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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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





Total Pageviews

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

NIGHT SWEATS


With the first meeting of my UNC course on Marx only thirteen days away, I can tell that the new semester is upon us because last night I had, yet again, a version of the nightmare that has troubled my sleep many times as semesters begin.  The details vary but the theme is always the same:  It is two weeks into a new semester, I have been meeting my two courses regularly, and suddenly I realize I am supposed to be teaching a third course as well that I have completely forgotten about.  Guilt stricken, I rush to the room, where [this is the part that shows it is a dream] the students have been waiting patiently for two weeks for me to show up.

Last night, since I intend sometime in February to begin a series of recorded lectures on David Hume in addition to the Marx course, the dream was that it was 9:15 a.m., my forgotten Hume lectures were scheduled to start at 9:30, and I was in the basement of a campus building trying to find the staircase out.  I had also, it seems, forgotten where I had parked my car [another recurring nightmare – this dream seems to have been a twofer.]

Oddly enough, something akin to this actually happened to me the first year I started teaching.  It was the Fall of 1955 and I was a twenty-one year old Harvard Teaching Fellow, just back from my European wanderjahr.  [A Teaching Fellow is Harvard’s notion of a TA.  Harvard also graded students A, B, C, D, and E.  It was not until I left Harvard and went to teach at Chicago that I discovered the rest of the world considered F the failing grade.]

I was assigned three discussions sections of Raphael Demos’ famous Philosophy 1 intro course.  One week that semester [not the first, thank God] I simply forgot to meet one of the sections!  I slunk around Harvard Square for a week, convinced the students were outraged.  In fact, of course, they probably waited three minutes past the mandatory seven and then split, delighted the section had been cancelled.  As I recall, the next week, nobody asked where I had been.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

HO HO HO


Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone, Black Friday is just a memory, we celebrated Christmas in traditional Jewish fashion by going out for Chinese, my birthday is in the record books.  That leaves just New Year’s Day to survive and then the real world starts again.  Even the days are getting fractionally longer now.  God, how I hate the holidays.

By the time my Spring course has its first meeting on January 13th, the Senate trial will have started, will have concluded, or else will be still on hold as Pelosi torments Trump.  Some things however are certain, or as Donald Rumsfeld used to say, are known knowns:  Susan Collins will be a fink, Joe Biden will be a dick, and Bernie will be doing better than the Mainstream Media commentators would like or are able to acknowledge.  For months now, I have been giving Bernie $9 automatically.  Today I received an email request from his campaign for $2.70 and responded with $250.  It is the season of giving.

Merry Christmas to all.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

SOLSTICE MEDITATION


This time of year always makes me feel deracinated, which is to say uprooted.  There is a seemingly endless series of holidays, when there is no mail, stores are closed, and the TV is disrupted, all of it punctuated by my birthday.  The daylight dwindles to an annual minimum, even here in the south it is cold, and worst of all, school is out.  At the age of two my parents sent me to the Sunnyside Progressive School in Astoria, Queens [this was four years before Stalin had Trotsky murdered, a crime that tore the school apart], and for the next seventy-two years my inner calendar was governed by the tempos of academia.  Christmas and New Year’s Day were for me the middle of the year, not the end of the old and the beginning of the new.  My annual pocket datebooks, courtesy of the Harvard Coop, even began in June and ended in October, an arrangement that struck me as so natural that I was startled to discover that Susie’s datebooks start in January and end in December.

Twelve years ago, I retired, calling it quits after half a century.  When the next September rolled around, I could feel my juices stirring, only to realize in dismay that I had no classes to meet, no syllabi to draft, no students to welcome.  Ever since, I have been trying one way or another to get back into the classroom.  For the first several years, I taught in Duke University’s Learning in Retirement program, but that was not really the same thing.  I started and ran this blog, and I even spent a year as an unpaid volunteer at Bennett College in Greensboro, under the guidance of my old Afro-Am Chair Esther Terry, who was Bennett’s Acting President.  

Twice, I had the opportunity to teach a course at UNC Chapel Hill, once in the Public Policy doctoral program and once in the Philosophy Department.  Both were wonderful returns to the classroom, but that, it seemed, was that.  Desperate to continue teaching, I even recorded and posted on YouTube thirty lectures on several different subjects.

Then, three years ago, My son Tobias and his good friend Peter Pazziglini conspired to get me elected to Columbia University’s Society of Senior Scholars, and a year later, I began co-teaching a course at Columbia with my old student and friend Todd Gitlin, who had somehow transitioned from a youthful radical, the third president of SDS, into a distinguished much published senior professor and Director of the Pulitzer School of Journalism’s doctoral program.  I was back!

The second go-round of our course has now ended, and I await the very last paper before we submit the grades and close the books on Sociology GU6400.  In two weeks and a bit more, I shall start teaching Philosophy 471 [“Karl Marx’s Critique of Capitalism”] in the UNC Chapel Hill Philosophy Department.  This academic year, I actually have what the elite sector of American higher education considers a half-time teaching load.

How long can this continue?  On this, my very last day as an eighty-five year old, the only reasonable answer is, Who knows?  There is but one thing more to say, and Dylan Thomas said it best:


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.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A GOOD DEED FOR CHRISTMAS


In front of our retirement community runs a road called Mt. Carmel Church Road, which, as you might expect, runs past Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.  A quarter of a mile before Mt. Carmel Church Road heads sharply downhill and ends at Routes 15/501, there is an intersection.  Some long while ago, the county mysteriously decided that the intersection needed to be turned into a rotary, so for months now, traffic has been slowed, and on occasion reduced to one lane with men at either end holding STOP/SLOW signs with which they stop long lines of traffic and then let them crawl by.  Finally, last week, the work was done and the new rotary went into operation.  It is a quite unremarkable rotary in the center of which is a circular plot of grass.

Susie, ever the botanist, decided the plot needed some flowers.  Off we went to a plant store she used to patronize forty years ago when she lived in Chapel Hill before we got married.  We bought ten tulip bulbs and a bulb planter, and this morning, on Christmas Eve, we put some water in a bucket, drove to the rotary, parked, dodged traffic, walked to the circular grassy plot, and planted our bulbs.  Two old geezers in their eighties huffing and puffing as they planted.  Then we drove home and threw our pants, muddy from the dirt we had dug up, into the washing machine.  With luck, next spring there will be flowers to gladden the eye and lift the spirits of motorists as they enter or leave Mt. Carmel Church Road.

I hope God takes His eye off the sparrow for a moment and notices.  I think I need all the good will I can get.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

SO, WHAT ELSE IS NEW?


In the good old days, before Twitter, before SnapChat, before Google, before YouTube, before FaceBook, before the Internet, before computers, before Cable News, before Xerox machines, almost before electric typewriters, when there were three networks, each with a half hour of news a night, it was possible to think that if you had an idea, and hadn’t heard it on the Huntley/Brinkley show or in the orotund tones of Walter Cronkhite, it was probably original and worthy of expression, even perhaps of the immortality of print.  But then, everybody on earth got a megaphone, and it turned out that America was chock full of people who had your idea, some of whom had been so impolite as to express it before you got a chance to.

I was going to write a blog post explaining that Pelosi’s decision to delay transmission of the impeachment vote to the Senate was yet another master stroke, designed not at all to put pressure on McConnell, but instead to drive Trump wild until he demanded a trial with witnesses so that he could get the acquittal he so desperately craves.  I was going to, that is, until I spent a little time this morning reading today’s spate of opinions, and discovered that my shrewd observation was already old news.

Well, if I may paraphrase Rick in Casablanca, I’ll always have the Subjective Deduction.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

THE SCHOOL MA'RM SNAPS THE WHIP

Yesterday, I watched as much as I could stand of the House proceedings, muting the Republican speakers and from time to time switching to Turner Classic Movies.  Happily, I was in my seat glued to the screen for the actual votes on the two articles of impeachment, so I was able to watch in real time one of the most remarkable moments in Congressional history.  Nancy Pelosi was in the chair for the voting, and like the rest of political junkie America, I stared at the numbers on the screen as, one by one, they migrated from NV [Not Voting] to Yea or Nay [or, in the case of Tulsi Gabbard, Present.]

When the voting on the first article was finally done, Pelosi banged her gavel and announced that the first article had passed.  The Democratic members were gathered in a large scrum on the floor to Pelosi’s right.  With the announcement of the result, a few Democratic members began what was obviously going to be prolonged applause and cheering.  Pelosi turned her head ever so slightly in their direction and gave a barely perceptible admonitory wave of her hand, at which the applause abruptly stopped and there was silence.

It was a breathtaking exhibition of her absolute control over her caucus.  There has not been another Speaker in my lifetime who could have pulled that off, not even the legendary Tip O’Neill.

AS TIME PASSES

I met Noam Chomsky more than sixty years ago when he came to Harvard to take up a Junior Fellowship.  Although I think I have not seen him in person in almost half a century, I have seen pictures or videos or TV appearances, and lately I have watched some of his many YouTube appearances.  He was always the same man, older as the years went on, but otherwise unchanged.  Yesterday I came across this quite recent interview on YouTube, and was astonished to discover that he now has a full white rabbinical beard and something of a pot.  I suddenly felt quite old.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

WHAT'S IN A NAME?


Todd Gitlin just sent me a screen shot of a page from a new book by Shlomo Avineri about Marx.  The page concerns the complicated process by which Marx’s father, Heinrich, went from being Heinrich Levi to being Heinrich Marx [it involves the law requiring that lawyers in that place and time be Christians.]  Avineri asks, “Would a theory called “Levism” or later “Levism-Leninism” have the same appeal and resonance as “Marxism?”

Who knows?  But it occurred to me that if it were called Levism, a socialist uprising could be called a Levitation.

Monday, December 16, 2019

A FEW THOUGHTS WHILE TAKING A BREAK FROM GRADING -- TIGGER RETURNS

I am beginning to suspect that the Senate proceedings may not go as Mitch McConnell desires.  Here is the problem:  Virtually all the public testimony thus far has been from witnesses hostile to Trump, because those who could be expected to be favorable have refused to testify.  The Republican defense of Trump has been that no one who has testified had direct knowledge of Trump's statements and intentions [save for that weird phone call from Sondland to Trump.]  The Republicans are correct about this.

Well,  Schumer will seek to call Mulvaney and Bolton to testify.  It requires four Republicans voting with the Democrats to get Chief Justice Roberts to issue the subpoena.  Collins, McSally, Gardner, even Tillis will have a hard time running in 2020 after having voted to refuse to hear from Trump's defenders!  Throw in Romney and Murkowski, and there is a good chance one or more of those on Schumer's list will be called.  Does Mulvaney really want to defy a subpoena from the Chief Justice?

This affair could be more fun than anticipated.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

MEANWHILE

I have read all the comments with interest, but I am, as they say, otherwise occupied.  I am grading papers.  I am almost done with the eleven that have come in, which will leave nine more.  Being a professor is, I think, the best job in the modern world, all except the grading, which is a small thing to pay for a lifetime of freedom and leisure.  Of course, in twelve days I will be eighty-six, officially  retired now for eleven and a half years, so I have no one to blame but myself.

One thought before I return my nose to the grindstone:  ignore the interviews with "typical" voters, forget the fantasies of seeing Lindsey Graham roast in Hell, it will all be decided by turnout.  If we can sustain the momentum of 2018 and the by-elections of 2019, we will be all right.  

Friday, December 13, 2019

TIGGER GOES FULL EEYORE


There are some days that conspire to sour one’s spirits, and this, alas, is one of them.  First of all, we are one week from the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, and even though I am not more than ordinarily afflicted with Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, nevertheless, the seemingly endless series of holidays, when normal schedules are disrupted, makes this time of year depressing.  It is also a cold, raw, rainy day here in stubbornly un-blueable North Carolina, and this morning, of all mornings, the café is closed, which disrupts my ritual of picking Susie up after her exercise class and sharing coffee and a muffin with her before driving her back to our apartment.

Then there is the overwhelming victory of the Conservative buffoon in Great Britain.  I am not at all knowledgeable about British economics, so perhaps clued in readers can correct me, but I fear this means really bad economic times for the Brits.  I am old enough to have developed a deep irrational affection for England, born of my youthful idealization of Oxford and Cambridge coupled with my yearning for a country that both speaks English and has a sometimes victorious Labour Party together with a National Health system. 

Then there was the spectacle yesterday of the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee.  And seemingly endless polls showing Biden in the lead.  I am terrified that a Biden nomination could hand the election to Trump, and the bright side, a Biden presidency, is so depressing that I feel as though Dante himself were leading me on a guided tour of Hell and inviting me to choose a circle to which I shall be consigned for all eternity.

Does anyone know a good joke?

Thursday, December 12, 2019

END OF SEMESTER BOOK REPORT


I have now finished reading The Triumph of Injustice by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman and I want to spend a little time telling you about it.  As I mentioned, it is most immediately a quite accessible scholarly defense of the wealth tax on the rich proposed by Sanders and Warren.  The effects of such a tax on the wealth of the superrich would be quite remarkable.  Mark Zuckerberg, a recent billionaire, would have been worth 21 billion in 2018 rather than 61 billion, had the Sanders/Warren tax been in place in recent decades, and Bill Gates, a “mature” billionaire, would be worth 4 billion instead of 97 billion. Not exactly peanuts!

The framework of the Saez/Zucman book is the analysis laid out by Thomas Piketty in his Capital in the 21st Century, the 2014 work which I discussed on this blog when it appeared.  Piketty’s most surprising finding is that the generation-long period of relatively lower inequality in wealth and income after World War II in virtually all advanced capitalist national economies, was not, as American mainstream economists claimed, an evidence of a new phase of development of mature capitalism, but was in fact a temporary anomaly caused by the enormous destruction and dislocation of the Great Depression and the war.  Piketty’s data demonstrate that the centuries-long accumulation of ever greater concentrations of wealth has already resumed, after what the French call les trentes glorieuses, with inherited wealth again dominating the fundamental structure of capitalist economies.  The underlying cause of the ever greater accumulation of private wealth, according to Piketty, is the simple fact that the profit rate exceeds the growth rate.  The portion of profit not devoted to expanding the scope of production [i.e. to growth] goes into the pockets of the capitalists, who, unable despite their best efforts to consume it unproductively, instead save it, become steadily richer.

Saez and Gutman operate within this framework [with one momentary lapse, which I shall discuss later.]  But as they demonstrate, the precise shape and extent of economic inequality is powerfully influenced by national tax policies.  The authors remind readers that in the forty-five years between the depths of the Great Depression and the onset of the Reagan Revolution, taxes on high incomes and on estates in the United States were dramatically higher than in the fifty years since.  During that earlier time, economic growth was actually more robust and working class Americans did much better, year after year, decade after decade, than during the virtual stagnation of working class incomes, along with the explosive growth of the income and wealth of the super-rich, in the past half century.

The authors use the basic analytical framework of income distribution laid out by Piketty and developed further in the 2018 journal article by themselves and Piketty, also discussed on this blog.   Recall that this framework distinguishes three classes in America, and within the richest class makes further subdivisions:  the three classes are the Working Class, which is the bottom fifty percent, the Middle Class, which is the 51st to 90th percentile, and the Upper Class, the richest 10%.  So extreme has been the enrichment of the rich that the authors find it useful to further study the richest 1%, the richest 1/10 of 1%, and even the richest 1/100 of 1% [which is to say, the richest 3,300 men, women, and children in this country!]

Much of the first two-thirds of the short book is devoted essentially to detailing the effects of the extremely high marginal tax rates that were instituted under the New Deal and eventually repealed after 1980 by Republican and Democratic Presidents and Congresses alike.  I found the book a trifle sleepy until page 162, when it suddenly exploded with astonishing data.  Since I do not know how to reproduce graphs on this blog, let me try to summarize the results I found so striking.  In a chapter entitled “Beyond Laffer” [I shall return to him in a moment], Saez and Zucman report the following data:

From 1946-1980, at a time when the progressive income tax was virtually confiscatory at the highest levels, real growth in income was 2% or a trifle over for every income percentile in America including the poorest, save for those at the very top, whose income growth dropped to 1.5% or even lower for the very very richest Americans.  From 1980 to 2018, when the top rates were drastically cut on income and profits, the picture changes dramatically.  The growth rate for the entire population falls to 1.4%.  For the poorest 20%, it is actually negative.  For everyone save the top 10%, the annual growth rate is below the average 1.4%.   Only the top ten percent reach or exceed that level, and for the top 1%, the annual growth rate over those 38 years rises, reahcing 5% for those richest 0.01% folks.

In other words, when the top rates were as high as they have ever been, everyone did well, experiencing a doubling of real income over 34 years, save for those at top, whose income growth, while positive, was much slower. 

Arthur Laffer, in 1974, drew a curve on a napkin with a pen and claimed to have shown that raising the tax rate would reduce revenues, because the higher levels of taxes would dissuade business men  [they were pretty much all men then] from expanding their investments, and would actually cause them to contract their investments.  Well, he was right of course in theory.  A 100% tax rate probably would have a dampening effect on all but those investors who are in it merely for the fun.  But lacking any actual data, Laffer drew the curve in such a way that it seemed to suggest that any raising of the existing rate would be counterproductive.  The Saez Zucman data put the lie to that claim, which has been invoked ever since by so-called supply side tax cutters to justify putting more money in the pockets of the rich.  The high rates hurt the rich, to be sure, but they do not hurt anyone else.  Indeed, the evidence suggests the opposite.

Now one niggling cavil [if indeed a cavil can niggle.]  On page 156, the authors write:  “The policy of quasi-confiscatory tax rates for sky-high incomes, according to the available evidence, achieved its objective.  From the late 1930s to the early 1970s, income inequality fell.”  But if Piketty is right, that swoon in inequality was not primarily the result of egalitarian tax policy.  It was the consequence of the depression and the war.

At any rate, the next time some sensible hard-headed centrist tells you the Sanders/Warren wealth tax would be the death of capitalism, just slap a copy of this book on the table and say, in your most belligerent tone, OH YEAH?

One final note.  The fateful words “Karl Marx” and their many variations appear nowhere in the book.  You can’t have everything.






Wednesday, December 11, 2019

PREVIEW OF COMING ATTRACTIONS

I am currently reading a new book by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, partners in the firm of Piketty, Saez, and Zucman.  It is called THE TRIUMPH OF INJUSTICE: How the Rich Dodge Taxes and How to Make Them Pay.  I will be finished with it tomorrow [it is not quite 200 pages long], and will report on it then.  By way of preview, it is, in effect, a detailed economic defense of the Sanders and Warren plans to tax the wealth of the rich.  I think without too much trouble I can place it interestingly in a larger historical and theoretical context.  I have always read slowly, a deficiency that did not hinder me when I was doing philosophy, but I could never have hacked it in the world of Lit Crit.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

WHO KNEW?


One of the unexpected pleasures of blogging is the occasional discovery of the extraordinarily varied and rich lives of the readers who comment.  On a blog like this, it is to be expected that seventeen varieties of Marxists will pop up and contend with one another.  It is quite natural, when I say a few words about MMT, to hear from readers who are steeped in its arcana.  But then I say something about my struggles to resurrect my viola playing and an entirely new side of my readers is manifested.

Who would have thought that LFC was a flautist, and with an old crush on an oboist to boot?

Monday, December 9, 2019

PERFORMANCE REPORT


It wasn’t pretty, but I did it.  I am afraid my playing days are over.  It is not that I am “out of practice.”  The problem is that my the small motor movements are now not easily controllable [my handwriting, or even printing, is now so bad that I can scarcely read the shopping lists I make out.]  Oh well, it was fun, and I will always have the memories.

As regards what it takes to learn to play the viola, I am afraid I am expressing the traditional resentment of string players toward pianists.  I can tell a little child or a tone deaf adult to sit in front of a piano and hit any eight white keys in succession.  The notes will all be in tune, and if the tyro happens to start on a C, he or she will play a major scale.  What is more, it is no harder on a piano to play three octaves of ascending notes than to play one.  On a string instrument, it takes a long time to learn simply to make an acceptable sound.  Playing a scale in tune is an accomplishment.  Playing a three octave scale is more so, involving shifting to the third position.

Oh well, we violists don’t get no respect. 

Saturday, December 7, 2019

A REALISTIC SENSE OF MY LIMITATIONS


I think I have pretty well established here that I am not shy about my genuine accomplishments, so I hope I can trust you all to take what I say in this post at my word.  This observation is prompted by Chris Mulvaney’s suggestion that Susie videotape my Christmas carol playing tomorrow, assuming I go through with it, and my horrified response to the suggestion.

Now there was a time, twelve years ago, when I was a pretty fair amateur violist, regularly playing Haydn and Mozart quartets and early and middle Beethoven quartets, and I think I have even told here the story of my triumphant playing of the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 59 Number 3.  But even then, at the height of my powers, I was nowhere near as good as someone consigned to the last stand of the viola section of a local professional orchestra in a small Midwestern city.

Think about that for a moment, and you will get some idea just how impressive is the skill of even a minor professional instrumentalist.  In this age of instant stardom, we lose sight of the years of hard, slogging work that it takes to master the violin, viola, oboe, flute, cello, or piano well enough to give real musical pleasure to even a minimally discerning audience.  I am not talking here about flights of inspired interpretation, just playing all the notes in tune with a smooth, graceful tone and some sense of rhythm and dynamics.

Even with my facial twitches, which I have all my life considered disfiguring, I have no hesitation posting videos of my lectures for posterity, because I genuinely believe I have something unusual and valuable to say.  But record myself playing the viola?  Not for all the money in the world!

SECOND THOUGHTS

When I first took the viola out of its case and played it, I sounded great.  The next day, when I made the huge mistake of practicing, I sounded awful.  Tomorrow, I shall bravely take the viola out once more, pick it up, and walk out of my apartment to the elevator playing.  If it sounds good, I shall go downstairs, playing as I go.  If it sounds awful, I will go back to my apartment, put the viola away, and explain to those trimming the tree that the spirit was willing but the flesh was weak.

In any case, I shall not be playing Jingle Bells.

We shall see.

INSIDE BASEBALL


One of the curiosities of the current Democratic primary season is that neither of the two strong, initially promising Black candidates, Booker and Harris [now dropped out] barely registers with Black voters in the polls.  I just checked a November 18 South Carolina poll of Democratic voters, and while Biden, Warren, and Sanders pull 57% of the vote in that heavily Black voting pool, Booker and Harris register at 5% combined.  When just Black voters are polled, Biden crushes all the others, with Sanders and Warren topping the list of also rans.  Buttegieg, I am happy to say, clocks in at between 0% and 1% among Black voters, which suggests he is not going anywhere.

Since I think Trump would make mincemeat of Biden, I desperately do not want him to slide into the nomination.  Do Sanders and Warren have to come to an agreement to block him?  It is hard to imagine they could.  By the way, this time around, the superdelegates, who will probably overwhelmingly prefer Biden to either Sanders or Warren,  will get to weigh in on the second and subsequent ballots, which could produce a bloodbath.

Friday, December 6, 2019

DING DONG MERRILY ON HIGH


As I have mentioned several times before, I am the Precinct Representative of the building in which Susie and I live in this Continuing Care Retirement Community, or CCRC.  This is the only thing I have ever been elected to, and I won in a landslide because no one else wanted the job.  On Sunday afternoon, our building will hold its annual Christmas tree trimming party, and I have made the fateful decision to entertain my fellow housemates, while they trim the tree, by playing Christmas carols on my viola.  Yesterday, I opened the viola case for the first time in five years or more, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the instrument was in tune.  I had no idea whether I would be able to play at all, but I discovered that I actually could.  What is more, I had forgotten what a beautiful tone the instrument has.  Since I have no music, I am limited to carols I know by heart and can play without difficulty.  Here is my tentative play list.  I hope I do not make a total fool of myself.

Playlist

Silent Night
Good King Wenceslas
Jingle Bells
Adeste Fidelis
Jingle Bells
We Three Kings of Orient Are
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Joy To The World
Ding Dong Merrily On High
Go Tell It on the Mountain
The First Noel
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear


JOE BIDEN IS A LOSER


I watched the clip last evening of Joe Biden’s angry exchange with a voter who quizzed him about his son, Hunter.  It was a disaster.  Biden wants the issue to go away.  But it won’t.  Should Biden get the nomination, God forbid, Trump will bring up Hunter Biden every day, and Joe Biden, unable to deal with the issue, will crumble and fold.  Every half way competent political adviser knows this, and yet the Biden campaign has still not found a way to neutralize the issue.


The simple truth, apparent to every sentient being, is that Hunter Biden got a $50,000 a month position on the Burisma board of directors solely because the company hoped or believed that connection could take the heat off them for their crooked dealings.  Maybe Joe Biden never so much as talked to his troubled, drug addicted, sole surviving son about the job.  It doesn't matter.  That is why Hunter got the job, and if Joe cannot acknowledge this obvious fact, he is toast.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

ANOTHER YEAR ENDS


My Tuesday adventure has come to an end for another year.  No more early morning flights, no M60 bus to Columbia, no lunches with Todd at Wu Nussbaum.  At the very end of the last class, I said this:

And so the semester ends.  For you, this is just one of three or four or five courses you are taking, and already you are registered for next semester’s courses.  But for me, the two hours I spend with you are the high point of my week.  As I was reflecting on this fact, I recalled a passage in Chapter One of Capital which you may have missed, because it is in a footnote.  Marx writes, “Such expressions of relations in general, called by Hegel reflex categories, form a very curious class. For instance, one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king.”  You think of yourselves as students because Todd and I are professors.  But in fact we are only professors because you are willing to be our students.   So as you go off to write your final papers, I should like to thank you for giving this old philosopher another opportunity to be a professor.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

SUNDAY MUSINGS


There are two problems, frequently discussed on this blog, that are really distinct but are easy to confuse or intertwine, and earlier today, I was brooding about them and thought a short post might be appropriate.

The first problem is this:  Why does America do so much worse a job of providing social services to its citizens than other advanced post-industrial capitalist countries?  Why is America the only such country without some form of national health service?  Why do other countries provide paid family leave?  Why is it that only in America college graduates are burdened with crushing student loans?  Why are unions so much weaker here than in other comparable countries?  And so forth.  These are the questions that motivate the Sanders and Warren campaigns, that consume so much of my time and attention and yours too, I imagine.

The second problem is really quite distinct and different.  It is the question first posed by Marx more than 150 years ago and given dramatic statistical underpinning by the work of Piketty and his associates:  Why do all advanced post-industrial economies exhibit grotesque inequalities of wealth and income, inequalities that are relentlessly growing ever greater?

These really are different questions.  To see that this is so, simply imagine that America magically adopted the best health care system now in operation anywhere, made higher education free to all, built generous family leave into its employment practices, saw a rebirth of the union movement, and so on and on.  It would still be the case that the distribution of wealth and income was wildly unequal, and was growing more unequal with each passing decade.

The use of the word “socialism” as applied to Sanders’ proposals is seriously misleading, for as I have often observed, the words “collective ownership of the means of production’ seem never to cross his lips.  I do not criticize him for this.  He is running for President of the United States, not, as a wag once said, for Chair of the Literature Department.  But the most his proposals, or those of Warren, could achieve if adopted would be to bring America in line with France or Germany or Sweden, and if Piketty is right, as I believe he is, that would perhaps slow but not at all reverse the steady accumulation and intergenerational transmission of wealth by the wealthiest segment of society.

I find it helps to keep these questions separate in my mind.



MARCUSE ON REPRESSIVE DESUBLIMATION


In a comment to my post "How It Looks From Over There" Jim writes insightfully and quite correctly, "I think the key line in your post is how "capitalism is quite flexibly open-minded when it comes to these culture wars." As I understand it, it was Herbert Marcuse who noted the "terrible but beautiful" way that capitalism has the ability to absorb and nullify threats to its existence."

This is a point of great importance, and I am going to expand on it by quoting a passage from my mini-tutorial on Marcuse's ONE-DIMENSIONAL MAN. 


The feeling Marcuse experienced when looking at that America can, I think, accurately be characterized not as anger, but rather as dismay.  American seemed to him, flattened, banal, seamlessly upbeat, cheerful, and devoid of all fruitful negativity.  This is the significance of the title he chose for his "Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society," to quote the subtitle of the book.  There was, he thought, no second dimension of negative thinking in American society that could give rise to protest, rebellion, or revolution.  There were, of course, many elements to this dismaying phenomenon, but one key, Marcuse thought, was the paradoxical manner in which the ruling forces in American society had managed to defuse potentially eruptive negative energies not by repressing them --the response of an earlier stage in capitalist development --but precisely by permitting their expression, embracing them, commodifying them, and thus depriving them of their power.  He called this tactic "repressive desublimation."

To explain this puzzling phrase, I need to range a bit far afield for a moment, reflecting both on the history of culture generally and more particularly on what things were like in the fifties and early sixties.  For some of you, this will be a stroll down Memory Lane, for others an excursus into ancient history.

It is always the case that protests against and dissent from the ruling orthodoxy, especially by the young, have taken the form of eroticized deviations from the norm in speech and bodily self-presentation.  In some eras, the fleeting revelation of a naked female ankle is enough to scandalize polite society.  In other eras, women may bare a breast without occasioning comment or disapproval.  When the Beatles burst on the American scene, their appearance shocked Middle America, despite the fact that they wore coats and ties when they performed.  It was the outrageous length of their hair --almost, but not quite covering the napes of their necks --that announced to everyone the depths of their rebellion.  The young especially, who do not yet have the means or the skills to challenge the established order politically or economically, but who are desperate nonetheless to make visible their rejection of the Reality Principle and their embrace of the Pleasure Principle, do the only thing available to them, making minor alterations in their physical appearance.  Bare skin, long hair, spiked hair, no hair, facial hair, tattoos, ear piercings, nose piercings, tongue piercings --it really takes very little to produce hysteria in adults.  This ability to drive grown-ups wild is a manifestation of the power of negativity --of denial, rejection, refusal to conform to whatever norms of behavior and self-presentation happen to rule at the moment.  The young frequently are novices at ideological or socio-economic analysis, but they are natural virtuosi at insolence.  The merest drawling of a word or slouching of a shoulder can terrify those charged with policing the repression on which capitalist society depends. 

It is not surprising that during the 1968 Columbia University student protests, the distinguished political scientist David Truman, then a senior member of the university administration, was quoted as saying about the undergraduate protester, Mark Rudd, "It makes me uncomfortable to be in the same room with him."

But with extraordinary prescience, Marcuse realized that modern industrial society had found an entirely new way of containing and defusing the forces of negativity and rebellion --by embracing them, commodifying them, converting them into sources of profit.  So long hair, piercings, tattoos, and the insolence of the slouch became advertising devices, splashed across newspaper and magazine pages to sell soft drinks, jeans, cars, and beer.  This unblocking of the negative energies of Eros and Thanatos robbed them of their power to challenge the existing order.  It was a desublimation whose effect, against all expectation, was actually repressive, by depriving previously buried wishes, fantasies, and thoughts of their power to destabilize the dominant social and economic order.