My Stuff

Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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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Monday, August 31, 2020


Here are my plans for voting. In North Carolina, absentee ballots will be sent out during the first two weeks of September, so I should get mine in the second or third week of this month. I just checked with the Chatham County elections board and once I have voted on my absentee ballot, I can drive down to Pittsboro, wearing both a facemask and my plastic face shield (courtesy of, and deliver it by hand, spending the shortest possible time inside in the presence of other people. Absentee ballots are scanned as they arrive and the totals will be added in on election day.

Okay, Donald J Trump, try screwing that up!

Josh Marshall on TPM has a column today explaining why Democrats are congenital worriers. Needless to say, I am sitting here having nothing else to do and worrying.

I have not yet made contingency plans in the eventuality that Trump wins reelection but I believe self – immolation is in there somewhere.


I had the Best Buy Geek Squad do some work on my computer and now when I post a comment here it does not recognize me and says I am Anonymous.   Would someone tell me what I ought to do to fix it.

Sunday, August 30, 2020


R McD offers an interesting comment, the opening sentence of which is as follows: “It seems to me what you’re suggesting is that a quite massive party realignment is in the offing. What this would put in place, were it to occur, would surely be the enthronement of what has been called “the extreme centre” ( Tariq Ali’s phrase, I think).”

I think we may very well be in for yet another massive party realignment and although I cannot foresee what it will be, I think it might be useful to review the changes that have taken place in my lifetime. The first presidential election to which I paid serious attention was the 1948 contest, in which there were four prominent candidates. Harry Truman, who had ascended to the presidency after Roosevelt’s death in 1945, was running for his first full term. The Republicans nominated Thomas E Dewey, the governor of New York. A southern segregationist state’s rights party nominated South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, and a breakaway Progressive Party nominated Henry Wallace, who had been Roosevelt’s vice president before Truman. I was a strong progressive party Wallace supporter, although I must admit that I was attracted more by the folk singers who rallied to his cause then by the details of his program. Truman won a famous upset over Dewey but it was Thurmond’s performance that presaged a major party realignment in the near future. Thurmond won 39 electoral votes, a remarkable showing for a minor party candidate.

Roosevelt and Truman between them won 5 presidential contests in a row, and since these coincided with the first 19 years of my life I grew up taking it for granted that there would always be a Democrat in the White House. Two Eisenhower terms, the Kennedy victory and assassination and Johnson’s victory over Goldwater split the next four elections, but when Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act he famously said that the Democrats would lose the South for a generation. His intuition was correct – he just underestimated the loss by a generation. The Republicans won five of the next six presidential elections, and might very well have won all six had it not been for Watergate. The most recent seven elections in my lifetime have been split, four for the Democrats and three for the Republicans, but remarkably, the Democrats have actually won the popular vote in six of those seven elections and regardless of how November turns out, they will undoubtedly win the popular vote this time as well.

When I was young, both the Democratic and Republican parties were uneasy coalitions of political forces not genuinely attuned to one another. The Democratic Party was a fusion of progressive forces grounded in labor union organization and southern segregationists whose base of political strength at the national level lay in their control of Senate committee chairmanships. The Republican party combined Midwestern isolationist farmers and small business support with Eastern internationalist big business interests.

(Interesting personal and political aside: the Midwest faction of the Republican party, led by Sen. Robert Taft, was deeply suspicious of the Atlantic alliance and the internationalist tendencies of the Eastern big business Republicans, but they were, nevertheless, deeply invested in opposition to the Chinese Communists. In 1956 or 1957, I had a date on New Year’s Eve with Sheila Vincent, who was the daughter of John Carter Vincent, one of the State Department “old China hands” whom McCarthy attacked as communist sympathizers. When I brought Sheila home, I met Vincent and we talked for a while. I asked him why it was that the Midwestern Republicans, despite their isolationist tendencies, were so concerned about China and he replied that it was because every Sunday, when they went to their Protestant churches for services, they were asked to contribute to the missionaries in China. This gave them a personal connection to what was happening halfway around the world even though on general principle they were opposed to foreign entanglements.)

When Nixon adopted what he called The Southern Strategy in effect he traded the Northeast for the South, politically speaking. The Democrats responded by embracing the newly enfranchised black Americans, an exchange that, as we have seen, put them on the losing side of presidential elections for more than 20 years.

This is the background and context for the movement to the right that characterized the Democratic Leadership Conference and the successful Clinton campaigns. Over time, in part as a consequence of a political choice and in part as a consequence of a change in the structure of work in the American economy, the Democrats more or less turned their back on the unions and embraced an interracial coalition that traded off working class formally union white workers for college educated upper-middle-class professionals. As we have seen, whatever you may think morally or ideologically of the trade, it was politically a success, and if it were not for the historical peculiarities of the Electoral College the Democrats might have won all of the last seven elections.

Well enough for this familiar stroll down memory lane. If R McD is correct and a massive party realignment is in the offing, how might things shake out over the next four or eight years?

As I have already suggested, I think if Biden wins a big victory his instinct will be to move to the center while agreeing to, if not actually pushing, a number of economically and socially progressive measures designed to get America out of the depression it is now falling into. He will try to marginalize the Republicans and turn them into a permanent minority party with a shrinking popular and state political base. It may take the Republicans more than the next four years finally to be quits with Trump, but eventually they will shake loose from him and attempt to reconstitute themselves as a serious national party. If the progressive Democrats can build a strong multiracial coalition of working-class men and women joined with that segment of the upper-middle-class that is prepared in effect to betray its class interests by throwing in with the workers, then we might once again see a real progressive Democratic Party. We might very well lose a number of northeastern states that we now count on but at the same time we would have a serious shot at recapturing portions of the South while holding on to the West Coast. If they could build strength in the Latinx community, the Democrats might be able to retake Texas which, along with California and New York could form the basis for a winning coalition.

I rather think I won’t live long enough to see all of this play out but we may be able to discern the beginnings of it as early as 2021.

Saturday, August 29, 2020


Rather than get into an argument about the term “neo—liberal” I will just remark that I was alluding to a statement made by Joe Biden to a group of wealthy donors on June 19, 2019: “The truth of the matter is, you all, you all know, you all know in your gut what has to be done. We can disagree in the margins but the truth of the matter is it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change.”

Instead, I would like to spend a little time today talking about what I imagine will happen if, as I hope and pray, the Democrats win the White House and the Senate and hold the House in November. Until that time, all of us must do everything we can in our own way to bring that victory about but if Biden is elected president, what is he likely to do?

I think it is very probable that he will declare that in order to meet the challenge of the virus and of the economic devastation it has caused and in order at the same time to restore the norms of American democracy, he proposes to create a Government of National Unity. He will then appoint prominent anti-Trump Republicans to important positions in his cabinet and seek to mollify the left wing of the Democratic Party with a number of high profile proposals that do not in any serious way challenge the interests of Wall Street.

I would not view this as a betrayal. Quite to the contrary. It is exactly what everybody thought they would get when they supported him for the nomination and, what is more, it is the politically rational thing for him to do. Let me explain how I think things are likely to play out in the event of a Democratic sweep.

Trump will not go quietly, as I think everyone recognizes. I am not talking about whether he will get out of the White House – that is a red herring. He will go because he has no backing in the military to undo the results of the election and establish him as dictator. But after he goes, he will continue to be a major presence in American politics, mobilizing and weaponizing the 25 or 30% of the population that are his diehard supporters. His primary target will not be the Democrats but rather the Republicans. He will accuse the so-called never – Trumpers of betrayal, and he will focus his most virulent attacks on Republicans like Ted Cruz, Lindsey Graham, and Nikki Haley who did not break with him during the campaign but, as soon as he has lost, start to claim that they can’t remember who he is and never supported him. This is going to create enormous strategic problems for the Republicans, problems that it will be in Joe Biden’s political interest to exacerbate by trying to stake out a position that welcomes into the Democratic Party a sizable portion of natural Republican voters.

The day after the election, an election in which we have done everything we possibly can to secure Biden’s victory, we will have to turn on a dime and start working as hard as we can to elect House members and Senators as far to the left as we can manage, and to elect as well governors and state legislators who are genuinely progressive. If we have any hope of translating our hopes and desires into legislation, we are somehow going to have to rebuild the multiracial coalition of workers and middle-class professionals that gave Roosevelt and the New Deal such power in the 30s and that continued to be the backbone of the Democratic Party until the 70s or 80s.

Because I am a natural optimist, ever alert to the sight of a dove with a twig in its mouth, I will confess that I take great hope from the actions in the past few days of the professional basketball players and those following their lead in baseball and hockey.

Now I will check into this website, as I do every day, and see what the latest polls have brought us.

Friday, August 28, 2020


Well, the conventions are over, thank God, and now we can concentrate on turning out the vote. Judging from what I have seen, Biden is not suffering from dementia, just from old-fashioned centrist neo-– liberalism, which we already knew. Having nothing better to do while I sit here in virtual quarantine, let me offer some predictions.

First, the polls will show no significant change as a result of the conventions. I have never seen a time when people's opinions are so set. The polls may tighten as we approach November 3 – I have no foresight about that – but unless they tighten significantly I do not see how Trump can win. The two keys will be turn out and voter suppression.

Second, I predict that as early voting or absentee ballot voting begins, we will see an extraordinary flood of votes, especially from Democrats. I think people are so hungry to vote that they will seize the very first opportunity. This will go a long way toward frustrating Trump's effort to sabotage the post office. If the polls are any indication, people love the post office even more than they love their sports teams and it was insane of him to try publicly to attack the Postal Service.

Third, not so much a prediction as a confirmation of a past prediction, elementary, secondary, and post secondary education is going to be a disaster this fall. My local campus, UNC Chapel Hill, seems to have become a poster child for the problems of university education but our much-publicized difficulties will be replicated all over the country.

Local prediction: I think Cal Cunningham is going to beat Thom Tillis and there is a good chance that the Democrats will take North Carolina.

Meanwhile I am struggling more or less ineffectually with streaming and bandwidth problems caused by the incompetent Spectrum service that we get here in my retirement community. Watching elephants and wildebeest on live cam in Africa is one of my go to amusements these days and at the moment I can no longer get them. Grr!

Thursday, August 27, 2020


So you go through life thinking nobody cares about you and then out of the blue there comes an email message that makes it all better. This morning, while I was in the midst of a death struggle with the Best Buy Geek squad trying to resolve streaming video issues, this email showed up on my cell phone:

Idiots like you are the reason the Nazis rose to power in Germany.  No one like you should ever have any chance to speak to any students at any university or school in the US.
YOU ARE AN OLD FOOL AND AN IDIOT.  The day you die will be a good one.  If the Chinese virus brings any benefit, let it be your death.
And the trading of labor for compensation is not a capitalist myth or done under capitalist compulsion.  It's a natural state of affairs.  The most natural state.  It has always existed and always will.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020


Enough of Donald J Trump! Yesterday Susie came into my study and asked where our recording of Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg variations was. I told her I thought it was probably in storage along with many of our other CDs, but in next to no time I called up on YouTube a magnificent performance by Gould recorded in 1955 and we listened to it happily. The experience set me to thinking about some of my most cherished musical experiences and I thought I would take a little time to tell you about some of them. There is not the slightest political or philosophical significance to these reminiscences; this is simply an effort to remind myself that there is more to life than Trump.

Let me begin not with a single experience but with a group of them dating from more than 70 years ago. Once Susie and I began to go steady in 1949 (as we said in those days), I took her on occasion to concerts given by a group of young musicians who had just been formed into something called the Bach Aria Group. The musicians included the flautist Julius Baker, the oboeist Robert Bloom, and the cellist Bernard Greenhouse. The violinist was Maurice Welk, who was the premier student of my violin teacher. The concerts were all held at the 92nd St. Y in Manhattan and Susie and I would take several subways to get there. In those days, and still today, a love of the music of Bach was one of the things that draw us together. Susie lived near Forest Hills High School and on occasion I would walk her home and the two of us would listen to a splendid rendition of the B Minor Mass conducted by Robert Shaw. I can still recall the old phonograph with a stack of 78 RPM discs dropping one at a time onto the turntable. Our CD set of that recording was one of the first things I took to our Paris apartment when we bought it 16 years ago. Alas, it is in quarantine there, unreachable until Europe decides that it is safe to allow Americans once more to visit.

One of my most delightful musical experiences occurred in the summer of 1948 or 1949. Hal Aks, the music counselor at the Shaker Village Work Camp which I went to for three summers, would take the whole camp to the summer music festival at Tanglewood, which was not too far away. But one year there was a bad polio outbreak and we were all confined to the camp so Hal arranged for a young string quartet to come from Tanglewood and perform for us. The concert was held in the barn, which was the only gathering place large enough to hold everybody. I climbed up into the hayloft and listened to the concert from a perch that was almost exactly over the quartet. I was able to look down at the four musicians from above and listen to the music as it floated up to me. I could even see the music they were playing from although I was too far away really to make out the notes.

Which brings to mind another string quartet experience roughly half a century after that summer in the Berkshires. I was invited to a conference at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and the organizer of the conference, Predrag Cicovacki, had the extraordinary idea of hiring a young string quartet to entertain us in the evening. I drove over from Pelham, about an hour to the west, to attend the conference. The quartet, which later became quite famous, was the Borromeo.  The concert consisted of two works, the first of which was Beethoven’s Opus 130, which the group performed with the great final movement, known as Die Grosse Fuge. I rushed away from dinner early to get a front row seat and found myself sitting perhaps 15 feet from the musicians. The Borromeo was then a quite unusual quartet. The violist and the cellist, both women, were extraordinarily powerful musicians. The violist, I think, must have been playing a 17 ½ inch instrument (by comparison, my viola, which is quite good – indeed, a great deal better than I am – is only a 16 inch instrument.) The strength of the violist and the cellist gave to the entire quartet a deep resonant voice quite different from that of most professional quartets. Sitting so close to the musicians, I felt completely engulfed by the music. The cellist was positioned so that she was facing directly at me. I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I left when the intermission started, not wanting to dilute it with any further musical input.

Writing these words reminds me of yet another experience I had not intended to talk about. For seven or eight years while I was teaching at UMass and studying the viola, I played weekly with three friends in a quite good string quartet (which very patiently waited while I got good enough to keep up with them.) One day, the second violinist, at whose home we met, invited a friend in Boston to join us. He was a superb violinist and the longtime conductor of the Harvard College Orchestra. For the occasion we played Mozart viola quintets. Our regular first violinist, who was also a good violist, took the first viola part and I played the second viola part while our guest took over the slot of first violinist. He was really a performance level musician and I suddenly found myself experiencing something for the very first time – I was listening from inside the quintet at the first violin part being played as Mozart intended it. It was a revelation to me and gave me just for a moment some sense of what it would be like actually to be good enough to play the music as it was intended and to experience that music from the inside.

Well, I must include an account of my only musical triumph in these musings. One week, our quartet decided that at our next meeting we would play the third Razumovsky – Beethoven’s Opus 59 number 3. Since Susie and I were about to go off to Paris for four weeks, I decided to take my viola with me and practice the quartet so that I would not embarrass myself when we met to play it. In Paris, I spent one week on each of the four movements. After three weeks I felt I could handle the first three movements adequately and then I turned to the final movement. Those of you who are music buffs will perhaps know that the final movement is a fugue in which, remarkably enough, it is the viola that starts off stating the subject of the fugue. This is, of course, extremely unusual. Ordinarily, the viola is in the background accompanying the first violin, the second violin, and the cello. When I opened the music to the fourth movement to begin my week of practice I discovered that Beethoven, who may well have been completely crazy when he wrote this quartet, had indicated that was to be played at a speed of a quarter note = 160. I had a metronome with me in Paris and when I set it to find out how fast that was I realized there was not the slightest possibility, not even in my wildest dreams, that I could play the movement at that speed. I started out dead slow just to get the notes right and then, day by day, slowly increased my tempo, desperately hoping that I could play it fast enough so that my colleagues would not simply throw me out of the quartet. By the end of the week I had gotten all the way up to about 110, which is to say maybe two thirds as fast as it is supposed to be played. I should add that Beethoven marks the last movement attaca, which means that I was supposed to start immediately after the third movement without a pause. Well, we got back to Pelham and I went that next Saturday to my quartet meeting, hoping my colleagues would be understanding. We played the first three movements successfully (that is, you will understand, a term used relatively when talking about an amateur quartet) and then I launched into my solo measures of the fourth movement, playing as fast as I could. After about six measures, the other members of the quartet stopped me and one of them said gently “Bob, could you take it a little bit more slowly?” It was I think the most triumphant moment of my entire life.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Today Susie and I celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary. Later this afternoon I shall place a call to a French restaurant in Durham which we have been to a number of times and enjoy. I shall order a variety of dishes including snails, a cheese tart, and a tasty pate. Then I shall drive to the restaurant, call when I get there, and release the trunk of my car without ever getting out of it. Someone will come out and place several bags of food in the trunk, then closing it. I shall drive home, bring the food in, carefully sanitize the containers with our sanitizing wipes, after which I will set the table, pour each of us a glass of wine, and we will sit down at our lovely octagonal kitchen table to eat our anniversary dinner while we watch MSNBC.

Such is romance in the age of Covid.

Monday, August 24, 2020


It turns out when you're 86 years old and living during a pandemic with an authoritarian madman in the White House sometimes you just get tired. (I am reminded of Madeleine Kahn's great song in Blazing Saddles.) So I will take a day off from my reflections and just play FreeCell and relax for a bit. I'll have a go at wrapping up my reflections tomorrow. In the meantime, think deep thoughts.

Sunday, August 23, 2020


Before trying to make some sort of coherent sense out of my reflections of the past several days, let me say a few words about what is now called the “gig economy.” Recall that in Das Kapital, Marx argued that one of the central mystifications of capitalism is its misrepresentation of workers as petty commodity producers who come into the market with their product, labor, and exchange it freely and without compulsion. As I have argued in the books and articles I have written about Marxist theories, this misrepresentation conceals the exploitation of labor by capital that lies at the base of the capitalist economic order.

As you are all aware, it is at the very end of chapter 6, “The Buying and Selling of Labor Power,” that Marx with bitter irony speaks of the marketplace as “a very Eden of the innate rights of man (where) alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Benthem.” But though the capitalists seek only to extract a surplus from the workers, they are, Marx argues, doomed to bring about their own downfall, for in bringing the workers into the factory in order more efficiently to exploit them, the capitalist enables the workers to discover their common class interests, on the basis of which they organize into progressively broader coalitions, giving them the strength collectively to confront the capitalists. The capitalists are, ironically, their own gravediggers, Marx believes.

During the century after Marx published his great work, workers throughout the capitalist world successfully organized unions that struggled, at times with great peril and cost, to improve working conditions, shorten working hours, raise wages, and even secure what came to be called fringe benefits such as paid vacations, pensions, and even health insurance. I still remember the old bumper sticker: “unions, the people who brought you the weekend.”

The capitalists never gave up their efforts to weaken or destroy unions and take back the benefits they had been forced to concede. In the United States for a long time labor unions were the base, the backbone, of the Democratic Party. Their needs and interests were paid attention to, they were courted at election time, they were given pride of place at national conventions, and they managed in this way to win legislative victories that dramatically improved the condition of working men and women. We can perhaps date the reversal in the fortunes of the labor unions to Ronald Reagan’s successful attack on the air traffic controllers union shortly after he took power in 1980. But capital did not rely only on its Washington political employees in its struggle against the workers.

Its most effective antiunion weapon was of course the international outsourcing of jobs that had been protected by union contracts. The American economy became a service economy not because automation took the place of human labor but rather because lower paid workers in other parts of the world were offered the jobs unionized men and women in the United States had been doing.

But in what must be considered a truly world historical irony, American capital has been increasingly successful in transforming its workforce into precisely that cadre of petty commodity producers that 19th century ideological rationalizers of capitalism misrepresented workers as being. Thus was created the gig economy. Capitalists discovered that if they got rid of their full time unionized workforce, to whom they had to pay decent wages, guaranteed pensions and healthcare and paid vacations, they could compel them to offer precisely the same labor services as “entrepreneurs” producing commodities to be sold in the free marketplace.

Thus a traditional taxi company that hires drivers, pays them wages, and may run the risk of being confronted by a union of drivers demanding decent wages, is replaced by Uber or Lyft, which contracts with large numbers of "independent entrepreneurs" who drive their own cars, pay for their own gas repairs, and perform the same services that a union of taxicab drivers would perform. There is no garage whether cabdrivers will meet, get to know one another, recognize their common interests, and organize.

But whatever the ideology of the gig economy, the underlying reality remains the same. Capitalists exploit and workers are exploited.

Tomorrow I will try to weave all of this together so that perhaps I can make some sense out of what has become of politics in the United States in the 21st-century. Now I must prepare for my sister’s 90th birthday party.

Saturday, August 22, 2020


I think I mentioned that I was invited to a podcast visit with a graduate student In Sri Lanka. I have just watch the finished product. You can find it here. The sound goes bad in a couple places but for the most part it is easy enough to understand. I didn't know until I watched it that she was going to add the Pete Seeger clip at the end. It is a nice touch.


All right, this is now really strange. This morning early I post a short comment about Margot Mayo, whose bio on Wikipedia is fairly lengthy, gives no date of death, and among other things has several quotes about her from my autobiography. Then David Zimmerman comments that Wikipedia lists her death as being 1974. So I go back and check Wikipedia where, instead of a lengthy entry, there is a brief entry with that date of death. And when I look more closely, I see that the entry has last been revised today (!) at 1410 hrs. That new information on her death certainly sounds a great deal more plausible but how on earth did someone who knew the true date of death find my comment so quickly and revise Wikipedia? I think I am beginning to believe in Big Brother.


In this third part of my reflections, I want to summarize some of the things I’ve said before about higher education in the United States. As I keep saying with evident embarrassment, I have not yet integrated these reflections into a coherent narrative but perhaps some of you reading this blog can take a step in that direction.

As I have many times observed, only 33% of adult Americans have four-year college degrees. Inasmuch as the “six-year graduation rate” is currently 55%, a little arithmetic tells us that perhaps 60% of Americans enroll in a higher educational institution offering a four year degree, which means that 40% do not even go that far beyond high school. Virtually all of the discussion I see and hear about higher education focuses on a very small number of elite institutions whose names are readily recognizable, but there are not 50 or 100 or 500 or 1000 bachelor’s degree granting institutions, there are 4500 or so in the United States. Any graduate of the least distinguished of these institutions is in that 33% that has a college degree. Let us try to keep this in mind as we go forward.

It was not always thus. The year that I applied to college – 1949, for admission in 1950 – only 5% of adult Americans (which to the statisticians means 26 years old or older) had bachelor’s degrees. So few high school graduates went on to college in those days that in New York City, where I grew up, little kids entered elementary school and graduated from high school twice a year, depending on whether their birthdays were closer to July or January. If you are a December baby, as I was, that meant that you either had to wait six months to go off to college or else accelerate somewhere along the way to pick up the extra half year. In those days of course the elite colleges were very difficult to get into. I went to Harvard, the most selective of all. Of the large group of young men who applied for admission to Harvard that year, only 75% of us got in. (That is not a misprint. It really was 75%, not 7.5%)

In those days, you had to have a college degree to become a doctor or a professor or even a high school teacher. You pretty much had to have a high school degree to become a lawyer although there were alternative ways of being admitted to the bar. If you think about it for a bit, it will be obvious that many, if not most, of the high paid highly selective elite positions in the economy, which today require an MBA, were filled by men (for the most part) who did not have college degrees. I am not talking about the 1890s. I am talking about the 1950s, after the war, with the economy booming. (It was in that time that the explosion of higher education took place, fueled in part by the G.I. Bill. The Academy, which had been dominated by private institutions, now saw public institutions expand dramatically and enroll a preponderance of the ever larger numbers of high school students going on to college.)

These days, we accept without question that what one learns in college on the way to earning a degree is somehow essential for satisfactory performance in the commanding heights of the economy. But that does not really seem plausible when you think about it because when I was young those same commanding heights were overseen by high school graduates. What first brought this to my attention in a personal way was the discovery that my first wife’s father, an extremely successful businessman who ended his career as a vice president of Sears Roebuck and Company, had never finished high school. No, he was not some phenom like Bill Gates. He was just a hard-driving reasonably talented guy who made his way all the way up the corporate ladder without the benefit of a BA.

There is no doubt that there are some things one learns in college that actually can be useful on the job. Math, chemistry, statistics, physics – that sort of thing. But literary criticism? Philosophy? Sociology? Economics? Not so much. What college does for a young man or woman is socialize him or her into a certain reference group of people and then sort them out as they try to make their way in a steeply pyramidal job world with too few really good jobs and too many lousy jobs. So long as that is the structure of the economy, some way has to be found to sort all those competent people into too few good jobs, but the sorting could just as well be done by calligraphy, as the classical Chinese found, or the writing of bad poetry, as was the case in Prussia when Marx was a young man.

Let us not get hung up on personal anecdotes. Almost 4 million Americans got BAs last year and I am sure that any story you want to tell about what can be gained from a college experience is true of at least several hundred thousand of them. But having spent all of my life in the Academy, I can testify from personal experience that if a serious life-changing engagement with the life of the mind were a prerequisite for a bachelor’s degree, that figure of 4 million would shrink rather dramatically.

Enough of this for the moment. Tomorrow I shall try to put these reflections into some sort of connection with one another.


Tomorrow my extended family will gather by zoom to celebrate the 90th birthday of my big sister, Barbara. She lives in a retirement community in Southern California and it grieves me deeply that I cannot be there in person for this important moment. Last night, at about 1 AM, I was lying awake in bed (don't ask) thinking about what I would say at the zoom party. I decided to tell a few stories about the Barbara I knew when we were both kids since I am the only person left in the world who knew her then. As my mind wandered, I found myself recalling the three summers I spent as a teenager at a left-wing "work camp," an eight week sleep away camp in the Berkshires where Northeast comfortably well-off parents of a left-wing persuasion sent their children to get an authentic work experience. One of the counselors was a dumpy young folklorist named Margot Mayo. It was she who introduced us to the work of Alan Lomax and to his greatest discovery, the magnificent Black folksinger and 12 string guitar player Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly as he was known. I got to wondering what had happened to Margot Mayo so I got up and went to my computer to see whether by any chance she was on Wikipedia. Sure enough, there she was! It turns out Margot was born in 1910 which means that she was in her later 30s when I knew her. It also turns out, if Wikipedia can be believed, that she is still alive today at the age of 110!!

Can this possibly be right? If it is, she must be the oldest or almost the oldest person in the United States. As I drifted off to sleep, I gave some thought to what I might post on my blog in 2043.

Friday, August 21, 2020


Before I continue my multi-day reflections, I thought I would say just a word about the phrase “middle class” which in recent years has played a central role in Democratic Party rhetoric. In the feudal era, the distinctions among the clergy, the aristocracy, and the commoners was marked by law, by custom, and by immemorial tradition. Each group had its own law courts, for example. In England, members of the House of Lords were tried for crimes before their peers, not in the courts that tried the cases of commoners. In France, there were three estates and it was a revolutionary moment when first the representation of the third estate was doubled in the National Assembly and then all distinction among the estates was eliminated.

When Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and their lesser fellow political economists developed the first systematic economic theory of the newly emerging capitalist order, they divided the population of England into three classes defined by their functional relationship to economic activity: landowners, entrepreneurs, and working men and women. Land, capital, and labor are the three elements of the economic order and they recognized that the most important fact about any individual was his or her relationship to that order. The story is a great deal more complicated, of course, and in France, for example, a centuries long three cornered struggle took place among the rural land-based aristocrats, the king, and the merchants and artisans living in the walled cities. The cities were called “bourgs” and so the merchants and artisans were called “bourgeois.”

The clear implication of this mode of analysis was that the interests of the capitalists, workers, and landowners were ineluctably in conflict, a conclusion that was uncomfortable for the economists of the later 19th and 20th century whose task it was to justify, not to anatomize, capitalism. Drawing on the work of Max Weber, whom they somewhat misunderstood, 20th century sociologists and economists began to substitute a different form of classification: what was sometimes labeled socio—economic – status or SES. Thus was born the familiar classificatory scheme with which we have been living for a century or so of lower class, lower middle class, middle class, upper middle-class, and upper-class segments of a modern capitalist society. The purpose of this classification, at least ostensibly, is to take account of non-economic aspects of a person’s social position. How a person was viewed by others was determined not only, or perhaps not at all, by the relationship he or she bore to the capitalist economy but rather by such things as his or her housing, clothing, and other possessions; whether his or her employment was paid hourly, or weekly, or even monthly; how much formal education he or she had completed; and even what sorts of amusements he or she preferred.

My favorite example of this sort of classificatory scheme was the old joke that when two couples went out for an evening together, if they were working-class the men rode in the front of the car and the women in the back; if they were middle-class one couple rode in the front and the other couple rode in the back; while if they were upper-class the husband of one couple rode in front with the wife of the other couple while the husband of the other couple rode in the back with the wife of the first couple. In the great old black-and-white prewar movies, the toffs always seem to be dressed in evening clothes, the middle class men wear suits and the women wear dresses with fancy hats, and the working blokes wear working cloths.  All the men wore hats – that didn’t stop until Jack Kennedy took his celebratory walk from the capital to the White House in 1961 hatless and overnight it no longer was the in thing for men to wear hats.

In the decades after World War II, during a time when many working Americans saw significant improvement in their economic condition, “middle class” came to mean “owning one’s own home, having a family car or even two, being paid monthly, not hourly, having paid vacations, sometimes even owning a vacation home.”  The term “middle class” also acquired another meaning that is peculiar to the particular history of the United States. After the postwar migration to the suburbs, with black Americans left in the inner cities, thanks to the deliberately and officially discriminatory policies of the Federal Housing Authority, “middle class” took on the special and very important meaning “not black.”

It is useful to add a few facts to this impressionistic account. In 2019 the median weekly wage of persons employed full-time was roughly $950. Forty years earlier, in 1979, the median weekly wage of full-time workers in 2019 dollars was roughly $880. In short, in two generations there has been almost no improvement in the welfare of the bottom half of the American population.

In the next part of these reflections I will try to add to this story some facts about changes in the educational credentials of Americans.  As should by now be clear, I am simply trying to assemble facts and thoughts that I think need to be woven into a coherent analysis of our present circumstances, even though I do not yet see clearly how that process of weaving is to take place.

Thursday, August 20, 2020


Richard Lewis has posted an extremely interesting and important comment on my Reflections Part Two. I reproduce it verbatim below. Since it raises issues that I was hoping to address in my third or fourth segment, I shall not comment on it here save to suggest that you all read it and keep it in mind until I get to the point at which I can explore these issues in greater detail.

“But these kind of data also point in an awkward direction, as the blogger 'Policy Tensor' and others have pointed out: the 'class enemy'(those who use political power and social networks to extract surplus from the general economy) is as much the upper middle class professionals (the 5-10%) as it is the 'owners' of capital (the 0.1%).
This has political implications obviously, since the Democratic Party is nowadays the party of upper middle class professionals (I mean in terms of de facto control and agenda setting, not its electorate which is a complex ad hoc coalition). The ideology of these upper middle class professionals (UMCPs) favors globalization of capital, labor, services, goods, and 'expertise' and has anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia and anti-nationalism as its cultural glue.
Going forward, the Republicans are better placed (with imaginative leadership) to capture resentment at UMCP's (and their culture) as their party is more permeable to non-UMCP leadership. This could lead to odd political formations in the future, with a possible exodus of working class Hispanics to the Republicans for example - IF they find imaginative leaders who can dump some of their old baggage.
Whether any of that is cause for optimism or pessimism I don't know: a Republican Party in 2040 that is the 'Non UMCP' party might be genuinely progressive in a way the Democrats cannot be given their current ownership.
I am assuming that the 0.1% are now politically ineffectual compared to their 'managers' in the UMCP group in academia, media, government, high tech, etc.”


Before I begin the second part of my reflections, let me respond very briefly to some of the comments posted yesterday. Several folks asked why I said nothing about the labor movement in the United States, which has played such an important role in the past two centuries. I intend to talk about that later on, but note that the labor movement was not and is not a liberation movement designed to remove discriminations against some subset of the population. It is instead a frontal assault on the structure of capitalism itself, or alternatively an attempt to ameliorate some of the more serious damage that capitalism does to workers. Remember what I said: these reflections are not an integrated and systematic theoretical discourse but an attempt to put on paper (or the Internet equivalent thereof) some thoughts that I have not yet succeeded in transforming into a single coherent story. There were also a good many comments back and forth about whether a socialist society would exhibit some significant measure of economic and social stratification. That is an important question which I shall try to say something about down the road, but let us be clear: the primary target of socialist theory and action is not social stratification but capitalist exploitation. These are not at all the same thing and need to be analyzed separately.

Today I want to talk about patterns of income and wealth inequality in the United States. As I am sure you all know, inequalities in wealth are dramatically greater even than the very great inequalities in income. Let me start with income. One useful way in which income statistics are presented is in the form of annual income accruing to households. There a bit more than 128 million households in the United States. Some of these but by no means all are traditional nuclear family households with a father, a mother, and one or several minor children. Others are single-parent households, blended family households, multigenerational households, and households consisting of a single individual. My favorite category is POSSSLQs, which is the number crunchers’ term for persons of the same sex sharing living quarters.

In 2019 the median household income in the United States was just about $63,000. (I am sure regular readers of this blog fully understand the distinction between average income and median income but for those who may have stumbled on this site more or less by accident I will illustrate the distinction by a little imaginary example. Suppose five workers are sitting in a bar having a beer. Each of them, we may suppose, earns $30,000 a year. The average income of the folks in the bar is $30,000 a year and so is the median income, because half of those sitting there make less than $30,000 a year and half make more. Then Lebron James stops in for a beer. The median income remains $30,000 a year but the average income is now something more than $6 million a year because Lebron James, according to Google, makes $37 million a year all by himself.)

So there are 64 million households making less than $63,000 a year. There are also, as it happens, 32 million households making less than $31,200 a year, and 1.28 households making less than $14,203 a year. That is several million people living each year on less than the earnings of a worker employed full-time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are more than 19 million households making more than $150,000 a year. And then of course there are the 1.28 million households making more than $475,000 a year. One striking way to think about this is that some young man or woman who inherits $63 million thereby acquires an amount equal to a millennium of median household annual incomes.

By the way, the median weekly earnings for full-time employed workers at the end of 2018 works out to be a little bit less than $45,000 a year or $22.50 an hour, which tells us that very large numbers of households have two or more wage earners.

The data for household wealth are dramatically more unequal. Thomas Pikkety reported that fully half of all American households have zero net worth. How is that possible? Don’t they have cars and phones and beds and kitchen tables and dishes and clothing? Yes, of course they do, but they also have debts – maxed out credit cards, second mortgages, student debt, unpaid taxes and the rest.

The United States is the richest country in the world but the people of the United States are, by and large, a good deal poorer than we tend to suppose. Let me offer a few concrete examples to orient us. Here in North Carolina, which is by no stretch of the imagination the wealthiest part of the United States, the average high school teacher makes $58,800 a year. A husband-and-wife team of high school teachers in Greensboro North Carolina both making that amount are, as a household, taking in annually more than 73% of all the households in the United States. If the term “upper-middle-class” has any measurable meaning at all, then they are upper-middle-class but nobody commenting on economic affairs in the media thinks in that way at all. A husband-and-wife household in which both of them are FBI special agents has an annual income greater than 96% of all the households in the United States. Once again, if the term “upper-class” or “rich” has any functional meaning then it applies to this couple. And yet television commentators routinely would call such people “middle-class.” A long time Walmart assistant store manager who just never made it to the next step, with a stay at home wife and a couple of kids, brings in more money for his household than is earned by 60% of the households in the United States.

The terms “middle-class” and “working class” have lost all functional meaning in American public discourse these days. A husband and wife each working a $15 an hour job for the year are, as a household, just about exactly the median household and yet nobody would describe them as “middle-class.”

I will stop here for today and tomorrow add some facts and figures about higher education and the role it plays in determining income and wealth distribution.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020


There being only so long that even political junkies like me can watch a nominating convention, I found myself channel surfing last night and came upon a wonderful old 1981 movie, Reds, on Turner Classic Movies. This is a film starring Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty that tells the story of the great communist journalist John Reed. As I watched it, I experienced that odd thrill one gets from having a personal connection to an historical event. I have told this story in my autobiography, but that was 10 years ago and I don’t think it is too soon to tell it again.

In the first part of the 20th century the leading socialist newspaper in New York City was The Call. My paternal grandmother’s maiden sister, my great aunt Fanny, worked on The Call as a secretary.  On October 31st, John Reed, who was in Petrograd reporting for The Call, filed a dramatic account of the Bolshevik uprising which the Call printed on page one with a banner headline.  Reed unequivocally declared the Bolsheviks to be the wave of the future, and consigned Kerensky to the trash heap of history.  He filed a twenty-five page cablegram, which the Call edited very lightly and published virtually verbatim.  The cable, which is too long to include here, ends with a dramatic florish:

“Good to be alive.  Trotsky and Lenin through CALL send to American revolutionary international socialists greeting from
first proletarian republic of the world and call to arms for international social revolution.  Send me money."

How is it that I have the precise wording of this historic document?  Therein lies a lovely story  After Fanny had finished transcribing the cable, she asked the editor whether she could keep the original stack of cable pages, and he agreed.  The cable, yellowed with age but still intact, was passed from her to my grandfather and grandmother, from them to my father, and from him to me as part of the mass of papers in my parents' attic.  For many years, it simply sat on my shelf, but eventually, I decided to donate it to the John Reed Archives in Houghton Library at Harvard [Reed, of course, had been a Harvard graduate], in memory of my grandfather and grandmother.  This is the same library in which I had sat, as a graduate student, reading the microfilm of the German translation of James Beattie's Essay on the Nature and Immutability of the Truth, and thereby establishing an essential link in Immanuel Kant's knowledge of the sceptical arguments of David Hume.  It seemed appropriate that I repay them in some way for their assistance during the writing of my doctoral dissertation.

There is an amusing coda to the story.  When I came to write the book about my grandparents, I asked Houghton Library for a copy of the cable, so that I could quote it in my book.  They charged me a fee, even though it was I who had donated it to the library.  I wrote a restrainedly ironic letter to Harvard’s President, Neil Rudenstine, and received a very contrite apology.  I urged him not to send the money back, as that would, I suggested, not be a classy thing to do, and he had the grace to accede to my suggestion.  I gather that in future the donors of documents will be able to get copies of them gratis.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020


For several days now, I have been struggling to pull together into one coherent narrative a number of themes to which I have devoted many words and many years of my life. I have not yet been successful in this effort, so this morning I decided to set it to one side and simply to talk about each of them, one after the other.

Let me begin by expanding on things I have often said about the significance of the several liberation movements that have been so important a part of American life and politics for almost 2 centuries. I have in mind four such movements. The first and by far the greatest was the Civil War which, with enormous bloodshed and loss of life, established once for all that chattel slavery has no place in the United States. The second movement, which began more than a century ago, is what came to be called Women’s Liberation: first the struggle for the suffrage for (primarily white) women; then the demand for equal pay for equal work; and finally the attempt to break all of the glass ceilings that limit the aspirations and accomplishments of women. The third is the modern Civil Rights Movement, which is now more than 60 years old and continues to the present day with its inclusion of demands for the equality of Latinx and Native American men and women. And the fourth liberation movement is the demand for equal rights for non—heterosexuals, which perhaps should be called the movement for Gender Liberation rather than for Gay Liberation.

Viewed in a certain light, all four of these movements, despite the resistance they have engendered and the drama they have contributed to American life, are fundamentally conservative in their nature. To see what I mean, try to imagine with me an America in which the goals of all of these movements are fully realized. This would be in America in which there would be equal pay for equal work, in which every job category from the production line to the corporate suite would be occupied by persons in proportion to their racial or ethnic or gender presence in the American population as a whole. There would be as many female garbage collectors proportionally as there are women in the labor force seeking jobs. And there would be as many female CEOs in the corporate hierarchy proportionally as there are women in the labor force. There would be as many Latinx doctors, professors, lawyers, and architects proportionally as there are Latinx men and women in the population. There would be as many gay multibillionaires as straight multibillionaires in the upper reaches of American wealth and the total value of the holdings of each subset would be the same. And so forth and so on.

This would be an unimaginable change from the present situation but it would not have the slightest effect on the capitalist structure of the American economy. Exploitation would continue apace, capital accumulation would proceed unimpeded, and the job pyramid would remain unaltered. To adapt a famous phrase from Napoleon Bonaparte, America would offer careers open to talents but this would in no way alter the fundamental inequality that is an inescapable feature (a feature, not a bug) of capitalism.

There would almost certainly be significant improvements in the well-being of those at the bottom of the pyramid: a $15 an hour minimum wage, universal healthcare, perhaps even guaranteed paid parental leave. But year after year, capital would grind on extracting a surplus from the labor of workers. There have been a few voices on the left calling for some amelioration of the inequality, but not many if indeed any challenging the private ownership of the means of production.

These thoughts, which I have had many times over the past half-century and to which I have given expression on numerous occasions in my writings, were brought back to me by watching some of the first evening of the Democratic Party convention last night. I live in terror that Trump will somehow manage to win a second term and I will do everything I can to make that not happen, consistent with my efforts to keep myself and my wife safe from the virus. But I very much doubt that had Bernie won the nomination and were to win the election, the fundamental structure of the American economy would be under any greater threat.

This is enough to say for the moment. Tomorrow, perhaps I can try to connect this to my thoughts about what is happening under the influence of the virus to higher education in America.

Saturday, August 15, 2020


The U.S. Postal Service handles 472 million pieces of mail each day. If 100 million people decide to vote by mail then, taking account of the initial request for an absentee ballot and the return of the absentee ballot to the voter and the return of the completed ballot to the state registrar, absentee voting will add 300 million pieces of mail over roughly 6 weeks. In other words, this will add a burden of additional mail equal to roughly 1 1/2% during that time.

The Postal Workers Union has just endorsed the Biden ticket.

All the fuss about postal delays is likely to frontload the mail-in ballot burden, so that any additional time in delivering the final ballots will probably not make too much difference.

I suspect we are going to be okay.


One of the centerpieces of Max Weber's great work Economy and Society is his classification of types of legitimate authority: charismatic authority, traditional authority, and rational – legal authority. Charismatic authority (the term comes from the name of the holy oil used in baptisms and other rites of the Catholic Church) is that personal claim on the loyalty of a group of followers deriving from the extraordinary characteristics of the individual. The military skill of Genghis Khan, the spiritual purity of Joan of Arc or Gandhi or Mohamed, that sort of thing. As Weber notes, after the extraordinary individual dies, his or her authority passes to a successor who quite often lacks the special characteristics that conferred the authority in the first place. So over time what was originally a spontaneous and extraordinary individual event becomes a regular passage from ruler to ruler. Weber called this "the routinization of charisma."

I often reflect on this notion in its application to what happens again and again in the Academy when a course or program created by an exciting – a charismatic – professor is handed off to some young assistant professor who then slogs on following the course outline more or less unthinkingly. 70 years ago when I entered Harvard as a young freshman, Harvard was just phasing in a new program called General Education. Some of the most distinguished senior members of the arts and sciences faculty created exciting new lecture courses for the freshman and sophomores, with two large lectures a week and a discussion section taught by a young Teaching Fellow or Instructor. Each undergraduate was required to take one humanities course, one social sciences course, and – if not a science major – one General Education science course. My year was the second year of the phase-in and we were required to take two of the three. My very first semester I signed up for Social Sciences 2 taught by Samuel Beer. Beer was a dramatic political scientist with a shock of red hair and a bushy red mustache. The course filled Harvard's largest venue, New Lecture Hall, and as we sat there entranced for the year he talked about everything from the Anglo-Saxon wergeld to the Weimar Republic. I don't think I ever came within 50 feet of Beer (although I did once get a job from the Harvard Student Employment Office to wax the floors in his home,) but it was a mesmerizing experience.

Eventually the big wheels got tired of giving the great courses they had created and the jobs were passed on to junior faculty. Decades later, Harvard decided to bring General Education to a close and create some other undergraduate set of distribution requirements. I saw the same thing during my brief time teaching at the University of Chicago. Under the famous president Robert Hutchins a revolutionary new undergraduate curriculum had been fashioned and for a long time put its unique stamp on a succession of students. By the time I got there in 1961, only a few bits and fragments of the great old program still clung on and I spent two years teaching in the second year humanities course that had been created long ago.

I have had a hand in creating four academic programs in my lifetime. The first was Social Studies at Harvard, which has just completed its 60th year. The second was Social Thought and Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts, which is now 47 years old. The third was the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies, also at the University of Massachusetts, which will be 25 next year. The fourth was the so-called Alternative Track in the UMass philosophy department, devoted to social and political philosophy and recent Continental philosophy. It flourished for no more than 10 years, attracting close to half of all the doctoral students in the department before it was summarily terminated by my colleagues, who hated it and thought that it was "not philosophy," the most devastating thing a philosopher can say about what a colleague is doing.

But that is a story I have told at length in my autobiography.

Friday, August 14, 2020


In the apartment where Susie and I live, there is a small utility room just large enough to hold a washer and dryer and some mechanical stuff. On the floor, in a corner of the room, is a toolbox with the collection of odds and ends that I have assembled over a long lifetime of making household repairs. There is a flat head screwdriver, a Phillips screwdriver, a hammer, a plastic box with little containers filled with odd washers, screws, clips, nails, and the other detritus of repair work. There are also several pairs of pliers and wrenches including one big old clunky job with the screw at the bottom of one of the handles so that you can widen or narrow the gap of the mouth. This last item, Google tells me, is an Irwin wrench. I have no idea what its inventor intended it to be used for but I use it to open bottles and cans. I drink a modest Cabernet that runs to $10 a bottle but Susie prefers Prosecco, a sort of poor woman's champagne. When the time comes to open a new bottle for her and I can't get the cork out with my hand I go get the Irwin wrench, adjust the opening, and with no trouble at all and a quite satisfying pop pull the cork out.

Tools are like that. Regardless of what they were designed to do, they can be put to other uses with a little imagination and sufficient desperation. But arguments are not tools, although students and some young aspiring philosophers seem to imagine that they are. Over the years I have quite often received a student paper or read a journal article in which the author says something on the order of "in this essay I shall use Aristotle in the beginning and John Rawls in my conclusion." I can never figure out what the author has in mind. A philosophical argument is not a home repair. It is like a story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end and if the story makes sense than the argument proceeds comfortably from start to finish. Nobody in his right mind would start telling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and halfway through say "at this point I will use a little bit of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."

The only time I have encountered this kind of intellectual confusion among senior and supposedly serious academics was at a conference I attended at Columbia University in 1986 on the subject of "Immanuel Kant and the Law." At first, I was mystified as to what possible interest first rate legal theorists could have in the philosophy of Kant, but after a while it dawned on me that what I was watching was a sophisticated version of the game that my young sons played called Dungeons & Dragons. In that game, each player chooses a character as his or her representative in the game and then goes through a series of adventures designed to increase the strength of the character, which is measured by something called "hit points." The more hit points a character has, the more other characters it can conquer in encounters and the more daring the adventures it can undertake. I realized that to the legal theorists assembled for this upscale event, invoking Kant's name in a legal argument could confer considerable hit points. It was the academic equivalent of bringing an AK-47 to a knife fight.

It didn't seem to matter to these legal eagles what the structure of Kant's argument was or whether the premises on which his argument was based bore any relationship whatsoever to the legal issue they were interested in litigating. The name was enough.

Why on earth am I telling you this? Because at 3 AM I lay awake going through all of this in my mind and this is, after all, a web log or blog. Enough said.

Thursday, August 13, 2020


Being virtually confined to my apartment by the threat of the virus has not really made any measurable change in my ability to have an effect on the world in which I live. During the first 86 years of my life I was free to move about as I wished and during that long time nothing I did made any noticeable difference to more than the handful of people with whom I came in contact. But I was able to keep alive the illusion that what I did made a difference. So I voted and worked for candidates and took part in protests and gave bits of money and wrote books and letters to the editor, and got myself arrested in a anti-apartheid protest (this last more or less as a lark.) I even actually ran for office once in 1977. There were two open seats on the Northampton Massachusetts school committee and I managed to run third for one of them in a three-person race.

But now I am confined to my apartment save for my morning walk, a quick trip downstairs to get the mail, an even shorter trip to the end of the hall to throw the garbage in the garbage chute and of course – most exciting of all – my occasional trips to the dentist or the doctor. Thus confined, I delude myself into thinking that if only I could get out I could do something, anything, to make a difference. Unless I am much mistaken, my situation is not much different from that of the folks who comment on this blog. And yet the anger and intensity of the comments seems to suggest that it will make a very big difference which of us has adopted the correct judgmental standpoint.

I wish it were so. It would be so invigorating to discover that winning an argument actually had the effect of changing the world. But alas, if I could persuade everyone who has ever visited this blog to act exactly as I specify the net observable result on the world would be zero. However, many decades ago I chose to make it my life's work to have opinions and it is too late to find another line of employment. So I shall go on offering my opinions, though not making the mistake of supposing that persuading anybody will change anything.

I can see the subtle attractions of dictatorship, at least to the dictator.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020


Well, now that we know who is going to be the Democratic Party's nominee for VP, what do I think? Mainly, I am relieved. Biden avoided several really bad choices which at the present moment is what matters most. Harris will make mincemeat of Pence.  That won't change many votes but will be fun to watch. More to the point, really progressive House candidates continue to win primaries, so the Democratic caucus will move further to the left.

I sit here in safe isolation watching what is happening in this country with genuine horror. All I can do is keep giving money to the Poor People's Campaign and hope that Nancy Pelosi's hardball negotiating tactics are successful.

I don't even have any good jokes today.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020


I just finished doing a 40 minute podcast conducted by a humanities graduate student in Sri Lanka. Before too long it will, I believe, be posted in a format that should be accessible to you but I just want to pause for a moment to observe how authentically weird that is. Sri Lanka is halfway around the world in a time zone 9 1/2 hours earlier than the one in which I am located. The history, culture, and political situation of Sri Lanka are, quite obviously, utterly different from those of the United States. And yet there she and I sat, each with a headphone on, chatting as though we were in the same room. I imagine young people think nothing of this but I am old enough to find it very strange indeed.

I concluded my remarks by telling a story I have told many times before and when I finished, she commented that I had used that story in one of my lectures on ideological critique and had followed it with a recording of Pete Seeger singing "which side are you on?" 

Sigh. It is hard to be original when everyone in the world has heard your jokes.

Sunday, August 9, 2020


Marcel Proust reminds me of "hopefully" and "presently," which of course I should have recalled when writing my priggish post. If I may be serious for a moment (which seems like an unconscionable change in tone) what matters to me is not which words we use to mark certain distinctions and memorialize certain meanings but rather that we should not allow those distinctions and meanings to disappear from our discourse. "Presently" is supposed to mean "anon," which is to say "in a little while." The problem in using it also to mean "at the present moment" is that the obvious and useful distinction between the two gets lost. "Hopefully" is an even sadder case, since we really would like to have some way of expressing the fact that we are full of hope with regard to some matter while still being able to say "it is to be hoped that."

But the palm goes to David Palmeter for his little gem: "I am, I mean, like I'm with you. Know what I mean?" He has clearly spent more time with teenagers lately than I have.


First things first, the old phrase "wage slavery." During the time when chattel slavery existed and flourished in the United States, it was commonplace in the north to contrast the condition of slaves on southern plantations with the supposedly far superior position of wage laborers in northern factories. Socialists and other critics of capitalism coined the phrase "wage slavery" as a deliberate polemical attack. The idea, which was immediately obvious, was that the self-justifying myth of capitalist ideologists regarding the "free" marketplace concealed the reality of the bondage that industrial workers were trapped in under capitalism. The term was not an attempt to arrive at a neutral, evenhanded, objective, fair assessment of the condition of workers from what John Rawls would later call the "original position" but was intended as a slap in the face of the apologists of capitalism.

With regard to the lengthy and very helpful comment by Michael, here is his last paragraph:

" I'm not quite sure what it would look like to describe capitalism using the language of personal relationships, but I think I see it in, e.g., "Employer X is humanly decent and unobjectionable, because X demonstrates a caring attitude toward his/her/its employees"; "My boss and co-workers are family to me." I doubt this was Prof. Wolff's point, but it might be interesting nonetheless to talk about the ways in which this use of language is wrong-headed, too."

That is exactly what I had in mind in my throwaway comment at the end of my post. Marx labored long and fruitfully to disabuse his readers of this way of thinking about capitalism. Speaking technically, that is why he wrote volume 1 on the assumption that commodities exchange in proportion to their labor values. In the famous chapter "The Working Day" Marx gives us a great many examples of the ways in which capitalists seek to squeeze an extra few minutes of unpaid labor from their workers, but he is insistent that these despicable dodges play no role in the correct analysis of the structure of capitalism itself.

It is a very bad mistake to suppose that what is really wrong with America today is that not all employers are as nice as Ben and Jerry. Just as slavery cannot be understood through the lens of interpersonal relationships between slaveowners and slaves, so capitalism cannot be understood through the lens of interpersonal relationships between employers and workers.

The nice guys are also exploiters.


Each of us reacts in his or her own way to the isolation imposed by the virus. Some of us gain weight, others lose weight. Some sleep too much, others can't sleep. My reaction is to become more than ordinarily obsessed with the misuses of language that I must put up with as I endlessly watch cable news political commentary. I know I am being fussy, I know I am a prig about these things, but I just can't help it, they bug me.

It drives me wild when a cable news host, reaching for an important word to puff up a banal observation, describe someone as having given fulsome praise to something or other, oblivious of the real meaning of the word "fulsome." Lately, I have been driven crazy by the almost universal misuse of  modal terminology as a device for hedging what would otherwise be a gratifyingly strong judgment. Wanting to say the Trump has lied but not able to just come out and say it, some commentators will say that what Trump proclaimed was "potentially" contrary to the facts. "Necessarily" plays a similar role in the mindless discourse of the bloviating class.

I know, I know. Language is constantly changing, there is no such thing as standard English save in the minds of Webster and Roget and their ilk. I have many times watched YouTube clips of Noam Chomsky explaining precisely this fact. What charms me most about Noam's explanations is that they are always delivered in absolutely perfect standard English of the sort that he is explaining does not exist. Noam never utters an incomplete sentence. He never says "um" or "er" or "ah" or "like" or "sorta."

When I grow up, if I ever do, I want to be, like, Noam.

Saturday, August 8, 2020


S. Wallerstein questions my use of the word "rape" to describe the fathering of children on slave women by slaveowners. At the end of the Civil War, there were roughly 4 million enslaved black men and women who were freed. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that half of them were women. Was there somewhere among these 2 million women one or even several who engaged in totally voluntary consensual sexual relationships that their owners? Who cares? When one has 2 million people in a category, probably anything imaginable is possible and perhaps happens more than once.

Let me remind you of the common practice on slave plantations of digging a shallow pit so that when a pregnant slave woman was to be beaten for some reason, or perhaps for no reason at all, she could be placed with her belly in the pit so that as the blood ran down her back the fetus would be protected, it being valuable property.

I think it is a very bad mistake to try to describe an institution like slavery using the social and psychological language of personal relationships. Slavery was fundamentally an economic institution for extracting labor from those who had no choice but to provide it. That is the way it was treated by the slaveowners, who in general kept detailed double entry bookkeeping records of what happened on their plantations, and that is, I think, the way we ought to try to understand it. Slaves dressed their masters and mistresses, cooked their food, cleaned their houses, nursed their babies, accompanied them on trips in order to provide for their personal needs, and were regularly used as sexual objects. These interactions between the slaveowners and their property generated rich, complex, many layered emotions both in the owners and in their property. It is fascinating to study the oral literature, rich in ironic communication, by which the slaves expressed and memorialized their experiences. But it would be fundamentally mistaken to imagine that a nuanced understanding of those complex emotions is the best way to understand the foundational structure of the institution of slavery.

Needless to say, the same is true of capitalism but that is for a different post.


One by one, the things I predicted are coming to pass, which shows not that I am prescient but simply that I am paying attention. Aside from giving bits of money to candidates and larger bits to food programs for those in hard times there is really not much to do but wait for things to play out as they will. So it is, that this morning as I was taking my daily walk I found myself telling an imaginary audience various interesting things about slavery that I learned during my years as a professor of Afro-American studies.

Years ago, I read a fascinating book whose title is Southern Slavery and the Law by Thomas Morris. Morris notes that with the exception of several southern colonies, the colonists brought with them the English common law and they found that it posed a number of curious problems when applied to the institution of slavery. The first problem, of course, was that the English common law had no category of slavery and therefore its traditions had to be distorted and contorted to create a place for slavery. Here are several of the less well-known problems that the colonial legal scholars struggled with.

First of all, the question arose whether slaves were chattels real or chattels movable. Chattels real meant land (hence our term real estate). Chattels movable as the term suggests meant tables or chairs or coaches or the family silver or – in the famous case of Shakespeare – the second best bed. By long tradition, the law dictated that chattels real be the last possessions to be sold off. Now one would think that slaves would fall into the category of chattels movable since they clearly are not land but this posed a practical problem with which the legal experts had to wrestle. If a landowner died and left an estate, say to his oldest son, the law required that the outstanding debts be paid from the estate before it pass to the heir. But land without slaves was virtually useless to a southern plantation owner so the law was contorted to classify slaves as chattels real, thus ensuring that they would be the very last possessions sold off in the settling of debts.

Another problem posed by the traditions of the English common law was that in that tradition the legal status of the child followed that of the father. Thus, the bastard son of a nobleman and a serving girl was an aristocrat for all that he could not inherit since he had been born out of wedlock. But slaves were extremely valuable property and the child of a slave woman was a possession worth a good deal of money to the slave owner so, in one colony after another (there was of course no overarching system of laws for all of the colonies, and even after the establishment of the Republic it was a long time before federal laws governing such matters were enacted) the law was changed so that the status of the child followed that of the mother. In the 19th century, especially after the termination of the slave trade, a healthy adult male slave brought at auction a great deal more than a free laborer could earn in a year.  The rule that came to be applied stated that the issue follows the womb, or since these were of course proper legal scholars and did all their dirty business in Latin, partus sequitur ventrem. Thus it was that a slave owner could rape his way into a considerable increase in his fortune.

Well, this is the sort of thing I think about as I walk. It is better than counting the number of steps. One sad footnote to all of this. I was so entranced by Morris's book that I argued successfully for having it added to the list of 50 major works that every first year doctoral student in our Afro-American Studies PhD program had to read and write a paper on.  But the students hated the book so much that after one year it was removed from the list. You can't win them all.

Friday, August 7, 2020


Alas, as everybody anticipated, the effort to get pupils back in school is turning out to be a disaster. Joe Biden put his foot in his mouth again as we all expected but I suspect it will make no difference to the election. I don't think I have ever seen a time when people's opinions were so completely set in stone this early.

Since I seem to have gotten myself in the business of making predictions, I will make another one. I anticipate that when early voting begins, apparently here in North Carolina before anywhere else, the response will be overwhelming. Even if it takes the post office two weeks to deliver the absentee ballots they will be in well before the election. My sense is that there are tens of millions, perhaps scores of millions, of voters who are so eager to vote that they will cast their votes the instant it becomes possible. Oh, there will be endless efforts at voter suppression and some of them will be successful but I doubt that the election will be anything like close enough for those efforts to make a real difference. I hope to God I am right about this.

A small correction of something I got wrong. I should have described the Jonathan Swan interview as giving us early signs of dementia, not signs of early onset dementia which is something different. But even I did not anticipate the comical mispronunciation of Yosemite and Thailand.

Thursday, August 6, 2020


By now, all of you living in the United States have undoubtedly seen clips from the Jonathan Swan interview with Trump. Those of you who somehow missed it can see the entire interview here.  Leave to one side Trump's dismissal of the terrific death toll of the virus, "It is what it is." What fascinated me was the glimpse we got at one point of one of the sheets of paper that Trump was fumbling with as he struggled to respond to the questions that Jonathan Swan was posing to him. It was a regular sized sheet of white paper on which were four colored bars of different lengths. It was the sort of elementary chart that one would make for a not too swift six year old in an attempt to explain some elementary idea. It had clearly been produced by the people in the White House who were trying to prime Trump with the simplest possible pictures in a desperate effort to prepare him for the interview.

Now I have never quite bought into Trump's claim that he is a very stable genius but at least when he was younger he was not an idiot. I mean, he managed to star in a reality TV show and to repeatedly run a series of can't fail investments into bankruptcy and that takes some measure of adult intelligence. But however much he once had has clearly been significantly degraded over the past several years.

This is only August 6. What is he going to be like by Labor Day?