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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Saturday, June 30, 2018

BACK HOME

I am back from a rally in downtown Chapel Hill.  Maybe 500 people on a hot late June day.  Lord knows, it is not much to do, but every little bit helps.

Friday, June 29, 2018

DER UNTERGANG DES ABENDLANDES


In 1961, after completing a three year Instructorship in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, I went to the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.  There I met and became friendly with Hans Morgenthau, a very famous senior professor who was one of the leading figures in the so-called realpolitik school of international relations.  The central idea of realpolitik was that nations could be viewed as unitary actors on the world stage motivated not by ideology or historical loyalties but by rational self-interest.  The theory was first developed in order to make sense of the endlessly shifting alliances, over many centuries, of the nations of Central and Western Europe, but in the post-World War Two world it had been broadened to include the entire world.  The major European powers – France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy – were now allies, now enemies, then again allies.  In the middle of the twentieth century, the United States joined this structure of alliances, forming a working partnership with Russia, France, and Great Britain against Germany and Italy, then crafting an Atlantic Alliance against the Soviet Union that included its former enemies, German and Italy.  Morgenthau taught me to view these changing alliances in a rational, non-ideological fashion, something that was, for a young twenty-seven year old neophyte, an eye-opener.

While I was in Paris, disporting myself in caf├ęs and lecturing on Marx in Ghent to an audience of workers and students, Donald Trump continued his purposeful dismantling of the Atlantic Alliance.  There have been a good many fevered warnings that the world as we know it is coming to an end – which may very well be true – but not as much thoughtful commentary on what new world order may emerge from the wreckage.  The goal of this blog is to make a start at thinking this question through.  I am, of course, no sort of expert at all on international relations, and I sometimes wish Morgenthau were around to offer guidance, but I will do my best, and I welcome comments from those among you better informed than I.

The first thing that will happen is the increased urgency by the European nations to repair the fractures in the European Economic Union, to shore up the euro, perhaps even to woo Great Britain back into the union.  American commentators will focus feverishly on Vladimir Putin’s increasingly successful efforts to destroy the Atlantic Alliance, but despite its enormous nuclear arsenal, Russia is essentially a failed state propped up by its sale of oil.  As renewable energy sources capture a larger and larger share of the world’s needs, Russia will diminish in importance, playing at most a marginal regional role.

The real winner in any fundamental realignment of global powers will be China.  Some background is called for.  Historically, China has been an inward looking nation, focused on strengthening its control of its heartland, and expanding, when able, northward, westward, and southwestward, to dominate Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Southeast Asia.  As Owen Lattimore shows in his fine old book, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, this process of centrifugal expansion and centripetal contraction is thousands of years old.  However, for almost a thousand years, China has been connected to a complex trade network linking the entire Eurasian land mass and Africa as well.  [An excellent exposition of this can be found in Janet Abu-Lughod’s work, Before European Hegemony.] 

The network had two principal substructures, in each of which China served as the eastern terminus.  The overland structure, which we know as the Silk Road, was a series of linked trading routes, beginning in China, traveling west past Tibet, circumventing the formidable Taklamakan desert, and ending at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean.  A second water route began at China’s ports on what we call the China Sea, went through the Straits of Malacca, headed west to the seacoast of India, then on to the port cities of East Africa and up the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, to Genoa and Venice, and thence to the fairs of Flanders and Burgundy, where goods from as far west and north as Northern England were exchanged for the silks and spices [and paper and gunpowder] that had made their way from China.  No trader traveled the entire route [Marco Polo to the contrary notwithstanding], but the trade routes were well established.  Detailed charts of the timing of trade winds enabled Muslim traders to sail east and then west in accordance with the winds, thus avoiding the necessity of laying over for six months until the winds shifted.  This vast complex of trade routes even included sub-Saharan Africa.  Muslim merchants traveled overland south across a less forbidding Sahara to the nations of West Africa [hence the fact that Hausa of Nigeria are Muslim], while trade goods traded overland to the Indian ocean from Central and East Africa linked even that continent to the international economy.  Indeed, it is said that a taste for fine English woolens on the part of West African rulers sparked a small economic boomlet in the north of England, and in the European Middle Ages half of the gold circulating in Western Europe had its origin in the gold mines of West Africa.

Which brings me to Xi Jinping.  The President of China [now effectively for life], building on this ancient pair of trade networks, has launched an enormously ambitious and far-sighted economic initiative, labeled One Belt One Road, and projected to cost roughly four trillion dollars, whose aim is to build roads, rail networks, regional shipping depots, and ports following the ancient water [One Belt] and overland [One Road] pathways and uniting the entire Eurasian landmass in a single unified economic unit with China both the eastern terminus and the dominant partner.  When this project is completed, in twenty-five years or more, it will bind Europe economically to China, thus enabling China to displace the United States as Europe’s principal trading partner and establishing China as a world power, not simply as a regional power.

Xi’s plan was conceived well before Trump was elected, but Trump’s frantic destruction of the Atlantic Alliance can only considerably advance Xi’s global plan.  The United States will of course continue to be a major economic force, given the fact that it has now the largest national economy in the world along with a bloated [and all but useless] military establishment.  However, China’s population is somewhat more than four times that of the United States, and it is inevitable that it will overtake the U.S. economically.

What are we to think of all of this?  Ah well, the spirit of Hans Morgenthau does not tell me, so we must decide for ourselves.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?


I spent a troubled night, and awoke, brooding.  It is nearly sixty years since I first raised my voice against the evils of the world.  In that distant time, when I thought about it at all, which was very rarely, I supposed that when I grew old, I would rest quietly by the campfire or in the reading room and tell young men and women what the fight was like in the old days.  Little did I imagine that I would sit on the ground, and tell sad tales about the death of kings.

And then, there came to me the words of Dylan Thomas:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And so, once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

We have been dealt two blows in as many days:  the terrible Janus decision from the high court, and the retirement of Associate Justice Kennedy, with the threat to Roe v. Wade and a host of other foundational court decisions.  These are terrible times, with fascism on the horizon in the United States and our last defense severely undermined by the Kennedy retirement.  By the time the Mueller investigation’s results reach their inevitable Supreme Court review, will all hope have evaporated for a judicial affirmation of its results?

We must fight.  But what does that even mean?  Herewith some thoughts, wrenched from my fevered mind. Make of them what you will.

Coming so close together, the decision and the retirement compel us to draw a distinction.  The assault on workers’ rights, advanced yet another step by Janus, can be no surprise.  The exploitation of workers is not a byproduct of capitalism; it is the essential foundation and reason for being of capitalism.  Justice Kennedy’s replacement, in addition to being a safe vote for the reversal of Roe, will have as his or her goal the further oppression of workers and the further enrichment of capitalists.  That, after all, is why the high court exists.

On the other hand, the inevitable attack on Roe has no essential connection to capitalism.  Its purpose is to secure the political support of millions of useful idiots whose religious obsessions make them malleable ground troops for the seizure of political power by the Republican Party.  Capitalists themselves care not at all how their workers reproduce themselves, only how they reproduce capital.

What is to be done?  The Janus decision is simply a small part of the larger fight against capitalism, a fight in which we are outgunned but not outnumbered.  As my brief post on Gini Coefficients makes clear, and as Piketty’s important book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, details, capitalism is increasingly successful in its core exploitative mission.  Organize! Is still the best one word answer we have.

The threat of the overturning of Roe is more particular and requires a more elaborate answer.  Let us be clear.  Overturning Roe will not make abortion illegal in the United States.  It will remove the hold on those state laws making abortion illegal.  Depending on how you count, the overturning of Roe will make abortion illegal in roughly 15 states.  Since there is little hope of getting a federal law passed legalizing abortion, that means we must use the federal structure of American government to our advantage.

Now, for as long as I have been alive, States’ Rights has been the battle cry of segregationists, homophobes, and other rightwing lowlifes, so some may consider it, shall we say, ironic for those of us on the left suddenly to discover the wisdom of the Founding Fathers.  Not I.  I had my say half a century ago about the philosophical foundations of representative democracy in a little tract called In Defense of Anarchism.  I experience not the slightest twinge of embarrassment at invoking the cry of states’ rights.  It is all false anyway, so far as I am concerned.

Reflect.  Roe was decided in 1973.  That means that every single woman in the United States of childbearing age has, since the onset of her puberty, lived in a country in which abortion is legal.  The women living in the states with anti-abortion laws will suddenly find that they are no longer protected from the enforcement of invasive restrictions that they may hitherto have found it convenient to profess to support.  In every one of those states, there will be countless women who can be mobilized to vote out the Republican legislators who enacted or support those laws, and to elect state legislators and governors who are ready to repeal their state’s anti-abortion laws.  In each state, the issue will be entirely local.  Repealing an anti-abortion law in one state will not in any way require actions in other states.  Nor will it be necessary to enact pro-abortion laws.  Absent state laws and the Roe decision, abortion is as legal as dental surgery.

In short, the overturning of Roe could be a mobilizing weapon for progressive forces the likes of which we have not seen before.

Finally, what are the prospects for blocking a Trump nominee before the November mid-terms?  Not good, I would say.  Why?  Well, with McCain dying of cancer, the Senate is split 50/49.  If the Democrats can hold all of their votes – an enormously difficult task this year – then they only need one Republican to switch, say Collins or Murkowski.  Both are pro-choice.  But McConnell is no fool, and Trump merely wants a win.  Which means all the Republicans need do is to find a reliable anti-Roe judge who has had the good sense to keep his or her mouth shut on the matter and has left no troublesome trail of lower court decisions.  Collins and Murkowski will quiz this candidate sharply, he [in all probability] will give the appropriate answers, and Collins and Murkowski will profess themselves satisfied. 

The one wild card is the Mueller investigation.   It is rather difficult to judge the effect on all this  by, let us say, Mueller’s naming of Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator.  One can dream.

Well, I had my eyes checked this morning, so all of this has been written with dilated pupils that make everything a blur.  Who knows?  Maybe the drops blurred my mind as well my vision.



Wednesday, June 27, 2018

CRUSHING NEWS

Associate Justice Kennedy is retiring.  Trump will nominate and McConnell will ram through an extreme right-wing ideologue, and the Supreme Court will be lost for much longer than I will live.  Women's reproductive health rights will be destroyed, unions will continue to be gutted, the autocratic impulses of Trump will receive the endorsement of the legal system.  I am unable even to imagine how bad things will get.

CIVILITY


There are some large scale matters I would like to address, but in light of the vigorous response to my praise of the expulsion of Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a restaurant, I think I need to say a few words about the matter of civility.  First, let me observe that as examples of incivility go, this one ranks roughly with using a chopstick to scratch your nose in an upscale Chinese restaurant.  The norms of public political discourse vary considerably from country to country, and even from neighborhood to neighborhood within a country.  The British Parliament is much more raucous than the American Congress, and I will not even talk about the Israeli Knesset.  Only in the world of the Washington elite does being denied service at a restaurant appear to be a violation of sacred norms calling for serious discussion of the foundations of democratic society.

But whatever the local norms of civility may be, it can always be asked under what conditions it is right, even required, to violate them as part of a political protest.  A great idea has been written about this in the past few days.  You might take a look at this column [or series of tweets – I am not sure which it is] by Jonathan Ladd.  Ladd quotes from Martin Luther King’s famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is far superior to anything I could write on the subject.

By the way, if you wish to put a little steel in your spine, read this account by Senator Elizabeth Warren of what she found when she visited some of the detention centers where little children are being held.

Representative democracy depends on the ability of persons representing very different constituents with different and even deeply conflicting interests to come together, negotiate, win sometimes and lose sometimes, all while preserving as persons, not merely as representatives, sufficient comity that they can meet again to negotiate further, and again, and again.  The alternative, as Hobbes observed, is the war of all against all.

When is it right to violate those norms of comity and civility?  When the policies and actions against which one fights are so vile, and the chances of overcoming them by the normal and accepted political actions so slender, that one must fight, however much the feelings of others may be hurt.  Slavery was such an evil.  Jim Crow and lynching were such evils.  The denial of the vote to women was such an evil.  So was the brutal treatment of anyone not acceptably heterosexual.  And so too is the forcible internment of children torn from their families.

While it is morally permissible to use such tactics as marches, boycotts, and public shaming to fight these evils, it is not thereby always effective, and we can debate the practical wisdom of this or that tactic.  But first, as that Columbia student said to me fifty years ago, you must decide which side you are on.

At this moment, I suspect [quite obviously, I cannot know] that a good many White House staffers are vulnerable to the embarrassment, the irritation, the discomfort of being publicly shamed and called out when they leave the White House to go home, go to a concert, stay at a hotel, or attend a public function.  A heavy dose of that shaming might drive some of them to leave the White House, further weakening the president.  If you believe, as I do now, that America is in grave danger of descending into an authoritarianism and incipient fascism from which it will not easily emerge, then the violation of norms of public civility is fully justified.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

INEQUALITY




The dominant myth that Americans tell themselves and the world about America is the myth of American exceptionalism.  America is the only nation created as the embodiment of an idea, the idea of equality.  America is a city upon a hill, a beacon to all, the hope of mankind, the greatest democracy on earth, the leader of the free world. America is the only world power not to seek imperial hegemony.  Never mind that none of this is true.  What is true is that America is really exceptional in one deeply important fashion.  It is far and away the most economically unequal of the world’s advanced industrial economies.

The purpose of this blog post is to introduce you, if indeed introduction is necessary, to the measure of economic inequality called the Gini Coefficient.  I do this for two reasons:  First, because I enjoy explaining technical things, and this is my blog, damn it; and Second, because I think it is useful when discussing politics and economics to introduce a measure of precision as a way of getting past anecdote and polemic.  Accordingly, I will first explain what a Gini Coefficient is and then tell you a bit about how nations across the globe differ in their degrees of inequality, as measured by their national Gini Coefficients.

The easiest way to understand a Gini Coefficient is first to understand a Lorenz Curve [both of these, of course, named for the economists who invented them].  Take a look at this diagram, copied from Wikipedia.



.  Along the x-axis is measured the share of a nation’s population, from 0 to 1, or from 0% to 100%.  Along the y-axis is measured the percentage of the nation’s income that goes in a year to the corresponding fraction of the population [or the percentage of the nation’s wealth owned by that fraction of the population, a very different thing, of course.]  Thus, a point with the coordinates [x= .27, y = .15] is a graphical representation of the fact [if, indeed, it is a fact] that the poorest 27% of the population collectively receive in a year 15% of the nation’s income [or own 15% of the nation’s wealth, if that is what one is measuring.]

Now, on reflection, it is obvious that if the income or wealth is distributed absolutely equally, then the series of points representing this fact will be a straight line rising from 0 on the left to 1 on the right, at a 45 degree angle.  Think about it.  The poorest 1% of the population receive 1% of the nation’s income.  So their income is represented by a point with the coordinates (.01, .01).  The poorest 2% receive 2% of the nation’s income, and that is represented by a point with the coordinates (.02, .02).  And so on, cumulatively, until 100% of the population receive 100% of the nation’s income.  By way of contrast, the maximally unequal distribution is one in which no one receives anything save one individual, who receives everything.  This extremal situation is represented by a right angle, with every point on the axis having zero elevation save the last, which lies at a distance of 1, or 100%, from the baseline.

OK, got that?  In the real world, of course, there are no perfectly equal or perfectly unequal nations.  In every nation, the poorest people receive less than their proportionate share of national income and the richest people receive more than their proportionate share.  If you graph that reality, you get a curve that looks something like the curve in the diagram above.  The more closely that curve hugs the equal distribution 45 degree angle line, the more equally income is distributed in the economy.  The more that curve sags and droops, the less equally income is distributed.  So much for Herr Lorenz.

Signor Gini’s idea was to translate the Lorenz curve into a number, namely the ratio of the area between the equal distribution line and the Lorenz curve to the total area of the right triangle.  In the diagram, that means the fraction ( A/A+B ).  This ratio is called the Gini Coefficient.  A little thought should make it obvious that the smaller a nation’s Gini Coefficient, the more equal its distribution of income or of wealth, depending on which one you are measuring.  Low Gini Coefficient:  relative equality;  high Gini Coefficient: relative inequality.

Two general facts:  First, a nation’s Income Gini Coefficient is usually lower than its Wealth Gini Coefficient;  Second, America’s income and wealth Gini Coefficients are the highest in the developed world. 

Here are some numbers, income first.  The most equal nations for which the UN has data are Ukraine, Iceland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Belarus, Finland, and Norway, all with Gini Coefficients in the 25-26 range.  Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands are a tad less equal, with Gini Coefficients between 28 and 29.  Germany’s Gini Coefficient is 31.4, Japan’s is 32.1, France’s is 32.3, and Canada comes in at 34, between Sierra Leone and Niger.  A tiny bit less equal is Great Britain, with a Gini Coefficient of 34.1

The United States has a Gini Coefficient of 41, a bit less equal than El Salvador and exactly equal to Qatar.  South Africa, alas, has the largest Gini Coefficient recorded – 63.4.

And wealth?   The United States has the least equal distribution of wealth in the entire world, with a wealth Gini Coefficient of 80.56!  Try if you can to visualize the wealth Lorenz Curve for America.  Four-fifth of the area is above the curve.  Indeed, as Thomas Piketty notes, the poorest one-half of America’s population has collectively wealth of exactly zero!  How is this possible?  Simple, if you aggregate their wealth holdings and subtract their debts, nothing is left.  Graphically, America’s wealth Lorenz Curve does not even make it above the x-axis until the 0.5 point.

America is indeed exceptional.

Monday, June 25, 2018

ON A LIGHTER NOTE


When computers, digital information, the internet, and all that jazz came in, a number of efforts were made to humanize them by drawing analogies between the mysterious strings of ones and zeroes, and the electric networks that underpinned them, and more familiar aspects of living organisms.  One of the most popular was the description of pieces of computer code that could be attached to existing programs in such a manner as to be copied onto other programs as viruses.  This usage seemed particularly appropriate in cases where the copied computer code interfered with the intended usages of the existing program, in a way analogous to that of living viruses infecting organisms, bring reproduced in other organisms, and hurting or even killing the host organisms.

By an odd quirk of language, the sudden and very rapid popularity of a video or bit of text which is accessed and reproduced quite rapidly by thousands or even millions of end users is described as the text or video going viral, although there really is little connection between the two neologisms.

As I have reported here before, my first lecture on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, recorded and posted on YouTube, has been unexpectedly popular.  It has now been viewed more than 68,000 times, and is racking up new views at more than 2000 a month.  This is small potatoes compared to a clip from The Big Bang Theory or a classic Monty Python sketch, but considering the topic, it is still rather remarkable.  It can hardly be said to have gone viral, but I do think it might plausibly be described as having

gone bacterial.

AS I WAS SAYING


During the two weeks that I was in Paris, my blog inaccessible to me, a very great deal has happened, and I would like over the next few days to address much of it here, but as I plow through the accumulated mail, shop for staples, and try to catch up with local matters, I need to say something about the horrendous disaster playing out across America, as parents seeking asylum are forcibly separated from their children, possibly forever.  Yes, yes, I know this is not the worst thing the American government has done, or even indeed is currently doing.  But sufficient unto the day. 

Rather than recycle news reports, which fortunately are receiving wall to wall coverage, I shall exercise the privilege of the blogger and step back a bit to try to get some perspective on what is happening.

It is always my preference to connect general or theoretical observations to personal experiences, a habit, I realize, that some of my readers enjoy and that irritates others.  So be it.  Since the worst non-American regime of which I have had personal experience was the apartheid regime in South Africa, I shall start there.  When I first visited South Africa in 1986, the old regime was still in power, and eighty percent or more of the population was oppressed by the state and excluded from political participation or access to much of the economy.  I knew that.  The whole world knew that.  And yet, much of my visit, which was spent on university campuses in Johannesburg and Durban, was on a daily level indistinguishable from time I had spent on American campuses.  The people I met were delightful, extremely well-educated, for the most part impeccably progressive, even radical, and seemingly as free as those I knew at home.  The hideousness of the regime was not, at the sensory level, at all apparent to me, nor did it have any noticeable impact on my experiences.  As I continued to visit South Africa, returning more than forty times over a period of a quarter of a century, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the organization he headed, the African National Congress, was unbanned, Mandela was elected president, apartheid officially ended, and the country was transformed.  And yet, my daily experiences after liberation were not markedly different from my experiences before liberation.

I begin with this personal experience because I want to say that we are witnessing the arrival of fascism in America, and whether it succeeds or fails to take control of the country is very much in doubt right now.  This will sound hyperbolic, even to those who share my moral and political perspective, but I mean it seriously.  I have been obsessed all my life by the haunting fear that if I had lived in Germany in 1933, wrapped up as I would have been in the exciting intellectual and artistic world of the Weimar period, I would have been incapable of recognizing the true magnitude of the threat posed by Hitler and his National Socialist party.  At that point, the actions of the Nazis would probably have had as little effect on my immediate life as the apartheid regime did on my visits to South Africa.

Oh, I know how different the two cases are, but that is not the point.  The point is that often, if one waits to act until the evil affects you personally, you have waited too long.  Trump proclaims that he wants to expel asylum seekers without judges or hearings or other elements of due process.  He tells us that he wants to be a dictator and he rails against procedural restrictions on his willful attacks against any who displease him in any way.  He tells us that he is a fascist, or rather he would if he knew what the word means.  All I can think of is the immortal line by Maya Angelou, so often quoted:  “If someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time.”

What then follows?   I will try to address that question later on, today or tomorrow.  Suffice it to say that driving Sarah Huckabee Sanders from a restaurant is a good start, albeit a tiny one.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

HI JINKS ON A HIGH WIRE, WITHOUT A NET


Faithful readers of this blog are aware that I have made my long and reasonably successful career as a performance athlete, skating on thin ice.  I started, fifty-five years ago, by publishing an ambitious book on the Critique of Pure Reason, despite the fact that I could scarcely read German.  Having gotten away with this fraud, I went on to write two books and half a dozen articles about the thought of Karl Marx, even being so presumptuous as to offer a literary analysis of the language of the opening chapters of Das Kapital.  It is as though a wannabe literary theorist were to base a deep study of Dostoyevsky on the old translations of Constance Garnett.  Not content with this performance, I abruptly transferred to an Afro-American Studies department and assumed directorship of its cutting edge doctoral program.  You might plausibly describe me as the Wile E. Coyote of academia, blithely racing off cliffs, only to look down too late to discover that there is nothing holding me up.

Thus set in my ways, I started this blog, and last February 20th, on the basis of no knowledge whatsoever, I advanced a theory as to why Robert Mueller had chosen to indict an obscure young identity thief, Richard Pinedo, along with some Trump campaign bigwigs.  I got lucky, and enjoyed about fifteen seconds of fame as a consequence.  So here I go again.

This morning, while having a cup of coffee and listening to cable news before going on my walk, I heard extensive coverage of some appalling remarks made by Rudy Giuliani in Israel yesterday.  Giuliani went on for some time about the Stormy Daniels matter, stating that Melania Trump did not believe for a moment that Trump had had sex with Daniels and then proceeding to say, with much smirking and sneering, “Look at Trump’s three wives.  They are classy women.  Just look at Daniels.  I mean, really [smirk, smirk], can you imagine it?” and so forth.  This came on the same day that Trump wrote a bizarre long tweet repeating all the conspiracy theories someone or other had advanced to explain Melania’s month long absence from public view.  Giuliani went on to claim that after Trump’s cancellation of the summit with Kim Jong-un, Kim had been “on his hands and knees” begging for a summit, “which is just where you want him,” Giuliani said.

All of this was bizarre, even for Rudy.  The bloviators on Morning Joe tut-tutted and tsk-tsked but offered no coherent explanation for Rudy’s behavior.

Enter the thin ice skater.  As I prepare to leave for Paris tomorrow, where I will be without access to my blog, save to read comments, I herewith offer two explanations and a prediction.  If I am right, I shall return to cheers of the Cloud.  If I am wrong, by the time I return everyone will have forgotten.  Win-win.

First, Melania and Stormy.  I think [on the basis, you understand, of absolutely no evidence] that Melania is livid over the public humiliation caused by the endless public discussion of her husband’s affair with a porn star.  I think she has threatened to take her son and walk out of the marriage, invoking the clause in the pre-nup that gives her big bucks if Trump cheats.  [How do I know there is a pre-nup?  I don’t, of course.]  I think behind the scenes Trump and his inner circle have been desperately trying to dissuade her from this action, and Trump’s tweet plus Giuliani’s remarks are part of a deal struck to keep her in the marriage.

Now, Kim.  Giuliani’s language was pure Trump.  You recall his outrageous statement about Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.  In Trump’s narcissistic pre-adolescent brain, the ultimate victory is to have your enemy on his hands and knees begging.

Well, it is an absolute certainty that Kim heard of these statements by Giuliani within ten minutes of their being aired.  But thus far he has not responded.  Herewith my prediction:  Kim will say nothing.  The planning for the summit will proceed.  Trump and his entourage will board Air Force One with much hullabaloo and fly off to Singapore, where he will make a big show of deplaning.

And Kim will not show up.  Trump will be left high and dry, stood up, humiliated, made to look the fool with the whole world watching.  At this point, my crystal ball grows cloudy.  Perhaps Kim will show up after an excruciating delay.  Perhaps he simply will not show up.  Either way, Trump loses.

Well, I am now so far over the edge of the cliff that there is nowhere to go but down, so I shall return to packing and tweaking my Belgian talk.  I wonder whether I am right.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

GOOD READ

In an email, Professor David Auerbach sends me a link to this clarifying and valuable essay on the subject of norms.  It is worth reading.

My post has, as I hoped, provoked a stimulating discussion.  Let me expand on one point that I think was not at all clear in the original post.

My discomfort does not arise from the hypocrisy of those who piously profess a commitment to the rule of law all the while undermining and violating it.  As Jesus did not say but might have [see Matthew 23:27, for example], the hypocrites we always have with us.  I was troubled by the thought that the norms themselves are ideological rationalizations and mystifications of the exploitative structure of capitalism, and hence have no independent status.  Although it is, alas, much too early for such thoughts, we need to think through what the norms of a socialist society would be, grounded in a collective, non-exploitative economic order.

In the meantime, I am enormously relieved that the California Democratic Party has survived the jungle primary and has a serious chance of contributing six, seven, or more flipped seats to the 23 we need in order to take control of the House.

Sufficient unto the day.

Monday, June 4, 2018

NORMS


I remarked several days ago that there were two things on my mind that seemed to call for blog posts, one about which my thoughts were clear, the other not.  I have blogged about the first – the deep state.  Now Todd Gitlin’s reminder of C. Wright Mills’ observation that an independent civil service is necessary for a liberal democracy has prodded me to address the second.  The topic, in a word, is norms.

The assaults by Trump on the Justice Department, his calls for the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, his egregious and seemingly endless efforts to monetize the office of the Presidency, and of course his bullying tweets, have all provoked a wide-ranging discussion among the commentariat about Trump’s violations of long-established norms of public conduct and decorum, norms that are not codified in federal law but which are appealed to as universally acknowledged constraints on the actions of public officials.  Now, I am constitutionally sympathetic to any attack on Trump, but this appeal to norms has made me uncomfortable.  For some time now I have been trying to articulate to myself just precisely what causes this discomfort, and although I am not at all satisfied by what I have told myself during my early morning walks, I am going to try to put my thoughts in some order in hopes of stimulating a discussion in this space.

The problem, in a nutshell, is this:  For virtually my entire adult life, reaching back now more than sixty years, I have been calling out and condemning the hypocrisy of public officials who wrap themselves in the flag and congratulate themselves on their embrace of the ideals of “The American Experiment,” all the while spying on Martin Luther King, buying the nomination of JFK with ten dollar bills passed out in the West Virginia Democratic primary, overthrowing governments, covertly or overtly in the Old and New Worlds, torturing captives, lying the country into wars, gerrymandering Congressional districts, and generally violating every principle of justice and humanity ever articulated.  Over time, the invocation of norms has come to trigger a gag reaction in me.

And yet, and yet. 

Do I really reject the very idea of an impartial system of justice that protects the rights of the accused and imposes standards of evidence and due process in legal proceedings?  Oh, I am well aware of the ways in which ostensibly impartial laws are crafted to protect the interests of the wealthy.  Do not tell me that the rule of law is a bourgeois mystification of the class interests of capital.  I have written books about that.

And yet, and yet.

Would I want to live in a society, even a socialist society, that dispensed with blind justice and instead dissolved all questions of law into debates over public policy?  Do I imagine that once the excitement of the transformational moment had passed, routinized revolutionary fervor would serve as a satisfactory substitute for a public spirited commitment to norms of fairness, objectivity, and due process?

The answer is no.  A liberal democracy does indeed need an independent civil service, a liberal socialist democracy more than any other.

And so I am left with my problem.  How can I embrace the current condemnation of the violation of norms while at the same time insisting in calling to account those norm celebrators who were themselves, in better days, violators of those same norms?  How on earth do you put an essay in a tweet, let alone on a bumper sticker?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

QUICK ANSWER TO SOME QUESTIONS


One of the anonymati [is that even a word?] asks this:

 “What is the best Marxian argument for affirmative action?

Is there a Marxian response (or how would one approach if making one) to the current health-care system in the U.S.?”

In their different ways, these questions pose interesting problems for someone like myself who finds Marx’s analysis of capitalism insightful, powerful, persuasive, and in its central thesis true.  By “Marxian argument” or “Marxian response” I take it the reader means either “Marx’s argument,” “Marx’s response” or else something like “an argument implied by Marx’s arguments” and “a response likely to be given by someone who finds Marx’s analysis of capitalism persuasive.”

I say this, clunky as it sounds, because I reject the widespread tendency to treat Marx as akin to a religious prophet, as though one were asking “What is a Christian argument for affirmative action?” or “Is there a Muslim response to the current health care system in the U. S.?”

The simple reply to the first question is that Marx has no argument for affirmative action and his critique of capitalism does not seem to imply one.  Why not?  For two reasons:  First, Marx was convinced, on the basis of his deep study of the development of capitalism in England, that capitalism was rapidly destroying the distinction between the city and the country, between craft labor, agricultural labor, and factory labor, between the roles of men and of women in the working class, and between national, religious, and ethnic identities.  This root and branch revolutionizing of established society, along with the absorption of small businesses into large ones, was rapidly replacing the complex status divisions of pre-capitalist and even early capitalist society with a stark confrontation between big business and a working class.

Second, the modern movement for affirmative action or “liberation” of African-Americans, of women, of gay and lesbian Americans is, at base, an attempt to perfect the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist social formations, not to move beyond capitalism.  The fundamental demand of African-Americans is that they be treated legally, politically, economically, and socially exactly as White Americans are treated, and analogous demands are made by women and by the LGBTQ community.  These demands are thoroughly legitimate, but they have nothing to do with Marx’s critique of capitalism.  [The reality is a bit more complicated, I know, but I am not trying to write a book, just a blog post.]

An analogous response would be given by Marx or by someone like me to the second question.  Affordable, available, guaranteed health care is one element of what has been called The Welfare State or the Social Safety Net.  It is pretty clearly a capitalist effort both to buy off the working class so that it will not revolt and to handle one aspect of the problem of inadequate market demand that has bedeviled capitalism since its inception.  Marx was not interested in proposing fixes designed to shore up capitalism.  Since I have no expectation of a socialist transformation of capitalist society any time soon, alas, I am deeply committed to making capitalism as livable as possible for the mass of human beings, but I do not imagine that I am doing this in Marx’s name.

Does any of that help to answer the questions?

Friday, June 1, 2018

QUICK RESPONSE


S. Wallerstein remarks, a propos my post Deep State, “I'm no fan of the FBI, but in general, they may well be generally conservative people …”  This called to mind the hilarious old 1967 film, “The President’s Analyst,” starring James Coburn.  The FBI agents are portrayed as uptight boy scouts in coats and ties and hats, and the CIA agents are portrayed as laidback academic types in tweed jackets with elbow patches smoking pipes.  Spoiler alert:  the real villain turns out to be AT&T.

THE DEEP STATE


We have heard a good deal lately about the Deep State, a cabal of career government officials in the Justice Department, the State Department, and other federal agencies who are opposed to the presidency of Donald Trump and are using their powers secretly to undermine his authority and resist his executive will.  The term “Deep State” seems to have been given currency by Steve Bannon, although I am sure it predates him.  References to the Deep State apparently abound in right wing media circles and form a part of conspiracy stories circulated on the Right.

Is there in fact a Deep State?  Of course there is, but not only in the Federal Government.  There is also a Deep State in the military, in the Catholic Church, in every university, in every corporation, in the Boy Scouts, in every state government, even in the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and of course there is a Deep State in the Internal Revenue Service.  All of these Deep States, and many others besides, have a name, made current in intellectual circles by the greatest sociologist ever [save for Marx], Max Weber.  They are called bureaucracies.

Let us remind ourselves of the etymology of the term “bureaucracy.”  A Democracy is a state ruled by the Demos, the people.  An Aristocracy is a state ruled by the Ariston, the best [never mind the truth.]  An Ochlocracy  is a state ruled by a mob.  And a Kleptocracy is a state ruled by thieves.  A Bureaucracy is, by extension, a state ruled by the Bureau, which is to say by the faceless occupants of government offices, or bureaus, the career employees, the paper pushers, the rule promulgators, interpreters, and enforcers.

A charismatic leader may succeed by force of personality in bending a band of followers to his or her will.   But inevitably, ineluctably, as Weber shows in brilliant detail, there is a regularization of decision making, what Weber calls in an exquisite turn of phrase the routinization of charisma.  It could not be otherwise.  Consider.

In an organization of tens or hundreds of thousands of individuals, an extensive division of function becomes necessary in order to achieve and maintain an acceptable and sustainable level of coordination.  Some people in the organization make their careers by filling the positions charged with keeping track of procedures, codifying them into organizational rules, applying the rules, answering questions about the rules, enforcing the rules, interpreting the rules.  Efficiency and fairness require that these rules in general be applied uniformly.  Otherwise, others in the organization would not know what to expect in any given operational interaction.

The rule keepers, interpreters, and enforcers stick around for thirty years or more, as senior management personnel come and go.  Some top managers come up through the ranks, and along the way acquire experience in using the rules to advance their policy preferences.  Other senior managers come in at the top from other bureaucratic organizations and are forced to rely on the advice of the career bureaucrats.

From time to time a senior manager adopts a new policy to which the career bureaucrats are opposed [either for ideological reasons or simply because the policy is a break with settled practices with which the career bureaucrats are comfortable.]  The careerists, the members of the Deep State, have enormous on-the-ground power to frustrate the new manager, either by slow walking the objectionable policy, or by invoking obscure regulations that undermine its implementation.  Rather like the mountains in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King, who measure time in eons, they are in the organization for life, and know that if they can stall an unwanted innovation long enough, the senior manager will retire or move on and a new senior manager will be appointed, at which time the entire process starts anew.

All of this has been well known and understood for a century or more.  It is true of the American government, it is true of the British, French, German, Chinese, and Indian governments, and it would, alas, be true of a socialist government were one ever to come into existence.  Mao tried to inhibit the routinization of charisma by a policy of permanent revolution, but he failed, predictably and inevitably.

At the moment, we can all be grateful for the Deep State.  When we take power, it will be our sworn enemy.  Such is life.

FORTHCOMING

Well, I have told the NY TIMES and the post office to hold my paper and mail, I have alerted my credit card company that I am going abroad, and my Brussels talk is prepared, so a week from today I can fly off to Paris.  Later today, I should like to write about two subjects I have been turning over in my mind during my morning walks, one of which is clear in my mind, the other of which is quite murky.  But first, an observation about the supposed tribalization of American political discourse.

As I watch cable news discussions, I sometimes wonder idly what I would say if I were invited to be a guest on one of them, but I realize after a bit that it would be hopeless.  I would feel like a modern astrophysicist invited to engage in a discussion with a group of Ptolemaic astronomers having a vigorous debate about the precise arrangement of the epicyclic structure of the heavens.  This morning on Morning Joe the discussion centered on Trump's disastrous undermining of America's leadership of the Free World.  Had I been at the table, I would have raised doubts about the phrase "the Free World" and the others would have looked at me uncomprehendingly and continued with their discussion.  Then, as actually happened, Mike Barnacle would deliver a moving speech about the American Experiment, and when I called that phrase into question, I would have been politely but firmly removed from the table during the next commercial break.

Any useful discussion rests on a set of background or foundational shared understandings about the world.  You can only call those assumptions into question so many times before everyone else gets exasperated and tells you to shut up.  So, if you are a Copernican in astronomy, you start talking only to other Copernicans, because it is exhausting and fruitless to keep saying, "But the sun does not revolve around the earth."  And if you are like me, your eyes glaze over when yet again someone refers in passing to the obvious and unquestionable fact that America is the Leader of the Free World.  Oh, I try, I really try, but you cannot get supposedly serious people to think openly about a set of world-defining assumptions that shape every moment of their deep engagement with the surfaces of American public life.  Nothing short of a Pauline conversion on the road to Damascus is called for, and an argument, no matter how powerful, is not likely to trigger such a bouleversement.

Phooey.  I am going to trim my beard.  I will be back later.