Coming Soon:

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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

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

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON THE THOUGHT OF KARL MARX. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for Robert Paul Wolff Marx."





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Saturday, August 8, 2020

ELABORATION

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.

5 comments:

s. wallerstein said...

The viewpoint of the social sciences is very different from that of literature. Literature does not attempt to portray the foundational structure of any institution, neither of slavery nor of capitalism nor of any future socialist order.

I believe that my viewpoint, expressed in a comment to your previous post, is that of literature and after all, I did study literature, not philosophy or any social science, in the university.

I am interested in the nuances of experience, probably more in that than in the foundational structures of institutions. To transform society I think that we need to understand both the nuances of experience and the foundational structures.

I have no doubt that I have a lot to learn about the foundational structures of society and that is one of the reasons I habitually read your blog.

Danny said...

I see the dismissal of 'nuanced understanding of those complex emotions', but emotions is what we are trying to get right. It's not like there is any hope, it's just an emotion. Why are we trying to understand the foundational structure of the institution of slavery, and/or what it is 'for'? What is anything for? This is like talking about what 'marriage' is for, it's how we talk, but it's especially how we talk at weddings, not at divorces. The world isn't here for anything, it's just messy. People talking about what things are for are not as sardonic as they may think they are.

Needless to say, the same is true of capitalism but that is for a different post, eh? Well, there is no immediate prospect of any left-wing revolution. There isn’t even much evidence that the revolutionary left is poised to win power through democratic elections in most countries.

Theoreticians have argued that capitalism is doomed for well over 150 years. Have Marx's political predictions come to pass? The extreme right has so far been much stronger, winning power in the United States, Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere—and such factions pose no threat to capitalism. Maybe people trying to discern the future are often biased by their own moral viewpoint. I am curious if it seems to anybody that at least a couple of countries genuinely have ditched most of the defining features of capitalism with no ill effects? Which ones? What is arguably the most non-capitalist country in the world?

?

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm slow this morning, but I don't see what the future prospects of capitalism have to do with the current facts of capitalism (assuming that the professor's off-hand remark is accurate). I think that you're moving the goal posts, Danny.

Michael said...

My first inclination was to read that sentence ("The same is true of capitalism") in connection to the mention of "wage slavery" in the other comments thread, but I'm probably having a slow morning myself.

(Not trying to be super pedantic here, I get that it was written in a quick "by-the-way" fashion, but...) The sentence followed these lines, which open and close the paragraph preceding it:

"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. [...] [I]t 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."

Now I was unclear as to what "the same" referred to, in "The same is true of capitalism"; i.e., given that it's a mistake to describe slavery using the language of personal relationships, what is the similar mistake to be noted in connection with capitalism? A couple readings occurred to me: (a) It is a mistake to describe slavery using the language of capitalism (or vice versa, as in "wage slavery"); or (b) It is a mistake to describe capitalism using the social and psychological language of personal relationships.

Again, my best guess was that (a) was intended, but I couldn't 100% rule out (b). Now, perhaps this actually was a little more than brain-flatulence on my part, because BOTH (a) and (b) say something interesting...?

Regarding (a), as a quick addition to my earlier comment: I only meant to speak for myself when I said I have misgivings with the expression "wage slavery." When I perceived myself at one point in my life as stuck in a miserable employment situation, it wouldn't have occurred to me to seriously compare my overall life-situation to that of a slave - and even if it had occurred to me, I would have been ashamed to express the thought in everyday conversation (probably even in therapy). However, despite these personal reservations, there pretty clearly is a proper critical-conversational setting in which to explore the analogy between capitalism and slavery. (This is probably obvious to this blog's readership; it wasn't always obvious to me.)

As for (b): 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.

Thanks for indulging my silliness. Always enjoy reading the blog.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Michael, the last paragraph is exactly what I was talking about.