of stage business.  The actors playing Catherine, Victor, Nicky, and Jill have probably spent more time together in this imaginary world than they have spent with their husbands and wives.  What on earth can it be like to be a professional actor whose entire career consists of playing one part, and yet playing it in such a way that one never repeats a performance?

If I may return to the world of the string quartet, I played viola for several years in an amateur quartet when I lived in Pelham, Massachusetts.  I was brought into the quartet by a wonderful woman, Barbara Greenstein, who had been playing quartets for sixty years, and served as our second violinist.  The cellist was Barbara Davis, a woman in her late forties whose husband was the neurologist who, for a while, treated Susie's Multiple Sclerosis.  It was a delight for me to sit next to her [as the violist and cellist do in a string quartet] and listen to her beautiful sound.  The first violinist, Don White [who, like a number of accomplished amateur string quartet players could handle both the violin and the viola parts], was the most skilled of the four of us, but not a terribly sympatico person.  Weak as my playing was, I cherished our weekly sessions.  When Barbara Greenstein was taken from us by cancer, the heart went out of my playing, and although I did some pick-up quartet playing for a while, when I retired a bit later and moved to North Carolina, I put my beautiful Marten Cornellissen viola and my Benoit Roland bow in the closet and have not played since.  For me, the personal relationships with my quartet mates were inseparable from the music making.

All of this, the elevated and the banal, was evoked by watching the A Late Quartet yesterday evening.  I think I wept as much for my own personal loss as for the affecting end of the film.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012


I have returned from a quick visit to the West Coast to see my grandchildren [and their parents, of course].  A few personal items to report:

1.  An objective, unbiased evaluation of my grandchildren resulted in the conclusion that they are the two cutest kids in the universe.  Tiny four year old Athena is the spitting image of Cindy Lou Who of Whoville [The Grinch Who Stole Christmas].  She is currently very much into the heroine Merida from the movie Brave, and walks around carrying a bow and some suction rubber tipped arrows.  About to be seven year old Samuel, who takes with him to bed each evening The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess  [which as it happens was written by his father] has suddenly become a sports fan.  He is a raving San Francisco Giants rooter.  As a one-time Dodgers, Mets, and then Red Sox fan, I know how hard it is to keep the faith when your team keeps losing.  It doesn't hurt that the Giants have won the World Series two out of the last three years.

2.  I may be crazy, but the whole country feels better as a result of how the election turned out.  There is a great deal to do now, but it is building on success, not damage control.  I am delighted that the Obama machine is trying to keep itself in business to pressure Congress.  We have taken small steps, but that is how political change takes place.  Alan West is gone, Joe Walsh is gone, Elizabeth Warren has become a senator, several more states have endorsed same sex marriage.  There is a good chance that immigration reform will finally become possible, that further steps can be taken to address global warming, that tiny positive adjustments will be made to the tax rates and code.  And on the schadenfreude front, Mitt Romney is finally emerging from his cloud of etch-a-sketching to reveal himself clearly as the horrible person he is.

3.  On my way home, I changed planes in Denver, and had a meal there to tide me over.  Delicious elk medallions!  That is surely the only chance I will ever have to eat elk, and it was lovely.

Once I catch up on my mail and such, I will try to say something coherent about the tasks for the Left that lie immediately ahead.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


One of the many things Freud taught us [see my tutorial, The Thought of Freud, archived at] is to look closely at the details of the non-rational elements of our thought processes for clues about their origin and meaning.  He used this technique most famously and successfully in his analysis of dreams, but the advice has a much broader applicability.  A case in point:  My son, Tobias, alerted me to a story about a meeting called by the head of the Georgia State Republican Party at which a documentary was screened concerning a conspiracy between the UN and Obama to use mind-control techniques developed by the Rand Corporation.  I was rather startled to read that the goal of this insidious project is -- wait for it -- to get us all to move to cities.

At first, of course, all we can do is scratch our heads at the sheer bizarrerie of this paranoid theory.  But it takes very little thought to uncover the real sources of the fantasy.  America has for generations been undergoing a steady movement of populations from rural areas and small towns into cities and their suburbs.  This is in fact a world-wide trend.  Far and away the largest cities are to be found in Asia and Latin America, not in Europe or North America.  When I was a boy, New York's seven million inhabitants made it the largest city in the world, but now there are many cities around the globe that are two and three times that size.

In recent decades, the hollowing out of rural and small town America has proceeded apace.  The psychic dislocation is enormous for millions of Americans who define themselves essentially in relation to the small towns and farms where they grew up.    It is completely natural and also totally irrational to explain this painful life-altering change as the product of a hostile conspiracy.

What makes such thought processes politically significant is that people exhibiting them seem to have captured large parts of the Republican Party.

One final thought as I prepare to fly out to San Francisco tomorrow to see my grandchildren and their parents.  For several years the conventional wisdom has been that the election of a Black president was a life-altering, game-changing revolutionary transition for America, but I am beginning to think that the real revolution, with which millions upon millions of Americans simply cannot deal, is in fact the re-election of a Black president.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


As I had hoped and expected, my brief post posing a question about unmanned drones produced a large number of thoughtful and knowledgeable responses.  Among all the considerations advanced, there were several that struck me as especially powerful responses to the specific question I asked.  The first was the observation that drones have contributed to the militarization of the CIA [a development highlighted by the recent flap concerning General Petraeus.]   The second was the argument that the politically cost-free character of drone usage significantly increases the likelihood that the president will choose to authorize drone attacks.

I focus on these two considerations rather than the many others that were cited by one commentator or another because they seem to me to be peculiar to drones, and not just a feature of war itself.   They are therefore, I think, good arguments for the proposition that we ought to oppose the use of drones even if we despair of having any noticeable effect on the general imperial militarist stance and policy of the United States in general, which is the proposition I posed for discussion.

The first argument cited above had in fact not occurred to me, which may be why I was especially impressed by it.  Taking all in all, I am persuaded by those who advanced the various arguments.  There is, however, one consideration I should like to mention that played no part in the comments, so far as I could see.  To put it simply, the use of drones reduces the risk of injury and death undergone by American men and women in uniform.  Now, despite having spent a benign six months in uniform fifty-five years ago, I have in my long life had virtually no personal connection with the lives of men and women in the service and the dangers they undergo.  So it is fatally easy for me to make the mistake of transferring my anger at American foreign and military policy to the ordinary soldiers who actually put their lives in danger carrying out that policy.  But that, I think, is unfair of me, and a cheap off-hand response to the world.  With the ending of the draft, military service became a career for many young men and women who had few other paths to a job with decent pay and benefits.  It seems to me really dishonorable for me to sit back in safety and comfort and say that those men and women should run greater risks of death and injury because I think, on reflection, that a weapon that is saving their lives ought not to be used.  Nor do I feel at all comfortable suggesting that if American servicemen and women suffer higher death and injury rates, perhaps that will dissuade politicians from choosing a military option.  I do not think I have the right to make an argument like that unless I or my sons are the ones whose lives are being put at greater risk.

This is why I was opposed to the ending of the draft and have always been in favor of its reintroduction.

Well, perhaps we can move on to happier subjects, like thinking through what next steps we as progressives can take to solidify such gains as we made last Tuesday and build on them for future gains.

Monday, November 12, 2012


In this post, I am going to ask a question that has been puzzling me for some time.  It is a question that is guaranteed to evoke violent and angry comments, and quite possibly no serious or thoughtful replies at all.  Nevertheless, I shall ask it, and hope that at least some of you will be willing to discuss it calmly.  Let me say two things at the outset:  First, this is not a rhetorical question, to which I already think I know the answer.  It is a genuine invitation for reasoned discussion.  Second, I will simply delete any comments that are not sober and serious.  So hold your invective and scorn please.  I am not interested in reading it.

The question is this:  What is wrong with America's use of armed drones?

Let me begin by setting aside a question that can easily be confused with this one.  I am not asking whether it is right or good that America pursue an imperial foreign and military policy.  I have already expressed several times my belief that it is not.  Presumably, anyone who thinks America ought not to use military force to impose its will on other nations also will be opposed to America's use of missiles, aircraft carriers, land mines, manned fighters, special forces units, and every other instrument of military power.  But that is not an argument against drones per se.  The drone, on that view, is simply one weapon in an armamentarium of weapons, not in itself distinguishable from any other.  It is useful to contrast the use of drones with the use of torture.  There are good and sufficient reasons to oppose the use of torture even if one approves of the military and foreign policy in whose service it is employed.  I am asking whether the same is true of the use of drones, and if so, why.

What prompts me to ask this question?  Quite simply, I ask it because a number of people on the left who in general supported the re-election of Obama consider his increased use of drones an especially black mark against him and his administration, and that fact has puzzled me.

What are the benefits of the use of armed unmanned drone aircraft, in the eyes of the military or civilian war planners?  There seem to be three that weigh in the calculations of those planners who choose to use them.  First, drones are much, much cheaper to build than manned aircraft, for a variety of obvious reasons.  Second, they can be used without risk to American pilots.  And third, they cause less "collateral damage" than bombing raids and missile attacks, and hence are less likely to increase opposition in the countries attacked to the United States.  The first two of these are manifestly true, the third is at the very least debatable.  There are other secondary considerations that incline military planners to use drones.  They are smaller and lighter than manned aircraft, and therefore can fly slower, maneuver more tightly, and remain aloft longer.  As a consequence of high tech instrumentation, they can monitor an area as effectively as manned aircraft, if not more effectively, and they can be controlled from a trailer parked in Arizona as easily as from a command post close to the target.

What are the special costs or defects of the use of drones as opposed to any other weapons?  Perhaps the most obvious is that they are a cheap and easy way to violate the territorial sovereignty of other nations.  Not the only way, heaven knows.  The special forces raid that killed Bin Laden did not use drones.  It used helicopters and a small team of armed Navy Seals.  From a purely practical policy point of view, the manned attack was preferable to the use of a drone, even though it was both riskier and a much more serious violation of Pakistani territorial sovereignty, because it yielded a wealth of intelligence data and the absolute certainty that Bin Laden had been killed.  But one very powerful argument against the use of drones is that by making violations of national sovereignty so much easier, they make such violations more likely.

Now, let me speculate [and inevitably incur the wrath of a good many readers].  I suspect that there are psychological and cultural reasons why there is so much opposition on the left to the use of armed drones.  Mind you, I have absolutely no evidence that any such reasons are in play, so I offer these observations simply as a speculation.  I suspect that many people are uneasy with the use of drones because their use seems unfair, cowardly, bullying.  To hunt down and kill an enemy [assuming for the moment that you grant that America has enemies] without taking any risk to oneself seems unmanly.  [Yes, I am using this loaded word because I suspect it is at play in unacknowledged ways.]  The Seals, after all, risked their lives going after Bin Laden, but a Spec-4 sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Arizona is not risking anything save boredom.  At least those whom we attack have rifles or shoulder-fired missiles with which they can attack the drones, but they do not themselves have drones that they can launch against American cities, so using drones is not -- fair.

Put openly in this way, the objection to drones seems fatuous.  War is not a boxing contest or a pro football game.  Nor is it a knightly quest out of the Chanson de Roland.  Surely no one fighting a war has any obligation to take unnecessary risks just to satisfy some antique British fetish with fair play!

It is important not to confuse the question of the special objectionableness of drones with the larger question of the legitimacy of the military effort tout court.  Obviously, if you think America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda, then you will also think that America has no business attacking members of al Qaeda with drones.  But I am deliberately attempting to set aside that larger question in order to focus entirely on the question whether Obama's increased use of drones is somehow especially reprehensible.

Well, there it is.  I would be genuinely interested in what people have to say about this precise question:  Why is Obama's increased use of unmanned armed drones a special black mark against him and his administration?

Sunday, November 11, 2012


The Obama campaign once again put together a political ground game unparalleled in modern American political history.  The power and efficiency of the machine has been proven in battle.  It is a weapon of enormous power.  It would be a tragedy if it were once again to be mothballed, or worse still, disbanded now that Obama has run out of elections.  If this machine were kept oiled, it could be an extraordinary force for progressive change, pressuring Congress to move left, targeting vulnerable Republicans, forcing Washington to focus on issues of concern to the Left.

It would take a fair amount of money to maintain the machine, but because no election is in the offing, at least for a while, there is no limit on the amount that individuals could give to such an effort.  Surely there are a dozen rich progressives who could be tapped for a pool of one hundred million dollars or so.  That is peanuts -- indeed, it is eight times as much as Americans spend each year on peanut butter.

As the United Negro College Fund might have said, but didn't quite, a weapon is a terrible thing to waste.

Saturday, November 10, 2012


While I suffered through the final days of the campaign and then luxuriated in the discomfiture of Karl Rove and his clueless collection of billionaire suckers, I was also slowly reading Willie Esterhuyse's dense, detail-filled account of his personal involvement in the three years of secret negotiations and private talks that led up to the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning of the ANC in South Africa on February 10, 1990.  End Game: Secret Talks and the End of Apartheid, is not well-written or well-organized, but it fascinated me because it deals with a period of time during which I was very deeply engaged with South Africa and the anti-apartheid struggle.  In this brief comment on the book, I will not try to summarize its contents, beyond indicating in very general terms what Esterhuyse tells us.  But I do want to relate it to things I was being told, in Durban, by South Africans very much on the left wing of the mass struggle.  Before I begin, let me again thank J. P. Smit, a reader of this blog who teaches philosophy at Stellenbosch University, for sending me the book as a gift.  It was very generous of him.

In order to keep this post within limits, I am simply going to assume that my readers possess a high level of knowledge about South Africa.  If there are questions, please pose them in the comments section and I will do my best to reply.

In 1987, South Africa was in crisis.  There were four interrelated centers of opposition to the apartheid system imposed and written into law by the Afrikaner-based National Party, which by that time had ruled South Africa for thirty-nine years.  The first was the "armed struggle," a military attack on the state based outside South Africa that carried out raids and acts of sabotage against targets inside the country.  Although it received support from the Soviet Union and created great fear in the hearts of White South Africans, it was in fact not terribly effective, and had been repeatedly penetrated and beaten down by the extremely ruthless and efficient state security system.  The second center of opposition was a significant group of exiled South Africans who had fled the country to avoid imprisonment and had, for almost thirty years, made lives for themselves in Europe while mounting a campaign of economic sanctions, boycotts, and political pressure designed to force the National Party to end the apartheid system.  Precisely because the old agricultural and mining economy of South Africa had given way to a modernizing industrial economy, the economic sanctions were seriously constraining the capacity of South Africa to establish and run an expanding capitalist economy, and by 1987 there was strong internal pressure from the [White] business community on the state to make adjustments that might suffice to bring about the cessation of the sanctions and boycotts.  The third center of opposition to apartheid was a large, racially diverse, growing movement inside the country, drawing principally on the African, Indian, Coloured, and White English-speaking populations, but including within its ranks a number of progressive Afrikaners.  Members of this movement were repeatedly harassed, arrested, "banned," condemned to house arrest, and killed by the state security forces and its operatives.  By the time I visited South Africa for the first time in 1986, this Mass Democratic Movement, as it was called, had grown very large, leaving the Afrikaner state more and more besieged and compelled to "circle the wagons."  The fourth center of opposition was a small group of men, by now getting well up in years, who had been tried, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.  These men, among them most notably Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki, had been held for decades in a prison on Robben Island off the coast near Cape Town.  It will seem strange to describe prisoners as a center of opposition, but the international fame, indeed, celebrity, that they had achieved as martyrs in the fight for liberty made their presence, and the dignity and discipline they exhibited, a dagger in the heart of the apartheid project.  It was by 1987 well understood that a resolution of the struggle, regardless on what terms, would at a minimum require the release of the Robben Island prisoners.

In 1987, a series of secret contacts and talks was initiated between members of the exile community and Afrikaners who had direct or indirect contacts with the state apparatus.  Willie Esterhuyse, then a professor of philosophy at Stellenbosch, was tapped to participate in these talks.  Among those tapped from the exile community was Thabo Mbeki, son of the imprisoned Govan and eventually destined to serve as the second President of a free South Africa.  [It was also Thabo Mbeki, I feel compelled to observe, who by denying the nature and reality of the HIV-AIDS pandemic in South Africa during his presidency condemned countless Black South Africans to unnecessary deaths.  I can never find it in my heart to forgive him for that.]

The book I am commenting on is, above all else, Esterhuyse's detailed, very personal, highly subjective account of his interactions over three years and more with Thabo Mbeki.  What I want to talk about is not the details of that interaction, although there is much that could be said about Esterhuyse's account, but rather the nature of the struggle that served as the context for the talks that eventually led to direct negotiations between Mandela and the man who served as the last President of the apartheid state, F. W. de Klerk. 

The document that had for forty years served as the manifesto of the demands issued by the African National Congress was the Freedom Charter, adopted by a large meeting of ANC members and supporters in 1955.  There is a great deal of uplifting and inspiring language in the Freedom Charter, but at its core were four demands for South Africa: (1)  A non-racial, universal one-person one-vote political democracy;  (2) A unitary state, in which there are no racial or national sub-groups of the population written into the laws and political structures of the state;  (3)  Nationalization of the mines and banks and monopoly industry;  and (4) Redistribution to the dispossessed population of the agricultural land seized by Whites [principally Afrikaners].

Democracy, no group rights, socialism, and land redistribution. 

These were the demands with which the ANC began its negotiations.  The Afrikaner state wanted to protect private ownership of the mean of production [for the English-speaking as well as for the Afrikaans-speaking capitalists] and Afrikaner control of the good agricultural land.  In addition, it wanted some form of Group Rights built into a new constitution to protect the small minority of Whites from domination by the overwhelming African, Indian, and Coloured majority of South Africans.

Furthermore, as Esterhuyse's account makes clear, contrary to what any sensible objective observer might suppose, P. W. Botha, and F. W. de Klerk after him [the two presidents during the lengthy negotiation process], believed until far into the process that the Afrikaners could somehow retain control of the state apparatus even in the face of the extension of voting rights to non-Whites.  Far-fetched as this may seem, it was desperately important to Botha and de Klerk for two reasons.  First, as already indicated, Afrikaners were terrified that the people they had been oppressing for so many years might do to them what they had been doing to their subjects.  But second, and perhaps even more important, by the 1980's, the South African state had become a vast welfare system for Whites.  An unusually large proportion of the White population worked in state jobs of one sort or another, frequently in sinecures in which they did precious little useful work but simply sucked at the state teat [if I may be a trifle vulgar.]  In the phrase that the American Right has invented to rationalize their political decline, these Whites had become takers, not makers.  The supporters of the National Party feared -- quite correctly, as it turned out -- that if Whites lost control of the state apparatus, many of those jobs would go to people of color.

At this point, I wish to interject a bit of personal narrative that may or may not be directly relevant to the course of the negotiations leading to Mandela's release and the establishment, in 1994, of a true South African democracy.  For many years after I founded University Scholarships for South African Students in 1990, I brought the money I raised to the University of Durban-Westville, the university originally established under the apartheid system for Indian students in the Natal province on the Indian ocean.  My contact there, who was my very close friend until his untimely death, was Prem Singh, a Lecturer in Politics at UDW whom I first met in 1986.  Through Prem I met and talked with members of the far-left splinter Unity Movement [who viewed Mandela as a middle-of-the-road figure who had never really embraced socialism].  Shortly before Mandela was released, Prem passed onto me what he described as a bootlegged secret document -- a revision of the original Freedom Charter.  When I read it, I was stunned to discover that omitted from it were socialism and land reform, the key economic planks in the original Charter.

Here is my interpretation of what was happening.  Mandela and his imprisoned colleagues knew that the armed struggle had failed, regardless of the hopes and exaggerated expectations of leaders of that struggle like Joe Slovo and Chris Hani.  The external economic sanctions and boycotts and the unrelenting diplomatic pressure were pushing the National Party to make some sort of deal with Mandela [if I may use him as a convenient symbol of the entire movement], but with good reason the state believed that it had the upper hand so far as military and security force were concerned.  If necessary, they could hunker down and hang onto the state by sheer force of arms for the foreseeable future, however increasingly unsatisfactory that state of affairs would be to the business interests.

So -- and this is my speculation, with only that one fugitive piece of paper as my evidence -- Mandela cut an implicit deal with de Klerk:  we will give up socialism and land reform in return for a unitary democratic state with one-person one vote.  I think the leaders of the movement recognized that that was the most they could hope to get, given their military weakness.

But this still leaves one huge question, which I puzzled over endlessly in the period between the release of Mandela in 1990 and the holding of the first democratic election in 1994:  Why would Botha and de Klerk even consider such a deal, since it would cost them their control of the state, which was not only their power base but the source of jobs for the countless Afrikaners who were their constituents and on whom they relied for their political support?  It was not hard to see why the White business community could live with such a deal.  They knew that so long as their ownership and control of the means of production went unchallenged, they could continue to make plenty of money in a Black-run state. 

I have a speculative hypothesis to offer as an answer to this question.  [This is really the reason for this entire long blog post, by the way.]   A few words of background are called for.  The Black [i.e, in South African terms the African, as opposed to Indian or Coloured] population was not unified in its opposition to apartheid.  The ANC was far and away the choice of the largest number of Africans, but in the Eastern province of KwaZulu, the ANC was opposed by a separate organization called the Inkatha Freedom Party [IFP], headed by a charismatic figure named Mangosuthu Buthelezi.  There was a long history of conflict, often very violent, between the IFP and the ANC.  The South African security forces secretly supplied weapons to the IFP and fomented violence between the IFP and ANC as a way of destabilizing the weakening the anti-apartheid struggle.  One of the touching and pathetic features of Esterhuyse's account is his slow realization that the charges of state involvement in the violence, expressed by Mbeki and other ANC participants in the talks, were true, and that the men in the government whom he repeatedly described as honorable, thoughtful, educated individuals, were directly causing and then benefiting from the violence.

In the period leading up the 1994 elections, this IFP-ANC violence continued.  Newspaper advertisements taken out by the National Party portrayed de Klerk as an honest broker capable of mediating between the IFP and the ANC.  I believe that de Klerk actually deluded himself into believing that he could win an election in which the non-white population for the first time voted, and thus could keep control of the state in White Afrikaner hands.   This would simultaneously preserve the protected and privileged position of the Afrikaners [
group rights," as the catchphrase had it] and also keep at least some of the tasty sinecures in White hands.

Well, this is, as I say, mere speculation on my part.  Perhaps my South African readers, of whom there are a few, will weigh in with their take on this question.


Friday, November 9, 2012


When you get to be my age, losing a night's sleep takes it out of you for several days thereafter.  While I have been stumbling around in a daze and trying to nap so as to make up what is sometimes referred to as a "sleep deficit," a vigorous discussion has broken out on this blog in the comments section.  The antagonist, or perhaps protagonist, in this discussion has been Chris, who has for several years scolded me on what he sees as my shameful star-struck admiration for Barack Obama.  He has been answered -- intelligently in my judgment -- by several commentators.  Before I move on to what I really want to talk about today on this blog -- the book about South Africa that I have just finished reading -- I would like to say just a few words about the dispute.  My remarks are mostly a response to Chris's angry rebukes, but I hope they will find an audience elsewhere among my readers.

There are two fundamental facts about political action that one must recognize and accept if one is to have any hope of being at all effective in the world.  The first fact is that each of us is born into a specific moment in history that we have not chosen and cannot change.  If I may once more quote the lovely and evocative passage from Erik Erikson's Childhood and Society, "An individual life is the accidental coincidence of but one life cycle with but one segment of history."

At the present time, the United States is a hegemonic imperial world power.  I am actually old enough to have lived through the early post-war period in which this country chose to step into the space created by the decline of the European imperial powers.  As that was happening, I and many others argued and agitated against this choice, but we lost, and so I have been forced to live the remainder of my life cycle in a time of American imperial world ascendancy.  Chris, I believe, is a good deal younger than I, so he was born into the world that I watched coming into being.  Neither of us likes or supports America's imperial adventures, but neither of us has any way of stopping them.  Some who oppose the direction of American foreign policy in the past half century and more might approve of an interventionist foreign policy so long as it intervened on the other side -- for Castro rather than against him, for Mossadegh rather than against him, for Ortega rather than against him, and so forth.  Others might oppose any imperial role for America, even if that meant simply leaving a space into which some other nation could step.  But those are idle thoughts.  Chris and I, like everyone else on the left in America today, are confronted with extremely intractable facts, the changing of which would require more political muscle than we are able at this moment to muster.

The second fact about political action is that in a nation of 310 million people, in a world of seven billion people, all effective political action requires the building and sustaining of coalitions of enormous numbers of activists who, one can be absolutely certain, will disagree fundamentally on any number of important questions.  For as long as any one can recall, the besetting sin of leftists has been their lust for ideological orthodoxy and their consequent tendency to splinter into ever smaller and more ineffectual factions.  There have, to be sure, been historical moments when weeding out those who disagree with oneself in any way can can lead to greater power rather than less -- one thinks of the Bolshevik revolution.  But this moment in America is not one of them.  So if you want to work effectively for major social change with any hope at all of success, you must learn to embrace and find common cause with men and women with whom you disagree.  When I was young, this meant working for nuclear disarmament with Quaker pacifists and Catholic activists whose religious commitments were anathema to me.  There is nothing admirable or morally uplifting about the refusal to forge workable coalitions with those who are -- so to speak -- part of the avalanche rolling down the same side of the mountain.

We have just come through a presidential election whose outcome was a good deal more progressive than any of us anticipated.  Several really admirable women have been elected to the Senate;  a wretched hollow man who would have brought in his train a nightmare of aides and appointees has been defeated.  But the election revealed, once again, that very close to half of those 310 million Americans are opposed to the changes we seek to make in this country.  That is a fact that we must confront and acknowledge, for it sets limits to what we can, in the short or medium run, hope to accomplish.

This is not the time for the left to splinter into angry factions more concerned with maintaining their ideological purity than with advancing common progressive policies. 

I can assure you with absolute certainty that if we are successful, against all the odds, each one of us will still be disappointed in what has been left undone.  The acceptance of that fact is, in my opinion, the mark of a truly serious and grown-up progressive.

I have been around a long time.  Trust me.  There are going to be some defeats ahead.  For God's sake, enjoy the victories.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


As I continue to reflect on last night's election results, one thought that keeps returning is this:  A small number of very rich men threw a good deal of their money into the race, and bought virtually nothing with it.  I do not think one can point to a single state that went Republican because of the floods of dark money, nor a single senate race whose outcome was determined by these attempts to buy results.

These men are very rich, and they can easily afford the money they gave to various superpacs, but they are not, I would imagine, philanthropists or compulsive gamblers [even Sheldon Adelson seems not to be a gambler, even though his many billions are derived from a world-wide chain of gambling casinos.]  I have to wonder:  the next time Karl Rove approaches them for the odd million or two, are they going to open their wallets, or will they decide that that is not a very prudent use of their money?  They did not get rich, we can assume, by throwing good money after bad.

The cost effectiveness of their expenditures may have been greater in House races.  I simply do not know.  But it is striking how little they got for their money.

One reason, by the bye, is that America is a very wealthy country, overall, for all that the wealth is very unequally distributed, and a couple of billion dollars every four years is really not a great deal to spend on a presidential election.  The Obama campaign demonstrated that there is more than enough money in the hands of those to the left to fund a campaign very nicely without relying heavily on a handful of billionaires.

A second thought, or perhaps it would be better to call it a puzzlement.  Barack Obama has now run three highly visibly national political campaigns:  the campaign for the Democratic nomination in 2008 and two presidential races.  You may not like Obama,  Fair enough.  You may consider him a Kenyan socialist, or a Muslim bent upon imposing sharia law on an unsuspecting America, or a mediocre student who was foisted on the Harvard Law review by affirmative action.  Again, fair enough.  But how could anyone who is not blind imagine that he is an ineffective or incompetent campaigner?  His three campaigns have been far and away the most technically proficient operations ever mounted in modern American politics.  And yet it has been an article of faith on the extreme right that Obama is a bumbling amateur incapable of doing anything more than making a rabble-rousing speech.  It would be easy to suppose that this bizarre misperception is merely the expression of barely concealed racism, but I have a feeling something else is at work.  What it is, however, I do not know.


Well, that was fun.  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways:

Barack Obama joins Bill Clinton as the only Democrats since Roosevelt to win two full terms as President.

Elizabeth Warren can serve as Senator from Massachusetts for the rest of her natural life.

Barack Obama will appoint one, two, or even three Supreme Court justices.

Tammy Baldwin is the first openly gay senator in American history [but not, needless to say, the first gay senator.]

Allan West and Joe Walsh are gone.

For the first time, same sex marriage won a state referendum.

And we need never, ever again think about Mitt Romney and his entire extended, entitled family.  We need not wonder what is in his tax returns, we need not obsess about his car elevator, we need not puzzle out the more obscure bizarreries of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

Sufficient unto the day. 

Now comes the really difficult question:  What can those of us on the left do, starting now, to apply steady and effective pressure for progressive legislation and presidential action?  We have not entered the Promised Land.  We have simply managed to avoid the path to Hell.

We do not need fantasies of perfectly round islands with neatly imagined economic arrangements -- what Marx called Utopian Socialism.  We live in a nation 49% of whose voting citizens chose Mitt Romney.  That quite nicely defines the limits of the possible.  Now is the time to start building organizations, coalitions, movements that can have some hope of moving America to the left. 

But first, I need some sleep.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I have surfed the web until I am vertiginous, I have micro-inspected every sabermetrician's prognostications, I have offered up silent prayers to a non-existent deity, there are three hours until the results start coming in, and there is nothing for it but to play endless games of FreeCell while the minutes drag by.

Tomorrow, come what may, I will say something about the tasks facing progressives and lefties in America. 


The five thousandth comment has just been posted on this blog!  How's that for a conversation?

Monday, November 5, 2012


Twenty-nine hours until the first polls close.


In response to my call for attention to be paid [if I may reference Arthur Miller] to the materials I have archived on, Ben [I shall keep private his last name] sent me an email with two very interesting questions.  Rather than reply in an email, I have decided to post my responses here on this blog.

Here is Ben's first question:

"1) In "The Thought of Karl Marx" (on, you explain the existence of profit in a capitalist economy by positing a fundamental difference between laborers and owners: the owners can switch from (say) making clothing to making steel if the rate of profit in the former industry is not high enough, while the laborers cannot switch industries and thus must accept pitiful wages. But you also say that your simple, illustrative model should be modified to include "several labor sectors, each [. . .] with its own rate of return." Given that modification, can't laborers switch from one type of labor to another if the rate of profit is not high enough? Sure, this will often be extremely difficult, but so long as it is not impossible haven't we failed to locate a categorical difference between laborers and owners?"

This is a very acute question that raises an interesting and important issue.  A word of explanation first.  Ben is referring to my attempt to reconstruct the Labor Theory of Value, which as I showed in Understanding Marx, cannot in the end be sustained in the form in which Marx advanced it [I cannot summarize the reasons here.  See the tutorial or my book.]   I undertook a formal reconstruction of Marx's theory in my essay, "A Critique and Reinterpretation of Marx's labor Theory of Value," in Philosophy and Public Affairs, Spring, 1981].

The central point of Marx's analysis is that workers have been completely separated from ownership or control of the means of production, and are therefore forced, in order to live, to sell their labor [or labor-power, as Marx says] to those who do own or control the means of production, which is to say capitalists.

Marx was looking at a world in which workers' skills and knowledge, which they acquired through lengthy apprenticeships, were being lost as machines took their place, reducing the working class more and more to a homogeneous mass of semi-skilled workers capable of moving easily and quickly from machine tending in one industry to machine tending in another.  This homogenization of the labor force, which Harry Braverman, in his great book Labor and Monopoly Capital, called the "deskilling" of the work force, was, Marx thought, being paralleled by a corresponding centralization of capital, with countless small firms being gobbled up into huge conglomerates.  Marx's formal analysis of exploitation rested on these historical observations and empirical predictions.

But in fact the homogenization forecast by Marx did not take place, and we now see a labor force that is permanently and very significantly segmented and stratified.  Wages and salaries range extremely widely from minimum wage jobs to high paid lavishly benefitted "upper middle class" jobs.

From an theoretical standpoint, we can conceptualize this situation by observing that some workers succeed in acquiring what economists now call "human capital," in the form of formal educational credentials and other skills, on the basis of which they acquire and keep high paying jobs.  In effect, these workers [or their parents] have invested in themselves, in order to enable them to produce a different commodity to be sold in the marketplace, namely skilled labor.

Now, if no exploitation were taking place, then we would expect that the return to that investment in human capital would equal the interest rate.  But in fact it equals much more than the interest rate, thereby indicating that those who have carried out this self-investment are somehow snagging some of what it being produced by those with less human capital.  In short, they are benefiting from exploitation.

But how can this be?  How can the high paid workers be exploiting lower paid workers, if they themselves are being exploited by the owners or controllers of capital?  The answer, as Samuel Bowles and Herb Gintis argued in a lovely essay published thirty-five years ago, is that in modern capitalist economies, a structure of relative exploitation has arisen, in which a portion of the income of some workers is acquired through the relative exploitation of lower-paid workers.  [See "The Marxian Theory of Value and Heterogeneous Labour: A Critique and Reformulation," Cambridge Journal of Economics, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 173-192.]  When I wrote the essay referenced above, I was unaware of the Bowles and Gintis essay, even though at that time we were all colleagues and friends at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

So the answer to Ben's first question is that he is right.  In a modern capitalist economy, the simple contrast between owners and workers must be replaced with a more complex analysis according to which some persons are pure exploiters [Mitt Romney comes to mind on this eve of the election], some persons are purely exploited -- low-paid workers -- and some people are simultaneously exploited and exploiters.

This, as I argue in my essay, The Future of Socialism, is one of the reasons why despite the emergence within capitalist firms of the structural developments needed for the transition to socialism, that transition is unlikely to take place.  Labor solidarity is almost impossible with a segmented labor force.

Here is Ben's second question:

"(2) Before reading In Defense of Anarchism, I took the problem of political obligation to be determining whether the following thesis is true:

(a) That the law says thus-and-such can be per se morally relevant; hence, a law against X-ing can (all by itself) create an obligation to refrain from X-ing.

However, you seem to take the problem of political obligation to be determining whether a different thesis is true, namely:

(b) The citizen can be morally obligated to refrain from individual decision making in favor of simply doing what the law says because the law says it.

You argue that relinquishing decision-making power in this way is inconsistent with the duty to be autonomous, i.e. to give the moral law to oneself. Hence, you conclude, (b) is false.

It does not seem to follow that (a) is false. After all, it is not inconsistent with my autonomy for me to make decisions in light of the morally relevant facts - taking morally relevant facts into consideration is part of exercising moral autonomy. And, as far as you say in your book, it is possible that one of the morally relevant facts to be taken into account is the fact that the law says thus-and-such. So, for all you say in your book, (a) is consistent with individual autonomy and thus (a) might well be true.  Do you agree, or do you think that the duty to be autonomous means that (a) is false? And do you think that (b) is the more interesting or important thesis?"

Once again, a very astute question.  It was first posed to me in something like this form by Jeffrey Reiman, now the William Fraser McDowell Professor of Philosophy at American University in Washington, D. C.  Two years after the publication of In Defense of Anarchism in 1970, Reiman, then a young man [of course] published a reply, entitled In Defense of Political Philosophy.  I then brought out a second edition of In Defense in which I replied to his arguments in a lengthy preface.

All of this is readily available, so I will be brief.  I argued, following Max Weber, that the defining characteristic of any state is its claim that it has a right in morals, not just in law, to issue commands that its subjects have a moral obligation, not merely a legal obligation, to obey.  This, I said, is that it means to say that a state is "legitimate."  Justifications of the claim of legitimacy range [again echoing Weber] from the religious assertion that the ruler has the mandate of heaven to the modern thesis, central to all theories of democracy, that the state rules with the authorization of the people.

Reiman suggested that a defense of democracy needed no more than the restricted claim that the commands of the democratic state create a "prima facie obligation" of obedience, one that had weight and must be taken into account but can be outweighed by other considerations in some circumstances.  I argued that Reiman had no grounds for asserting this, and that in fact his claim was essentially indistinguishable from the customary state demand for absolute obedience.  [It is worth remembering that this debate took place during the Viet Nam War, when because of the draft young men were being ordered to fight in a war to which they were morally opposed.  The argument was explicitly made that even those opposed to the war had a moral obligation to answer the draft call because it issued from a democratically elected government.  This was no merely academic debate!]

But at the same time, I quite freely acknowledged the truth of another argument that one might at first confuse with Reiman's argument.  Indeed, I took account of it in my original little book.  When a state [any state, whether a dictatorship, a monarchy, a theocracy, or a democracy] passes a law, the mere existence of that law becomes a fact that may be relevant to my moral deliberations.  The law does not create a prima facie obligation in me.  But the existence of the law may.  To take a simple and rather trivial example, a concern for my own safety and the safety of others on the roads will lead me to pay attention to the traffic rules even in a dictatorship or a theocracy, because I may anticipate that others will be abiding by them, and that will create in me expectations about which side of the road it is safest to drive on.

Let us return for a moment to the question that was on everyone's mind when my book and Reiman's were published:  Do young men called to the army have a moral obligation to obey the state and present themselves for induction?  Keep in mind that it was the most morally thoughtful and sensitive young men who anguished most about this question.  Imagine one such young man making a list of the considerations, pro and con, in an attempt to determine where his obligation lies.  On the side of obeying, he lists the fact that he will be liable to arrest and imprisonment if he refuses induction.  He also lists the fact that if he refuses to obey, some other young man will be coerced into serving in his place.  On the side of refusing, he lists the fact that he will almost certainly be required to kill people who, he believes, have done nothing to deserve this.  He may also list on the side of refusing his belief that the war is one more imperialist act by a United States that has chosen to take the place of fading imperial powers like France and Great Britain on the world stage.

Now, according to Reiman, when this young man has listed all the considerations pro and con, and has assigned to them some weight in his deliberations, there is one more consideration that he is supposed to enter in the lists on the side of obeying, namely the mere fact that the order to report issues from a democratically elected government.  This consideration, says Reiman, does not trump all other considerations, because the obligation to obey is only a prima facie obligation.  But it has some non-zero weight all by itself, and therefore in a close calculation can by itself tilt the balance in the other direction.

And that, I say, is false.  There is no good reason to hold that view, and very good reason to reject it.

That, by the way, is what I mean when I call myself an anarchist.

Okay, Ben, those are my responses to your questions.  I hope they help.



My son, Tobias, who teaches law at the Univer,sity of Pennsylvania, and who has worked closely with the White House on LGBT issues, has written an Op Ed for the UPenn newspaper, giving his reasons for supporting the president.  Here is the link.

[This is the very first time I have figured out how to embed a link in my blog.  A whole new world opens up to me!]

Friday, November 2, 2012


On October 21st, I put up a post on this blog, entitled "Dyspepsia," that managed to be self-pitying and self-congratulatory all at the same time -- not a bad trick.  On October 27th, "Magpie" responded by going to, reading one of the lengthy essays I had posted there [and to which I referred so praisingly in my Dyspepsia post], and leaving a comment that concluded with a question.  Now, six days later, I am finally getting around to responding.  Not exactly instant communication, but I have been busy obsessing over the election.

The essay in question is entitled "Critique of Keynes," and Magpie's question was, roughly, Why do I classify the economic theories of the classical political economists [Smith, Ricardo, Marx] as Microeconomics?  An important question, which I shall do my best to answer.

Microeconomics is the attempt, starting with a set of assumptions and facts about individual consumers and producers or firms, to deduce or compute certain facts about the economy as a whole, such as the relative prices at which commodities exchange, the economy-wide rate of profit, the rate of economic growth of the entire economy, the physical size and corresponding value or price of the social surplus, and the share of the social surplus received by each of the three great economic classes in the society -- workers, entrepreneurs, and land owners.

Both classical Political Economy and the marginalist theories introduced in the 1870's by Walras, Jevons, and Menger are, in this sense of the term, microeconomic theories.  They differ in certain important respects with regard to the assumptions with which they begin [and consequently with respect to the sort of mathematics they use], but they both qualify as "microeconomic" precisely in the sense that the reason from facts and assumptions about individual consumers and producers [i.e., small facts or micro facts] to conclusions about the economy as a whole.

The principal difference between the assumptions of the classicals and the assumptions of those who came to be called neo-classicals is that the classicals adopt the simplifying premise that at any time there is only one technique of production for each commodity, whereas the neo-classicals assume the availability of an infinity of alternative techniques, differing from one another in such a fashion that they can be conceived as varying continuously [hence as amenable to the ministrations of the Calculus.]

Is that any help?

Thursday, November 1, 2012


A little while ago, I complained that folks were not paying attention to my profound and brilliant analyses of subtle arcane questions, hem hem.  Several folks responded by commenting on my profound and brilliant analyses of subtle arcane questions, and what did I do?  I ignored them.  Not so good.

Actually, I am going to respond, but things have heated up at Bennett, and what with this being the final days of the presidential campaign, I have been distracted.  My apologies.  I will attempt some responses in the next day or two.

Meanwhile, just a thought prompted by a TV ad.  Back when I was a youth, there were no credit cards, except for the expensive and rather rare American Express card with its hefty fees.  Folks paid cash.  Many stores featured what they called "layaway plans" that allowed consumers to put down a little each week or month on a big ticket item [washing machine, icebox, sofa] until they had paid enough to take the item home.  There were Christmas Clubs into which you could pay a little each week against the once-a-year expense of holiday presents for the kids.

Things began to change in the fifties and sixties, with the appearance of Mastercard and Visa.  [Indeed, for a long time, some establishments refused to accept the older American Express card because it charged higher fees to merchants.]  All of this pretty much passed over my head until one day in the late 60's when I was lying on the analyst's couch.  In those days, my first wife, Cynthia, and I lived in Morningside Heights half a block from Columbia, where I taught.  Cynthia was teaching at Manhattanville College in Westchester County, north of Manhattan.  We had an old blue VW bug which we parked on 115th street at night and which she drove to her job each day.  The bug was pretty reliable, but it developed its own bug, and I took it into the shop.  Since Cynthia had no other way to get to work, I had to rent a car, and the rental office required me to put down a $50 security deposit before they would release the rental to me [$50 in those days was the equivalent of about $300 today.]  I was complaining about this to my analyst, a strict Freudian who rarely said anything, when he broke his silence to ask, incredulously, whether I did not have a credit card.  I went right out and got one.

The prosperity of the next forty years was built on the easy availability of consumer credit, which had the economically beneficial effect of converting stocks into flows, if I may use the slightly technical jargon of the Economics profession.  Like cellphones, which in the lives of many have replaced landlines, credit cards and debit cards have replaced cash for ordinary Americans.

This morning, as I was watching the devastation of Sandy and its aftermath, I saw an ad for a bigbox store in which happy customers were embracing a new layaway plan as though it were a hi-tech innovation of the smoking twenty-teens.  I cannot think of a more poignant symbol of the destruction of working class and middle class financial security in the United States as the consequence of the financial crisis and predatory exploitative practices of the rich.