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Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.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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Monday, May 17, 2021

THE UNITED STATES IN FLOWERS

 Lest you think that I idle my time away binge watching House, I post here a photo of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle that Susie and I have spent the past several weeks painstakingly puttting together. The truly sharp eyed among you may notice that three pieces are missing. We have no idea where they have gone.  This is far and away the hardest puzzle we have done and it was a real triumph to finish it.






Sunday, May 16, 2021

DARK THOUGHTS

The retirement community in which Susie and I live has three entrances, all of them on a country road named Whippoorwill Lane. When you exit our community, if you turn right on Whippoorwill you very quickly come to Mount Carmel Church Road which in turn will take you to state road 15/501 and from there by a short drive to the UNC medical complex. If you turn left coming out of our community, Whippoorwill takes you to Old Farrington Point Road and then, in another 10 minutes or so to I – 40. At first I had to think about it to remember which way to turn on my errands but now I have done it so often that it is routine.

 

Our retirement community is blessed by what seems to be a virtually total absence of Trump supporters, although if there are a few they may just be hiding. But even if we were a majority Republican retirement community like the one in which my sister lives in Carlsbad, California I am quite confident that I would have no bitter political arguments with fellow residents about the best way to get to I-40. We would no doubt argue about everything else, from the outcome of the 2020 election to the efficacy of wearing masks. But not even the most crazed Trump supporter would claim that turning right on Whippoorwill is the best way to get to I – 40, even if urged by Tucker Carlson to think so.

 

Why not?  The correct answer is the obvious one. Trump supporters are not certifiably crazy – most of the scores of millions who support him are functionally sane in the ordinary everyday sense – and like me and anybody else they learn from personal experience such things as to turn left when going to I – 40 and right when going to the UNC medical complex. They also learn how to use their telephones to call their children, where to buy groceries or flowers or home appliances, how the elevators work in their buildings, and everything else they need to know to get through the day in a comfortable manner.

 

For most of the 200,000 years or so that human beings have been on earth, this is the way in which they have dealt with the world. For most human beings for most of recorded history, which is to say the last 10,000 years or so, the only things of any importance that they believed that were not based on direct sensory experience and interpersonal interactions were their religious beliefs, and not surprisingly it was these that repeatedly led them into murderous and irresoluble conflicts.

 

But these days all of us know an innumerable number of things not grounded in this sort of direct observation and experience and even the best educated among us or the most curious cannot possibly provide genuine evidentiary confirmation for more than a tiny handful of our beliefs. Who among us can give a factually grounded account, right down to the solid-state transistors and the imprinted circuits, of how a computer actually works? And can the handful of those who can provide such an account give a similarly well-grounded explanation of how the car that they drive in to get to work actually operates?

 

Let me be clear. I am not at all a devotee of those modern philosophers of science who try to argue that scientific knowledge is no better than concensus gentium all the way down. But it is obvious that all of us rely upon the authoritative judgments of experts in most of what we think we know about the world. To be sure, the more thoughtful among us are perpetually questioning, raising doubts, insisting on corroboration, looking for alternative accounts, especially in areas like politics and economics where we have learned long since to recognize the role of ideology and simple self-interest in the corruption of information. But let us be honest. Those of us who refused to believe the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction would, for the most part, not have been able to identify a weapon of mass destruction if it were delivered by Amazon.com to our doorstep.

 

These remarks are by way of an explanation for my enormous anxiety about the political future of this country. Scores of millions of Americans believe, or at least claim they believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. Their belief is absurd. But the same people who believe this would not think of doubting the countless beliefs on which they rely in going about their daily business. If Trump called for another assault on Congress and one of my neighbors set out to join this holy crusade, she would turn left on Whippoorwill to get to I – 40 and from there to RDU airport for the flight to Washington, even if the sainted Trump himself were to say “and do not forget to turn right as you leave the retirement community.”

 

Suppose, as seems likely, that the Democrats lose control of the House in 2022. Suppose, also, that Trump runs again in 2024 and loses once more to Biden by a landslide in the popular vote but rather narrowly in a number of states controlled by Republican legislatures. Does anybody doubt that those Republican legislatures would negate the results of the election and declare Trump the winner of their electoral votes? Does anybody doubt that the Republican majority in the House would confirm those false reports? Does anybody imagine that California and New York and Washington State and Connecticut and Virginia what accept such a travesty?

 

I think we are one bad election outcome from a crisis in this country the resolution of which could come down to the question of which way the Armed Forces would go.

 

That is what keeps me up at night.

Friday, May 14, 2021

ADVERTISEMENTS FOR MYSELF

I have just amused myself by watching the ninth lecture on YouTube of my 10 lecture series on Ideological Critique.  It is one of the best lectures I have ever given. I recommend to you.

THIS AND THAT

Apropos Nozick's book, anyone interested can take a look at my article on it which I believe is archived at box.net.  Warren Goldfarb knew Quine infinitely better than I did but perhaps I can add one curious personal story that gives some insight not into his politics but into the way he viewed the world.  I first studied with Quine in 1950. This was only a few years after the end of World War II, when London was still repairing itself from the blitz and Berlin was still divided into several zones. Walking across Harvard Yard one day, I ran into Quine talking with a few people and stopped to listen. Quine was describing a recent trip to Germany which had taken him, among other places, to one of the death camps. He was describing the extraordinary efficiency with which the Germans exterminated millions of Jews. He was not in any way at all approving of this monstrous act but it was obvious that he was fascinated simply by the arrangements that made the efficiency possible. Quine, in my experience, was a charming, witty, and personally quite conscientious man – for example, in that time, every aspiring graduate student looking for a job wanted a letter of recommendation from Quine, even though only a handful of them had been in any real sense his students. Without complaining, Quine wrote letter after letter for them, You doing the best for them that he could. But he was in an odd way, despite his charm, rather cold and his intellectual fascination with the technical arrangements of the death camps was a rather chilling example of this. Still and all, I liked him enormously and with the sole exception of C. I. Lewis, he had a more powerful influence on my philosophical development than any of my other professors.


Bob Nozick, politics to one side, was a delight, bright, charming, engaging in all ways.  Since I am an inveterate storyteller I will tell a personal story about Bob. In the 1980s, I was living in Belmont so that my first wife could take up a professorship at MIT. My sons went to Belmont high school, in front of which there was a large semicircular driveway where parents could drop off their kids at school. During the time that I lived in Massachusetts, I had a vanity plate which read I KANT.  I also had a bumper sticker that read "Question Authority."  (Because of my little book on anarchism I always felt a certain proprietary pride about that bumper sticker.) One day, after I had dropped my boys at the high school I was starting to drive away when somebody behind me honked his horn. When I stopped, Bob came running up (he also had a child at Belmont high) and when he got to my open window he said hello and then he said with great delight "as soon as I saw the license plate and the bumper sticker I knew it had to be you!" Bob died much, much too early but my older son Patrick, who did his last two years at Harvard, had the great fortune of studying with him shortly before he passed away. His death really saddened me.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

PHILOSOPHERS AND POLITICS

This is a true story from 60 years ago that bears indirectly on the question of the connection between analytic philosophy and conservative politics. In 1961 I left my instructorship at Harvard (long story, told before on this blog, if I am not mistaken) to take up an assistant professorship at the University of Chicago. There I met a well-known anthropologist named Sol Tax.  Sol had a grant from the Wenner Gren Foundation to study the political leanings of academics and departments across the curriculum, and he recruited me to tabulate the results and write up a draft of the report. The results were pretty much what one might have expected. The humanists were more left-wing than the social scientists, the social scientists were more left-wing than the natural scientists, and everybody was more left-wing than the engineers. Within these groupings, the literary critics were the most left-wing, the anthropologists were further left than the political scientists and the political scientists were further left than the economists, the theoretical physicists were more left-wing than the experimental physicists and the experimental physicists were more left-wing than the chemists.

 

The next decade saw a good deal of turmoil in the Academy as opposition to the Vietnam war and other governmental policies brought about splits in the professional associations. There were reports in the newspapers about fights in the MLA, the APSA, and the American Economic Association. 

 

The American Philosophical Association had its own version of these fights but the lines were not drawn in ways that one might have expected. The hardassed no-nonsense logicians and analytic philosophers were not further to the right. In fact, the political splits did not line up along any methodological or sub disciplinary lines that anyone could see. Some of the analytic philosophers were quite left-wing, others not so much. Quine was, so far as I could make out, not very progressive politically but Hilary Putnam, if my memory is correct, spent some time living in a commune and at least for a while identified himself as a Maoist.

 

Herbert Marcuse got this wrong because he made the mistake of transferring his experience with European intellectuals to the American scene. Unfamiliar with the peculiarities of intellectual work in America, he tended to confuse analytic philosophers with behavioral social scientists.

 

It never seemed to me that the emphasis on analytic philosophy and formal logic was any sort of flight to political safety in the philosophical profession.

 

By the way, apropos TJ’s correction of my last post, I think my memory played tricks with me when I wrote it and what was written on the side of the moving van was actually “metaphora.” I hope I am right that my memory was fallacious. It would make it a much nicer story.

EPIPHANY

In 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq war, Susie and I took an Adriatic cruise. It started in Athens and we flew in several days before the ship was due to leave. Athens was busily preparing for the 2004 Olympics and the streets were jammed with cars and trucks. On our second morning there we took a little walk in downtown Athens. We stood for a while watching the traffic and I noticed a large moving van idling on a side street while the driver waited for the traffic to ease up so that he could pull into the main street. On the side of the truck was a word in large Greek letters which I assumed was the name of the company. I do not read Greek at all but a lifetime in the philosophy business has taught me enough of the Greek alphabet so that I can make out words like demos, kronos, and of course philosophia.  Having nothing better to do, I spelled out the word on the side of the truck: mu, eta, tau, alpha, mu, omicron, rho, phi, omicron, sigma, iota, sigma – “metamorphosis.”

 

And then I had an epiphany. “Metamorphosis” in Greek means “moving.” So a metaphor is a figure of speech that moves meaning!  As I smiled and gave a metaphorical fist pump, I thought I caught a glimpse of Socrates sidling along among the pedestrians.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

AND NOW THE SERIOUS STUFF

Today, I shall write about something deeply personal and, for me, very important, namely what lies at the root of the work I have done during my entire professional career. I cannot tell whether this will be of interest to anyone other than myself, but I think that the way I work is actually rather odd for an academic and therefore perhaps worth spelling out in some detail.

 

I began my professional career 71 years ago in what was then for someone interested in philosophy a quite conventional manner. My first semester as an undergraduate at Harvard, I took Willard Van Orman Quine’s course in symbolic logic – philosophy 140 – and for the next several semesters I studied all of the mathematical logic offered at either the undergraduate or graduate level by the Philosophy Department.  This was in those days the royal world to professional success but it was not the road I took, even though I was appropriately ambitious. Instead, after earning a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree and spending a year abroad wandering about Europe, I chose to write a doctoral dissertation on the Treatise of Human Nature and the Critique of Pure Reason.

 

In those days, in the United States, the history of modern philosophy was not, so to speak, a great career move. There was no prominent American professor of philosophy whose field of special interest was the philosophy of David Hume and the only notable Kant scholar was Lewis White Beck, the local bigwig in the Philosophy Department of the decidedly second tier University of Rochester. If you wanted to make a name for yourself in American philosophy, formal logic or analytic philosophy was the way to go. Why then did I choose to write on so professionally unpromising a subject? And why, despite having lucked into an instructorship in philosophy and general education at Harvard, did I choose to devote my time to writing a book on Kant’s First Critique?

 

I can begin to offer an answer by talking about the great Southern 12 string guitarist and folksinger Leadbelly. When I was a young teenager I spent the summers at a left-wing middle-class eight week sleep away “work camp” called Shaker Village, in the Berkshires. The counselor at the camp responsible for folklore was a wonderful woman named Margot Mayo, who introduced us to the music of Leadbelly. The famous folklorist Alan Lomax had recorded Leadbelly on one of his trips through the South and I listened to the record at Shaker Village. In the liner notes, Lomax described Leadbelly, who was twice convicted of murder and twice pardoned by the governor of Texas because of his singing, as “the lead man in the toughest chain gang in the toughest prison in Texas.” That phrase stuck in my mind and became to me the definition of what it was to be big-league.

 

When I studied the Critique of Pure Reason with Clarence Irving Lewis in my senior year at Harvard, it was immediately clear to me that Kant was the greatest philosopher who had ever lived, that his First Critique was his greatest work, and that the passage known as the Deduction of the Pure Concepts of Understanding was the most difficult and profound passage in that work – the lead man on the toughest chain gang in the toughest prison in Texas. I was seized by the desire, no by the necessity, to plumb that passage to its depths, to understand it so clearly and completely that I could explain it in simple clear language and then to write that explanation in a way that my reader could understand. Nothing else in the world seemed important to me but that. During the time that I was writing my book, Kant’s Theory of Mental Activity, I was falling in love with a woman who would become my first wife, I was starting my first job as an instructor at Harvard, I was devoting endless hours to the campaign for nuclear disarmament, I was helping to create and then to run a new program at Harvard called Social Studies, and I was serving in the Massachusetts National Guard, but none of that touched me anything like as deeply as my engagement with, my struggle with, and my eventual triumph in my effort to understand the central argument of the Critique of Pure Reason.

 

For the first and only time in my life, I showed the manuscript to two friends – Ingrid Stadler and Charles Parsons – before submitting it for publication. I was grateful for their comments but I did not really care what anybody else thought about what I had written. All that mattered to me was that I had told the story of Kant’s argument in a way that was, at least for me, clear, precise, coherent, and logically powerful.

 

As the years went by, I wrote books on anarchism, on the philosophy of education, on the philosophy of liberalism, on Kant’s ethical theory, on the formal structure of Marx’s economic theories, on the literary structure of Capital, on Afro-American studies, and always I was driven by the same need – to plunge deep into a difficult and sometimes even obscure tangle of theory, to understand it deeply and precisely, and then to explain it to my reader in a fashion that was completely devoid of jargon and made little or no reference to what other thinkers had found in the same material.

 

Philosophical arguments in any discipline (I have virtually no sense of disciplinary boundaries) have always seemed to me at their very best to be stories. I work in my head, not on the page. Until an argument is clear to me – until I can tell its story – I cannot write. I work by telling the story over and over again in my head to an imaginary audience, an ideal audience that will not allow me to move on with my story until what I have told up to that point is clear. Once the story is clear in my mind I can start to write. Then, characteristically, I start on page 1, tell the story for as many pages as it takes until I reached the end, have the resulting story nicely typed up, after which I submitted it to a publisher.

 

I do not keep up with “the literature.” I put very few footnotes in my books. I tend not to read the reviews when they come out. And I have no sense that I am part of a community of scholars collectively adding to the accumulating total of human knowledge. I am a storyteller. I would be Garrison Keillor if I could.

 

Let me finish with a story dating from 1986. I have in my long life been something of a therapy junkie. Including my full-scale seven year Freudian psychoanalysis during my time teaching at Columbia, I think I have had full-time or part-time therapy for 15 years! My last engagement with this practice took place during the time when my first wife and I had separated and I was struggling, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to patch up our marriage. In all my years of therapy, during which I had complained endlessly about this and that in my life, I had never actually shed a tear, not even as my first marriage was breaking up. But one day, sitting in my therapist’s office in 1986, for some reason I stopped complaining about my wife and started talking about my work. I explained that my writing and my teaching had always been an effort to show to my students or to my readers with clarity and simplicity the power and beauty of certain ideas. As I said to my therapist “I try to show these ideas so that my students or readers can see them clearly and can see how beautiful they are” I unexpectedly choked up and started to cry.

 

It was the clearest proof I could imagine of what has throughout my life been truly important to me.

Monday, May 10, 2021

LIFE IMITATES ART

It is a beautiful spring day here in North Carolina and although I worry constantly that the United States is seeing the emergence of a full-scale white supremacist fascist party from the husk of the Grand Old Party, I have it in mind to write about personal things, some trivial and of no importance whatsoever, others of very great importance to me.

 

Let me start with a little comment that I shall call Life Imitates Art. For the past several weeks I have been binge watching the American “medical procedural” called House, starring Hugh Laurie, which ran from 2004 to 2012. For those of you who do not know the show, it concerns a brilliant diagnostician working in a New Jersey hospital who is tortured, screwed up, absurd, intense, and always intuitively brilliant. Each show focuses on a mysterious medical case which has his assistants running off to perform all manner of invasive medical tests until, near the end of the hour, he comes up with the solution. (I will leave it to the armchair psychologists among you to figure out why I should be devoting so much time to this show just when I am dealing with my Parkinson’s.) After watching it for a while, it occurred to me that I actually had two medical experiences somewhat like a real-world version of what is represented in the TV show.

 

Nine and half years ago Susie and I returned from a Paris trip by way of Heathrow Airport outside London, which, I observed at the time somewhat facetiously, is an enormously expensive medical facility devoted to collecting and redistributing germs from every corner of the world in the most efficient possible manner. When I got home, I started to run a fever and felt perfectly awful. (I told this story on my blog at the time but not all of you have been with me for 10 years so humor me.) My doctor ordered a number of tests including an x-ray which revealed fluid on my lung. A nice young man stuck a needle in my back under local anesthesia and withdrew some of the fluid which was observed to be bloody.  He remarked casually that there was a 50% chance that I had stage IV terminal lung cancer. I had every blood test known to medical science (which revealed that I was HIV negative, thank you very much) and a CAT scan, and then under general anesthesia had a biopsy of the lung.  Prior to this procedure, my primary care physician gently recommended that I focus my attention on the best possible end-of-life courses of action. When the biopsy revealed that I did not have lung cancer, the doctors threw up their hands, and sent me home with a recommendation that I take some Ibuprofen. In time I got better and to this day have no idea what strange bug I picked up in the enormous Heathrow waiting room. It was very like a real-life version of a House episode except that instead of the hero stepping in with a dramatic diagnosis at the end, I was sent home with a shrug of the shoulders.

 

One final word about Heathrow and my rather odd association with a Paul Bunyan tall story. The airport is so large that next to the announcements of the gates from which various flights are departing is listed the number of minutes it will take you to walk to that gate – 17 minutes, 23 minutes, 18 minutes, and so forth. It reminded me of the great Paul Bunyan story about the logging camp where there were so many loggers that at breakfast the waiters bringing pancakes to the workers traveled up and down the long tables on roller skates. At one camp, larger than all the rest, the waiters would set out with a large stack of pancakes in hand and their grandsons would return on skates with the empty plates.

 

My other real-life experience occurred several years later. My doctor, whom I liked very much, left to take some big job with Medicare and found me another doctor on the UNC medical service to take his place. I developed terrible pains in my arms and shoulders so bad that it was torture simply to turn over in bed. My new doctor ordered all manner of tests which turned up nothing and finally in despair I decided to find a new doctor. My son, Tobias, the law professor, who had had some experience with a class-action suit brought by professional football players against the owners, had some connections in the medical profession and hooked me up with a professor at UNC medical school. I went to see him about my terrible pains  He took one look at me, announced that I almost certainly was suffering from PMR (polymyalgia rheumatica) and prescribed prednisone. In two days I was pain-free and after slowly, over more than a year, reducing the dosage I have remained pain-free ever since. It was, I think, the coolest thing I ever saw a doctor do.

 

Next up, the serious stuff.

Friday, May 7, 2021

A BIT MORE

The comments have been extremely interesting, but if I tried to respond to each one of them I would really get lost in the weeds so let me try to say some more general things that might address a number of the comments without connecting each thing I say to one of them.

 

The totality of goods and services produced anywhere in a large capitalist economy like that of the United States is the collective consequence all of the work done by those who in any way participate in their production. Most of this collective product either takes the form of final consumption by the people in the society or goes for the replacement of inputs, depreciation, and so forth. The remainder is profit, appropriated by the owners of capital and invested in expanded levels of production or retained in the form of financial holdings. There are two problems with this way of managing things (among many other problems): the first is that those who produce the social surplus do not get to decide what is done with it. The second is that the allocation of capital resources is skewed by private decisions of profitability unrelated to social desires or needs. Thus it is that at the moment it is profitable to produce nicely designed, well-made cheap clothing and luxury housing. Consequently, millions of people in America are well dressed and ill housed. Nevertheless even in a capitalist economy these days decisions about the allocation of some of the surplus are made collectively in the form of socially funded schooling, socially funded old age insurance, and socially funded medical care, for example.

 

A modern capitalist economy is enormously productive. Out of curiosity, I looked up the gross domestic product in the United States for 2019 and divided it by the number of households in America in 2019. The result was approximately $175,000. That is almost 3 times the median household income for 2019. Simply depriving the superrich of the annual increase in their wealth could go a long way to giving everybody in the United States a decent standard of living.

 

How exactly would socialism work? What would it look like? I do not know. Collective ownership of the means of production would have to grow organically out of the present set of circumstances as a consequence of the mobilization of many scores of millions of Americans. Do I think this likely? Of course not. At the moment, this country is trying to decide whether to be ruled by a fascist white supremacist party with the support of at least 30% or more of the American electorate. All our energies must be devoted to making as sure as we can that that does not happen. It seems to me that the 2022 and 2024 elections will go a long way to deciding whether this country remains even as much of a functioning democracy as it now is, which is not saying very much.

 

That is why, when I wrote a paper entitled “the future of socialism” some years ago, I began by observing wryly that the title was a little bit like “Betamax: the technology whose time has come.”

 

 

AND NOW ANOTHER ONE

So now it is Elise Stefanik, who will shortly take over Liz Cheney’s position as the number three in the Republican House caucus, who is a graduate of Harvard. How many of these right wing fascists does the Ivy League have to produce before we start having some serious doubts about whether they are the greatest educational institutions in the world?

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

TO CONTINUE

The systematic divorce of ownership from managerial control of productive resources, a process growing organically within capitalism as it develops, makes it possible for the first time to think seriously about collective ownership of the means of production. The first question that arises is: what about the surplus? Capitalism is ideally organized to extract a surplus from the annual production and consumption of commodities and to vest ownership of that surplus in private hands. But no matter who owns it, the question naturally arises, what to do with it.

 

Let us be clear: one portion of what might be considered the surplus is actually required by ongoing depreciation to replace productive inputs that are used up or worn out. That is not really surplus at all. One portion of the genuine surplus can be set aside to expand production in such a way as to meet the needs of a steadily expanding population. This is not required. The present generation could perfectly well choose to deprive its children and grandchildren of the comfortable life that the present generation enjoys, but let us suppose that parental sentiment and common decency lead the people of America, once they have taken possession of the means of production, to expand output to take account of a growing population. It is of course also possible for the present generation to deprive itself in order to expand production sufficiently to raise the standard of living of future generations. Since I have in many ways and for many years been critical of the work of John Rawls, this would be a good time to point out that he is the only moral philosopher of any note whom I have ever read who considers the choice of an appropriate rate of social savings to be an important question for social and political philosophy.

 

But there are other choices for the allocation of the social surplus, some of which modern capitalist societies have been making for some generations, even though it may not have been obvious that that was what was going on. First of all, childhood can be extended into young adulthood a before generation is required to go to work. Some of this delay is of course required for more complicated job preparation in the form of further schooling but some of it is simply a way of spending the social surplus. Secondly, a portion of the social surplus can be devoted to improving the lives of those who have become too old to work productively. Medicare and Social Security in the United States have transformed the life circumstances of the old. What was once a time of impoverished dependency on children and grandchildren has now become the golden years of retirement. A third possible allocation of a portion of the social surplus is its use to shorten the number of years that men and women are required to work before they retire. The United States by and large has not chosen to devote its social surplus to this but many countries in Europe have. And finally, of course, a portion of what is at any time considered surplus can be devoted to raising the standard of living of those who are productively employed, which after a while will come to be considered a necessary expenditure for subsistence, rather than a desirable but unnecessary allocation for luxury expenditures. (Those who have read my book on the economic theories of the classical economists and Marx will recall my citation of Ricardo’s observations about living conditions in Ireland.)

 

All of these choices, even the last courtesy of union organizing  and strikes for higher wages, are decisions that have been made within existing capitalist economies, decisions made possible by the development of capitalism into its present form. This is what I mean by the new order growing in the womb of the old.

 

But none of this yet touches the central question, which is: how shall private ownership of the means of production give way to collective ownership of the means of production? Like Marx, whose practice is my model in these matters, I am more inclined to analyze the society and economy in which we live than to make idle speculations about how to make changes some time in the future, but I will end this post by suggesting some things that come to mind.

 

The best way to end patrimonial capitalism, it seems to me, is to do away with the patrimony. Confiscatory inheritance taxes that would require transferring to the state ownership of accumulations of capital in the hands of those who pass away would over time result in a massive transfer of ownership from private hands to the public. I am not talking about taxing away several hundred thousand dollars in corporate shares that have been accumulated by a grandfather or grandmother and which are left in a will to the children and grandchildren. I am talking about the tens and hundreds and thousands of millions of dollars of capital that the rich leave to their children. Sam Walton died superrich, thanks to the success of Walmart. There is no reason at all why Sam Walton’s children should inherit those shares.

 

Note, it would be destructively counterproductive to require the estate of the dead billionaire to attempt to sell the shares on the market so that the cash could be turned over to the government. That would simply have the effect of crashing the market so that a large portion of the wealth would evaporate. Rather, I am suggesting that the accumulated shares simply be turned over to public ownership. Over the course of a generation, a large portion of the capital accumulation in an economy like the United States would come to be owned by the state.

 

So many objections to this proposal spring to mind that I think I should wait until tomorrow to address them.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

A FIRST STAB AT ANWERING MY BIG SISTER

Let us think about this in the way that Marx would, by trying to identify actually existing structural tendencies that are altering the character of capitalism. I can see three, one of which was already apparent in Marx’s day (and no, robots are not one of them.) The first is the internationalization of capitalism; the second is the almost complete divorce of management from ownership of capitalist enterprises (Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk to the contrary notwithstanding); and the third is the financialization of capital.

 

It is the second of these on which I wish to concentrate in this post.  In the 19th century English capitalism at which Marx was looking, capitalist enterprises were small firms owned for the most part by those who managed them or at least directly oversaw them. By the early 20th century this was ceasing to be the case, as Adolph Berle and Gardner Means showed us in their classic book. Almost a century later the transformation is complete. Save in the rarest of cases, ownership of capital takes the form of shares of stock which are traded endlessly on markets completely divorced from direction and management of the firms whose legal ownership takes the form of those shares of stock. Leaving to one side the legalized and celebrated theft by which managers regularly pocket a portion of the profits of the firms they manage in the form of inflated salaries and benefits, what we see now is in some sense the ultimate perfection of capitalism: depersonalized capital buying production inputs, hiring labor, paying for commodity innovation and invention all almost completely divorced from any genuine connection to the people who own the capital and have a legal right to the profits it generates.

 

This certainly looks very much like the new order growing in the womb of the old, as Marx said of the development of capitalism in late feudal Europe.

 

If for the purposes of this discussion we consider socialism simply to be collective ownership of the means of production, then the divorce of ownership from management does very much seem to be a step in that direction.  What could collective ownership of the means of production look like in the present stage of development of capitalism? Clearly not mom-and-pop stores, or sandals and candles collectives engaging in light industry, or even relatively large scale cooperatives. Those would all correspond to the shrubbery and ferns and little plants crouching in the shade below the gigantic trees of a rainforest.  At the very least, collective ownership of the means of production must mean collective social ownership of the major accumulations of capital that we find in great multinational corporations. Is there anything at all that we can find in the world in which we live that looks as though it is a new order growing in the womb of capitalism?

 

Collective ownership, social ownership, surely must mean government ownership, ownership responsible by way of the political process to the people of the nation. Well, the roads on which we drive are socially owned, the schools at least through high school  are socially owned, despite the efforts of Betsy DeVos, the entire healthcare system is on the way to being socially owned in the United States and is much further down that road elsewhere in the world, so that is a start. What about automobile production, light and heavy industry, trucking, mass distribution like that carried out by Walmart or Amazon?

 

The principal drawback to collective ownership of these means of production is not in their routine management – that can be handled as efficiently by a collectively owned enterprise as by a privately owned enterprise. But what of risk, innovation, the introduction of new techniques, new commodities, new conceptualizations of commodities? Could an economy in which the means of production are collectively owned be a vibrant, living, changing, growing, innovating economy or would it exhibit all those characteristics that we summarize dismissively and negatively as “bureaucratic?”

 

It is important to recall that these days it is rarely if ever the case that creative, imaginative, daring, innovative men and women actually risk their own capital on the enterprises they establish. What happens instead is that they borrow capital from venture capitalists who themselves do not innovate or imagine creatively but simply take a chance on those who claim to be doing so. The venture capitalists manage the accumulated capital placed in their hands by private individuals who have come into possession one way or another of large amounts of capital for which they have no other use.

 

Could these functions be performed by representatives of the people whose job it is to risk accumulations of socially owned capital on new ventures? If the answer is yes, then there is no reason to place the ownership of that capital in private hands and then suffer the ever worsening inequalities of income and wealth that are the inevitable consequences of private ownership of the means of production.

 

Marx described capitalism as the most revolutionary economic system ever to appear in history, but capitalism has become institutionalized. What the world needs now is not a revolution but rather more like something that Max Weber in a different context called the routinization of charisma.

 

I will have more to say about this tomorrow.

A VERY PERSONAL NOTE

Before I make a preliminary effort to answer my big sister’s question, there is something I would like to talk about on this blog, something quite personal which for a very long time I have hesitated to bring into this medium. Fifteen months ago I was diagnosed with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease. The original symptom was a tremor in my left hand and also micrographia so bad that I can no longer read my own handwriting and have turned to this splendid program put out by Dragon as a substitute. A second very troubling symptom is something with the odd name “festination.” Sometimes, about two miles or so into my morning walk I start to walk faster and faster as though my feet were running after something despite my efforts to slow down. In general my walking has become more afflicted with a kind of stumbling which is especially noticeable around the apartment but this uncontrollable faster and faster walking is rather scary and threatens to make me fall. Parkinson’s is a progressive and incurable disease, of course, and living here in a retirement community I have seen several people in advanced stages of it who seem, to put it as cruelly as I can, like zombies. Since I am 87, which is late to come down with this disease, there is no telling how long I will live or indeed how long it will be before I am simply confined to a wheelchair. The optimistic projection, I suppose, is that I will die of something else before I reach that point. My mind is clear, or at least as clear as it has always been, my memory is unimpaired, and happily my politics do not pose a threat to my health, so at this point I plan to go on as I have for as long as I can.

 

I would like all of you to do me a favor. Please do not express the sympathy that I know a great many of you will feel and do not tell me stories about people you have known (or even about yourselves) with Parkinson’s. I have never been one to put my business out in the street, as my colleagues in the Afro-American studies department would have said, and I do not want to start now but I simply felt that I could not go on talking with you every day while keeping quiet about something that so deeply concerns me.

 

Thank you for listening. I will post this and later today talk about something much more interesting, namely what tendencies in mature capitalism offer the possibility of a transition to socialism.

Monday, May 3, 2021

A REPLY TO MY BIG SISTER

I was the second child in our family. The first was a little girl named Barbara Claire. By the time I was born she was known as Bobs and although I was named Robert Paul I could not really be called Bob, so to my family and my relatives I became Rob   as I am to them to this day. My big sister was 3 ½ years older than I (and, given the way these things go, still is.) I looked up to her even after I got a little bit taller than she. Bobs was a spectacular student and she actually taught me to read, because when she wanted to play school I was the only available pupil. She was a great dancer and taught me both to Foxtrot and to Lindy as well as to folk dance. All my life she has been my big sister and when there was something she wanted I felt it was a command that had to be obeyed. She just sent me the following email message:

 

“So far, you haven’t said anything about how you would design a system that was not built on the exploitation of labor.  Clearly the two countries that tried it failed.  Are you going to tell us?”

 

I have got to say something to my big sister and, by the way, to the rest of you. In answering these questions Marx is virtually no help at all. He must have written more than 5000 pages about capitalism but if you cobbled together everything you could find that he wrote about socialism I do not think it would come to as much as 100 pages. He came to believe, in contradistinction to the 19th century writers whom he called Utopian Socialists, that each stage in the historical development of economy and society grows organically out of the preceding stage through the development of the forces and social relations of production in ways that, although clearly deliberate and the consequence of human choices, are systemic and not really amenable to armchair planning. He certainly would not have thought it possible that a system based on the collective ownership of the means of production could emerge through revolutionary action from a late feudal economy, as in Russia, or, Lord knows, from a peasant society, as in China.

 

It takes no brains at all to see that the private ownership of the means of production in a capitalist economy leads to endlessly greater accumulations of capital and ever greater social inequality. The lifecycle being what it is, and very few capitalists being Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Elon Musk, what Piketty in the French fashion calls patrimonial capitalism – what we would call inherited wealth – is fated to become an ever more prominent feature of capitalism as it continues to evolve. Separate from this, but of course deeply connected to it, is the grotesque inequality in annual income. Since the median household income these days is around $60,000, it follows that anybody making or inheriting $60 million is making or inheriting the equivalent of a millennium of household median incomes. Simply to think of it in this fashion is to exhibit clearly the utterly unjustifiable inequality that is a defining characteristic of modern capitalism.

 

What could be done? What am I to tell my big sister? I am a great believer in half measures and ad hoc improvements, so increased minimum wages, guaranteed annual incomes, punitively high marginal rates on obscene incomes, and confiscatory inheritance taxes are all to be enthusiastically encouraged. But the more money you put in the hands of working-class Americans, the more profits will be made by those who sell them what they buy with their money and hence the more capital will accumulate in private hands.

 

Not much of an answer for your big sister, is it?  Maybe tomorrow I can come up with something better, but do not cash in your 401(k) and make plans for a millennial celebration.

 

Saturday, May 1, 2021

ONE LAST TIME

The comments indicate that there is still some confusion about the status of the Labor Theory of Value, so I am going to make another effort at clarifying this matter. As I indicated, nothing in Marx’s analysis of exploitation requires or indeed is even aided by his appeal to the distinction between labor power and labor. All of the important propositions he suggests concerning necessary labor and surplus labor, propositions that can be given a rigorous mathematical demonstration, can be replicated for the corresponding claims about surplus corn value or surplus iron value. The real explanation for exploitation, as Marx knows and demonstrates over many important pages, is that by a long historical process workers are deprived of ownership and control over land, tools, raw materials, and even their skills, leaving them unable to behave in the marketplace like the independent commodity producers that classical economic theory mystifyingly represents them as being.

 

But could there not be a system in which there was no surplus corn produced or surplus iron produced or surplus cloth produced but in which only surplus labor was produced, and would not such a system demonstrate that exploitation is, after all, the capitalists’ appropriation of that surplus labor under the guise of profit? The answer is that there could be a system, rather bizarre though it would be, in which the only surplus produced was surplus labor, but it would prove nothing of the sort. What would such a system look like?

 

Well, if we assume that the capitalists also perform the labor of management, which is of course essential to any successful capitalist enterprise, then we would have a system in which all of the necessary workers, including the managers who were also capitalists, would eat a modest working-class diet, wear modest working-class clothes, and live in modest working-class homes. The physical surplus in the society would all be used to feed, clothe, and house a group of servants would wait hand and foot on the capitalists but, be it noted, would be eating the same diet, wearing the same clothes, and living in the same sorts of homes. This, we may suppose somewhat comically, would be the choice of Puritan capitalists who shunned excess and display and luxury. Some surplus workers could serve as lawyers enforcing the laws that supported the exploitation carried out by the capitalists. Other surplus workers could serve as priests explaining each Sunday to the workers that it was God’s will that only the capitalists should have servants. There could even be a few surplus workers who would write philosophy books demonstrating rigorously that the sort of arrangements in force in the society were exactly those that rationally self-interested agents would choose behind a veil of ignorance.

 

The economy would not grow, of course, because the entire physical surplus would be directed to supporting the surplus workers in their modest lifestyle. Different choices by the capitalists could result in a surplus of corn, iron, and cloth that could then be used to expand the magnitude production in the society, drawing, as Marx observes, on the “reserve army of the unemployed.”

 

Notice, by the way, that in such a system the capitalists would have to work as managers because, surplus labor being the only surplus generated in the system, if the capitalists commanded their servants to cook them dinner the servants would have to reply that there was no corn to be had, and if the capitalists commanded their servants to make them new coats, the servants would have to reply that there was no surplus wool for their coats. So an economy that generated only surplus labor would be a rather odd state of affairs indeed but it is logically possible.

 

In this and every other economy that was generating any surplus anywhere in the system, it would, as can be mathematically demonstrated, be true that it took less than a unit of corn directly and indirectly to produce a unit of corn, less than a unit of iron directly or indirectly to produce a unit of iron, and so forth.

 

Marx did not realize this because he was so steeped in the doctrines of the classical political economists and because he lacked the mathematical tools that might have led him to a correct analysis, but his instincts were absolutely spot on. He identified the historical stripping from the peasants and early workers of the means of production as the essential precondition for the development of capitalism and he correctly stated that capitalism depends on the exploitation of the working class. If this last proposition strikes you as so obvious as not to be worth arguing about, seek out a friend who works in a modern Economics Department and see whether he or she will say, “oh yes, of course, everybody knows that.” Good luck! 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

WEED WHACKING

T.J. asks the following question:  “when I (the capitalist) buy 8 hours of labor, I get more labor than is required to produce 8 hours of labor. So I get more than I pay for. But when I buy 8 bushels of corn, I only get 8 bushels of corn. Is it just that the algebra (which again, I don't understand) shows that when I buy 8 bushels of corn, I get more corn than is required to produce 8 bushels of corn? Maybe my hangup is that it just seems obvious that when I work for 8 hours, my boss makes more money from my labor than I'm going to spend housing and feeding myself, but it doesn't seem at all obvious that when I buy 8 bushels of corn, I could reproduce more than 8 bushels of corn from that input.”

 

The simple answer, T.J., is yes, exactly so.


Leaving aside the algebra, which I realize is for some people an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding, let us just ask this question: if it takes more than 8 bushels of corn somewhere in the economy directly or indirectly to produce 8 bushels of corn, how can the system possibly survive? In the next cycle of production, the system will have to be reduced in size and after several such reductions the system will go out of business entirely.

 

Intuitively, if you are measuring things in some commodity directly or indirectly required rather than in labor directly or indirectly required, the same truth is going to have to hold, namely that it will take less than one unit of any commodity required in the production process directly and indirectly to produce that unit if the system is to survive and flourish. In fact, with a little of that dreaded algebra, we can show that so long as in each cycle of production there is some physical surplus over and above what is required to run the system again at the same level of output for another cycle, then all of the labor values or corn values or iron values or X – values for any input X will have to be positive and for any X, the X – value of X will be less than one, meaning that there will be surplus X value generated in the system. What is more, and should be intuitively obvious, the X value of this physical surplus appropriated by the capitalists will exactly equal the surplus X value extracted from the direct X inputs into the system. All of those propositions that Marx intuitively grasped as true for labor turn out to be true for every input into the production process.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

ONCE MORE, MARX

Prompted by a comment from Jerry Brown, I should like to return to the subject of the Labor Theory of Value. To many people who identify themselves as Marxists, the Labor Theory of Value plays somewhat the same role in their belief structure as is played by the doctrine of the Incarnation for Christians – if you give it up, you can no longer really claim to be one of the faithful. It is obvious from what I said in my recent series of posts on Marx that I do not share this view and although I have written about this before, I think it is important enough to return to the subject and spell out my views at greater length.

 

As I explained in my series of posts, what came to be called the Labor Theory of Value started life in the writings of Adam Smith as his attempt to explain what determined the customary or usual prices at which commodities sold in the marketplace. Smith was well aware that fluctuations in supply and demand would cause daily prices in the market to vary, but he noted that experienced buyers and sellers would learn that there was a usual or customary price for corn or cloth on which they could rely. He called this price the natural price of the commodity, or, using an 18th-century synonym, its value. He was here introducing an idea that much later on came to be called the equilibrium price for a commodity. Smith then offered a very primitive explanation for the determination of the natural price or value of a commodity, namely the amount of labor it cost its producer. Smith had thus given birth to the idea of a labor theory of equilibrium price or, as he referred to it, a Labor Theory of Value.

 

Smith was aware of, but not able to come up with a solution for, several serious problems with this primitive theory. It fell to David Ricardo to solve the problem of rent or the price paid for the use of land and also to propose a brilliant solution for the problem of the accumulation of stock, what today we call capital. His notion of embodied labor enabled him for the first time to put forward a full-scale labor theory of equilibrium price or Labor Theory of Value. But there was a problem with this idea, brilliant as it was, and Ricardo knew it. The problem was that if different lines of industry exhibited varying proportions of capital and labor, then equilibrium prices would deviate from the quantities of labor embodied in the outputs.

 

It was at this point that Marx began his theoretical work. He believed he had a solution tgo Ricardo’s problem, but he chose to postpone discussion of it until volume 3 of Capital because he believed he had found a deeper problem in the traditional theory whose solution would reveal the mystified and ideologically concealed truth that capitalism rests on exploitation, not on free and equal exchange in the marketplace.  The problem, to put it quite simply, was that the classical political economists had no explanation for the emergence of profit. The key to Marx’s solution of this problem was his distinction between labor and labor – power, and with it the introduction of the category of surplus labor value, which, Marx claimed, is the real source of profit and the demonstration of the fundamental fact that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class.

 

No sooner had Marx put forward this dramatic critique and transformation of the classical theory of the political economists than economics as a discipline underwent a triple revolution. More or less simultaneously but independently of one another, Stanley Jevons in England, Carl Menger in Switzerland, and Leon Walras in France introduced the notion of marginal productivity, on the basis of which they undertook to explain equilibrium prices solely by referring to the relationship between demand and supply, putting entirely to one side any question of the quantity of labor directly or indirectly required for the production of commodities.

 

Smith and Ricardo became, in effect, curiosities put in a museum of outmoded ideas. Marx did not suffer the same fate. Quite to the contrary, he developed an intellectual following and then, mirabile dictu, a political following of revolutionaries who succeeded in taking over two of the largest countries in the world. The Labor Theory of Value ceased to be a brilliant but problematic explanation of the determination of equilibrium price in a capitalist market system, and became the esoteric doctrine of the Priesthood of the Temple. In some parts of the world, questioning the Labor Theory of Value got you stigmatized as a heretic, an unbeliever, even – God forbid – a liberal. In other places, it could get you killed.

 

Now I am, as I observed on the front page of this blog, an atheist. I do not believe in the Jewish God. I do not believe in the Christian God. I do not believe in the Muslim God. And I also do not believe in the divine revelation of the Labor Theory of Value. I do believe that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class, not as an article of faith but as the conclusion of a lifetime of study and consideration. I call myself a Marxist simply to express in a single word my admiration for the student of society who first articulated and defended this simple but fundamental fact of the modern world.

 

One might be tempted to say dismissively or disparagingly, “oh well, if that is all you mean when you call yourself a Marxist, all manner of people could say that without calling themselves Marxists.” They could, I suppose, but they don’t. It is quite remarkable how hard the world’s greatest Nobel laureate economists work to avoid acknowledging that capitalism rests on the exploitation of the working class, and if I were an old-fashioned Marxist, I might even say that it is no accident that the same people cannot bring themselves in their writings to utter the word “Marx.”

MUSICAL MEMORIES

Yesterday evening, a string quartet composed of members of the North Carolina Symphony came to the retirement community in which I live to give a free concert to us old folks. For the first time in 15 months, Susie and I entered the auditorium, suitably masked and appropriately distanced, and enjoyed an hour of first-rate live classical music. The principal offering was the last of Beethoven’s middle quartets, Opus 95. I could not recall whether I had played that quartet back in the day when I was the violist of an amateur quartet that met weekly in Amherst, Massachusetts. But when the ensemble played the dramatic opening phrase I recalled it quite well. As they continued on through the quartet, I began to have doubts whether I could ever actually have played the viola part in so demanding a work, so when I got back to our apartment I pulled out the music from my shelves and took a look. Sure enough, the viola part was covered with a blizzard of pencil markings that I had put in to guide me through the music. Needless to say, we did not play it as they did nor quite up to speed, but we did play it.

 

It is always nice to recall that chamber music was originally designed to be played in a chamber – a private gathering room or salon – not  in a concert hall. The cellist in our little amateur quartet was a woman who played with a rich full tone. She sat to my right in the traditional quartet arrangement and one of my greatest pleasures, as I worked my way through my part, was hearing her in my right ear.  It has always been a source of sadness to me that when I moved down to Chapel Hill I was unable to find a quartet to play with.

Monday, April 26, 2021

THREE MORE

Sidney Morgenbesser’s classic put down having been quoted, I will reproduce here two great stories from the Sidney legend which I tell in my autobiography, one of which, the second one, is not widely known.

Some months after the Spring of '68, Sidney was called for jury duty, and as luck would have it, he was tapped for a case involving alleged police brutality.  During the voir dire, the Assistant District Attorney assigned to try the case asked Sidney whether he had ever been treated brutally or unfairly by the police.  Sidney thought for a moment and said, "Brutally, yes.  Unfairly, no."  The ADA asked him to explain, and Sidney told the story of the attack by the TPF.  "And you didn't think they were acting unfairly?"  "No," Sidney said, "they were hitting everybody."  Sidney was a genuinely great man.

            While I am telling Sidney stories, let me tell one more that may not have made its way into the blogosphere.  A few words of explanation are required.  One of Columbia's best known professors at that time was the literary scholar Lionel Trilling.  Trilling was a New York Jewish boy who, before spending his entire career at Columbia, actually went to the high school [De Witt Clinton] at which my father taught for a while.  Despite his origins, he affected a cultivated WASP manner that, I imagine, he thought would be appropriate in an Oxford Senior Common Room.  Trilling was one of a number of Columbia professors who chose to focus their energies in the College rather than the Graduate School.  [That was an old rivalry for which I do not have time or space in these memoirs.]  One day, Sidney went to a cocktail party, at which he spotted Trilling holding forth in his best Oxonian style.  Sidney walked up and said, in a loud voice, "Ah, Lionel.  Incognito ergo sum, eh?"

            Now, this was pretty clearly a prepared bon mot.  Sidney, like Samuel Johnson, was not above lying in bed at night crafting a witticism that he would carry about with him until an occasion arose for delivering it.  As an author who does most of his writing in his head, I do not deprecate the practice.  Indeed, my favorite Oscar Wilde line is one that he never actually published, and that has come down to us only because someone present on the occasion had the good sense to record it.  I am referring, of course, to Wilde's immortal judgment on Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop -- "One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing."

Sunday, April 25, 2021

ZINGERS

It is a lovely spring day here in North Carolina and I have finished my morning walk. I diverted myself during the long slog by recalling some lovely one-liners from the philosophical literature and I thought I might amuse myself and perhaps even amuse you as well by putting  them down in a blog post. Before I do that, however, I should like to offer my heartfelt thanks to those of you who have written truly generous compliments in response to my sometimes rather pathetic musing about the lifecycle and my current place in it. I do not think I could find words to tell you how much these comments meant to me. As I struggle, in Dylan Thomas’s beautiful words, not to go gentle into that good night but to rage, rage against the dying of the light, the thought that I have reached out and touched some of you warms me against the cold.

 

Now onto happier thoughts. Philosophers are by and large not known for their brevity but from time to time one of them gets off a line that stays in the mind, capturing in a few words a powerful and complex thought. I have some favorites, some of which I have quoted before but the very most favorite of all I think I have never actually quoted here. So let me get started.

 

I begin, as all philosophers must, with Plato. All of you will I am sure recall his great dialogue, the Gorgias, whose structure interestingly enough is exactly that of Book 1 of the Republic.  After disposing easily enough of Gorgias and Polus, Socrates confronts Callicles, to whom Plato gives some of his strongest arguments and most telling lines. Here is my favorite, delivered by Callicles shortly after he enters the dialogue:

 

“When I perceive philosophical activity in a young lad, I am pleased; it suits him, I think, and shows that he has good breeding. A boy who does not play with philosophy I regard as illiberal, the chap will never raise himself to any fine or noble action. Whereas, when I see an older man still at his philosophy and showing no sign of giving it up, that one seems to me, Socrates, to need a whipping!… Such a fellow must spend the rest of his life skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, never pronouncing any large, liberal, or meaningful utterance.”

 

Skulking in corners, whispering with two or three little lads, is surely the greatest description ever given of the profession to which I have devoted my life. Only a philosopher as great as Plato would have the courage to put those words in the mouth of the character who is defending everything that Plato hates.

 

My second example comes from a text that I have frequently made reference to, the Preface to Kierkegaard’s brilliant short work, Philosophical Fragments. Virtually every line of the brief Preface is worth quoting but I shall restrict myself simply to this passage in which Kierkegaard gives voice to the intense seriousness with which he approaches philosophy:

 

“But if anyone were to be so polite as to assume that I have an opinion, and if he were to carry his gallantry to the extreme of adopting this opinion because he believed it to be mine, I should have to be very sorry for his politeness, in that it was bestowed upon so unworthy an object, and for his opinion, if he has no other opinion than mine.”

 

To lighten this post a bit after that desperately serious text, let me just mention a delicious question that appeared many decades ago on the Moral Sciences Tripos at Cambridge University. A few words are required for those of you too young to remember what epistemologists were fussing about 70 years ago. The centuries – long debate between the rationalists and the empiricists had at long last come down to a question of the role in empirical knowledge of something called sense data reports, which were supposed to be descriptions of the sensory perceptions on which, according to the epistemologists, all knowledge is based. Because it was widely believed at that time that each of us is unable actually to know what is in another’s mind, a good deal of ink was spilled (this was before computers) on the question whether there could be a private language in which sense experience would be described by the person who actually had that experience but who could not successfully communicate the experience to others. Wittgenstein blew up that debate with the argument that there could not be a private language and so theorists of knowledge moved on to other questions. Roughly at that time, some wit making up the final examination for Cambridge University undergraduate philosophy students came up with an examination question that captured the whole complicated kerfuffle in four words. His question was: “What were sense data?”

 

That is the ultimate inside joke.

 

Now on to my all-time favorite. It comes from a work published 370 years ago, the Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. Chapter VI of Part One has the rather elaborate title “Of the Interior Beginnings of Voluntary Motions; Commonly Called the Passions; And the Speeches by Which They Are Expressed.” The entire nine page chapter is well worth quoting but I shall restrict myself to my favorite nineteen words, which in scarcely more than two lines dispose for all time of the endless debates about what should be considered genuine faith and what a mere cult. I conclude this post with these words, which I have loved since reading them almost 70 years ago:

 

“Fear of power invisible, feigned by the mind, or imagined from tales publicly allowed, RELIGION; not allowed, SUPERSTITION.”

 

 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

THE ALL-VOLUNTEER ARMY

 David Palmeter observes that America paid a price for going to an all volunteer army, and he is quite right. Recall that the transition from the draft was in the first instance a consequence of the disaster of the Vietnam War which almost destroyed the discipline and effectiveness of the draft Army. The Defense Department ended the draft, improved the pay for the ranks, offered career opportunities to those who enlisted, and in that way enabled America finally to create the one thing it was missing on its way to becoming a full-scale imperial power: a professional army. America was now free to deploy troops endlessly for extended periods of time around the world without triggering the kind of social unrest and political turmoil that characterized the Vietnam era. With the adoption of that smarmy phrase, "thank you for your service," Americans could go about their business untroubled by the threat of actually having to serve in the military if they chose not to.  


If Americans want to impose their will on the world, they should have to belly up to the bar, put on the uniform, and take the risks themselves. I am sure it will strike most readers of this blog as odd that I am in favor of a conscript army but I really do not see any other way to get America to retreat from its imperial ambitions.


As tthey used to say in the part of Queens where I grew up, tuchas auf tisch.

GUILTY

Deep breath. Guilty on all counts. A victory? No, but anything less would have been a great defeat and in this world at this time we need whatever we can get. I will not live to see it, but the next 20 or 30 years in this country are going to be very, very difficult. Military men and women have joined the right wing militia groups and the right wing militia groups have infiltrated the military. White anxiety is growing apace and voter suppression threatens to undermine the progressive tendencies of demographic change.  Can we once and for all time put to rest the myth of American exceptionalism? 

Monday, April 19, 2021

WRAPPING THINGS UP

In my haste to bring my short series of posts on Marx’s economic theory to an end, I am afraid I dropped the ball and forgot to complete one part of the argument. You will recall that Ricardo got stuck at the end of his life on the problem of explaining the very common situation in which different lines of production exhibited different proportions of labor indirectly and labor directly required in production. Marx believed that he had a solution to this problem but, as I explained, chose to wait until volume 3 before presenting it. Only after he had posed and solved the problem that the classical political economists had not even seen, namely explaining the origin of profit itself, could Marx returned to the question of what to do with Ricardo’s puzzle.

 

Marx’s solution was quite interesting. He argued that in a mature capitalist system it is the system as a whole and not simply individual lines of production or even individual factories that must be examined. In the general case in which different lines of production exhibit varying organic compositions of capital, to use Marx’s term, it is the entire capitalist system to which we must turn to identify the relationship between profit and surplus labor. In any particular line of production these two quantities may not be equal (or, to be more precise, proportional) but in the system as a whole they are equal, thereby establishing that capitalism as a system rests on the exploitation – which is to say the extraction of surplus value from – the working class.

 

Marc seems simply to have assumed that this was true; how could it be otherwise! But the modern mathematical economists who returned to Marx and Ricardo and brought their analytical tools to bear on those theories did attempt to prove Marx’s claim and they came up with a quite fascinating result. As Piero Sraffa had made clear in his foundational monograph, it is essential to distinguish between those commodities that are required directly or indirectly in the production of all other commodities – commodities which he called basics – and luxury commodities which may be required in their own production or even in the production of other luxury commodities but which are not required directly or indirectly in the production of all the commodities in the system. In the little model that I created in my book, Understanding Marx, I included a luxury sector which somewhat facetiously I identified as a sector devoted to the production of theology books – this is a nod to the religious pretensions of the early English capitalists.

 

Now, it seems that if there are no luxury goods being produced in an economy – or, what is pretty much the same thing, if the luxury goods sector is only a tiny part of the entire economy – then Marx is actually correct! Total profits in the system as a whole will indeed be equal to total surplus labor, for a suitable choice of numeraire.  This means that all of the profits are being poured back into the economy to expand the scale of production. “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets to the capitalists,” as Marx sardonically remarks at one point in Capital.

 

But how do we know that there is some balance in the size of the different lines of production that will, when the capitalists do their very best to reinvest, correctly use all of the physical surplus that is produced in each cycle of production? Well, Sraffa demonstrated that that is necessarily true. Indeed, things get a little bit more delicious than that. In the 20th century, the great Hungarian – American mathematician John Von Neumann, proved an important theorem in growth economics concerning the maximum growth path for a capitalist economy and it is precisely when an economy is on that maximum growth path that Marx’s solution to Ricardo’s problem is correct.

 

I do not suppose many people find this as delightful a fact as I do, but it is one more way of seeing that despite using only, as Stalin said, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and the taking of averages, Marx was in fact a brilliant intuitive mathematical economist.

ODDS AND ENDS

Several very recent comments have raised questions about game theory and about Analytical Marxism.   Since I have written online an entire short book on the use of formal methods in political philosophy in which I talk at some length about game theory, I will simply point those who are interested to that book, which is archived at box.net, accessible via the link at the top of this page.  As for Analytical Marxism, I will refer those who are interested to the review I wrote of a book by the smartest and most interesting of that crew, Jon Elster, also available at box.net.


I feel a little bit like the over the hill lounge pianist noodling away at the piano and saying, every so often, "and then I wrote," before going into some old tune.

THE MYSTERY OF THE SENIOR MOMENT

 I have written before about what we old folks call a senior moment and in particular about my strange inability to remember the name of the great soprano Kathleen Battle. Last night, I lay in bed tossing and turning for more than an hour trying to remember a name that I simply could not come up with.  I could see the person in my mind. I knew that the person was a man. I knew he was American, that he was white, that he was pretty old, that he was short and funny looking, that he was a Harvard professor of law, that he spent summers on Martha's Vineyard, that he got bent out of shape when the folks on the Vineyard stopped inviting him to dinner parties after he came out for Trump, and I even remembered that he had been one of Trump's lawyers during the first impeachment. I knew his name was not Leo Durocher although I thought it was not too far off that but I just could not remember the name. Finally, I got up, went to my computer, and very quickly established that I was thinking of Alan Dershowitz.


Why on earth is it that I can remember all these things about a person and yet simply not be able to come up with his name? What special link in the brain is failing just for the name but not for everything else about him? That, I must confess, does not keep me up at night, but trying to remember "Alan Dershowitz" really did.

Sunday, April 18, 2021

I DON'T KNOW MY OWN POWER

Two responses to my previous post require some extended discussion, but before I undertake that I do want to call attention to my extraordinary and unexpected influence over national affairs. No sooner do I put up a scathing comment on Paul Kosar and the idea of an Anglo-Saxon Caucus in the Republican party than Marjorie Taylor Greene announces that she is taking the idea down. Of course, skeptics may suppose that Kevin McCarthy's attack on the idea had some role to play in Greene's decision, but those who understand the power of the deep state will reject such superficial explanations.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

A REPLY TO SOME COMMENTS

All right, at long last let me try to address some of many intelligent comments provoked by my multipart series on Marx. I have gone back in the comments section and collected up some of them, but by no means all. Even so, I want to try to respond to some of these.

 

Let me begin with a comment I was unable to locate but which, if my memory serves, was posted by LFC. He (is that correct?) notes that if at an early stage in the development of capitalism the ratio of embodied labor to direct labor is 100 to 1, at a later stage it may have grown to 1000 to 1, and that would seem to keep driving the profit rate down if profit really is the money form of the surplus value extracted from the direct labor inputs. This is exactly the inference Marx drew, which led him to postulate that there would be a tendency for the rate of profit to fall in capitalism. As it happens, Marx was wrong. My colleague at the University of Massachusetts, Sam Bowles, proved rather elegantly that in the sort of economy Marx was analyzing if a new more capital-intensive process of production were introduced by an innovative capitalist resulting in a momentary rise in that capitalist’s profit rate, the consequence when the system settle down into equilibrium would be a rise, not a fall, in the profit rate globally. He announced this result triumphantly to a class he was teaching, only to have one of the students point out that a Japanese economist named Okishio had proved it 10 years earlier. Sam was consequently reduced to publishing an article In the Cambridge Journal of Economics with the title “A New Proof of Okishio’s Theorem.”

 

The second comment came in the form of an email from Jerry Fresia.  He wrote:  "You write that by means of a long historical process workers who produce commodities are deprived of control over their work, their tools, and skills. What is interesting to me is that this exploitation (the correct term here?) is parallel to the alienation that will take place once the farmer, let us say, enters the factory. So apart from alienation in the factory, a farmer who produces corn as a commodity also suffers a type of market dehumanization.  Would it be correct to say that?"

 

This is a little complicated but the essential answer is yes. Under the pressure of market competition, the natural rhythms of farm work must give way to a sort of industrial farm production that one sees most clearly in the raising of chickens or pigs for market. It is my impression that some independent farmers to this day successfully resist the market pressures sufficiently to gain a genuine satisfaction from the activity of farming but I think they are rare as compared with the industrialization of food production that is characteristic of advanced capitalism.

 

Jamie Kelly, a philosophy professor at Vassar College, poses several questions into lengthy email messages.  Let me take up the first of them.  The second is too complicated for me to try to deal with in this post. Kelly first writes:  “If you abandon the centrality of the labor/labor-power distinction, does that mean you also give up on Marx's account of surplus value (i.e., it is the difference between the value labor produces, and the value of labour-power)? That would surrender a lot of the theoretical apparatus of Capital (e.g., his account of the working day, and maybe even his account of automation), but I don't see how surplus value can be cashed-out without relying on the labour theory of value.

 

To my mind, the key historical claim that Marx makes about the transition from feudalism to capitalism is the doctrine of double freedom: workers under capitalism are free in the sense of having the right to sell their labour power, and 'free' in the sense of having nothing to sell but their labour power. This undergirds both his claims about the exploitation of workers, and his explanation of the enormous productivity of capitalism. Do you think double freedom can be made sense of without the labour theory of value?

 

Marx leverages the labor/labor-power distinction so much throughout Capital, that I am having a hard time seeing how the working day, machinery and modern industry, or even primitive accumulation (i.e., the best parts of the book) can be salvaged without it.” 

 

There are several questions in this message, all turning on my rejection of The Labor Theory of Value. First, recall what I said early in my essay about the 19th century meaning of the phrase “theory of value.” To Smith or Ricardo or Marx a theory of value was a theory of natural or long-term or equilibrium price, as we would say today. Marx’s theory of capitalism without The Labor Theory of Value is, many would say, like Hamlet without the Prince. Certainly that is the view of most contemporary writers who identify themselves as Marxists. But I think this is wrong. I do not think there is a single important and valuable element of Marx’s analysis and critique of capitalism that cannot survive scuttling a theory of natural price that turns out to be analytically incorrect. You can see this quite clearly in Kelly’s second paragraph where he talks about the “doctrine of double freedom.” The exploitation of the workers is grounded in their having lost everything but their bare ability to sell their labor and the mystification of capitalism that serves to rationalize it and justify it in the eyes of those who live within it is nicely captured by this notion of double freedom. Marx’s account of the working day, of machinery and modern industry, of primitive accumulation and much else, grounded in his extensive historical studies, nowhere makes essential use of The Labor Theory of Value. Whether you take to my rudimentary effort to develop an alternative analytical framework or not, I think that effort makes clear that one can talk meaningfully about the ways in which capitalism exploits labor quite independently of the particular analytical framework that Marx introduced to explain this phenomenon, which he correctly believed lay at the root of the structure of capitalism. When I hear Marxists insisting that there cannot be Marxism without The Labor Theory of Value, I sometimes think I am listening to Catholics saying it cannot be Christianity without the virgin birth or Shiite Muslims saying there cannot be Islam without the hidden Imam or Jews saying  you cannot be Jewish if you do not keep kosher. I am willing like Spinoza to be driven from the congregation if that is what it takes to follow what I believe to be the truth.

 

The frequent commentator who uses the nom de blog Marcel Proust, writes as follows:  “So far as I am aware, all economic systems more technologically advanced than that of hunters and gatherers -- perhaps excepting pastoralism -- depend fundamentally on the exploitation of someone. The only reason that I can understand for taking this to be Marx's key insight is that capitalism has successfully mystified itself, if I may engage in a huge bit of anthropomorphism and attribute agency to the system itself. Nearly everyone who is part of the system believes that one way or another, they are making free choices and therefore cannot possibly be exploited.” To which I need only say Amen. Marx could not agree more. What distinguishes capitalism from slavery or feudalism, the two earlier forms of economic organization about which Marx writes, is not the fact but the manner of exploitation as well as the accompanying mystification that is typical of capitalism.

 

Well, that is enough for today. I will go back and look again to see whether I can surface some other interesting comments.