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Wednesday, August 28, 2019


I promised Tom Cathcart an explanation of my cryptic remark that the NY TIMES’s 1619 Project was “the wrong story.”  I thought I could get away with referencing my book, Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, but Tom has read that [one of the few!] and is still puzzled, so here goes.

The standard story of America is that it is exceptional, a nation founded on an idea, The Idea of Freedom, a land, to be sure with defects [brief allusion to slavery], but nonetheless dedicated over its long life to the gradual realization of The Idea of Freedom, first by the freeing of the slaves, then by the slow extension of suffrage to women, to Negroes, then by the modern Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, the LGBTQ Movement and throughout by the steady, onward, upward perfection of the vision of the Founding Fathers.  For this reason, America has been and remains a City on a Hill, a model for all mankind, the Leader of the Free World, the Last Best Hope for Mankind.

For eighty-five years, going all the way back to W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, four generations of great scholars, Black and White, have been challenging and revising that story.  The 1619 Project is a splendid popular compendium of the results of their research.  The Project places the slaves and their descendants at the center of the American story rather than at the periphery.  But it is still a story of free White men and women and their slaves.  The story is so changed as to be almost unrecognizable, but it is still the same story.

The true story is different [and here I rely entirely on those very same scholars, for I have contributed not so much as a single brick to the edifice they have reared by their splendid work.]  From those earliest days in the 17th century, America was a colonial outpost built on unfree labor White and Black.  In early Colonial America, there were very few Whites whom we today would recognize as free, free to live where they chose, free to work as they chose, free to marry whom they chose.  At the outset, there was no clearly defined status of chattel slavery, for no such status existed in the English Common Law that the settlers brought with them.  Slowly, over almost two centuries, in inseparable interaction with one another, two legal, social, and economic statuses crystallized:  Free White Citizenship and Black Chattel Slavery.  The process was local, complex, messy, and never successfully carried through, for indentured servitude for Whites continued for a long time and there were, contrary to all theory, free Black men and women prior to the Civil War.  But the status of free citizenship for Whites was defined in contrast to and even in terms of, the status of chattel slavery for Blacks.

America has never been a City Upon a Hill, the Only Nation Founded On An Idea, the Last Best Hope on earth.  It was, at the outset, a White Settler colony built on unfree labor, White and Black, and that fact must be made central to any understanding of its nature today.

Something like that is the true story of America.


Howie said...

So for the sake of argument: first, in relative contemporary times, where is a land of freedom and equality to be found and secondly, America for some time in the past 150 years was evolving, wasn't it? From your POV and in your humble opinion

Chris said...

Howie why would you ask this:

"where is a land of freedom and equality to be found" ?

The answer is pretty obviously nowhere, ever. Given the negative answer, does that in anyway jeopardize Professor Wolff's salient points?

David Palmeter said...

Slavery, bad as it was, was also pretty much universal in 1776--and there was nothing to outlaw it in 1619. All of the European colonial powers permitted it. What we added, and what made slavery far worse, was racism.

“Racism thus absorbed in Virginia the fear and contempt that men in England, whether Whig or Tory, monarchist or republican, felt for the inarticulate lower classes. Racism made it possible for white Virginians to develop a devotion to the equality that English republicans had declared to be the soul of liberty. There were too few free poor on hand to matter. And by lumping Indians, mulattoes, and Negroes in a single pariah class, Virginians paved the way for a similar lumping of small and large planters into a single master class...the forces which dictated that Virginians see Negroes, mulattoes, and Indians as one also dictated that they see large and small planters as one. Racism became an essential, if unacknowledged, ingredient of the republican ideology that enabled Virginians to lead the nation.”--Edmund S. Morgan, “American Slavery, American Freedom.”

Anonymous said...

Slavery, bad as it was, was also pretty much universal in 1776--and there was nothing to outlaw it in 1619. All of the European colonial powers permitted it. What we added, and what made slavery far worse, was racism.

Frankly, it is not obvious why racism, bad as it is, makes slavery exceptionally worse in the American case. Would slavery be better, however slightly, if slaves were enslaved by people of the same "race"?

Or, is this a case of inverse exceptionalism?

David Palmeter said...


Racism has allowed the impact of slavery to continue here in a way that it hasn’t in Russia, Ukraine and other places in Eastern Europe where slaves were ethnically the same as the masters. Serfdom was abolished in the 1860s, right about the time of emancipation here. There was no Jim Crow reign of terror in Europe after emancipation. Unlike the US, 80 years later they were able to fight WWII without a segregated army,

Howie said...

Chris, then it lives only in your imagination. Maybe we can reframe the question given the reality that politics is a human affair and does not deal with ideal bodies as does Geometry

Tom Cathcart said...

Thank you, Bob, for the response. To David Palmeter’s point, I live in a town (Red Hook, NY, originally part of Rhinebeck) that was settled by indentured Palatine German servants. Unlike their African-American contemporaries, they have faded from memory. The reason, of course, is the impossibility if labeling them as other.

LFC said...

I don't quite get why Prof. Wolff thinks the fact that what became the U.S. was founded on unfree black *and* white labor is so significant. By his own telling, two statuses, somewhat idealized but nonetheless grounded in facts, eventually emerged, viz. free whites and, largely but not exclusively in the South, enslaved blacks. So by the 19th century one can certainly refer to "free white men and women and their slaves," esp. when speaking of the Southern relatively-large-plantation economy.

The phrase City on a Hill, grossly misused by 20th-cent U.S. politicians according to historian Daniel Rodgers (see, should be discarded, along w the Last Best Hope of Mankind and all that crap. City on a Hill is a biblical phrase forgotten until the rediscovery of the 1630 John Winthrop sermon. However, this does not mean one can simply ignore, by extension, all of the other ideological underpinnings of the U.S. (Jefferson's most famous line in the Dec of Independence saw white men as equal bearers of inalienable (or is it unalienable?) rights, a limited application of the principle but still w some significance.) The Enlightenment and civic-republican ideologies of some of the Founders do not underwrite an American exceptionalism, but they are still of some importance.

U.S. history, in other words, is marked by contradictions, like every other national history no doubt. The sordid aspects are too well known to need much repetition here. The imperial features of U.S. history are also well known. S. Hahn argued in A Nation without Borders that the U.S. has always been an empire but only became a nation, or nation-state, during and after the Civil War. But the tensions inherent in a federal system betw. the prerogatives of individual states and those of the federal govt remained even after the end of the Civil War. Federal land policy, esp w/r/t the West, favored white settlers and ensured that they would form a majority in key areas as more and more areas were taken from Native pops. (see Frymer, Building an American Empire). All these are significant dimensions of U.S. history and I don't see how the fact that the U.S. was originally a "white settler colony built on unfree labor, white and black" necessarily changes how we think about them. Arguably, continental conquest (euphemistically referred to as "expansion") and the fights over slavery culminating in the Civil War could have unfolded in much the same way had the original character of colonial settlement been somewhat different.

Chris said...

Your response is a complete red herring. You answered nothing I asked:


Howie why would you ask this:

"where is a land of freedom and equality to be found" ?

The answer is pretty obviously nowhere, ever. Given the negative answer, does that in anyway jeopardize Professor Wolff's salient points?

Christopher J. Mulvaney, Ph.D. said...

I would add that race had been, at least in Europe, a changeable thing. The Brits considered the Irish a "race" and an inferior one at that for centuries. (This of course is despite the fact that Irish monks reintroduced literacy and higher learning to Briton about 560CE.) This looser notion was reflected in Ralph Waldo Emerson's thinking in 1855 when he wrote:

"I think it can not be maintained by any candid person that the African races have ever occupied...any very high place in the human family....The Irish cannot. The Chinese cannot. The American Indian cannot. Before the energy of the Caucasian race, all other races have quailed and done obeisance."

There was a time when Europeans considered the peoples of the various countries as having different "characters," as being different types of people and for awhile I think that notion morphed into the use of the term race. Some characteristics were judged better than others by one country or another and were used to justify superiority. No doubt the British thought the French were an inferior race, and the French thought the Italians were inferior and so on...

I am well out of my area of expertise here, but, having ended slavery but not white supremacy, the ground was well prepared for social Darwinism to be constructed in the 1870's to use as the ideology of post reconstruction southern white domination.

Being of Irish descent, I must note that the Irish made a fool out of Emerson two years later when, in a 2 day gun battle with the Bowery Boys, a gang allied with the virulently nativist American Republican Party, aka the Know-Nothing's, were defeated by the Irish. The Irish were then a part of the Tammany Hall structure that they took over later. So much for quailing and doing obeisance to the W.A.S.P.'s! It also points to power defining domination and subordination.

s. wallerstein said...

Christopher Mulvaney,

I'm far from an expert on this subject, but it seems that in the 19th century there was an explanatory racism and a bigoted racism.

If you read Nietzsche, he's full of racial explanations. For example, he believes that the Jews are a race, but in general, although he explains Jewish characteristics in racial terms, he has a favorable opinion of the Jews. In his own words, he's an "anti-anti-Semite". Nietzsche in general explains different national cultures in racial terms, but that doesn't mean that he is bigoted towards all other cultures although I'm sure that you can find bigoted passages in Nietzsche.

Wagner also sees the Jews as a race, but he's an anti-Semite and a bigot towards Jews.

Very few people in the late 19th century would say, as we do today, that races do not exist.

Chris said...

Talha, if you're there, can you recommend any books on race and or American Racism? Or whatever is piquing your interest.

Anonymous said...

David Palmeter,

Racism has allowed the impact of slavery to continue here in a way that it hasn’t in Russia, Ukraine and other places in Eastern Europe where slaves were ethnically the same as the masters. Serfdom was abolished in the 1860s, right about the time of emancipation here.

You do know that slavery and serfdom are different things, yes?

There was no Jim Crow reign of terror in Europe after emancipation.

No, there wasn't. In Russia what there was was the forced collectivization of Ukrainian kulaks. Much better, I suppose.

That's where the City on the Hill was.

Unlike the US, 80 years later they were able to fight WWII without a segregated army.

I must be too dumb, David, but no matter how hard I try, I really fail to see that making serfdom better than slavery. Are we to think that the fact that one's allowed to die and lose one's limbs and health in a desegregated military is some kind of improvement? Seriously?

So, that was the main problem black GIs had: who cares about being shot, when one's segregated?

Yay! Lashes from one's siblings hurt less than lashes from our cousins, because they are delivered with fraternal love.

God, give me strength.

Howie said...

Dear Chris, I asked a question in good faith and you mocked my good faith- I think you are rather cynical and think you have all the answers, plus you know a few advanced vocabulary words like "red herring"
If you were a charitable reader of my question, rather than out to score a political point. let me say all I was asking was where have people gotten closer than we have.
To me the world is a complicated place, with or without humans; 99 % of the stuff that goes on, I never hear about and 99 % of the stuff I know I don't understand and I think that goes for you and Professor Wolff too
You might think that life is as simple as x + y = z, but it's obvious from your comments that you have no more a clue than anyone else.
Try a little intellectual humility rather than telling others what to think
Let me finish by pointing out that you are better than all the Trump trolls. just grow up, you don't know everything about life, and neither do I

Charles Pigden said...

In reply to Anoymous. Slavery was not universal in 1776. Here is Wikipedia on slavery in the UK

Somersett's case in 1772 held that slavery had no basis in English law and was thus a violation of Habeaus Corpus. This built on the earlier Cartwright case from the Reign of Elizabeth I which had similar held the concept of slavery was not recognised in English law. This case was generally taken at the time to have decided that the condition of slavery did not exist under English law, and emancipated the remaining ten to fourteen thousand slaves or possible slaves in England and Wales, who were mostly domestic servants.[7] However slavery elsewhere in the British Empire was not affected. It was influential in causing the American colonies to rise up who held English common law applied to them.[8] Joseph Knight's case in 1778 established a similar position in Scots law. Slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire by the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, with exceptions provided for the East India Company, Ceylon, and Saint Helena. These exceptions were eliminated in 1843.[9]

So slavery existed in the British Empire circa 1776 but not in Britain itself.

Michael Hobart said...

Apropos Prof. Wolff's blog and the above comments, I would recommend Greg Grandin's most recent book, "The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America." Not only does Grandin put paid, yet again, to American exceptionalism, he does so by interweaving into the story the myth of the frontier and expansion in its role as a means of rationalizing and justifying (and mystifying) the egregious, exploitative practices of past and present. He pulls no punches in seeing racism, militarism, conquest, and comparable injustices as an integral part of American history, indeed as its central theme embodied by the myth. And Grandin brings the story's political edge to the present, to the conflict over the wall. In the final chapter, he even mentions in passing Hegel' remark that masters and slaves are both captives of the same system.

It's a book well worth reading.

Chris said...

I mean this as sincerely, literally, and explicitly as I can: My first response to you was NOT AN ATTEMPT AT MOCKERY, I WAS GENUINELY CONFUSED AS TO THE DIRECTION AND INTENTION OF YOUR QUESTION.

J. Fleming said...

" Trying to remedy racism on its own intellectual terrain is like trying to extinguish a fire by striking another match. The fiction must be unbelieved, the fire stamped out." Racecraft The Soul of Inequality in American Life by Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields

Paul C. said...

For what it's worth, I was intrigued enough by your brief comments on the 1619 Project that I read Autobiography of an Ex-White Man, which I found very informative.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I am delighted.

Howie said...

Alright Chris, we're cool

Talha said...

Hey Chris,

Well J. Fleming beat me to the punch, with that brilliant quote from the Fields' Racecraft.

For me, Barbara J. Fields is simply *the* leading thinker on the question of slavery and the construction of race in its aftermath and of "racism" as precisely the outgrowth of the social relations of slavery rather than, as in the well nigh universal consensus, of "racism" as some independent variable that, if not the actual the driver of slavery--as in the fantastic concoction by one US historian that "slavery was the ultimate segregator"-- in any case some free-floating "attitude" concerning "races" independent of social relations of production. I think I've previously linked to Fields 1987 essay in New Left Review, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States," which I think is perhaps the best single source on this. A more accessible version of the argument:

I also very much like Adolph Reed on the question. (In case it's relevant, I should say that though I have heard some murmurs that recently his hostility, which I share, toward neoliberal identity politics has either spilled over into undue bitterness toward some identity progressives or hardened into an excessive dismissal of identity concerns, I haven't seen the specifics so don't know myself.)

Here is an exchange on the topic of "Race/Class in America" between Reed and another of my leading lights, Ellen Meiksin Wood:

DDA said...

There's a nice corrective/summary here: capitalism and slavery

Chris said...

Thanks Talha!

I love the stuff I've read and listened to by Reed, but none of it dealt with slavery or early American history. The affirmation of identity politics strikes me as ultimately impotent in terms of political change, however, the wholesale rejection of claims that begin with "As a *minority*..." is even more problematic. Up to now I haven't witnessed Reed being dismissive.

EMW is mentioned or cited in dozens and dozens of books I've read, but I've never gotten around to actually reading her. Mea culpa.

[I'm presenting at a conference on race and justice in a few months, except I'm presenting a paper that criticizes all distributive theories of justice as inept, and papering over the fact that class is an antecedent structure, and the most dominant one, that gives rise to the need for redistribution in the first place. No clue how my essay got accepted! Many pro identity politics theorists will be there. So we'll see what happens when my very white, and very male rear end, enters the lions den!]

Appreciate what you've sent. Now I'm in the perennially difficult position of sticking to reading what I'm doing, or branching out into race theory.

LFC said...


If racism was an outgrowth of the social relations of slavery, then one might think racism in the U.S. would have ended when slavery ended in the U.S. But of course, it didn't. Also, how do you explain the fact that there was racism in parts of the North where slavery ended quite early? How do you explain the fact that one wing of the abolitionist movement favored so-called colonization, i.e., ending slavery and then deporting freed blacks en masse to Africa? How do you explain that some of Frederick Douglass's white supporters in the North patronizingly told him just to give them the facts about slavery and leave the philosophy and the theorizing to them? Or that Lincoln in his famous debates w Stephen Douglas was at pains to point out that he (Lincoln) did not favor equalizing the social status of blacks and whites? In short, there were racist attitudes (yes, attitudes, it's a perfectly good word) in the North and among those who opposed the territorial extension of slavery (Lincoln) and also among some abolitionists. While racism was not a "free-floating" attitude entirely independent of material conditions and the social relations of production, I also doubt it's reducible to those conditions and relations.

Chris said...


As I believe I've made clear, I'm a total ignoramus in this debate, but I don't think various rhetorical questions you pose follows from your primary chain of reasoning:

"If racism was an outgrowth of the social relations of slavery, then one might think racism in the U.S. would have ended when slavery ended in the U.S. But of course, it didn't"

If lung cancer is an outgrowth of smoking, one might think lung cancer would end when a user stopped smoking. But of course it doesn't. <-- The problem in your reasoning is perhaps more noticeable in this argument.

If lung cancer is an outgrowth of smoking, and I develop it, just because I've stopped smoking, it doesn't follow that my outgrowth would also stop. Right? Smoking was the catalyst but the effect exceeds its cause.

"Also, how do you explain the fact that there was racism in parts of the North where slavery ended quite early?"

This seems to flounder under the same objection. That slavery existed at all, whether long or short, is sufficient for Talha's claim to go through. Just as whether or not I got cancer from smoking for 20 years instead of 70, doesn't change the fact that cancer is an outgrowth of smoking, and won't cease just because I ceased smoking.

All of your subsequent "what abouts" occur AFTER slavery was founded, which according to Talha was the antecedent and necessary condition for racism to obtain. Once it has obtained, as an outgrowth - like cancer - it can survive even if it's initial catalyst is removed. I think? I hope I'm not misconstruing everyone's views.

Now I'm not arguing that Talha's theory is right. I'm not arguing that it's wrong either. I'm pleading ignorance. However, as criticisms of Talha's view, I'm not sure these stand up to scrutiny?

Talha said...

Wow Chris, good luck!

Can I suggest that you take into account that you'll be not one but *two* steps removed from everyone else in the room: the usual debate is between the politics of "recognition" (identity) and those of "redistribution" (socio-economic justice). With the "outre" non-identity position being that of hard-core insistence on socio-economic justice. But even the hard-core socio-economic folks still conceive the questions in basically distributive terms. With your (salutary) push to put distribution in its place, behind and within the structure of social relations of *production* you'll be even further away from the common sense of the room! I mean the farthest most anyone's consciousness seems to ever get is JS Mill (here I mean his Principles of Political Economy, not On Liberty or Utilitarianism). And even that only at the high-point of the development of the welfare/social-democratic state--thus Rawls's Theory of Justice (1971). The Marx of Grundrisse and Gotha Programme seems to elude one and all!

Chris said...

Long story short, my argument is LITERALLY the Marx of the Grundrisse and Gotha Program AGAINST Rawlsianism. Quite literally, I quote from those two Marx texts on almost every page.

I first wrote the paper in a course by a Rawls expert, who confided to me after the semester ended "I've never read anything like this. I'm shaken. I have no response".

So you're right, I'm far outside the Nancy Fracer-Axel Honneth wheelhouse. Thank god.


Distributive justice has been the paradigmatic philosophical position regarding matters of justice for several decades. Distributive justice often focuses on issues of resource allocation and/or welfare allocation. In this essay I argue that this paradigm is mistaken, and issues of productive justice ought to take precedence. The way in which people work, and the nature of the productive workplace, condition the possibilities of obtaining distributive justice, thus productive justice is of antecedent concern for realizing justice overall. But even if this claim were to be false, it is the case that distributive justice theorists have now allowed productive justice into their considered judgments and thus are operating with something short of serious reflective equilibrium. Productive justice therefore deserves unprecedented analysis and philosophical consideration.

Dean said...

I want to read that dissertation when it's finished. Very encouraging.

I think you mean "distributive justice theorists have *not* allowed productive justice..."

Talha said...

Fabulous Chris, precisely as I was intuiting! Btw, the penultimate sentence in your abstract is really key: as you say, some folks are finally turning to the issue of, variously labeled, "productive justice" or "contributive justice." But most (not all) of that work remains extremely thin, when not downright silly. So what you are pushing here is precisely what is needed.

And thanks for the responses to LFC on my behalf, which are precisely on the right track. A fuller response along those lines--one that also takes into account SW's objections--is merited, but I don't have the time to develop it right now.

So two brief remarks in lieu: (a) First, we need to put aside any notion that I am pushing something called a "class" first or even "capitalism" first line. No, my point is about social relations of production, be they those of slavery or of capitalism full-blown. (b) Second, it is about *historically-specific* such social relations: in the US, those of slavery are foundational, perhaps constitutive, of much of American history that follows, while in other places it will be other relations. Such as, to go to SW's points, those of colonial expansion by European powers, resulting in their own formation of "Western" versus various colonized "National" identities. All, again, doing precisely what the Fields' quote given by J. Fleming above points to: delinking racialized or other identity formations from the social relations generating them, to now attack "racism" and defend "identities" in some free-floating reified way.

Talha said...

Ah I see now, thanks to Dean, that I probably mis-read your penultimate sentence, Chris. In which case let me suggest that it actually is the case that some embryonic considerations of "productive" or "contributive" justice has begun in the literature, and that you may want to take some of that into account, at least down the road (again much of it, in my view, is quite thin/bad, but a small sliver is very much along the right track I think--see the line inaugurated by Paul Gomberg's work and being taken up by Andrew Sayer among others).

(Also brief side remark on EMW: I think her theoretical development of Robert Brenner's historical and theoretical work is simply indispensable. Their "political Marxism" position being a crucial reinforcing supplement to the work of "value-form" theorists of the "new Marx reading" German theorists tracing back, via Sohn-Rothel, to Lukacs and II Rubin. My own favs here are Diane Elson ("value theory of labor" instead of "labor theory of value") and, whom you don't like, Michael Heinrich.)

Talha said...

Ah, I got so lost in identifying the valuable lines that I forgot to add the important qualification I wanted to make re EMW: she, as with Brenner, operates with a view of class within capitalism that is, I think, simply untenably impoverished or simple-minded. Admittedly virtually all other Marxists have the same problem, in my view, with their single-minded focus on "social-property relations" at the expense of "social division of labor" but it remains, for all that, a problem. Indeed, in my view, it is *the* core problem of the entire Marxist tradition.

Chris said...

Couple things here.

First, to Dean and also Talha: That penultimate sentence is clunky out of context, hence the confusion. It fits within the chronology of the essay itself. After giving my Marxian critiques of distributive justice I then write AS IF much of what I just said is wrong. That is, if it is the case that production is not antecedent to distribution, I have at least shown that production matters as something to consider in the development of a just society. So I walk back one claim, i.e., I could be wrong that production is of antecedent concern, but I stick to another claim: it's still of obvious concern. So, going forward with humility: "it is the case that distributive justice theorists have now allowed productive justice into their considered judgments and thus are operating with something short of serious reflective equilibrium. Productive justice therefore deserves unprecedented analysis and philosophical consideration."

Dean, it's just an essay. My dissertation is Marx's theory of exploitation and why everyone after Marx has fundamentally misunderstood it.

Talha, I would consider reconsidering Heinrich's work. I finished the first volume of his Marx bio, he's quite astute and has spent enough time in the archives that I'll give him a second, third, and fourth chance :) Especially since I do appreciate the work of Sohn-Rothel and Rubin. And in my own dissertation and when I teach Marx, I also emphasize that it's a value theory of labor not a labor theory of value (which to my mind undercuts Professor Wolff's criticisms of Marx), although I have not read Diane Elson. I should!

Having not read Brenner or EMW, I can say that Marxist that focus on property relations are - to my mind - missing the point. And which Marxists do that? 99% of them. Minus Postone!

Dean said...

Got it. So there's a chance the essay will see some form of publication, e.g., in a collection of conference proceedings?

Not sure it's all that important, but I don't quite get the logic of "now" versus "not" in that sentence. I follow everything up to: "theorists...*thus* are operating..." If theorists have "now allowed productive justice into their considered judgments," then how does it follow ("thus") that they fall short of serious reflective equilibrium? This is why I thought you meant "not": failure to consider PJ at all falls short. Had you written that DJ "theorists have now allowed PJ into their considered judgments, but they are operating with something short...," I also would have grokked the sentence.

Chris said...

The goal is to publish it in an academic journal.

The 'thus' follows because in admitting productive justice into their considerations, so late in the development of theory, in order to achieve reflective equilibrium, justice theorists will at a minimum need to rework their entire project.

I'm going to copy and paste from the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, since they articulate reflective equilibrium better than I could:

"The method of reflective equilibrium consists in working back and forth among our considered judgments (some say our “intuitions,” though Rawls (1971), the namer of the method, avoided the term “intuitions ”in this context) about particular instances or cases, the principles or rules that we believe govern them, and the theoretical considerations that we believe bear on accepting these considered judgments, principles, or rules, revising any of these elements wherever necessary in order to achieve an acceptable coherence among them. The method succeeds and we achieve reflective equilibrium when we arrive at an acceptable coherence among these beliefs."

Considering 99.9% of all distributive justice theories never even consider the social relations of production, and considering the social relations of production are definitely connected to the form in which we distribute goods, and the hierarchies of power, along with the hierarchies of decisions made about distribution, DJ theorists are FAR of the mark of having obtained reflective equilibrium. Either their projects are radically unfinished, i.e., they need to figure out how to make PJ fit within their door stop books on DJ, or their entire projects are upside down (that's my argument), in which case they need to start over. Does that make sense? We want our PJ and DJ to be in harmony, and when no one discussed PJ period, immanent harmony is dubious.

If you semi accept what I'm getting at, you can see Rawls is a disaster from the start (from page 9 of door stopper):

“A conception of social justice, then, is to be regarded as providing in the **first instance** a standard whereby the **distributive aspects** of the basic structure of society are to be assessed”

This implies that the PRODUCTIVE aspects are secure as is. Well that's just false.

I contrast Rawls to Steinbeck, specifically his novel In Dubious Battle:

“Sure they liked it. Men always like to work together. There's a hunger in men to work together. Do you know ten men can lift nearly twelve times as big a load as one man can? It only takes a little spark to get them going. Most of the time they're suspicious, because every time someone gets 'em working in a group the profit of their work is taken away from them; but wait till they get working for themselves. Tonight the work concerned them, it was their job; and see how well they did it”

Hell I'll just paste the intro, thesis and roadmap. Everyone else reading Professor Wolff's blog, just ignore me :)

Chris said...

Opens with the Rawls and Steinbeck quotes, then I write:

It should strike the reader that Steinbeck and Rawls are saying two different sorts of things, and making two different sorts of claims. It should also strike the reader that both claims are a matter of justice. One concerns the distribution of goods, services, and positions, in a society that is for the mutual advantage of all. The other concerns the inequality in the workplace which prevents the achievement of the mutual advantage of all, because the workplace is organized in a contentious and hierarchical fashion.

In matters of contemporary justice theory, distribution is often the predominant focus, be it in systemic justice theories in general (e.g., Rawls), or in egalitarian theories in particular (e.g., Cohen). Often theorists focus on the distribution of resources, or the distribution of welfare (Lamon & Favor). The former would be the goods and services someone should have provided for them as a matter of justice (e.g., healthcare and a house), and the latter would be the state of well-being someone is entitled to as a matter of justice, of which a certain patterned distribution of goods and services is a necessary condition for obtaining just welfare (e.g., access to good literature and sustenance). Certainly there are nuances to theories of distribution, and recent advances in justice theory will often focus on the distribution of capabilities (Nussbaum), but my focus will be on the paradigm of distribution that seeks to create just patterns in resources and welfare. My general concern, and contention, is that distributive justice theories are predicated upon thought experiments and dynamic logical arguments which are ultimately placing the cart before the horse. The trolley problem is a popular thought experiment in philosophy that is used to derive principles of morality, regarding whether or not an agent has the right to murder a fat person to save several more (Edmonds). If one answers this thought experiment by saying how we ought to go about telling the family of the murdered individual why their kin is dead, we have placed the cart before the horse, that is, instead of deriving a rudimentary principle of morality, we have moved to a secondary stage of the problem, without offering justification (deriving a rudimentary principle) for antecedent actions – killing the fat man. My contention is distributive justice as the paradigm theory of justice is tantamount to answering the trolley problem by starting with addressing the family of the deceased.

I am going to argue that a problem of justice exists prior to distribution, i.e., production, and the way to answer the production problem is going to shape and inform the possible answers we can provide in matters of distributive justice. By taking the distribution paradigm for granted, we are pre-answering, implicitly, matters of productive justice. I will demonstrate this proof by focusing on the two predominant arenas of distributive justice: welfare, and resources. I will show that answering the concerns of production are a necessary condition for the possible obtaining of distributive justice. First I will rehash some arguments Marx gave towards the end of his life regarding the problems with distributive justice. Next I will argue that his insights are correct in regards to resources, and then I will argue that his insights were correct in regards to welfare. Finally, I will conclude the paper by summarizing my argument as to why productive justice should be an antecedent concern to distributive justice. It should be noted that I will take for granted that some form of private capitalistic markets are the default positions of many non-Marxian theories of justice.

LFC said...

I'm thinking about the replies to me but don't have time rt now to respond. Maybe will do so later.

Nice Nihilist said...

I hope this essay on productive versus distributive justice is published and I look forward to reading it.

BTW, it is doubtful that anyone has attained a state of reflective equilibrium, even momentarily.

Dean said...

Well, there. I was unaware (ignorant, you might say) of the Rawls connection of the term, despite having dipped a big toe in Rawls long ago. Thanks.

Dean said...

How does corrective justice fit, if at all, into any of this? It's independent of production or distribution; it examines states of affairs somehow gone awry and proposes corrective remedies. That it's dubbed "corrective" suggests that it's second order, because we only need to correct a deviation from what is already understood as the proper state of affairs. But inasmuch as CJ implicates principles of equity and fairness, it springs from our most fundamental if also subjective beliefs, intuitions, and expectations. It would inform, for example, the response to the family of the dead fat man, not because it puts the cart before the horse (a marvelous image given the context), but because it directly addresses and explains how circumstances should best have unfolded.

Maybe corrective justice is too purely legal a concept, not suited to Rawls' project.

LFC said...

(1) My comment above on slavery and racism was written rather quickly and not phrased as carefully as it could have been. Not sure whether I'm ready to retract the basic position, but I should be much better read in the literature on racism (and that on slavery) before commenting further on this. I do think it's interesting that even some abolitionists, those who were committed to, in some cases, the immediate end of slavery on moral grounds, were not free of attitudes that we would consider racist today. I'm not sure, though, that that fact leads to any particular conclusion about the origins of racism. It means that even many abolitionists could not free themselves completely of the assumptions and attitudes about race that pervaded the entire society, but again, that doesn't necessarily imply anything in particular about the origin or "cause" of those assumptions.

(2) I've read Critique of the Gotha Program, albeit a long time ago. I didn't think then, and don't think now, that it is Marx at his most insightful. W/o going back to re-read it, I'll say that his statements on distribution vs. production there struck me as too categorical, though he was right to the extent that an exclusive focus on distribution, to the complete neglect of production, made little sense, certainly not for anyone who claimed to be a socialist in the mid-19th century. (I'll note that he does say at one point you can't change the distribution of income without changing the mode of production, which probably wasn't empirically correct when he wrote it and certainly wasn't empirically true after his death, i.e. in the 20th cent. I understand that's not his central point, but he does say it. [Unless I've hallucinated that passage and it doesn't exist, which, given the hour here, is not totally impossible.]) Of course it was basically a polemic against Lassalle and Marx was angry at what he viewed as the former's stupidity (to put it bluntly), so maybe it has to be read with that in mind. I'm certainly not a Marx scholar, but that's my two cents on Critique of the Gotha Progam, fwiw.

Chris said...

NN, I agree. I think it's in principle impossible, but I'm critiquing people on their own terrain.

Marx never denied that regulations could improve wages, he just didn't prioritize that in the struggle for socialism, since it only ameliorates some aspects of capitalism, and only briefly.

The opening to the Grundrisse has better arguments in favor of production over distribution.

s. wallerstein said...

It seems that with automation replacing jobs and retired people living longer, distributive justice is going to become more and more important in the future.

Chris said...

Then you're taking capitalism and class relations for granted.

Automation has been a problem under capitalism since the industrial revolution. The train automated, the horse automated, the car automated, the telephone automated, the microwave automated, the engine automated, etc.

That many people, retired, old, fired, etc., cannot always be employed to receive living standards is also a rote problem. There's nothing new on the horizon.

s. wallerstein said...


I'm assume first of all, that we don't have socialism yet and that we need a working theory of distributive justice until we begin the transition towards socialism.

And second of all, that the transition to socialism will be a long and complex journey, with ups and downs, with problems, with sizeable segments of the population in active opposition and that until we reach something which could be seen as socialism in its mature form we'll also need a working theory of distributive justice.

Chris said...

I would amicably accuse you of getting the cart before the horse too. I think we need a working theory of productive justice, since it's historically clear - by now - that distribution under capitalism is always an endemic problem.

There's a deeper problem here which distributive theorists miss, and you may be missing too. I'll paste from the essay.

One element that is often overlooked by people who call for egalitarian resource distribution, especially in present private market economies, is that the distribution needs to correspond to the productive well-being of the economy (i.e., mode of production) as a whole. For example, one can only redistribute so many goods at a certain rate before the private market ceases to make adequate profits, and this could lead to a corresponding market disaster. Or, one can redistribute so many goods such that the competition within a particular market leads to either gross monopoly or a corporate withdrawal entirely. In short, it is a basic fact of (capitalist) market economics that one has to walk a fine line between meeting matters of justice, and ensuring market well-being. Of course since the latter is not a concern of justice (but is a concern for obtaining justice), it is unfortunate that contemporary theories of justice are required to placate this aspect of society, instead of overhauling it entirely for a society that is wholly just. Moreover, it is the maintenance of market well-being that often leads to the necessary continuation of overall inequality. If one has to first ensure certain wage levels are met, rents are paid, and capital reserves exists, prior to issues of distribution, then what can be made available for distribution is already impacted by the nature of production. And this nature of production is of course already laden with its own issues of justice as Steinbeck pointed out. If one does not placate these concerns prior to organizing a distributive schema, as stated above, crisis, monopoly, capital flight, etc., could all occur. As a matter of justice, this should be concerning. If we remember that the (R1) criticism would be something along the lines of: no matter what type of economy we have, we still need a more egalitarian redistribution of goods and services, and we know that the possibility of even achieving (R1) is antecedently predicated upon the nature of production, and the nature of production contains its own matters of justice, then we must recognize that the first rudimentary principles of justice we should be working on, are the nature of the productive workplace, since it is the nature of the productive workplace that decides (1) if matters of redistributed justice can even be realized, and (2) its own set of just circumstances (e.g., capitalist production is more just than slave production but less just than democratically-socialist production). It seems very doubtful both abstractly, and as a matter of present fact, that if a workplace was wholly democratic, issues of inequality would be on par with issues of inequality in an authoritarian workplace (Wolff, 155-169).

Michael Llenos said...

Slavery really began with animals by way of husbandry, which morphed into human slavery with tribal warfare, and then came the worst of all: mass city-state\empire human slavery. So likewise simple automation rose with husbandry. Through the automation of simple mechanical devices. Then computers made the devices/robots fancier. And although we think we licked slavery in the 19th century, a future form of slavery is on the rise in the category of humanoid robots. That is the meeting place of where automation and slavery will find it's greatest partnership. So don't throw away Aristotle's Politics just yet. That book was relevant in Aristotle's time (with notoriety throughout the centuries), and just may be relevant in our near future again. But this time, perhaps unfortunately, all mankind will be in favor of this type of slavery. But maybe not.