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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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

To contact me about organizing, email me at

Total Pageviews

Sunday, November 27, 2016


My reflections during this morning’s walk were triggered by a portion of a comment made by Ed Barreras several days ago.  Here is what he wrote:

“T***p's campaign exhibited a particularly virulent form of racism, from his conspiracy theories about Obama to his disseminating false statistics about black crime (and we all know "black crime" had its own tag on Steve Bannon's Breitbart News). Some were able to dismiss this as a misdemeanor; others thought it was closer to a capital offense. I guess we all have to decide for ourselves. But what I find interesting is that when it's pointed out that Hispanics and (especially) blacks support Democrats in overwhelming numbers, the paternalistic assumption is that this must be due mostly to identity politics -- as if blacks cared only about the Civil Rights Movement two generations ago, and not at all about economic policies in the present. And yet when it's pointed out that maybe white people are subject to identity politics coming from the other end, everyone balks and starts hurling accusations of liberals being overly obsessed with race. “

I am having a good deal of difficulty coming to terms with the election results and trying to decide on the best course going forward.  As is so often the case, I find it useful to begin by reminding myself of what I have learned from Marx.  If we set to one side the Labor Theory of Value, the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to fall, and other such arcana [on which I have written two books and a number of lengthy journal articles, so don’t get me started], we can sum up what Marx taught us in three simple propositions:

1.         We human beings live by collectively using our labor and our intelligence and accumulated knowledge to transform nature so that it yields the food, clothing, shelter and other necessaries we need to survive and flourish.

2.         Recorded human history teaches us that in all societies a small group appropriate the lion’s share of the collective social product, defending their appropriation with the state, the law, the military, and the police, and justifying it to themselves and those being exploited by appeals to religion, to gender, to race, to nationality, and, alas, to philosophy.

3.         Capitalism is distinctive both in its enormous and continually expanding productivity and in its ability to present a surface appearance of equality and fairness, so that those being exploited find it difficult to penetrate this surface in order to recognize the underlying exploitation that defines their life chances and condition.

These three propositions are self-evidently true and can be recognized as such as soon as they are enunciated.  To them Marx added a fourth proposition which held out hope for a better future.

4.         The inner logic of capitalist development is self-defeating in two fundamental ways:  First, the centralization and rationalization of production necessitated by ruthless competition have, as a byproduct, the unification of the working class, who come into contact directly in factories and workplaces and learn to see their bosses rather than each other as the enemy; and Second, the conflict between the increasing socialization of the production process and the unyielding privatization of ownership and control of that process triggers a series of ever more severe economic crises of over-production and under-consumption, which go hand in hand with the ever greater unification of the working class.  The inevitable result of these two tendencies is the overthrow of capitalism, in the wake of a world-wide economic crisis, by a unified working class and the establishment of a truly rational society in which the benefits of the collective labor of men and women redound fully to those who perform the labor.

As I have explained at some length in my paper, “The Future of Socialism,” this fourth proposition has turned out to be false in several fundamental ways.  First, the persistence of a hierarchical and segmented labor force has fatally impeded, and even reversed, the development of a unified working class.  Second, capitalism has proved more nimble and adept at managing its repeated crises than Marx [and others] anticipated.  And Third [most particularly relevant to Ed Barreras’ comment], the passions of gender, of race, of religion, and of ethnicity have proven far more powerful and deep-rooted than Marx and many other late nineteenth early twentieth century social theorists anticipated.

Let me descend from the abstract and general to the concrete and particular.  In America today, by and large, the Democratic Party defends programs and policies that protect and advance the interests of the least well-off Americans:  raising the minimum wage, extending health insurance, protecting workplace safety, fighting for equal pay for women, defending union rights, and so forth.  Not enough, God knows, but whatever is on the plate nationally and politically that helps workers has been put there by the Democratic Party.  All of this is fought tooth and nail by the Republican Party.  The Democratic Party regularly receives the votes of millions of men and women who are doing quite nicely in the present grotesquely unequal economy – people like me, for example.  The Republican Party regularly receives the votes of millions [or tens of millions] of Americans who rely on the policies implemented by Democrats – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the minimum wage, etc. – despite the fact that the Republicans are committed to undoing every one of those policies.

Now look, this makes no sense, does it?  I spend my life working for government programs I do not need and could survive quite well without, trying with pathetic eagerness to win the support of people who desperately need those programs and will be destitute without them.  As Thomas Frank memorably said in What’s the Matter With Kansas, the peasants grab their pitchforks, march on the castle, and shout loudly, “We have had it, we are fed up, we demand that you lower taxes on the rich!”

At this point, I returned home and took off my reflector vest, my hoodie, my scarf, my two pairs of mittens, my two sweaters, my thermal underwear, and had breakfast.  I will continue these reflections later.


Chris said...

"by and large, the Democratic Party defends programs and policies that protect and advance the interests of the least well-off Americans"

I see you quote Frank too, but perhaps you should read his newer book 'Listen Liberal' which is a damning indictment of the Democratic party, who after all under Clinton pushed through NAFTA, and deregulated wall street, which lead to direct loss of jobs in the very rust belt sector of the US that voted Trump over Clinton... So this dichotomy that the republican voter is voting for their very oppressors and ignoring their saviors is a false one.

David Palmeter said...

"The Democratic Party regularly receives the votes of millions of men and women who are doing quite nicely in the present grotesquely unequal economy – people like me, for example. The Republican Party regularly receives the votes of millions [or tens of millions] of Americans who rely on the policies implemented by Democrats – Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the minimum wage, etc. – despite the fact that the Republicans are committed to undoing every one of those policies."

This is the conundrum that I wrestle with. It makes no economic sense. I think the answer lies in the realm of culture and identity, but I'm unable to pin anything firmly down.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I find your comment genuinely mystifying, unless you think I need to be reminded of the inadequacies of the Democratic Party, which I do not believe for a moment. "Saviors" has nothing to do with it. It is transparently obvious that one has a better chance promoting genuinely progressive policies through the Democratic Party than through the Republican Party. A big influx of working class White voters into the Democratic Party demanding really progressive policies would enormously strengthen the hand of such people as Bernie Sanders. Who is strengthened by those voters voting Republican? Paul Ryan, who wants to phase out Social Security, medicare, and medicaid, and is opposed to a rise in the minimum wage. I understand that it makes you feel really good to write comments like that, but they simply have no rational strategy behind them. They are just feel-good "pox on both your houses" expressions of dismay at the reality of contemporary American politics. You can do better than that!

Jerry Fresia said...

Professor, what would be your response be to Bernie who said “I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from....” ?

Secondly, we no longer vote tickets and the notion of a "responsible" party may be long gone too. Also "open primaries" are suppose to be more democratic - an argument I have doubts about. Therefore, I think it may be muddying the waters to say in 2016, certainly at the national level, that the choice facing workers was between the Democrats and Republicans. Campaigns have become more and more the presentation and choice between two individuals - party programs, histories, and policies aside.

And while I do believe that the election was stolen by means of a variety of "election fraud" measures, HRC was just not a good candidate. An insightful article in this regard: It's Storytelling, Stupid: What Made Donald Trump Smarter Than Hillary Clinton

David Palmeter said...

Charles Lane wrote a column on the white working class for the Washington Post on Thursday. Here’s an interesting quote:

“A diverse society brings great benefits — social, cultural and economic. Urban Americans experience these daily. Life brims with new experiences, challenges, excitement, what an economist would call “positive externalities” of demographic change.

“Yet homogeneity has benefits too. In rural areas, or small towns, where everyone speaks the same language, or practices the same customs, life can be simpler, more predictable, less frictional. Economists call these “compositional amenities,” and many people value them above the benefits of diversity — even above economic gains.”
Trump’s strength in rural and small town America is consistent with Lane’s observation about “compositional amenities.”

Many of these were the places left behind by globalization and the modern economy. The Brexit vote in the UK was consistent with this as well. Younger, better educated voters (not enough of them) saw opportunity in the EU. They could pursue careers in 27 different countries. Older, less educated voters weren’t interested in career opportunities in 27 different countries. They wanted to preserve the opportunity they had at home.

“Compositional amenities” can serve as a nice euphemism for bigotry. As an American I immediately think race—and that surely was at work with some of those white working class votes for Trump. In the UK, though, it wasn’t race, at least in our sense of the word. It was “outsider,” those from other EU member states working in the UK. There was a wave of assaults on Poles working the UK after the Brexit vote. Same race. Different nationality. Different language.

s. wallerstein said...

Here's Brian Leiter on Clinton's relatively progressive electoral promises. They do seem a lot better than Trump's.

Chris said...

Professor Wolff,
Let me try to clarify and summarize my point. This wasn't a part election, it was an establishment versus anti establishment election. Given that those rust belt workers can easily see the Democratic establishment sold them out, they voted for an anti-establishment candidate who happened to be running on the Republican ticket. No?

Chris said...

Never mind I see Jerry said essentially what I was trying to say, but much better.