Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

AND YET AGAIN PIKETTY


I should like to return yet again to the Piketty, Saez, Zucman paper, about which I have written these past two days, because it is centrally important to my thinking about American politics, but first I must respond to the interesting questions posed by Michael S. concerning the turmoil in British politics [see the comments section on yesterday’s post.]  I realize that I am violating one of the sacred principles of blogging by saying this, but I simply do not know enough either about the British parliamentary system or about Brexit to have a coherent opinion regarding the possibility of a second referendum.  I could, of course, pontificate – what else, after all, is a Blog good for? – but I am so clueless on this issue that I would not even know which is the reliably left-wing side of the issue, let alone [as Michael S. asks] the anarchist position.  There, I have said it.  There are some things I just don’t know anything about.  I hope Google will not decommission my Blog as a consequence.

Without endlessly repeating myself, let me come back to the broad outlines of the Piketty et al. paper, and try in this post to think about what it tells us about the lived experiences of the several groupings on which it concentrates.  Specifically, how do the experiences of the Bottom 50th in the last two generations differ from those of the Middle 40th  to 90th?  I refer to “two generations” rather than a span of time [roughly 1980 to the present] because I am interested in what it is like to grow up and grow old in one or another of those segments of American society. 

Remember, the central and defining fact of human existence is the endlessly repeated life cycle:  birth, childhood, young adulthood, mature adulthood, old age [assuming you are fortunate enough to make it that far].  As Erik Erikson and many others have noted, our lived experience of what happens to us is powerfully shaped by what we learn to expect when we are young and then either have confirmed or disconfirmed by what happens to us as we grow older.

To those born roughly when my parents were young, in the years before the First World War, the defining experiences were that war, the boom years that followed, and then the Great Depression.  People of that generation could see the poverty and fragility of old age, and then experienced the threat of unemployment, only lifted by the Second World War.  The Social Security Administration was established in 1935, and by the time the war years were behind us, people were seeing the radical alteration in the arc of the life cycle that it brought.  Thirty years later, in 1965, Medicare began, and that, coupled with increases in life expectancy, transformed the expectations most people had of retirement and old age.  By the end of World War II, life expectancy in the U.S. was barely up to the age at which Social Security kicked in, although of course if you made it past early childhood the prospects were much better. 

Putting all of this together, we can conclude that children and young adults of the Bottom Half in the early ‘80s could see, looking around them, large numbers of grandparents and aging parents whose Golden Years were protected by Social Security and Medicare.  This was simply a part of the background expectation of their lives.  They did not think of these transfer programs, as economists like Piketty et al. do, as part of their income.  They took them for granted.  So when, for the next thirty years and more, their cash-in-pocket income either barely kept pace with inflation or actually declined, they did not say, “Ah, but we must take into account our future Social Security and Medicare.”  Instead, they felt things slipping away.  What is more, they completely lost the easy confidence of their parents that each generation would have things better than the generation just before.

The life experiences of the Middle Class, so called, were completely different.  Social Security for them was not the only thing between decent old age and desperate poverty.  Rather, it was a convenient add-on to pensions, investments, and other protections of the non-earning phase of the life cycle. 

The Bottom Half watched as politicians ceased to concern themselves with their needs and anxieties, and instead spoke endlessly, obsessively, about a Middle Class of which they were not really members.  To be sure, for reasons of race, White members of the Bottom Half identified themselves as “Middle Class,” by which for the most part they meant “Not Black.” But they were not really part of that ever-better-off 50th to 90th, and they knew it.
As has happened so often before in many, many countries, they turned their anger not on the 50th to 90th, whose life chances continued to improve, nor on the Top 10th, whose wealth soared into the stratosphere, but on the Black and Brown fellow Bottom Halfians, who by and large were doing even worse than they.

These are the realities that have shaped American politics for two generations.  Even Bernie’s clarion call for Free College spoke to the burdens of debt of the 35% of Americans who earn college degrees, or maybe to the 55% who start college, whether they finish or not.  It had nothing to say to the thirty-five or forty percent or more who never enroll.

The challenge we on he left face is to craft an integrated program of legislative proposals designed to alter the basic 50/40/10 shape of the American economy.  Clearly it will require major inroads into the already accumulated and relentlessly accumulating wealth of the top 10%, but it will as well require breaking down the division between the next 40% and the bottom 50%.

I do not have a clear vision of what those proposals might be, and I welcome discussion from all of you reading this blog.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

MORE THOUGHTS

Yesterday, I discussed an extremely important essay by Piketty, Saez, and Zucman.  Today, I want to quote several passages, and comment on their significance for American politics.  [By the way, I had no recollection of having read it before and having linked to it on August 31 of this year!  Clearly, I am losing it.  I mean, it is amusing when I discover in my files something I wrote thirty years ago and have since forgotten I wrote, but this is ridiculous.  Maybe it is not such a bad thing that I am in an old people’s home.]

Here are three passages, each from the last pages of the essay.

(1)  p. 601   “In 2014, payroll taxes amount to 11.3% of pretax income, significantly above the next largest items—federal and state income taxes, 6.6% of pretax income, and sales taxes, 4.7%.  Although payroll taxes finance transfers—Social Security and Medicare—that go in part to the bottom 50%, their increase contributes to the stagnation of the posttax income of working-age bottom 50% Americans.”

So in effect, the payroll taxes paid by the lowest waged half of the population are going to subsidize the improvements experienced by the better off half.  In short, this is massively regressive taxation.

(2)  Also from p. 601 “Transfers. One major evolution in the U.S. economy over the past 50 years is the rise of individualized transfers—monetary and more importantly in-kind.  While public goods spending has remained constant around 18% of national income, transfers— other than Social Security, disability, and unemployment insurance, which are already included in pretax income—have increased from about 2% of national income in 1960 to close to 11% today. The two largest transfers are Medicare (4% of national income in 2014) and Medicaid (3.4%); other important transfers include refundable tax credits (0.8%), veterans’ benefits 0.6%), and food stamps (0.5%).  Overall, individualized transfers tend to be targeted to the middle class. …  Despite Medicaid and other means-tested programs which entirely go to the bottom 50%, the middle 40% receives larger transfers than the bottom 50% Americans, in particular because Medicare largely goes to the middle-class. In 2014, the bottom 50% received the equivalent of 10.5% of per-adult national income, the middle-class received more—14%—and the top 10% received less—about 8%.”

(3)  p. 603  “The middle class appears as the main winner of redistribution: while it receives growing individualized transfers, its effective tax rate has remained stable at around 30% since the late 1960s. Transfers have played a key role in enabling its income to grow in recent years.  Without transfers average income for the middle 40% would not have grown at all from 1999 to 2014. In fact it grew 8%, thanks to an increase of 32% in transfers received excluding Social Security. Tax credits—the 2008 Economic Stimulus Payments, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, the Making Work Pay Tax Credit, and Health Insurance Premium Assistance Credits (in the context of the Affordable Care Act)—played a particularly important role during the Great Recession. Without transfers the average income of the middle class would have fallen by 11% between 2007 and 2009; thanks to transfers the decline was limited to 3%.  In contrast, given the dynamic in their pretax income, transfers have not been sufficient to enable bottom 50% incomes to grow significantly.”

Read these three passages carefully and then think about the rhetoric and the policy priorities of the Democratic Party in the last several election cycles.  Democratic candidates talk incessantly about “the Middle Class,” and their policy proposals deal with the sorts of transfer payment programs that have benefitted the 50th to 90th percentiles of the American population.  Their efforts have been successful, as the statistical analysis of this essay demonstrates, both in making possible increases in real posttax income for that 50-90% income group over the past two generations and, equally important, in cushioning the blows of economic downturns for the same group.   No one in American politics has been looking out for the bottom half of the population.

All of this long predates the faux populism of Trump and, unless there are major changes in existing transfer programs, will continue unaltered after he passes from the scene.  The Democratic Party has survived, and perhaps is even flourishing, essentially by pursuing policies that help that “middle” group from the 50th to the 90th percentile, while being visibly non-racist and non-sexist, which brings to its support millions of Americans who are not actually very much helped economically by its policies.

Limiting ourselves to the politically possible, as opposed to the ideologically desirable, what policies might the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party embrace in an effort actually to help the bottom 50%?  It is not hard to think of some, in fact.  Here are four:

Raise the wage limit on social security taxes and use the additional monies to decrease the tax on the first 30 or 40 thousand dollars of earned income.

Dramatically raise the minimum wage so that, adjusted for inflation, it at least recaptures what it has lost to inflation over the past thirty years.

Medicare for all, with the cost means tested so as to constitute a transfer payment from the top 50% to the bottom 50%.

Cancel the recent tax decreases for the rich and impose new inheritance taxes to pay for the rise in transfer payments to the bottom 50%.

If we are serious about our socialist longings, we need to take Piketty, Saez, and Zucman to heart and shape our policy priorities accordingly.

Monday, December 10, 2018

WHAT TO DO ON A SNOWY DAY


As you may have read, the southland was hit by a snowstorm yesterday, and at 2 p.m. or so, while Susie and I were working on the jigsaw puzzle in the lobby, the power went out [a falling tree limb hit a power line.]  Each of the buildings in my retirement home is supposed to have an emergency generator, but the switch-over mechanism in the generator for Building 5 was faulty, so we were pretty soon without any power at all, even for the elevator.  I went door to door in my building, checking on everyone to make sure they were o.k. [as I have mentioned, the office of Precinct Representative for Building 5 is the only thing I have ever been elected to, and I take my duties seriously.]  Then Susie and I ate in the main dining room while the generator was being fixed and afterward, guided only by the flashlight built into my IPhone, we fed the cat and went to bed, even though it was only 6 p.m.  The apartment was quickly getting colder [no heat] and there did not seem to be anything else to do.  At 7:05, just as we were drifting off to sleep, the power came back, lights went on, and I got up to reset all the clocks.

The power is still on, but we got a good deal of snow and freezing rain which continues as I write, so today I am snowbound.  Early this morning, as I surfed the web, checking the NY TIMES and the Washington Post, I came across an Op Ed by the economist Robert Samuelson, with an arresting tagline:  We’ve become addicted to the income stagnation story. It’s probably not true.”  Seeing as how I am one of those addicted, I thought I had better read the column.  In it, I found a link to a new article by Thomas Piketty and others ostensibly providing evidence for Samuelson’s claim. Well, readers of this blog are aware that I was very impressed with Thomas Piketty’s book, CAPITAL in the Twenty-First Century, even going so far four and a half years ago as to write a four-part 9,000 word review, so I followed the link, and have spent the past two hours reading a fascinating and very lengthy essay published in the QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ECONOMICS for May, 2018, entitled DISTRIBUTIONAL NATIONAL ACCOUNTS: METHODS AND ESTIMATES FOR THE UNITED STATES, by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman.  I don’t know what Samuelson has been smoking, as we used to say back in the day, but the essay by Piketty, Saez, and Zucman presents a detailed and, I think, politically very important story of American income stagnation in the past thirty-five years.  My aim in this brief blog post is to tell you a bit of what I learned from the essay.  If this is a subject that interests you, I strongly urge you to read the entire thing.  You can find it here.

The focus of Piketty’s 2014 book was the growth, or rather the re-emergence, world-wide of extreme inequality of income and wealth, with most of the attention on the top 1%, or 0.1%, or 0.01%, or even 0.001%.  The new essay deals with trends in income across the board in America, not just among the rich.  The authors divide the American population into three groups:  the Bottom 50%, the “Middle Class,” identified as the 50th to the 90th percentiles, and the rich – the top 10%. 

Now, it is, if you think about it, extremely peculiar to call those in the 50th-90th percentiles “the middle class.”  Surely it would make more sense to call those, say, in the 30th-70th percentiles “Middle.”  But the authors have a method in their methodological madness, and it is, I think, deeply and deliberately political.

If I may summarize 50 pages of statistics, diagrams, and methodological cautions in a phrase, Piketty et al. show that in the last thirty-five years in America, the bottom half has stagnated, the 40% above them have done well enough to make them feel that the system is working for them, and the rich have made out like gangbusters.

The authors are able to break the statistics down so that they can track income pre- and post-tax, income by age, and even income by gender.  The post-tax income includes government transfers and redistributions, principally, but not solely, in the form of Social Security payments and Medicare and Medicaid.  They are able to show that whatever post-tax improvement there is over the years in the income of the Bottom 50% can be traced almost entirely to Social Security and Medicare.

What does all of this mean for politics?  [You realize that I am rushing past vast quantities of fascinating and important detail.  You really must read the essay yourselves.]  Well, think of it in human terms, as I think Piketty and company intend us to do.  For more than thirty years, fully half of American adults have seen no material improvement in their life chances and experiences.  They are better off when they get old – indeed, in real terms, they are sometimes better off old than when they were young – and that means, among other things, that when they are in middle life, they are not burdened with caring for their indigent parents.  But they have no reason to think that their children will be better off than they are.  What is more, they can see all around them that the “Middle Class” is in fact doing better and better, which is manifestly and infuriatingly unfair.

Piketty has some statistics about the higher educational credentials of those in one or another of the three groups, and not at all surprisingly, those in that 50th to 90th group are far more likely to possess those credentials than those in the Bottom 50%.

There really are Three Americas.  The authors do not present any statistics on intergenerational mobility, but it is almost certainly the case that upward mobility depends heavily on education, which in turn depends on the income level of the parents. 

The adult American population probably numbers around 200 million [the authors count those 20 and older as adult, rather than those 18 and older], so we are talking about one hundred million men and women whose life chances have been essentially flat since Reagan was elected.

The political implications of this simple fact are enormous.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

WEATHER REPORT


No walk this morning.  Down here in North Carolina, home of Republican voter fraud, we are snowed in.  It will be days before I can drive, let alone take my morning walk.  So naturally, like any obsessive news junkie, I have been listening non-stop to the commentary on Mueller’s court filings this last week, along with that of the Southern District of New York.  Mueller’s documents were rather disappointing, inasmuch as they contained fewer juicy details than hoped for.  There was a good deal of discussion of the fact that the Southern District’s filing identified Trump as having committed a felony, but the felony was violation of laws regulating campaign finances, and no one thinks that is really big news.  So the commentators were reduced to picking over the unredacted portions of the documents for hints and clues of what Mueller has on Trump.

I will leave that exercise to the experts, of whom there is no shortage on MSNBC and CNN.  Rather, I would like instead to hark back to the July 2018 indictment of a dozen Russian GRU officers handed up by Mueller’s Grand Jury.  That was one of the most extraordinary public documents I have ever read, and it tells me more about what Mueller has on Trump than any of the hints and winks and nods of last week’s filings.

The July indictment made it clear that Mueller knew what the Russians did.  He knew exactly to the minute when they did it.  He knew their names.  He knew their ranks.  He knew the addresses where they worked.  He knew their login IDs.  He knew whom they were talking to.  I suspect he knew what they ate and when they took bathroom breaks.  And he knew all this in Russian!

Can anyone have the slightest doubt that Mueller has at least as much detailed knowledge about the doings of Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Ivanka Trump, or Donald J. Trump himself?

Were these folks, and many others besides, part of a conspiracy to defraud the United States government, as defined by the statutes?  I would be happy to place a money bet that they were, and that Mueller can prove it.

Two final points, called to our attention by Rachel Maddow.  First, the court filing says Trump stood to make “hundreds of millions of dollars” from the Moscow Trump Tower” project that was the focus of many of the Trump/Russia communications through the middle of 2016.  For many years now, Trump has been signing leasing deals lending his name to real estate projects around the world.  These leasing deals have been paying him one, two, maybe five million each.  The Moscow deal was several orders of magnitude larger than anything he had been engaged in.  We may be sure he knew absolutely everything that was done in furtherance of the deal.

Second, the Russian bank designated as the lending agent for the project is a bank under sanctions by the U. S. government and hence ineligible to underwrite the Moscow project.  That, almost certainly, is why Trump was on board with lifting sanctions.

Stay tuned.

Friday, December 7, 2018

WHAT IS ETHICS? OR IS IT WHAT ARE ETHICS?


Let me add a few words about a subject on which Jerry Fresia, David Palmeter, and S. Wallerstein have had something to say.

Over the past two and a half millennia, there have been three broad sets of questions addressed by philosophers under the general heading of Ethics or Moral Philosophy.  The earliest question, very much front and center in the writings of Plato, is “What is the nature of the good life?”  The Greeks themselves offered an array of answers:  A life of reason uncontaminated by passion or desire;  A life in which desire has its place but is subordinated to reason;  A life free of pain;  A life that includes as much pleasure as possible [these last two pessimistic and optimistic versions of the same answer];  A life of honor.

The second question, quite different from the first is, roughly:  Is there a rule or a technique by the use of which we can make hard decisions in which it is not clear what we ought to do because there are weighty considerations or strong arguments sending us in opposed directions?  The ethical theory known as Utilitarianism is the best known answer to this question.  It offers some hope of transforming moral disagreements into processes of calculation.  Not surprisingly, its deployment most often occurs in debates about public policy rather than in private deliberations about individual action.  Bentham and Mill, in the English speaking philosophical community, are the names most often associated with this view.

The third question, identified with Kant, is:  “Can we find a moral principle binding on all rational agents as such for which a persuasive argument can be given entirely a priori, and hence grounded in reason alone?

In the jargon that has become widespread among academic philosophers, these three approaches are labeled Virtue Ethics, Teleological Ethics, and Deontological Ethics.  Since they seek answers to three quite different questions, they do not exactly stand in opposition to one another.  It is not at all odd to argue about what the correct answer is to a question once it has been asked, but it is, I should think, a trifle odd to argue about what question ought to be asked. 

Plato’s Dialogues, particularly the early and middle ones, present us with brilliant images of individuals who, in their life choices and modes of self-presentation, embody competing visions of the Good Life.  Although the Dialogues are filled with arguments – indeed they seem to consist of nothing but – in the end I think it is Plato’s genius to elicit from us the response “Ah, yes, Socrates is the sort of person I should strive to be if only I have the courage and the honesty to do it.”

Bentham and Mill leave us thinking, “Ah, that is a good way to resolve hard cases and determine, taking all in all, how we ought as a community to choose and act.”

And Kant inspires in at least some of us the thought, “Now I understand the grounds and justification for what I already believed I ought to do.”  Indeed, he said that the Moral Law is no more than a formal statement of the old rule, Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.



Thursday, December 6, 2018

IMPEACHMENT

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote wisely, "When you strike at a king, you must kill him."  Until there are twenty Republican senators ready to vote to remove Trump from office, it would be madness for the House to impeach him.  What would move those senators to vote for conviction?  Only the clear-eyed judgment that their personal survival in the 2020 election requires it.  Nothing else.  Will that time come?  It is too soon to tell.

LIT CRIT


In response to my brief response to MS, anonymous writes “Is it possible to disagree with a literary critic? It seems that they refuse to accept that a text may be uninteresting, despite the often considerable effort devoted to its interpretation. Do they make any falsifiable statements at all?”  Absent an accompanying emoji, it is difficult to determine in what tone of voice this question is asked, but since it raises some interesting issues, I will respond as though it was a genuine request for an answer.

Let me begin by distancing myself from the high priests of Lit Crit who, in a desperate grasp for dominance, have advanced the absurd view that a text is indeterminate and hence their interpretation of it is more important than the text itself.  I sympathize with their dilemma, which is that they spend their entire careers discussing the productions of creative types and yet themselves never create anything original at all.  For a senior tenured member of an elite private university, this must be a terrible blow to the ego.  But though I feel for them, I cannot take their claims seriously.

Do literary critics make any falsifiable statements at all, asks anonymous.  Well, the simple answer is that of course they may very possibly do so.  A literary critic who calls John Steinberg the finest English satirist of the earlier eighteenth century can reasonably be said to have mistaken Steinberg for Swift, perhaps because of the similarity of their first names.  And another who describes War and Peace as a trenchant Spanish novella has also clearly gone astray.

But that is not what anonymous means.  He [?] means, are their literary analyses factual assertions capable of falsification?  Are they aesthetic judgments answerable to some defensible norms of interpretation?  Or with them, as the Cole Porter song says, is it that Anything Goes?

To answer this question, we need to be a bit clearer about the function of literary [or musical] criticism, or indeed of any sort of aesthetic criticism.  Opinions differ, needless to say, but my own view is as follows.

The primary activity in the field of art is the creative effort of the artist.  That effort produces a poem, a tragedy, a novel, a painting, a sculpture, a carving, a dance, a symphony, a song, or some other object or action or installation that is intended as an act or product of creativity.  The work of art may be offered to an audience to be experienced, appreciated, enjoyed, reviled, exalted, condemned, or whatever. 

There is no limit to what can count as art, and there is no authority who gets to say what is and what is not real art.  Some efforts to create art will be welcomed and enjoyed, celebrated and revered by others.  Some efforts will, as David Hume said of his immortal Treatise, “fall stillborn from the presses.”  Some will never be recognized as art by anyone else, and some may even not be intended to be shared with anyone other than the creator.

The function of the literary critic, insofar as literary critics have any function at all, is to say things about a work of literary art that readers or listeners may find illuminating, insightful [or inciteful], helpful, amusing, profound, scholarly, shrewd.  At its best, literary criticism may improve the experience of reading a text.  At its worst, literary criticism can all but ruin a reader’s enjoyment of a text.

Think of literary critics as akin to those audio guides that some museums offer to their visitors, for a price.  If you want someone’s opinion of what you are looking at, rent one.  But there is nothing stopping you from simply walking through the galleries on your own.

My interpretation of The Color Purple was offered in that spirit.  If you find it suggestive, I am gratified, but for heaven’s sake, do not view it as a substitute for reading the novel!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

IN REPLY TO MS

No, the essay on The Color Purple has not been revised.  Why then re-post it?  For two reasons.  First, because I like it.  I wrote it, and I like it.  So I re-posted it.  Second, because the two previous postings elicited only one comment, which was not really on point, and hope springs eternal.  I trust it is obvious that no one is required to read what I post even the first time.  If I had been so inspired as to compose the B-Minor Mass, I would whistle it whenever I got the chance [although I believe, sadly, that Bach never heard it performed.  I think it was salvaged from the ash heap of history by Mendelssohn.]

Monday, December 3, 2018

THE COLOR PURPLE


Two Observations on the Structure and Voice of The Color Purple

First Note:

Since its publication in 1982, Alice Walker's The Color Purple has attracted a good deal of critical commentary in addition to a wide general audience.  The MLA International Bibliography lists better than half a hundred journal articles and contributions to books, and there have, in addition, been a number of significant extended discussions in books devoted to Afro-American literature, among them The Afro-American Novel and its Traditions, by Bernard Bell, The Signifying Monkey by Henry Louis Gates, and Inspiriting Influences by Michael Awkward.

Commentators have focused on several themes, including, most notably, Walker's relation to Zora Neale Hurston in general and Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular, on Walker's use of vernacular speech, and on the themes of lesbianism, male violence toward females, and the refiguring of Christian religiosity.  But although several commentators have discussed Walker's use of the epistolary genre, almost no attention has been paid to the purely formal and structural aspects of The Color Purple.  The purpose of these brief observations is to call attention to certain striking formal or structural features of Walker's novel, in an effort to complicate somewhat our reading of it. 

The Color Purple consists of a single line of direct discourse, uttered, we assume, by the man whom the main character, Celie, knows as Pa, followed by a series of ninety-two letters, several of which are embedded within other letters, and five of which are somewhat ambiguously introduced by a comment from Celie, italicized.  Fifty-five of the letters are written by Celie to God [or "G-o-d" in one case];  twenty-two are written by Celie's sister, Nettie, to Celie;  fourteen are written by Celie to Nettie; and the last letter is addressed by Celie "Dear God.  Dear stars, dear trees, dear sky, dear peoples.  Dear Everything.  Dear God."

[The opening line of direct discourse, for those who do not recall or have not read the novel, is:  "You better not never tell nobody but God.  It'd kill your mammy.]

The first fifty-five of Celie's letters to God are unsigned.  Now, a letter to God is, in the Christian tradition in which Celie is situated, a prayer.  And the appropriate ending for a prayer is the expression of affirmation, "Amen."  So the absence of the word "amen" from these fifty-five letters can be taken by us, I think, as Walker's formal expression of Celie's inability to affirm or accept or consent to the God in whom she has been told by Pa to confide.  She writes the prayers, but she is unable to bring them to a satisfactory, and satisfied, closure.

In Celie's forty-ninth letter to God is embedded Nettie's first letter to her.  There follow fourteen more letters from Nettie to Celie, interspersed with Celie's letters to God, until, in her fifty-fifth letter, Celie packs it in with God.  "You must be sleep," she writes abruptly.  Now she turns her epistolary attentions to Nettie.  Her first letter to Nettie is unsigned, but Nettie's sixteenth letter to Celie, which comes next in the series, ends with the injunction "Pray for us."  Celie's very next letter, her second to Nettie, begins with the flat, dramatic announcement, "I don't write to God no more, I write to you."  And this letter, in which Celie reports an extended conversation with Shug in which her conception of God is radically called into question, is signed "Amen"!  Celie is finally able to utter this word, though only as an affirmation of her relationship with her sister, not as an affirmation of God's presence.

Celie now writes six more letters to Nettie signed "Amen," [including the fourth in the series, in which we get the characteristic call-and-response of the Black church, "Amen, say Shug.  Amen, amen."]  In the ninth letter to Nettie, Celie announces that Pa is dead, and this letter is not signed "Amen," nor are any of the subsequent letters to Nettie.

At the very end of the novel, after Celie has written herself into existence as a sexually, morally, and socially complete woman;  after she has gathered about her the whole extended family of players in her complex, self-assured psycho-drama; after her proper sister Nettie has returned from her brush with Spelman College, W. E. B. DuBois, President Tubman, Africa, missionary work, New York, and all the other icons and symbols of socially acceptable Negro upward mobility -- in short, after Walker has established dramatically that true self-discovery requires the courageous taking possession of an authentic authorial voice, and after Celie has successfully recreated God in a form suitable to be the object and recipient of prayer, NOW Celie can finally undertake and complete the act of prayer.  And so we get the final letter of the novel, which is indeed a prayer to God, concluded by the word "Amen."

A few words about this analysis before I move on to the second Note.  The Color Purple is an epistolary novel, which is to say a novel consisting of a series of letters.  Every doctoral student in any English Literature program learns that the epistolary form was the first form of the novel, exemplified by the classic eighteenth century novels of Samuel Richardson, Pamela, Clarissa, and Sir Charles Grandison.  [I never studied English Literature, but I was married for twenty-three years to a distinguished scholar of the subject, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, whose doctoral dissertation was on Samuel Richardson, later published as Samuel Richardson and the Eighteenth Century Puritan Character, so I absorbed all of this as pillow talk, as it were.]  Now, for as long as I can recall, scholars of literature have been alerted to the significance of the formal structural features of works of fiction or poetry, and they are forever explaining to naive readers that one cannot really understand what a novel is about unless one pays attention to narrative voice and all the rest of that stuff.  For a late twentieth century author to adopt the form of the epistolary novel is a clear signal to any sophisticated reader that something important is happening here to which attention must be paid.  It is simply astonishing that not one of the extremely sophisticated critics I have cited even so much as asks the question, "Why did Walker choose to write an epistolary novel?"  These critics would never make the mistake of failing to examine the form of Joyce's Ulysses or Finnegan's Wake.  Indeed, they would not even make the mistake of failing to ask such questions about Invisible Man.  So why on earth did they not ask it about The Color Purple?

I really do think there is only one possible answer.  The Color Purple is a novel by a Black woman in which themes of lesbianism and abusive treatment of Black women by Black men come up.  It just never occurs to the critics, including such sophisticated writers as Henry Louis Gates, that Walker might actually be a thoughtful, self-aware, intelligent author whose authorial choices are made deliberately for some deliberate artistic purpose.

Second Note:

A number of commentators on The Color Purple have written critically or disparagingly about the contrast between the power and immediacy of Celie's narration and the stilted formality of Nettie's letters, with their implausibly proper English and lengthy, tedious, quasi-Ethnographic accounts of the African people in whose midst she spends so many years as a missionary.  Once again, in this day of super-sophistication about matters of literary voice, none of the commentators has thought to ask why Walker, who clearly has the authorial skill to create the compelling voice of Celie, chooses to conjure so unappealing a voice as that of Nettie.  Walker's choice may, of course, be a literary mistake, but it is manifestly impossible that it is a mere accident or oversight.

There are some clues in Nettie's letters to which we ought to pay attention in our attempt to discover Walker's aims.  Consider first of all the contrast in diction and grammar of the two sets of letters.  These are sisters, after all, raised in the same household and educated, such as may be, in the same school.  Yet one writes in a direct, forceful, compelling, semi-literate dialect, and the other writes in stilted, educated, boring correct English.  Later on, I will suggest that this is one of the clues to what the novel is about, what its message is, but for the moment, let us simply note that since Walker wrote both sets of letters, she could perfectly well have made Nettie's letters as compelling as Celie's, had she chosen to do so.

The letters written by Celie exhibit a subtle progressive development, whereas those written by Nettie might all have been written at the same time.  One example will suffice.  Celie always refers to the man to whom she has been married as "Mr. -----."  In the earlier letters, she consistently misuses the possessive case, writing "Mr. ----- children" on page 25 or "Mr. ---- daddy" on page 58.  Then, in the dramatic and pivotal letter to Nettie, in which she announces that she is not writing to God any longer, she uses it correctly. -- "Mr. ----'s evil" on page 179, thereby signifying linguistically a growth in self-command and assurance.  Nettie, on the other hand, uses the possessive correctly from the very beginning -- see her second letter, p. 119 -- "the Reverend Mr. ----'s place."

Nettie follows a path in the novel that is stereotypically the correct path -- what today we would call, in a different context, P.C.  She leaves the rural South, goes North, becomes involved with Christian missionaries off to do good works in Africa.  The couple she joins are virtually a caricature -- the woman, Corinne, went to Spelman Institute [later Spelman College];  her husband, Samuel, met the young W. E. B. DuBois.  The two of them met President Tubman in Liberia [which, as it happens, is historically impossible.  Tubman did not become president of Liberia until much later.]  Nettie's letters are filled with pseudo-anthropological accounts of African customs -- in which, incidentally, can be found striking parallels to Celie's life, marked by direct and unmistakable verbal echoes.  [One example:  Nettie says of the Olinka:  "There is a way that men speak to women that reminds me too much of Pa.  They listen just long enough to issue instructions."  Celie, in one of her letters, says "I know white people never listen to coloured, period,  If they do, they only listen long enough to be able to tell you what to do."]

One would expect Nettie, who has escaped from the degradation of her childhood, to return and take Celie away to Harlem at the end of the novel.  Instead, Walker inverts the expected conclusion by having Celie gather Nettie and the rest of her extended "family" about her at the end of the novel.  It is Celie, not Nettie, who has actually taken the longest and most productive journey.  Surely, it seems to me, this central structural feature of the novel must signal Walker's rejection of [or, as they say in literary circles, revision of] the dominant literary tradition and dominant theses of the Harlem literary renaissance.  I am not simply calling attention to Walker's reversal or revision of the representation of male and female roles within the Afro-American literary tradition.  At stake here too is the role of the rural South versus the urban North, etc.  What is especially interesting is that Walker, the person, followed Nettie's path, but she has written a novel in which Celie is the compelling central figure.

In short, a great deal is going on in the Color Purple, as in any novel.  But it seems clear from these elementary facts about the formal structure of the work that Walker has chosen to write a story about the process by which a Black woman can achieve the possibility of successful prayer, and at the same time, to call into question standard evaluative assumptions within the Afro-American literary tradition about the centrality of the Southern rural experience and the Northern flowering of the Harlem Renaissance.  It is also possible that attention to these formal features of the novel will help readers to resist the temptation to construe it as a naive expression of Walker's unmediated attitudes toward Lesbianism or the mistreatment of Black women by Black men.

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT IRONY


Judging by the responses to my post on irony the day before yesterday, I seem to have struck a nerve.  Irony is not a smirk or a sneer or the verbal version of an emoji.  It is a complex literary form, and since I consider ironic communication in particular, and the subject of the political implications of the structure of language more generally, to be quite important, I am going to try once more to explain what I have in mind. 

As many, many writers have shown us, central to the ideological justifications of slavery, of colonial rule, and of exploitation generally is the belief that the victims of these oppressions are inferior, not fully human, incapable of the refined, sophisticated, advanced modes of thought and expression that the powerful congratulate themselves on exhibiting.  I was made aware of these themes by my sixteen years in an Afro-American Studies Department, but I could as easily have learned them from the writings of Edward Said or Franz Fanon, among others.  Just last Tuesday, in the Columbia course Todd Gitlin and I are teaching, we discussed Charles Mills’ brilliant book, The racial Contract, which deploys this idea as a critique of the entire modern tradition of social contract theory in Political Science and Philosophy.

To be fully human is to have a self-understanding complex enough to include a conscious recognition of the ways in which one may be understood or misunderstood by others, especially by those occupying a different position in the social structure of power.  Irony is a mode of communication through which one can articulate that recognition, as I explained in my previous post.  It is not the only way, of course, but it is an extremely compact way of doing so.  Masters cannot allow themselves to recognize that slaves are speaking ironically, because to do so would require acknowledging the slaves as fully human, and that would undermine the rationale for what is otherwise a manifestly unjust social and economic institution.  The same blindness affects colonial rulers, even when, as in India, they have conquered and dominate a people with an immeasurably older and more complex culture.

Some years ago I wrote, but never published, a short analysis of the famous novel The Color Purple and of what I considered the failure of the academic literature on the novel to come to terms with its genuine sophistication.  Since that short essay illustrates what I am trying to say, and may as well be of interest in its own right, I shall post it after posting this brief addendum to my remarks on irony.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

41


The television news is now wall-to-wall fond remembrances of the life and presidency of George Herbert Walker Bush, so naturally I have been thinking about the transition to socialism and how it could go down.  [Pretty clearly, anything from a Marx Brothers festival to a root canal can get me thinking about the transition to socialism.]  For purposes of this post, let us assume that we do not mean full frontal socialism – collective ownership of the means of production and all that jazz – but rather what now passes for Democratic Socialism in these parts:  single payer health care, high national minimum wage, punitive death taxes on the rich, large scale redistribution of wealth, protections for unions, environmentally friendly clean energy, free education through college, and lots and lots of local and regional cooperatives.  In short, Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Octavia-Cortez on steroids.

How might all of this actually come about?  Well, not by way of violent revolution, that’s for sure.  First of all, America is awash in guns, more of them than people apparently, and most of them are in the hands of those opposed to these proposed changes.  And secondly, the most efficient part of the federal bureaucracy is the military.  So it is going to have to be the good old fashioned way, by elections, legislation, and the enforcement of duly enacted laws.

Now, I actually think this is a possibility, although that may just be my inner Tigger asserting itself, but let us be realistic.  In addition to the united opposition of the entire capitalist base and much of its superstructure, we will face opposition from a very large segment of the voting public, even if [and this is my optimism showing again] not a majority.

But even if we win a landslide election and take over the House, the Senate, and the Presidency, long experience suggests that at some point, after we have introduced our revolutionary transformation of American economy and society, we will lose an election, and the forces of darkness will come to power.  The transition to socialism is not a movie with a triumphant conclusion followed by a roll of the credits as the houselights come up.  It is an unending struggle to make progress and then hang on to as much of it as we can until the wheel turns again and we come to power once more.

Which brings me back to George Herbert Walker Bush.  Many of us are permanently outraged by the obscene policies pursued by our government during our lifetime.  Some of these policies have been exploitative, some have been reactionary, some clearly qualify as war crimes.  Bush 41, as he is known, is not the worst president of my lifetime, but he is very far from the best.  And yet I am invited now to celebrate his life, ooh and aah at his relationship with his wife [who was, of course, known as “the enforcer” in the family], and in general during this time of official mourning adopt the old Roman rule de mortuis nil nisi bonum [of the dead say nothing but good.]  Is this any way for an aspiring socialist to act? 

Alas, I think it is.  Inasmuch as the forces of established order are against us, our best protection is the American custom of making transitions from one administration to the next without throwing the outgoing administration in jail.  They may deserve it, but we sure don’t, and that custom is the only protection we have when the wheel turns, as it surely will.

So, suck it up and smile as the talking heads remember good old 41.  Either that, or find a plausible basketball game, as I did last night [Stanford led Kansas by ten at the half but fell short.]

AS YUM-YUM SAYS IN THE MIKADO


Here’s a how-de-do.  Things have gotten out of hand in this little-noted corner of the blogosphere, and it is time for me to take steps, as they say. 

Some history is called for.  I launched The Philosopher’s Stone in April, 2007 when I was still an active member of the UMass faculty, but it was not until June 1, 2009, after I had retired and moved to North Carolina, that I began posting regularly.  Nine and a half years later, this blog has acquired a small but seemingly loyal readership.  Google records between 1000 and 1500 views a day, and although some people apparently check in many times a day, a larger number visit only sporadically.  When Brian Leiter links to the blog, viewership spikes to three or four thousand for a day or two and then settles down.

At first, words poured out of me like anti-freeze from a leaky radiator.  I had only published two books in the preceding twenty years, and it seemed I had a great deal left to say.  I took to posting lengthy segments almost daily, and in the next several years, I wrote and put on line a 260,000 word autobiography, a book-length tutorial on The Use and Abuse of Formal Methods in Political Theory, and several hefty volumes of twenty or thirty thousand word Tutorials, shorter Mini-Tutorials, and even shorter Appreciations.  Eventually I ran dry and began the more common practice of posting daily comments on the passing scene.

Things puttered along in satisfactory fashion for many years, but a while back [six months ago? longer?] the comments section of the blog, which had been a rather friendly and lightly used part of the blog structure, altered almost unrecognizably.  A small circle of readers, no more than half a dozen, began posting longer and longer comments, many only tangentially related to my posts at best.  Let me emphasize that these long comments were almost all of them intelligent, thoughtful, and knowledgeable.  But they seemed to have nothing much to do with The Philosopher’s Stone.

I was dismayed by this, I confess.  As I observed, it felt as though my blog had been hi-jacked.  I remained silent for a while, then tried gently on-line and in emails to suggest that this was not entirely appropriate.  But to no avail.

I will be honest.  As I approach my eighty-fifth birthday, now only three and a half weeks away, this blog has ceased being fun.  Now, eighty-five is pretty old, but I am not ready to hang it up and decline into senescence.  So I am going to take steps.  I propose that the small circle of readers whose comments now make up ninety percent or more of the total wordage of the comments section set up their own blog and continue their debates and discussions there, not here.  It is quite easy, and completely free.  Google provides the structure and helpful hints, and I assure you all, if I could do it, anyone can.

If they do not, I am going to selectively delete their lengthy discourses.  They are of course welcome to continue joining in the discussion here if they can keep what they say relevant and relatively brief.  But I am going to insist that everyone reading the blog be given a chance to participate without having to navigate a blizzard of words.

I am saddened to take this step, but it is, after all, my blog, my web log, and I would like the next ten years to be as much fun for me as the last ten have been.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

IRONY


I have long thought that the distinction between Appearance and Reality is the fundamental idea on which all Philosophy builds.  It lies at the core of Plato’s Dialogues and everything that comes after.  Plato expresses the distinction, especially in the early Dialogues, by means of the literary trope of Irony.  Irony is a mode of discourse that presupposes a double audience:  the Apparent Audience, which mistakenly thinks that it is the intended recipient of the utterance, and a Real Audience.  The utterance has two meanings, but what distinguishes irony from mere ambiguity is that whereas the Apparent Audience understands only the apparent or superficial meaning, the Real Audience understands both the apparent and the real meanings, and knows that the Apparent Audience mistakes the apparent for the real meaning.  Thus, in a sense, the ironic utterance is a private joke between the speaker and the Real Audience at the expense of the Apparent Audience.  The classic example is Socrates’ statement, to a visiting public intellectual, Gorgias, that he, Socrates, does not understand the nature of Rhetoric, and hopes that Gorgias will enlighten him.

Ironic discourse recurs often in the Dialogues, perhaps most movingly in the Crito.  As Socrates sits in jail waiting to be put to death, he is visited by one of his followers, Crito, a middle-aged businessman desperate to get Socrates out of harm’s way.  He has arranged to bribe the jailors to turn a blind eye while Socrates escapes, and he begs Socrates to take advantage of this arrangement and flee.  Crito’s well-meant effort is for Socrates a devastating blow, for it shows that he has failed in his effort to enlighten his disciples.  Sadly and gently, like a parent who soothes a frightened child by repeating a familiar bedtime story, Socrates reminds Crito of their old discussions about the individual and the state, all the while aware that he will once more fail to enlighten Crito.  In this case, we, the readers, are the Real Audience, Plato, the author, is the speaker, and Crito is a member of the large Apparent Audience who will mistake the apparent meaning of the discourse [the arguments about the state and the individual] for the true meaning [the pathos of Socrates’ lonely awareness of his failure.]

Irony is a theme that runs through virtually all of Western thought, in countless texts and many different fields of the Humanities and the Social Sciences.  One finds it, of course, in Kierkegaard, in Hobbes, in Hume, and in many other authors.  It is the key to understanding the early chapters of Das Kapital, which is why, when I launched into my exposition of those chapters at Columbia this semester, I began by quoting and explicating the famous opening sentence of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

For those of you who do not have that text in your memories, the novel begins, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”  Why, we might ask, does Austen not begin instead with this sentence:  "Mrs. Bennett and the other women in her social circle, caring as they did almost exclusively about their daughters' marital prospects, were prone to consider every unmarried man of sufficient wealth who entered the community fair game as a potential husband."  In a sense, the two sentences say the same thing, but the first is an ironic utterance by Austen to her real audience, we readers, at the expense of the apparent audience, the mothers of Mrs. Bennett’s social circle.  The second, although it is an accurate description of the attitudes of those women, fails to capture and to mock their utter lack of self-awareness.

Irony played a central role as well in the discourse of slaves in ante-bellum America.  Viewed by their White owners as sub-human, and forbidden by the threat of the lash to speak openly, the slaves developed elaborate forms of ironic communication with one another at the expense of their owners that the owners were utterly incapable of understanding.

In his early and, in my opinion, brilliant book, The Signifying Monkey, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. traces these modes of ironic discourse in the American Black community back to the religious traditions of West Africa from which most of their forebears had come.  Gates writes fascinatingly about the many modes of Black ironic discourse, which are referred to in that community as Signifyin’.  One example, with which I was much taken, is Loud Talking.  Suppose that a Black woman thinks that one of the other women in her social circle puts on airs, affecting “White” modes of speech and overdressing for casual occasions.  She may strike up a conversation with a friend when the target of her criticism is ten or fifteen feet away, and proceed to speak scathingly of some entirely different woman who, she says, puts on airs and overdresses.  Except that she speaks a little too loudly, just loudly enough so that the real subject can hear her.  If this woman takes offence and butts into the conversation, saying “Are you talking about me?,” the answer is “Why on earth would you think that?”

This and many other forms of ironic communication are called signifyin’.  It is even the case that signifyin’ turns up in music, for example in jam sessions.  One musician states a theme, perhaps with the clarinet, and then a second picks it up and signifies on it with the sax, followed by another musician and another, rather as though they are playing the dozens, until one does a riff so over the top that it cannot be topped, and they all go back to playing the theme.  When I joined the UMass Afro-American Studies Department in 1992, I had to learn to recognize and respond to ironic communication, or signifyin’, so as not to be perpetually the apparent rather than the real audience in departmental conversations.

Once one becomes aware of this sort of ironic communication, one finds it in the most unexpected places.  It might even pop up on a blog, when the blogger writes a wistful and playful post designed to express his sadness at the omnipresence of Trump, and finds himself confronted by readers who launch into a lengthy, intelligent, deadly serious back and forth of comments that entirely misunderstand the real meaning of the post.  Rather like Socrates in the Crito.





Friday, November 30, 2018

IDLE MUSINGS AT LAGUARDIA AIRPORT WHILE WAITING TO BOARD


Let me begin with a story.  Thirty years ago, I was for a time the head [unpaid] of an anti-apartheid organization called Harvard/Radcliffe Alumni/ae Against Apartheid, or HRAAA.  We were trying, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to get Harvard to divest itself of its investments in companies doing business with South Africa.  Since every share of stock sold is also bought by some other investor, divestment has no material impact [unlike disinvestment] but we hoped the symbolism would make some contribution to the world-wide fight against apartheid.  The Harvard administration was having none of it, of course.  They did not want anyone laying grubby hands on their most precious possession, their Endowment.  But the Harvard Development Office was [and I assume still is] a large bureaucratic operation, and somewhere in its bowels was a sympathetic flunky, who, one dark night, hit the “print” key and produced a complete many page list of all Harvard’s prime alumni donor prospects, which he or she [I never found out] passed on to those of us in HRAAA.  The document listed the hundreds of prospects not in alphabetical order, but in descending order of what Harvard thought it could get lifetime from them.  The list cut off at $250,000 [$546,000 in 2018 dollars].  Anything less wasn’t worth worrying about.  There were some gems in the printout.  Maestro Leonard Bernstein was down for $500,000, but a note warned “will only talk to the president.”  But the printout, delicious as it was, didn’t help us any, and in the end we failed to budge Harvard.

All of which got me thinking.  Donald Trump started his college career at Fordham in 1966, transferring to the Wharton School undergraduate program in 1966 and graduating in 1968.  His grades and personnel file, including the transfer application, are of course private, and the University of Pennsylvania, home to the Wharton School, will quite properly keep them strictly secret.  But surely, somewhere in the UPenn bureaucracy, there must be some low-level file clerk or computer programmer ….

Thursday, November 29, 2018

WELL, WELL


In response to my response to Jerry Fresia concerning China and Marx, anonymous asks:  “What about this letter?”, linking to a letter written by Marx in 1877.  I followed the link and read the length letter, which I found very interesting, and in some ways contradictory to what I had said in my post.  I did not recall the letter at all, and wondered whether I had ever read it, so off I went to my shelves.  I found it in a deep red volume published by International Publishers called Marx and Engels Selected Correspondence: 1846-1895.  Apparently I had in fact read it for it was underlined with marginal comments.  And what had I written at the top of the letter’s first page?

“This is a very important letter – it must be used to revise the ‘march of history’ interpretation of historical materialism.”

Hmmm.

Monday, November 26, 2018

A COMMON MISUNDERSTANDING


David Palmeter asks a question that has been asked many times [and answered as well].  He writes, “If socialism is to evolve incrementally out of the womb of capitalism, as capitalism evolved incrementally out of the womb of feudalism, what is the point of working toward socialism? Why not just let it happen? Would support of health care for all, for example, or free higher education, be considered working toward socialism, or are these things that inevitably will evolve--whether we get all excited about elections etc. or not?”

But Marx does not think that things evolve behind our backs, or “inevitably.”  He thinks that at first individual merchants pursued their trades and deals, not at all understanding where these new ways of making money would lead, or how they might undermine the existing feudal order.  Little by little, they became more aware that things were changing, and networks of merchants developed.  Then individuals developed new ways of producing goods for exchange, until they became self-aware of the conflict between what they were doing and the ways things had previously been done.  Slowly, their individual actions began to form structures of institutional action, and entrepreneurs, capitalists, became a separate and more and more powerful class.

In much the same manner, workers slowly become aware, with their fellow workers, of their shared exploitation.  In the jargon of the French Marxists, they cease being merely a class in itself and become a class for itself [do I have that right?  I can never remember.]

Socialism will not result from a manifesto or a tract or a committee.  It will grow within the womb of capitalism, not spontaneously or behind our backs, but as the result of our ever more self-aware actions within the context of capitalism.  If we lean back and wait for it to happen, it will never happen, any more than capitalism would have happened if early merchants had said, “Relax, the new order is growing in the womb of the old, there is no need actually to hustle and bustle and try to make deals.”

A RESPONSE TO JERRY FRESIA, IN A MANNER OF SPEAKING


A week ago, I reported on a plea for solidarity from Chinese students here in America protesting the arrest of students in China supporting unionizing workers. Included in the plea was a request that I boycott future Chinse-sponsored conferences on the thought of Marx.  Of course I agreed, though I remarked that I was not likely to be invited.  This prompted Jerry Fresia to wonder “What do you suppose World Congresses on Marxism organized by the Chinese government would look like? What elements of Marx, if any, would be brought forward, which obscured, which misunderstood?”

Three days earlier, I had linked to an article in the NY TIMES about China’s success in raising five hundred million people out of poverty.  I failed at the time to notice that this was just the first of a very lengthy five-part series on China’s economic development.  Yesterday, noodling around the Internet, I came on the series and read it from start to finish.  If you start link and follow subsequent links, you can read it all.  [Note, by the way, the innocent fun the authors have mocking Milton Friedman’s confident predictions, all of which have proven false.  That by itself makes the series worth reading.]

Which got me thinking, not what the Chinese would say about Marx, but what Marx would have to say about the Chinese.  Inasmuch as I know next to nothing about China beyond what I have just read in the TIMES series, but do know a fair amount about Marx, I thought I would try to answer the second question.  So, here goes.  This is of course not idle speculation about what Marx the man would have to say about modern China [he would have had a great deal to say, of course, and it would have filled at least one thick volume, for starters], but rather informed speculation about what Marx’s theories can tell us about China.

The simple answer is that Marx’s theories tell us virtually nothing about what is happening in China. 

Let me explain.  In his major writings, Marx undertook to study the social relations of capitalist production, as he called them, and to identify the “laws of motion” of capitalism.  He did this by a deep study of the development of capitalism, principally, though not exclusively, in England.  His greatest insight, which distinguished him from all of his predecessors and contemporaries, was that capitalism developed slowly, incrementally, “in the womb” of feudalism, until the new system of relations of production came into conflict with the existing system, producing a series of violent upheavals and confrontations [the French Revolution, the English Revolution, and so forth] that led ineluctably to the death of the old order and the birth of the new.  Marx saw that the philosophical and ideological conflicts accompanying this great historical transformation were no more than relatively superficial manifestations of the deep, broad economic changes taking place in Europe.

Marx wrote almost nothing about socialism, despite his conviction that it would be the next stage in the evolution of the social relations of production.  His reason, I believe, was that he had no use for the speculative pronouncements of those whom he and Engels called Utopian Socialists, which, he thought correctly, were not grounded in any analysis of the forces within capitalism generating new and contradictory relations of production that would lead to the next great transformation.  My essay, “The Future of Socialism,” to which I have many times referred, is my very preliminary and inadequate effort to begin that analysis.

Marx, of course, thought he could see in the existing form of capitalism some indications of how it would develop, and in certain fundamental ways he was quite correct.  But – and this is the central idea of this post – he believed that one could only find the anticipations of the future by analyzing the internal conflicts and tendencies of the advanced sectors of capitalism.  He failed to anticipate that one of the most undeveloped pre-capitalist sectors of the world economy would be transformed by fiat, ostensibly in accordance with his writings, although of course not at all actually in that fashion.

Marx’s entire life work rested on his belief that each stage of economic development – Feudalism, Capitalism – grew within the previous stage until it burst its bounds and became the dominant form of its age.  This was the heart and soul of his theoretical work, and he was right when it came to European feudalism and to capitalism.

It is not quite seventy years since the Chinese Revolution – a blink of the eye in the history of the development of capitalism, which spanned four centuries in Europe – and yet in that time, by fiat, not by slow growth within the old order, China has become an advanced industrial economy whose size and productivity is second only to that of the United States or the European Union taken as a whole.

As the NY TIMES makes clear, there are complex forces at work in the Chinese economy crying out for the sort of analysis Marx first undertook and which he carried out with respect to the emergence of European capitalism.  But while Marx’s great work shows us how such an investigation might be undertaken, it will have to be left to some modern Marx, probably Chinese, to actually do the work.