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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.


marcel proust said...

Careful now... Shades of Adolph Reed

LFC said...

I thought your position was that capital exploits labor but not by extracting a surplus (as Marx outlines it in Capital v.1). So not sure why the post refers to extraction of a surplus.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Capital extracts a surplus but not surplus labor value, and not as a consequence of the distinction between labor and labor power.

LFC said...

Ok got it, thanks.

R McD said...

What do I know since I’m a foreigner, but I guess I’m surprised that you begin with the Civil War as the first and greatest of the several liberation movements . . . What about the founding period itself, which was surely fraught with contradictions which quickly found expression in crushed tax rebellions and the consequent conflicts of the federalists and the anti-federalists. Weren’t the future movements—and the need for future movements—all prefigured in those earliest conflicts and the way they were resolved?

By the way, Leiter suggests it’s better to go to the source rather than to the NYT’s version of Adolph Reed. So here’s that version which has a bearing on RPW’s description of “proportional inequality” as a spurious goal.

s. wallerstein said...

I've never really been much interested in Marx's theory of exploitation, simply because I never needed it to see that capitalists are screwing their workers.

I just looked at how they lived and saw that workers (of all sort, not just productive workers) labor hard, are ordered around (which is not pleasant I learned from personal experience), have to follow a schedule which does not always correspond to their own biological daily cycle (which is also unpleasant), have lower social status (which mattered to me more when I was younger) and earn a lot less than bosses do.

All of the above and much more was and is enough for me to see capitalism as a very unjust state of affairs.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

How could a socialist system avoid most of the same things? People still would have to work hard, be ordered around, and have to follow a schedule not of their making. Even if everyone were being paid equally, some nevertheless would have more authority than others, and a social hierarchy could, and probably would, arise just from the prestige of some jobs vs. others. Some would be brain surgeons, others garbage collectors. The surgeons probably would not want their daughter to marry a garbage collector.

s. wallerstein said...


You're just showing your class prejudices. They're not pretty.

Jerry Fresia said...

You identify these movements as movements that have been important for almost 2 centuries.

I'm curious as to why you didn't include the labor movement, certainly as explicit a "movement" and as consequential as the others.

Eric C said...

What about the other great civil rights movement of American history--the Workers'/Labor movement? Yes, the neoliberal leaders of the Democratic party and the major corporate media prefer to erase the Workers' Rights movement from memory, but why should we follow their lead? Many would argue that the Workers' Rights movement differs from those other movements because the others are based on what are generally considered, with a few important exceptions, to be immutable characteristics; but the sad reality is that for the vast majority of Americans, whether one is primarily a worker or an owner is, in practical terms, also an immutable characteristic, even if most Americans have been brainwashed into believing that their own status as an easily-disposed-of part in the American economy is just a temporary inconvenience.

It was the Workers' Rights movement that won us the 40-hour work week, the minimum wage, collective-bargaining rights, workplace safety protections, and the outlawing of child labor. As Harvey J. Kaye and Richard Wolff frequently point out, there would have been no New Deal had organized labor not joined with progressives, socialists, and communists to back FDR and to then hold his feet to the fire after he and his down-ballot supporters had gotten into office. The middle-class prosperity of the late 1950s and early 1960s that MAGAts yearn for was in large part extracted from corporate owners by the many massive strikes of workers in the post-WWII years, when nearly a third of workers belonged to unions.


"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" (my emphasis)
— ^ Robert M. La Follette and Eugene V. Debs would take issue with that statement.

Here is Senator La Follette circa 1916:
"Take Profit Out of War.
International agreement for reducing the oppressive expenditures in preparation for war may be remote. But one thing we in America can do and do at once. We can nationalize the manufacture of all munitions of war. We can take away from private interest all incentives to increase army and navy appropriations. We can set a worthy example for all the world. If we could imagine that instead of piling up these enormous profits, these same great combinations of moneyed power were suffering corresponding losses, if instead of inflating their millions into billions the millions were shrinking and dwindling into mere thousands, do you believe there would be a Navy league 'dogging' the public on to an adoption of the frantic haphazard scheme of preparedness...?"

It's forgotten today, but in the 1924 presidential election, La Follette, running on the Progressive ticket with the backing of thousands of socialists, won 1 in 6 votes cast nationally and came in second in 11 states, including California.

During the late '60s, several figures prominent in the African-American Civil Rights Movement, notably MLK and Malcolm X, were moving in the direction of criticizing capitalism, although not to the point of calling for an outright socialism reorientation. The Black Panthers, on the other hand, were pretty openly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist.

If you are only talking about high-profile politicians today, then I agree, there is no one today talking about challenging the primarily capitalistic orientation of our society. The closest a major political figure has recently come was Sanders with his proposals to nationalize the energy industry and parts of the telecommunications industry and to eliminate private health insurance.

Danny said...

'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..'

Heh, maybe you have been struggling for longer than that. :)

Danny said...

'year after year, capital would grind on extracting a surplus from the labor of workers'

You're way behind, capital no longer needs your labor.

s. wallerstein said...
I've never really been much interested in Marx's theory of exploitation, simply because I never needed it to see that capitalists are screwing their workers.'

I think you have misconstrued the point, actually. The idea here is more beguiling -- Capitalism is the Reason your employer is screwing you over.

Robert Paul Wolff said...
Capital extracts a surplus but not surplus labor value, and not as a consequence of the distinction between labor and labor power.'

got it? ;)

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

I wasn't making a value choice, I was making an observation. That's my perhaps cynical view of human nature. Where hasn't it been the case? Certainly not in any socialist system that's been tried thus far. What society has not produced a social hierarchy?

Eric C said...

David Palmeter, I think Richard Wolff would point you to the example of the Mondragon Corporation. Workers elect supervisors annually, and no manager can earn more than six(?) times what the lowest-paid worker in a unit earns, or something like that. So, yes, in that form of socialism, there is a workplace hierarchy of sorts, but it is a democratically-determined hierarchy, not one based on religious caste, skin color, or birth order and divine right.

Candyfloss said...

"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."

I take the subtext to be that the latter is more morally pressing than the former. But that doesn't seem that plausible to me. I'd rather have a stable livable wage and have my surplus extracted than live hand to mouth without a capitalist in sight (I agree that both are far better than either on it's own, though)

Jerry Fresia said...

On related note (human rights, movements, etc), although tangential, there is this:

"According to a report in the Independent, a UK newspaper , the powerful toxic ammonia-based chemical made by Spartan Chemical Co. is being sprayed in the occupied detention facility despite company warnings on the label that it only be used near people outdoors, not in confined spaces. Worse yet, there are allegations from detainees that the chemical is being sprayed directly on them, though the company’s label warns that exposure to the eyes can cause “permanent eye damage” while inhaling it can cause lung damage , breathing difficulty and asthma."

s. wallerstein said...


I don't see why every society needs a fixed social hierarchy.

Social status today is based on profession, success and money.

In any social group some people are better dancers, others better cooks, others better at fixing cars, others better at interpreting what Kant really meant, others better at reciting poetry. All the above are sources of social recognition and it may be that I appreciate skill at interpreting Kant more than skill at fixing cars, but it is the media and the whole system of mass brainwashing that have convinced almost everyone that you win more social points for being skillful at basketball than you do for being skillful at ironing shirts. People will need to re-educate themselves. I stress self re-education because replacing one form of mass brainwashing by the media with another form of mass brainwashing goes nowhere. It may be a long process and it may not work, but it's worth trying.

decessero said...

s. wallerstein,

"You're just showing your class prejudices. They're not pretty."

This self re-education will make it more likely that surgeons will find it desirable that their daughters, at least the ones with doctorates in English literature, say, marry garbage collectors, as the latter will then be more likely to be boon companions of an evening in a game of I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM or AMERICAN MCGEE'S ALICE. And we shall all eat strawberries and cream.

David Palmeter said...


I don't think societies "need" a hierarchy; I think humans behave that way. Little kids in school will be more friendly with some classmates than with others. What makes them pick some rather than others? I suspect at first it's simply who they know, but later, say in high school, groups develop--the jocks look down on the non-jocks; then non-jocks think jocks are stupid etc. Some occupations have more prestige than others. Certainly a part of that has to do with the level of pay, but not everything. Anthony Fauci, for example, is a government employee who earns far more than the median income, but he'd be making far, far more if he were working in a Big Pharma company collecting bonuses and stock options. Yet Fauci enjoys far more public prestige than his well-paid, anonymous counterparts in the private sector. I see these phenomena as being derived, in significant part, by human nature and I can't see any reason why it wouldn't be the same in a socialist society. Not everyone in the Soviet Union had a dacha.

s. wallerstein said...


First of all, your references to the Soviet Union are simple red-baiting. No one who posts in this blog is a fan of the Soviet Union or Maoist China.

As I tried to make clear above, I agree that everybody prefers some activities to others. However, the status hierarchy in contemporary capitalist society depends on a whole list of factors, which I describe above as "brain-washing".

There is no necessary reason why doctors and lawyers should have more social status than garbage collectors. Let's imagine a TV series about the heroic men and women who get up early to collect your garbage, starring the usual sexy young things of all known genders. It starts every week with a shot of the locker room as the sexy young things are changing into their uniforms, lots of focus on their muscles, on their beautiful hair, etc. Garbage collecting would go up in status, I assure you.

I worked a summer cleaning the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York. I worked the 4-12 shift, emptied a lot of garbage cans, swept a lot of floors and felt good about myself.
The guys I worked with (there no women on the job back then) were great to be with, maybe
a lot more interesting than some lawyers I've known.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

I think we are talking about different things. You imply, if I'm reading you correctly, that the kind of hierarchy that I'm talking about is a choice, the way that, say, military rank is a policy chosen by government. I'm suggesting something else. I'm suggesting that we humans generally prefer the company of people like ourselves, and implicit in that is the fact that we see our group--from our own perspective--as superior. If we didn't we wouldn't have chose it. I don't mean superiority in any formal sense, as in the military. I'm thinking of human attitudes and preferences.

I'm not sure if I'm doing justice to Hume, but what occurs to me as I think about this are Hume's principles of morals, which he says are founded on human nature. That of which we approve we call moral and vice versa. The connection, I think, between Hume and the point I'm trying to make, is that both are (I contend) founded on human nature.

s. wallerstein said...

I follow your first step, but not your second.

Yes, I prefer to be with people "like myself", whatever that means. That involves a long process of self-knowledge and being honest about who and what I am and then maybe I can begin to seek others who have traits I feel good about being around. Probably those traits will be traits I also have, although not always. It's complicated, but I'll accept the idea for the time being.

Now from there to see my group (I really don't belong to any group, but let's say people I hang out with) as superior, that's a jump that I can't make. Yes, I know lots of people's minds work that way, but if even someone as dense as myself has realized that I'm not superior to others, just weirder and more perverse, I suppose the rest of humanity can realize that we're all pretty much the same deep down and no one is superior to anyone else. Obviously, I may have thought more than these things than most people have, but that doesn't make me superior. They've done and learned things that I've never done or learned and we're just all different. I don't think that you need Wittgenstein's IQ to realize that. If people are incapable of realizing that, we're probably going to destroy ourselves sooner or later, maybe sooner with global warming, which is a possibility I certainly don't rule out.

Business Leads World said...
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